The Secret Symbolism of Magic Tricks

slydini.jpgMight it be that we enjoy magic for reasons that are far deeper than we realize? Magic tricks are, indeed, symbolic. I shall illustrate by analyzing three of my favorite — the Cut and Restored Rope Trick, the Linking Rings, and the Slydini Knots.

The Cut and Restored Rope Trick
In this effect, the magician cuts a rope. He now has two shorter ropes. But, mirabile dictu, he restores the rope. It’s like it had never been cut! He then cuts the rope a second time, and once again it has been restored.

I stumbled upon what I believe to be the deeper meaning of this trick, when I was investigating the etymology of the word “decide.” What motivated me was that decisions have never come easy for me. Oftentimes, when I’ve needed to make a decision, I would do nothing at all. Of course, my Hamlet-like indecision never really allowed me off the hook, for as William James argues, not to decide is itself a decision.

If we look at the etymology of the word “decide,” we see that it means “to cut.” There is our clue to the rope trick. What has been cut has been changed irrevocably. It can no longer return to what it was. The original wholeness — consisting of an infinitude of untried possibilities — has been lost. And that is why it is so hard for many people to decide anything, for in taking a step in a certain direction, all the other possibilities have been forever negated. If we embark upon a certain career, then we cannot embark upon another. If we marry a certain person, we cannot marry another person (assuming we are not a polygamist). There will always be a “road not taken.” That is why, Soren Kierkegaard tells us, important decisions involve a leap of faith, and why such leaps are fraught with anxiety.

If only we could decide and yet not decide. In real life we cannot do this, but, in the world of magic we can! And that explains the appeal of the cut an restored rope trick. For the rope is cut, i.e., a “decision” is made. But then, it is restored. I.E., the decision has been annulled, as if it had never been made. No wonder the trick is so appealing, for it symbolically denies the irreversible nature of decision.

On a higher level of consciousness, it is indeed possible to act in the world, to decide, while still maintaining our oneness, but that’s another story. It is quite possible, though, that the trick resonates from those depths.

The Linking Rings
This is the classic effect in which large metal rings, about 10 inch in circumference, seem to magically link and unlink. There is something very pleasing about watching impenetrable objects link and unlink.

The symbolic meaning of this illusion occurred to me when I was interpreting the dream of a client of mine. In her dream, her ex-husband, who was not a magician, was linking and unlinking the rings in front of her. What could the dream mean?

A common concern of both my client and her ex-husband was being able to join together without losing their independence. But how is that possible? The dream seemed to provide some sort of magical image of how that was possible. Link two solid and impenetrable rings, the two of them could remain themselves, and yet, when they wanted to, join together. But they could, then, just as easily separate. Thus there was really no marriage here, if by marriage we mean a union in which two people lose their individuality so as to become one with each other. Instead, there existed that modern form of union called a relationship. Here the two fundamentally retain their individuality, for they never really form that union called marriage.

I think that the subconscious appeal of the Linking Rings is that it provides a magical answer to a question that many people have: how can we join with other people while maintaining our individuality?

The Slydini Knots
Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I took some magic lessons with one of the world’s great slight of hand artists, Tony Slydini. One of his most famous tricks has come to be called, by magicians, “the Slydini Knots.” This is a close-up effect, one performed in front of everyone’s eyes. Slydini would show two silk handkerchiefs, which he would tie together with a knot. Then he would tie a double knot, and would pull the handkerchiefs so that that the knots were very, very tight. It would certainly take quite a long time for anyone to get these formidable knots out. He would even pass the knotted handkerchiefs around to the audience. Then he would take the knotted handkerchiefs and have an audience member hold one handkerchief. To the surprise of the audience, the knots magically dissolves and the two handkerchiefs separated from each other!

If that was not amazing enough, Slydini would do the trick again, but this time he would have a member of the audience tie the handkerchiefs together. After they had tied a very tight knot, Slydini would have them tie a second knot, and then a third knot. It would take an hour to untie all of these knots, and perhaps they could not be united, but Slydini would, again, magically untie them to the astonishment of the audience.

So here, again, I have wondered about the deeper symbolic meaning of this effect. By serendipity, I stumbled upon a book about Buddhism. In it, is a long section called “The Surangama Sutra.” Here, the Buddha uses a handkerchief as a prop to illustrate what he means by freeing oneself of ego consciousness. Buddha makes six knots in a handkerchief, and states that they represent six different levels of ego illusion:

“Ananda! Let me ask you another question. This handkerchief has six knots tied in it. If I untie them can they all be untied at once?”

“No, my Lord. The knots were originally tied by one in a certain order, so when we come to untie them we must follow the reverse order…”

“Again the Lord Buddha was pleased at the reply and said: It is the same with the disentanglements of the conceptions of the six senses. The first knot of false conceptions that must be untied, is the one relating to the false conception of an ego personality, one must first of all attain a realization of its utter unreality…” (The Buddhist Bible, Edited by Dwight Goddard, Beacon Press, 1970, p. 220.)

The Buddha then proceeds to describe the meaning of removing all six of the knots. Suffice it to say that the notion that our ego — that which at times we cling to most dearly, and at other times would gladly be free of — is indeed akin to a knot. If the handkerchief represents the Self, then the ego is noting more than a knot in the Self.

I think that we know this subconsciously, which is why the effect of Slydini magically resonates in us. Usually, it takes an enormous struggle to be free of that knot called ego, sometimes a lifetime struggle. The appeal of the Slydini Knots trick is that…


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