Secret History, Weird Things

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland On Sunday

The Secret History Of The World
Jonathan Black
Quercus, £25

Why People Believe Weird Things
Michael Shermer
Souvenir Press, £12.99

Jonathan Black’s fat volume promises much. “Here for the first time is a complete history of the world, from the beginning of time to the present day, based on the beliefs and writings of the secret societies.”

It is a story of “initiates”. Pythagoras was one, so too was Shakespeare, while Martin Luther may have been. Exactly what it was that these people were initiates of is never fully spelled out, because that is the whole point of “esoteric” wisdom. It is a secret tradition, bound up with the mysteries of ancient Greece and Egypt, kept alive by shadowy figures of the kind found in Dan Brown novels.

In Black’s history, the world was once inhabited by giants and unicorns, whose disappearance has coincided with a change in human consciousness from “mind over matter” to “matter over mind”. The Egyptians had advanced scientific knowledge, but love was only invented in the time of Dante; personality started with the Mona Lisa.

Does Black believe in the literal truth of this history? Apparently not; it is an “upside down, back-to-front” version of reality, an “imaginative exercise”. Then is it true in a spiritual or poetic sense? No, the reader should “beware” of taking that step, lest he or she “begin to walk down the road that leads straight to the lunatic asylum.”

Well, this book certainly drove me nuts. When Black tells us there was an eighteenth-century French count who lived for over a hundred years without ageing a day, is he claiming this as fact, myth, legend, poetic fantasy, hocus pocus or what? And what of his assurance that he will “cite authorities throughout, providing leads for interested readers to follow”? In fact the book lacks references, footnotes or even a decent index. Black mentions “Spanish scholars” who reckon Don Quixote is a coded commentary on the Cabbala, but doesn’t tell us who those scholars are. Presumbably they’re the Spanish equivalent of the people who reckon Shakespeare’s plays were written by Francis Bacon – a theory Black appears to endorse, or at any rate reports. Bacon, needless to say, was an “initiate”.

Centuries ago, chroniclers would write about faraway lands where “it was said” that people were ten feet tall or had faces in their chests. Black’s book is similar: in its total disregard for any dividing line between reality and fiction, it is positively mediaeval. That is a pity, because its subject area is a fascinating one. Black’s large but disorganised bibliography praises David S. Katz’s recent book The Occult Tradition, and that is a far better book.

In search of some sanity I turned to Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things. Shermer, an arch-skeptic and veteran debunker of outlandish beliefs, is a writer I admire. Alas, I found his book almost as tedious as Black’s, because while both authors evidently feel it their duty to instruct, they neglect to entertain. Each tries to persuade us of a particular worldview, and both end up preaching to the converted.

Over many pages, Shermer shows us why creationism is not science, why people who think they have been inside a UFO almost certainly have not been, why the Holocaust can be considered historical fact, and why a great many other things that most people believe to be true must indeed be true. Shermer offers scary statistics demonstrating the credulity of the American public, but anyone who thinks the Holocaust was a hoax won’t be reading this book, they’ll be waving banners at neo-Nazi rallies, and nothing Shermer says will ever persuade them otherwise. His book is instead a primer for those wishing to sound the kill-joy voice of scientific reason in bar-room debates about telepathy, the afterlife, or “secret history”.

This is the book’s first appearance in Britain, but it was actually one of Shermer’s earliest, having first been published in the United States ten years ago. The time-lag renders his accounts of the Roswell alien autopsy hoax, or the antics of David Irving, somewhat out of date. A far better book is Shermer’s The Borderlands Of Science, published here in 2001, which covers less familiar topics. But for a sceptic like Shermer, the real test is not to demolish fringe beliefs, but instead to take on “cults” that have established themselves as mainstream orthodoxy. What, I wonder, does he think of global warming, post-structuralism or superstring theory?