Saturday, October 24, 2009


The epic battle against recidivism at the Dargaville Museum outlined in a series of recent posts on Reading the Maps (and rather amusingly replied to on Art, Life, TV, etc.) has got me to thinking about the whole subject of fakes and fakery in general.

Why is it I'm so instinctively drawn to books of pseudo-history and ridiculously unlikely theories propounded by ignoramuses?

Did you know, for instance, that the "appearance of mu" in the word "Pounamu" defines it "as a religious relic from Lemurian times"? I bet you didn't. And yet it must be so, because I read it in a book, a most entertaining and interesting volume entitled The Atlantis Encyclopedia, by Joseph Frank (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2005), pp.228-29. Frank's book contains a foreword by Brad Steiger, a veteran in the field, and author of the celebrated Atlantis Rising (1973), among many other volumes. Atlantis Rising has a most intriguing passage in it which he considers the possibility that Atlantis may be all around us even as we speak!

As far-fetched as it may seem, for one moment consider that the incredible technology of Atlantis was able to step up the individual frequency of every man, woman, and child, every rock, flower, tree, and the very earth of their island continent and translate them into the fourth dimension.

Atlantis did not sink below the earth in a single day of an antediluvian cataclysm: Atlantis trembled for twenty-four hours as incredible machines raised its vibratory rate until it could materialise in another spectrum of tangibility and establish itself in another space-time continuum.

Atlantis may be all around us and may be entered through certain window areas of dimensional interpenetration.

Don’t be in a hurry to find such an ultra dimensional door, however; a single day in Atlantis may be equal to a month, a year, a decade in our own space-time continuum

[Brad Steiger, Atlantis Rising. 1973 (London: Sphere Books, 1977): 136-37]

Rather a lot of "mays" and "mights" and other uses of the conditional tense in that extract, don't you think? Why might a day in Atlantis be equal to a month, a year or a decade in our own "space-time continuum"? Because that's what happens in the Narnia books? Or just because it's kind of fun to imagine it? (You never know, maybe future film-rights might be based on the idea ...)

Steiger has his tongue firmly in his cheek, I suspect, unlike his acolyte Joseph Frank, whose solemn, po-faced entries on such subjects as "Wai-ta-hanui" ["New Zealand's oldest known tribe, said to have arrived more than 2,000 years ago ... The Waitahanui were supposed to have been prodigious mariners who navigated the world in ocean-going sailing ships, and raised colossal stone structures, of which the Kaimanawa wall is the last surviving example." (p.287)] or "Mu" ["Atlantis and Mu engaged in some cultural interchange, but the peaceful Lemurians mostly regarded imperialist Atlanteans with a veiled mixture of dread and contempt." (p.188)] would be guaranteed to raise the hackles of Maps and all his PC archaeological buddies.

Why the hell do people write this kind of drivel?, I ask myself as I leaf through my little library of Atlantiana & Lemuriosity. I know why they publish it - because it sells. Which must mean that people enjoy reading it. Do they believe it? Not all of them can be postmodernist game-players addicted to the spurious and kitschy (which I suppose is my melancholy motivation for collecting it), but I doubt they're all credulous Trekkies and star-children, either. it's a kind of region of speculative semi-fiction, I suppose. Nice to read about and indulge in as a kind of "what-if."

Fundamentally, though, I think its appeal is based on mistrust. We don't really feel we can rely on "experts" any more. Too many cases of intellectual fraud and self-interest in the academic and scientific establishment have left them (or us) with about as much street-cred as so many used-car salesmen (or politicians, to take it down a couple of rungs). "Who pays your salary?" is - unfortunately - the only relevant question to ask of most "authorities": in court, in the lecture room, in print, or anywhere else for that matter.

At least cranks' motivations tend to be fairly easily discoverable - when they're not already firmly emblazoned on their sleeves. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean that I take a sympathetic interest in the views of neo-Nazis or Holocaust-deniers (or neo-Colonialists, for that matter) - but that's not because they're ill-informed idiots, it's because of the sheer horror of the crimes they're attempting to palliate. I'd say the same for apologists for Stalin or Mao, for that matter. Or any other gloomy old tyrant or mass-murderer. Sorry Mr Dolan, but I'm not too impressed by the morals of Genghis Khan, either ...

People who read books about Atlantis and the Martian pyramid and NASA's great Moon-landing hoax are not necessarily idiots (or if they are, then I'm one too - which might not be too much of a stretch for regular readers of this blog). They read them because they're halfway convinced already that everything told them by officialdom is a lie if not the result of a conspiracy. What else are they to think when big US companies have started paying their executives billion-dollar bonuses again before the ink is even dry on the blank cheques paid over to them by Congress? That we can trust our Lords and masters? That they have our best interests at heart?

Anybody who'd like to investigate further the relationship between literary fakes and the standard tropes of postmodernism could do worse than read Ken Ruthven's fascinating and provocative Faking Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), where he goes through all the various scandals where allegedly "indigenous" writers ('B. Wongar', Helen 'Demidenko' [Darville]) have been praised to the skies for their sensitive and nunanced portrayals of alternate world-views, then "caught out" and denounced for their clumsy impostures a few months later.

The books hadn't changed. They still had the same fixed arrangements of white space and black letters as before. The only thing that had changed was the shitheads composing the reviews. So much did they hate being exposed as credulous dupes and tone-deaf critics, that they had to react with swift disproportionate rage to avoid exposing the whole nonsensical ramp of "established artistic reputations" altogether.

Funnily enough, I found Ruthven's book, virtually brand-new, on the chuck-out pile at Auckland Central Library, priced at one dollar, so maybe somebody inside that august institution felt a little queasy about its implications. Call me paranoid, but ...

No, seriously, the subject is clearly a complex one. But you can't go on teaching people to distrust fixed ideas and commonplaces, to test out ideas for themselves, and then expect them to except all the ideas you're trying to peddle to them. You know you're right - that your ideas are sound, well-researched, academically respectable. But why should they accept it on your say-so? It may be worrying to watch people reading books about Celtic NZ and the Chinese influence on the Italian Renaissance instead of "sound" historical research - I find it extremely irritating seeing people reading Jeffery Archer instead of trying to penetrate my own portentous and labyrinthine tomes - but you can't really blame them sometimes.

Why are they doing it? What do they find in these books? Those, I think, are the questions we should be asking instead.

[K. K. Ruthven: Faking Literature (2001)]


Giovanni said...

I look forward to meeting you some day, but (I hope you don't mind me saying so) I'm even keener to be introduced to your library.

I enthusiastically agree that it's interesting to speculate on the fascination with pseudohistories. Besides the reasons you put forward I think there is a broadly shared need to feel that there are other worlds besides ours, yet coexistent with it. Religion and mythology (the latter is another subject of Ruthven's) feed into this need, and so does gaming, or reading fiction. All together, they contribute I think to give us a sense of the extent in which our actual histories and the sense of who we are (as individuals and as societies) are based on all kinds of fictions and constructions, but then of course there come a point where we need to say no, sorry, this is just untrue. It's a tricky thing to do, and I'm not surprised that for some people the mainstream idea of what constitutes history may seem altogether fictive, or deserving of a radical shakeup.

Ross Brighton said...

I've got a really fascinating/cute/disturbing (for its turn-of-the-century racism) wee book on Lemuria published by the Theosophical Society, complete with map. I inhereted it from my great uncle, who was a lovable, completely bonkers, old eccentric.
It's great - i'd love to do an altered text of it, but don't really want to destroy it by doing so.

Another thing I find strang is people who are militantly sceptical of new agism and the like, but then still read (or at least don't criticise) poeple like Clayton Eshleman, and his spiritualist meta-poetry, or Cecil Taylor, who "talks to ghosts", or Alan Moore, who practices "Chaos Magic" and placed hexes on the recent production of Watchmen. I suppose when it's people you like/respect being goofy it's a tad harder to lay into them.

Jack Ross said...

Yes, and you don't have to dig too deep, either, Ross. What about Ted Hughes, who used to have seances with the ouija board almost every night until Sylvia got thoroughly spooked out by the whole thing? Or Yeats's wife who started to scribble automatic writing on their actual honeymoon (and thus conveniently put Maud Gonne out of his mind forever ...), or James Merrill and his buddies getting spirit messages from Wystan Audne and composing an epic poem on the subject ... and these are just a few mainstream examples.

I completely agree with Giovanni that "of course there come a point where we need to say no, sorry, this is just untrue" -- it's kind of got there with doubts about the Moon landings, I feel. But the problem with orthodox histories is that emphases and selection of facts are always up for grabs. It may be true, but is it important? That's the question that guarantees continued employment for historians forevermore ... I also agree that studying the nature of fictions, of storytelling itself, can sometimes be a more fruitful pursuit than simply verification of facts (vital though that is).

Ross Brighton said...

"I also agree that studying the nature of fictions, of storytelling itself, can sometimes be a more fruitful pursuit than simply verification of facts (vital though that is)."
Yes, I totally agree. I think this may be where discourse analysis becomes important, and the understanding of all this as discourse, and as inherently textual.
Which brings us to one of the things that I find a little strange (though maybe through not understanding how fringe some of my practice is) - in literary criticism, why don't people treat fiction as fiction - let alone as textual/written? This should extend to, i think, the reading of history (pseudo or not) and journalism - though with less emphasis on the fictionality, though that could be moved to organisation and narrative construction etc - which is incredibly blatant in that Atlantian stuff.

Anonymous said...

Yeats is interesting too in other ways here.

There's so much weirdness swirling around in poems (Auden's line about him being silly like the rest of us was polite but also wild understatement), but it could be (as, from memory, I think Stead argues in The New Poetic)that his immersion in all that spiritualism, ghosts and so on is what allows him to bypass equally crippling contemporary myths or ideological straight-jackets and get imaginative access to History.

So the contradiction that Ross describes doesn't go away, but is nicely complicated: Yeats managed to make the most sense - and to speak the most urgently and lastingly about 'real' History - when he was furthest away from it and chatting with the fairies in the garden.

thanks for the post!


Ross Brighton said...

Just read the comment stream on Scott's latest post re: teh Dargaville thing, and am now thinking that the purveyance of suich as this is not only due to people's mistrust of authority, but also (paradoxically) their blind trust of so-callled "experts" (Maps: "Those who want to make the case for the museum's essential innocence will have to explain why the institution allowed Noel Hilliam to give an explicitly racist lecture on his looted bones there in 2007, and why 40 museum volunteers turned up to this meeting.").
Also the "engineers for 9/11 truth" movement, which has been rearing its head at the University of Canterbury lately. And of course they're full of bullshit too, no occum's razor there, nor common sense regarding stress testing or the fact that noone ever modeled for such impacts - noone saw the need to. But if engineers buy into this, and start preaching conspiracy, a lot of lay-poeple will never look into the science, and take their word for it. Sigh.

Jack Ross said...

Dougal - good point. Yeats's relationship to occultism was certainly a complex one, and the very reverse of naive. It helped him in a way that Pound's immersion in contemporary theories of political economy did not (it's salutary to remember how many people were mulling over Major Douglas and Social Credit at the time) ...

The funny thing is that sceptics don't seem to be any more immune to being taken in by plausible lies than the allegedly "credulous." I find Bertrand Russell's debates with the Jesuit historian Coplestone instructive there. While my first instinct is to side with Russell, one has to admit that his basic ignorance of the Western philosophical tradition was shown up most effectively by the better-read, better-trained Coplestone, author of a real history of western philosophy.

And then when you start looking back at Russell's long series of embarrassing and whince-making volte-faces(advocating unilateral nuclear war on Russia in the late 1940s, dodgy alliances with cranks in the 30s), you realise how easy it is for the hyper-intelligent to rationalise themselves into abhorrent positions ...

Martin Edmond said...

The Ruthven sounds interesting Jack. Another good book on the same subject is The Forger's Shadow : How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature by Nick Groom. I found it remaindered in Abbeys a few years ago.

Giovanni said...

And of course they're full of bullshit too, no occum's razor there

Sorry, I have to nitpick: Occam's razor applies to natural phenomena, not to human events - people in all manners of circumstances behave in the least probable way (if that even makes sense) and conspirators in particular act very precisely to conceal their actions and generally arrange things so that a conspiracy would seem unlikely or far-fetched. After all, don't investigators have to behave like paranoid people, "consider all possibilites"?

And in a postmodern world things do get enormously complicated sometimes: when the US astronauts landed on the moon, they did a number of things that made the landing look staged (which it kind of was): they placed a camera on the ground before Armstrong took his first step, rigged up the flag so that it would appear to be flying even in the absence of wind, that kind of stuff. In that interstice, between the spectacularisation of the actual and the faking of something that never happened, such fantasies as those described by Jack incubate.

9/11 too (as immediately reported by The Onion) was a carefully choreographed event made to look like a film by Jerry Bruckheimer. It was a fake even if it really happened - no wonder people will endlessly speculate about what was behind that appearance.

Ross Brighton said...

Yeah, I see what you mean. With the Razor, I was talking about the physics, but it gets muddy there (where humans and the 'natural' intersect). Though I'd be careful about getting too Baudrillardian - he pushes things too far for the sake of rhetoric at times, imo.

Jack -
I've been thinging about things, and was wondering if you could clarify this:
"he books hadn't changed. They still had the same fixed arrangements of white space and black letters as before. The only thing that had changed was the shitheads composing the reviews. So much did they hate being exposed as credulous dupes and tone-deaf critics, that they had to react with swift disproportionate rage to avoid exposing the whole nonsensical ramp of "established artistic reputations" altogether."

What exactly do you mean here? would you rather the critics didn't review the books, or that they shouldn't take things at face value (which, in cases like these, is hard - how do you do research on a fake writer who has just written "their" first book?) - I find it difficult to see an alternative.

In such cases the critics are victims of dishonesty, as are the public. What I believe such hoaxes do is put paid to the "death of the author" school of criticism, and disprove the autonomy of the text - context matters.

Jack Ross said...

What I mean is that bad critics don't review books, they review the contexts of books (so if it's an "established artist", they review their opinion of that person's reputation - going up? or going down? The cocktail party circuit will keep them up to date on that).

So instead of saying, honestly, that they still like the book they reviewed so enthusiastically the week before - or that they got it wrong, the book's a piece of shit, they were soundly fooled, they instead act all offended and imply that you can't judge a book unless you know the detailed background of its author.

"Would you rather the critics didn't review the books?" Yes, of course I'd rather that dumb, dishonest critics shouldn't review books.

"Or that they shouldn't take things at face value (which, in cases like these, is hard - how do you do research on a fake writer who has just written "their" first book?)" You don't need to do research to review a book. A review is simply a statement of opinion based on the text sitting in front of you. Of course reviews tend to shade off into the other regions of lit crit where you do need to know information about author's backgrounds, etc. But if you need the research to "reassure" you your judgements are at least defensible, then you shouldn't be doing that particular job.

"A fake writer who has just written 'their' first book." I'm not talking about plagiarists here. That's quite another topic (though an interesting one). I'm talking about writers - Helen Demindenko, B. Wongar - who've written the book, with all its merits or demerits - themselves, but lied (often indirectly rather than directly) about their own background and antecedents. I'm also talking about books which were praised to the skies and then swept off the shelves like so much garbage.

"I find it difficult to see an alternative." Can't you? What about those reviewers sticking to their guns and admitting that it was the idea of an aboriginal writing a novel that thrilled them, rather than the actual books themselves (B. Wongar). Or that Helen Demindenko is/was a very promising young writer whose work showed great skill.

If you read the Ruthven book, you'll find how many writers do lie - constantly and consistently - about their past (Patrick O'Brien wasn't Irish - but he claimed to be all his life, and used it as a selling-poin; T. S. Eliot wasn't a Boston Brahmin; Laurens Van der Post only met Jung briefly once or twice, but wrote a biography based on their "close friendship"). Lots of people lie, in other words. PR people and journalists will lie for you if you let them. The point is that only a very few, the comparatively powerless, get punished for it.

And it generally comes down to some question of "authenticity" - a treacherous conception when it comes to "fiction" (as you so rightly observe above).

Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Ross Brighton said...

Jack -
Yes, I totally agree. Its the same with "established" writers who play of their name, knowing that people are going to buy it regardless. Though I think that dishonesty regarding genre (fiction/non-fiction) should not be excused because of hacks - I was responding to the comment as a critic myself, and in light of the throw-away line in Pierre Joris' piece that I quoted from on my blog that ""the critic/theorist [is] the dog that barks as the caravan passes", which I think is unfair. Its like indicting all poets because of the New Formalists. Sorry if there was a hint of vitriol there - it was not intended. I too would love it if there weren't idiots out there, but alas, there's little chance of that.
By talking about fakery I was meaning that the "author", or the persona that the book was written by, isn't real - not that it was plagerised - eg JT Elroy/Savannah Knoop - Knoop wrote the book, but claimed to "be" the fictional Elroy while doing so, and claimed "his" life story as antecedent. While the furore that errupted after this de-masking (or that of Kent Johnson re: Yasusada's Doubled Flowering) makes a mockery of serious criticism, the context/veracity of said cntext will always affect one's reading of the work.
Therefore if I was writing on a book that claimed historical truth, and found out that it was a hoax, I would have to rethink all of my conclusions about it. And I'd proably be pissed of that I'd been duped.

I totally agree with you re Aboriginal writing (and similar things can be said about the yasusada hoax) - there is a real element of poverty porn to a lot of that, or, as I've said before, there's the archetypal Booker Prize postcolonial novel that makes us whiteys feel better about ourselves for caring, then able to continue our lives just as before becuase that "caring" aliviates any obligation do do anything more.

I will definately look into the book.