Sunday, 13 July 2008

Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic? Wrong question.

As reflected in the title, URI GELLER Magician or Mystic?, this book purports to settle once and for all the four-decade long debate concerning the world’s most famous Israeli: is Uri Geller a mystic or a conjurer. Is he endowed with psychic powers or is he an accomplished magician? Is he genuine or a fake? A medium or a charlatan?

The author introduces himself as a self censor, a devout rationalist and a detractor of fortune tellers. Prior to 1996 the paranormal left him unmoved and dismissive. However, in the course of researching this book, it appears that the writer had a change of heart; he evidently went through a profound process of conversion, like Saul on the road to Damascus.

Jonathan Margolis, a respected journalist who researched the Geller phenomenon during two years, transforms from a detached investigative writer into a sympathetic chronicler. What promises to be a factual investigative book turns into a veritable hagiography. The well-researched, sober account of Geller’s self acclaimed powers degenerates into a volumous tome extolling the virtues of the millionaire spoon-bender.

To the writer’s credit it should be said that he spared no effort in researching his subject matter. The book includes a myriad of interviews; it incorporates first hand research work; and echoes the polyphonic voices of Geller’s detractors and acolytes. In the search of truth, the selfless author travelled 11,000 miles on three continents; he read 44 books and conducted 75 interviews. The narrative includes Geller’s mother, Margaret, who recalls Uri’s very first bent spoon while eating soup at home in Tel Aviv; it exposes Geller’s involvement with the CIA, and the Mossad; and it evokes the Tsavta performance in 1970 when Uri stopped in mid-act to announce that ‘some enormous historic event was about to happen’. [Twenty minutes later, Egyptian radio announced the death of Gamel Abdel Nasser, due to a sudden heart attack.]

It is a tome packed with anecdotes, teeming with corroborating - or conflicting - evidence and abounding in superlatives. Not wanting to err on the side of vagueness, Margolis presents a minute and detailed account of Geller’s biography; nothing is left to the imagination. Exactly why the readers need know about Geller’s first sexual experience (with a prostitute, in Cyprus) alongside his string of masculine conquests and sexual exploits, is unclear. There are, however, interesting, if not amusing, tales relating to Geller’s involvement with Dr Puharich - an eccentric Serbian medical doctor convinced that he was being visited by extraterrestrial beings and being spoken to by supreme alien beings.

Perhaps the most important achievement this book can justly claim is that it sheds light on the engine which drives Geller forward, namely the pursuit of money and fame. And in this order. This is a repetitive theme throughout his spoon-bending career and one which Geller himself confirms, both in book and interview. He openly admits that he left Israel because he wanted to make money - and make it big; that he was drawn to the glitz of show-business for its lucrative potential. And there was money to be made abroad.

Geller’s wealth is a source of speculation. He refuses to disclose any figures. But the palatial setting in which he lives and the opulent lifestyle he leads, suggest that he will not be queuing up at the job centre, or asking for state hand-outs - in the foreseeable future. But Geller’s wealth is just one manifestation of his megalomaniac character: the zeal in which he pursues his detractors in the courts bears testimony to either a litigious character or one which, after so many years in the business, is still feeling threatened and insecure. The list of law suits Geller has initiated is staggering. He sued his life-long detractor James Randi for claiming he is a fraud; he pursued Times magazine in the courts for featuring a metal bending performer in an advertisement, claiming this effect was his trademark.

More recently, he launched a libel action against Prometheus Books for allegations that he was dishonourably discharged from the Israeli Army. The company Menintendo is currently being sued by Geller for creating a toy character which, he claims, bears resemblance to him and undermines his reputation. In defence of his endless legal wrangling, Geller says he is simply protecting his good name and reputation. The most controversial spoon bender boasts a prolific writing career (but still anguishes over a scathing review he received in the Jerusalem Post for his novel ‘Ella’, dismissing the possibility that the journalist - Dennis Eisenberg - could genuinely have not liked it.); according to his estimates, his web-site receives more than 400,000 hits a day; he has starred in countless TV specials, walks with the best and the brightest (Jacky Kennedy, English football manager Glenn Hoddle, John Lennon …), and the laudatory inventory continues.

In fact, this is probably the most fascinating - and telling - aspect of Uri Geller. By the end of the book, the question whether he can or cannot bend spoons and stop (or start) watches seems so laboured that it becomes tired and appears trivial. Uri Geller is a self made millionaire who needs to be loved and whose extraordinary powers must be universally acknowledged. And nothing else, or less, will do.

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