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Greedy For Hidden Things?
"I believe this process. I believe that you actually broke the fork here and now."
Professor John Taylor, particle physicist and professor of mathematics at King's College, London, on BBC TV's Dimbleby Talk-In, with Uri Geller in 1973.
Twenty-five years ago, an acquaintance, now an international banker, was a student at the London School of Economics. He remembers going into a philosophy tutorial one November morning with three or four others to find that the tutor, a specialist in epistemologythe theory of knowledgehad scribbled a curious statement on the blackboard. It read: "Homo Sapiens ... Homo Geller." The tutor explained that he had happened to watch Uri Geller perform on a BBC television show the previous Friday night and had been profoundly struck, as he thought about it over the weekend, by the evolutionary implications of this excitable, good-looking young Israeli, with his apparent abilities to bend metal with the power of his mind, to stop and start watches and to read other people's thoughts.
Geller had just arrived in Britain from the United States, where he had been a media sensation, and was now taking Europe by storm. In America, he had been the subject of major pieces in Time and Newsweek, of a cautiously approving editorial in the New York Timesand an "exposure" in Popular Photography, which managed with trick photography to replicate an ability Geller claimed: that he could be photographed through a camera lens cap. In Europe,now, he was the cover story in Paris Match, Der Spiegel and Oggi and hundreds of other magazines. In Britain, everyone was talking about him, and the newspapers were referring daily in front-page stories to Gellermania as the successor to Beatlemania. He featured on a huge scale in everything from the most popular tabloids to the weighty Observer, which made him its magazine cover story. Even the usually sober New Scientist ran a cover story on him, sixteen pages long, that culminated in the verdict that he was simply a good magician. The very next day, an article in Nature validated some of his paranormal powers.
The LSE epistemology tutorial on that November Monday morning had a sense of unusual purpose, of urgency, even. This man Geller was not some intellectual abstraction or a figure from ancient mythology. He was twenty-six and in town, hopping from broadcast studio to newspaper interview to physicist's laboratory. The media hype and public excitement was approaching the heights you might expect if a friendly Martian had landed.
Public hysteria was one thing, but a philosophy don at one of the world's most important universities and his high-flying young students had to look at Geller's claims in a cool, dispassionate manner. If the phenomena he demonstrated were genuine and not a series of sophisticated conjuror's stunts, then his emergence, it was agreed, was a deeply significant development for mankind. Were there other human beings like him, the tutorial group wondered. What would happen if two beings of Geller's power were to mate? Would this mean that those of us without such a mental capacity would soon be slaves to superhumans?
Uri Geller became a controversial figure worldwide, hailed by many serious scientists as a psychic superstar, and courted by celebrities, politicians and heads of state. He submitted to exhaustive laboratory experiments by physicists all over the world, some of whose results were intriguing. Other scientists denounced him as a fraud, having picked methodological holes in the same experiments. A number of professional stage magicians were outraged; they, after all, made their living by faking "paranormal" phenomenaa skill that convinced them that such miracles did not happen. No upstart was going to tell experts in creating illusion that they might have lived their professional lives under one.
Geller worked himself to the point of illness in achieving his childhood ambition, which was not so much to be a globally renowned miracle worker as to be rich and have endless beautiful girls running after him. As one of his closest friends in New York, the classical pianist Byron Janis, confides today: "He didn't want to be a psychic, he wanted to be a friggin' rock star." He certainly became one of the most famous people in the world, even if at times, his psychic career seemed to be verging on farce. In 1975, on a live NBC Tonight show with Johnny Carson, he failed for twenty-two minutes to make anything remotely paranormal happen. Carson is an amateur magician, who took professional advice on how he might best destabilize Geller and catch him out cheating. Whether he succeeded at disproving Geller was a matter of hot debate, and continues to be nearly twenty-five years later. The encounter left Geller depressed and embarrassedeven if for many people, his failure reinforced their belief in him: their perception was that real psychics are easily upset by aggressively doubting Thomases; mere magicians always succeed with their tricks. With characteristic optimism, and to the annoyance of his enemies, Geller overcame this setback and carried on in the US, performing, convincing people of his powers and being sought out as a friend and guru by his fellow celebrities. John Lennon would meet him for coffee; Salvador Dali had him to stay as a guest. Geller even appeared again on the Tonight show with rather more successalthough without Carson in the chair.
In 1984, after a short period living on the slopes of Mount Fuji in Japan in an attempt to find an inner peace he felt he lacked in New York, Geller was still restless, and moved with his young family to England, where today he lives in a large house with elegant grounds by the river Thames. Here, he quietly cultivates rather mysterious business activities, which appear to be of a psychic nature but which he does not talk about openly. They are anything but imaginary, however: they provide his family with an enviable helicopters-and-five-star-hotels lifestyleand himself with the financial security to pursue charitable interests, as well as novelwriting and the occasional small-scale public performance, just for fun.
So what was the Geller phenomenon all about? Could there have been something in it, beneath all the fun and hype, the showbiz and the commercialism? If Geller was genuine, his telepathy and psychokinesis challenged our most fundamental ideas about the laws of nature, as well as much of our understanding of brain function. If he was more than an illusionist, and science was unable to explain his abilities, then reason and science would begin to be regarded as illusory. It was no wonder that conservative scientists were at one with conjurors in their dismissal of Geller. Yet in the thirty years since he emerged, little has become of the new vision he seemed to offer of the human mind's unknown capabilities. He became less a figure of awe, and more a tolerated eccentric, loved by the tabloids for a ready quote, but to whom the label "Dubious" is more or less permanently attached in the mind of the intelligentsia.
The Uri Geller story is complex and, at times, baffling. The filmmaker Ken Russell, who recently made a rather peculiar movie, Mindbender, based on Geller's life, summed up the enigma of his subject. Was Geller genuine, he was asked. "Only God knows," Russell replied, "and he's not telling."
What we do know is that Geller is driven by the longing to be regarded as more than a charismatic man who can bend cutlery by psychic means. A vegetarian, an exercise fanatic and self-appointed world-peace campaigner, he somehow lives an ascetic life even within the luxurious surroundings he has bought, and seems determined to fight his brash image. He will travel across the country on a Sunday to open a Scout fête, and happily bend a few spoons for those who crowd round him, even though he says it is an exhausting process. He wants to become a kind of ambassador for the paranormal; his message is that everyone has paranormal powers, not just him. He sees himself increasingly as an enabling power, and is constantly on the lookout for young Uri Gellers to carry this message beyond his lifetime until, he hopes, it is universally accepted.
Asked how he explains his powers, Geller is bashful. Perhaps he is just kidding when he says they might spring from some errant UFO commander's idea of a joke: "Perhaps they thought they'd give some ordinary guy these abilities just to see how the rest of the human race coped with it." He claims that he does not really understand his powers, and that he is scared to use them to what he thinks might be their fullest extent.
What follows is partly a biography of Geller, partly a journalistic investigation, and partly an account of my own wary journey of discovery into regions I had never previously visited, mysterious underworlds inhabited by paranormalists, psychic researchers, magiciansand scientists.
Most people find they have a more succinctnot to mention a more judiciousview of puzzling matters after sleeping on them for a night or two. In the case of most of Uri Geller's supporters and detractors, who have been known to swap places, the fact that Geller is still very much around after nearly thirty years has given them plenty of time to cogitate, assess, reassess and sleep on their final verdict. They have been afforded the luxury of as much hindsight as anyone could wish for. What do those who put their necks and reputations on the line for Uri Geller twenty-five years ago think in retrospect of him and his powers? What was done that was not revealed at the time? And what new research has been conducted on Geller?
Readers are entitled, of course, to know from what position I started my voyage round Uri Geller. The answer is: considerable skepticism. I was the last writer I would have expected to spend two years researching a book on the man. I am proud of having written a debunking piece on UFO's for Time magazine, have been delighted to be dismissive in print of such people as fortune-tellers and, when once visiting what was supposed to be the most haunted house in Britain, I was so convinced that the cause of the "mysterious" poltergeist effects was the non-paranormal mischief of a recessive-looking Uncle Fester character closeted upstairs that I refused to write the article I had gone to research. Also, to the great detriment of the family finances, I declined thirteen years ago to embark on a book that would follow up an article I had written for a British newspaper on how rabbis in Israel were using computers to discover mysterious hidden messages in the Hebrew of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. After writing the article I became convinced that the theory behind the rabbis' work was fatally flawed, and dropped the research, despite being asked repeatedly by publishers to investigate further. A decade later, Michael Drosnin of the Washington Post developed the "hidden messages" theory into a worldwide bestseller, The Bible Code, which has earned him millions. I still think the theory is fallacious. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I hope I make the point that I think I have a decently jaundiced eye.
When I started researching Uri Geller two years ago, it was at a time of something approaching a worldwide paranormal orgy. The X-Files was an international cult, the UFO film Independence Day was the big summer hit, and a John Travolta movie, Phenomenon, with strong elements of Uri Geller in it, was also taking millions at the box office. Alternative-medicine pages were appearing in serious newspapers, while factual-style TV shows on the paranormal, such as the BBC's Out Of This World, were achieving huge ratings. It was almost as if, with the approaching end of the millennium, perhaps, in mind, there was mass popular dissatisfaction with the limits that science and technology impose on what is considered possible.
To a journalist and author who specializes in writing on the wackier, more bizarre side of current trends and events, as well as on comedy andfrom a strictly bemused viewpointtechnology, this fascination with the unexplained seemed itself inexplicable. Was it not a perverse turn in mass thinking that what was once magical had become mundane, that while miracles such as medicine, computers, communications and cheap world travel were being taken for granted, we were all desperately seeking new magic, new mysteries? I recognized that the media and publishing were slightly culpable in this, and always had been since long before the mid-1990s supernatural boom and The X-Files. I had been impressed by a sentence the seventeenth-century London physician William Gilbert used in a book on magnetism, the spoon-bending of its daysome believed in this strange power, others were deeply skeptical. The problem was that although magnetism was clearly somethingmaybe sorcery, maybe a real physical forcepeople credited the mysterious, invisible energy with the most unlikely qualities. Its ability to remove the power of sorcery from women, put demons to flight, reconcile married couples, cure gout and make one "acceptable and in favor with princes" were just a few. As Gilbert complained: "With such idle tales and trumpery do plebeian philosophers delight themselves and satiate readers greedy for hidden things."
While accepting that science can be a little stubborn, and that it is marred by a regrettable tendency to brand some mavericks within its ranks as "heretical"a strange word indeed for scientists to useI have to say that until June 1996 the paranormal boom had left me unmoved. Indeed, outside the mental exclusion zones we all erect for ourselvesthe odd superstition, the occasional trivial feeling that some coincidences are a little too strange to put down to chance aloneI was a devout rationalist. Scoffing at the paranormal seemed perfectly respectable.
Trying to establish the real story of Uri Geller has been an arduous, although continually fascinating, excursion. I have taken 22 flights, driven 11,000 miles on three continents, read (and often reread) 44 books, had 75 interviews with Geller's friends and enemies, spent countless hours in libraries in London, Oxford and New York searching for obscure, forgotten articles with some light to shed on my subject. I've met some intriguing and often delightful people along the way, from Geller's nemesis, the impish Canadian magician and ultra-rationalist James Randi, to John Alexander, a retired United States Special Forces colonel, who studied the paranormal as a non-lethal military weapon and believes strongly in Geller, to elderly Hungarian-Jewish ladies in Israel, who knew Geller as a spoon-bending toddler.
I have also spent days interviewing Geller, mostly while traipsing along the banks of the Thames in all weathers as he walks his dogs. These several-mile hikes, almost always in rain and thick mud, helped me to develop a real liking for him. I am pretty sure, however, that he has not paranormally warped my objectivity, or seduced me into relying on his version of events if there were other people to ask. And I am confident that the evidence I have unearthed from third parties, much of it never before revealed, will seriously challenge the preconceptions of both skeptics and believers.
Journalists are apt to be drawn, by heretical thought, lateral views, and evidence that goes against the grain, to challenge received wisdom: it is our duty to swim against the tide. A 1974 poll by the London Daily Mail recorded that 95 percent of the newspaper's readers believed that Uri Geller had psychic powers, yet I think that received wisdom in the late 1990s is that Geller is interesting, but a bit of a joker, and possibly a charlatan.
Because I believe that many intelligent people have come to doubt that Geller is "real," I admit that I found it more noteworthy, both journalistically and intellectually, when unexpected voices turned out to support him rather than when the predictable ones denigrated him. Similarly, when some of his less plausible-sounding stories were surprisingly backed up by independent witnesses, I felt a frisson of excitement (I have to say I would feel the same if I discovered Saddam Hussein was a fan of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or that Professor Richard Dawkins was training for the priesthood). But there is a more important point here: the kernel of the anti-Geller argument is a perfect example of the revered principle of Occam's Razor, which proposes that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation of anything is the most likely one: in other words, the heavyweight skeptics say, Geller cheats. It's a simple message, devastating if true, yet there is a limit to the number of times it can be restated. The opposite argument, that he is genuine, is bound to be more interesting, even if it were ultimately wrong.
There are more sides to the Geller story than the question of whether he is "real." For example, his position as a cultural icon is fascinating. Coming to live in England was a successful move for him and his family in all but one respect: regardless of where people lie on the skepticismbelief axis, there is a perception problem of him in Britain, which has held back many people, but particularly the middle-class intelligentsia, from taking him seriously. It is among such people that modesty, understatement and a subtle sense of irony are most admired. Even his best friends confess that while Uri Geller has many admirable qualities, he is not an exemplar of any of these. His style, consequently, tends either not to be appreciated or is found funny.
It has to be said that, unlike in the USA, Israelis are a rarity in the UK. Whether people in Britain identify Geller as Israeli or not, his direct, typically Sabra style is perceived as a little over-the-top: if Uri Geller thinks he is good at something, he has no problem in telling the world so. This is fine in the US and in Israel, where Geller is still a hugely respected favorite son, but the American maxim, "If it's true, it ain't braggin," tends not to apply in the UK, where you are not supposed to brag even if something is true. And Geller is not afraid of the over-ostentatious gesture, which also can cause the British to blanche a little. It would be fair to assume that Uri Geller is one of the few novelists who saw no credibility problem in the summer of 1997 in arriving at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, that most quirky and bookish of annual British arts events, by private helicopter.
In many senses, Geller has never quite "got" Britain in the instinctive way he understood America, and this frequently makes him appear to the reticent British as his own worst PR man, psychic powers or no. That he is a typically extrovert showbusiness personality as well as being a typical Israeli just about ensures that in Cool Britannia he is often judged, on stylistic grounds alone, as distinctly uncool.
But OK, as everyone demands of me these days. You've explained where you are coming from, now tell us, where did you finish up? What was your verdict on Uri Geller? Is he real? Is he a liar? Can he still bend spoons? Is he as earnest as he seems, or does he have a funny side? Did all your clocks stop?
For two years, friends and colleagues have been listening to my travellers' tales and quizzing me on my developing personal theories as to the truth about the world's greatest living parapsychological exponent. "Interesting," they say, some believing I have given him too much credit, others angry that I have been too hard on him. "But in the end," they ask, "did you come to any conclusions?"
After two years of hearing it from all sides, I think I can safely say that, yes, I did.
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