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Working with Illusions or That’s Not Funny, Martha

Back in the day Martha and were running a small institute in Spiritual Science with a collection of underemployed philosophy PhDs, meditation teachers, sages without portfolio out of the top floor of a tenement on Avenue A on the Lower East Side. Our marketing was low-tech and aggressive — we would put up squibs on fences around construction sites and on the inside of the wood tunnels the city had to put up to protect pedestrians from being creamed by hunks of falling masonry and itself from being similarly creamed by lawsuits. I was in love with her, but I was never able to interest her in myself because I lack self-confidence, but I had accepted the situation that I could enjoy her beauty and general spitfire zazz from the distance of co-worker and co-teacher and this degree of semi-intimacy was better than none at all. In our curriculum meeting we decided that we were all set with martial arts (Sensei Dan Zuckerman), healing (master Herbalist Tor Krogius) and the deeper recesses of Advaita and neo-Platonism (this was actually a four course series taught by Ramsac Weinerwitz which ascended from the secret teachings of the pyramids all the way up to the evolving noosphere) but what we lacked was something showing the practical interplay between the most arcane mysteries and real life. So Martha and I decided to develop a course in working with illusions. And that step had consequences that although perhaps nugatory for the world at large were momentous for me, personally.

We stayed up late in the offices drinking Manhatan Specials I typing on the word processor, Martha striding back and forth looking through the big windows as the last taxis picked up the amorous drunks from the street, the lights of the city, the gleams of gray dawn, the street cleaning trucks with their huge rotating brushes and then the doormen leaving from their last shift and the salad bar workers arriving for their first shift, and us both discoursing on the muller lyer illusion. The Muller Lyer illusions shows two arrows that seem to be of different lengths but upon measuring them are the same length. But, we asked the students, who is to say that when we look at them looking to be different lengths we take same length to mean same measured length? Why does the practice of ruler and calculator have the right to call what our eyes tell us is an illusion? And why I asked myself does the fact that Marth doesn’t want me mean that what I am feeling right now — this pure joy — is an illusion? I am here with her now. She is looking at me now, she is glorious now! In a fever we finished the course description and prepared to place it on the website. But who should teach it? Me? Martha? Edison?

No said Martha. Sloan.

Who is Sloan?

Sloan will be our Bourbaki, she said enigmatically, but then –unusual for her — hastened to shed light on her enigma. Bourbaki was an imaginary mathematician a group of French algebraists had used to ascribe their results to. We will say our course in illusions is taught by Sloan, who is himself an illusion.

Wonderful! I said laughing. Wonderful!

The class reaped a surprising large harvest of students — enough that the Institute of Spiritual Science could pay its rent in a timely fashion and I, its president, did not have to abase myself by wheedling to our crude, and entirely unspiritual landlord Donald Klein. Every Tuesday at 8 pm for twelve weeks, with one off for the Christmas holiday I taught the students the uses of illusion. We discussed whether language actually meant anything. For one class I set up huge mirrors on either side of the room and the students were not allowed to look at each other directly but only at each other’s reflections. We parsed the distinction between eidolon and symbol, and I taught them both truths posing as falsehoods and falsehoods masquerading as truths.

I claimed to be Sloan’s teaching assistant. Martha claimed to be my teaching assistant. After the final student checked out and wandered down the ahoo stairs, we sat on the folding chairs and laughed and laughed.

For the final class we had a masquerade.

I addressed the class and said there was no Sloan, but I was their teacher in truth and my name was Kaplan.

Martha said — there is no Kaplan. This is an actor I have hired to teach you the difference between illusion and the illusion of an illusion.

I protested. The students all agreed it was obvious upon being told that I could not be the source of the profound spiritual truths that the class imparted. I reeked of inauthenticity. I was unimpressive. I lacked substance. Martha praised them.

“That’s not funny, Martha!” I said and did a great or at least adequate job of suppressing my tears. I stumbled down the stairs into the freezing cold of a February in alphabet city.

A young woman — I think she was Pakistani — approached me. She had been a quiet student but had been perfect on the written exams and had for her final project performed a dance based upon the Sufi classic “The Conference of the Birds” as it intersected with themes in contemporary dancehall music. I guess she was a dancer. Now that I think of it I don’t think she was Pakistani at all. I think she was Puerto Rican but had given herself an Islamic-sounding name as part of her act.

“Anybody who is good enough to perform the illusion that you performed is somebody I could really use on my team.”

“Team?” I asked her. “What team?”

She leaned in close to me — “Can you keep a secret?”

“I can.” It was true. “I am a tomb.” Sometimes I wondered if in fact I was a secret. Had she guessed.

“Some friends and I and you if you have the guts for it are going to steal the Diabelli Diamond.”

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