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The unbelievable story of Matthias Buchinger, 18th century polymath, magician and artist

Ricky Jay, himself a great magician, has produced a remarkable portrait of an extraordinary man – Buchinger was just 29 inches tall, and was born without hands or feet.

Ricky Jay is one of the greatest sleight-of-hand artists in the world, which is to say that he deals in deception, misdirection and the seemingly impossible. His shuffles can leave aces congregating at the top or the bottom of the deck depending on his requirements, and he will even deal from the middle if needed. Once asked, in a New Yorker profile, if there are people who still play cards with him, he replied, “Sure. Silly people”, and plenty of his most honest skills are so astonishing that they still have a touch of artifice to them. For many years, the climax of a performance has seen Jay throwing playing cards with such force that they will penetrate the “thick, pachydermatous outer layer” of a watermelon – a fruit that he often prefixes with the term “his majesty”. It should not be too surprising, then, that having finished Jay’s latest book, a biography of the 18th century magician, musician and calligrapher Matthias Buchinger, I raced online to see if there was any truth in the tale I had just read.

Buchinger delighted his audiences with an act that sounds like an improbable muddle. Alongside close-up magic, the German-born performer would play musical instruments, often of his own invention, and pull off impossible stunts using bowling balls, one of which involved knocking over a pin while leaving the cup of liquid that stood on top of it unspilled. He was also an expert in micrography – the rendering of amazingly small writing. A famous self portrait from 1724 shows Buchinger in a coat and wig, each hair of which is actually a separate line of text. In total, the wig contains seven Psalms and the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer.

This is incredible work, and that’s before you take into account that Buchinger was just 29 inches tall, and was born without hands or feet. More incredible still, as Jay mentioned when speaking on a recent episode of the Bullseye podcast, is the fact that in all of the Buchinger memorabilia he has collected over the years, “there’s only one piece where he’s billed as a little person. Everything else is talking about his skills.” The German’s abilities were so extraordinary to an 18th century audience that they trumped his disabilities.

Fans of Ricky Jay, who tend to be obsessive and evangelical, have seen him circling Buchinger for years, a magician restlessly fanning the deck prior to a trick. In 1986, he devoted a good chunk of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, his keen-eyed examination of history’s most eccentric entertainers, to the performer, and he has spent decades collecting his drawings and prints. As a result, Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living, which was published this February, is inevitably a blend of biography and autobiography. It’s a study of both a fascinating 18th century polymath and the fascinating 21st century polymath who loves him.

The life that Jay reconstructs is astonishing. Despite being written in the elegant and slightly arch tone he often uses for his magic patter, there is nothing mocking in Jay’s treatment of Buchinger, whom he defines in his opening sentence as “a twenty-nine-inch tall phocomelic over-achiever”.

Buchinger was born in Ansbach, Germany in 1874, the youngest of nine children. He seems not to have been exhibited in his youth as might have been expected, and he was possibly hidden away by his parents who were, in the words of a contemporary, “distressed at his unusual form”. They planned on having him apprenticed to a tailor, according to a story that feels apocryphal, since the gig fell through when they “could find no place for a thimble”. Jay suggests this may actually have been Buchinger’s own line, adding with great tenderness, that “he was the subject of so many awful punning tributes that he may have, in some sort of self-defence, engaged in similar jokes.”

By 1694, Buchinger was performing at the Easter Fair in Leipzig. By 1698, he might be the “dwarf” without hands or feet who would “perform artistic acts with his stumps”, and there’s a further potentially glimpse of him around this time in notes regarding a troupe of tightrope walkers in Basel who were accompanied by “a conjurer without hands, who can shuffle cards, thread a needle, and load and shoot a pistol”. These are all elements that would later form part of Buchinger’s exhaustive repertoire.

By his 31st birthday in 1705, the conjurer without hands had become an artist without hands. His first surviving work is a confidently-rendered self portrait that depicts Buchinger wearing a tricorn hat and standing on a cushion. By 1710 Buchinger was sufficiently famous that souvenir prints started to emerge showing him surrounded by panels depicting his various skills. Some of them, granted, are only noteworthy because they are performed by a man without hands or feet – it is hard to imagine many entertainers getting by with a show that involved threading a needle, powdering a wig, or, in the words of a British publicity piece, shaving “very dextrously” on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 10am. And yet, he also demonstrated calligraphy with a pen he would construct himself in front of the audience, performed trick shots with firearms, engaged in displays of swordsmanship, and handled those astonishing bowling manoeuvres – a genre of entertainment that has, sadly, not proved as durable as coin and card manipulation. By the time Buchinger arrived in England in 1717, he was also listed as an accomplished musician, a master of flute, bagpipe, dulcimer and trumpet, often performing with the aid of apparatus of his own invention. (He played the dulcimer, according to one witness, by placing it in a special box with holes and keys and “striking them with his stumps”.) Other notices add the flageolet, kettledrums and guitars to the CV.

Little is known of the specifics of Buchinger’s magical act, but alongside dice, card and coin tricks, he worked with cups and balls, turning the latter, in one illusion, into birds. Regardless of the details, a measure of his skill, as Jay has it, can be inferred in the fact that many dwarf performers of the time had to travel between venues in secret, since a glimpse of them was, in effect, a spoiler for their entire act. Buchinger, who was not a dwarf but was often described as one, appears not to have concealed himself at all, and a broadside printed shortly after he arrived in England speaks of “a German born witho[u]t Hands, Feet or Thighs (that never was in this Kingdom before) who does such miraculous Actions as none else can do with Hands and Feet.”

Even so, Buchinger inevitably encountered some primitive thinking about disability. At least once he was denied a permit to perform at a fair due to worries regarding “maternal imprinting” – the fear that the traumatic events witnessed by a pregnant woman could have an impact on their unborn child. (He was allowed to perform in a nearby inn “or other eatery” instead.) Despite this kind of prejudice, and despite the public shaving that was briefly offered to punters, Buchinger was clearly a success in Britain on his own terms, as he stayed for the next 22 years, sometimes working with a man named DeHightrehight, a Swiss fire-eater who ate burning coal and cooked beef as it sat in his mouth, and becoming famous enough by 1722 to witness that supreme 21st century accolade: an erroneous announcement of his own death.

Even though there is only one instance in which his height was singled out in promotional materials, the portrait that Jay ultimately paints is of a man who is resigned to the fact that, to some eyes, his entire life would be a performance. Perhaps this is why, throughout his career, Buchinger seemed determined to take ownership of his disabilities and put them to work for him. He almost always signed souvenir prints and drawings with a mention that he was “born without hands or feet in form,” and, a few periods of over-exposure aside, his canny approach worked beautifully. He was in demand as a performer and an artist for much of his life, before retiring in comfort in Ireland, where he died in 1739.

It is hard, at times, not to suspect that Buchinger’s riotously expansive repertoire mirrors Jay’s own, which, over the years, has included everything from decapitating rubber chickens with playing cards to making faces appear in tortillas. Both men seem to have benefited from the curiosity and stubbornness required of the best magicians. Jay’s understanding of the role of deception in magic certainly allows him insights that other biographers might have missed. Call it empathy: again and again Jay grounds Buchinger as a real man who is not above playing the angles. His most beautiful artwork may have been created purely to serve as promotional material, Jay suggests. His letters to patrons might overstress the difficulties he faced with his commissions in order to raise the price of them. His drawings themselves often return to the same themes and techniques, which Jay sees as an indication of the way Buchinger used the sale of art produced in relative bulk to support his large family (he was married four times and had fourteen children). “Expedience rather than deception is the main element in this formula,” Jay argues.

Even the gaps in the narrative are interesting when seen through the correct lens. Jay’s frustration at the lack of information regarding Buchinger’s performance sheds light on his own concerns. More than anything, Jay wonders: how did Buchinger portray himself to his audience? “Was he modest or grandiose, or funny...? Did he speak English? Did he say anything – ever?” It’s a reminder of the little details that make Jay’s own illusions so truly magical: the tic-like smoothing of one palm with the other after a shuffle, the way he greets each impossible reveal with a wry chuckle at the inevitability of it all.

One of Jay’s greatest insights into Buchinger evidently came about because of an event in his own life. In the winter of 2014, Jay slipped and fell, breaking a rib and his right wrist. As he recovered, he found his injury meant that he now needed to adapt card techniques that had worked reliably for years.

“It was pretty frightening,” Jay admitted on the Bullseye podcast. “But it did allow me to get a little closer to Buchinger in the sense of realising that there were some things I had to rethink, it wasn’t simply a matter of being able to do everything I’d done before... I have to approach things in a slightly different way...and I think that that’s what Buchinger did when he approached the cups and balls. His method for lifting a cup and revealing a live bird would be quite different to the method of someone who wasn’t conformed as he was.”

There is a hint, then, that Buchinger was not a great magician and artist despite his personal circumstances, but that he may have grown to true greatness out of a need to overcome them. Maybe this is true for all of the best magicians. There is certainly more to both Matthias Buchinger and Ricky Jay than their ingenious trickery. Buchinger’s famous self portrait might contain lines of text apparently “written without magnification that often cannot be read without magnification”, but it is also a probing depiction of the artist himself, who fixes the viewer with a frowning, determined stare, just a little sadness, a little melancholic humour visible, perhaps, within the eyes. It is a striking example of micrography, and it is also an exceptionally skilful and teasing portrait of a man whose apparent directness may be a form of defence.

Equally Jay, for all his background in deception, has been exacting in his pursuit of the truth, and he has written about Buchinger with great empathy and insight, and absolutely no sentimentality. He recognises that the fleeting brilliances performers toil to create are so often immediately lost. He understands that some novelties are worth preserving. Many magicians can make people vanish, in other words, but here is one who can bring a man back from the dead.

Matthias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Ricky Jay is published by Siglio Press 

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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