Thursday, July 09, 2015

Was Charles Fort a Fortean?

Was Charles Fort a Fortean? What would he make of the current culture that bears his name? 

Unlike some of those who've adopted his name today, Fort wasn't a dilletante, he was an obsessive (some might even call him a "hoarder"). He wasn't a moderate in any sense of the word, he was a man of deep fixations, of passionate opinions, of radical convictions and, despite the protestations of the fashionable agnosticism of the time, a man of deep beliefs.

According to Jeff Kripal, Fort was also a postmodern before the term was coined. Fort was deeply immersed in quantum physics while the giants of the field were giving birth to the science. To him, it only validated his convictions that materialism was an illusion. Fort also knocked around a prototype of the idea of the holographic universe, if not an admittedly primitive and literalist one.

Unlike many Forteans, who dabble in the "weird" but usually reflexively defer to scientific orthodoxy, Fort saw science as  the latest incarnation of the ancient priesthoods, mesmerizing a cowed public with arcane language, secret rites and boiling cauldrons. Would that Fort had lived to see Hiroshima- his every dark warning and paranoid suspicion would have been confirmed. Ironically, it just might have killed him.

Fort condemned scientists (and believers in Scientism) for doing then what they do with absolute impunity today; ignoring and/or throwing out evidence that challenges the dominant materialist paradigm. Fort wrote: “Scientists, in matters of our data , have been like somebody in Europe, before 1492, hearing stories of lands to the west, going out for an hour or so, in a row-boat, and then saying, whether exactly in these words, or not: “Oh, Hell! There ain’t no America.”

The loathing was mutual. The high priests of Scientism hated Fort and his work with a urgent passion, all the more so since Fort was so meticulous and methodical in cataloging his contrarian data. Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells wrote this to Fort's supporter, Theodore  Dreiser, expressing a majority opinion among the materialist ascendancy of the early 20th Century:
I’m having Fort’s Book of the Damned sent back to you. Fort seems to be one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out of the way newspapers. I thought they were facts. And he writes like a drunkard. 
Lo! has been sent to me but has gone into my wastepaper basket. And what do you mean by forcing “orthodox science” to do this or that? Science is a continuing exploration and how in the devil can it have an orthodoxy? The next you’ll be writing is the “dogmas of science” like some blasted Roman Catholic priest on the defensive. …God dissolve (and forgive) your Fortean Society.  
How bitter, how ironic Wells' words sound, since even he would be forced to acknowledge that the scientific priesthood behaves exactly like the Medieval Church today (and when it had the power of the state, as it did in Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Cambodia, it enforced its will with roughly the same methods). Back then, Wells merely wrote with the disgust of a priest whose sanctuary of privilege and power has been violated. 

Knowing the history, Fort wrote of a endless game of musical chairs, reminding his readers that he opposed science and religion equally as vehicles of state power: 
Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and changes its name. 
We hear much of the conflict between science and religion, but our conflict is with both of these. Science and religion always have agreed in opposing and suppressing the various witchcrafts. Now that religion is inglorious, one of the most fantastic of transferences of worships is that of glorifying science, as a beneficent being. It is the attributing of all that is of development, or of possible betterment to science. But no scientist has ever upheld a new idea, without bringing upon himself abuse from other scientists.
But that also cuts to the core of Fort's essential pessimism. Having read of the endless catalogue of pre-Arnold, pre-Roswell sightings, Fort was a UFOlogist before anyone ever conceived of such a thing. But his cosmology feels more like Hypostasis of the Archons than Hangar 1. And here get to what is perhaps Fort's most famous quotation, one you'd be hard-pressed to get most "Forteans" to actually agree with:
Would we, if we could, educate and sophisticate pigs, geese, cattle? 
Would it be wise to establish diplomatic relation with the hen that now functions, satisfied with mere sense of achievement by way of compensation? 
I think we're property.
I should say we belong to something: That once upon a time, this earth was No-man's Land, that other worlds explored and colonized here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it's owned by something: That something owns this earth—all others warned off. 

Oh, the hilarity

Today, we are fed the false choice of the extraterrestrial (meaning the extrasolar) hypothesis, but the length, depth and intimacy of this phenomenon suggest- to anyone willing to consider the implications of the evidence- that this phenomenon is a permanent condition of the planet and of our species. Fort wrote of this a century ago but no one seems to be able to face up to this yet. Certainly not most of the most visible Forteans.

Indeed, Forteans seem to operate in that territory occupied by Subgenii and Discordians, a subculture of entertainment, characterized by an essential state of disbelief and ironic distance.  

These cultures have the external trappings of a counter-culture but in fact seem to be animated by an essential conventionality. This isn't a judgement call, it's a simple observation. It's the kind of thing you see manifested in "Weird News" in sites like Huffington Post, where Forteana is really just a joke, a brief diversion from the mandatory scientistic, materialist orthodoxy. "Believers" are usually identified as suckers and bumpkins.

But Fort wrote “People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels.” This is not a position you'll see among many current branches of Forteanism, which sometimes seem bent on an endless crusade against "believers" and belief. 

It's as if it's OK to dabble in this stuff for lulz, just don't actually take any of it seriously. 

Certainly that's takeaway you'll get from Fortean Times, and other venues that constantly attack their ostensible allies but never question received authority. Attacking "believers", a powerless constituency, is a cost and consequence-free way of looking like a freethinking iconoclast when in fact you're actually anything but. 

But it's not what I would call "Fortean."

Fort is like Philip K. Dick and Jack Kirby, admired by an audience who find their beliefs a curiosity at best, an embarrassment at worst. Fort was a humorist and was smart enough to give his audience some wiggle room but on the really controversial issues he seems remarkably stringent (eg., "we are property"). In many ways his jokiness is gallows humor, a respite from his existential pessimism. 

Jeff Kripal identifies Fort as a 20th Century Gnostic in Authors of the Impossible, and from what I've read of the man I think that's not too far from the truth. The question is how he'll be regarded when the upheaval comes and things now taken for granted face their existential dilemma.