Now You See It: A Magician’s Memoir Promises Truth and Other Lies

AMORALMAN
A True Story and Other Lies
By Derek DelGaudio

Lying is ubiquitous. Why should it be otherwise? There are far more reasons to lie than to tell the truth. Isn’t lying beneficial? Often, it is. And the importance of truth-telling — is it a fiction we tell ourselves? A fairy tale? A form of self-deception? Our original lie?

And yet we have this absurd belief that we are truth-tellers, or at least that we’re capable of occasionally telling the truth.

In “Amoralman,” Derek DelGaudio’s masterly memoiristic account of lying and self-deception, we start life fully capable of truth-telling. Man in the state of nature or in infancy (take your pick) revels in telling the truth to others. In his epigraph DelGaudio — a sleight-of-hand artist and stage performer — quotes Ecclesiastes: “We are born knowing only truth. Then we see.” Maybe we retain this ability later in life. But it seems unlikely. We may know the truth, but quickly realize no good can come of it. So we give up on it.

“Amoralman” offers up successive parables. Central among them is the parable of the cave from Plato’s “Republic.” In the parable, men are in shackles. They can turn neither to the left nor to the right, nor can they look behind them. They spend their lives looking at the shadows of things — not the things in and of themselves. (Not so coincidentally, the title of DelGaudio’s Off Broadway play and its subsequent screen adaptation is “In & Of Itself.”) They are prevented from seeing the truth and when shown the things in their real and substantial form, prefer to return to shadows and shackles. It is summed up in DelGaudio’s maxim: “I lost sight of reality just enough to glimpse the truth.”

The book is in two parts. The first part, a bildungsroman, introduces DelGaudio’s family, his mother’s lesbian lover, Jill, and then Ryan, the boy next door. Their Colorado neighborhood comprises two different religious groups: conservative Christians and ultraconservative Christians. Ryan and his family are members of the latter. DelGaudio’s happy childhood is permanently interrupted when he tells Ryan about having two mothers. “My mother had taught me the value of truth, but she neglected to teach me the cost,” he writes. “She told me that honesty was always the best policy, but now I had evidence to the contrary.”

The second part of the book is an extended poker game. Hired to cheat others, DelGaudio imagines he’s in control. After all, he’s the one involved in false dealing. It turns out differently than he might have expected.

This is a story of unending ironies and misconceptions. That which we expected to be the truth is a lie, or at least a partial fiction. Anecdotes could be true, but falsely attributed. Intentions could be and are misrepresented or misunderstood. Good guys turn out to be bad guys and vice versa. And the purpose of magic and sleight-of-hand in such a universe? It goes back to Plato’s cave, which reminds us that things are always different than they seem. We misunderstand context. We confuse shadowy representations for the things in and of themselves. We live in a shadowy, fictional world.

DelGaudio believed when he was a boy that the puppeteers in Plato’s cave were trying to dupe the prisoners. But he couldn’t answer why. By the end of his story, he realizes that the puppeteers may have been themselves deceived. And yet, grafted onto what might at first seem like a despairing vision — a vision I would not be at all unsympathetic toward — is a belief that life is not less than what it seems, but more. We are limited by how we see ourselves, and once we shed those blinders the possibilities are endless. Once we realize we are all slaves dealing in a world of shadows, we can imagine (or even confront) almost infinite possibility. So, is this ultimately about deception? Or is it about truth?

Why not both? “I am not interested in fooling people,” DelGaudio tell us. “It’s about truth. To know illusions is to know reality. … I want to be the prisoner that returns to the cave.” He imagines an escapee who “picks up the tools of the puppeteer and teaches himself to cast shadows, with the hope of using those illusions to set the others free.”

His deepest epiphany comes when he realizes that the game of duplicity that he’s running is being run on him. He is duping others, but he is also duping himself. Like Plato’s cave, nothing is as it seems.

“Amoralman” can be seen as a series of illustrations about how we deceive ourselves into believing that whatever we’re doing is right and good. There’s the sense that the only thing we can be certain of is that we’re being deceived. But also, that the real Amoralman, the most amoral man of all, is ourselves.

There is a much-told anecdote sometimes attributed to William James. It concerns the little old lady who on being told that the Earth revolves around the sun, said, “I’ve got a better theory.”

“And what is that, madam?” inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle.”

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” the little old lady replied, “but I have an answer to it. The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” asked James.

To this, the little old lady replied, “Oh, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.”

In DelGaudio it is turtles all the way down. Turtles on top of turtles on top of more turtles without surcease. Certainty leads to uncertainty and then more uncertainty.

For me, the shadow of Ricky Jay runs through much of this. Ricky was a friend of mine, a master magician, an incredible archivist and raconteur. DelGaudio is a less misanthropic version of Ricky. Not necessarily nicer, but less misanthropic. What we don’t know about man doesn’t lead us into a pit of despair, but perhaps to a future of enlightenment and to greater possibility. We are opening our eyes not to slavery but to infinite possibility. Such an optimistic vision almost gives me the heebie-jeebies. But it’s the end of the Trump era, and we deserve to turn over a new leaf, no?

In the first part of the book, there’s an exchange between DelGaudio and his mother where he tells her he wants to be a Christian. Then he learns that Christianity can be as much about intolerance as about forgiveness. But there’s this additional irony in DelGaudio’s presentation of himself. At times he seems like a Pentecostal revivalist. He 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.

It reminds me of one of my favorite lines in literature — the last line of Huysmans’s “À Rebours”: “O Lord, pity the Christian who doubts, the skeptic who would believe, the convict of life embarking alone in the night, under a sky no longer illumined by the consoling beacons of ancient faith.”

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