The End of Mystery

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June 7 2000 3:00 AM

The End of Mystery

The encroachment of science on fantasy's last redoubts.  

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Lost Identity is nearly as popular. Instances are relatively rare—the mysterious identities of Kaspar Hauser and "The Man in the Iron Mask" are the best-known examples—but the enthusiasm is bottomless. Wild histories have turned both figures into secret royalty (though the most likely candidate for the man behind the mask—actually made of cloth—is Gen. Vivien de Bulonde, imprisoned for cowardice). Hauser, the total innocent who turned up in Nuremberg in 1828—only to be mysteriously murdered in 1833—is approaching the transcendent: The point of Werner Herzog's 1975 film about Hauser is his very lack of an identity or place in the world.

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There are many other such themes. Unacknowledged Genius cults honor Wilhelm Reich, inventor Nikola Tesla, and the Earl of Oxford (as the true Bard). Hidden Murder theorists re-examine the deaths of Napoleon, Warren Harding, and Meriwether Lewis. Not all of these themes are necessarily false by any means; many reasonable persons have been drawn to such subjects, sometimes to the benefit of "mainstream" history. But what often marks wild history as a field is its tendency to solve one mystery by positing another, often greater one. The case of Jack the Ripper is a legitimate whodunit, but its wild versions involve not only the British royal family but also the Freemasons. The suicides of Habsburg Crown Prince Rudolph and Mary Vetsera at Mayerling in 1889 are certainly bizarre, but wild history turned them into an assassination with international implications.

Perhaps the most intriguing such case involves a place called Rennes-le-Château, where wild history has grown to unprecedented proportions. In 1885, Beranger Saunier, priest of a poor, remote French parish, was repairing his dilapidated church and found a pair of unusual old documents. He was soon very wealthy. Just why is not known, but proffered solutions have included the Holy Grail, the Cathar heresy, the Knights Templar, the lost treasures of the Jerusalem Temple, and the possible survival of Jesus. And these are the comparatively reasonable elements of an expanding library of wild, cosmic histories.

It would be easy enough to dismiss wild history as tabloid history, but that would be missing the point—not only of the histories but of tabloids as well. Wild history is often a popular art, offering similar satisfactions. The admirable survive death; the lost are found; the guilty accused. Frequently, wild history takes that which is extraordinary but incomplete and fills it out to the most extraordinary dimensions imaginable. The world is then made marvelous again, enchanted.

Comes science with its DNA and its bioarchaeology, its mummy CAT scans, its satellite imaging, its sonar, its computer analysis, and soon lost cities are found, dead royalty turns out really to be dead, pretenders to be but pretenders. The past must then reveal itself in fantasy's ashes.

But sometimes the past pays its debt. Who would have dared imagine that a child's heart could have been lovingly saved until it could, in effect, speak for the Lost Dauphin and return him to history?

 

 

Charles Paul Freund is a senior editor at Reason magazine. He writes regularly for Beirut's Daily Star about cultural issues in the Middle East.