Guestblogger Arthur Goldwag is the author of "Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies: The Straight Scoop on Freemasons, The Illuminati, Skull and Bones, Black Helicopters, The New World Order, and many, many more" and other books.
Some of you might remember a story about a little boy and a runaway balloon that erupted in the news a few weeks back. Like Edgar Allan Poe's 1844 scoop about Monck Mason, an English balloonist who was blown off course en route to France and made landfall near Charleston, South Carolina (illustration above), the story turned out to be false in most of its particulars. There really was an aeronautist named Monck Mason, but he hadn't crossed the ocean. There really was a little boy and a UFO-shaped balloon, but… well, you know the rest.
A few days after Balloon Boy's non-event The Yes Men, professional hoaxers with a genuine political agenda, pulled off a coup when they impersonated officials from the US Chamber of Commerce and announced to the press that the Chamber had reversed its policies on global warming. I wrote about the Yes Men in Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies in the context of the bizarre nineteenth century hoaxer Leo Taxil. Taxil was the pen name of Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pages (1854-1907), an ex-free thinker and a highly public convert to Catholicism who, in a series of sensational books, claimed to have discovered Palladism, a devil-worshipping Masonic sect associated with Albert Pike and the Scottish Rite. In 1897, he called a press conference in Paris and admitted that he had made the whole thing up. Not just Palladism, everything-starting with his conversion. For more than a decade, he had been telling the Catholic Church exactly what it wanted to hear, setting it up for a stupendous fall when "the most colossal hoax of modern times" was exposed. Already a prankster as a teenager, Taxil had created a panic about fictitious shark attacks in the waters off Marseilles (shark attacks remain a staple of the sensationalistic media to this day); a few years later he fed Swiss newspapers a bogus story about a sunken city beneath Lake Geneva.
Are there wider lessons to be gleaned from any of this, besides not believing everything you read in the newspaper (or hear on the radio, watch on TV, or read on the Web)?
Frank Rich editorialized about Balloon Boy's father in the New York Times, casting him as a desperate figure out of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, a victim of our own Great Recession, hungrily grasping after the golden ring of wealth and fame. If West's people worshipped screen gods and goddesses, today's stage struck wannabes aspire to play themselves on TV, living out scripted versions of their own lives.
Mass communications technology and a popular culture that's almost entirely given over to marketing have conspired to devalue the coin of renown. But is that such a terrible thing? Celebrity of the sort that Falcon Heene's father wanted so badly might be vulgar and passing, but who among us hasn't longed to rise above our station, to be noticed and praised and remembered for merely existing; who hasn't longed to cheat death?
The Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kiš (who died of cancer in his 50s) wrote a short story called "The Encyclopedia of the Dead," about a Mormon-like religious order that documents the lives of ordinary people. Locked overnight in the library that houses the Encyclopedia's thousands of volumes, its narrator reads about her recently deceased father. Though just a few pages long, his entry recounts in astounding detail not just his vital statistics, but all of his sorrows, disappointments, and joys, rendering him in all his dense and irreducible pathos and particularity. "This," she concludes, "is the central message of the Encyclopedia's authors–nothing ever repeats itself in human history; all things that, at first glance, seem to be the same are barely similar; every man is a single star unto himself; everything happens always and never, everything occurs endlessly and never again."
Sometimes when I'm too agitated to sleep but too sleepy to read or write or do anything useful, I log onto my computer and Google the names of people I used to know. It sounds a little creepy, but it's not as if I wouldn't have been thinking about them anyway. Insomnia is an occasion for revisiting old griefs and regrets. If you want to hear the dead scratching on the walls of their tombs, you have to stay up past your bedtime.
I went to high school with a musician who came as close to making it as you can without becoming rich or famous. One night, I don't know why, I typed the name of one of his bands into Google and to my astonishment discovered that fan websites, MP3s, and YouTube videos had popped up like so many mushrooms. I clicked on one of them and there he was, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, his face achingly young and hopeful. I clicked again and saw some grainy concert footage recorded in Osaka, Japan. He was older this time, and grizzled from the road. The singer he was performing with–a bonafide rock-and-roll legend–would die of a heroin overdose that same month. Jamey would follow him a few years later.
I Googled my late father's father once and found the manifest of the steamship that brought him to this country from Poland at the turn of the last century. I Googled my father's sister–she killed herself in the 1960s–and found her listed as a member of Erasmus high school's graduating class of 1931. Letters that my late mother sent to Harpers magazine and The New York Times are archived and can be accessed for a nominal fee.
"In the future," Andy Warhol famously predicted, "everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes." Fifteen minutes later the future is here. And thanks to the indelible traces that we leave on the Internet, some of us achieve a notoriety of the kind, if not the degree, that used to be reserved for the notorious alone. Religious faith might offer deeper consolations, but for the rest of us those fifteen minutes might be our last best hope.