Do you believe in God? Do you believe in magic? Here’s a quick little now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t column to address those two questions.
First the set-up: I’m over at McCarter Theater, socializing with a few college classmates invited to see the magicians, Penn & Teller, sponsored by a bequest from one of our more amazing late classmates, the David A. Gardner ’69 Magic Project. As I have written in this space before, Gardner was a talented magician who worked his way through Princeton in part by entertaining at parties.
After his death in 2001, his widow established the Magic Project at Princeton, which underwrites research and courses on subjects not normally covered in Princeton University’s curriculum. And, not forgetting Gardner’s special interest, the fund in recent years has also invited classmates to a magic show in Princeton. So that’s how I end up with 50 or 60 other classmates and friends at McCarter Theater, having dinner and sharing stories as we await the beginning of Penn & Teller’s show.
Now a little intrigue. Sitting at my table is a classmate who recently relocated to the Princeton area from Detroit. Gary Sykes engages in the usual alumni chit-chat and then shares a remarkable story: Shortly after graduation Sykes was in a teacher-training program with another recent college graduate, a bright young man from Amherst named Raymond Teller. Teller, like our late classmate, made a little pin money by performing magic shows at kids’ birthday parties. One of the people in the program had some small children, and Sykes still remembers Teller performing there.
The highlight of the act, as recalled by Sykes, was Teller swallowing a handful of razor blades. Then — excruciating to watch — Teller dragged the razor blades, threaded together on a string, out of his mouth. That was 40 years ago or so, but Sykes’ description is spellbinding.
At this point another classmate at the table, Jim Floyd, looks in my direction and raises a question: “Okay, Rein. Are you going to write a column about this or not?”
As I said, intriguing. Why would Floyd care whether I was writing a column or not? And how did Floyd end up sitting right next to Sykes, other than the apparently random seat assignment by the people setting the tables?
Keep that in mind as I offer a little digression, or perhaps distraction. From the dinner we proceed to Penn & Teller’s sold-out show at McCarter’s 1,100-seat Matthews Theater. Maybe the show could be called an anti-magic show. Penn Jillette, who does all the talking, dismisses the duo’s efforts as a series of cheap tricks that no one should believe, even as they mesmerize us with exquisite and truly unbelievable feats of legerdemain. And we want to believe that Jillette can transfer a pair of spectacles from a lady in the audience onto the head of Teller even though his head has been covered in a box the entire time he has stood on stage; that the lady from the audience really is suspended in air after two folding chairs have been pulled out from under her; and that Teller has been able to transform gold coins into goldfish.
Knowing the title and theme of Jillette’s latest book, “God, No! — Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales” (conveniently on sale after the show), I sense the undertone of Penn’s running commentary. We’re a couple of tricksters and willing to admit it. Believing in us is no different from believing in other tricksters (the high priests of organized religion) who are not willing to admit it.
To the church-going faithful that may sound a little harsh. But when you flip through the book, breeze past the bountiful profanity, and get to Jillette’s re-writes of the 10 Commandments you sense a perverse appreciation of those great rules — and even a few constructive additions.
The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath. Jillette’s “suggestion” is to “put aside some time to rest and think. (If you’re religious that might be the Sabbath; if you’re a Vegas magician, that’ll be the day with the lowest grosses.)”
The Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. To which Jillette responds with his atheist’s suggestion: “Respect and protect all human life. (Many believe that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ only refers to people in the same tribe. I say it’s all human life.)”
The Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt not lie. The atheist’s suggestion: “Don’t lie. (You know, unless you’re doing magic tricks and it’s part of your job. Does that make it okay for politicians too?)”
Oh yes, back to that magic at McCarter, where Penn and Teller are dazzling us with sleight of hand. Suddenly a bright red apple appears, with dozens of straight pins stuck in it. Teller walks into the audience and scans the crowd, looking for a volunteer. There are 1,100 candidates, but Teller soon focuses on just one: Jim Floyd. My classmate is led to the stage and instructed to hold the apple as Teller begins the torturous process of swallowing them. One by one they go in. Teller seems to suffer some indigestion. Then he reaches deep into his mouth and finds the end of a string. He begins to pull them out. So Floyd is the assistant at the very trick his classmate has remembered from 40 years ago.
What should we believe? That Teller really can swallow sharp objects? That Floyd was a distraction enabling Teller to trick us? That Floyd was — God, no! — a plant? After the show I point out to Teller the coincidence. Yes, he probably did do that trick 40 years ago at the kids’ birthday party but, no, Floyd was not a plant. “We could never afford to hire a plant,” Teller says in a solemn tone.
So do I believe? You bet. I pray to God that the sun will rise the next morning, that the foliage will bloom again in spring, and that the Yankees will win the World Series. Two out of three is great (God isn’t running for president). And even if Teller didn’t really swallow those pins, I still believe in that David Gardner ’69 magic — unless Jim Floyd shatters the illusion by telling me that it was not a remarkable coincidence that he got picked to go up on stage.