In 1919, a “meaningful coincidence” occurred: Charles Fort published The Book of the Damned and the surrealist André Breton (right) founded an anti-literary review titled Littérature. The work of both men would eventually inspire large groups of artists, philosophers, and other strange people to follow in their respective footsteps. In Breton’s case, this is exactly the result he had been striving toward. Fort, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that both men – one in Europe, the other in America – were eagerly exploring the hidden realm of dreams, unexplained phenomena, and what the Swiss psychologist Jung would call “meaningful coincidences”.
It is well known that the surrealists were heavily influenced by psychology, particularly the work of Freud. Later, they would also draw upon the findings of Freud’s student Jung, whose theories concerning synchronicity dovetailed with their own mystical outlook on life. Jung developed the term “synchronicity” after noticing that both he and his patients had experienced an uncanny number of coincidences that clearly went beyond the mere forces of chance (see FT171:42–47; 264:40–45). For example, Jung once related the eerie incident of having suddenly woken up in the middle of the night convinced that someone had just entered his hotel room, only to find himself alone in the dark. He was certain he had been roused forth by “a feeling of dull pain as if something had struck his forehead and the back of his skull”, and yet there was no evidence of physical harm anywhere on his body. The mystery deepened the very next day when he discovered that not only had a patient of his shot himself through the forehead, but that the bullet had “lodged at the back wall of the skull”. Inevitably, the time of the tragedy coincided with Jung’s fearful experience from the night before (1).
Breton recorded similar experiences in his book Nadja. One night, while speaking to Picasso during the intermission of Apollinaire’s Couleur du Temps, he was approached by a young man who “stammers a few words, and finally manages to explain that he had mistaken me for one of his friends supposedly killed in the war. Naturally, nothing more was said. A few days later, through a mutual friend, I begin corresponding with [the French poet] Paul éluard, whom I did not know by sight. On furlough, he comes to see me: I am in the presence of the same person as at Couleur du Temps.”(2)
Worthless facts, petrifying coincidences
This striking example of synchronicity is preceded by a monologue that would not be at all out of place in Fort’s Book of the Damned. Not only is the intellectual content similar, but the paradoxically convoluted and poetic style of the prose is also reminiscent of Fort’s. Breton speaks about being interested in relating the events of his life only insofar as they are “at the mercy of chance… temporarily escaping my control, admitting me to an almost forbidden world of sudden parallels, petrifying coincidences, and reflexes peculiar to each individual, of harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest.” (3)
The facts that most interest Breton, he says, are of an “absolutely unexpected, violently fortuitous character”. Furthermore, they are “of quite unverifiable intrinsic value”.
Such “worthless” facts and “petrifying coincidences” were the core of both Fort’s private and professional life. He swam in an endless river of dreams and damned things, all of which he preserved in his four iconoclastic books. Over the course of 1,062 pages (I refer to the one-volume Books of Charles Fort), Fort drops his bait into this forbidden river and invariably raises strangeness after strangeness, performing exploratory surgery upon each after he’s captured them on the page. Many of them contain echoes of the experiences related by Jung and Breton. Like the latter, Fort would not call them mere coincidences: “In the explanation of coincidence there is much of laziness, and helplessness, and response to an instinctive fear that a scientific dogma will be endangered. It is a tag, or a label…” (4) Fort follows this passage by relating the story of a glass-eyed man named Jackson who was wanted by the police. The police managed to arrest a glass-eyed Jackson in Boston. To their dismay, however, he wasn’t the correct glass-eyed Jackson. They eventually found their Jackson in Philadelphia. For a moment, Fort ruminates over the possibility of universal symmetry: that if there’s a Murphy with a hare lip in Chicago, there must be another hare-lipped Murphy somewhere else. As usual with Fort, just as soon as he proposes an idea he rejects it as being too tidy.
He spends the next two pages listing a series of incidents clipped out of American and British newspapers from the years 1911, 1929, 1930, 1910, 1924, 1931, 1888, and 1892. Each story describes similar scenarios – scenarios that only a man with Fort’s unique sense of pattern recognition could latch onto. In one story, two dead men were found in the desert only 100 yards from each other, and yet the authorities claimed “there was no connection between the two deaths” (5). A separate story reported the discovery of a man, dead of heart failure, sitting on a park bench in the Bronx. Soon afterwards, another dead man was found sitting on a bench nearby. Still another story told of two women found dead in the same river. They had no relation to each other, lived on opposite sides of the town, and both left their respective houses at 10 o’clock in the morning exactly two days before their bodies were found. Still another story describes the execution of three men “for the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, on Greenberry Hill, London”. This wouldn’t be unusual except for the fact that the murderers were named Green, Berry, and Hill. With fastidious documentation, Fort continues to relate proto-synchronicities like these until he comes to the following Breton-like conclusion: “There is a view by which it can be shown, or more or less demonstrated, that there never has been a coincidence. That is, in anything like a final sense. By a coincidence is meant a false appearance, or suggestion, of relations among circumstances. But anybody who accepts that there is an underlying oneness of all things, accepts that there are no utter absences of relations among circumstances – Or that there are no coincidences, in the sense that there are no real discords in either colors or musical notes – That any two colors, or sounds, can be harmonized, by intermediately relating them to other colors, or sounds.” (6)
James Joyce, author of what is arguably the ultimate fortean novel, Finnegans Wake, created his own term to describe these events: “coincidance”. Indeed, such pattern-recognition as exhibited by Fort often involves an unconscious dance between the observer and the phenomenon observed. Perhaps these synchronicities grow out of a human desire to fill in the blank spaces of life, to find connections where there are none, to reconstruct reality to our own satisfaction.
After all, is this not the goal of any surrealist? “This landscape is not good enough for me,” the surrealist declares. “I think I shall include a giant fried egg with a horde of burning midgets on top just to liven it up a bit!” And impetuously, without thinking of the consequences, he does just that, for to do otherwise would be a living death.
Transformations, conscious and otherwise
While a surrealist consciously transforms the world, perhaps Charles Fort performed the same act unconsciously. Wanting a stranger world than the one in which he was forced to live, he went out and found just that between the dusty covers of bound newspapers yellowing with age and neglect. He found wild coincidences; frogs that fell out of the skies; reports going back to 1779 of “vast wheel-like super-constructions” that “enter this earth’s atmosphere” long before such reports became the subject of weekly tabloids; battalions of phantom soldiers; vanishing planets; blue ancient Britons; gravesites the size of marbles belonging to a race of tiny beings who crucified cockroaches; two gigantic crows who perched upon the Moon on the evening of 3 July 1882; a mouse who in the year 1930 was heard to say, “I was along this way, and thought I’d drop in”, then vanished along a trail of purple sparkles; mysterious beings who collect Ambroses; periwinkles that teleport from one side of the Earth to the other; Suns that briefly turn green; the unwavering certainty that the Moon is not only 35 miles (56km) away, but also easily accessible by balloon; and cobwebs that threaten to cover the Earth. This, of course, is only a sample of Fort’s œuvre. Like an alchemist, he was able to take base materials – turgid volumes of recent and not-so-recent history – and reshape them into pure strangeness, or gold by any other name. Max Ernst exhibited the same talent in his surrealist collages, in which he connected unrelated elements into what were often familiar landscapes, populating them with unexpected hybrids and alien creatures. If Ernst did this consciously and Fort unconsciously, in the end it doesn’t matter. Any self-respecting alchemist would be proud of either result.
Tony “Doc” Shiels, a surrealist magician, painter, Punch and Judy professor, and all around roustabout of some note, has applied the term “surrealchemy” to his fortean investigations in Cornwall, where he claims to have invoked a suspiciously Ernstian entity named Owlman. Sightings of the fine-feathered dæmon were reported by numerous residents of Cornwall, all of them independently of each other. In 1976, one witness was reported as saying, “It was like a big owl with pointed ears, as big as a man. The eyes were red and glowing. At first I thought it was someone dressed up, playing a joke, trying to scare us. I laughed at it, we both did, then it went up in the air and we both screamed. When it went up you could see its feet were like pincers.” (7)
Strangely, Ernst visited the Hellford River area of Cornwall – the exact location where Owlman was seen – back in the 1930s with a “Celtic witch-woman”. This was Leonora Carrington, a prolific painter and novelist, and until recently one of the last living surrealists. She died of pneumonia in Mexico City on 25 May 2011 at the age of 94. Of course, anyone familiar with Ernst and his work will know that he had a penchant for drawing entities with avian features. In fact, his androgynous alter ego Loplop has a decidedly bird-like head. Furthermore, the year during which the Owlman sightings occurred also happened to be the year of Ernst’s death. One might say that the preceding titbits are merely examples of the infamous “coincidences” we’ve already heard so much about. However, a more surreal-minded person might propose that the intense creative energy given off by Ernst’s mind during his stay in Cornwall manifested a thought form into the physical world, and that it took the added energy released upon the artist’s death to make this “psychic marionette” fully visible to normal human beings. The Tibetans call such phantoms tulpas.
Though this may sound like pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, Jung had a similar theory concerning flying saucers. In his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, he proposed that flying saucers were actually physical manifestations of the collective unconscious – symbols of nuclear age anxiety and the recurring hope of salvation from above – given life simply by our overwhelming need for them. If that’s not surrealism, then nothing is.
To the literal-minded, this may still sound like pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo; but Jung was a psychiatrist and could get away with saying crazy things like that without being accused of having gone hi-diddle-diddle over the deep end. Crazy or not, the point is that surrealism and fortean phenomena have been intimately related ever since that first “meaningful coincidence” in 1919. Breton’s similarities to Fort, Ernst’s strange intersection with “Doc” Shiels, and Jung’s flirtation with flying saucers suggest there’s a definite relationship between Breton and Fort. Each explores the invisible zones of everyday existence via ostensibly worthless techniques – dreams, fantasies, paranormal phenomena – everything that modern Western Man considers to be mere detritus. Both Breton and Fort practised what could be called “cryptoscatology” (translation from the Latin: “the study of secret shit”). Both wish to dig deeper than consensus reality; to sift through the loam that no one else will touch; to rub the noses of the bourgeoisie into this forbidden soil; to shock “the dead sot, the slow of perception, the dignified, all sourpusses, the cursory or unobservant, some pedagogues, the timid, the gullible, and almost without exception – all persons who have their Science and Scientists from the daily newspapers”, to paraphrase Tiffany Thayer’s list of all those with whom The Books of Charles Fort would be unpopular (8).
Finally, when both men died – Fort in 1932, Breton in 1966 – the squares from the above list immediately declared Bastille Day and decided that forteanism and surrealism were at last dead and buried along with their founders. Such premature forecasting proved thoroughly incorrect – to the great consternation of the dead sots and sourpusses. The proof that neither movement is dead lies in the fact that their core principles and ideas are still being written about and discussed decades after the original founders have long been devoured by the larvæ of dipterous flies and other wonderfully ravenous creatures.
Extracted from Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form, to be published by Trine Day (www.trineday.com) later this year.
1 Stuart Holroyd: Magic, Words, and Numbers, Danbury Press, 1975, pp11–14.
2 André Breton: Nadja, Grove Weidenfeld, 1960, pp24–27.
3 Ibid., p19.
4 Charles Fort: The Books of Charles Fort, Henry Holt, 1957, p847.
5 Ibid., p848.
6 Ibid., pp849–50.
7 Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels: Monstrum: A Wizard’s Tale, Fortean Tomes, 1990, p58.See also FT16:19; 17:16–19.
8 Fort, op. cit., xiv.
Robert Guffey's website: www.cryptoscatology.com