Sensei of Wonder

Always considered an art form on the outskirts, magic sits at the crossroads of entertainment, pseudo-miracle, sophisticated prank, and con game. The word magician may have once borne connotations of the magi, secret knowledge, and supernatural feats, but now it abides at the junction of Vegas lounge acts, tiny gatherings of semi-legitimate hobbyists-cum-cardsharps, and the sort of dubious, handkerchief-dabbing gentlemen of no fixed address for whom confidence modifies trickster as surely as night follows the day.

But let’s now raise the stakes, complicating this velvet paint-by-numbers picture by inserting the formidable presence of Ricky Jay. Conjurer nonpareil, raconteur extraordinaire, master of misdirection; author, scholar, and collector of the literature and history of legerdemain; muse and friend of David Mamet—the category-escaping Jay would be high on the gnostic cognoscenti’s short list for Greatest American Magus if such an honor existed. His new book, Matthias Buchinger: “The Greatest German Living, is a wryly agile, affectionate, and deeply tantalizing inquiry into the obscure legacy of an almost unimaginable subject: a man twenty-nine inches tall, born in 1674 without hands or feet,with flipper-like appendages for arms. He became not just a multifaceted performer but also a micro-calligrapher whose insanely detailed penmanship dazzled the naked eye even as its minutiae surpassed the limits thereof.

“By RICKY JAY,” the book cover informs us, “Whose Peregrinations in Search of the ‘Little Man of Nuremberg’ are herein Revealed.” Who could resist such an invitation? This amply and handsomely illustrated tome (including foldout and cutout pages) traces the story of both author and subject: Buchinger, the poly-gifted curiosity, and Jay’s obsession with him and how he realized his seemingly impossible feats. The book has a refreshing air of surreal antiquarianism, for Jay has made a career of being a man out of time. He comes across as a guy who would rather be bandying cards and stories with the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Lillie Langtry, or Max Malini, but is willing to kill a few minutes brightening our benighted lives.

Jay began performing in the early 1970s as a long-haired opening act for rock bands, conquered the TV-talk-show circuit, and wrote the slyly informative martial-arts manual Cards as Weapons (1977) and the best-selling books Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women (1986) and Jay’s Journal of Anomalies (2001). He also branched out into acting
for Mamet and Paul Thomas Anderson, and established his artistic credentials and claim to immortality with Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, the sleight-of-hand theater and television piece directed by Mamet. The 2012 documentary Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay is a beautiful summation of a life lived in thrall and homage to the magic practitioners who came before him—Malini, Al Flosso, Dai Vernon—with his greatest illusions being performed offstage, for their own exquisite sake, spoken of by peers and civilians alike with the awe of witnesses to a divine visitation.

Buchinger himself could have been a refugee from a fairy tale, seeming to have one stump in the supernatural and one in baroque literary conceit, yet even that understates the case. Next to the curious, convoluted works Buchinger produced and the life he lived, Rumpelstiltskin is as mundane as a harried CPA at a cracker factory. Buchinger performed to great acclaim throughout Europe and the British Isles, but by the time of his death in 1739, audiences had lost interest (fame in the eighteenth century being no less fickle than in our own time). Between his exhibitions of works showing wildly diverse skills and artistry, he married four times and sired fourteen children. (He produced a two-page family tree, with a cutout overlay, documenting this.)

Jay has a special affinity for what this artist-performer represented (standing for all the human marvels throughout recorded history who fall somewhere on the spectrum between “magician” and “freak”), a quality summed up in this excerpt from a contemporary souvenir sheet advertising Buchinger’s act:

This little Man performs such Wonders as have never been done by any, but Himself. He plays on various Sorts of Music to Admiration, as the Hautboy, Strange Flute in Consort with the Bagpipe, Dulcimer, and Trumpet; and designs to make Machines to play on almost all Sorts of Music. He is no less eminent for Writing, Drawing of Coats of Arms, and Pictures to the Life, with a Pen: He also plays at Cards and Dice, performs Tricks with Cups and Balls, Corn and live Birds; and plays at Skittles or Nine-Pins to a great Nicety, with several other Performances, to the general Satisfaction of all Spectators.

Buchinger, with merely a “fleshy Protuberance” at the end of each arm to grip his tools, produced a remarkable assortment of inscriptions—including one on the bezel of a ring three-quarters of an inch in diameter, containing a copy of the Lord’s Prayer—and many highly intricate portraits in his time. He also prepared customized coats of arms and family trees for the nobility and wealthy patrons. Some elaborate creations took days, weeks, or possibly months to make, but his simpler pieces were often produced on demand and “sold on the spot.” He was a movable universe unto himself, ripe for all manner of conjecture: Jay wonders whether he employed magnification for his microscopic lettering; David Hockney speculates that human eyesight might have been stronger before electric light, while Lawrence Weschler floats the notion that Buchinger’s senses grew more powerful to compensate for his physical handicaps.

Marginalia is Jay’s raison d’être, and this digressive note from the book’s actual margins gives the texture of its overarching, sanguinary strangeness. It’s a firsthand observation of Buchinger’s domestic circumstances, supplied by one James Paris du Plessis, erstwhile servant to Samuel Pepys:

He got a great deal of mony but his last wife . . . was a very perverse woman who would spend all his mony very prodigally and luxuriously in eating, drinking, and clothes and would not permit him to eat nor drink as she did and did Beat him Cruelly, which he had born patiently but one day, she having beat him before company . . . he flew at her with such force that he threw her down and getting upon her belly and Brest and did so beat her with his stumps that he almost killed her.

If this sounds like a lost reel from Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, ponder further the breadth of the Little Man’s microscopic art: In addition to the astounding creations listed above, he made “architectural drawings; calendars; . . . souvenir sheets with conventional, upside-down, and mirror writing; religious texts . . . letters to governmental agencies . . . book dedications; cut-outs; valentines.” One of the most remarkable—though not at all atypical—pieces was a larger drawing (14 1/2 by 21") illustrating the Ten Commandments; viewed with magnification, two decorative circles in a central column reveal the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. His most dumbfounding specialty was a manner of virtually invisible lettering in his drawings: He wove biblical verses into the fabric of a subject’s hair or into a garment, and embedded words into architectural elements (e.g., columns). He also made two-layered drawings (employing cutouts) and “a very early version of a metamorphosis, or transformation, drawing” (in which images are altered by pulling tabs).

Detail of a Matthias Buchinger souvenir print, 1705. Collection of Ricky Jay

Matthias Buchinger uses the arcane and the superhuman-within-the-deformed as a window onto another world. A place where the boundaries between the sacred and profane are as fluid, bemusing, and subject to tampering as a game of chance. That the young Ricky Jay was very briefly employed as a carnival barker informs his buoyant rhetoric and also engenders sympathy for those figures who refuse to be shackled by what critic Leslie A. Fiedler called “the tyranny of the normal.” Jay has the angle-reckoning mind of a carny coupled with the heart of a moral philosopher. For him, anomaly and antinomy go hand-over-hand as Siamese twins play the saxophone or sword-swallowers and fire-eaters ingest their chosen appurtenances.

This, I think, is why he was ideal as the narrator of Anderson’s Magnolia, with its deadpanic mix of ludicrous premises and daft fixations. His voice (as a writer as well as performer) is loaded with skeptical authority, irreverent gravitas—a natural suspicion that renders the outlandish plausible. I mean, Who could or would make this stuff up? He also has a deft way of slicing through stillborn ideas and intellectual hocus-pocus with a style that balances art, wit, subterfuge, larceny, and revelation. He can deconstruct reality even as he re-enchants it. And he’s seen more of madness and civilization up close—through decades of the study and practice of deception—than the sum total of titled charlatans, mountebanks, grifters, and hustlers at all our finest institutions: the boardrooms, judicial chambers, tech headquarters, legislative offices, and classrooms that serve as clip joints for impressionable minds and gullible marks.

Buchinger’s story, like his artworks, spirals both inward and outward. We traverse a field that stretches from the first King George to such peripheral, wonderful characters as Butter-Milk Jack Magill (a comedian, rogue, and, naturally, politician) and the collector Christopher Lennox-Boyd. We learn about “rice writing” and the surreptitious artmaking methods adopted by imprisoned artists during the Chinese Cultural Revolution; antiquaries, Ed Ruscha, type designers, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Jay’s magician friend Mahdi Gilbert (whose arms “are configured much like Buchinger’s”); and even (if only in passing) the Showalter Pest Control School. All find their rightful place in Jay’s tale. For him, the history of magic is merely the story of the impossible brought to life, made tangible and therefore subject to the laws of those recondite physics—or metaphysics—that are transmitted through vessels like Buchinger and Jay himself. He calls Buchinger a human Wunderkammer, a walking cabinet of curiosities, and it’s a fitting description of both men—each an embodiment of the serene power of the anomaly.

Howard Hampton is a frequent contributor to Artforum and Film Comment and the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Harvard University Press, 2007).