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'Every culture believes in some sort of magic'

By Nakul Shenoy
Last updated on: August 20, 2004 20:16 IST
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Peter Lamont is an award-winning magician, pseudo-psychic, historian, parapsychologist, and Arts and Humanities Research Board research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

A former president of the Edinburgh Magic Circle, Dr Lamont's doctoral thesis, Magic and Miracles in Victorian Britain, a study of Victorian views about séance in relation to contemporary views about similar feats, such as conjuring tricks, Biblical miracles, and Indian juggling, won him the Jeremy Dalziel prize in British history.

His second book, The Rise and Fall of the Indian Rope Trick, unravels the mystery of the legendary Indian illusion. In shattering some of the strongly believed myths associated with it, Dr Lamont says the legend owes its origin not to a performance, not to India, not to a magician, not even to a rope... but to a hoax article published by the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1895!

Dr Lamont, who visits India off and on, is currently working on his third book, a biography of one of the more famous and innovative psychics of modern times. Nakul Shenoy gained a peek into the mind and magic of Peter Lamont, when he spoke to him about his work, his passion, and Indian magic:

Much of your research seems to be centred on magic and psychic phenomena. Does this interest come from being a magician?

Yes. I started looking at it as a magician, as you have an insight into basic psychology, and into how psychic phenomena can be faked. And I would like to acknowledge that it is very difficult to affect evidence. Even in history, if you read the old accounts of psychic phenomena, you need to know how magicians performed tricks at that time.

To know that psychics might be able to fake psychic phenomena at that time, it requires knowledge of the secrets of magicians and the secrets of psychics over a long period of time.

Can you tell us something about your current project? Is that also related to magic?

Yes. My current work deals with the relationship between performance magic and concepts of real magic, real psychic phenomena: how can you perform an effect, which is actually a trick, but looks psychic? How can you convince people that it is really psychic? How can you identify the various influences, which affect how people encounter something that they cannot explain?

I began as a magician, then I became a historian, and then I began to work in parapsychology. I did research into the psychology of magic, psychic phenomena, and psychic frauds: how you can fake psychic phenomena? My work is primarily history and psychology of magic and the paranormal.

Basically there's no difference between a magic trick and psychic phenomena. They are both physical events for which the audience has no explanation. But some people will see an effect they can't explain as a magic trick; some people will think that as paranormal.

I am interested in why it is that people interpret these in different ways. As a performer you can affect how people interpret what you do. Over a long period of time, what has changed to what it is now; why is it different culturally? Why is it different in India, from that of Britain? In particular, why is it that people in the West may view inexplicable mysteries in the East in a different way than they would respond to the same thing at home? With the notion of the mystic East that West has, the people in the West may find an inexplicable mystery in India somehow more impressive, more mysterious, more mystical than a similar mystery at home, because India has this air of mystery to people from the West.

What were your initial projects like? Were they always related to magic?

No. First I had nothing to do with magic. First it was economic and social history, primarily social history and its influence on notions of national identity. A fascinating area: how people construct notions of themselves in relation to the nation. Of course in India, this is a huge issue. But not just India, everywhere.

In Scotland, where I come from, the people's notion of being Scottish comes from their knowledge of history, and most people's notion of national identity comes [from history]. It is something that matters to me. It matters to every country in the world. In Scotland, it is more political than perhaps in India... Perhaps parts of the Middle East and African states. But I think the same rules apply, that you believe you are Scottish or Indian in relation to what you are not. For example, if you are Scottish you are not English. That's the first thing you come across.

But magic became a main subject, because I feel I know more about the aspects of magic, and other people don't. And there's nobody else looking at it. They perhaps didn't have the ideas, the knowledge you get from being a magician. It is a very interesting subject area, as it deals with notions of facts, notions of vulgarity, notions of superstitions, rationality, scientificity and its relation to India, the notions of Orientalism, and how the Orient is viewed by the West.

How do you see yourself? As a magician, historian, or parapsychologist?

I would say I am a historian who has interest in certain types of psychology. And I was a magician, and I now use that knowledge to incorporate into academic areas.

From studying notions of ideology, how did you start studying the history of magic?

It depends on the history that interests me. I have liked certain bits of history like political history and socio-cultural history, but have liked all of psychological history: how people think, how people view the world, how people's thoughts are used to view the world. Not the physical and vertical world, but their ideas of what is possible, what they might be.

And magic is a way of getting at how people imagine their own world, and part of the world that's not their own. In a sense, getting into the mindsets of people of the past is a way of understanding how they think today. For example, the idea that as you became more modern, you became more scientific and rational; and the idea of magic and miracles defying the normal explanation.

But I think if you look at history, every period, every culture, believes in some sort of magic, some sort of miraculous events. But they see it in different forms. These used to be magic, then mesmeric, then it was psychic, then it was paranormal.

So miraculous events are always being reported, are always being believed in, but they are called different things, and in different numbers by people in the past.

Part II: 'Magic is about the effect, not how it's done'
Part III: 'Magic brings you closer to reality'

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Nakul Shenoy