Todd Landman Academic Magician
May 19, 2024Todd Landman

The Precarious Status of Truth

At this year's Doomsday 13 bizarre magic convention in Derby, I had the pleasure of performing selections from my new show Truth.

'Vanity of vanities,' sayeth the preacher. 'Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.'

Ecclesiastes, 1:2

My starting point was to consider three fundamental truths from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

  • Time is inevitable and cannot be stopped.
  • There is no way to avoid the power of chance.
  • It is not possible to cheat death, as at some point, we all return to dust.

We explored the ideas of time, chance, and death through reading selected passages from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Each truth was interrogated through magical deception. We stopped time, if only momentarily. We cast a handful of dice. We considered the idea of the 'memento mori.'

We lingered on our consideration of death, drawing inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet. In Act V, Scene I, Hamlet comes across the gravediggers. He picks up a skull and says, 'Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.' The ensuing dialogue involves the revelation that Yorick, a court jester, Alexander the Great, and Emperor Caesar himself, despite their many differences, all return to the dust. Cheating death, is nothing more than trying to catch smoke through your fingers. These ruminations relate back to Hamlet's soliloquy, 'To be, or not to be. That is the question.'

With these three truths as our foundation, I mused that truth statements are quite common. The American Declaration of Independence contains the phrase, 'We hold these truths to be self evident.' When a defendant or witness testifies at trial, he or she promises to 'Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.' But in our 'post-truth' era, we now learn that some people are quite happy to adhere to 'alternative facts.'

Our exploration continued with the famous line from American writer and humourist, Mark Twain:

'Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.'

Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World

I see much power in this statement through the incredible Netflix series Hannibal, where fact collides with fiction. Hannibal Lecter and Special Agent Will Graham engage in a series of psychological tests, drawn from the 1920 book by Henry Head Aphasia and Kindred Orders of Speech. With a trusty volunteer, we replicated several of these tests:

  • The object test
  • The colour test
  • The cat, man, dog test
  • The hand, eye, ear test
  • The clock drawing test

Like Special Agent Will Graham, our brave volunteer was surprised by the result of the clock drawing test!

But perhaps Twain can be reversed. Perhaps fiction has an uncanny ability to anticipate the future. Our attention thus turned to three novels from the dark 20th Century:

  • Aldus Huxley's Brave New World, published in 1932, just seven years before Germany invaded Poland
  • George Orwell's 1984, published in 1949 after World War II, but a novel that anticipated the totalitarianism of the Cold War
  • Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, published in 1985, which anticipates state control of women's reproductive rights

Our audience learned about the elimination of freedom foreseen in these novels, but were given free choice of the books, free choice of book marks, and free choice of years from the 20th Century. Despite this exercise in free choice, there was an uncanny matching of books, bookmarks, and years.

Our final excursion into the world of truth explored the unknown by true connection between the inhabitants of Nottingham and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on 14 April 1865. We travelled in our minds back to the 19th Century, imagined possible connections, and then crowdsourced a month, a year, and a person. The minds of our audience inexplicably revealed the correct date and person of the assassination, which itself formed part of a Nottingham Resolution made on 1 May 1865 at the city's Exchange Hall.

Our young Lincoln was courageous during the imminent threat of his own assassination, while we gave thanks to the inhabitants of Nottingham.

The status of truth today is under threat. My own performance combined fact and fiction with a sprinkling of deception. But through deception, perhaps we revealed a new way of thinking about truth. I can only hope that the audience contemplated the precarious status of truth with me, and through my magic, paused for but a moment to think about what is true in their world.

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