Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Dandy Article on Randi

I have hung about the fringes of stage magic long enough to be fascinated by today’s New York Times feature by Adam Higginbotham on the Amazing Randi.

Born James Randall Zwinge the now-86-year-old “Randi” started out as a mentalist (reading minds, foretelling the future), then became an escape artist (in imitation of Houdini). But at midlife he found his true calling as a debunker of the paranormal. The spoon-bending Israeli “psychic” Uri Geller provided Randi with a perfect straw dog, and for the last forty years of a long career, Randi has been exposing anyone like Geller who claims to have exceptional psychic powers.

The double-edged title of Higginbotham’s article suggests that Randi himself may have some bunk in him: “The Unbelievable Skepticism of the Amazing Randi."

In a long, fascinating survey of Randi’s career, we are eventually introduced to his performing partner and personal secretary, who proves to be an illegal Venezuelan immigrant with a fake identity. Randi brought the man home with him after chatting him up in a library (Randi in his 60s, the Venezuelan in his 20s). Randi used the Venezuelan to help scam scammers, and most recently Randi married him, though if anyone is using the other now that Randi nears death, the article doesn’t say.

Randi refuses to divulge when he learned that his spouse was not who he said he was. Had Randi been pulling off an enormous con for years, aware of his partner’s false identity? Or had he himself been conned?

Whatever his degree of gullibility or culpability, what struck me most about the article was the short shrift Higginbotham and Randi give to religion. Professionally Randi spent all his bile on sketchy spoon-benders, psychics, and other New Age phonies—unleashing his fury on performers like himself.

Asked about religion by Higginbotham, he is coldly dismissive.

“Religion,” Randi says, “is a very damaging philosophy, because it's a retreat from reality.” Asked why other people need religion, Randi answers, “They need it because they are weak. And they fall for authority. They choose to believe it because it’s easy.”

The end of Higginbotham’s article deepens the mystery of Randi. (Please note that while Randi believes he has religious people like me all figured out, I don’t have Randi figured out at all.) Higginbotham describes Randi, very sick, possibly dying, and experiencing intense disorientation. Is this experience a hallucination? A near-death experience?

You’ll have to read the article to find out, and even then you may not know. Ask Randi, and I’ll bet he says he knows.

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