That Damned Data Collector

Grave of Charles Fort, Albany, NY

Who Forted (early title of web site Week in Weird)? It seems to be happening more often lately. Perhaps we should be paying more attention? To be clear, I’m not talking about the odoriferous flatulence of words permeating politics and some parts of our culture. I’m referring to the gloriously peculiar man that saw what others did not, but left suppositions and conclusions to others. Nearly 90 years after his death, cottage industries and burgeoning collections abound of the very anomalies this curious man cataloged. You might even say ‘the Fort is Strong’ in this galaxy in the 21st century.

In one of his books Fort says he is a “collector of notes upon subjects that have diversity…but my liveliest interest is not so much in things, as in relations of things…” Rather an understatement. Personally, I think Fort was a magus, a seer philosopher, a man that jousted with words and coincidences, rather than swords. I first discovered Fort as a ‘tween’ in a place where he felt at home—a library.

Charles Fort, writer, brilliant observer, independent thinker, and seeker of the inexplicable was born in 1874 in Albany, NY to Dutch Victorian era immigrants. After his mother died, he escaped his father’s straight laced tyranny and lived for a time with his maternal grandfather. But his spirit was wired and restless, and at age 19, he quit his job as editor of a Long Island newspaper to hitchhike round the world. The fates weren’t kind. He contracted malaria in South Africa, returned home (1894), was nursed by a lady named Anna, and married her. He and his wife lived in poverty in the Bronx. Some inner compulsion drove him to collect 1000s of notes while working odd jobs in journalism and selling a few stories. Despite a somewhat dire situation, he wrote humorously about his neighbors and his life in the tenements. His few surviving short stories describe subject as varied as stumbling on a quarantine camp and the uniqueness of a an insect in India that ‘takes on the appearance of an alluring pink flower.’

At some point, Fort realized his vast collection of notes about everyday idiocrasies wasn’t accomplishing his goal, so he destroyed everything, and started over. I suspect he had an inkling, like all great mages, that he needed to switch his search to the twilight zone—of nature, of science, of life. He began to discern enigmatic patterns, and pursued his passion over the next decade with intense devotion. He was a loner with few friends. Luckily, one of his friends was writer, reformer Theodore Dreiser. In his early 40s, Fort also inherited money from an uncle (and at the death of one of his brothers, got his portion too). He and his wife travelled to London and stayed near the British Museum. Fort even explored his oratory skills when he stepped into the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park to expound on the inevitability of space travel. It took eight years to complete his survey of the British Museum Library.

When still a boy, Fort wrote he ‘arranged his experiences.’ When he’d accumulated 40,000 pencil written notes, organized under 1,300 heading categories, he had an unwieldly collection and wasn’t realizing his goal to ‘find the underlying in all phenomena.’ His pile didn’t represent ‘the oneness of allness’ and he was temporarily stumped. He theorized ‘if there is an underlying oneness…it doesn’t matter where we begin…to measure a circle, begin anywhere.’ Fort was also intrigued about how people reacted to seeing or hearing about strange events. The contents of Fort’s four most read books ranges from out of place artifacts and puzzling noises to reports of spontaneous combustion, levitation, and teleportation (a term Fort is credited with creating).

He has been called a pioneer of the paranormal, a purveyor of magical reality, and a damned data collector of information science rejected. He reminds me a bit of writer/philosopher Robert Pirsig who wrote two phenomenal books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila. Pirsig was skillful in and fascinated with quality and classification systems. He too saw underlying patterns in everyday things, and arranged his thoughts on post it notes and index cards. Pirsig developed one logical quality system in his first book. His second book, Lila, revealed a truer, more sophisticated system for valuing and quantifying quality. It drove him mad for a time, literally. I suspect Fort would also have driven Pirsig crazy; Fort never processed information or made value judgements about his reams of information. Pirsig (in Lila) and Fort both posited a question regarding whether animals did our bidding or we did theirs. Fort’s conclusion was we’re property; Pirsig’s was perhaps we were animal servants. I have often wondered if Fort did find the underlying pattern and magical keys of life, and decided to keep it to himself because of what he discovered. Before there were men in black, Fort wrote in his book Lo! ‘[there’s an] …occult police force, which operates to divert human suspicions, and to supply explanations…’

He stood nearly six foot tall and sported a walrus’esque moustache, according to another friend, Tiffany Thayer, founder of the Fortean Society (1931) and a magazine that was later titled Doubt. In the 1941 preface to Fort’s books, Thayer calls the Fortean Society the ‘Red Cross of the mind.’ Other society members included round table alums Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller. The society ended with Tiffany’s death in 1959.

Though he’s only known for publishing four books, he actually wrote at least 10 in his lifetime. He sent one of his works of fiction, called ‘X,’ to Theo Dreiser. X tackled the topic that life on earth had been once controlled by beings from Mars. No copies of his books ‘X or Y’ have even been found; Fort said he burned his copy. Dreiser commented it was ‘one of the best books he’d read.’ Fort finished his final book Wild Talents the same year he died. This book discusses occult and psychic phenomenon and was published posthumously. Fans of this imperturbable man include Stephen King, Loren Coleman, Jerome Clark, Mike Dash, and Robert Anton Wilson.

Fort’s agnostic approach to examining the world’s curiosities is referred to as Fortean phenomena or Forteana.  He has inspired a continuous influx of devotees and disciples. Forteans are typically skeptical of both authority and anomalies. Forteans meet in cafes, private homes, online, and at Fortfests. That’s where I met Colin Wilson; he gave a captivating talk (without a single note) on his book The Atlantis Blueprint. I noted not everyone was a Fort fan. Wilson called Fort the ‘patron saint of cranks.’ He said his ‘…object was to provoke.’ Scientists loathed Fort, so did writer H. G. Wells, who said he ‘wrote like a drunkard.

Was he a man ahead of his times, intoxicated with data and what it revealed, or a clever‘pull my finger’ illusionist, not unlike the g-men in black that appear at key moments in history and wave threats or a wand of confusion over anomalies and telling coincidences? Fort suggested there has never been hard fast laws—therefore everything and nothing was supernatural—and neither real nor unreal. This echoes what crafty writer Tom Robbins (in Jitterbug Perfume) said ‘the universe has no rules, only habits.’ Perhaps Fort’s books should be catalogued with other yet to be deciphered texts, like the Linear A tablet and the Voynich Manuscript?

The Daily Grail site recently posted part of a TED talk by Jacques Vallee (A Theory of Everything) in which Vallee discusses the need for a physics of information. What if everything is code—our money, words, soul, DNA—bits and bytes of networked information that reveal what’s at our universes’ core? But we only perceive the manageable microscopic view. We need the bird’s eye view and an ability to parse data like Google and CERN does. This resonates with what Fort might have been trying to tell us, with what Colin Wilson told us about Faculty X. Fort, one of the first rascal rebels and oracles of the 20th century showed us the ordinary and the extraordinary; he revealed his sources and sacrificed his health; and then he died, though his legacy lives on. Did he leave behind keys for unlocking chaotic patterns we can’t yet process about where we came from and what we must do to speed our evolution? More importantly, if we turn the key and find the answer—will we share it—or take it with us to the absolute elsewhere databank as he perhaps did? Or am I just being a tad too Fortean?

A Partial Reading/online list for those that want to Fort some more:

The Anomalist www.anomalist.com (maverick science, mysteries, wacky theories)

Daily Grail www.dailgrail.com (dark lore, sacred sites, and everything inbetween)

Fort’s 4 best known books: The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents

The Book s of Charles Fort, by Henry Holt and Company, 1941 with Tiffany Thayer intro Magonia.demon.co.uk   

Fortean Times www.forteantimesmag.co.uk

The Centre for Fortean Zoology; SITU (Society for Investigation of the Unexplained)

The Cryptozoologist, hosted by Loren Coleman www.lorencoleman.com He was the lst Vietnam-era CO to list himself as a ‘Fortean,’ under religion, and received letters of support from Bucky Fuller and Ivan T. Sanderson. Coleman also wrote Mysterious American and The Unidentified (1975), which he dedicated to Fort.

Disinformation, the subculture search engine and book of the same name

Martin Gardner book: Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science, 1957

Morning of the Magician, several editions 1960s and 70s, Louis Pawels and Jacques Bergier

Magnolia, a movie by P. T. Anderson, 1999, starring Tom Cruise (recurring theme of unexplained events)

Charles Fort, by Jim Lippard, The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, 1996, pgs 277-280

Not of This World, by Peter Kolosimo, 1973 (wanted to be Fort reborn I suspect)

These Exalted Acres: Unlocking Secrets of Albany Rural Cemetery, 2013, Paul Grondahl

The Whisperer in Darkness, 1931, H. P. Lovecraft; Things (1967) & More Things (1969) Ivan Sanderson

Sinister Barrier, 1939, by Eric F. Russell (names Fort and uses some of his data in his book, including the famous phrase ‘I think we’re property’)

Jim Steinmeyer, Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, 2008

https://themothman.fandom.com/wiki/Charles_Fort

www.visupview.blogspot.com; www.strangemag.com; www.copycateffect.blogspot.com; www.Blather.net  

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