The End of Mystery

articles
June 7 2000 3:00 AM

The End of Mystery

The encroachment of science on fantasy's last redoubts.  

83000_83863_neubecker_feundmystery
(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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?

 

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?