31 August 2006

Rope trick

Teller, “the shorter, quieter half of Penn & Teller,” explains the Indian Rope Trick.

Turns out there's no such thing.

In 1890, [John Elbert] Wilkie, a young reporter for The Chicago Tribune, fabricated the legend that the world has embraced from that day to this as an ancient feat of Indian street magic.

How did a silly newspaper hoax become a lasting icon of mystery? The answer, Peter Lamont tells us in his wry and thoughtful Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, is that Wilkie's article appeared at the perfect moment to feed the needs and prejudices of modern Western culture.
India was the jewel of the British Empire, and to justify colonial rule, the British had convinced themselves the conquered were superstitious savages who needed white men's guidance in the form of exploitation, conversion and death. The prime symbol of Indian benightedness was the fakir, whose childish tricks—as the British imagined—frightened his ignorant countrymen but could never fool a Westerner.

When you're certain you cannot be fooled, you become easy to fool. Indian street magicians have a repertory of earthy, violent tricks designed for performance outdoors—very different from polite Victorian parlor and stage magic. So when well-fed British conquerors saw a starving fakir do a trick they couldn't fathom, they reasoned thus: We know the natives are too primitive to fool us; therefore, what we are witnessing must be genuine magic.

On the other hand, the goat really is on the pole.


thorn Coyle said...

Ha! I anticipated your parting shot. As I was reading, I kept thinking, "Yes, but the goat is on the pole."

Sea's Blog said...

You're becoming such a classical anti-racist blogger!

But the goat *is* white. You neglected to mention that.