The invocation (and a lot of inspiration) for our opening night’s theme of PHENOMENON came from Charles Fort’s 1919 Book of the Damned in which he laid out the assorted strange and unexplained phenomena he felt science was either ignoring or explaining away.
As we have said before, the world is a magnificently strange place, and curious minds have taken note of the particularly strange seemingly super-natural as long as there have been ways to record them, from mysterious lights illuminating the skies to the sun occasionally going out, to difficult to explain things found closer to home: cases of bioluminescence, fossils found on mountaintops, and mirages at sea and in the desert… or, say, that one time when fish rained from the sky.
Several books over the centuries were dedicated to attempts to explain these phenomena, including the gorgeously illustrated Ausberg Book of Miraculous Signs, a one of a kind manuscript created c. 1552, now in a private collection.
But for most of us, the most famous collector of nature’s oddities and history’s unexplained mysteries was Charles Fort. Born in 1874 in New York, Fort began his exploration into the marvels of nature as an aspiring scientist, deeply interested in the natural works of stones and shells. After inheriting enough money to support himself, he began delving into records of the unexplored and bizarre stored in libraries and archives, focusing on the mysteries of the natural world.
In 1919, Charles Fort wrote his most famous work The Book of the Damned – it introduced the world to many of these strange and seemingly impossibly phenomena, to the extent that the very idea of marvelous anomalies are now known as “Fortean”.
Fort’s unique writing style rides the line between poetry and mania, but it’s hard not to like any introductory passage that includes the phrase, “The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention…” when arguably talking about science.
Here is the introduction, setting the stage for the wonders that followed:
“A procession of the damned.
By the damned, I mean the excluded.
We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march. You’ll read them—or they’ll march. Some of them livid and some of them fiery and some of them rotten.
Some of them are corpses, skeletons, mummies, twitching, tottering, animated by companions that have been damned alive. There are giants that will walk by, though sound asleep. There are things that are theorems and things that are rags: they’ll go by like Euclid arm in arm with the spirit of anarchy. Here and there will flit little harlots. Many are clowns. But many are of the highest respectability. Some are assassins. There are pale stenches and gaunt superstitions and mere shadows and lively malices: whims and amiabilities. The naïve and the pedantic and the bizarre and the grotesque and the sincere and the insincere, the profound and the puerile.
A stab and a laugh and the patiently folded hands of hopeless propriety.
The ultra-respectable, but the condemned, anyway.
The aggregate appearance is of dignity and dissoluteness: the aggregate voice is a defiant prayer: but the spirit of the whole is processional.
The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.
But they’ll march.
The little harlots will caper, and freaks will distract attention, and the clowns will break the rhythm of the whole with their buffooneries—but the solidity of the procession as a whole: the impressiveness of things that pass and pass and pass, and keep on and keep on and keep on coming.
The irresistibleness of things that neither threaten nor jeer nor defy, but arrange themselves in mass-formations that pass and pass and keep on passing.”