“Astonish Yourself!” by Roger-Pol Droit

I recently had a magical experience while getting a haircut. Allow me to explain. I was sitting in the chair, absently gazing at my reflection in the mirror in front of me, while my hairstylist clipped away. My eyes idly wandered from the reflection of my face to the reflection of my torso, wrapped in a black apron to prevent pesky hairs from clinging to my clothes, down to my legs, clad in black jeans, to my feet, wearing gray tennis shoes–

Wait a minute, I thought. I’m not wearing tennis shoes.

A weird sense of disconnection spread through my body as I sat staring at those shoes. They didn’t belong to me. Goosebumps rose on my arms. All this happened in a few seconds, perhaps four seconds at most. Then, suddenly, the spell was broken. And I couldn’t help smiling.

Directly opposite me, on the other side of the mirror, was another barber’s chair occupied by a person getting his hair cut. The mirror, positioned above a flat countertop, accurately reflected my upper body. But the mirror ended at waist level. Beneath the counter, perfectly aligned with my reflection, were the legs of the man sitting opposite me, clad in black jeans.

The illusion was perfect. I sat there admiring my half-me, half-not-me body with a grin on my face. Then I thought, What must my expression have looked like ten seconds ago? Luckily, my hairstylist had been too busy to notice.

I mention all this in order to illustrate the fact that one doesn’t necessarily need to beat a drum around the ritual fire to have a magical experience. And one needn’t consume mushrooms to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Every once in a while, as we go about our everyday lives, the world tosses a perceptual curve ball our way, jolting us out of the mundane, reminding us that we are human, that our senses are ambiguous, that reality is created in our minds. Such a reminder is a gift, an experience to be savored and appreciated, especially for a magician.

Which brings me to this book. Roger-Pol Droit, the author of Astonish Yourself!, is a philosopher at the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Noting that philosophical insights generally begin with an expanded awareness of ourselves and the world around us, Monsieur Droit provides us with 101 little thought-experiments, each meant to bring about a moment of shifted perspective or mysterious insight. They are bit like those visual puzzles in which one can see either an old woman or a young lady—never both at the same time. But the experiments in Astonish Yourself! are more than simple optical illusions. They are active exercises in creative imagination, and they seem to point toward deeper levels of consciousness, to the region where we construct our sense of self and our place in the world. As heavy as that may sound, the author takes a surprisingly lighthearted approach to this endeavor. “This book is an entertainment,” explains Droit in his introduction. “It attempts to indicate essential matters with the lightest of touches.” And it succeeds. The text is playful, irreverent, and often quite funny (although the translation from French is a tad clunky at times).

The format of the book may be curiously familiar to magicians. Each experiment begins with a list of the necessary props, the time it will take to perform the experiment, and its potential effect. But here’s where the reader goes through the looking glass (I’ve edited this down to convey the gist of it):

Experiment 1: Call yourself
Duration: about 20 minutes
Props: a silent place
Effect: doubling

Sit down in the middle of a quiet room. Now utter your first name out loud. Articulate distinctly, and then repeat it, insistently. Imagine you are calling someone you know, but who cannot see you. To begin with, for the first fifteen or twenty minutes, you feel as though you are simply calling into empty space. Calling someone who isn’t there—or is inaccessible—in an absurd and ridiculous way. Little by little, you get the feeling of being called. Confusedly at first, almost imperceptibly. Go on, keep calling yourself a few dozen more times. It’s your voice all right. But it’s also that other’s, over there.

The next experiment involves a similar procedure, but with a different effect:

Experiment 2: Empty a word of its meaning
Duration: about 2 to 3 minutes
Props: whatever lies at hand
Effect: desymbolizing

This can take place anywhere, and at any time. Simply make sure, once again, that no one can hear you. Best to avoid the fear of being ridiculed while you’re doing it. Take what comes to hand, the most ordinary object—a pen, a watch, a glass. Whatever. Just let it be ordinary. Its name is known, its presence familiar. You have always called this object by the same word. Repeat its name, in a low voice, as you look at it. Stare at the watch in your hand and repeat: “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch,” “watch.” It shouldn’t take long. In a few seconds, the familiar word detaches itself and hardens. You find yourself repeating a series of strange sounds. A series of absurd and meaningless noises that denote nothing, indicate nothing.

The big task here, as the author rightly points out, is to get past the absurdity of the process, the fear of ridicule. (Talking to myself? What will the neighbors say?) But when one fully commits to the experiment, playing it out in the spirit of adventure and make-believe, the results can be surprising, amusing, illuminating—yes, even astonishing. And if a particular experiment doesn’t produce an appreciable result, there are 100 more to try.

I should point out that not all of the experiments are meant to elicit a pleasurable experience. Some of them are jarring, eerie, disturbing. I suspect that Experiment 20 will be particularly difficult for many Americans. Some may find Experiments 18 and 35 especially unpleasant. Experiment 41 is definitely reckless, and not something I would recommend doing. And Experiment 26 might get you arrested if you aren’t careful.

All 101 experiments are worthy of thought and contemplation, even if we choose not to attempt them. But why not try at least a few? What have we got to lose? Many of the experiments strike me as being of genuine practical benefit to artists of all kinds: actors, authors, painters, filmmakers. And I’m convinced that several of these experiments should be daily exercises for magicians, like morning calisthenics. Imagine what would happen if we all began our days with toast, orange juice, and a refreshing round of Experiment 95: “Practice make-believe everywhere.”

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