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Jim Steinmeyer – Charles Fort and Magic

The New York Times calls Jim Steinmeyer the “celebrated invisible man—inventor, designer and creative brain behind many of the great stage magicians of the last quarter-century.” Recognized for his extensive, innovative creations in magic, a recent profile concluded that Jim was “the best living originator of stage illusions,” noting his many creations as the “defining illusions in contemporary magic.” Jim Steinmeyer has worked with virtually every leading magician around the world, produced magic on television, and written extensively on his illusions as well as his research into the history of magic. His book Hiding the Elephant (Amazon US and UK) is considered a classic in this area.

Jim has also recently written a biography of Charles Fort, “the mad genius of the Bronx” who has influenced generations of ‘Forteans’ and seekers of the strange: Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural (Amazon US and UK). Jim was kind enough to take some time to chat with the Daily Grail about Charles Fort, magic, and other related topics.

TDG: Hi Jim, thanks for chatting with The Daily Grail, it’s a real honour. Right off the bat: you’re renowned for your historical and technical knowledge of the craft of magic. I’m very interested in how you came to be interested in the life and work of Charles Fort, which seems rather unconnected to the world you normally work in.

JS: It is unconnected. Like a lot of people, I read Fort when I was in college, and over the years I was attracted to elements of his story. It’s a good story, I think, a significant story about a troubled person who channeled that energy into this new approach to books and the supernatural. His writing style is unique and memorable. Over the years, I read anything I could find about him. When I mentioned the project to my agent, Jim Fitzgerald, he instantly knew who Fort was; Fitzgerald had worked with John Keel, the author of The Mothman Prophecies years before.

Once involved in Fort’s story, I actually had a feeling that his story had something in common with magic. Fort had a real wonder about the world around him, an intrigue that was translated into these odd books that successfully beguiled, and maybe terrified, his audience. I’m not sure that what he was doing wasn’t unlike the work of a skilful magician.

TDG: Your book does a great job of exploring the influences – positive and negative – which eventually led Fort to the writing of his seminal books. Is there one thing you can pick out that served as the inspiration for Fort’s broad scepticism of scientific authority?

JS: I think that Fort’s travails are very common, human travails. He had a tough childhood, he was filled with self-doubt, he was unsuccessful in his career and suffered periods of poverty. But he had a remarkable way of channeling this uncertainty and doubt into his books. Here is someone who suffered depression and contemplated suicide, but acquired this odd, intriguing way of looking at the world.

As for inspirations, I think, in particular, about his accounts of childhood in which he secretly buried objects so that others, many years from now, would have the thrill of finding them. Or his account of when he was beaten by his father and his nose bled. Fort wreaked his revenge by leaning over the balcony railing and dripping blood onto the hall floor. About thirty years later, he spent years in libraries searching out accounts of things like blood falling from the skies.

There’s a great quote from Buckminster Fuller, who wrote that Fort fell in love with the world that jilted him. I think that by scaring us, and making us marvel about the world around us, he allowed us to see it in a new way.

TDG: Not only that, but he also allowed sci-fi and horror fiction writers to see things in a new way – his influence is pervasive, with writers from Arthur C. Clarke to Robert Anton Wilson, H.P. Lovecraft and Terry Pratchett name-checking him. Although your book doesn’t go into this aspect as much, do you find it surprising how widespread Fort’s influence is in fiction?

JS: There’s a distinct period of time when his notions work their way into science fiction. I think that this was written about, because the Forteans were active at the time. To me, it was more important the way his thinking has worked its way into the general consciousness – the way we think about the supernatural. I think it is notable that Fort’s notions turn up in fiction, but maybe that’s to be expected, as he realized that he was writing a new kind of book, a kind of non-fiction fiction, and these themes naturally provided fodder for other writers.

TDG: Shifting back to your other great interest for a second – you’re very highly regarded for your work in designing magical illusions, which obviously entails an extensive knowledge of the history of magic, and how illusions work in a technical sense. Do you still personally get to experience the ‘magic’ of magic performances, or do you find yourself analysing and critiquing everything you see?

JS: I think that there’s a lot of analyzing and critiquing, and then, hopefully, there’s a real moment of magic when the performance is just right. The hardest thing about magic is keeping in mind the spectator’s viewpoint, and realizing how it’s going to be seen and “where the magic is.” Often there are so many technical elements and performance elements that this can get lost.

TDG: There is a history of magicians becoming high-profile skeptics and vigorous defenders of science, from Harry Houdini’s expose of Spiritualist mediums, identities such as Martin Gardner, James Randi and others involved with the beginnings of CSICOP, through to the modern day with Penn Jillette and Richard Wiseman. What do you think motivates this trend?

JS: Well, I wouldn’t presume to speak for the current group of magicians. Many are friends and all of them are enormously skillful and insightful in this area.

Houdini actually was following the generation before him: John Henry Anderson, John Nevil Maskelyne and Harry Kellar were all involved in high-profile exposures of Spiritualists. I think that magicians felt that they had special training in deception and were in a unique position to see through these sorts of deceptions. I also think that these sorts of issues got a lot of publicity for Houdini. He was certainly a creature of publicity. The Spiritual exposures kept his name in front of the public and gave a currency to his performances.

A number of magicians after Houdini took up the cause in imitation of Houdini, I think. Not all magicians are qualified to make these sorts of judgments. Since then I think there’s been some tradition of magician “debunkers.” I tend to be skeptical, but I don’t consider myself a “debunker,” and maybe that’s why I appreciated Fort’s work, even if I didn’t always accept the phenomena.

TDG: I’d agree with your summation – the knowledge of ‘modes of deception’ certainly offers a simple answer, although on the other hand there are many magicians who are, or have been, “pro-paranormal”, despite their knowledge of deception. And I’ve personally witnessed examples of the “publicity” angle when it comes to magician-skeptics. But also, I’ve come to wonder whether there is a significant element of disillusionment with a ‘magical world’, which pushes some of these identities from one pole to the other (the magical to the mundane).

Some histories point to the death of Houdini’s mother (and subsequent mediumistic readings) as a motivating factor in his debunking of mediums; and from what I’ve read of Penn’s thoughts on The Amazing Kreskin, his anger stems from a childhood incident in which Kreskin passed stage magic off as real magic. Ignoring Penn’s case (considering your involvement with the modern magical fraternity), do you agree that a catalyst in a magician becoming a debunker might well be the sudden shock and disillusionment experienced by an individual who loves, more than anything, that feeling of ‘magic’?

JS: Well, it’s a funny thing discussing when magicians become disillusioned. And Houdini, for example, worked as a fake spirit medium early in his career, so I suppose it wasn’t much of surprise to him, later, that there was fraud in the séance room.

Perhaps it’s right that magicians tend to move from one pole to the other to try to make the most of their abilities. My friend Eugene Burger, a well-known Chicago magician, once told me that a number of generations have imitated Houdini’s crusade, and now we have a generation of magicians who don’t believe in magic. I think that a handful of magicians are well suited to this sort of work and perspective, and many are guilty of being just as unscientific and dogmatic as the subjects they attack.

TDG: Is there a catch-22 situation for skeptical magicians and mentalists, in terms of seeing how a fraud might be pulling off a certain baffling ‘talent’, but being gagged by the magician’s code of not revealing how stock magic tricks are done? Things like Dunninger’s across-town ‘needle searches’ seem impossible – and therefore paranormal – to a lay person like myself (not to say that Dunninger was a fraud!), and yet after reading Banachek’s ‘Psychophysiological Thought Reading’, it all seems so (relatively) simple. In short: is a magician-skeptic compromised in their ability to debunk frauds by the ‘code of secrecy’ embraced by the magical community?

JS: I’ve always thought that there should be a sense of embarrassment about magicians exposing fraud, the same way that Mafia criminals wear bags over their heads to testify against their own associates. After all, it’s someone who’s a fake exposing someone who’s another kind of fake. But to be honest with you, there’s a lot of indignation all wrapped up in these exposures, and that gives magicians a sense of pride. I’ve often thought that Uri Geller, for example, is one of the greatest magicians of all time. He pioneered an entirely new kind of act, and new kinds of skills. He was innovative in a way that only a small handful of magicians have ever been. But… He won’t admit he’s a magician. And because of that, because his claims go too far, he’s the enemy of those skeptics.

TDG: In discussing the skill of deception, you have previously rejected the idea that intelligent people will be less easily deceived: “The key is finding smart people who bring a lot to the table: cultural experience, shared expectations, preconceptions. The more they bring, the more there is to work with, and the easier it is to get the audience to make allowances to reach the ‘right’ conclusion and unwittingly participate in the deception.”

Ignoring magic – where it’s part of the fun to be continually fooled – how then can intelligent people set about defending themselves from being deceived (eg. in politics, business cons etc)?

JS: Any time that a person thinks they can’t be fooled, that they’re too intelligent for it, there’s a danger that they will be fooled very badly. And there are embarrassing examples of this, historically. We fool ourselves. We convince ourselves of something because those conclusions are convenient, or offer the least resistance, or reinforce views we already hold. I think that a small part of it is “knowing the secrets” or the “moves,” and a large part of it is understanding how much we take for granted in a given situation, or actively work to “fill in the pieces” and come to our own conclusions.

In this way, Fort is always a puzzle, because he’s more skeptical than the current “skeptics.” That is, he’s not a “debunker” of psychic phenomena, which is how most people think of skepticism today. Instead, Fort is skeptical of everything. Spiritualism, Biblical miracles, poltergeists, yes. But also the scientific method, modern physics, astronomy, economists, doctors, et cetera. Fort is really the agnostic’s agnostic, and I think it’s quite remarkable to read someone like this. It’s a lesson to us: that notion that being an atheist requires as much faith as being a Roman Catholic.

Of course, because Fort tries to treat every belief equally, he can come across as a “tin-foil hat” believer, and unfortunately, his prominence in the field of the paranormal has left readers with this impression. But Fort is a much more complicated subject, far beyond such classifications.

TDG: You certainly bring this out in your biography, clearly showing that Fort was equally happy to consider any facts or theory, but also to be skeptical of all sides at the same time – whether a religious, paranormal, or scientific topic. How do you think the modern Fortean movement, in general, stacks up against Fort’s own approach to both orthodox and alternative topics?

JS: Well, the good thing is that I’m not sure there really is a modern Fortean movement. There are a number of groups who use his name, but I think that there’s nothing approaching an organized movement or philosophy.

I do think that a publication like Fortean Times does a pretty good job of balancing these subjects: intrigued by them, but without losing a sense of humor about the subject, or a sense of balance. In general, though, I’d say that people today don’t read Fort. They evoke his name, but they don’t read what he wrote, and few really understand what he was all about.

TDG: Does modern science lack some of Fort’s spirit – that is, not dismissing absurd incidents out of hand, until further investigation – or is this just a practicality, considering the large amount of very dubious claims out there? Is Fort’s place as a “fringe commentator” exactly where he, and others like him, should sit?

JS: I wouldn’t presume to criticize science, or paranormal studies, or tell people what they’re doing wrong. But I would observe that so much of this becomes overstated or overvalued, and then prime for attack. It’s too bad that these subjects aren’t kept in perspective. We see that a lot of Forteanism has turned into “conspiracy theories,” which is, as I noted in the book, another sort of religiosity, trusting in the omnipotence of the government, or the Warren Commission, or the Catholic Church.

People say “science” like it is a monolithic entity. And even Fort was guilty of this sort of overstatement at times. But science (kind of like the Fortean movement!) has their own difficulties working together, comparing theories, coming to conclusions. It’s a bunch of scientists, trying their best. We make a mistake by saying “science” and treating it as a formal institution bent on concealing information from us.

But we also make a mistake by saying “science” and treating it as a beneficent movement, the salvation of mankind on the brink of solving every puzzle and providing every solution. Maybe it’s important to realize that human beings have a certain amount of irrational faith that will be transferred from one target to another: Catholicism or Spiritualism, UFOs or Science. But blind faith in science or scientists is just as irrational as any other blind faith.

I’m not sure that the monolithic “science” of our imaginations is really supposed to be investigating UFOs, ghosts, or cryptozoology… I think the era when we thought these mysteries were the solution to “something important” has gone. But I also think that these subjects should be written about, enjoyed and celebrated. They’re part of being human. True or false. Great thoughts or half-baked notions. They’re part of who we are, and who we’ve always been.

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