Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Charles Fort, Werewolves, and The Question of Unibrows

“I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's, and his hair was perfect.” – Warren Zevon
"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members. " – Groucho Marx

     Between 1919 and 1932, Charles Fort almost single-handedly created the literary genre of “paranormal investigation.” For nearly three decades, Fort sat in public libraries (mostly in New York and London) for hours each day, methodically scribbling notes of weirdness he came across in newspapers and magazines. After collecting and categorizing thousands and thousands of notes, Fort would compile the weirdness he found into books that detailed such odd accounts as frogs raining from the skies, animals talking to strangers, and humans bursting spontaneously into flames. All four of his nonfiction/paranormal books (The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents ) are still available in print and can be had (for free) as online ebooks.
     Fort is important to the field of paranormal investigation for many reasons, but his two chief contributions to people who are interested in “anomalous phenomena” is that first, by categorizing strange events people subsequently had names for particular types of these events and began looking for them (spontaneous human combustion is a good example), and second, Fort's research demonstrated that a lot of freakish things happen in this world that pass with very little commentary from the mainstream media.
     Although I admire Fort's tenacity as a researcher, I do not recommend him as a writer. His prose is wickedly difficult to comprehend. As the originator of the “how credulous do you have to be to believe this stuff really happened” genera of nonfiction, Fort's writing style is as unconventional as the subjects he covers. To be frank, Fort's writing style is nearly opaque; he writes as though he assumes his readers can see through his idiosyncratic diction and can distinguish the difference between sarcasm and cynicism. Whenever I read Fort, I fluctuate between thinking he is arrogantly indifferent to his readers' inability to comprehend his writing style and thinking Fort is merely oblivious to how incomprehensible his writing actually is. It is as though before writing a book, Fort decides to take all the arguments he wants to make and disguise them as riddles in a metaphorical verbal funhouse. In his books, Fort likes to give instances of a particular type of paranormal phenomena (take odd coincidences as an example) and then forty pages later refer back to one of these cases when he is discussing an entirely different set of freakish occurrences (e.g. poltergeists) as though the connection between the two odd instances is so manifestly transparent that he would be wasting our time by pointing out what he thinks the connection is. Reading the books of Charles Fort is not unlike trying to decipher the arguments of a drunken relative who clearly understands what he is upset about even when you do not.
     If he were alive today (he died in 1932), Fort would most likely deny being the founder of the literary school of writing that focuses on weird stuff that supposedly happened somewhere. This is because as a writer, Fort did not like to admit that he believed in anything. Beyond ordinary agnosticism (i.e. claiming the truth to some things as “unknowable”) or atheism (i.e. claiming a complete “disbelief “ in the supernatural) Fort presents himself as an apatheistic, a hybrid form of agnosticism and atheism that basically asserts a fundamental lack of interest in explaining what one does or doesn't believe. A year or two before Fort's death, a dedicated group of fans of his work decided to found “The Fortean Society” as a means of promoting Fort's writings and furthering other similar paranormal research. Although the newly-established “Society” boasted such literary heavy-weights as Theodore Dreiser, Booth Tarkington, Dorthy Parker, and H. L. Mencken, Fort himself had to be tricked into attending the inaugural meeting and quickly declined membership. “I wouldn't join it, any more than I'd be an Elk,” Fort said about the group. Fort was such an apatheistic that he did not even want to be associated with a club that was named after him.
     As an example of how abstruse Fort's writing can be, here is an excerpt from his book Wild Talents on the topic of werewolves: “Relatively to the principles of modern science, werewolves can not be. But I know of no such principle that is other than tautology or approximation. It is myth-stuff. Then, if relatively to a group of phantoms, werewolves can not be, there are at least negative grounds for thinking that they are quite likely. Relatively to the principles, or lack of principles, of ultra-modern science, there isn't anything that can't be, even though also it is not clear how anything can be. So my acceptance, or pseudo-conclusion, is that werewolves are quite likely-unlikely.”(897) From reading this passage, can you tell whether Fort thought the idea of werewolves should or should not be taken seriously? Neither can I.
     Speaking of werewolves, stories of humans transforming into wolves dates back at least as far as ancient Greece. In one Greek myth, a king by the name of Lycaon was transformed into the prototype of a werewolf as a punishment of Zeus. Lycaon had tried to trick Zeus into eating a dinner in which the main course was Lycaon's son, Nyctimus. Lycaon, by the way, was not the first to try to get Zeus to eat one of his children; another human king named Tantalus ended up being tormented in the fires of Tartarus for doing the same thing. We get the English word lycanthrope from the Greek lukos meaning “wolf” and the Greek anthrōpos meaning “human being.” Is it mere phonetic coincidence that lycanthropy sounds so much like Lycaon? Such coincidences bothered Charles Fort enough for him to seek out such connections in everyday life, but subsequently he would go out of his way to tell readers that everything is connected so don't put to much stock into believing anything.
     Today clinical lycanthropy is considered a rare psychiatric disorder in which a deluded patient believes he or she can (or has) transformed into an animal. Modern treatment includes psychotropic drugs, but in the Middle Ages, the prescribed treatment for this disorder was tying the patient to a stake and setting him on fire or crushed him under heavy rocks. Although the medieval cure for lycanthropy achieved a 100% effectiveness rating in resolving the patient's psychosis, its efficacy relied entirely upon the treatments' lethality. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed one sign of a pre-lycanthropic person was a distinctive unibrow; so, apparently, one way to ward off the next bout of werewolf fever was to spend a little extra time with some tweezers in the bathroom.
     Rhetorically, Fort's research into werewolves and other paranormal topics serves as a shinning example of paradoxical intention. On one hand, Fort went to all the trouble of meticulously documenting the sources of his material by citing the names and dates of the newspapers and magazines from which he gleaned his bizarre material. On the other hand, Fort used this material to lambast the (then) contemporary scientific notions of how the world works – without bothering to express any of his own opinions on the material's veracity. One gets the feeling reading Fort, that if you were to ask him if he believed in any of odd stories he found, he would only laugh at the question and leave you wondering what he meant by the laughter.
     This rhetorical choice, to use “evidence” (weirdness reported in newspapers and magazines) to support a “theory” (scientists are victims of their own prejudices) without commenting on the dependability of the source material is a strange as Fort's choice of subject matter. Typically, when people try to argue for or against established scientific theories, they go out of their way to show the trustworthiness of their counter-examples. Not only does Fort avoid doing this, but he seems, in his unwillingness to comment upon it's truthfulness, to mistrust in the material himself. Fort also avoids offering alternative explanations; it is as though Fort is telling readers “anyone who believes in the current scientific paradigms are just as foolish as anyone who would believe in their freakish alternatives.”
     If there's a rhetorical lesson we can learn here from Charles Fort and (perhaps my brief foray into werewolf lore), it is, perhaps, it is not a bad practice to consider people's motives in reflecting upon the subjects they choose to write about (you can start with me if you want to; why is Dudding writing about this stuff?). Furthermore, by thinking critically, we can question the truth of what we read and hear (and this is especially important if we hear it from someone who has too much hair stretching across their forehead). Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

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