“It is frankly in the spirit of adventure that I make bold tonight to take up before you what I suppose is the largest subject in human history-magic.” These are the words of James T. Shotwell (1874-1965), one of history’s most celebrated thinkers- a man who was fundamental in the creation of the International Labour Organisation and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1910, Shotwell wrote in the American Journal of Sociology that, “[magic] was the science and religion combined, much of the art, and most of the mode of thinking of our race for those vast stretches of centuries that we so lightly term the prehistoric. It is still the most important basis of action and of belief for millions of human beings, and has penetrated European history in such vital ways as to modify the structure of both church and state, dominate a large part of the philosophy, and affect the progress of science. It is incredible that so vital a subject should have so long escaped satisfactory treatment. But the incredible is true…”
Today, over a century later, those words still have relevance though in our age magic has moved from the fringes of society to the very real world of science and culture- rarely does a week go by without our technology, art or body being able to do something which even a few years ago would have seemed impossible; and it is those artists, thinkers, scientists and creators at the bleeding edge of culture who truly realise that everything seems impossible, until it isn’t.
David Blaine is one of those visionaries. He has been described as “…the greatest magician who ever lived” and has performed endurance feats ranging from being entombed in a plastic box between a three-ton water tank for seven days with no food and little water to encasing himself in a block of ice for almost three days, holding his breath for over 17 minutes, and receiving over one million volts of electricity through his body- continuously- for 72 hours from seven Tesla coils.
In this privileged interview, I spoke with David to learn more about making the impossible, real.
Q: What is the role of magic in our world?
[David Blaine] Humans often come together by believing in ideas that may only exist in our imaginations. 50 years ago, talking to somebody on the other side of the world with a device that fits in the palm of your hand, walking on the moon, or sending a rocket to Pluto would have been beyond our realities and could only have been possible with magic.
We have an ability to imagine together, to merge our ideas as a collective, which can slowly move us toward a future once believed to be impossible.
This is part of what changes us from being simple animals to a group that will soon travel to Mars and perhaps even further. To me that is magic.
Q: How did you become intrigued by human endurance?
[David Blaine] I was born with my legs turned in and I had asthma, so as a kid I couldn’t run very fast, but I realized that I could overcome certain challenges that others couldn’t through endurance… Even though I wasn’t naturally quick, I was able to beat the fastest kids in my school in the mile run. Endurance is mind over body. It’s about tapping into something within us that allows us to push further than we ever thought possible, especially at our weakest moments.
At the age of 6, I was on the swim team and because of my feet I was one of the slowest swimmers. I realized that if I could just swim and not have to turn my head to breathe, it would allow me to keep up with the other kids. Actually, I was no longer competing with the others, I was challenging myself.
I started to research magicians and discovered Houdini – he was an escape artist. I realized magic was what I wanted to do, and that my skill was endurance.
My first stunt was to be buried alive for 7 days, my best friend (who is also a magician) said I should go in, sneak out, and come back at the end. I said ‘no, it’s just a week in a coffin. I can do that for real’. He didn’t think it was possible but I realized it was simple… It was just lying there, not eating and keeping hydrated… I put a coffin in my living room, started to practice, and then I did it for real.
Q: How do you overcome the fear of death when enduring?
[David Blaine] The way you eliminate fear is to approach your situation from every angle, almost as though it were a logic puzzle. It’s also setting a goal but not being afraid to back away if you think that you’re going to do irreversible damage on the way there. I like to think of it as approaching like a tortoise, not like a hare.
If I was to just suddenly say ‘…well I’m going to hold my breath for 20 minutes tomorrow’, that would be scary, but I start by holding my breath first for 5 minutes, then 6 minutes, then 7 minutes, then 8 minutes, then 9 minutes, then 10, then suddenly I’m at 15 and eventually I’m pushing myself to 20 because I’m watching what the body does and I have telemetry hooked up to my heart and I have a team watching me… Part of removing the fear is understanding the odds of what outcomes exist.
For example, if you talk to a doctor and say, ‘can you survive 44 days without food strictly on water?’ they’re all going to say no you will die! I research examples of others who have done similar feats, such as hunger strikers and yogis who have fasted for extended periods of time, which leads to me believe I can push myself further without a fear of death.
Q: How do you overcome discomfort?
[David Blaine] We have created a society that gives us more access to comfort. We have the ability to push much further than we think is possible, but the brain wants us to rest to allow the body to recover.
With practice and training we can overcome almost any discomfort. Look at soldiers and athletes; they’re taught techniques that give them the ability to commit to their goals through suffering and pain.
I like to apply numbers to it… ‘I’m at 10%, now I’m at 30%, now I’m at 50%, now there’s only 40% left, now we’re down to 20%’. I work at it, I don’t look at it as though ‘oh, I have to hold my breath for 20 minutes’, or ‘I have to stand on this pillar for 73 hours’. I start by saying ‘oh let me stand on this pillar’, and while I’m up there, ‘let me get to 20 hours’, even though I know I’m going for 73 hours… I’m standing in a field of electricity up on a pillar 40 feet tall wearing 50lbs of chain mail which is a tight faraday cage, and of course if I felt like I was going to stand there for 3 days and 3 nights it would be, impossible, I would never get there.
I say ‘well let me just get to the next 12 hours’, then all of a sudden I’ve done 12 hours, so I can erase that and start fresh from here, mentally. I just keep pushing, and I come up with little tricks that help me achieve that.
I apply these principles to anything I’m serious about. If I have to run for a distance, let’s call it a 10k, I won’t quit ahead of time… I won’t stop when I get just short of my distance… I’ll do the 10k and I’ll do an extra mile on top of it.
Endurance stays with you across everything, if you do it one place, you can do it anywhere. You’re able to sustain because you’ve already trained your brain to do that.
Q: How can people apply endurance to their own lives?
[David Blaine] Let me tell you about my daughter, she’s 6. I teach her that we should try to finish whatever we’ve started, even if it might be difficult. I remember we went for a run recently, it was a mile – and at the end, we’d reach the park and go on the swings. Of course, she was getting tired as we ran, but I said to her, ‘it’s OK to slow down, but let’s just keep running until we get there… we don’t want to stop until we reach what we set out to do.’
We have to just keep moving, keep getting there, even if we’re not running as fast as we can.
Q: How can we fuel ourselves for endurance?
[David Blaine] Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, is one of those books that greatly influenced me. One of my favorite quotes in the book is “Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.” – and that’s the truth, we all have the ability to perform magic, to endure, to push ourselves beyond our limits, if we have the patience and the resilience.
“David Blaine is the greatest magician who ever lived.” Howard Stern made that on-air proclamation, a sentiment echoed by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller, who referred to Blaine’s Street Magic as “the best TV magic special ever done.” Blaine was just twenty- three when Street Magic first aired on ABC, transforming televised magic by turning the camera on the audience. Spectators at home could feel the visceral reaction of people being astonished. The New York Times went on to declare that Blaine had “taken a craft that’s been around for hundreds of years and done something unique and fresh with it,” while The New Yorker prominently stated “he saved magic.”
“Buried Alive,” Blaine’s first live stunt, was a feat even Houdini was unable to do in his lifetime. Entombed in an underground plastic box beneath a three ton water tank for seven days with no food and little water, Blaine would draw strength from the 75,000 visitors who came to the event beside the Hudson River, topping foot traffic at both the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty combined. Upon emerging Blaine remarked, “I saw a vision of every race, religion, and age group banding together.”
Blaine’s stunts continued to defy the boundaries of human endurance, each one becoming more death-defying than the last. For “Frozen In Time,” Blaine encased himself in large block of ice in Times Square. When he was cut free with chainsaws after nearly 64 hours, The New York Times reported, “The magician who emerged from the increasingly unstable ice box seemed a shadow of the confident, robust, shirtless fellow who entered two days before.” Yet the stunt was a ratings bonanza for ABC, helping the network to win its sweeps that year. Next Blaine upped the ante even further with “Vertigo,” standing atop a 100 foot tall pillar in Bryant Park for 36 hours without a safety net, then leaping into a stack of cardboard boxes on live television.
“Above The Below” put Blaine on the center of the world stage, capturing the attention of a nation for 44 days in Great Britain, with no food inside a transparent box above the River Thames. The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper that documented his fast which resulted in the loss of 25% of his body weight. For “Drowned Alive,” Blaine spent one week submerged in a sphere-shaped aquarium at Lincoln Center. His name became the most widely searched on Google, and Yale University studied him to determine the human physiological reaction to prolonged submersion. Blaine went on to break a Guinness record for breath holding, live on The Oprah Winfrey Show where he held his breath for over 17 minutes. “Electrified,” Blaine’s last stunt to date, put him on the receiving end of one million volts discharged at him continuously for 72 hours from seven Tesla coils.
In addition to the many millions who have seen him on television, Blaine has also performed live for audiences of over 20,000 in arenas around the world. He has performed intimately for every sitting American president including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as a number of international leaders and prominent figures such as Henry Kissinger, Michael Bloomberg, Stephen Hawking, Muhammad Ali, among others. His TED talk became one of Bill Gates’ personal favorites, and is widely considered the most revealing testimony Blaine has ever given on the topic of his remarkable career.