A grainy video shows a small compact man with a shock of dark hair and a superbly toned body climbing up the girders of a high bridge. He is chained and manacled before he plunges into a freezing river in full view of a gaping crowd. After a breathless moment of uncertainty, he emerges, emancipated, unscathed, once again triumphant in his death-defying prowess.
The video is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City, the first major art museum to examine Harry Houdini’s life and his enduring cultural impact. The exhibit makes a credible case for the many ways in which Houdini’s life and legend has inspired artists, writers, filmmakers and performing artist. The exhibit leaves me thinking about a dimension that the show overlooks – the many ways in which Houdini’s life and legacy dramatizes central Jewish themes. That reflection in turn leads me to the work of one unlikely Houdini-obsessed writer, Muriel Rukeyser whose musical play, Houdini deepens the link between the world-famous Houdini and his Jewish origins.
Harry Houdini, born Erich Weiss in 1874, son of an immigrant rabbi, was a consummate performer. His feats of escapology challenged every assumption about human limitations. (Drowning, freezing, burial, bondage, suffocation, hanging were some of the mortal extremes which he survived with great showmanship.) It is understandable that many in Houdini’s thrall insisted that this unusually daring and provocative escape artist had superhuman powers. It is somewhat more surprising that Houdini went out of his way to vehemently disavow, rather than exploit, that belief. It is this stance that positions him within a central concern of the Jewish tradition – the tension between powers ascribed to God and those that are considered to lie within the human province. His sensationalist career draws a clear line on the often-blurred boundary between the two.
Houdini tirelessly enlightened the public about the distinction between a magician – one who claims to wield mystical power over nature, and the illusionist – a showman who masters secret techniques in order to effect the illusion of having such powers. Bizarrely enough, Houdini ran into considerable trouble for insisting he be known as an illusionist rather than a magician.
In 1926 there was a congressional investigation into the highly questionable activities of the so-called Spiritualists who flourished between the great wars. These self-appointed mediums appropriated tricks proper to stage magic (levitating tables, simulation of spooky voices, conjuring ghostly apparitions, vanishing visions of ectoplasm) while shamelessly claiming to put the war-bereaved in touch with departed spirits and charging hefty fees for their rigged theatrics. Houdini’s relentless mission to expose what he knew to be Spiritualist fraud marked him as a star witness in the government’s inquiry.
In the musical play Houdini by the feminist left-wing activist and poet Muriel Rukeyser we come across a literal transcript from the 1926 congressional investigation. The real-life text veers off into the surreal. One congressman badgers Houdini into confessing that he has all manner of “powers greater than human.” Another congressman insists that Houdini admit he has the actual power to “fly through keyholes.” Houdini tries to explain that he has professional secrets that, if divulged, would reveal cause and effect techniques that allow him to sustain his staged illusion of “mystical power.” Unsatisfied, frustrated, the representatives accuse him of being “against religion” a charge he passionately denies.
The halls of congress were crying out in confusion about the inescapably tricky relationship between knowledge, power and truth. Houdini had a great deal of secret and specialized knowledge – how to pick intricate locks, how to hold his breath for extended periods, how to quickly get out of a straitjacket, even how to make an elephant appear to disappear. And this knowledge, together with his physical mastery, certainly gave him powers beyond the ordinary. The actual debate – never quite clarified in the emotional din on Capital Hill – was about the source of his powers. Houdini says of himself “I am a psychic investigator and I perform stage illusions. I admit only that I am human.” It was vital to him that people not confuse his years of arduous practice and resulting consummate skill with his having been granted superhuman powers. These he adamantly insisted were proper only to God. His insider’s knowledge yielded him not only power, but also a self-imposed obligation not to distort ultimate truth.
In Act One of her play, Rukeyser clearly links Houdini’s platform with his Jewish upbringing. She has Houdini explain “My father said we’re not to be magicians because of what Moses did…. And God told Moses to strike the rock with his staff. Water gushed forth. Moses let them believe it was all his doing; he did not give credit. That’s why he wasn’t allowed to go into the Promised Land. And we’re not to be magicians.” Later on she inserts another real life quote from Houdini, “If you dig deeply you can find the answers in ancient science. Ultimately however, it is only God.”
Exasperated by Houdini’s insistence that “everything was done by ordinary means,” one congressman finally explodes, “It’s all a plot of the Jews!” followed by a meaningful silence. Houdini the escape artist finds himself a target of a dangerously ambiguous accusation, one that has cost the chosen people dearly throughout their history. Once again we confronted with the slippery relationship between knowledge, power and truth. A “chosen” nation’s claim to knowledge and even to sacred truth leads others to conclude they must also have power, even if history has shown these same people to be overwhelmingly powerless in the face of real threat. (I can remember while traveling in a European train in the late eighties being cajoled by a sober and educated German to finally reveal “the secret power of the Jews” and how I hugged my little son closer to me in a protective embrace.)
In his own way, Houdini was an agent provocateur. Like Moses and Aaron in their showdown with Pharaoh’s court magicians, Houdini challenged the status quo and staged extravagant demonstrations of authoritative power. Houdini’s ethnic origins inevitably stirred up old suspicions of secret Jewish powers. A man of self-styled integrity, he then tried to leverage his celebrity to put old misconceptions about Jews to rest. Tragically the rest of 20th century history testifies that in this one great challenge, the master showman did not succeed.
To deepen my understanding of Rukeyser’s fascination with “the Jewish Houdini,” I read Rukeyser’s poem Akiva about the great rabbinic sage who is cruelly martyred by the Roman Rufus. Here’s an excerpt:
Streaking of agony across the sky.
Torn black. Red racing on the blackness. Dawn.
Rufus looks at him over the rakes of death
Asking, “What is it?
Have you magic powers? Or do you feel no pain?”
We are asked to believe that the brutally martyred rabbi Akiva had his absolute faith as balm against the agonies of torture. Houdini had no such support when he subjected his body to terrifying extremes. While he consistently defers to God as the source of transcendent powers, Houdini’s unfulfilled longing to believe in the immortality of the soul, his inability to establish a post-death connection to loved ones tormented him all his life.
Finally, flummoxed, members of congress accuse their superstar witness of being “against religion,” a charge he passionately denies. “True belief is a great thing, I care about that. My father wrote a book- ” Accused of debunking religion, Houdini could have passed himself off as an unconcerned secularist. But this was not Houdini’s stance. In Rukeyser’s play, as in real life, Houdini says, “I have always wanted to believe. It would have meant life to me.” In this, his perpetually unsatisfied longing to believe, Houdini is the essential Jew. While he defers ultimate power to God, he is anchored to no other spiritual guidepost. His insider’s knowledge about the rigging of presumably persuasive miracles leaves him vulnerable and empty. His was a need to establish a profound and private connection with ultimate truth, to challenge complacency, overturn facile assumptions and come up with something nourishing to his restless spirit. His quest remains unsatisfied. Weakened in his core, soon after the inquiry he succumbs to the ill effects of a punch in the stomach. He dies that same year tormented with spiritual doubts, helpless as any ordinary man to transcend immutable boundaries.
Houdini, A Musical by Muriel Rukeyser is available exclusively through www.parispress.org/books/houdini.shtml