“I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written” (Charles Fort).
To what extent do Fort’s works offer a method for writing about myth, cosmology and the sacred?
The American writer Charles Fort (1874 - 1932) has been called the ‘greatest philosophical genius to have come out of America’ (Michell, 1983, p. 6) but today he is known less as a thinker than as a researcher of the paranormal. Fort spent decades collecting and publishing reports of anomalous phenomena which he labelled ‘the damned’ – facts rejected and excluded by rationalist gatekeepers lest they challenge existing scientific models. ‘Damned facts’ are therefore deemed irrelevant, fictional or non-existent. In his published works Fort aimed to rehabilitate these facts and build a new inclusive philosophy that would incorporate them without the need for explanation, proof or rejection. This essay explores the basis of Fort’s philosophy and will look at three methodological approaches arising from a Fortean approach to writing and research in the field of religious studies.
The first section focuses on an outline of Fort’s philosophy of Intermediatism and will examine his attitude to ‘belief’ as well as exploring his theory of the ‘three dominants’. We will see how Fort’s ideas can be placed as usefully into the area of the study of myth/cosmology as into that of the paranormal before moving on in the following sections to an assessment of three modern ‘Fortean’ approaches to writing about myth and the sacred: the ‘gnostic classroom’ of Jeffrey Kripal, Jack Hunter’s ‘Ontological Flooding’ and finally examine the concept of ‘Post-Forteanism’. Whilst examining these new methodologies this essay will argue that, whilst these approaches all take an inclusive approach which must, by definition, be the foundation of any methodology based on Fort’s ideas, it is not enough merely to include but the included must also transform. This argument will suggest a further new possible approach: a sort of ‘alchemical’ methodology which transforms both the included data - damned and orthodox - as well as the understanding of the researcher themselves.
Charles Fort and Intermediatism
The term ‘Fortean’ has come to be seen as a form of shorthand for a specific type of paranormal occurrence (for example, falls of fish from the sky or out-of-place manifestations of animals, objects or people) but Fort himself was less interested in these occurrences in and of themselves than as a starting-point for the basis of his philosophy.
Fort’s philosophy, which he called ‘Intermediatism’, requires no belief and asks for no proof or answers to the anomalies he records. It is a form of ontological agnosticism and it is in this light we must view his statement “I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written. I cannot accept that the products of minds are subject-matter for beliefs” (Fort 1974, p. 555–56). He even went so far as to say that, despite his chosen subject-matter, he did not recognize the validity of the word ‘supernatural’. For Fort, everything is intrinsically connected to everything else and shares an underlying ‘oneness’. As such, concepts of the ‘supernatural’ are irrelevant… to the Fortean eye everything is supernatural. The word can only have meaning if one accepts a binary real/unreal either/or pairing which is a stance Fort rejects. Intermediatism can in one sense be seen the taking of a middle position between two culturally defined opposites so one can see the unity of both but it is also on a deeper level, the position that:
nothing is real, but that nothing is unreal: that all phenomena are approximations one way or another between realness and unrealness… that our whole quasi-existence is an intermediate stage between positiveness and negativeness or realness and unrealness (Fort, 1974, p. 14).
Clearly then, Fort’s choice of the paranormal for the focus of his philosophical projection was not founded in any form of fixed belief in his subject matter. The paranormal was of interest to him primarily because of its forbidden nature rather than its anomalous status and he employed his ‘damned facts’ as a means of holding belief in abeyance in order to foster greater awareness: “That firmly to believe is to impede development. That only temporarily to accept is to facilitate” (ibid., p. 13).
This attitude was extended too Fort’s process of data collection itself. In the same spirit Fort seemed to regard his research as a form of spiritual praxis, claiming as Jeffrey Kripal points out, that “systemization of pseudo-data is approximation to realness or final awakening” (ibid., p. 22). Kripal goes on to expand upon Fort’s comment, amplifying how both his data and his method were sublimated to a greater aim which is, in essence, indistinguishable from a spiritual practice:
The acts of collection, comparison and systemization were not simple or banal activities for Charles Fort. They contained awesome power. They constituted a kind of occult metapractice that could lead, at any moment, to just such a sudden awakening. (Kripal, 2010, p. 100).
The awakening Fort speaks of here is the realisation of the underlying oneness that militates against exclusion, the insight that everything is, at some level, a manifestation of everything else. This is the basis of Fort’s philosophy of Intermediatism - a rejection of the simplistic answers which naturally follow when one has accepted a binary reductionist reading of any phenomena. In refusing the either/or that is the ‘authorised’ paradigm, new doors are opened and “Everything becomes part of a hyphenated existence, between positive-negative, or animal-vegetable or even yellow-red” (Steinmeyer, 2008, p. 183).
This tendency to reduce phenomena to binary pairs such as objective/subjective, real/unreal or literalist/symbolic is particularly marked in traditional approaches to religion and the supernormal. Fort’s Intermediate philosophy offers many possibilities for a radical bypassing of this reductionist model, occupying as it does a liminal space where things can be classified neither as one side of a binary equation or the other; “All things are so inter-related that, though the difference between a fruit and a vegetable seems obvious, there is no defining either. A tomato, for instance, represents the merging point. Which is it – fruit or vegetable?” (Fort, 1974, p. 857-858).
From this vantage point, all seemingly existent things are not in fact ‘real’ but exist on a spectrum of things which are in the process of becoming real. Fort calls these things ‘expressions’ and links them to a theory of ‘Dominants’ by which he means a succession of accepted paradigms which serve as a societal lens through which all objects of study are filtered. In his writing Fort identified three Dominants (Fort seems to have seen a degree of significance in triads and the number three), the Dominant of religion, the Dominant of Science currently prevailing, and the upcoming ‘New Dominant’ (or ‘Era of Witchcraft’) which is in effect, an expression of Fort’s philosophy of Intermediatism.
The leitmotifs of the Dominants of religion and science are ‘belief’ and ‘explanation’ respectively and thus both actively reject and exclude anything deemed unworthy of belief or not susceptible to explanation. Both, then, proceed by exclusion as opposed to Intermediatism which is based on inclusivity - it rejects both belief and the need for proof: “All phenomena are ‘explained’ in the terms of the Dominant of their era. This is why we give up trying really to explain and content ourselves with expressing” (Fort, 1974, p. 306). We will now look at three differing approaches to the modern study of religion based on Fort’s inclusive methodology.
Jeffrey Kripal and the Gnostic Classroom
Perhaps the first major scholar to draw on Fort’s philosophy in fashioning a new approach to religious studies is Jeffrey Kripal who, in a series of books, attempted to explore “what the study of religion would look like if we were to put Charles Fort in our canon.” (Kripal, 2016, p. xiv).
Kripal developed an approach which he termed the ‘third (or gnostic) classroom’ which drew on the work of C. Mackenzie Brown who outlined a distinction between introductory courses and subsequent advanced learning. The first of these, Brown argued, should essentially be a ‘classroom of sympathy’ which approaches the claims of various religious from a sympathetic standpoint as derived from the teachings of the religion itself. The second, more advanced, model is the ‘classroom of doubt’ which supercedes the classroom of sympathy and rigorously analyses the religious claims from the standpoint that they may not be as factual as they are claiming to be. Kripal does not disagree with the necessity for Brown’s two hierarchical models but suggests his third gnostic classroom – an analogue of Fort’s third dominant - as a possible approach for those individuals who are
quite capable of deriving reason from faith, and of fusing faith and reason into a deeper gnosis that appears to be much more radical and potentially transformative than any social-scientific or purely rational method. Perhaps, then, we should imagine and enact a third type of classroom alongside the classroom of sympathy and the classroom of doubt. Perhaps we should imagine a new classroom of gnostic epiphany. (Kripal, 2007, p. 23)
Although Kripal’s ‘third classroom’ does not derive exclusively from Fort’s ideas, Kripal is nevertheless clear that he envisages his new methodology as encompassing a Fortean outlook when he writes
I have tried to foreground Fort’s comparative, philosophical and hermeneutic practices and show how, through them, Fort came to understand that writing can morph into something that is truly mythical in scope and power, that writing can become a veritable occult practice, an act of the super-imagination through which one can wake up and, some day, step out of the Cave of Consensus. (Kripal, 2010, p. 141)
This are clear echoes of Fort here but this standpoint also opens Kripal up to the counter-argument that, valid as a personal search for truth may be, its place in the academy is open to question. Just such an argument was pitted against Kripal by Wouter Hanegraaf who, while not decrying Kripal’s position as a whole, nevertheless argued that Kripal’s methodology does not lead to knowledge itself but rather leads to
claims of knowledge based on personal experience and heartfelt convictions. Such claims are properly an object of research in the study of religion; they should not be made, at least according to this reviewer, into the theoretical or methodological foundation of such study. (Hanegraaf, 2008, p. 275)
Seemingly, with this argument, Hanegraaf is working within a binary pair of academic knowledge/gnosis which is the very position that both Fort and Kripal clearly identify and are working to transcend. In this sense Hanegraaf’s argument against Kripal can be said to somewhat miss the point as Kripal is well aware of this pitfall and realizes it can only apply in the realm of the binary opposition between the classroom of sympathy and the classroom of doubt. A stronger argument against Kripal’s methodology in a strictly Fortean sense might be that he occasionally tends to see things in terms of reactions rather than expressions. For example, he argues that mysticism is a reaction to orthodoxy in a countercultural sense whereas a more Fortean reading surely would be to invert this (such a view is, after all a form of prevailing orthodoxy itself – as is, to some extent, the view Kripal expresses elsewhere that religion is a major cause of human tendencies to violence) and have orthodox religion as a degenerate or corrupt form of an original mystical expression of the founder. It’s tempting to see Kripal here as somehow wedded to these ideals rather than ‘temporarily accepting’ in order to develop beyond them but Kripal has, nonetheless, from Fort, introduced something transformative into the study of religion: the researcher his or herself as a contingent part of the object studied and who is transformed from the act of study itself.