Hermes Beckons: Play Is the Great Secret of Illusion
Chapter 18
© 2006 John Caris

Standing in front of the mirror, Ralph stared at his shadow image. His right hand reached out and touched the glass. Pushing against it, he thought about constructing a penetrating-the-glass routine that would allow him to step into the mirror world. What is such a world like, he wondered? He had not resolved the secret behind big fly and its ability to enter the looking-glass reality, so the mystery continued to act as an irritant, stimulating him to ponder surreal thoughts. Several walking-through-mirror illusions were on the market, but they were simple penetration effects. He wanted something more wondrous: the mirror as a portal to extraordinary reality. By stepping through, he would take the audience with him on a magical journey into an enchanted realm and reveal unbelievable and inexplicable marvels.

Turning, he ambled over to the section on stage illusion in his library. Selecting Jim Steinmeyer’s Two Lectures on Theatrical Illusion, a book on the use of mirrors, he sat in his rocking chair, nestled in its niche between bookshelves, and searched the book for ideas. He discovered many thought-provoking concepts concerning not only vanishing and producing items but also making a substantial object appear ghostly.

His imagination surged with the rhythmic gliding of the chair. First, he would begin by observing images in a mirror. Used to watching himself practice routines, he would now place objects in front of the mirror, a still life portrait, and carefully scrutinize their reflection. By moving from side to side, he could discern differences that position and viewpoint made and so learn more about illusion by experiencing the perceptions and images shifting in the mirror. An illusion occurred when one did not see things as they were because the mind distorted reality. A link existed between illusion and the way the mind perceived.

Getting up, he went into the living room where the thirteen volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary was stored. He took volume V off the shelf and checked the etymology of illusion. The word derived from the verb, now rarely used, illude, which meant “to make sport of, jest or mock at, ridicule,” and occasionally “to trick.” He considered the first two meanings for illusion: 1) “the action of illuding, the condition of being illuded”; 2) “the action . . . of deceiving the bodily eye by false or unreal appearances, or the mental eye by false prospects, statements.” The verb illude was derived from the Latin word ludere, meaning to play.

Closing the volume and replacing it, he walked back into his studio and over to the mirror. Play—that was the key to the great secret of illusion. He remembered reading some author, whose name he had forgotten, positing that humans were not Homo sapiens, the wise creatures, but actually Homo ludens, the playful animals. Plato’s definition came to mind: humans are featherless bipeds. He chuckled at the ancient philosopher’s sense of irony. Sometimes he wished he could fly with the feathered bipeds.

The challenge, a playful one, was to devise a routine whereby he walked through the mirror into its world. He wondered if Lewis Carroll held the answer. His character Alice had no trouble entering the looking-glass universe. Then he thought of Carroll’s strange poem “Jabberwocky.” How did it begin? Aha, yes.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

This was the poem that Alice read after she had stepped through the looking-glass. It was printed as a mirror image; Alice held it up to the looking-glass so that she could read it. She did not understand it, but thought it pretty. “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

He placed a utility table in front of the mirror and then selected some props for a tableau. He moved pieces around the tabletop, noticing the visual pattern being created. The fleetingness of the figures caught his attention. He paused, thinking. In certain meditative traditions, Buddhism for example, a mirror is a metaphor for the mind. Our perceptions, sensations, feelings, and thoughts are constantly passing through and being influenced by our personality. Fixing on these features of the mindscape and attaching them to our self-identity seems to be instinctive. He made an imaginative leap: understanding illusion would assist in his study of the hermetic art and its application to his spiritual transformation.

Many times what we accept as reality is only an illusion, yet a paradox appears here: an illusion exists and so is a part of reality. An illusion really is, and here is the playing. Often, humans cherish an illusion because it conforms to their desires and belief system and so a part of their self-image. They take it seriously and reject the ironic laughter coming from within.

A flash of light at the edge of the mirror caught his attention. The brightness moved quickly across the glass. Startled, he glanced about the studio. What had caused that strange brilliance? Everything appeared normal and in its place. There it was again, but starting from the opposite side. He walked slowly around the room, searching, even looking behind the curtains, which protruded three inches from the wall. Could he be hallucinating? Aha, the mind as mirror, a surface for fleeting images—his imagination was offering evidence for the notion. The trickster aspect of his personality was playing with the serious philosophical part. His perception of the light was real even though he could not identify its source.

Since a mirror never reflects 100% of the light entering it, some light is lost; it becomes invisible and is prevented from escaping. What does it do in the mirror world? Light is energy, so what happens to that energy? Do mirror people capture and use that light-energy for their own purposes? Extraordinary thoughts cruised through his fertile imagination.

An essential magical theme was vanishing and producing. He thought of many props that were constructed to achieve these effects. Placing a silk handkerchief in an empty glass and then causing it to vanish was one of his favorites.

Walking over to a storage cabinet, he retrieved a hand mirror. The memory of the routine pleased him. An assistant from the audience stared into the mirror, seeing only her own image. Suddenly, the image became that of the card she had selected and signed.

What if this prop were utilized in a setting that exuded mystical power? An idea flooded his mind, and he laughed: spirit writing appeared instead of a card. No, the mirror as portal was the theme to concentrate on. Unless, of course, the writing was a clue for revealing a hidden treasure. In ancient times a mirror, bowl of water, or, for that matter, any reflective surface could be used for peering into the spirit realm. The crystal ball, the gypsy’s emblem, was an exemplar. His floating globe routine—could that be used to divine? Perhaps, it could perform the role of a spirit helper, as a bridge between the worlds. Of course, the play, the drama that occurs in all three worlds—the shamanic view was rooted in cosmic principles. The middle world is a blending of the upper and lower worlds. A reflection of both, but more. He stood between the two, pulled both ways. As above, so below. The transformation of the grain of sand that was his existence. Hermes, the psychophant, was his guide on this quest for gnosis.

Putting the hand mirror back, he paced about the studio, his mind wandering. Objects seemed to manifest and then become unmanifested. Light was the principal performer in this enchanted happening. The light-in-the-darkness idea had become a symbol both for the alchemy show and for his personal transformation. It exemplified the magical and spiritual realms. Out of the darkness comes the light, blazing for a few moments, and then returns. What is its source? Does it continue to exist? Philosophical idealism states the ancient paradox clearly: does a tree falling in the forest produce a sound if no one is there to hear it? If I can no longer see the light, does it cease to exist or only leave my visual world?

A phone rang. Walking over to the desk, he realized that it was not that phone, but the cell phone that Harold A. Magian had given him. Glancing about, he noticed it on a bookshelf. Picking it up, he muttered, “Hello.”

“Sorry, I’m busy at the moment, but I’ll be there soon.”

“Harold, what’s this about?”

“I’m answering your call for assistance.”

“I didn’t phone you.” “The philosophical question you posed—I heard the tone of your voice, the

wonderment and mystery there.”

“You heard my voice?”

“Be there soon. I’ve a routine you’ll like.”

Ralph felt uncertain and a little fearful. Was this madness—hearing voices. Aha, the playfulness of his mind was teaching him about illusion and reality. He felt better now that he had recognized his desire to enter the looking-glass world and to perform real magic. So what should he expect, if not these weird occurrences? He would accept the strangeness and act his role on the stage of existence.

“Let the drama begin.” Harold A. Magian stepped from behind the curtains. He stretched out his hand for a greeting, and this time Ralph shook it firmly.

Ralph’s excitement was palpable. “What do you have?”

From his pocket Harold pulled a small leather pouch with a leather drawstring. Inexplicably, Ralph was reminded of his basket necklace, which he gently touched.

“This is a power bag. I’ll show you what’s in it.” Harold opened it and retrieved a tiny, wooden, human-like figure an inch high. Holding the doll in his right hand, he cupped his left hand over it.

“Watch carefully.” He quickly unveiled the wooden figure. Ralph stared in surprise. The doll had doubled in height and was standing upright in Harold’s right hand. The human-like figure became animated and pranced around Harold’s palm, performing, to Ralph’s eyes, a strange dance.

“I’ve heard about such things, but have never seen one.”

“Amazing, isn’t it? Where did you come across this enchanted human?”

“My readings in American Indian culture. Among the Anishinaabe and Neshnabek peoples, mide shamans often competed with each other through their dolls, making them move about, jump, and dance, perhaps at one of their Midewiwin meetings.” After Rafé had told him about the Midewiwin, he had gone to SF State’s library and borrowed several books about the spiritual ceremony. The information gave him a profound sense of awe concerning the mysteries of life.

“Ah, yes, their Grand Medicine Society. They perform many feats of power. Quite the masters of the spirit world. I’ve learned much from them. Here, I’ll demonstrate.” Harold took the doll and placed it on the table in front of the mirror. The homunculus danced gracefully on the tabletop, hearing its own drumbeat. Ralph glanced at the mirror and noticed the fleeting form gyrate through the looking-glass world.

“How did you do it?” Ralph’s face showed wonderment.

“You observed me, so think through the routine as if you were going to perform your version. In fact, make a leather pouch and wooden doll and then devise a method to animate the homunculus. Choreograph its movements. You do the floating globe, so I’m sure you can improvise with a dancing doll.”

“I’m inspired. That gives me an idea for the alchemical light show.”

Harold put the leather pouch on the table, and the doll walked into it. Closing the bag, he placed it in his pocket. “I knew the routine would knock you over. I’ve another engagement I must attend to. Give me a call, anytime.” He strolled through the curtains into the unmanifested realm.

Ralph stood silently gazing at the curtains. They were an icon of the veil that hid the spiritual realm, and the mirror in between the curtains, was it a portal? Smiling inwardly, he was pleased that Harold had been reflected in the glass as had the homunculus. Harold’s physicality and ability to transcend ordinary reality were unnerving, yet the demonstrated feasibility, challenging his rigid and conventional mindset, was an epiphany, a joyous liberation. Of course, he could be mad, having an ongoing hallucinatory experience. Lucid dreaming was an analogy. By recognizing and accepting the strangeness of these extraordinary happenings, he could maintain a balance that would allow him to pivot between the two realms.

He wandered over to the colorful posters illustrating magic’s great masters. Examining the images, he had a sudden thought—that of the magic mirror. Hurrying over to the bookshelves, he searched the occult section. One of the books contained directions for making a real magic mirror. Which one? He selected The Principles of Real Magic and leafed through it. He wished these old books had indexes. Slowly, thoughtfully walking to the rocking chair, he paused and then went to the computer. Searching through the files under occult, he found one titled “Magic Mirror,” which he opened. There at the beginning of his notes on the topic was the source: Cornelius Agrippa’s Occult Philosophy or Magic.

Ambling to the rocking chair with Agrippa’s treatise and sitting down, he began reading, gliding back and forth. The text contained puzzling anomalies: the light and darkness are not separate entities, but each is the other. Now what exactly did that concept imply? It sounded like an idea Merle Leong would say. Was it a question of physical or spiritual light or both? Our perceptions could easily become clouded and opaque. Since the magic mirror was an opening between the ordinary and unmanifested realms, it must be able to reflect light from either. Thus, the hidden world actually contained light, which was veiled from us, and the magic mirror pulled back that screen. It was like the person who, when released from bondage, left the cave of ignorance and experienced a different light, one that was more spiritual.

Yes, as Plato argued, we humans live inside a cave of our own construction, and we prevent ourselves from leaving by terrorist tactics: guilt, shame, and fear. In the light of the outer world our phantasms and nightmares evaporate, and the fearsome monsters that hide in the shadows vanish. Many years ago his philosophic curiosity focused on the mind and its activities, and with an increased understanding he could easily draw links between Plato’s image and the physiological and mental processes of the brain. We humans were imprisoned inside our heads, and very few of us could leave, even for short periods of time, until our death released us. We were induced, better yet misdirected, into affirming our sensory experiences as the complete reality. Advanced thinkers, however, have shown that our senses are not always accurate and they often misguide us. The gnosis of highly evolved spiritual traditions emphasize the ephemeral and fleeting nature of perception and mental states.

Arising, he went over to the computer and read the notes he had previously recorded in the Magic Mirror file. His thoughts were coalescing, and he realized that making the mirror was analogous to constructing equipment for the alchemy show. He made a list of the required materials: a piece of concave glass somewhere between 6 x 8 to 8 x 10 inches, a fresh can of flat black paint, a new paint brush, a box to hold the mirror, and a half yard of cloth to wrap the mirror in. Then he wrote an outline of the production stages.

Sitting back in the chair, he felt happy and relaxed. In the morning he would shop for the materials and begin construction. The veil was becoming diaphanous.

He became aware of her presence before he heard her voice call, “Ralph, dear.” Shasta stepped into the studio, her demeanor suggesting let’s-get-busy-we’ve-got-things-to-do. Then he remembered that at breakfast they had decided to put up the decorations for the winter solstice celebration.

Both the solstices are honored in many cultures and have been so for thousands of years. Before Jesus’ birth the ancient Romans had their festival honoring Saturn, called Saturnalia, at this time of the year. It was a celebration of renewal with religious activities followed by feasting and much merrymaking. To assist in the rebirth of the sun, the populace mocked the old and praised the new. The Roman god Saturn oversaw the fields and vineyards—the deity of agriculture. His beneficence bestowed prosperity and abundance. His festival started on December 17 and lasted for seven days, thus covering the point of solstice. The period of daylight would lengthen as the darkness and cold of winter receded.

The Garlands observed the season in their own way. They put up and decorated a small artificial tree—a harkening back to the ancient rite of honoring the tree of life, perhaps its practice beginning in the Neolithic era. They cut a few branches from their holly tree, the sharp-pointed, glossy green leaves enhanced by the red berries. Shasta used them for the place-setting on the dining room table and in the living room. The ornaments decorating the tree were a mixture of old and new—things from their childhood or collected over the years or recently purchased. Shasta’s mother had made several of them, and these she especially treasured.

The winter storm, which was the third in as many weeks, had blustered onto the land in the late afternoon, bringing gale winds and heavy rains. In the Greater San Francisco Bay Area the soil had become drenched, and as a result flooding and mud slides were occurring.

Untroubled by rain and wind battering against their house, the Garlands sat snuggly in the living room, warmed by a blazing fire in the fireplace stove, enjoying their happy hour. They were sharing the recent experiences and benefits that were accruing from performing some exercises that belly dancers use. Both found that regular practice had increased their agility and ease of physical movement. The dance’s fundamental principle declares that the pelvis is the foundation and center of gravity. All movement flows from the pelvis along the spinal axis, which is the primary support of the body and provides network communication among all the parts. They had discovered that for years, following the American habit of posture and motion, they had located their center of gravity in their chest. Such a posture seemed linked to a stiff-leggedness and lack of spring or bounce in the knees that prevailed among most Americans.

Now they were requested to move their center of gravity, and so too their system of balance, down to the abdominal region. They learned through their research that a basic difference existed between European and Asian, including Middle Eastern, movements of the body, whether for dance or martial arts: a low center of balance was employed in Asian cultures. Connection with the earth was a direct result of the Asian form of posture. Ralph made an association with Native American dances, certainly the ones they had witnessed at powwows, which require the dancers to maintain direct contact with the ground. Shasta remembered that the earth for many indigenous people is the source of powerful energy.

One exercise that they both found beneficial was learning to hold the fingers gracefully. With the forefinger and thumb as the center of concentration, the forefinger is slightly raised, and the others are relaxed and allowed to become limp. Holding the palms facing upward at hip level, the dancer can perform a variety of movements with her hands. Ralph, in particular, liked rotating his hands in a circular manner. The motion seemed to decrease the stiffness in his hands, and his manipulation of small objects was facilitated.

Dancers, like magicians, required a practice area which contained at least one large mirror so that they could observe their movements. The Garlands decided to allow Rafé and Giulietta to use Ralph’s studio for practice sessions. They also permitted the dancers to tape their sessions so that they could review their movements at a later time. The twice a week dance sessions in the studio brought a refreshing energy and delight to the Garlands’ household. A new late afternoon social hour was blossoming. Snacks were provided, and they discussed not only dancing but other activities that Rafé and Giulietta were involved in.

After the conversation had lapsed and Ralph had gone into the kitchen to refill their martinis, Shasta remembered the phone call from Harold Magian. She had been preparing a spaghetti sauce for dinner, using a delightful recipe she had devised. The ingredients were eggplant, bell pepper, onion, celery, mushrooms, and tomatoes blended with her own mixture of herbs and spices. The secret for its tasty flavor was in the herbal blend.

She had been expecting a call from Ethel Shenandoah, a member of her dream group, when the phone rang, and so hurried into Ralph’s studio where one of the two phones was located, the other being in her study on the second floor. Picking up the phone, she heard only the dial tone, yet the ringing continued. Then she noticed a cell phone next to the monitor. Quickly, she picked it up and answered. She was startled by a male voice which she did not recognize. He asked for Ralph, and she responded that he was out and she would take a message. The caller identified himself as Harold A. Magian, an acquaintance and fellow magician.

After Ralph had returned and seated himself, she mentioned the phone call. “A friend of yours phoned earlier today. Harold A. Magian.”

An expression of surprise crossed his face. He felt slightly dismayed. “What did he want?”

“Nothing important, I guess. He’ll call again, perhaps later this evening or tomorrow.”

Gathering his thoughts, he remarked, “Harold recently moved to San Francisco. I met him at last month’s S.A.M. meeting. I’ve been helping him search for a suitable apartment to rent.”

“I’d enjoy meeting him. Perhaps we can have him over for dinner.” She was delighted that Ralph was reaching outward to help people in need. This nurturing instinct growing in him was a good sign that he was overcoming his self-pity.

Because the winter solstice tree stood on the right side of the hearth, Shasta had moved her table so she could observe both the tree and fire. The tree was delightful, she thought, and filled her with joy. As she participated in a reverie of memories, Ralph got up from the couch and walked to the left of the fireplace. Squatting, he peered at the wall below the shelving that held several art works. Her trance broken, Shasta, puzzled by his behavior, watched quietly. After a few moments in silence when she was about to ask what he was looking for, he pulled a light meter from the pocket of his brown cardigan sweater and moved it around in the dark corner of the room. Unable to contain her inquisitiveness any longer, she inquired, “What are you looking for, dear?”

Continuing to move the meter through the dark space, he replied, “Checking the level of brightness.” Standing up and turning toward her, he smiled. “With this light meter.”

Perplexed, she responded, “Oh. Why? Are you planning on photographing that corner?”

“Something I’m working on for the alchemy show.”

“What’s that?”

“It’ll be an underlying theme: light-in-the-darkness.”

She smiled now relieved that a practical purpose was behind his bizarre behavior, even though she did not understand the idea. “What’s the theme about?”

Putting the meter back into his pocket, he glanced around the room. The floor lamp beside her table was casting a shadow on the rug and the hardwood floor. “It’s a concept that links alchemy and magic. I’ve been examining shadows and other areas of darkness.”

She was alerted and felt an unusual presence emanating from him. “What have you discovered so far?” She would draw out his mental state and check his reality quotient.

Ralph sat down on the couch and tickled Lucy under the chin. Glancing over at Karma ensconced in her easy chair, he replied, “Shadows and areas of darkness are not the same. There’re differences in brightness and color. So far I haven’t found any that lacks brightness. This phenomenon is more evidence for my idea that light and by analogy spiritual energy are never extinguished. The concept is one of veiling or misdirection.”

She stared at him and Lucy, noticing the surrounding shadows. Originally, she had approved of his alchemical research because he was very enthusiastic. Later though, as he became withdrawn and seldom discussed any of his findings, she started to fret; but now she discerned an opening. He was reaching outward and sharing. She grinned happily as if she had been accepted as an initiate into his inner chamber.

He had wondered whether he should tell her about the magic mirror he was making, but decided this was not the proper time. It was nearly finished, and when completed, he would discover whether it offered a portal to the other side. Silence was required until he attained success. Even then, he might not tell her. Her imagination did not flow in the same way as his, and she might worry about his mental balance, although he knew he was in touch with reality, both of them.

They sat for a few moments in silence peering at the fire. Watching the flames in the stove, Ralph saw the face image that he had seen several times in store windows. He studied it carefully. Shasta emerged from her reverie and decided to relate her dream involving Sir Green Knight. Ralph listened, quite absorbed in the adventure. When she came to the tale of the knight and lady that Sir Green Knight told her, he was enchanted.

The knight and lady have been deeply in love when he dies in battle, and grief-stricken she mourns for him. At the funeral service the lady leads a procession of women. They are all dressed in white gowns in the courtly style of the fourteenth century, but only the lady has a pink sash tied around her waist. Untying the sash, she tenderly places it upon her love’s body. Then they form a circle around a tall pole and dance clockwise around it. They are crowned with a garland of flowers. A festoon of flowery brightness hangs around their necks, and small flowery bracelets adorn their wrists. They dance in honor of the love bonding the knight and lady, a love that will never die.

Sir Green Knight had thereupon discoursed on the meaning of life and death. Love is what holds and binds the universe together, the fundamental power of creation, he had asserted. Shasta had even heard music and visualized the drama as Sir Green Knight narrated the story.

At the conclusion of Shasta’s narrative, Ralph jumped up and twirled around the living room. “A dance of rejuvenation. Like the world renewal ceremonies of many Native Americans.” He whirled his hands in the air and, swiveling his hips and bouncing sprightly on his knees like rock and roll dancers of yore, cavorted to his private music.

Reflecting his sparkle, Shasta rose up and joined him. “It was very alchemical—that dream and its vision.”

Amused, both Lucy and Karma sat watching those amazing humans.

Hermes Beckons Chapters Seeking the Portal to the Immortals Curiosity Often Leads Us into Unseen Dangers