first_imgThey tried to dissuade him. Forty-four days without food, and his body would turn to itself for sustenance. Heart palpitations, hallucinations and loss of sight would be par for the course; even if he survived, the reintroduction to food could cause sudden death. “It’s a pretty daft thing to do, really,” advised nutritionist Mike Stroud. But to little avail; soon after, David Blaine announced his fourth and most challenging endurance feat at a press conference where he whetted the public’s appetite by appearing to hack off his left ear with a casually pocketed knife.Self-imposed starvation was hardly new to Blaine. Aged 11, he decided he “wanted to go for a week with nothing but water,” and promptly did. Deprived of both father and television, the young Blaine turned to recreating images from the past; his idols were Chaplin, Houdini and Buster Keaton. “I looked up to the great showmen,” he admits. “As a kid, that was always an obsession I had, creating an ambience that will tell its own story.” From simple card tricks to ripping the head off a chicken; from secretly fasting for a week to starving in a box over the Thames for six; Blaine has undoubtedly realised his childhood ambitions. But is he a consummate performer, the Houdini of the 21st century, or should he have sought help early on for the obsessions he openly admits to having? “I haven’t sorted these things out,” he tells me. “I just think [my childhood] was a bit of a throw-off from reality.”It would be impossible to describe David Blaine as anything other than an enigma. His obsession with death, coupled with his almost clichéd love of life. His penchant for apparent selfharm – traditionally a private act – in public. The man who can survive live burial, but has an irrational fear of insects. In conversation, it’s surprising how open he appears to be; until you realise that you’ve spent an evening with a Jekyll and Hyde character, and you’re no closer to understanding what makes him tick. How does the holy innocent who found spiritual peace in starvation fit in with the former member of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “pussy posse”, who confides that he has “obsessions with women”? The beatific smile on leaving his box, with what seem to be calculated attempts to emulate, if not better, perhaps the greatest showman of all time, Jesus? Little wonder the textbook Christians are out to get him. “Satan will prepare the way for himself and his wonders,” writes one in an internet forum. “I am not claiming that David Blaine has gained his abilities from Satan, but I don’t rule it out.”Extremism, to Blaine, is an art form. And, like a modern day Oscar Wilde, he lives his life as a work of art. “I’m a performer,” he says, “who does illusions, performance pieces, and stunts.” In Blaine’s world, even the mundane becomes art – including the toe-curling face-off with Eamonn Holmes on GMTV, where Blaine resolutely refused to say a word, despite his interviewer’s best efforts. “The thing I did with Eamonn Holmes and the eye, I considered magic, in the sense that it was a performance piece,” he says. Notoriously difficult with journalists, he recently reappeared on GMTV to confuse Holmes yet more, declaring that he’d had a body double for his latest stunt, who lay in the box while he went out to gorge on fast food. Friend Uri Geller puts this antagonistic behaviour down to his character. “David is an utterly sincere man,” he wrote in the Telegraph. “I think this explains his habit of clamming up in interviews. He desperately wants to tell the truth, and only the truth.”And if so, what a truth it is. He doesn’t know why he does what he does; just that he needs to do it, and has needed to from an early age. Was he bullied at school? He pauses. “No, I wasn’t. In a weird way I can’t even understand why, but if there was a swimming pool here right now, I would say I’m going to do seven laps underwater without coming up. And if I knew everybody in this room could do two, I would always say I’m going to do seven, and then I would just do it.” So it’s a need to prove himself to others? “No, because even if I was alone, I would do that. Maybe it has to do with coming up with something and achieving it, but not doing what other people are doing, so I build my own mountain and then try to climb it.” It’s this mentality that leads him to set himself ever harder, more draining goals. “I actually didn’t think anybody could survive the box until I’d done it,” he says. “I just didn’t care if I made it or not. I figured, as long as I try, that’s a win, so if I come out on Day 32, I still tried. The fact that I went the whole way was fine.” Master of understatement, he later tells me that he looked “almost too good” on exiting the box. Why does he feel he has to prove himself continually? “It’s not even proving. It’s about creating images that last.”Yet for one content to form mere images, Blaine wrestles with his fair share of issues. He talks about Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, one man’s journey to self-realisation. Forbidden by his father to become a monk, Siddhartha stands motionless all night, “his arms folded, not moving from his spot,” to persuade him; a feat repeated by Blaine while standing on a 100ft high pole. As a monk, he “fasted for twenty-eight days. The flesh waned from his thighs and cheeks; a shaggy beard grew.” Mere images to be replicated, or is Blaine hunting for something more profound? “All those things are what they try to do to enter manhood, by leaving their earthly temptations behind,” he says about the book. Perhaps the unfaltering love lavished upon him by his mother, who died when he was 19, has given Blaine a Peter Pan complex, from which he tries to break free through his stunts.It has certainly led to problems with women. “She gave me so much attention and so much love that I have obsessions with women, and I have a problem with that,” he tells me. “I have this real need for approval and attention because of that; my mother giving me that amount of attention at all times and making me the priority of her life probably was a little bit of a throw-off from reality.” He has nothing but awe for his mother; is his behaviour his way of trying to be worthy of her? “I don’t even think I’m in the range of what she was doing,” he replies swiftly. The day before he entered the box, he visited Great Ormond Street Hospital, though he is at pains to point out that “I don’t consider it charity work; I just go and do magic with kids in hospitals.”The other shadow left by his mother, a Russian Jew, is his spirituality. He carries a poem by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi in his wallet, pulling it out to show me over dinner. Later, he gives me a reading list on Holocaust writing, stressing his respect for Levi as an author, because “he writes the truth as it is, he’s writing for no-one but himself. He’s everything a great artist should be; I wish I could have that in me.” How can he square Levi’s controlled, self-effacing prose with his publicity-hungry stunts? “I love to pull people out of their mundane thought patterns and make them think differently. I love making people watch suffering.” He quotes the last lines of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning: “Since Auschwitz, we know what man is capable of. Since Hiroshima, we know what is at stake.”Friend Christopher Reeve has said that Blaine proves that “the body can do more than we think.” Is his permanent desire to push through boundaries showing us the way to a higher sphere of existence? Over dinner, he describes his time in the box as a spiritual awakening, which lapsed the moment he returned to eating and the habits that control our lives. Wouldn’t that experience make him want to retreat from the spotlight? “Not yet.” Can he see himself as a hermit in the future? “I imagine so.” Where will he be in twenty years time? “I don’t think I’ll be alive then, at least not visibly.” Will he die spectacularly, or disappear to live in solitude? “We’ll see.” Could he cope leaving the adulation behind? “For sure.” He talks about his “continual journey,” although what the end point is he doesn’t yet know; “I probably never will.”So David Blaine remains an enigma. A magician who has eschewed magic. A spiritualist with an obsession with women. An American who laughs that his next stunt – after jumping from a helicopter into the Hudson river – will be to sit in a box in Times Square, gorging on burgers and seeing how much weight he can put on in 44 days. It will be called Gluttony. An anti-American project? “It’s not that I’m ‘anti’ anything or ‘pro’ anything. I just think humanity is. I don’t want to be part of something that says I’m different from you or different from him, because I don’t think that way.” Is Blaine a deeply troubled man, exploited by those who spy his money generating potential, or a consummate showman, cashing in on our obsession with reality TV? Is our watching him leap out of a helicopter, or Derren Brown playing Russian roulette, nothing but our fascination for the public executions of old, played out in our newly sanitised society? Not only do we vicariously enjoy the danger watching these stunts, we cannot help but imbue their performers with superhuman strengths, putting them onto pedestals for their abilities to read minds, starve, or pull off the illusion that they are risking their lives, even if they are as safe as us in front of our television screens. Watching Blaine preaching as he exited his box, black scarf and beard billowing in the wind, and listening to the lone voices crying out his name outside the Union, where he speaks tonight, it’s hard not to wonder: David Blaine – our new graven image?Archive: 0th week HT 2004last_img

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