Rastelli Erzählt

Walter Benjamin claims to have heard this story in Enrico Rastelli’s dressing room, and from the man himself. (All this is recounted in a piece for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.) Rastelli was the greatest juggler who ever lived (one of his performances on YouTube) and was internationally famous when Benjamin was writing about him. Benjamin’s charming frame tale, with the juggler relaxing after a show in his costume and talking with the down-at-heel intellectual, is deliciously implausible in a way for which there isn’t a good contemporary analogue.

The story, Rastelli’s story, goes that a great juggler of the past had a superlative act with a climax involving a large ball that would come, magically, to dance about the juggler, bounce up steps to him, roll from arm to arm, and leap from the ground to land on his fingertip. The ball contains a “boy dwarf” secreted inside, like the covert player in Maelzel’s Mechanical Turk, who uses “compression springs” to move the ball like a living thing. To keep this secret secret, the juggler and dwarf always enter the theater by separate ways.

This great juggler is summoned to the court of the ruler of the Turks, in Constantinople, to perform. And he does, brilliantly; it ends when he “stretched out his little finger … and the ball … settled on his fingertip with a single bound.”

It is only when he leaves the palace that a messenger catches up with him, with a morning message from the dwarf, apologizing: he is ill, he cannot perform today.

The image of the empty ball landing on the fingertip in a single bound is something Benjamin comes back to. In 1932, in the marvelous “Ibizan Sequence” (a series of notes and meditations for the Frankfurter Zeitung) — see also an alternate version of this passage he was working out in his Spanish diaries from the same year — he has a section on practice, übung. Quoting:

“The fact that in the morning the pupil knows by heart the contents of the book he has put under his pillow the night before, that the Lord inspires His own in their sleep, and that a pause is creative — to make space for such things to happen is the alpha and omega of all mastery, its hallmark. This, then, is the reward before which the gods have placed sweat. For work which achieves only modest success is child’s play, compared to the success conjured up by luck. This is why Rastelli’s stretched-out little finger attracts the ball, which hops onto it like a bird. The decades’ worth of practice that came to before does not mean that either his body or the ball is ‘in his power,’ but it enables the two to reach an understanding behind his back. To weary the master to the point of exhaustion through diligence and hard work, so that at long last his body and each of his limbs can act in accordance with their own rationality: this is what is called ‘practice.’ It is successful because the will abdicates its power once and for all inside the body, abdicates in favor of the organs — the hand, for instance. This is why you can look for something for days, until you finally forget it; then, one day, when you are looking for something else, you suddenly find the first object. Your hand has, so to speak, taken the matter in hand and has joined forces with the object.”

It’s that moment of perfect inattention, after the years of disciplined attention. The tree catching its own oranges as they fall from the branch. As Giordano Bruno’s motto has it: Vincit Instans, the instant triumphs, the sentence gels, the idea takes shape, the arrow shot blindfolded hits its mark.

But where did Benjamin (or, being charitable, Rastelli) get this idea of the “boy dwarf” in the magic ball? I’ve always wondered. I came across an account in Cabinet of LaRoche’s Bola Misteriosa, or Wunderkugel:

“1889: First documented appearance of the acrobat LaRoche’s Wunderkugel or Bola Misteriosa act. A hollow two-foot steel ball would ascend, apparently of its own accord, a narrow twenty-four-foot spiraling ramp and then descend just as perilously. At the end of the act, LaRoche would emerge from the sphere to reveal that he had in fact been propelling it by constantly shifting his center of gravity.”

It feels like something that the juggling writer (who once compared himself, as a radio writer and reader, as a pharmacist of time, engaged in balancing minutes of this and that in the scales) might have come across and, loving everything that afforded objects the lively, active capacities he felt in them, incorporated it into a tale of a profession.