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Anyone who has looked into 'paranormal' phenomena knows that a real mystery is often accompanied by its fraudulent twin; e.g. is crop circle-making art or deception? Rob Irving - who has made circles and experienced the anger of those who feel his 'art' mocks their beliefs - claims deception is part of creation and a necessary part of both science and art.
In Powers of Darkness, Powers or Light, John Cornwall's meander through contemporary Catholic mysticism, he tells of encountering a group of tourists at the epicentre of Marian activity, Medjugorje. They were squabbling over a photograph featuring what looked like a pretty Italian model posing as the Virgin. "What's the problem?" asked Cornwall. "Some priest has been saying that he captured this in his camera. Why do people have to do this? It spoils the truth," replied one. "I believe it!" insists another. "You've got to have faith."
Here, in a nutshell, we have the thorniest problem facing Forteans - the indivisible, insoluble bond between reality and illusion, between those who believe mystery should be adored and those who would play with it... between art (divinely inspired) and artifice (man-made simulacra of the divine). An understanding of these relationships is crucial to discovering the nature of true and false phenomena, especially when (as Fort put it) "they are indistinguishable at their merging points". In the triadic round of seer, seeing and the seen, the distinction between art and artifice is easily lost or obscured.
Hoaxing, in some guise or other, plays a part in most phenomena; it's not a new development, just that we understand slightly more that we used to. The word 'hoax' is thought to derive - via 'hocus pocus' - from the Latin Hoc est corpus ('this is my body') traditionally uttered by priests during Mass, itself an imitation of Christ's Last Supper, that holiest of conjuring tricks, the Eucharist. Priests and shamans of all faiths and cultures have employed a huge repertoire of tricks and devices to aid conversion and control of their flock. The ancient temple origins of the cup and ball (or three card) trick is one indication among many that trickery is an Establishment game and establishments come in all shapes.
In his 1926 treatise on mysticism, the Catholic theologian Monsignor Albert Farges concluded that some miracles "are counterfeits due to an act of the Devil who, in all ages, has shown himself to be the ape of God." These are always betrayed by their inherent moral malice, he writes, as are false ecstasies and false miracles.
Hagiographies are full of sham stigmatics and visionaries, dubious wonder-workers and small-time prophets, but the grounds on which they are judged false are not always clear - e.g. the 'pious fraud' who has sincere belief in something false. Nor, as far as I know, does the Monsignor make any reference to his church's own improbable hoard of relics; its 15 'arms of St Andrew' or the 14 'foreskins of Jesus', for instance, are an open invitation for satire.
In Daniel Defoe's parody of diabolism, History of the Devil, not only are magicians, astrologers, witches and diviners offspring of the Father of Lies, but also the fools who believe them.
While little analysis of hoaxing exists - understandably, considering the breadth of the continuum - it is safe to say that the term is generally associated with deviant behaviour, undermining accepted standards. What constitutes 'false' is relative to a consensus of what constitutes 'true'. The more dogmatic our beliefs the more heresy there is to confront, and the all-too-human machinery of projection and denial produces scapegoats in abundance.
Those who make crop patterns, for instance, are enthusiastically demonised by those who believe the designs have an otherworldly origin. Cerealogy is unique amongst all modern 'paranormal' phenomena in the extent to which its creators openly participate in the wider social phenomenon their work has spawned, demanding a seat at the table of those who detest them.
The Greek sage Apollonius of Tyana and a disciple, Damis, are discussing the nature of art. Damis defines it as imitation of nature. Apollonius agrees, but asks about the forms we can see among the clouds - centaurs, wolves and horses, etc. Are they not also imitation? Doesn't this mean, asks the magus, that the act of imitation is an interactive process?
The world we experience is not an exact image of objective reality; it is a virtual reality, generated from sensory input filtered through theories, knowledge, emotion and associations and so on. This is not to say that nothing is real, just that we can never experience reality directly. Our natural instinct to make sense of our perceptions - the desire for order - can be so strong that the obvious can be obscured and the mundane made mysterious, magnifying the merest conjecture into astounding fact.
This process of accommodation is a significant ingredient of many fortean phenomena and can lead to vast castles of the mind being built on the sandiest foundations. An example is the way the American astronomer Percival Lowell 'saw' canals on Mars. Once he had interpreted the changing colours of the Martian surface as changes in vegetation, it was "only rational" to think that sophisticated life also existed there. It followed that it would require water, hence the canals; ergo, an advanced civilisation built them. What would Lowell have made of Cydonia and 'the Face'? A similar join-the dots approach leads to 'proof' of the divine origin of the Turin Shroud; what some analysts see as random specks are clearly visible to others as traces of inscriptions from Roman coins.
The study of error provides fruitful insights into human behaviour. During an internet spat with a leading ET proponent, I suggested that anomalists could usefully learn from the ideas of sociologist Leon Festinger. The way he swiftly dismissed as "discredited" a body of work he had plainly not read underlined my point. Festinger observed that, to varying degrees, we strive to preserve a sense of consistency in our beliefs by adapting new, potentially threatening information to suit ourselves. His theory of 'cognitive dissonance' is a subtle variation of the 'fight or flight' response; we will usually opt for the safety of familiarity rather than confront the danger of the new or the humiliation of being proved wrong.
This behaviour is most evident in groups, in which the status quo is maintained by the common intolerance of contrary opinion. The threat to group stability must be effectively separated and rejected. Festinger suspected that a very low tolerance of ambiguity in groups or individuals indicated a predisposition for authoritarianism. It does not always follow that alternative belief equates to open-mindedness - consider the 17th century Puritans who escaped religious persecution in one country only to practice persecution in another. Charles Fort observed the same process in the way dogmatic scientists react to any challenge to their authority; he referred to the rejected data or ideas as 'the Damned'.
The classic archetype of jesters and fools were an antidote to this 'normalising' process; their comedic interventions throwing doubt upon certainty. As personifications of the random, of chaos, they are dangerous; their threat has to be neutralised. Thus, they wear funny hats, they are not 'us' - we laugh at their folly, not ours. Satirists, parodists and artists are feared for the opposite reason; they mimic our prejudices, inviting us to recognise our own folly.
Introduce doubt into a room full of certainty and the implosion makes for exceptional theatre. At a gathering of crop circles enthusiasts, somewhere in London in 1995, the artist Rod Dickinson is explaining his motives for circle-making against howls of dissent. To the majority there, Dickinson and his cohorts represent an ultimate betrayal. These cerealogists fiercely oppose any explanation for the patterns; their investigations are a mask disguising a tacit understanding among themselves that the 'higher' truth lies in not finding answers, for answers gut the wonder out of mystery. Their one, overriding certainty - as in Lowell's case - is in seeing in otherworldly artifice signs of superior intelligence - an intelligence that is surely beyond the likes of Dickinson, John Lundberg, Doug Bower and me, seated together in the midst of their rabble.
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Illustration: Jim Kay.