Fantastic Realism on the Super-Sargasso Sea: An Organizing Theory for Anomalistics?

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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one” – Albert Einstein

Nope, still not a pipe.

Nope, still not a pipe.

Anomalistics charts a dangerous course not between science and spiritualism as the conflict is usually framed, rather between the Scylla and Charybdis of surrealism and logical empiricism.  When faced with the intrusion of unreality into reality, it is just as easy to dismiss all that is not empirically verifiable (through Aristotelian logic or reproducible sensory experience) and prey upon those elements foolish enough to make themselves a mouthful, as it is to blindly embrace the startling effects of the imagination and sink into the dark and inescapable maelstrom of belief where nothing is forbidden.  Sailors on Charles Fort’s Super-Sargasso Sea often feel forced to make the false, yet dichotomous choices between heresy and orthodoxy, interpretation and evidence, skepticism and suspension of disbelief, or sanity and insanity.  We are all products of our respective contemporary cultures.  We have to make a living, amuse ourselves, and try not to get locked in a padded room (easier for some of us than others) with a pragmatism that forces us to hug an experiential shore.  I get paid to write inelegant code and make computers do funky things.  I’ve found that there is little beyond aesthetic value to the inclusion of one of Solomon’s seals in my algorithms, regardless of whether I have the uncanny sense that my program could use a little demonic debugging.  Thus, in our daily construction of reality and our routine performance of the act of being human, more often than not, form must follow function.  This is as true for anomalistics as it is for most things that we find cognitively meaningful, and while those who chase unidentified flying objects, stalk ghosts, hunt monsters, catalog Forteana, or explore consciousness may be more open to the possibility that the boundaries of reality are not so clearly defined or discontinuous, and function as explorers thereof, they nonetheless are culturally and practically compelled to favor the form of the empirical cliffs (as much as they may disdain it’s positively monstrous qualities) for the same reason that in Homer’s Odyssey, the nymph Circe advises Odysseus that between the fearsome man-eating serpent Scylla and the boat-swallowing whirlpool Charybdis, it is better to sail closer to Scylla, “for surely it is far better to miss six comrades from your ship than all together” (Homer, Odyssey, Book XII).  But what if there were an alternative to grouping the phenomena of anomalistics into “weird news” or “fantasy”?

At the core of surrealism was the desire to express the inexpressible, to give primacy to the logic of dreams and the unconscious in an attempt to excavate authenticty, but its essence was the absolute rejection of realism following the horrors of World War I, or rather “Reality, then, as demonstrated by the realists and as seen by man’s own limited conscious self, entered upon a period of disfavor when it was considered imperfect, transitory, impure. And many of the new writers are characterized by their refusal of reality. Refusal and denial, in terms of reality, become currently used words. This is negative, a movement of anti-realism, but contains, as most negations do, an overwhelming positive aspiration. A new kind of absolute is in sight, which, although it contains a refusal of what we usually call logical intelligence, is an elevation of the subconscious of man into a position of power and magnitude and (the word now forces itself on us) surreality” (Fowlie, 1960, p17).  Empiricism (by which we mean Locke’s “British Empiricism” that followed from the rise of the scientific method in the 17th Century A.D. and largely characterizes our modern logical empiricism) was a rejection of pure rationalism in favor of a theory of knowledge that maintained the only understanding humans can have are based on experience, which ultimately leads to the conclusion that if the community does not apprehend what you insist is a reality, it has no more reality than a dream, on top of which our ability to perceive reality at all is questionable and in fact, largely irrelevant (thus sensory aberrations are all the more wanting).  But these are flip sides of the same coin.  Post-modern philosopher and sociologist Max Horkheimer argued precisely this when he observed, “There is a similarity between logical empiricism and surrealism that does honor to the latter.  It is in total agreement with the modern empirical tendency to eliminate all ‘nonconstitutive’ concepts as suspicious atavisms.  Why shouldn’t the concept of reality be on the index of forbidden words?” (Horkheimer, 2007, p96).  Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that every curious navigator of the world of strange phenomena consciously subscribes to one philosophical school or another, rather that day to day existence requires at least a begrudging commitment to a belief-based or disbelief-based perspective, if for no other reason than there are articles to write, websites to run, clients to serve, grants to obtain, or professional networks to maintain.  This is as true for the Catholic Church as it is for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Whither goes the anomaly in such a world as this?

Any academic worth their salt will quietly admit that there are really only two ways to intellectually distinguish oneself as a scholar (buy one a few drinks, its enormous fun, I swear), either by championing orthodoxy or starting a revolution, which pretty much says the same thing as the Italian proverb, “If you crave an audience, start a fight”.  Coupled with the intricacies of the well-tested psychological phenomena known as the “confirmation bias” (the tendency to favor information that confirms one’s existing beliefs or hypotheses, particularly with emotionally charged issues) and it’s resultant sub-phenomena of “attitude polarization” (when two people face the exact same evidence related to a “hot button” issue, say the existence of an afterlife, they seek to interpret the experience in terms of their existing beliefs, widening rather than narrowing their disagreement), it would seem that despite our best intentions, it is very difficult for our species not to take a polarized public stance, perhaps one more extreme than we would necessarily admit to when we are alone with ourselves, warm in the embrace of insomnia, basking in the dark glow of our laptop screens.  The workaday world demands empirical results (website traffic, revenue, readership, functional technology), but our existential yearnings demand an end to the disorientation and confusion that result from the tacit recognition of the absurdity of our existence, the appearance of the monster in the lake, the specter on the stairs, or the flying saucer, even though these things may not be encapsulated in our everyday philosophy.  We are forced into the dubious choice of living in the surrealist’s dream world or held in thrall by the empiricist’s definition of madness when we want to make room in the real universe for the fantastic.

A few artists and philosophers have explored an alternative epistemology, largely relegated to the dustbin of literary theory and genre typology that may allow the navigation of that narrow channel between the philosophical extremes of surrealism and logical empiricism, referred to as “Fantastic Realism” (also sometimes “Magical Realism”), offering what may be a more fertile ontological ground for planting an epistemology of anomalistics.  Traditionally, fantastic realism has been the term applied to literature, film, and art (our primary media for interrogating reality that allow us to acceptably ask “what if?”) that allow for the interaction of the real with the fantastic as a function of the natural world, where neither is given explanatory priority.  Charles Fort, in his relentless cataloging of the scientifically excluded touched upon precisely the problem that might be resolved when he commented, “It is our expression that nothing can attempt to be, except by attempting to exclude something else: that which is commonly called ‘being’ is a state that is wrought more or less definitely proportionately to the appearance of positive difference between that which is included and that which is excluded” (Fort, 1919, p8).  Fort, who’s thinking on the subject preceded the emergence of the magical realist movements in Europe, tentatively concluded that we were mistakenly assuming that the occurrences that would one day eponymously be called Forteana were simply farther down the same continuum of “being” than we were willing to admit.  Our everyday lives make us question the wisdom of this – at most times, in most situations we do not experience the fantastic or unnatural, and when we do there is not a sense of flow between extremes, rather of utter discontinuity.  The fantastic realist notes the mundane, notes the aberration, and places them adjacent to each other, perhaps in juxtaposition, but neither necessarily subject to the reality of the other.  Philosophers of the occult and anomalistics Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in exploring the potential of alternative explanations for human history adopted the stance of fantastic realism, explaining “We are neither materialists nor spiritualists: these distinctions no longer have any meaning for us.  Quite simply, we seek reality while avoiding the conditioned reflex of modern man (in our opinion behind the times) who turns away as soon as this reality takes on a fantastic air.  We have turned ourselves into barbarians again, so as to conquer this reflex, exactly as the painters did in order to tear away the screen of conventions erected between their vision and things as they are.  Like them, too, we have opted for methods that may seem elementary, barbaric, even childish at times.  We take up the position vis-à-vis the elements and methods of knowledge like that of Cezanne in front of his apple, or Van Gogh in his field of corn.  We refuse to exclude any facts or aspects of reality on the grounds that they are not ‘respectable’, or that they go beyond the frontiers fixed by current theories” (Pauwels and Bergier, 1960, p71).

Anomalistics, Forteana, and the pursuit of strange phenomena now have a moment, if not of mainstream credibility, then at least of attention.  It is far too easy to accept enclosure in the ghetto of entertainment.  It has certain remunerative consequences that those of us who prefer to eat and pay mortgages find useful, but does it not do a disservice to what all these earnest pilgrims to the edge of reality are truly after, and in short, further compound the joke? Mesmer was practically experimenting with the unconscious and became associated with parlor tricks decades before Freud began plumbing its depths.  As in many of the human sciences, practitioners compartmentalize their professions into applied and theoretical baskets, imagining that the two can be cleanly wrested apart, but this has invariably proven to be a land of dead souls. The world is a strange place, and our natural compulsion is to attempt to demystify it, but at the core of any mysticism is the idea that there are things in the universe we might productively apprehend if we for a moment shed our intellectual armor.  This is what Gabriel Garcia Marquez, widely regarded as a literary fantastic realist was reacting to when he protested the appellation as obscuring the fact that the line between the fantastic and real is an illusion, “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination”.

References
Fort, Charles, 1874-1932. The Book of the Damned: by Charles Fort. New York: H. Liveright, 1919.
Fowlie, Wallace, 1908-1998. Age of Surrealism. Bloomington: Indiana Universtiy Press, 1960.
Homer. The Odyssey of Homer: Books I-XII ; The Text, And an English Version In Rhythmic Prose. Boston [Mass.]: Houghton, Mifflin, 1884.
Horkheimer, Max.  A Life in Letters: Selected Correspondence.  Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Bergier, Jacques and Pauwels, Louis.  The Morning of the Magicians.  New York: Stein and Day, 1960.

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