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Wild Talents Charles Hoy Fort

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Post by Admin Sun Oct 05, 2008 1:47 am

Hi All,

I found the article about the "Electric Girl" that I recently posted in the psychic phenomena area by following a links to the hyper text of Fort's book wild talents. http://www.resologist.net/talent01.htm The section is very brief in that book and having never seen one of his books before I found it to be a strange read as I looked into it more. Clearly in this book he is presenting a whole series of events about unexplained incidents.

Then realising that Fort is highly quoted in paranormal circles, Sci Fi and has the Fortean Times as his legacy I thought I would find out more. The following comes from an aricle in the Fortean Times written by a young man completing his dotoral thesis at Durham University in the UK. I aplogise to those who already know much about this interesting character.

Who was Charles Fort?
Ian Kidd delves into the philosophical groundwork that underlies all of Fort’s writings...
By Ian Kidd December 2006

Regular readers of FT might think the question absurd, but Ian Kidd delves into the philosophical groundwork that underlies all of Fort’s writings and even his most preposterous ideas.

The question ‘who was Charles Fort?’ might seem rather out of place in the pages of Fortean Times. One would assume that even the casual reader has a vague idea that the title refers to an iconoclastic American who wrote some books about anomalous phenomena, with enough originality and insight to be honoured with a magazine and an enthusiastic following. But this only goes partway to answering the question: there is more to Fort’s work and ideas than is currently understood.

Fort started writing around 1900, although he only began the work for which he has become famous around 1915, when he wrote his now lost X and Y from whose ashes emerged The Book of the Damned four years later. In the 87 years since Damned exploded onto the US literary scene, Fort has shocked, confused, entertained and fascinated novelists, sceptics, paranormalists, science fiction writers and readers attracted by his striking writing and ideas. However, no one was ever really sure what Fort was all about, and even the current ‘paranormalist’ reading is insufficient.

Part of the blame for this must belong to Fort himself. Even the most ardent fortean must admit that reading him isn’t always easy, even if it is always enjoyable. Many readers are doubtless put off by Fort’s abstruse writing style, disorienting bombardments of data and the enormous difficulty of deciding whether or not any of his hypotheses are to be taken seriously. HG Wells called Fort a “damnable bore” who “writes like a drunkard”, while critic HL Mencken snorted that if Fort “seriously maintains that there is an Upper Sargasso Sea” then he must be “enormously ignorant of elementary science”.

Although we can forgive those readers who were frustrated by the eccentricities of his style, too many critics conclude from their own interpretative shortcomings that Fort was a gullible, tabloid trawling crank who thought he could destroy science by proving the existence of floating islands in the sky. This has warranted the unjustified criticisms raised by many sceptics, who are prejudicially opposed to Fort without any reflection upon his merits.

A perfect example of the misinterpretations surrounding Fort and his work was the verdict of Edmund Pearson in his survey of bibliographical hoaxes Queer Books (1927). Pearson wrote of Damned that its “contents were readable; there was evidence of great industry and some evidence of scholarship” and that “it did not seem to be the work of a crank”. But if Fort was too intelligent and scholarly to be a crank, what was his motivation? Pearson suggested the books might be hoaxes, in which case “the object of so much labour is still obscure”.

The motivation for Fort’s 30 year long researches is not as straightforward as one might think. Many sources will report, reasonably enough, that Fort was opposed to ‘scientific orthodoxy’ and its unprincipled rejection of anomalous phenomena through the exclusionist processes of denial, dismissal, suppression and explaining away. This is all true enough, but only a part of the whole story. Throughout his books, Fort describes and reiterates his purpose: his opposition to the conservatism which damns what is new and innovative in favour of preserving the established and conventional, even in the face of data which overtly contradicts that establishment. This is the antidogmatism that many readers find both commend able and refreshing. However, it is also only one aspect of Fort’s work and arguably subservient to the deeper motivations which commentators have hinted at but never really identified.

FT founder Bob Rickard once wrote that he was “convinced that data – actual case material – took second place in Fort’s mind to his guiding philosophy”. This is likely for two reasons. Firstly, Fort must have had some particular reason to collect the type of data that he did; one does not spend 30 years scouring scientific journals, for minimal critical or financial reward, on a whim. Secondly, a careful reading of Fort’s books will reveal the subtle development of a sophisticated philosophy that cannot have emerged merely as a secondary effect of meditations upon the data. This might seem a chicken and the egg problem: did Fort come to his philosophy after musing on the damned or did he muse on the damned in order to substantiate his philosophy?

Fort answers the question for us. He stated that he had a theory and “because of the theory, I took hundreds of notes a day” to test its reasonableness. The theory was simple: “that all things are one; that all phenomena are governed by the same laws” and that a comprehensive survey of human scientific and artistic knowledge will reveal uniformities and generalities that might indicate the presence of these underlying laws or principles. A monistic intuition – some might call it mystical – motivated the enormous researches from which the criticisms of orthodoxy and celebration of the anomalous only later emerged. Fort’s critical attitude towards authoritarianism was a feature of his personality; his abandoned auto biography Many Parts 1 offers various episodes demonstrating the wilfulness and defiant independence of the young Fort, usually in the face of his autocratic father. Fort was motivated by a resistance to the unjust tyrannies and strictures of authoritarian orthodoxies and so sought the empirical and philosophical weapons to resist it.

This might not come as much of a surprise – certainly not enough to justify the question which is the title of this article – but these philosophical weapons were not simply opportune devices that Fort developed as he needed them, but were in fact applications of a sophisticated metaphysical thesis. Although this thesis is outlined in beautifully crisp detail in the opening chapters of Damned it seems to have been passed over by many readers as either irrelevant to the later discussions (which is patently untrue) or dismissed as too abstruse to be of much worth.

Shockingly, some forteans have even suggested that readers of Damned ignore these chapters. Tiffany Thayer, editor of the Fortean Society journal Doubt, suggested in his introduction to the Books of Charles Fort that readers who found chapter one difficult should skip it and read it later, or not at all.

This is remarkably irresponsible and no doubt convinced many readers to neglect the earlier chapters, so crucial to a fuller understanding of Fort and his writing. The problem is that those who are attracted to Fort’s iconoclasm, his discussions of anomalous phenomena, his criticisms of science or his idiosyncratically original and stimulating writing, are not necessarily interested in the metaphysical theorising which underlies and informs it all. While it is not necessary to have this metaphysical interest – and it is certainly possible to read and enjoy Fort as a sharp paranormalist, a fascinating writer or an inspiriting champion of free inquiry – an appreciation of this metaphysics will complement and increase one’s enjoyment, understanding and appreciation.

On a more pragmatic point, an understanding of the philosophical motivations informing Fort’s writing would also prevent the misappropriation of his work by individuals with alternative orthodoxies and dogmata to sell. Fort once complained to a correspondent that one of his objections to any organisation dedicated to continuing his work was that “the majority of persons who are attracted are the ones that we do not want; Spiritualists, Fundamentalists, persons who are revolting against Science, not in the least because they are affronted by the myth-stuff of the sciences, but because scientists either oppose or do not encourage them”.

The philosophical demonstration that Fort was neither dumbly credulous nor an ardent pro-paranormalist would do much to protect him both from undue adoption by true ‘cranks and fundamentalists’ and from the criticisms of ‘sceptics’.

More ambitiously, the demonstration that Fort presented a sophisticated philosophical thesis of his own, encompass ing metaphysics, epistemology and the philosophy of science, might well go some way towards demonstrating to the academic and scientific communities that anomalous phenomena can be coherently accommodated into their frameworks and even benefit their own disciplines at the same time.

I think Fort would agree. Firstly, it is bad science to reject any phenomena without an even-handed examination of them, particularly when these phenomena have so often persisted over the centuries. Secondly, there is an important humanitarian reason to encourage scientific and academic study of anomalous phenomena, since in widening the scope of our investigations into nature we increase the potential for intellectual progress and new practical applications.

Fort shared this sentiment: he consistently tried to apply his researches to human benefit. For instance, he noted that catastrophes are often preceded by anomalous geological and meteorological phenomena, which, he suggested, could be worked into a ‘science of warnings’. However, the development of such a science was held back by an orthodoxy more interested in preserving its accepted theses than examining extant but neglected phenomena of potentially enormous humanitarian benefit.

Finally, there is a more general argument. Fort wrote that: “in every field of phenomena… is somewhere the unexplained, or the irreconcilable, or the mysterious.” 2 The problem here is that if anomalies are omnipresent in our knowledge-systems – religious, scientific or social – then the sympathetic and unbiased examination of anomalies by our intellectual disciplines is absolutely essential. The persistence of current attitudes to anomalies – ranging from indifference to hostility but rarely positive interest – can only serve as an obstacle to our attempts to make sense of our world and our ability to successfully operate within it.

This might be the final formulation of Fort’s purpose. Who was Charles Fort?

On the face of it, he was a writer. He wrote dynamic and imaginative books that captivated and confounded his readers; made them think by dazzling and astounding them with wild and imaginative language, imagery and speculation; and plunged them into a world very different from the safe and comfortable existence they had unthinkingly assumed or accepted from scientists: a world rich in ambiguity, in which transient phenomena merge into one another and in which the neat demarcations and definitions of science do not apply, a world which is fluid and dynamic. It is a romantic worldview, even a mystical one, stressing the essential unity of all things, and the interrelated-ness of all phenomena.

Fort’s presentation of this worldview may have prefigured much in 20th-century thought – from post modern ism and deconstruction to the critical philosophies and sociology of science– but the thrust of his philosophising was simply to urge his individual readers to think for themselves rather than accept what authority pronounced, to examine their beliefs and presuppositions and reject prejudices and dogma. I doubt Fort really minded what his readers thought, so long as they had decided it for themselves. Hence his mantra: “I offer the data. Suit yourself”.

He was well aware that it would be hypocrisy for him to reject the scientific worldview only to propound some eccentric cosmography of his own; moreover, he felt he was ill equipped to do so, admitting that “like everybody else, I don’t know what to think, but rather uncommonly, I know that”. Fort would use any means at his disposal in the task of awakening his readers to the narrowness and groundlessness of their cherished beliefs, following in a tradition that would include Socrates, Diogenes and the Zen masters. This might not always be pleasant but it is beneficial. “You recover from Fort,” wrote one reviewer, “but the shock you’ve had in the meantime is good for you”.

Whether you emerge from reading Fort as a scientific sceptic or a dedicated follower of frog falls, so long as your mind has been stimulated and your own ideas advanced in place of received wisdom then the books have succeeded.

Let me finish with a remark from Tiffany Thayer, who wrote that the enormous strength of Fort’s writing was “its power to make its readers think without telling them what to think… It encourages the curious to question, the prying to pry, the inquisitive to inquire. Is there a higher mission on earth? I deem not”.

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Post by zerdini Sun Oct 05, 2008 8:32 am

That brought back some memories Jim.

Fortean TV was a British television show about the anomalous phenomena and the paranormal which was produced by Rapido TV and broadcast on Channel 4 during the 1990s. It was based on the Fortean Times magazine and was presented by Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe. Fortean TV ran for 2 series (a total of 18 half hour episodes), and an hour long Christmas special.
Fortean TV was followed by a 4 episode spinoff series "Fortean TV Uncut" was broadcast March and April 1998.

"Fortean Times" is still going strong.

I remember giving a talk on physical mediumship at one of their UnCon weekend Seminars many years ago.

That, in turn, led to being asked to give a talk at a Mensa seminar. One of the speakers there was Ron Pearson!

Following the Mensa experience I was invited to give a talk at the Scottish SPR and used to exchange magazines with them i.e. "The Ark Review" (when I was editor).

As a matter of interest we also exchanged magazines with the English SPR till the closure of the NAS.

See where your article led, Jim!


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