Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick by Peter Lamont

I owe a little something to Peter Lamont. For years I have been fascinated by the Victorians' tendency to portray Eastern cultures as being alien and mysterious, but I never thought to question why they did so. In this book, Lamont finally nails the reason. He has also necessitated this review, which incredibly is the first mention of British India in this blog! Salaam, sahib!

Lamont is a Scottish magician, and like the many magicians throughout history that he describes in The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, he has a particular penchant for spoiling other people's tricks, and for pointing out that if something seems too wonderful and fantastic to be true, then it probably is. In this fascinating volume, he deflates the famous myth which perhaps most typifies the mystic image of the East.

Everyone thinks they know the Indian Rope Trick. A fakir (or faker, if you prefer) causes a rope to rise into the air. A small boy climbs the rope, and disappears at the top. The fakir will often ascend the rope after him, and in more extravagant versions of the trick, will chop the boy into pieces that will be re-united at the end of the trick. It's generally accepted that, even if it's nothing but a legend, it's an age-old Indian legend. Explorers from antiquity such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta are often claimed to have reported seeing the trick during their travels, thus apparently cementing its timeworn status.

With admirable scholarship, Lamont proves that this is not the case. The trick, in fact, was mostly invented by a now-forgotten American journalist called Wilkie in a 1890 article for a Chicago newspaper. Because Wilkie included elements from the real life tricks of Indian fakirs and jugglers (such as those seen by Polo and Battuta), his Indian Rope Trick became quickly accepted as part of the canon. Thus Lamont skilfully shows how easily fiction and fact can become intertwined. Within decades, witnesses were claiming to have seen the trick during the mid 19th century, and academics produced 'evidence' showing that the trick had been around for centuries.

Lamont's most interesting point concerns the reason why the idea of the trick caught on, and why it proved so difficult to discredit. Essentially, his thesis is that the West created a 'mystic East' just at the point when it needed it most- the 19th century, when its own sense of mystery and superstition was being killed off by that new candle in the dark- science. It seems that mankind, on some unconscious level, needs the world to be a bizarre and inexplicable place, and if that isn't the case at home, than it must be so someplace Other. India in particular was portrayed as a land of murderous thuggee cults, rampaging juggernauts and gravity-defying yoga mystics. In short- a world where the ordinary rules don't apply. A natural home for a wonder such as the rope trick, eh memsahib?

For imperialists, this view also served as a handy justification for colonization- a useful reminder that natives of foreign lands were naive and superstitious, and therefore in need of direction from worldly Europeans who were of course above such things- or so they thought. For the Indian Rope Trick was conceived and perpetuated entirely in the West. In fact, no-one had even heard of it in India itself until the 1930's, after which it somehow became accepted as a part of Indian 'culture'.

The book is written in a very peculiar semi-humorous style. Several aspects of its construction seem to mess with the medium; such as when Lamont quotes a historian who wrote about the need to check primary sources- and then admits that the quotation, and the historian, are both fictional. With stunts such as these he reminds the reader of the strange relationship between print and belief.

Like David Standish, Lamont frequently appears to look down on his subjects, and humiliates them simply by quoting them at length and allowing them to 'hang' themselves. The book also concludes rather unexpectedly with a searing attack on tourism and wonder-seeking in modern India that is as witty as it is cringe-inducing. But despite such quirks, The Rise of The Indian Rope Trick comes highly recommended for anyone fascinated by 19th century magic, spiritualism, or the nature of belief.

By focusing on the Indian Rope Trick alone, Lamont describes our need for this 'mystic' India. Given the still-current fascination with Indian yoga and spiritualism, it seems this need is still very much with us.

(If you're interested, check out some videos of the rope trick here- which comes with the standard bogus history, and here for a more modern version.)

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