Thursday, March 1, 2012

Endless Coincidence

   The Magician's Magician


          Back in the early seventies, not long before  Ricky  Jay would   write  his break-out book about "Cards as Weapons " ,  he was  one of my students in a Cornell freshman course  called "Writing from Experience".    He had already experienced  freshman life  at a few other colleges,  and  would spend only slightly longer at  Cornell than Houdini spent  chained  in a  coffin at the bottom of New York Harbor.... but before slipping out,  Richard Jay did submit one piece of writing:  the monologue of a  freak-show barker who pulls us  in,   only to  violate our willing suspension of sympathy, by making  it perfectly clear  that   WE the drooling  gapers   are the true  Freaks...  fascinated  by the projections of of our own misshapen souls.     It wouldn't have gone over well at the Freak Show, but the truth  is beautiful enough, so  I read it to the class.     
           Ricky Jay moved on to tending bar and throwing cards  at the Royal Palm bar in Collegetown,   learned  writing and magic from books and mirrors ;  later published, not only    "Cards as Weapons",  but also scholarly articles and coffee- table books  on magicians, freaks and prodigies,   He appeared occasionally as a writer  and a subject in the New Yorker.  He played  a  card-shark and other under-world devils in the movies.  and advised the movie industry itself about the business of illusion,  through his consulting business, "Deceptive Practices". 
  In fact,  Ricky Jay must be the best known magician after  Harry Potter,  and one of the best card handlers ever ........ but his own role model , the magician's magician, and  the ultimate Expert at the card table, seems to be the great and mysterious  S. W. Erdnase.  
         Or rather, the man who, under that name, wrote the classic book on card handling , which is  generally published as "The Expert at the Card table," although the original title was "Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table  a  Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Cards......  "  Erdnase enthusiasts in the online magic forums refer to it simply as "The Expert " or   "Erdnase",   as if the book were the man. 


  Whoever S.W. Erdnase really  was,   he had a great  cloak of invisibility.  More than a hundred years since the publication of the book ,   magicians have not been able to agree  on just who wrote  it.   That question would be less important if the book itself  were not an extraordinary piece of literature.   
                        The title page is a full spread and leaves absolutely no doubt what it is about.

 The preface of the book takes up where the title left off and  then spills generously into an introduction:  all so sage, wry, and humorous  that some Erdnasians have convinced themselves that the man was actually Mark Twain  .....  even though  everybody knows , or else should know,  that Mark Twain was actually Sam Clemens;  and Clemens himself was  half  Huck Finn,  and  half Tom Sawyer:   
  "We betray no confidences in publishing this book, having only ourselves to  thank for what we know. Our tuition was received in the cold school of experience. We started in with the trusting nature of a fledgling, and a calm assurance born of overweening faith in our own potency. We bucked the tiger voluntarily, and censure no one for the inevitable result.  A self-satisfied unlicked cub with a fairly fat bank roll was too good a thing to be passed up. We naturally began to imbibe wisdom in copious draughts at the customary sucker rates, but the jars to our pocketbook caused far less anguish than the heartrending jolts to our insufferable conceit.  After the awakening our education progressed through close application and constant study of the game, and the sum of our present knowledge is proffered in this volume, for any purpose it may answer, to friend and foe, to the wise and the foolish, to the good and the bad, to all alike, with but one reservation,--that he has the price".


                                            The Detective

     The author can be found right there in his book, unless the book  is artless.   "All art is autobiography",   wrote the Erdnase investigator,  David Alexander,  suggesting that he could cut a decent profile of the Erdnase author from the evidence of the book.      Alexander had actually worked for years as a private investigator, part of the time contracted to the   Los Angeles
police department, plus he had many years of experience as a stage  pickpocket,  a card and coin handler, free-hand silhouette cutter , curator,  editor, and writer.  Alexander was  the official biographer of the Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  And he published (under his own name)   a little  book on the art of picking pockets..... not available outside the brotherhood of magicians.     As a volunteer enforcer of professional ethics, he  had spent many years tracking and exposing  various  frauds who  used tricks of the profession to defraud  widows and others willing to suspend disbelief and pay money for messages from the dead.    Stage magic is a work of fiction, and lies are the worst enemy of fiction.    So  a fully qualified and motivated inside expert was on the Erdnase case.

         Others had already observed that Erdnase is  not a real name at all........ but  that S.W. Erdnase spelled  backwards,  is E. S. Andrews.
                  As a matter of fact, an E.S. Andrews did exist in the general area and time in which the Erdnase book was published;  and this person was known to gamble.
                   Many Erdnase seekers have needed to look no further.
                Martin Gardner, the long time Scientific American  puzzle-master,  who wrote the introduction to a modern edition of The Expert and co-authored a book with two others on Erdnase,  argued that Erdnase was Milton Franklin Andrews: a small-time gambler   and card-shark  who  had dropped out of school ,  lived with his mother, and at the age of thirty- three,  having been run to ground due to his crooked  dealings,  shot himself .   
     But Alexander insisted, and it is easy to agree,  that a destitute, small time gambler under the age of thirty could NOT have written lines like  this:
 "The vagaries of luck or chance have improved the professional card player with a certain knowledge that his more respected brother of the stock exchange possesses, viz.--manipulation is more profitable than speculation; so to make both ends meet, and incidentally a good living, he also performs his part with the shears when the lambs come to market."

                Before David and Richard Kyle, who assisted him , had begun any serious investigations, others had observed that the the name S.W. Erdnase can also be read as an anagram of W. E. Sanders.  David began investigating a  W. E. Sanders who was a copper miner on several levels, the son of a Montana   Senator, and in the right places at the right time.   He had  studied German, Greek  and Shakespeare in the East, on his way to becoming a mining engineer, mine owner, and oil explorer,  caereering for many years  through the mountain West from Chicago to California.
         Notice, as did Alexander, that in the German language, which  likes to join words end to end,   Erdnase  means  "Earth Nose".   
         Read Sanders diaries and you will note one entry that lists the items he has packed for an up-coming trip, including five packs of cards.   
           In nineteen ninety-one  Alexander published an article  on the Sanders/Erdnase connection in the magicians journal Genii, titled:
 " The Magician as Detective
     New light on Erdnase "  . 
         He also presented his conclusions  at a magicians convention in Los Angeles,  profiling a man clever enough to have deliberately made the fake backward spelling shift to lead attention away from the anagram.   Ricky Jay, who himself has said that he   doesn't like to   offer himself around   among clustering magicians....  happened to be there anyway,   came up to David after the talk,  and complemented him on the presentation. 
     But David hadn't convinced all of those  who were partial to an  explanation involving  one of the  Andrews suspects,  Just wanted it to be Mark Twain, or  preferred the ongoing mystery.

            David Alexander continued his Erdnase research,  performing as a magician, and putting together a fine collection of works by mostly twentieth century silhouette cutting by his mentor and others.  
      In 2007 he and his wife Cassidy moved to Aurora Illinois,  where a friend had recruited him to help reorganize and "fix" a new hands-on science museum.    Cassidy is a professional portrait artist, who, as a volunteer, working on short notice , started doing  portraits  of slain  Chicago police officers.   Portraits with an illusion of three dimensions ,  blood in the cheeks, and light in the eyes.  She could do great wanted posters.  
     But no sooner was the science museum on a new track, than the Great Recession  hit,  funding was cut....and of course the museum was running and didn't need to be set up anymore anyway.... so David was   freed to pursue Erdnase.

                          The Vagaries of Luck

           David Alexander, whom I never actually met,   graduated from  the same high school in the same year as Kristal Forest,  to whom I was once married. 
   Looking at his high school memorial page he noticed that Kristal  was listed as deceased or missing, so he went to Google and  soon came up with my blog post regarding her, which you might read some day :
    A few years ago, Kristal disappeared out in Arizona, and was presumed to have been murdered. 
But he didn't write to me as Detective/ magician,  about the mystery of her vanishing.  We were already  fairly sure her murderer was in jail already, for other crimes.   It was as writer to writer, he wrote.   He recognized the difficulty of the subject, and said that he had shared  my blog posts with a few friends students as a model of good writing.  
                 If I wanted to ease up close to a writer and pick his pocket, I might say things like that.   I trusted him anyway,
       That began an exchange of emails  about  family secrets, Manachian  characters, borderline personalities,  writing, and magic. 
      His  emails to me sometimes ended only  because Cassidy had dinner ready.

          December 2010 came and    I hadn't heard from David in a month or more,  so I went to his Facebook page. 
      His magician friends had been posting there,  giving bits of information.   
         One day David  and Cassidy had driven to a rental property they owned, where the tenant had reported  a leak in the ceiling,  David  went  up to the attic to investigate, and he didn't come down. 
      An uninsulated water pipe in the cold attic had burst and wet the wiring, which was apparently also poorly insulated,  causing death by electrocution, though it took six weeks to be recognized as  the official cause of death.
 A meaningless dead end, but hard to get out of my mind......especially since I am actually a  roofer,  If   I had been a REAL life  friend and lived in Aurora,  Illinois  instead of Aurora, New York....I could have been the man in the attic. 
           Dead-end thinking, and  that will be the end of it,   but when you die,  you begin to reappear in stories, and after David died he continued to be cited in the Genii Erdnase forum.  David had discovered that Sanders onced served as librarian of the Montana Historical society, where he was in charge of arranging the Society publications.  It was that fact especially which motivated Marty Demerest and others to extend David's investigations.
       Eventually, Genii magazine published an article by Marty Demerest with  more details about Sanders and an endorsement of Sanders as the Erdnase candidate.         

W.E. Sanders died in 1935 out in Berkley California,  where he was last involved in oil exploration.
   Here's a picture of him as a young man in Montana, sitting on seems to be a buffalo robe thrown over a shipping trunk.. What are those white dots all over is suit? Is that beard for real?  What arcane symbol is on his tie?  Somebody should write a book about that Wag.

      Occan's Razor

         So how could David Alexander  solve the Erdnase mystery a few years ahead of the Scientific American puzzle master and  way ahead of so many other people who had given a lot of thought to the question?

      David Alexander  claimed that he always used   " Occam's razor "  in his investigation.
       Occams razor, as you learned long ago, and I  learned recently, is the basis of the scientific method.     A common summation of William from Ockam's alleged rule, is  that the simplest explanation of anything is generally the right one.    But the text by William of Ockam can be disappointing, because it  mentions no  razor,   and William didn't have just one simple, clean-cutting rule.    As Alexander points out,    when you proceed from a working assumption,  but   encounter anomolies,   you might need a more complex explanation.         
         Seek endless coincidence, says Alexander.  That's  a good and simple rule;  it stands by itself.   
     Those are just the rules of common sense and open mindedness, but everyone says and agrees that  common sense and open mindedness are rare.   It takes a strong minded person like you, me, or David Alexander,  one who is  "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason"  ............. as   John Keats said. 
      He called that high tolerance for ambiguity " Negative Capability".      
       But Keats himself pointed out in the same sentence, that when this particular genius is followed closely,   beauty overcomes all other considerations:   "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" said Keats, or at least his Grecian Urn did.....and  anyway  T.S. Eliot  dismissed the line  as a crock of un-poetry,  empty of meaning.          And you wouldn't think it   a particularly useful working basis for  science or police procedure. 

     And then you might need to think again.
      It is a  really cool and convenient coincidence that Martin Gardner   ( the math puzzler and Erdnase expert we spoke of, who coauthored the book we have not read, that  proposed one of the  Andrews candidates as the true wizard of Erdnase)  wrote an article in the Scientific American, with the title "Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty?"
      In fact, that very question was a long running theme of Gardner's career at the Scientific American.    The idea would seem to violate the traditional separation of Art and Science, but  we learn from Gardener and from the book he reviews that in modern science, as in the  complex simplicity and invisible symmetry of nature, beauty IS truth.
  All is endless fractal coincidence;   the parts continually resemble the whole, as the atom resembles the solar system.  O.M.G ! 
       That Beauty is Truth is good to know, even if the meaning keeps clouding into ambiguity, and even  if it is not necessarily ALL you need to know for life here below. 


The Real Alexander

      Who was the real David Alexander?  How should I know?  How should I  who never met him,  know what to make of the fact that his name happens to be a reverse, trans-gender shift of  the name of Alexandra David, who     wrote and published under her married name, Alexandra David Neel, one of my favorite books -- "Magic and Mystery in Tibet " in which she witnesses Yogis who can melt   blocks of ice by sitting on them, and other marvels?  Which makes me wonder who was David Alexander that he he could sit on the couch with  his friend for half an hour,   talking of this and that.... and then suddenly pull a five pound block of ice from under his hat?  And how did he manage, at will,  to pull a bird cage out of his pants?  Was there a bird in it?  Was it alive?
 Why a bird cage of all things? Why did he do magic anyway?
         Well, who wouldn't, except that they couldn't?
         Given a mentor or two, some professional secrets, a lot of practice and  fake confidence, even a shy boy like me might be able to  get a  traveling magician gig and use it as a    cover for  free range secret agent work in ports around the world, making new friends squeal with delight , and making fools of  spies, impostors,  hecklers, and common pests,  all by means of subterfuge, ruse, and  to steal the shirt off a man's back,  to  profile  a  suspect with  just scissors and paper,    to communicate across time and space,  and to confront massive ambiguity, without taking it too seriously.



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