The Masked Magician, Enacting Archaic Desires

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Sue Taylor
Portland State University, Oregon.


While presenting mass media spectacle, Valentino, Fox TV’s “Masked Magician,” relies on certain centuries-old formulae. The very repetitious nature of his routines invites us to consider what unconscious desires they might gratify. The masterly magician and his retinue of female assistants invert the early relationship of the helpless child (often one of several siblings) to the singular, all-powerful mother. Disappearing his helper and bringing her back, Valentino rehearses Freud’s fort-da game, in which the infant masters his fear of losing mother by repeatedly throwing an object away and delightedly retrieving it. In the sawing illusion, when Valentino pretends to cut his assistant apart then miraculously undo the damage, he dramatizes the infant’s sadistic/reparative impulses, destroying the loved object in fantasy but then, guilty and bereft, wishing to restore her. These and other examples suggest how archaic affects can be revisited in the vicarious pleasures of the magic act.

The Masked Magician became a media sensation in 1997 and 1998, with four shows broadcast on Fox Network in the U.S. and on Sky and ITV in Britain. In the series “Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” he dazzled audiences with illusions, then exposed the very devices and sleights-of-hand that enabled his incredible effects. Featured on Regis and Kathy Lee, Jay Leno and Rosie O’Donnell as well as Entertainment Tonight, Hard Copy and Inside Edition, he remained for years resolutely anonymous behind his primitivizing black facemask with its linear white markings suggesting ritual scarification. When interviewed for TV Guide, Don Weiner, the show’s director, celebrated the “plume[s] of smoke, the beautiful women, huge props that have secret compartments and hidden doors and pyrotechnics.” [1] Thirteen new episodes aired in 2009, now available on video and endlessly uploaded on Youtube, in English, Spanish, Russian, Korean and Arabic. At the end of the series, when the brilliant Val Valentino finally took off his mask and disclosed his identity, he explained all in earnesty why he had dared to break the magicians’ code of guarding trade secrets. Worried that magic had “taken a back seat to movies, video games, and other forms of high-tech entertainment,” [2] he hoped to rekindle magic’s excitement. A trick’s secret, after all, is only a small part of its fascination: “The real magic,” he asserted, “is in the performance.” Valentino hoped that in the wake of his revelations, magicians would let go “of tired old tricks” and “take magic where it has never been before.”

But let’s consider Valentino’s propositions. The “real magic” for viewers does reside in the performance, most especially, I would argue, in the highly traditional format of the act, and in the endless rehearsal of certain standard illusions. The limited and repetitive aspect of magic’s repertoire is covered over for contemporary audiences by the thrilling pyrotechnics and gorgeous spectacle, while Valentino and his fellows continue to depend on age-old formulae, such as the classic Sawing Illusion, tricks that date back at least a century or more. [3] Howard Thurston (1869–1936), for instance, first sawed a woman in half in the U.S. in 1921, after the trick’s already wildly successful European premier. Despite Valentino’s professed desire to forge new directions, his Masked Magician in fact returns magic to where it has always been. The very routine nature of his routines should render them boring; yet audiences remain unfazed by their predictability, always eager for more of the same. Which leads us to ask: In this world of illusion and what I want to call repetition compulsion, where (as in dreams) the reality principle is constantly overturned, what unconscious desires might be gratified by these familiar rituals.

In 1983, film theorist Lucy Fischer proposed in “the conventions of magic … a coherent social ‘sign system’ that can be read for its cultural meaning.” [4] Extending her insights, I want to point further to the profound psychological content of the ingenious sign system Fischer discerned. To begin, we can observe how the most insistent of all magic’s conventions is the model of the masterful male performer and his female subjects, in the case of Valentino, a whole retinue of sexy babes who both submit to his remarkable powers and assist him in their execution. So pervasive is this male-female paradigm that Fischer saw in it “a submerged discourse on sexual politics.” [5] She detected, beneath the surface of magic’s relentlessly “exuberant display of male superiority,” a latent subtext of anxiety vis-à-vis female powers, specifically, a deep-seated envy of woman’s procreative capacity – hence magic’s preoccupation with creating things from nothing, often living things, in particular richly emblematic things, such as rabbits, baby chicks, flowers, eggs (all associated with fertility and gestation), and even, we might add, in the case of the Masked Magician, with producing milk. Tellingly in one trick, Valentino begins with a shot glass full of milk and proceeds to transfer it into a sequence of larger and larger tumblers, until he has miraculously and against all logic increased the volume of milk, symbolically obviating the need for the maternal breast, in a gesture of marvelous male self-sufficiency.

Above all, conjuring the woman herself, making her appear, disappear, reappear – in other words, governing her very existence – is the ultimate assertion of the male magician’s superior capabilities. Valentino performs a number of variations on this theme, at one point disappearing a whole chorus line of showgirls, but the trick is as old as the hills and indeed is one of the founding tropes of cinematic spectacle, in which magic and the media are intimately entwined. Georges Méliès’ one-minute film The Vanishing Lady dates to 1896; in it, the director politely seats a woman in a chair in an ordinary wallpapered living room, covers her with a cloth, causes her to disappear, and then reverses the procedure. Before he became the pioneering filmmaker we remember today (most famously for A Trip to the Moon, 1902), Méliès (1861–1938) had been a stage magician, and The Vanishing Lady was only the first of many trick films he produced in which women are conjured, levitated, transformed in a variety of ways, and restored. [6]

Ubiquitous in magic, this compulsive disappearing and reappearing the woman rehearses in a literal fashion what Freud’s grandchild enacted symbolically with a little spool on a string in the fort-da game. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud noticed how the infant mastered his fear of losing mother by repeatedly throwing the spool out of his crib (declaring it “fort!” or “gone!”) and delightedly reeling it in (crying “da!” or “there!”). [7] Freud reasoned that this repetitive game gives the child an illusory control over his mother’s periodic absences. It has a vengeful element, moreover, as anticipating mother’s traumatic departure, the child defiantly casts the symbolic object off, as if to say, “All right, then, go away! I don’t need you. I’m sending you away myself.” [8] But there is always enormous satisfaction in bringing mother back. When the Masked Magician disappears and restores his female helper – or an elephant or truck in her stead – he performs for us an elaborate, large-scale version of the fort-da game. Once we register the infantile origin of the drama he stages, we also see how the potent magician, with his team of obedient female subordinates, inverts the early relationship of the helpless child (often one of several siblings) to the singular, seemingly all-powerful mother. This inversion is narcissistically gratifying and ameliorates feelings of dependency and vulnerability experienced in infancy. The rivalrous father is conveniently eliminated in this scheme, where mother is reassuringly multiplied and ever at the child’s – that is, the magician’s – exclusive command. Identifying with the performer, audiences can be unconsciously affirmed in their own independence and imagined mastery.

If controlling mother’s coming and going symbolically in repetitive play assuages the child’s anxiety, a complementary strategy keeps her from escaping again, and the Masked Magician’s assortment of boxes, cabinets, cages and straps for his models reflects the infantile need to keep mother at hand, a form of “loss prevention” if you will. Implicit in these imprisoning scenarios is also a sadistic pleasure in punishing mother, an impulse about which the British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein had much to say. According to Klein, the baby experiences the mother as the split source of his satisfaction as well as of “all his pain and fear.” [9] From this “paranoid-schizoid position,” as Klein designates it, the infant both loves and hates the mother, and “in phantasy his loved object is continually attacked in greed and hatred, is destroyed, torn into pieces.” The Sawing Illusion dramatizes this archaic phantasy, at the same time that it responds to social/historical forces. Amazingly, the trick first took off when P. T. Selbit (1881–1938) performed it in England in 1921, shortly after women there won the right to vote. [10] With women newly empowered, “it was suddenly entertaining,” writes magic historian Jim Steinmeyer, “to victimize a young lady on the stage,” and “magicians raced to hold onto, then manage [the trick’s] success.” [11] Selbit had his finger on the erratic pulse of a nation anxious over shifting gender roles. In a popular publicity stunt advertising his act, he offered to pay British suffragists Christabel or Sylvia Pankhurst to be sawn in half on his stage, and subsequently capitalized on the sensation he had created with variations on the trick such as Destroying a Girl, Stretching a Girl, and Crushing a Woman.

The Sawing Illusion has remained a staple in stage magic, with Horace Goldin (1873–1939) introducing a giant circular blade in 1931, and Aldo Izquierdo, a.k.a. Richiardi (1923–1985), picketed by feminists in New York in 1971 when he added horrific blood-spattering effects. [12] Even the contemporary, self-conscious meta-magicians Penn and Teller perform a witty variation. Despite the egregious displays of violence and misogyny, however, the woman is always satisfyingly reconstituted at the conclusion of the trick. Her restoration, the sine qua non of the illusion, returns us to Klein’s account of infantile phantasy: The child, in the wake of his destructive phantasies and remembering his blissful experience of the good mother, is overwhelmed by feelings of loss and guilt, and from this “depressive position” as Klein calls it, the baby wishes to restore and recreate the loved object. This reparative impulse, moreover, initially directed at the mother viciously damaged in phantasy, forms the basis in Kleinian theory for all artistic creativity.

Notable too is a masochistic streak in certain magic illusions in which the performer himself endures apparent pain or humiliation. I have in mind the trick dubbed Assistant’s Revenge, in which the tables are turned on the magician’s efforts to bind his female helper. In his version of this classic, Valentino positions the woman within an upright wooden frame or rack, securing her neck and hands in a stock with two padlocks and cinching her body with thick leather straps across the shoulders, waist, thighs and calves. Once she is restrained, he begins to circumambulate his immobilized trophy, drawing a curtain around the vertical rack. He passes briefly behind the device, but, mirabile dictu, it is the woman who emerges on the other side, pulling the curtain aside to reveal the magician now haplessly belted in her place. Here the latent content of the performance is twofold, expressing a desire to keep mother close, as well as a wish to be similarly and just as desperately loved and possessed by her in return. Viewer posts to this clip on Youtube describe it glibly as “s & m porn,” and indeed the magical exchange presented here helps us recognize the sadomasochistic dynamic that also informs the fort-da game. The child’s mastery in making the symbolic object disappear, dominating mother’s absence rather than passively submitting to it, is inseparable, as cultural theorist Leo Bersani observes, from an impulse for revenge and for masochistic distress: “The child enjoys the fantasy of his mother suffering the pain of separation which she originally inflicted on him. . . . Revenge here must include the avenger’s own suffering; by making his mother disappear, the child has just as effectively deprived himself of her presence as he has deprived her of his.” [13] In this scenario in other words, Bersani concludes, “mastery is simultaneous with self-punishment.”

Ambivalent affects associated with the mother underlie other types of magical feats. I’m thinking of the great escapes, for example, in which we can detect the child struggling with issues of attachment and autonomy. In this light, the Masked Magician’s choice of the milk can from which to stage his miraculous show of power and unfettered freedom is a testament to the haunting problematic of mother’s protective and nurturing (or was it suffocating?) embrace of the child in infancy. For this trick, aided by two assistants, the handcuffed magician is submerged and locked inside a water-filled milk can, an obvious metaphor for the maternal body, then hidden for several minutes behind a drape while he miraculously breaks free of both can and cuffs. The indignant message of the fort-da game is reformulated here, as the once-dependent child seems to insist “I don’t need your protection, let me go.” Writing with typical insight about images of the artist’s mother, critic Donald Kuspit has suggested that she is “likely to be remembered as more controlling than caring, especially when the artist produces works that are themselves about control.” [14]

It was the great Harry Houdini (1874–1926) who first presented the Milk Can Escape in 1908, asserting in promotions for his trick that failure would mean certain death, and it was Houdini, too, whose immersion, often in chains, into what he called the Chinese Water Torture Cell represented the impossible desire to return to the womb and the concomitant terror of drowning in utero. Again and again, the magician defies death, like the mythical hero harrowing hell, and the Masked Magician remains submerged in his version of Houdini’s cell for a full 18 minutes and 51 seconds, before emerging alive and dripping wet from the uterine waters, that is, staging his own birth. Although “mother seems to have the creative edge on the artist, for she gave birth to – created him… this edge must be denied; the artist,” Kuspit reminds us, “out of psychological necessity, assumes himself… to be self-created; there can be no superior creativity than the artist’s own.” [15]

Like more spectacular illusions, simple parlor tricks, known in the trade as “close magic,” participate in what I have come to think of as magic’s symbolic discourse on maternal relations. When the Masked Magician scissors a rope in two and marvelously reunites the severed lengths, he cuts the umbilical cord but then, impossibly, restores it, vacillating between autonomy and attachment, like the toddler testing his independence from mother while keeping open the option of safe return. The incredible restoration of the cord also means of course that it can be cut again, and again, as the magician rehearses for spellbound audiences the trauma of separation, a necessary if painful part of all normal development. Closely bound up with ambivalence in Klein’s understanding of psychic development are, as we’ve seen, violent phantasies, as well as phantasies of omnipotence, which “enable the early ego to assert itself to a certain degree… against a slavish and perilous dependence on its loved objects.” [16] It should come as no surprise then – yet we are always surprised – that the indestructible Masked Magician can survive a wood chipper, the giant blades of an industrial turbofan, strangulation with a metal chain, being buried alive, and can, with supreme ease, penetrate solid walls, walk on water and fly through the air. In light of what psychoanalysis can do for our understanding of this “sign system” collectively produced by Valentino, Lance Burton, David Copperfield and all their contemporaries and historical predecessors, magic’s biggest secrets may not reside so much in its hidden harnesses and see-through supports as in the sublimated psychic conflicts and victories played out in its ever enthralling performances.


1. Don Weiner quoted in Matt Mitovich, “Inside the Show Magicians Want to Make Disappear,” TV Guide, 6 October 2008.
2. Val Valentino, “Magic’s Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed,” final episode, accessed on Youtube on 28 April 2011. Subsequent quotes in this paragraph are from ibid.
3. Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 277–95.
4. Lucy Fischer, “The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic, and the Movies,” in John L. Fell, ed., Film before Griffith (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1983), 340.
5. Ibid., 341.
6. Ibid., 339.
7. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), 13–14.
8. Ibid., 15.
9. Hanna Segal quoted in Peter Fuller, Art and Psychoanalysis (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1980), 115. The subsequent quote in this paragraph is from ibid.
10. Jim Steinmeyer, “Above and beneath the Saw,” Art and Artifice and Other Essays on Illusion: Concerning the Inventors, Traditions, Evolution, and Rediscovery of Stage Magic (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 1998), 80.
11. Ibid., 78.
12. Ibid., 100.
13. Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 58.
14. Donald Kuspit, “Representing the Mother: Representing the Unrepresentable?” in Barbara Collier, ed., The Artist’s Mother: Portraits and Homages (Huntington, N.Y.: Heckscher Museum and Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, 1987), 25.
15. Ibid.
16. Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-45 (New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1975), 349.


Sue Taylor is a professor of Art History at Portland State University in Oregon and writes about modern and contemporary art from feminist and psychoanalytic perspectives. She has authored catalogue essays on artists Hollis Sigler, Mark Newport, and many others; has published articles and reviews in American Art, American Craft, Art Journal, Art News, and ArtUS; and is corresponding editor for Art in America. She was the curator of prints and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum; associate curator and editor at the David and Alfred Smart Museum at the University of Chicago; and art critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Taylor is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the American Psychoanalytic Association. Her book on Hans Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT Press), was published in 2000, and she was awarded the 2005 Smithsonian’s Patricia and Philip Frost Prize for her essay on Grant Wood. She earned her B.A. at Roosevelt University; her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.