Juggler's World: Vol. 39, No. 4

Essay - On the Symbolism of Juggling

by Arthur Chandler

Here we confront one of the basic moral dilemmas posed by the act of juggling: the ethics of playing for keeps.


The Moral and Cosmological Implications of the Mastery of Falling Objects

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 alembics where the juggler-sorcerer struggles with what even the most carefree ball tosser must confront: gravity, entropy, the universal tendency towards decline into stasis and chaos.

Shell gaming compounds the "dexterous manipulation" of ball juggling with the bluff and deception of poker. Guardians of public morals have long regarded the shell game juggler with suspicion, classed this activity as a particularly sordid form of gambling, and condemned practitioners to haunt the back alleys of carnivals and fairs.

Even today, at the Clignancourt flea market in Paris, the shell gamer sets up a collapsible table, shouts insults and dares to passers-by, and practices the craft with a watchful eye for the gendarmes.

Akin in spirit to the shell-shifter is the dishonest accountant: a kind of juggler who used financial sleight-of-hand not just to fool, but to cheat. "To juggle the books" implies the ability to keep one set of numbers on hand (that is, in view of the auditor) and another set - the real ones - "in the air" (that is, passing invisibly through the columns of figures so that the books appear balanced).

Here we confront one of the basic moral dilemmas posed by the act of juggling: the ethics of playing for keeps. Once money becomes a major consideration, a new question of balance presents itself: the equilibrium between the love of an activity for its own sake and the desire to earn a living by its public performance.

Conjurers, tricksters, dexterous manipulators -- what sort of person does this describe? A person like Doctor Faustus. Legend and history blur together when we read of this Renaissance arch-mage. Here was a man who would be master of the world: the objects in it and the principles that govern it.

According to the old tales, Faust graduated from Cracow in magic, conjured and juggled to amuse kings and peasants, advanced to the practice of more perilous sorcery, and ended by selling his soul to Lucifer for power-knowledge.

Childlike and accomplished, searching and selfish, the Faust-figure stands as the symbol of Western humanity's drive for power achieved by the "dexterous manipulation" of the forces of the world.

In all serious jugglers there is a bit of the child, a bit of the con-man, a bit of the demonic conjurer. Juggling can be pure fun, a solo game with no winners or losers.

The professional ball and club juggler knows what it means to pass from the simple joy of the sport to the necessities of pleasing a crowd. New arts of human interaction must be added to the accomplishments of manual dexterity. The first childish urge of the public juggler -- "Hey, look at me! " -- must be transmuted into the more mature desire to please others.

But there always exists another urge: the desire to win money by beating other people. The shell gamer uses the art not to entertain, but to dupe. The shell gamer is therefore doomed to exist in the shadows of a society that does not wish to be reminded of its own weaknesses.

A good ball juggler wins the applause of the audience because he or she temporarily overcomes "the hard condition of the world," a world where things fall down and apart, but the shell gamer reminds victims that they are not so smart as they thought. The losers condemn the deception as trickery, and banishes the juggler from respectable society.

Taken seriously, the act of juggling raises basic issues of human existence: where is the true balance point between casual enjoyment and serious mastery? Between "Look at me!" and "Watch this!"? Between sincere commitment and foolish obsession?

Faust is the ultimate juggler, the very archetype of the juggler/con-man/mage distrusted by the sober community of shops and securities. As he conjures and juggles, Faust dreams of putting himself in harmony with gravity, the fundamental entropic force of the universe. He sees the whole of the Milky Way as only one ring of an infinity of rings kept spinning by the Master Juggler balancing on the Firmament of Time.

Here we return to the central morality inherent in juggling on the highest plane. Objects fly through the air, stars wheel through the universe. All fall eventually. If the juggler becomes obsessed with definitively mastering the decline, the juggler is lost. If the juggler achieves peace within the intervals of rising and falling, the juggler finds grace.

Essay - On the Symbolism of Juggling / Index, Vol. 39, No. 4 / jis@juggling.org
© 1996 Juggling Information Service. All Rights Reserved.