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Harry Houdini's Message from the Grave

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In a new biography of escape artist and magician Harry Houdini, (The Secret Life of Harry Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman) the authors have received a good deal of attention by claiming that Houdini, when not hanging from buildings in a straight jacket, was a spy for the British and American governments. There is also "new" evidence offered in the book that Houdini was murdered by a cabal of self-proclaimed spiritualists, angered over his attacks upon them as frauds and exploiters of the vulnerable survivors of lost loved ones.

The biographers needn't have bothered with the revisionist conjectures about his demise or his perfunctory passing of information about his travels to interested authorities. What made Houdini fascinating was something inherently compelling about the act of escape itself. Humans are adept at finding ways to confine ourselves only to fantasize about the potential rewards of freedom. Houdini, who preferred the description mystifier to magician, appealed to that basic compulsion. He would free himself from elaborate restraints of his own making, only to devise ever more complicated confinements as a follow-up.

Houdini understood long before post-modern philosophers, that you could understand the structure of society by examining why and how we restrain people. Houdini was locked in jail cells, constrained in straight jackets, and tied to "insane asylum" hospital beds so his audiences could experience the sadistic pleasure of watching him torture himself to get free. If escape-proof prisons provoke the illusion of a completely safe world, Houdini demonstrated that there would always be people more devious and skilled than the jailers.

It is interesting how much the idea of escape is part of the psychic map of our world. Travel agencies offer "escapes" to paradise, most often to places packed with other would-be escapees. Every year there are at least a few major movies that deal with this theme - The Great Escape, Escape From Alcatraz, Midnight Express, and this year's The Illusionist - are a few that come to mind. Our entertainment industry itself is commonly referred to as escapist.

The book reviewer in the Los Angeles Times observed that Houdini appealed to our "deepest dreams of escape." Haven't we all felt the occasional need to go off the map, away from the scrutiny of those who think they know us, released to experiment with submerged parts of our personality? But why is the need for escape such a deep impulse, so inextricably linked with the idea of rebirth? What are we escaping from or running towards?

The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who has written about Houdini, believes that what we desire is intimately connected to what we want to get away from. If life is a bore, there is also a wish for something more exciting hidden within the tedium. Houdini, Phillips writes, showed that "Men were indeed everywhere in chains...but they had created their chains, and they could lose them." The allegory, Phillips adds, is a drama about losing and then finding some room, "a man compulsively reinventing and reenacting his own confinement."

While Houdini apparently had no well defined political agenda, the idea of escaping from bondage is one of our most familiar political tropes. The Old Testament Exodus story has been the template for various "liberation" movements. Martin Luther King Jr's goal was to help all Americans visualize and then reach the Promised Land. Escape implies the ability to re-invent oneself and one's people, to experiment with new ways of negotiating power. Where political movements have gone astray is by not also recognizing what it is impossible to escape from. The costs of attempts to remake the human condition are dire.

In the ongoing conversations and debates about Iraq, it is curious how often terms associated with constraint come up. We are "trapped," "confined," "tied down," in Iraq, "unable to extricate ourselves," our pundits and political leaders tell us. Our best and brightest seem intellectually shackled. As the new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates confessed at his Senate confirmation hearing, "There are no new ideas." And like Houdini's stunts, this war was a trap of our own making. Similar to Houdini's audiences, we stare at the spectacle of war waiting for the magic to happen, for the squirming man to emerge from the box.

Houdini's life and career reminds us that we are all escape artists of one kind or another. Imagining potential elsewheres sustains us in our current somewhere. If the notion of escapism implies, as the analyst Phillips suggests, exploring what it is that we need to directly face, it would behoove us as a nation to reflect on part of Houdini's enigmatic message. Our paralysis in Iraq engenders fear - the fear of chaos we may leave behind and the potential damage to our national self image. But our "escape" from there also implies a choice, the potential to re-direct our energies and rebuild our democracy back home.