Charles Fort, WWI and Science

Or the uses of witchcraft in warfare —

But that, without the sanction of hypocrisy, superintendence by hypocrisy, the blessing by hypocrisy, nothing ever does come about —

Or military demonstrations of the overwhelming effects of trained hates — scientific uses of destructive bolts of a million hate-power — the blasting of enemies by disciplined ferocities —

And the reduction of cannons to the importance of fire crackers — a battleship at sea, a toy boat in a bathtub —

The palpitations of hypocrisy — the brass bands of hypocrisy — the peace on earth and good will to man, of hypocrisy — or much celebration, because of the solemn agreements of nations to scrap their battleships and armed aeroplanes — outlawry of poison gases, and the melting of cannon — once it is recognized that these things aren’t worth a damn in the Era of Witchcraft —

But of course that witchcraft would be practiced in warfare. Oh, no; witchcraft would make war too terrible. Really, the Christian thing to do would be to develop the uses of the new magic, so that in the future a war could not even be contemplated.

Later: A squad of poltergeists-girls — and the pick a fleet out of the sea, or out of the sky — if, as far back as the year 1923, something picked French aeroplanes out of the sky — arguing that some nations that renounced fleets, as obsolete, would go on building them, just the same.

Girls at the front — and they are discussing their usual not very profound subjects. The alarm — the enemy is advancing. Command to the poltergeist girls to concentrate — and under their chairs they stick their wads of chewing gum.

A regiment bursts into flames, and the soldiers are torches, Horses snort smoke from the combustion of their entrails. Re-enforcements are smashed under cliffs that are teleported from the Rocky Mountains. The snatch of Niagara Falls — it pours upon the battle field. The little poltergeist girls reach for their wads of chewing gum[1]

Charles Fort (1874-1932) is a problematic figure for the history of science. Associated with its latter-day admirers, the Forteans, his name has become a shorthand for the paranormal in general, and for UFOs in particular. Fort did suggest communication with other planets and other forms of life, but he never used the term UFO or posited anything concrete about alien travel to Earth. In fact he wasn’t very concrete about anything: his weird, wonderful and undefinable tetralogy from The Book of the Damned (1919) to Wild Talents (1932) hovers comically and philosophically between doubt and belief. It sketches wild ontologies to explain the anomalous phenomena he gathered, only to abandon them a book or even a paragraph later. The entire sequence may be read not, as Forteans do, as an argument for the existence of something, but as an argument (if that’s not too constricting a word) against something – namely, modern science.

This passage, almost a prose poem, is worth quoting at length for Fort’s rarely-celebrated literary qualities. It is also worthy of discussion because of its unusually moral, or political commentary – most of Fort’s critique of science is epistemological. Fort has been discussing, for 26 chapters, the possibility that some people possess ‘wild talents’, expressed through spontaneous combustion, or disappearances, or unexplained deaths. Now, in this passage, he entertains the idea that such talents have been, or might be, exploited in war: organised and focused with aggressive intent.

Or perhaps they already have been exploited in this way – the 1923 incident to which he alludes. Fort both believes and disbelieves it. Or, perhaps such talents might be exploited in future wars – that’s another story.

Witchcraft, in Fort’s text, reduces iron warships to ‘boats in bathtubs’. But then, as CHOTS historian Don Leggett has shown us, that’s exactly how the new hardware was tested scientifically[2]. In Fort’s reasoning: boats are already in bathtubs, therefore witchcraft is at work. (It never matters to Fort when he affirms the consequent, since he doesn’t believe it anyway.)

It’s a small step on to say that science is witchcraft. Witchcraft not for its magic, but for its malevolent intent. Yet at the same time, science, like religion, is the ‘suppressor of witchcraft’.

Of course science isn’t really witchcraft. But perhaps if contained within a system that separates from society, it functions as such. What a spell to cast, to make you think that a weapon is only a neutral piece of technology, used amiss.

The brass bands of hypocrisy: ‘celebrations’ of the First World War; sentimental indulgence and votes for trained hates around Europe —

The palpitations of hypocrisy: titillating horror of bayonets, dirty weapons not scientific. That today we have progressed to clean, scientific strikes —

The poltergeist girls, and boys, stick their wads of chewing gum under their chairs in the exam halls. They draw a deep breath and write their history essays on tanks.


[1] Charles Fort, Wild Talents (New York: Claude Kendall, 1932), pp. 310-11. Hypertext edited by Mr X, Consulting Resologist.

[2] Leggett, Don. “Replication, re-placing and naval science in comparative context, c. 1868–1904.” The British Journal for the History of Science 46.01 (2013): 1-21.

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