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ON Drugs, Magic, and the Sanctity of Losing Your Shit

Like any self-respecting Gen-Xer, I spent the bulk of my teenage years doing drugs. I tried all kinds: ecstacy, mda, coke, meth… I even tried crack once just to see what all the fuss was about. But my go-to was lysergic acid diethylamide, aka LSD, aka acid. As a hallucinogen, the drug isn’t considered physically addictive, but the experience of having your mind blown definitely is. And that’s what I was after. I loved having my reality shook. I loved to see the familiar world crumble and be replaced by something new. And once I’d gotten a taste of that sensation, right where the intellectual, the emotional and the physical meet, I craved it.

But it wasn’t a fleeting sensation I was after. Some fairly smart guys were on record saying that LSD wasn’t just a party trick, but a tool for freeing your mind. The great poet-prophet Allen Ginsburg himself had stood at the gates of Auschwitz and claimed that everyone over 14 should dose! I’d discovered him just around that age, so this seemed like a sign. And since my experiences on acid involved things like the manipulation of time and space, this tool seemed worth at least attempting to master.

Spoiler alert: none of this really panned out. But I never quite let go of the idea that I could have been released, that the world itself was not, as Wittgenstein had it, made up of facts, but rather… suggestions one could simply choose to ignore. And perhaps my reluctance to fully divest myself of this youthful notion is the reason that despite having given up hope that hallucinogens were the key to unlock the mysteries of the universe, I still halfway believe that such a key exists.

* * *

By week five of quarantine the monotony started getting to me. I began putting on headphones and creeping around my own house like a burglar while my wife watched TV. I’d stand in a guest room with the lights off, looking out the window into the neighbor’s back yard. I climbed into the loft above my bed to peer down at my own bedroom, hoping for a fresh perspective that had nothing to do with distance. I began reminiscing about the drug-fueled days of my youth, when the universe, it seemed to me, was humming with the possibility, even the promise, that it might crack open and radically change. And I started binging clips of a TV show called The Carbonaro Effect.

The Carbonaro Effect is a hidden-camera, street style magic show starring a youthful, winning Michael Carbonaro. With his boyish charm and silliness, Carbonaro exists somewhere on the pop-culture spectrum between Doogie Howser and Johnny Knoxville. In fact, Wikipedia doesn’t even describe The Carbonaro Effect as a magic show, rather as a “hidden camera/practical joke reality television series.” The tricks have no truck with the darker side of magic, the spooky and uncanny. They are played largely for innocent astonishment and laughs.

In a typical episode from Season 2, Carbonaro poses as an employee at a fast food joint. When a man in his early twenties orders two root beers, Carbonaro introduces a “wireless” soda spout. His chatty, vaguely nonsensical explanation for it – something about a “Bluetooth sensor” and “cell towers” – works exactly because it doesn’t make sense. It’s the way most of us describe technology that’s over our heads: half-truths and guestimates.

In clip after clip this pattern is repeated, and at first I found the novelty astonishing. Unlike with most magic shows, you hold a position superior to that of the direct participants. But it’s also because of this superiority that the cumulative effect of watching them grows dark. After seeing two crabs cut raw ingredients into a salad, a pair of gloves “distribute the weight” of the people wearing them to make objects lighter, and an orange produce enough juice to fill a pitcher, I began to feel, with horror, that these poor people were not participants after all. They were victims.

But victims of what, exactly? The philosopher Julian Jaynes thought that consciousness itself was an act of epiphany. In a theory that’s part neuroscience and part linguistics, Jaynes suggested that humans used to literally hear a voice in their heads, and for a long time interpreted this as the voice of God. At some point, he argued, our interpretation shifted dramatically: we became aware that this voice was our own. In other words, it was a kind of inverse religious awakening. Whether or not he’s right, there is doubtless something rare, strange, and quasi-metaphysical about these shifts in perspective. And to actively fuck with them is tantamount to psychological terrorism.

Take the de-nutter. In this clip from Season 2, Carbonaro poses as an employee in a health food store, and he demonstrates a small kitchen appliance to a mother and her college-aged daughter. The tool is a repackaged salad-spinner, but in the demonstration he throws in two cups of chocolate covered peanuts, spins them, and pours out hollow chocolate balls and a bunch of nuts. The mother and daughter are predictably gob-smacked, and there’s the usual amount of wide-eyed pacing and a kind numb uncertainty about what comes next.

But here one of the victims actually gets right to the heart of it. “I’m questioning everything,” she says, “I know about life.” Indeed, for the de-nutter to be real would require a series of other fundamental revisions to how we understand matter in its solid state. But that’s not the only thing these two women would be learning. They would also be realizing that somehow this sort of technology could be out there, could have been all the while without them knowing. And to top it off, they’re learning this in a grocery store from a vaguely dimwitted if high spirited entry-level clerk.

The tricks themselves, though clever enough, are sort of forgettable and usually involve slight of hand or misdirection. The real story is on the faces of the participants. Their expression would travel from mild annoyance (Why can’t I just buy my thing and leave?) to interest (What is this odd contraption and who is this strange clerk?) to astonished doubletake (Umm, wait a second.) to disbelief or even terror (Holy fuck what the hell just happened?!). And the more I watched these clips, the more I became aware of my thrill at having my mind vicariously blown. I was embarrassed for them, sure, but what I was beginning to feel was envy.

How many times does the average adult experience something that shakes the foundation of their world view? Once? Twice? Never? Though we’ve since learned that the brain retains plasticity throughout one’s life, it’s still true that the plasticity hardens over time, that the older you get – especially if you adhere to your comfortable patterns of behavior and thought – the less likely you are to change. After a certain age, true and lasting epiphanies are the unicorns of experience. And their rarity is exactly what makes them remarkable.

I’m 100% aware of and generally self-conscious about the fact that by picking all this apart I’m running the risk of being a joyless buzzkill. You might counter that people are watching with a largely blameless fascination with magic, a mischievous but forgivable love of pranks, and of course more generally out of a need for amusing, bite-sized content to kill time. You might similarly point out that Michael Carbonaro and his producers are meeting that need in a way I myself have admitted is fresh and novel. Where’s the harm?

Let’s look at one more example, this time from Season 1. Carbonaro is again behind a counter – now at a convenience store. After some hesitation, he convinces a customer to play what he calls the “Second Chance Lotto,” which involves guessing a series of six numbers written on a Post-It Note. Obviously, the customer wins.

Feigning surprise, Carbonaro advises the stranger, “You should play the real lotto,” and the man, feeling lucky, uses the dollar he was going to spend on chips to buy a lotto ticket. Though Carbonaro suggests in an aside that this part hadn’t been planned, here he doubles down and plants a scratch-off patch on the dollar that, once scratched, rewards the customer with a free scratch-off ticket. Nice and tidy.

Now, aside from the questionable ethics of encouraging people to gamble – especially when their “luck” has been orchestrated – what I want to focus on here is the victim’s mood. He’s flying high. He’s just won two things in a row, the first by guessing a six-digit number, the second by seeing, for the first time, a scratch off square on United States legal tender. He decides not to scratch the ticket he’s won there at the counter, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he’s never been so sure about his chances.

* * *

When I mentioned my experimentation with acid I left out the part about why I stopped. Naturally, part of the reason is: I became an adult and had shit to do. But to be totally candid, it was also because I started to experience what in drug lingo is called a “crash.” That is, rather than simply sobering up, I began to experience a more sudden transition between my acid-world and my sober one. The scales would fall from my eyes, much like I’d always hoped they would exactly because I took psychedelics, and I’d realize it had all just been fantasy.

Needless to say, this isn’t a pleasant experience. When you start thinking you can control time, realizing you can’t just kinda blows. And not to make light of the very real and hurtful branches of mental illness that might result in just that kind of experience, this is a highly personal and deeply felt comedown exactly because what is being come down from is such a profound joy.

The pranks of The Carbonaro Effect are somewhat uneven, but what the show shoots for is clearly this kind of ecstatic joy, this amazement that’s equal parts intellectual, emotional, and physical. The wide eyes, the flushed skin, the pacing and slight tremble. “Holy shit,” the producers want people to think, “things are not what they seem.” Because the producers know what I knew as a fifteen-year-old kid: that to have the blindfold pulled back is a kind of gift. Unless of course it’s a lie.

Though there are differences of opinion about the motives and morality of Timothy Leary, the man who popularized LSD, he’s on record about the dangers of the drug, and he was vocal about the precautions that should be taken before tripping. Don’t take it, he said, “unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you're gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.” In other words, you’re going to lose your shit. And that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

I question whether or not Michael Carbonaro is the person I’d want to guide me through this kind of epiphany. Further, I want to ask when his magic tricks end. Is it when his victims are successfully convinced that they just experienced a miracle? Or does it continue on, to the point where they realize they’ve been had? Perhaps it goes on even further. Perhaps the magic lasts until they feel that crash, or settle into the cynicism that results from being told the world is changed, only to learn that it’s just the way it always was, plus now they’ve been laughed at on television.

This is all very stereotypically Gen X of me: the cynicism, the aloofness. The failure to commit to single-entendre interpretation. So what’s surprising is that I can’t shake the feeling that these clips aren’t all bad. I can’t shake that feeling of envy. That experience of vicarious epiphany. In spite of all these misgivings, why does this show still move me?

I’d like to think that it’s because I still have hope, however buried by age and habit, by monotony over time, that the universe could crack open, that the world could be something other than I’ve come to believe. If this were the case, I’d have gotten it all wrong. If that hope is alive in me it could be alive in those participants as well. This would mean they’re not victims after all, and the profound experience they were given, however momentary, more than made up for the minor humiliation at having been a sucker.

As I write this, the world might be on the verge of profound and lasting change. We seem to be exiting the most sustained period of monotony in recent memory and entering the most sustained challenge of our lives to the status quo. I want to believe that it’s possible, that cynicism or the lack of plasticity won’t somehow stand in the way. So maybe I was wrong about where the magic ends. Maybe the magic lasts beyond even the realization that it was a trick, that you were a fool. Past the embarrassment and shame. Maybe it lasts until the moment you realize with joy that you were ready to accept something strange and new.


image: Shya Scanlon