The Self-Transcendence Price Tag: A Review of Alex Stone's Fooling Houdini

Psychologist Paul Ekman is renowned for his research on facial expressions, and he frequently studies and consults with law enforcement agencies, legal scholars, and gamblers on the topic of reading people who don’t want to be read. In his book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage, Ekman focuses on three emotions would-be lie detectors should be on the lookout for subtle expressions of. The first two—detection apprehension and deception guilt—are pretty obvious. But the third is more interesting. Many people actually enjoy deceiving others because, for one thing, the threat of detection is more thrilling to them than terrifying, and, for another, being able to pull off the deception successfully can give them a sense of “pride in the achievement, or feelings of smug contempt toward the target” (76). Ekman calls this “Duping Delight,” and he suggests it leads many liars to brag about their crimes, which in turn leads to them being caught.  The takeaway insight is that knowing something others don’t, or having the skill to trick or deceive others, can give us an inherently rewarding feeling of empowerment.
Alex Stone, in his new book Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mind, suggests that duping delight is what drives the continuing development of the magician’s trade. The title refers to a bit of lore that has reached the status of founding myth among aficionados of legerdemain. Houdini used to boast that he could figure out the secret behind any magic trick if he saw it performed three times. Time and again, he backed up his claim, sending defeated tricksters away to nurse their wounded pride. But then came Dai Vernon, who performed for Houdini what he called the Ambitious Card, a routine in which a card signed by a volunteer and then placed in the middle of a deck mysteriously appears at the top. After watching Vernon go through the routine seven times, Houdini turned around and walked away in a huff. Vernon went on to become a leading figure in Twentieth Century magic, and every magician today has his (they’re almost all male) own version of Ambitious Card, which serves as a type of signature.
In Fooling Houdini, Stone explains that for practiced magicians, tricking the uninitiated loses its thrill over time. So they end up having to up the ante, and in the process novitiates find themselves getting deeper and deeper into the practice, tradition, culture, and society of magic and magicians. He writes,
Sure, it’s fun to fool laypeople, but they’re easy prey. It’s far more thrilling to hunt your own kind. As a result, magicians are constantly engineering new ways to dupe one another. A hierarchy of foolmanship, a who-fooled-whom pecking order, rules the conjuror’s domain. This gladiatorial spirit in turn drives considerable evolution in the art. (173)
Stone’s own story begins with a trip to Belgium to compete in the 2006 Magic Olympics. His interest in magic was, at the time, little more than an outgrowth of his interest in science. He’d been an editor at Discover magazine and had since gone on to graduate school in physics at Columbia University. But after the Magic Olympics, where he performed dismally and was left completely humiliated and averse to the thought of ever doing magic again, he gradually came to realize that one way or another he would have to face his demons by mastering the art he’d only so far dabbled in. Fooling Houdini chronicles how Stone became obsessed with developing his own personalized act and tweaking it to perfection, and how he went from being a pathetic amateur to a respectable semi-professional. The progress of a magician, Stone learns from Jeff McBride, follows “four cardinal stations of magic: Trickster, Sorcerer, Oracle, and Sage” (41). And the resultant story as told in Stone’s book follows an eminently recognizable narrative course, from humiliation and defeat to ever-increasing mastery and self-discovery.
            Fooling Houdini will likely appeal to the same audience as did Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer’s book about how he ended up winning the U.S. Memory Championships. Foer, in fact, makes a guest appearance in Fooling Houdini when Stone seeks out his expertise to help him memorize a deck of cards for an original routine of his own devising. (He also gave the book a nice plug for the back cover.) The appeal of both books comes not just from the conventional narrative arc but also from the promise of untapped potential, a sense that greater mastery, and even a better life, lie just beyond reach, accessible to anyone willing to put in those enchanted ten thousand hours of training made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s the same thing people seem to love about TED lectures, the idea that ideas will almost inevitably change our lives. Nathan Heller, in a recent New Yorker article, attempts to describe the appeal of TED conferences and lectures in terms that apply uncannily well to books like Foer’s and Stone’s. Heller writes,
Debby Ruth, a Long Beach attendee, told me that she started going to TED after reaching a point in her life when “nothing excited me anymore”; she returns now for a yearly fix. TED may present itself as an ideas conference, but most people seem to watch the lectures not so much for the information as for how they make them feel. (73)
The way they make us feel is similar to the way a good magic show can make us feel—like anything is possible, like on the other side of this great idea that breaks down the walls of our own limitations is a better, fuller, more just, and happier life. “Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence—and on the Internet, of all places?” Heller asks.
Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a generic TED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from it substance. (73-4)
Joshua Foer at his own TED lecture
At their core, Fooling Houdini and Moonwalking with Einstein—and pretty much every TED lecture—are about transforming yourself, and to a somewhat lesser degree the world, either with new takes on deep-rooted traditions, reconnection with ancient wisdom, or revolutionary science.
            Foer presumably funded the epic journey recounted in Moonwalking with his freelance articles and maybe with expense accounts from the magazines he wrote for. Still, it seems you could train to become a serviceable “mental athlete” without spending all that much money. Not so with magic. Stone’s prose is much more quirky and slightly more self-deprecatory than Foer’s, and in one of his funniest and most revealing chapters he discusses some of the personal and financial costs associated with his obsession. The title, “It’s Annoying and I Asked You to Stop,” is a quote from a girlfriend who was about to dump him. The chapter begins,
One of my biggest fears is that someday I’ll be audited. Not because my taxes aren’t in perfect order—I’m very OCD about saving receipts and keeping track of my expenses, a habit I learned from my father—but because it would bring me face-to-face with a very difficult and decidedly lose-lose dilemma in which I’d have to choose between going to jail for tax fraud and disclosing to another adult, in naked detail, just how much money I’ve spent on magic over the years. (That, and I’d have to fess up to eating at Arby’s multiple times while traveling to magic conventions.) (159)
Having originally found magic fun and mentally stimulating, Stone ends up being seduced into spending astronomical sums by the terrible slight he received from the magic community followed by a regimen of Pavlovian conditioning based on duping delight. Both Foer’s and Stone’s stories are essentially about moderately insecure guys who try to improve themselves by learning a new skill set.
The market for a renewed sense of limitless self-potential is booming. As children, it seems every future we can imagine for ourselves is achievable—that we can inhabit them all simultaneously—so whatever singular life we find ourselves living as adults inevitably falls short of our dreams. We may have good jobs, good relationships, good health, but we can’t help sometimes feeling like we’re missing out on something, like we’re trapped in overscheduled rutted routines of workaday compromise. After a while, it becomes more and more difficult to muster any enthusiasm for much of anything beyond the laziest indulgences like the cruises we save up for and plan months or years in advance, the three-day weekend at the lake cottage, a shopping date with an old friend, going out to eat with the gang. By modern, middle-class standards, this is the good life. What more can we ask for?
What if I told you, though, that there’s a training regimen that will make you so much more creative and intelligent that you’ll wonder after a few months how you ever managed to get by with a mind as dull as yours is now? What if I told you there’s a revolutionary diet and exercise program that is almost guaranteed to make you so much more attractive that even your friends won’t recognize you? What if I told you there’s a secret set of psychological principles that will allow you to seduce almost any member of the opposite sex, or prevail in any business negotiation you ever engage in? What if I told you you’ve been living in a small dark corner of the world, and that I know the way to a boundless life of splendor?
If you can convince people you know how to broaden the contours of selfhood and show them the world as they’ve never experienced it before, if you can give them the sense that their world is expanding, they’ll at the very least want to keep talking to you so they can keep the feeling going and maybe learn what your secret is. Much of this desire to better ourselves is focused on our social lives, and that’s why duping delight is so seductive—it gives us a taste of what it’s like to be the charismatic and irresistible characters we always expected ourselves to become. This is how Foer writes about his mindset at the outset of his memory training, after he’d read about the mythic feats of memory champion Ben Pridmore:
What would it mean to have all that otherwise-lost knowledge at my fingertips? I couldn’t help but think that it would make me more persuasive, more confident and, in some fundamental sense, smarter. Certainly I’d be a better journalist, friend, and boyfriend. But more than that, I imagined that having a memory like Ben Pridmore’s would make me an altogether more attentive, perhaps even wiser, person. To the extent that experience is the sum of our memories and wisdom the sum of experience, having a better memory would mean knowing not only more about the world, but also more about myself. (7)
Stone strikes a similar chord when he’s describing what originally attracted him to magic back when he was an awkward teenager. He writes,
In my mind, magic was also a disarming social tool, a universal language that transcended age and gender and culture. Magic would be a way out of my nerdiness. That’s right, I thought magic would make me less nerdy. Or at the very least it would allow me to become a different, more interesting nerd. Through magic, I would be able to navigate awkward social situations, escape the boundaries of culture and class, connect with people from all walks of life, and seduce beautiful women. In reality, I ended up spending most of my free time with pasty male virgins. (5)
This last line echoes Foer’s observation that the people you find at memory competitions are “indistinguishable from those” you’d find at a “‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (five of spades) concert”? (189).
            Though Stone’s openness about his nerdiness at times shades into some obnoxious playing up of his nerdy credentials, it does lend itself to some incisive observations. One of the lessons he has to learn to become a better magician is that his performances have to be more about the audiences than they are about the tricks—less about duping and more about connecting. What this means is that magic isn’t the key to becoming more confident he hoped it would be; instead, he has to be more confident before he can be good at magic. For Stone, this means embracing, not trying to overcome, his nerdish tendencies. He writes,
Magicians like to pretend that they’re cool and mysterious, cultivating the image of the smooth operator, the suave seducer. Their stage names are always things like the Great Tomsoni or the Amazing Randi or the International Man of Mystery—never Alex the Magical Superdoofus or the Incredible Nerdini. But does all this posturing really make them look cooler? Or just more ridiculous for trying to hide their true stripes? Why couldn’t more magicians own up to their own nerdiness? Magic was geeky. And that was okay. (243)
Stone reaches this epiphany largely through the inspiration of a clown who, in a surprising twist, ends up stealing the show from many of the larger-than-life characters featured in Fooling Houdini. In an effort to improve his comfort while performing before crowds and thus to increase his stage presence, Stone works with his actress girlfriend, takes improv classes, and attends a “clown workshop” led by “a handsome man in his early forties named Christopher Bayes,” who begins by telling the class that “The clown is the physical manifestation of the unsocialized self… It’s the essence of the playful spirit before you were defeated by society, by the world” (235). Stone immediately recognizes the connection with magic. Here you have that spark of joyful spontaneity, that childish enthusiasm before a world where everything is new and anything is possible.
“The main trigger for laughter is surprise,” Bayes told us, speaking of how the clown gets his laughs. “There’s lots of ways to find that trigger. Some of them are tricks. Some of them are math. And some of them come from building something with integrity and then smashing it. So you smash the expectation and of what you think is going to happen. (239)
In smashing something you’ve devoted considerable energy to creating, you’re also asserting your freedom to walk away from what you’ve invested yourself in, to reevaluate your idea of what’s really important, to change your life on a whim. And surprise, as Bayes describes it, isn’t just the essential tool for comedians. Stone explains,
The same goes for the magician. Magic transports us to an absurd universe, parodying the laws of physics in a whimsical toying of cause and effect. “Magic creates tension,” says Juan Tamariz, “a logical conflict that it does not resolve. That’s why people often laugh after a trick, even when we haven’t done anything funny. Tamariz is also fond of saying that magic holds a mirror up to our impossible desires. We all would like to fly, see the future, know another’s thoughts, mend what has been broken. Great magic is anchored to a symbolic logic that transcends its status as an illusion. (239)
Stone’s efforts to become a Sage magician have up till this point in the story entailed little more than a desperate stockpiling of tricks. But he comes to realize that not all tricks jive with his personality, and if he tries to go too far outside of character his performances come across as strained and false. This is the stock ironic trope that this type of story turns on—he starts off trying to become something great only to discover that he first has to accept who he is. He goes on relaying the lessons of the clown workshop,
“Try to proceed with a kind of playful integrity,” Chris Bayes told us. “Because in that integrity we actually find more possibility of surprise than we do in an idea of how to trick us into laughing. You bring it from yourself. And we see this little gift that you brought for us, which is the gift of your truth. Not an idea of your truth, but the gift of your real truth. And you can play forever with that, because it’s infinite. (244)
What’s most charming about the principle of proceeding with playful integrity is that it applies not just to clowning and magic, but to almost every artistic and dramatic endeavor—and even to science. “Every truly great idea, be it in art or science,” Stone writes, “is a kind of magic” (289). Aspirants may initially be lured into any of these creative domains by the promise of greater mastery over other people, but the true sages end up being the ones who are the most appreciative and the most susceptible to the power of the art to produce in them that sense of playfulness and boundless exuberance.
Being fooled is fun, too, because it’s a controlled way of experiencing a loss of control. Much like a roller coaster or a scary movie, it lets you loosen your grip on reality without actually losing your mind. This is strangely cathartic, and when it’s over you feel more in control, less afraid. For magicians, watching magic is about chasing this feeling—call it duped delight, the maddening ecstasy of being a layperson again, a novice, if only for a moment. (291)
“Just before Vernon,” the Man Who Fooled Houdini, “died,” Stone writes, “comedian and amateur magician Dick Cavett asked him if there was anything he wished for.” Vernon answered, “I wish somebody could fool me one more time” (291). Stone uses this line to wrap up his book, neatly bringing the story full-circle.
            Fooling Houdini is unexpectedly engrossing. It reads quite a bit different from the 2010 book on magic by neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, which they wrote with Sandra Blakeslee, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions. For one thing, Stone focuses much more on the people he comes to know on his journey and less on the underlying principles. And, though Macknik and Martinez-Conde also use their own education in the traditions and techniques of magic as a narrative frame, Stone gets much more personal. One underlying message of both books is that our sense of being aware of what’s going on around us is illusory, and that illusion makes us ripe for the duping. But Stone conveys more of the childlike wonder of magic, despite his efforts at coming across as a stylish hipster geek. Unfortunately, when I got to the end I was reminded of the title of a TED lecture that’s perennially on the most-watched list, Brene Brown’s “The Power of Vulnerability,” which I came away from scratching my head because it seemed utterly nonsensical.
Arthur Aron
            It’s interesting that duping delight is a feeling few anticipate and many fail to recognize even as they’re experiencing it. It is the trick that ends up being played on the trickster. Like most magic, it takes advantage of a motivational system that most of us are only marginally aware of, if at all. But there’s another motivational system and another magic trick that makes things like TED lectures so thrilling. It’s also the trick that makes books like Moonwalking with Einstein and Fooling Houdini so engrossing. Arthur and Elaine Aron use what’s called “The Self-Expansion Model” to explain what attracts us to other people, and even what attracts us to groups of people we end up wanting to identify with. The basic idea is that we’re motivated to increase our efficacy, not with regard to achieving any specific goals but in terms of our general potential. One of the main ways we seek to augment our potential is by establishing close relationships with other people who have knowledge or skills or resources that would contribute to our efficacy. Foer learns countless mnemonic techniques from guys like Ed Cooke. Stone learns magic from guys like Wes James. Meanwhile, we readers are getting a glimpse of all of it through our connection with Foer and Stone.
"Dr. Myron Fox"
            Self-expansion theory is actually somewhat uplifting in its own right because it offers a more romantic perspective on our human desire to associate with high-status individuals and groups. But the triggers for a sense of self-expansion are probably pretty easy to mimic, even for those who lack the wherewithal or the intention to truly increase our potential or genuinely broaden our horizons. Indeed, it seems as though self-expansion has become the main psychological principle exploited by politicians, marketers, and P.R. agents. This isn’t to say we should discount every book or lecture that we find uplifting, but we should keep in mind that there are genuine experiences of self-expansion and counterfeit ones. Heller’s observation about how TED lectures are more about presentation than substance, for instance, calls to mind an experiment done in the early 1970s in which Dr. Myron Fox gave a lecture titled “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.” His audience included psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, and graduate students, virtually all of whom rated his ideas and his presentation highly. But Dr. Fox wasn’t actually a doctor; he was the actor Michael Fox. And his lecture was designed to be completely devoid of meaningful content but high on expressiveness and audience connection. The Dr. Fox Effect is the term now used to describe our striking inability to recognize nonsense coming from the mouths of charismatic speakers.

         And if keeping our foolability in mind somehow makes that sense of self-transcendence elude us today, "tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning—"