My Fortean Heresy

Charles Fort, New Lands, revised by X. John Brown Publishing, 1996.

Let's start off by congratulating the Fortean Times crew on producing the definitive revised and corrected edition of this classic, but be honest, have you ever read Charles Fort? I mean really read him; starting at page one and going right through to the end? Of course not, he's unreadable. Try this: "Vaunt and inflation and parade of the symbols of the infinitesimal calculus; the pomp of vectors, and the hush that surrounds quaternions: but when an axis of co-ordinates loses its quaternions, in the service of a questionable selection, disciplined symbols become a rabble". What on earth is he talking about? If it were not 73 years old I would be able to claim a fiver off Private Eye's 'Pseuds Corner' from every page of this book.

If you carefully filter and pan this flood of verbiage, like a patient old prospector, you do eventually come across the nuggets of 'Fortean phenomena'. After a while you learn to skip the flannel and concentrate on the information, aided in this edition by the excellent new index by Steve Moore, but it does become wearisome. And even more wearisome is Fort's heavy-handed sarcasm about the alleged shortcoming and short-sightedness of science. Like a boring taxidriver he drones away, 'astronomers, don't talk to me about astronomers, guv, waddatheyknow': "phantom dogmas, with their tails clutching at vacancies, are coiled around our data"; "the seismologists ... have been hypnotised into oblivion of a secret that has been proclaimed by avalanches of fire from the heavens ..."; "Another position of mine that will be found well-taken is that, no matter what my own interpretations or acceptances may be, they will compare favourably, so far as rationality is concerned, with orthodox explanations." Really? Would you want to be stuck next to this man on a bus?

If Fort was just a rather verbose collector of odd snippets from the local papers, or was a methodical recorder and analyst like William Corliss, then we would all be either amused or educated. But he liked to think of himself as a philosopher. Or an avant-garde poet, for who else could write lines like "Exploding monasteries that shoot out clouds of monks into cyclonic formations with stormy nuns similarly dispossessed - or collapsing monasteries - sometimes slowly crumbling confines of the cloistered..." oh, I'm sorry, I just can't go on, it reminds me irresistibly of the old Tony Hancock episode where he got involved in a beatnik poetry circle.

Even worse, people then started taking him seriously as a philosopher - scientists, whaddatheyknow? - and a sort of crippling 'Fortean Correctness' has grown up which insists that anything strange is unexplained, every explanation is specious, and science can never have the answer to anything. Indeed, they seem to suggest, we should not even attempt to explain any strange occurrence, as this is somehow contrary to the Fortean ideal. This attitude soon becomes just as trite and boring as any other othodoxy.

But the Forteans say, "no, old Charlie, what a joker, eh? Mustn't take him so seriously". To which curmudgeons like me say, why not? He took himself very seriously indeed, as anyone who actually reads this extremely opaque and, despite its laboured and verbose attempts at jocularity, remarkably humourless book will find. -- John Rimmer, from Magonia 57, September 1996.


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