Sophisticated foreplay

Houdini's Box: on the art of escape

Adam Phillips <em>Faber and Faber, 176pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 05

What do the following have in common: Harry Houdini; a disturbed five-year-old playing hide-and-seek; a man serially in flight from the women he fancies; the reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson? Well, they are all, in their way, escape artists. And, by casting them on his latest bill of popular psychology, Adam Phillips aims to demonstrate that they have something in common with us all.

For sure, the notion of escape is seductive. Each of us has known the urge to flee from, or to, something, someone or somewhere. It may be drastic (abandoning our family) or commonplace ("losing" ourselves in a book or film), but escapism, in whatever form, seems integral to the human psyche. We are animals, after all, and it is instinctive to move away from what is repellent and towards what is alluring. Even a laboratory rat will choose pleasure over pain. But, Phillips argues, we are complex creatures, with a confusion of anxieties and comforts, fears and desires; for us, the roots of pain and pleasure are often obscure or subliminal. So is escape necessarily healthy, if we don't always understand why we do it? And should we investigate our unconscious aversions and attractions so they are no longer a mystery to us? As a psychotherapist, Phillips is especially drawn to the paradox of how we can be trapped, psychologically, by the things we seek to avoid. Escape, he warns, can be an illusion. Cue Houdini.

The greatest escapologist in history, strapped to the analyst's couch, Houdini is the book's symbolic and thematic focus - its prime, albeit posthumous, case study. His story unfolds in instalments, providing a context for the other studies. It is an engaging and, at times, illuminating assessment, weakened by the selectivity that is essential to the author's agenda. Immigrant, Jew, uneducated son of a scholarly father, poor boy in a rich society, Houdini, Phillips writes, would "devote his life to the performance of a violent parody of assimilation . . . the man who could adapt to anything and escape from it".

This is persuasive, but incomplete. Phillips could as easily have developed a treatise on Houdini and autoerotica, the Oedipal complex, celebrity, sexual symbolism in magic, and mass hypnosis. Indeed, he touches on some of these, but chooses not to elaborate on them. Similarly, the defiance of death in Houdini's act is not placed within the wider traditions of illusionism - "death" (for example, by being sawn in half), followed by magical restoration to life, is as old as the profession. More perplexingly - given its aptness and the space allocated to Houdini's campaign against spirit mediums - death, as the ultimate escape, is never fully explored.

Phillips is on surer ground in his other critiques: the intense little girl whose tactic, in hide-and-seek, is always to hide so far away that her playmates don't bother to search; Dickinson, for whom escape was ". . . the Basket/In which the Heart is caught/When down some awful Battlement/The rest of Life is dropt"; and the man unable to develop relationships because his desire turns to fear of the desired. This last case is absorbing; the client-therapist exchanges read like verbal chess, or sophisticated foreplay between celibate intellectuals. And Phillips makes a strong point in asserting that our sense of self is shaped, possibly defined, by what endangers us - seen in the extreme in people with phobias, but evident in all of us to an extent.

Yet even here, metaphors hint at the strained reinforcement of the Houdini connection. The claustrophobic is an "amateur escape artist . . . inventive about his exits"; or "decision-making was like magic, it conjured a self out of nothing". And in an era when flying was new and interesting to many people, Houdini's own fascination with it is the basis for a creaky parallel with Icarus. Phillips also has a fondness for linguistic inversion - "scepticism is a refuge from conviction, and conviction is a refuge from scepticism" - that smacks of complexity reduced to neat simplification.

In reply, I offer a simplification of my own: illusionist as mystifier, psychotherapist as demystifier. Opposites, apparently, yet both apply esoteric knowledge to the mental predisposition of their audience/client. For Phillips, unfortunately, the workings of Houdini's mind prove as elusive to definitive diagnosis as the workings of his body once were. It is hard to disagree with the proposition that we construct our own psychological entrapment, as the escapologist builds the devices that entrap him; or that we, like him, hold the key to our own escape. Superficially intriguing though it is, however, this analogy at the core of Houdini's Box fails to sustain itself beyond this basic premise, a premise that is self-evident. In reply to the book's subtitle, which seems to wonder, "Why are we all so spellbound by ideas of escape?", I would ask: "Why wouldn't we be?"

Martyn Bedford's novel, The Houdini Girl, is published by Penguin (£6.99)

12 issues for £12