I am not sure if I can explain how I determine whether something is interesting from a gonzo history perspective, but let’s take a look at an example. On Friday, I was in Canterbury with an hour and a bit to kill, and as is the ancient custom of my people I was looking through the bookshelves in charity shops. While doing this, I came upon this:
Now, for a moment I thought that this might be an interesting read for Gonzo History, until I flipped through it. It has some funny bits — the antichrist is apparently Silvio Berlusconi, of all people — but mostly it is just conspiracy gibberish and all tiresomely predictable. It is what I call a “symptom” — that is, the detached ravings of a kook rather than a genuinely gonzohistorical phenomenon. “Kook” might be mean; I mean, dude could really need actual help.
To provide contrast, I pulled this one from my bookshelf:
It’s not just that this is Phrenology, the organ of the British Phrenological Society (Inc.) but that it is the careers issue. The careers issue, I ask you! Far from the ravings of a kook, this is pseudoscience — and seriously, a pseudoscience that a child could see through; you only have to read their account of their trip to the National Portrait Gallery to go “hang on a moment” — as a more or less respectable facet of society, with this very staid, respectable journal and a careers issue. That is way weirder than some guy that thinks that Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire and Catholicism make him obvious Antichrist material and can’t even keep his fictional Screwtape Letters bullshit steady for ten minutes.
Further selections from the relevant shelves to follow.
An upcoming conference in London, about which more in a bit, has got me thinking about earlier talks I gave which relate to H.P. Lovecraft, history and archaeology. The link I posted below to the Treadwell’s one is expired, but I will see if I can find it again. However, I also appeared on an episode of the H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast (“H.P. Podcraft” to its friends) talking about The History of the Necronomicon and Ibid. The interesting thing to me about these minor works of Lovecraft’s is the way he manages to adopt the style and jargon of historians (different in those days, of course) to give his work an air of being authenticity. In fact, Lovecraft famously said that in a story with fantastic elements the other elements have to be totally realistic — have to be handled as if they were a hoax.
I wondered if this were not tangentially related to the work of former Cambridge colleague Tera Pruitt, whose web presence I am not able to find with lazy searching but whose work should be required reading for anyone interested in pseudoarchaeology. You can check out her Master’s thesis here, but there’s probably more out there, and if I find it I shall promote it. Basically, one of the things she noticed about pseudoarchaeology was its tendency to appropriate aspects of actual archaeology, in terms of its language, its organisations, its structures … everything but the actual archaeology, of course. Frustrating for archaeologists but fun for Forteans.
Now, maybe Cornelius Holtorf, in one of his bomb-lobbing archaeology/pop-culture treatises, would say that this isn’t a perversion of the system — this is the system. Me personally, I would not agree, but I can sort of see where he’s coming from. Sometimes what’s really important — and this is certainly the case when we’re talking about Lovecraft and history — isn’t what you say but how you say it.
I never explain this stuff clearly, and I’m not sure I have now.