“We are born knowing only truth. Then we see.”
This is the quote Derek DelGaudio uses as an epigraph in his book Amoralman, a memoir published this year with impeccable timing, coinciding with the Hulu release of In & Of Itself, the film adaptation of his long-running stage show. In more than one respect, the biblical koan is perfect for both works. First, there is the ambiguity, a hallmark of most magicians and a quality that DelGaudio uniquely extends into the emotional realm on both page and stage. Second, and most important, is the implication that the reality constructed for human beings—the things we “see”—are in fact a distortion which brings us away from, not closer to, the truth.
If you haven’t yet seen In & Of Itself, I’ll warn you that spoilers lie ahead, and that what follows is best read from a place of familiarity anyway. I’ll also relate the same very good advice that was given to me—see it without foreknowledge, and with as few preconceptions as possible. You already know enough, and if you’re at all in tune with the streaming world, you’ve probably heard plenty (positive and negative, perhaps) to intrigue you. Watch, then read.
There are a few levels of experience inherent to what DelGaudio has created in the Hulu adaptation of his stage show, and the first is visceral. How do you react when a letter pulled from a cubbyhole on a New York City stage by a magician you’ve never met before transforms into a heartfelt personal note from a loved one with details only the two of you could possibly know? How do you react as an audience member when this man approaches you, stares at you for a few moments and identifies you in a word as you have identified yourself, as though seeing into your soul in exactly the way you hoped someone might?
More to the point for most of us, how do you respond when you see this happen to someone else? Some will be left cold, but my answer is also common: It moved me to tears. It wasn’t something I had to analyze or think about or ponder. It just happened, and it happened despite the fact that I knew on an intellectual level that the people in the audience were strangers to DelGaudio, and he to them, that they would probably never see each other again, and that the “connection” I found so moving was all based on physical and emotional manipulations. In describing the letter trick, he once said, “my goal is to get you to the point where it’s easier to believe that a miracle happened than the truth of what we actually did.” In this, he succeeded with some of us, because the visceral feeling is too much to ignore, and in the specific moment—before the comforting wheels of logic begin to spin again—we do believe. That is the raw surface power of the performance: It’s enough to stun you, and like the melody of a song, none of the intellectual layers matter without that critical first ingredient.
The intellectual stuff, though, is where this begins to get very interesting…and also a little eerie, and perhaps uplifting too. All of that, but also frustrating because of the ambiguity, and the possibility that by striving for answers—by obsessively picking the meat from the bones—we are actually moving further from truth.
Let’s begin here: DelGaudio spends a portion of his show and his book detailing what drove him to magic, and his early belief that, in fact, honesty is not always the best policy. He becomes a prodigy at card tricks, and if anything, he undersells just how great a magician he became—in the past, he’s been judged as the best in the world. In the process of learning these arts, though, he finds himself transforming from a dog into a wolf, a key metaphor in the show. The “hour between dog and wolf” happens when the sun is at such an angle that you can’t tell friend from foe until it’s too late, but DelGaudio discovers that if you can turn your back to the sun and become the wolf, you will see people with incredible clarity. Once he makes that choice, though, there will always be some wolf in him.
In this context, after the visceral reaction fades, there is something upsetting about his manipulation of the audience. You view him as the grinning wolf, who has turned against the light and discovered the secrets of manipulation that key him into human nature and allow him to seem to peer into the hearts of others. In this sense, the crying of the audience, my own tears—the entire spectacle, in fact—can feel cruel, borderline abusive, as though DelGaudio is an evangelical preacher for urban liberals, but one who leaves you without the comfort of god when it’s all over. Our needs, our vulnerability, our insecurity, are all fodder for the puppetmaster: Look how he can make us dance. If you stopped your analysis here, you could even justify being mad.
However, I think that misses the mark, and I tend to agree with Errol Morris, who writes in the Times that ”[DelGaudio] often has the air of a disappointed true-believer. This is the stuff not of nihilism, but of someone searching for true belief. Perhaps searching for something beyond belief.”
This goes back to Ecclesiastes, and the idea of knowing truth until the distorting moment when you “see.” Another key metaphor in DelGaudio’s performance is the story of the six blind men who come across an elephant. Each one touches a different part of the elephant, and each thinks he’s feeling something different. Maybe, working together, they can discern that they’re touching an elephant, but DelGaudio takes it a step further: what if it’s actually some kind of magical creature, and when the men decide it’s an elephant, it actually becomes an elephant? It’s not hard to trace this back to the foundational concept that by defining human reality, we perhaps deprive life of some of its power, and blind ourselves to the truth of its nature.
On this note, it’s no coincidence that DelGaudio in Amoralman also references the “Allegory of the Cave,” a parable introduced by Plato in which a group of people are chained inside a cave, facing a wall. A fire burns above them, and a man with props projects shadows onto the cave wall. The shapes they see are given names by the chained men, and this is their entire experience of reality. Some never want to leave, because the alternative is too frightening, and they become angry when one of their own escapes and tries to enlighten them about the “real” world. DelGaudio internalizes this allegory, and his ambition is to “be the prisoner who returns to the cave.” But not as some kind of immediate liberator; rather, he wants to be the one casting new shadows that one day lead everyone to freedom.
What does all this mean in the context of his show? We can’t forget that DelGaudio is a magician, and the great trick he pulls here is establishing—or at least seeming to establish—a deep emotional connection on what appears to be a flimsy basis. Far from the cruel deception I posited above, though, this might be an attempt at something heroic. It’s not crass manipulation, but rather a test of DelGaudio’s core philosophy. It is an attempt to bend reality in such a way that some elemental truth can appear, even briefly. He’s showing us new shadows.
But what is the truth he’s after? What’s the purpose of distorting reality? This is where it gets tougher, and frustrating. You could read it in the simplest sense, that the attempt to understand each other as we want to be understood, and the connections that process entails, is more profound than we might think. When DelGaudio concludes that he is both dog and wolf, the way I interpret it is that yes, he’s tricking you, but he knows that he’s also being tricked, and ultimately it’s in the service of epiphany. It reminds me of studies of depressed or anxious patients who took LSD and saw their symptoms vanish for long periods of time. Acid is a distorting agent, but a common experience among them is that they could see the thread connecting the living creatures of the world, and it brought them peace.
This is why, probably, some people see the show as hokey, or at least teetering on the edge of hokey. The truth he’s after doesn’t come off as especially profound, but the profundity lies not in the vague “answer,” but in the experience of getting there. DelGaudio does not rely on a god or a promise of heaven in his spiritual quest, and in his own journey it’s clear that the mystery of existence has only deepened within him. He doesn’t know the answer any more than we do, and the persistence of ambiguity lends him his melancholic air. Yet at the very least, he has a sense of where he wants to go, and the beauty of In & Of Itself is that whether the destination is real or false or good or evil, he wants so badly to take us there with him.