Take My Breath Away

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In the middle of everything—in the middle of everything—here we are. Breathing. Not breathing. Choking on the fumes of the history we inherit: climate change, white supremacy, global pandemic. Waiting for the great exhale.

At the dedication of St. Gaudens’ Boston monument to the first Black regiment raised in the North to fight in the Civil War, Robert Lowell said, William James “could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” Lowell’s poem, written some seven decades after the monument’s unveiling, at the height of the Civil Rights era, is a bitter record of the country’s failure to fulfill the promise of emancipation, of its reluctance to let Black people breathe: “The monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city’s throat.”

The country’s throat. Still! Another five decades later!

I do not think it is too much to say that the global rise of white nationalism is the echo of the still unresolved civil, legal, and political history of the Americas, the tension between the ideal of a multi-racial democracy and the difficulty that whites would have accepting it. The broader question is whether the fruits of Europe’s long period of technological and military dominance can be shared with those whose exploitation and domination helped make that period possible, whether at home—where the resistance to immigration and refugees is basically a resistance to the distribution of the goods of the welfare state to people who are not white—or abroad—where the consequences of climate change will be felt most strongly, and where the understandable demand to continue developing, to access the cars and air conditioning and other goods that allow Europe its immense comfort, confronts the (equally understandable) demand to reduce the use of fossil fuels, the building of factories, and the like. We’ve had our development, the West says. But you can’t have yours. And you can’t have ours, either.

But you know all this.

One effect of the moment is that the global-historical forms of conflict now seem to penetrate down the very marrow of daily life, so that a billion tiny moments or gestures that might in other times have happily signified only in the small local contexts of their occurrence now instead immediately connect to, or allegorize, the global-historical patterns to which they indubitably also belong. This has the effect of destroying what we were used to thinking of as the “private” or even “local” sphere of our actions. We might think of this as a “politicizing” of the formerly “personal,” but this formulation, which is already a half century old (Carol Hanisch’s essay with that title was published in 1970), feels sadly out of date, as though it itself had been swallowed up by one of its newer versions, “the local is the global,” which in turn has been swallowed up by something even larger: there is no local, no personal, anymore. It is all global, all political.

Perhaps the condition of having a personal or local sphere was itself a function of European privilege. In some respects, of course, it was. A Black person at a police traffic stop is not having a merely local experience, but a politically and deeply historically overdetermined one. A trans person at a medical appointment is not just having a private conversation between patient and doctor, but participating (and knows they are participating) in a national and transnational discussion about bodies, gender, sexuality, and so on. The examples can be multiplied.

So perhaps it was only ever the white bourgeoisie that got to live the illusion of a life completely separated from history, from structure. And perhaps the world-historical shifts that make such illusions difficult—you are no longer experiencing local flooding or a heat wave, but the effects of climate change; you are no longer able to trust the people you see at the store who don’t wear masks, because they belong to a mass movement that hates you and people like you—are good, insofar as they force some of us to live in the reality that everyone else has been used to for a long time.

And yet, surely, every person alive has cherished those small moments of intimacy or aloneness in which one feels, however briefly, cocooned in a place of one’s own making, in which one feels oneself away from the world. For a minute, free. For a minute, able to breathe. For a minute, a small epiphany of peace.

It is not good, I think, to live in a world where such peace is unavailable, where every move or every casual gesture is freighted, heavy, a glance or a thought away from Meaning or History. One of the functions of art—of all art, from dance to storytelling to image-making or thing-making or experience-making—is to provide escapes. Art creates worlds that are not this world. I know that there is a long history of art trying to do exactly the opposite, but this just proves the point—if you begin with art, if you begin with the gesture of art-making, then you begin with the entry into a separate world, even if the goal of the art is to return you to this one. In fact, all art that does not aspire to dominate its experiencer, to produce a total and final absorption into its sphere, will return that experiencer ultimately to this world. The transformations art wreaks come from this passage, from our world to its world and back again. One of the functions of those transformations is to remind you that another world is possible.

When art works, it takes your breath away.


I want to tell you about a magic show. The show is Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself, which ran in New York between 2016 and 2018; earlier this year the show was released as a film (available on Hulu), directed by Frank Oz.

Magic is always about contained ostranenie. No one expects a rabbit in a hat, at some level. Until they’re at a magic show, and then they do. And that’s the problem: the context of the show, the context that organizes what we think of as “magic” in general, rubs the rough edges off of whatever estrangement might take place there. It sanitizes startlement. It domesticates dread.

DelGaudio belongs to a class of magicians who aim to restore to magic its defamiliarizing power, to defamiliarize, as it were, what we think we know of defamiliarization. Leaving behind scarf-filled sleeves and sawed-up ladies, his work veers into spaces normally occupied by performance or experimental art. In this he follows artists like Penn and Teller, who did much to establish the legitimacy and power of that space, or David Blaine, whose close-up work (and not the “stuck in a hot air balloon for a week” bullshit) showed how a stripped-down version of a magic act, done right in front of ordinary people in ordinary time, could disrupt the ordinary frameworks of our reality, could startle us into epiphany.

All I am going to do for the rest of this is describe two tricks in In and Of Itself. The first trick begins before the show stars. Audience members entering the theater pass by a wall of 690 index cards, each labeled with an identifier: I AM AN ACTIVIST, I AM A FATHER, I AM A MIDNIGHT TOKER, I AM A TEACHER, and so on. They are instructed to take one card apiece, though whether they take the card seriously is up to them. They carry the cards into the theater.

The show proceeds. DelGaudio tells a series of fictional and autobiographical stories that explore the nature of self, and the contrast between how we see ourselves and how others see us. There are a few small sleight-of-hand gestures along the way, enough for the audience to feel as though they are at a magic show, enough to give the sense that the fundamental underpinnings of the experience belong to that genre.

All this is interrupted by the second trick, which lays the ground for the completion of the first trick (which I will get to). On the wall behind DelGaudio are a series of small cubbies holding envelopes. DelGaudio asks one of the audience members to choose another audience member, who then comes forward. That person picks an envelope from the cubbies. DelGaudio tells the audience that until now all the envelopes were the same. But what happens next is magical. It’s my favorite part of the show, he says. Because the envelope in this person’s hand contains a letter that is only for them.

The person opens the envelope, reads the letter. And somehow, impossibly, it is a letter from someone they know—a husband, a sibling, a child, a close friend—telling them how much they mean to them, telling them why they are admired, loved, cared for. The audience watches the person experience this extraordinary moment—picked (randomly) from a crowd, brought up on stage to choose (randomly) an envelope, which now extraordinarily brings them from the public to the private, turns them from a volunteer at a magic show into someone known by someone else, surprisingly, extraordinarily, who tells them things in writing that they have perhaps never told face to face. The audience sees all this happen on the face of the person who reads the letter—the initial wariness, the incredulity, the dawning awareness, the wonder. Not surprisingly, many readers cry. So did I, watching it. It’s really something.

This trick establishes the parameters for the rest of the show. Because at this point the audience knows that it has seen one extraordinary thing, one thing that alone is worth the price of admission, because it has been completely and totally unexpected, unlike anything they thought they would see. And the show goes on; there’s a period of rest, of recovery. And then comes the second trick.

The show, remember, has been about identity—about how we see each other, about how we see ourselves, about the masks we wear in public or in front of the mirror. We return to the cards. DelGaudio says, if you picked a card that you felt accurately described you, please stand up. And the audience members stand. Then, slowly, and looking each person in the eye, he names the identity they chose on their card. Every one of them—whether it’s five or fifty or a hundred folks. And then he asks the rest of the audience to stand, and he names each of their identities as well. He recognizes them.

The magic of the thing explains some of its power. Its simplicity explains much of the rest. You named yourself, and I see you. I name you as you name yourself. And I do that in front of a hundred other people, affirming your chosen identity—AN OPTIMIST, A COACH, A BAKER—in public, calling you the thing that you have sincerely or whimsically chosen, just because you chose it.

Reviewing the show in The New York Times, Jonah Weiner writes that the magic trick resembles, in its emotional architecture, the thriller:

the chief ingredients are suspense and resolution, and we tend to regard both forms, exceptions notwithstanding, as unserious entertainments, no matter how well engineered they are. But whereas in the archetypal thriller, our world is upended at the outset and the laws of reality reassert themselves by the end, the archetypal magic trick inverts this structure: Everything appears to be normal until the decisive moment when, inexplicably, it isn’t. Watching a trick to completion, we are not rescued from unreality but rather are marooned in it.

I think this gets magic in general right, but DelGaudio’s show absolutely backwards. What happens in both these tricks is that the sensation of being marooned in unreality—the thing we go to the magic show for, in some respect—suddenly disappears because we realize that we were marooned in reality the whole time. The epiphanic shock comes when we see the conditions in which we are as the conditions in which we have been being, when we see that the escape to another world that we were expecting has simply involved a reawakening to a world that we never left in the first place. In this sense, DelGaudio’s act is a rejection of the entire premise of escapist art, and perhaps especially of the history of magic, one of art’s most escapist genres. That it accomplishes this rejection through magic, that the greatest illusion here is the illusion of a “show,” abetted by the physical and social architecture of the theater itself (dark room, restricted entry, and so on), is what gives the entire work its profoundness and force.

(You can contrast this with Blaine’s closeup work, which leaves its viewers mired in the very unreality Weiner describes, as you can see in his early specials or in the many online clips where he freaks out people on the street, or Jimmy Fallon and The Roots. Blaine restores the magic to magic; he makes magic magic again. DelGaudio, by contrast, makes reality magical.)

How do the tricks work? Weiner describes imagining

the dizzying chain of obstacles and contingencies that DelGaudio and his collaborators must surmount for each performance: identifying attendees with sufficient time to obtain letters from families and friends; procuring enough letters to guarantee that, when the attendee picks a letter, it will be addressed to them; swearing the letter writers to secrecy; making sure, at every show, that an attendee for whom enough such letters arrived would be picked, seemingly “at random,” by another member of the crowd; and on and on.

Things are probably simpler than this—all you need is to be sure of picking the correct single attendee, and to arrange in advance that the letter be written. Once that’s done every single envelope can simply contain the same letter. But what matters here is less the specific pathways and strategies whereby the effect is achieved, than the work all those people do to accomplish it. Night after night, for three months in the show’s Los Angeles run, and two years in New York, all this work to make one person feel something extraordinary.

As for the identity cards, the method is perhaps simpler. I think that someone notes seats as audience members enter the show, and then DelGaudio memorizes them. Here again, the amazing thing is not the trick but the work: the hours of practice and effort required to become good enough at memorizing a hundred locations tied to a hundred self-descriptions, and then to recite them in public where one mistake ruins the entire situation, night after night.1This is why DelGaudio, during the show’s narrative moments, likens himself to a player of Russian roulette, for whom the cost of losing is catastrophic, even as the thrill of the possibility of loss, balanced against the rewards associated with success, requires that he continue playing—as long as he is a certain kind of person. And indeed, this is another of the show’s revelations: that DelGaudio is, at some level, that kind of person, not simply willing to expose himself to that possibility of failure, but compelled to do so in the name of some greater good.

The exact degree to which either of these tricks corresponds allegorically to the current suffocations, I leave for the reader to decide. I simply want to say here that what both tricks have in common is the putting to use of a great deal of creative and kinesthetic effort—the learning to memorize, the finding of letter-writers, the entire architecture of the show, the imagination to put together the traditional magical skillsets (memorization, sleight of hand) with narrative, and so on—mainly to produce two significant effects: (1) to show someone who is not expecting it that they are loved and cared for, and to give an audience the opportunity to see how much that matters; and (2) to offer a hundred people a night the chance to choose an identity, and have that identity recognized by a stranger, as part of a group of people who are all having their identities recognized in the same way. The effects speak for themselves. The work to create them speaks to the possibility of another life. Or to the possibilities, latent in the reality we already know, of the lives we already live.

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