The scam, in its permeation of a given material, reveals the obtuse quality of the medium-in-itself. Its referentiality fails - a crucial element in discarding hypotheses and plumbing the qualities of a given means.
Ibn Batuta, the great Muslim traveller, recounts his travels into Hangzhou, China in the midst of the 14th Century. What he sees there is the remarkable aerial travel of an inanimate object, for which he attempts to provide an explanation. The explanation of the action of the relatively inanimate, we will see, was a move it seems only preliterate culture grasped in its immediacy. It was, as the rare intelligence of Ibn Battuta discovered, explained by re-relating that object to a human agent.
Pu Songling, in his collection of 18th Century folkloric tales, performs the task not just of a Lonnrot or Grimm brother in collating the rural fancies of purportedly simple folk, but also records some tales which he saw with his own eyes. In this story - this story that is an immediate account, not distorted by multiple tales nor the labour of copies - this story begins with a mandarin who, upon meeting a vagabond whose reputation merited the common name "magician" (this translation entirely loses the nuance of a word which refers to no magic at all, or one that might otherwise be associated with a kind of being) - upon meeting this traveller and the pretenses of his unofficialised status, upon meeting him the mandarin stops and starts in thoughts of humiliation, or of pre-empted challenge. How and what can the magician do? Or, to return to the title, what can the charlatan do? Fakery, in this case, is the refuge of the impression which delineates ones belief into anothers influence - the magician can say nothing, nor do anything. He can however regard the instance of the event and its appearances, as a method from which to be reduced, to - as the masked men would say - mock. And mock he did.
The challenge, a fantastical and maliciously ironic request to produce a peach in mid-winter, was met with equal malice, this time in the form of action. The magician sent his son to climb a rope, which he did, into the sky, and vanished from sight. Shortly afterward, a peach falls, soon followed by the dismembered limbs of the now-mutilated son. This strange, and viciously humorous reply, not in words, but more severely in actions - in the surreal falling actions of the appendages of ones progeny - this reply did not even arrive to form a metaphor, to cleverly invert the mandarin's obvious envy of the magician's visual allure. This action was too jarring for such a result, and could not settle into anything but the event itself, as it occurred (at least, insofar as we can depend on the so-called magician to be performing a successful ruse).
This event - which the magician called a protometaphor - was once described by him to his friend as being done "in the traditional manner". That is, as if surreal brutality can necessarily have an abstracted condition (we see here already the magician's clear predilection for mockery - in nothing else if in his very description, recited during this latter portion, that his son can never be other than what he is - imagine these words, accompanied by an entirely unearthly spectacle, and yet the simplistic reaming of what by this point is an audience both transfixed and disgusted). As if in affirmation of his now somewhat questionable status as one to be accorded due presence (as if his reply to the impossible task of the mandarin was to rise to it by humiliating himself beyond anyone's prediction or comprehension), the magician now stoops over and begins to pick up the parts of his scattered son. One by one, he places them in a basket, which he has seemingly (and oddly retroactively) brought just for this specific task which he now performs in tact and religious solemnity. He closes the basket, and approaches the mandarin, demanding his payment. Yet no payment had been offered and it was this action, which the magician described as the "point of tradition" - demanding a referent currency where there is none - which formed what he called the "essence of the trick". Whether or not the mandarin gave him some money - probably an amount insignificant to him though possibly meaningful to the magician - is irrelevant. Indeed the tale can well end at this point where the entire act is reduced to a trivial and basically habitualized occurrence. "It might as well have been", the magician would say, "that I simply begged for the money."
The ruse, he said, of being poor, the ruse of an event trapped nowhere but reality, is enough for him to properly pay homage to history. The mandarin suddenly becomes irrelevant to the story - this, he said, was the function of the mediacentric trick. The drowning artist, he explained, once famous on the shores of France, did not understand the essence of irrelevance (though some have disputed this to a powerful degree). And history, he said, well you see how its tradition is simply a function of my whimsical drive to either effectively make light of it, or to take it so seriously so as to repell any listener from its fabricated precepts. The triumph, he said, is not in silence, but in deriding not only those who want to either be fooled or expose a given trick, but to deride *the trick itself*.
Songling once claimed that the tricks of the magician were favourites of the White Lotus Society - and that he must have initially learnt them from them. The White Lotus Society was a Buddhist heterodoxy that found appeal with women and the poor, and whose image of solace was collectively referred to as the "Unborn and Eternal Venerable Mother".