In the cult film The Prestige, an old Chinese magician, frail in his silk gown, limps across the stage. He makes a drum and a fish bowl, which has a live goldfish in it, appear from thin air.
It is his signature trick and almost no one in the world knows how it is done. The film, by Christopher Nolan, and the novel it is based on, by Christopher Priest, do reveal the secret. The magician hides the objects under his gown, holding them between his knees and thighs, and as he waves his magic cloth, he somehow moves his leg muscles with force, speed and discretion to place the objects on waist-high tables. But it is not in this procedure that the greatness of the trick lies. In fact, the procedure is not even the trick. The actual trick is that the Chinese magician is not frail or disabled.
He is a strong man who only pretends to be weak and have a limp, so that his painful shuffle on stage, to accommodate the objects between his knees, is not suspicious to his audience. To achieve this effect, he goes through his entire life pretending to be a frail old man with a disability. “Never, at any time, at home or in the street, day or night, did he walk with a normal gait lest his secret be exposed," according to the novel. “Total devotion to his art," a young magician says in the film after he figures out the trick. “A lot of self-sacrifice."
The Chinese magician is a passing scene in the story but his presence is iconic because The Prestige is about the extent to which men will go to achieve greatness. Yet the fishbowl scene is a lame scene; a merely cinematic scene that is more visual effects than anthropology.
A few years ago I decided to practise the trick to impress my daughter. I used a large ball as a proxy for the probable fish bowl.
Those days if you told me that a task does not require innate talent but only powerful legs and ascetic discipline, I would think I had a good chance of accomplishing it. But I soon figured there was something wrong with the mechanics of the trick as explained by Priest and Nolan. It was just not possible; one cannot humanly transport a fish bowl, let alone a drum too, from between your knees to a waist-high table. I soon discovered that there is no magician in the world who can perform the trick the way the novel and the film have indicated.
It is possible for a good magician to make a fish bowl appear on stage, but the most efficient way to do that is by hiding the bowl in the table. There are other ways, but none requires the extreme discipline suggested in The Prestige. The famous Chinese trick in the cult film was a trick in itself. It was impossible magic meant to convey one of our most revered illusions—discipline. I am not referring to the kind of “discipline" that some nations, which does not include India, demonstrate while driving in lanes. I am referring to the religion and technique of personal “discipline".
Most people believe that success is a process that involves hard, unpleasant tasks achieved through sacrifice. That is how, people imagine others and they themselves cracked entrance exams, how they lost weight, wrote novels, quit cigarettes, and even quit sex (but why?). People believe that there is will and self-control and sacrifice, and a combination of these qualities is discipline. It is one of the world’s most popular ideas.
But then is this how giant tasks are really accomplished?
Dedication and persistence can be explained without the myth of discipline. Not counting natural talent and luck, which have an outsized effect on success, we can explain what is misunderstood as the effects of discipline through love, addiction, psychological anomalies, including obsessive compulsive disorders.
People do things because they want to do those things. That is the only way to do them very well and do them well for a meaningful period of time. At times people do things because they are unable to stop, they are addicted, they are obsessed. People crack exams because they are smarter than most people in the specific department of taking tests, or they love the domains they are studying, or they have an innate capacity for unhappiness and competition, which is widely known by a more noble term—ambition.
People are lean not because they have ascetic “discipline" but more often because of their physiology, or because they have a natural distaste for fattening food, or they have good sources of information about the science of food and as seasoned readers they know how to discard spurious information. People do not smoke because they do not wish to smoke, and most chain-smokers suddenly quit not because they have suddenly discovered “willpower" but because their bodies are so abused that their organs finally reject the toxic fumes. And people who quit sex do so because they have become asexual, or have made a virtue of a necessity, which is impossible for others who do not have these mental and physical conditions. Many acts of painful self-denial today are wasteful actions of normal people who attempt to imitate the physiological or psychological anomalies of others.
Discipline, then, is the false public front for complex private procedures.
There is an obvious flimsiness to personal discipline, which we overlook. Discipline, everyone who believes in it would agree, is a quality that precedes success or failure, yet it is chiefly applied to describe success and not failure. You are more likely to hear, “He was so disciplined, it is no wonder he pulled it off", and not “He was so disciplined, yet he fails every time". This is how the myth of discipline has grown—as an analysis of success, which is delivered after success. We do suffer at times as a consequence of doing what we love, but we do not succeed because we suffer. For instance, amateur long-distance runners, including people like me, are widely believed to be disciplined and masochistic, but the fact is they run because they love doing it, or are addicted to it. Some runners even have obsessive compulsive disorders that push them to complete a set number of kilometres in a period of time. I am confident you are not interested in my glutes but to stress a point: After I injured my glutes and could not run, I started running backwards, an action that did not strain my injured muscles. And I ran in reverse for one month until the glutes healed. This is not discipline—this is joy, addiction and disorder.
We have a greater chance of being happier (and successful if that is important) if we use our mild and serious insanities like intense love, neurotic focus and funny disorders to get things done, than whip ourselves into doing what we do not wish to do.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.
He tweets @manujosephsan