A Dynamic of Deception
On Hieronymus Bosch's The Conjurer
"Les illusions viennent du ciel, et les erreurs viennent de nous." - Joseph Joubert
A painting that has been haunting me for some time now is The Conjurer, ascribed to Hieronymus Bosch or his workshop, dated around 1502. The painting depicts a conjurer amusing a crowd of people with a game of cups and balls. One individual is particularly mesmerized by the game and stares with his mouth wide open at the conjurer's hands. While doing so, the mesmerized individual’s purse is being stolen by someone else in the crowd. It is clear that this painting is about deception, but it is just as much about being deceived. The painting depicts how easy it is to be deceived when one's attention is misdirected.
The deceived individual has a purse hanging from his waist.
By the looks of it, this purse must have a certain weight that the individual must surely feel if it were to be moved. But being mesmerized by the conjurer, what would otherwise surely be perceived, becomes invisible to his attention. The purse is being stolen by a man standing behind him. This man is dressed in what seems like religious attire and is wearing glasses, he gives off the air of an intellectual. While looking upwards to the sky, he steals the purse from the person mesmerized by the conjurer. We can learn something from this; the man who is being deceived by the conjurer's game has become blind to the obvious and important, and consequently his own possessions are being stolen.
The man who steals on the other hand is looking upwards to the sky, and thus not at the games of the conjurer. Being thus undeceived, he is able to perceive the obvious. The painting thus depicts the difference between an intelligent person with unclouded perception, and a misled person with clouded perception. This is even more clear in the symbolism that Bosch put into the painting. Besides the attire and posture of the man stealing, which points to his intelligence and clarity of perception, the conjurer himself has a basket hanging from his side with an owl in it. The owl, as is well known, symbolizes intelligence and wisdom.
Bosch thus puts the characteristics of intelligence and clarity of perception on the sides of the two people involved in enacting the deception: the conjurer himself and the man stealing. The contrast between the intelligence of the deceiver and the stupidity of the deceived becomes even stronger when we take a close look at the person being deceived. His back is bent over the table, and his gaze is directed solely at a small ball that the conjurer holds between his fingers. This position suggests an inferiority, it is a position from which the deceived is unable to be aware of his surroundings. His perception is completely directed where the conjurer wants it to be. When we look at the face of the deceived, we see frogs coming out of his mouth.
What does this strange sight signify? In a 16th century engraving by Balthasar van den Bosch which was meant to clarify the painting, we read:
"Och wat vintmen coenskens in tswerelts ronden
Die door den guijckelsack wonder connen brouwen
En doen tuolck spouwen met hare loose vonden
wonder op de tafele waer dore sij huijs houwen
daeroen betrouwse niet tot gheene stonden
want verloordi oock borse tsoude brouwen"
"Oh wat tricks one finds in the world
They who can brew miracles by help of the conjuring bag can make the people puke wonderful things onto the table.
This is how they make their move. So never trust them, because if you would also lose your purse you would regret it."
The conjurer can make the people puke wonderful things. In this case, the frogs are the wonderful things. What do these signify? Elina Gertsman points to the fact that in 15th century Flemish culture, the frog was a symbol for poverty because of its naked skin. The word “frog” was also used to designate depraved individuals, and it is also very probable that Bosch drew on the expression "to swallow frogs" which means being prone to extreme levels of naiveté. This again stresses the contrast that Bosch is trying to depict between the intelligence of the deceiver, and the stupidity of the deceived. The conjurer, because of his intelligence, controls the attention. The deceived, because of his stupidity, is being controlled.
The painting seems to warn, not for deceivers, but for being deceived. It is not the conjurer who is to blame for the deception going on, but the extreme naiveté and stupidity of the deceived. It is as if Bosch is trying to say that there will always be deception, consciously or not, and this is natural. But what can be stopped is the ease with which we let ourselves be deceived. There are always things that mesmerize us and thus make us lose attention to what is important. There are always people in power who, through influence, can direct our attention. This is how it is, was, and will probably always be to a certain extent. Like the engraving I mentioned tells us: “oh what tricks one finds in the world.” Living in the world amounts to being exposed to tricks and deception, this cannot be controlled. But what we do control is the manner in which we let our attention be directed. Have control over where your attention flows, or be easily deceived. This is the choice. Control your own attention, or be controlled.
We might no longer look at conjurers like we did in the 15th century, but by no means does this mean that there is less deception. Like all artists worth their name, Bosch calls to us throughout the centuries. He teaches us something about ourselves and the times we live in, by giving us the depiction of something universal and time-less. As Bosch's painting says; who controls people's attention, controls their behaviour. And who is it that these days controls attention? Mass state-funded media and big-tech advertising. In no way different from Bosch's Conjurer, these powers capture our attention. A capture made all the more easy by the addictive properties of the screens we watch them through. Mesmerized by whatever it is these powers hold forth, we lose attention from what really matters, and what is really going on. A shiny object is held in front of us, and as we go great lengths to take it, we don't realize we are being robbed all the while.
Deception cannot be stopped, almost like a Kantian transcendental illusion, deception seems universal and present in all times. And even if we see through the illusion, this does not end it. There is an inborn and natural disposition of man to let himself be deceived. Like a stick appearing bent through water, it will still appear as bent when we realize it is an illusion. Just so, even if we know about the phenomenon of deception, this does not end the deception. However, in Kant, transcendental illusion does not necessarily mean transcendental error. And just like in Kant, we can be deceived, but this does not mean that we have to act on the deception. We can see the shiny object held in front and be mesmerized by it, but this doesn't mean we have to become so enamoured that we lose perception of everything else. For just like man has an inborn capacity to let himself be deceived, he also has an inborn capacity to resist deception. We can watch the conjurer play his game, we can watch the illusion play itself out, but this does not mean we should let it deceive us. We can watch the game, without being robbed.
Elina Gertsman. Illusion and Deception: Construction of a Proverb in Hieronymus' Bosch's The Conjurer.