Thursday, September 10, 2009

Charles Fort: A review

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural
By Jim Steinmeyer New York: 2008

A book review by Jay Rothermel

Where would books and television be without the work of Charles Fort? Today pseudo-science is everywhere. The so-called History Channel features shows called Monsterquest and UFO Hunters. The Travel Channel gives us a show like Weird Travels, touting vacations in Sedona, Arizona and Lake Champlain. On late night radio we can listen to Coast to Coast AM and try to defeat insomnia with ready-made folklore about “free energy,” Big Foot, and Men in Black. At bookstores there are three new and supposedly non-fiction books about the end of the world in 2012.

“Just the usual commodity capitalism bread and circuses,” we sniff. What could be more exhausting to dialectical materialists than yet another regurgitation of idealism or Platonism or what-you-will, parading as pragmatic and hard-headed science? Bourgeois culture continually dredges up and repackages the ancient and discredited modes of thought of pre-capitalist societies. This is not done out of antiquarian curiosity, but from political necessity. The reign of the church gives way to the rising tide of secularism, and so obscuring the material basis of social relations that keeps the majority of humanity in bondage becomes harder. Schools must be robbed of any chance a few teachers might really educate a few students. The written record and historical experience of the working class movement must be ruled out of order and expunged. Scientific socialism must be dismissed as totalitarian mythology.

The capitalist ruling class, pragmatic and without any long-term strategy or ability to plan the continuation or expansion of its rule as a system, launch a thousand arrows against science in general and communism in particular. One of the sharpest of these is pseudo-science, a series of empirical anecdotes strung together by seemingly common sense explanations that end up confusing and demobilizing attempts to understand the world. Pseudo-science resuscitates old dogmas like Biblical creation or clairvoyance and gives them bogus but objective-sounding names like “intelligent design” and “extrasensory perception.”

If pseudo-science did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. And to the extent pseudo-science was invented, that credit must go to Charles Fort (1874-1932).

Ben Hecht eulogized Fort in his own inimitable style, and sums him up very well: “When he was on earth not so long ago he went to a lot of work establishing the three great Fortean laws. These are, that man is a fool; that his soul is a swamp in a derby hat; and that his intellect is a fetus in a frock coat.” (Steinmeyer, page 277)

Fort’s friend and partisan Theodore Dreiser summed him up thusly: “Fort is not enormously ignorant of anything…. To me no one in the world has suggested the underlying depths and mysteries and possibilities as Fort. To me he is simply stupendous.” (p 12)

Historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer has written the first serious biography of Fort since Damon Knight’s Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained (1970). Steinmeyer is a sensitive, meticulous biographer, but subtitling his book “the Man who Invented the Supernatural” seems a willful misreading of his subject. Whether we call Fort an eccentric vulgar materialist or a neo-Platonist or whatever, he clearly had no interest in any Conan Doyle-style supernaturalism. Musty old Victorian lace and mediums making the parlor table rap and dance were anathema to him. His “theories” were based not on reports of a Ouija board or tarot deck, but on obscure and anomalous anecdotes culled from daily newspapers and the scientific journals of the English-speaking world.

Early years of parental brutality made Fort unfit for a productive life. After initial success as a teenage reporter on a Brooklyn newspaper and fitful attempts at short fiction (which Dreiser admired), destitution and near-homelessness overwhelmed Fort and his wife. Only in 1912, after the death of his father and the arrival of a small inheritance, was he able to focus on plans to produce a consistent and significant writing.

Near the end of his life Fort tried to sum up his own aesthetic. He wrote: “there will arise writing that will retain the principle of dramatic structure of the novel, but not having human beings as characters, will not be producible in pictures and will survive independently. Maybe I am a pioneer in a new writing that, instead of old-fashioned heroes and villains, will have floods and bugs and stars and earthquakes for its character motifs.” (p 259)

Fort spent about five hours a day at the New York Public Library filling up small slips of paper with notes. “He managed to assemble forty thousand notes, by his own estimate, deliberately seeking information of the widest possible diversity: ‘astronomy, sociology, psychology, deep sea diving, navigation, surveying, volcanoes, religion, sexes, earth worms’”(p160) “He read meteorology, natural history, shipping reports, and science journals, squinting through his glasses as he turned page after page. With some regularity he turned to the sheet of paper on the table and scratched a pencil note of some neglected phenomenon.” (p161)

Retired from a career of slow starvation and repeated eviction thanks to a small family legacy, Fort evolved into a dilettante assembling and orchestrating strange anecdotes. “Gradually he was drawn to apparent anomalies – strange phenomena that defied neat classification. He started to discover them everywhere, prying them out of established journals and histories. After years of collecting – idly arranging and rearranging objects, phrases, or information – he now began to notice patterns.” (p. 135)

The scene is reminiscent of another reclusive artist assembling scraps into works of enduring fascination: the artist Joseph Cornell. Fort catalogues “accounts of bleeding statues, mysterious animals, sea monsters, lights in the sky from unknown airships, unexplained cattle mutilations, spontaneous human combustion. He recounts the disappearing passengers aboard the famous Marie Celeste, as well as similar mysteries of the sea.” (p. 247)

Four oddly compelling and crankish books resulted from the research Fort conducted before his eyesight failed. He saw the collected anecdotes as a refutation of science. “Fort ridiculed proofs of the shape of the earth, the speed of light, triangulation, and spectroscopic observations. He doubted Kepler and noted how Newton had used his mathematics to predict planetary motion as well as the Old Testament’s Prophecies of Daniel.” (p. 199)

The concept of orthogenesis, a bastardized Platonism masquerading as science and embraced by such eminences as Lamarck, Ernst Haekel, and Henri Bergson over its long sway, appealed to Fort’s contrary prejudices about findings of cotemporary science. “In a technical sense we give up the doctrine of evolution,” he wrote. “Ours is an expression upon design underlining and manifesting in all things with its own system….The concept of development replaces the concept of evolution. In Darwinism, there is no place for the influence of the future upon the present.” (p. 202)

Fort has little patience for the modern. He sought confirmation not in a church, but to forty thousand anecdotes he saw as the perfect rebuke to self-satisfied and dogmatic science. A thin border separates empiricism from idealism, and Fort prided himself on being a man of frontiers and new lands.

Fort’s sardonic temperament is reminiscent of a more successful author whose career was ending just as Fort’s was beginning: Ambrose Bierce. Bierce wrote a Devil’s Dictionary (1911); Fort may be said to have written four volumes of a “Devil’s Encyclopedia.” Both treated the great achievements of human reason with skepticism, but no the system that so abused and immiserated them.

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Of course Fort’s conclusions were not those of a scientist who could test theories and correct mistakes through experimentation. His theories were idiosyncratic prejudices of an affronted and politically marginalized petty bourgeoisie.

The twentieth century gave us many crank books parading in robes of science that pursued the same conclusions as Fort’s, and owed most if not all their ingenuity and originality to Fort’s sod-busting. Immanuel Velikovsky Worlds in Collision (1950) sough to explain Biblical catastrophes as the product of planets Mars and Venus arriving in orbit around the sun in Old Testament time. While Fort never played the fool’s game of trying to rationalize Bible stories himself, Velikovsky was a true epigone. Another was Colin Wilson, author of The Occult (1971). This book, and the dozens of others Wilson has produced in the last forty years, explains the magical thinking and magical practices of the last 2500 years as the historical expression of newly evolving mental powers among certain elite members of the human race. It is a slightly re-cooked Maslow by way of Gurdjieff. How are said powers unleashed? Why, through the power of positive thinking! Mind over matter is the clarion call of all pseudo-science today. Even The God that Failed contributor and so-called “polymath” Arthur Koestler ended up a Lamarckian.

Today, as capitalist economic crises and political polarization increases, forces pushing intelligent design receive increased support from bourgeois institutions and figures. Fort’s crude visions of orthogenesis have been revised and updated by more sophisticated levels of pseudo-scientific quackery.

Fascism, which mobilizes the defeated and atomized into its fighting street militias, also mobilizes the most defeatist and atomizing ideas about society, history, and the natural world into its arsenal in order to obscure events and politically and intellectually demobilize. The German NAZI party indulged in the expense of its own “thinkers” in their pseudo-scientific investigations of such priceless nonsense as the Hollow Earth and the Himalayan roots of the master race.


Eccentric organization makes Fort’s books less works of scholarship than works of surreal free-association. That is their aesthetic charm. U.S. painter Robert Motherwell once described surrealism as “taking a line for a walk.” In Fort, anomalous incidents are exercised for the enjoyment and titillation of the reader. His later epigones (Donald Keyhoe, Budd Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, Art Bell) lack the artistry and the amused contrariness.

Jim Steinmeyer is a conscientious and enjoyable writer. This makes the few errors of fact in Charles Fort: the Man who Invented the Supernatural all the more disconcerting. On page 182 we are told that Indiana novelist and Fort admirer Booth Tarkington won the Nobel Prize in 1920 for The Magnificent Ambersons. Alas for Tarkington and Indiana, it was only the Pulitzer Prize. The other glaring error of fact appears on page 214, where Steinmeyer informs us that the 1925 Scopes Trial took place in Dayton, Ohio. As a Buckeye, I am pleased to note the venue for that trial was Dayton, Tennessee.


Charles Fort’s most famous statement, the one that launched so many Philip K. Dick novels and X-Files episodes, is: “I think we’re property. I should say we belong to something… That something owns the earth – all others are warned off…” Truly this is the conclusion of a starving man who lived for years under threat of eviction.