EXCERPT FROM INTRODUCTION: THE HANDCUFF KING
“Welcome aboard,” said the friendly young recruitment officer. He theatrically opened a door to reveal the bank of warmly humming computers for which I was now responsible, as if to say “all of this is yours”.
But I didn’t want it to be mine. I don’t care about computers, warmly humming or otherwise. I wanted to be a bohemian writer of unmarketable funnies like Myles na gCopaleen, or an outsider comedian like Simon Munnery, or a transvestite potter like Grayson Perry.
Puerile perhaps. Dreamy certainly. But Jesus Christ, look at the alternatives. Network Administrator. Outreach Officer. Teaching Assistant. Forever? With my remarkable mind? With two science degrees and a half-decent singing voice? It was too hideous to contemplate. I didn’t want to eat machine-vended sandwiches for lunch in the staff canteen of some concrete carbuncle: I wanted a rider in my dressing room, overflowing with exotic fruits and the undies of groupies.
I’m not an employee by nature. Nobody is.
On the other hand, if I was unable to cover the rent this month I’d be out on my arse. Hence this job. I was trapped. Trapped! Potentially for the next forty years, which was, so far as I was concerned, forever. The jail sentence for bank robbery is nowhere near that long. I know because I checked.
Grayson Perry and the others couldn’t help me now. Of all my heroes, only Houdini could get out of this one.
We best know Harry Houdini — himself no stranger to the undies of groupies — as an Escapologist. He was first and foremost “the handcuff king”, able to escape the bracelets of any challenger, but also jail cells, packing crates, mail sacks, and strait jackets. “Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini a prisoner”, boasts one of his posters.
Write that down. We can use it later.
The most amazing things Houdini did, however, were not escape-based at all. As a magician he made coins dance enchantingly between his fingers, caught bullets between his teeth, and made an elephant called Lulu vanish into thin air. Making Lulu disappear remains one of the greatest magical feats of all time, and perhaps one of the most impressive theatrical events when judged by sheer spectacle. To this day, nobody quite knows how Houdini did it.
He was also a professional skeptic: the Richard Dawkins of his day. His campaign was little short of a crusade and he threw millions of dollars at it and generated thousands of column inches.
And that’s not all. Houdini was a movie star, an author, a pioneer aviator, a master of media spin, an agent of the US Secret Service, and the star of his own Broadway show. He was, as his most recent biographers call him, the first American superhero. But he was famous — and still is famous — for picking locks.
When you stop and think about it, an escape act is a very strange piece of theatre. What could possibly be entertaining about watching someone spend painstaking minutes — sometimes hours — picking a lock or finding their way out of a box?
It’s even odder when you learn that the audience didn’t usually see those things at all. If Houdini were to break out of a packing crate, the very nature of the performance rendered both him and his process obscured from view: the audience who paid to see Houdini were really just gawping at a wooden box. To escape a set of handcuffs — the thing he was famous for above all else — Houdini would retreat behind a screen (called a “ghost box”) so that no one in the audience could witness his technique.
Even if you’d been able see the performer there would not be much to see. There was no sensational “trick” and certainly no magic. Houdini picked locks. That’s what happened behind the screen. A vanishing elephant or a bullet caught between the teeth is a clearly-witnessed feat with an intriguingly mysterious technique. But this? This was a man in a box.
A hundred urbanites in a poorly-ventilated room, eyes fixed upon a slightly-wobbling box sounds like a very odd piece of fringe theatre, perhaps something from a deliberately nonsensical Dada cabaret.
Somehow Escapology was an international sensation. Millions came to see Houdini and it made him an eternal celebrity. There were other Escapologists touring Europe and the Americas too, and up to a thousand Houdini imposters.
It can only be that Escapology — above other kinds of magical entertainment and more than other strings in Houdini’s bow — struck a chord in the collective consciousness. Houdini’s work, writes psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, “was essentially the devising of ever more unusual, exacting, and marketable tricks that would, in an unwitting way, exploit and expose the habits of the country”. Houdini’s escape act transcended mere spectacle and stepped into the world of metaphor: through a popular entertainment he “exposed the habits of the country” and so, in his way, was a satirist.
“It wasn’t really conjuring at all,” writes magic historian Jim Steinmeyer, “even if his novel act had been derived from the world of magicians. [...] The drama [...] was the sight of the little man challenged, playing David to society’s endless Goliaths, the archetypal victim who, within the strict confines of the vaudeville turn, rose to the victor.”
The 1900s, when Houdini was at the height of his popularity, provided many such Goliaths. It was a time of profound social and technological development. Edison's phonograph made a relatively cheap and portable commodity of music; Ransom Eli Olds began producing the first ever marketable cars; it was a time of colonial expansion under New Imperialism; nations of farmhands were coming to terms with the bureaucracy; and an unprecedented culture of manic go-getterism was sweeping the USA. It was the beginnings of what we currently know as the consumer economy.
The Average Joe couldn’t do much about this relentless progress, and so Houdini did so for her, symbolically, by picking the locks of handcuffs behind a screen, bursting out of wooden crates, and hanging upside down in a water-filled tank.
If it were possible to escape such physical shackles, would it not also be possible to escape the socially-constructed ones which bound millions of average people to lives of consumption and toil?
Houdini's performances were metaphors, pantomimes of the cultural escape fantasy. He represented emancipation: liberation from the traps being set by the new consumer economy. His skepticism and crusade against the Spiritualists meanwhile suggested that not every institution should be received at face value. And if magic could be held in the hands of a formerly poor Rabbi’s son maybe it could be held by anyone. Houdini, without an overt agenda, drew attention to the new predicament of industrialized nations.
Don’t say he didn’t. He bloody did. That’s my angle and I’m sticking with it.
Hop forward a hundred years to the turn of the twenty-first century. We’re still in the trap. It might even be stronger than ever before, and most people don’t even know there is a trap let alone that they’re in it.
The illusory freedom offered by consumerism is the bait. The workplace is the cage. Stress, debt, unfriendliness, cowardliness, isolationism, the putting of dreams on eternal standby are some of the effects of falling into it.
The consumer economy coupled with a political system approximating democracy has lead to untold liberties and opportunities but it’s also opened the window to new affronts to liberty.
As many as 80% of us are dissatisfied with our jobs. We reluctantly spend 87,000 hours at work before dying. We each spend 5,000 unpaid hours sitting in trains and buses and traffic jams, just to get to and from work.
Despite these sacrifices, most of us are in debt because we're so desperate to reclaim our dignity as consumers. In Canada — one of the most sensible and efficient industrialised nations of them all — the average citizen ended 2013 in with a non-mortgage debt of $28,853.
The consumer economy does not deny individuality (it thrives on it, as we’ll see later) and we all have secret inner lives and spiritually-rewarding side projects alongside our careers, but participating as workers and as consumers certainly demands a lot of our time and resources. It’s a honey trap.
Once you subtract work, shopping and sleep, there isn’t much left for freedom. This can’t have been what people had in mind when they set out to build a civilisation. Escaping this situation, as individuals and as societies, is the subject of this book.
We should apply Houdini’s metaphor to real life. The world needs Escapology. We need the skeleton keys, the patience, and the good humour to wriggle free from the manacles and to escape the jail cells. We need to know how to walk out of jobs we don’t like, out of the siren song of consumerism, out of debt, stress, bureaucracy, marketing, noise, and the government’s bizarre interest in our private lives. We need to know how to escape the mindsets that come with the consumer economy: miserliness, unhappiness, passive-aggression, mauvaise-foi, competitiveness, and submission.
Seeing the solution as Escapology leads us to think about it in a particular way: not only that any trap can be escaped, but it can also be done so with a kind of aplomb, a sense of fun, playfulness and challenge. Just as Houdini accepted a public challenge each time he performed and gradually picked the lock so that he might find freedom, we can do the same. I challenge you, dear reader, to find a way out of whatever handcuffs in which you find yourself restrained.
Shitty relationship? Escapology! Horrible job? Escapology! Ingrown toenails? Escapology! But also a chiropodist.
Why not become a modern day Escapologist? Study each trap carefully and with Houdini’s careful eye, and break free to much applause.