Page 12                                             Winter 1987-88

On the Symbolism of Juggling


The Moral and Cosmological Implications of the Mastery of Falling Objects


by Arthur Chandler


According to the Random House Dictionary, to juggle is "to keep several objects, such as balls, in motion in the air simultaneously by tossing and catching." It also means, says the same source, "to manipulate in order to deceive, as by trickery."


Other dictionaries and encyclopedias say much the same thing: "The dexterous manipulation of objects" as well as "the action of a person who tries to do something dishonest, especially with money."  Dexterity and dishonesty, virtuosity and vice - our culture has always both  admired and distrusted this most ancient art.   


For centuries, the light-spirited juggler has usually been considered a harmless entertainer, a kind of jester (the Latin term "joculator" is the root word of "juggler" and "jester") who performed before kings or crowds for enjoyment and patronage. Some moralists considered the juggler's occupation trivial, a squandering of precious time on frivolity. But there is nothing in the simple tossing and catching process that harms others; and so the  moralist's wrath rarely descends on the juggler.


But one can excel in "the dexterous manipulation of objects" with other motives than simple enjoyment or the honest desire to earn a living by showmanship. Throughout history, the more aggressive juggler appears as the shell game con-artist. Success at the shell game depends on the juggler's ability to fool the eye and place bets with the suckers who foolishly believe in their ability to follow the sleight-of-hand. In this sport  - for the shell game is a gambling sport of hands versus eyes - the juggler uses deft moves not to amaze and delight, but to deceive.


The juggler could become something even more maligned than the fast - handed trickster or the larcenous businessman. The famed 11th edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica" (1910-11) states that "the juggler is practically synonymous with conjurer."


In this incarnation, the juggler may still be seen as the charlatan, brother to the shell shifter, amazing the locals with flash and smoke in order to pick pockets. But the epithet "conjurer" carries another more sinister meaning. In the secrecy of a study, with "spells of waving arms and woven paces," the conjurer-juggler becomes the sorcerer who attempts to draw forth elemental powers and make them obey.


Like the bookkeeper and the ball tosser, the conjurer strives for dynamic balance: a controlled equilibrium of forces achieved by dexterous manipulation. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - from the time of Roger Bacon (13th century) to the semi-legendary Doctor Johannes Faustus (1480-1540), the conjurer was a

figure of fear and ridicule, respect and suspicion. At the very least, conjurers were suspected of con-artistry and duplicity; at worst, of tampering with forbidden powers and bartering their souls to the devil.


As this brand of juggler delves deeper into the labyrinth of this subterranean branch of the art, balls are replaced by drops of mercury, throwing clubs by the centrifuge, the public stage by a private laboratory of alemhics where.the juggler­sorcerer struggles with what even the most carefree ball tosser must confront: gravity,  entropy, the universal tendency towards decline into stasis and chaos.

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