Monday, June 15, 2009

What Errol Morris' Eye Missed Part V

Simon Worrall's book on one of the most accomplished literary forgers of the 20th century follows a most unusual character: someone who took it upon himself to destabilize the Mormon church by a consistent forging of documents designed to sting and color the history of that Church. One particular document is interesting: it is a forgery of a promissory note by a confidence man who had taken in the early Mormon followers of Smith. The forger had made a living creating documents that cast the Mormon church in a bad light, and then selling them back to a church eager to cover up any such blemishes.

(Mark) Hoffman could get Emily Dickinson's voice and handwriting right. He could create a letter from Daniel Boone that is so convincing you can hear the crack of gunfire as you read it. He could manipulate ink and paper with consummate artistry. He could fake history and manipulate people. But he could not simulate time: the slow drop-feed of the days, andweeks, and months, the shift of the seasons, and with it the subtle changes in humidity, temperature, and light that alter the chemical composition of a document. It was the flaw that would send him to jail for the rest of his life.
Simon Worrall The Poet and the Murder page 226

In this case, the way Worrall aged his ink created a microscopic pattern of "alligatoring" cracks, much as van Meegeren's rolled canvases had lines of parallel cracks, different from the passage of time. 

But it is the purpose of Hofmann that is the deeper thrust: 

Metcalfe believes that Hofmann's genius lay in his ability to deconstruct Mormon scripture and create fictional texts that fitted seamlessly into the historical record. Just as computer scientists take a piece of code and reverse engineer it to discover how it was constructed, Hofmann reverse-engineered Mormon scripture to get at the underlying structures. "He would create these fictitious documents that were sprinkled with enough historical verisimilitude that people concluded historicity from them," recalled Metcalfe. "And they, in turn, became pivotal documents that said how things are. Hofmann wanted to demythologize the founding parents. I think he was saying 'You've been told all these stories. But this is what really happened.' "

Metcalfe see Hofman as a ruthless nihilist whose ultimate goal was even more ambitious and diabolical that most people have assumed. "Steve Christensen was a rising star in the Mormon Church," he explained. "By murdering him Hofmann was disproving God's existence."
The reality of Mark Hoffman was that he was exacuting both forgery, and hoax. Many of his documents were meant to slip into the stream of documents. Many were clearly intended to be mimesis, particularly his Daniel Boone letters. On the edge lies his forgery of Emily Dickinson, which was meant to push in to the explicit what he thought was her agnosticism. But his forgeries of Mormon documents were clearly hoax: he wanted to change the view of the church itself. The Church of Later Day Saints, for it's part feared, if not believed, the story he was telling with his documents. The early history of the Church of Later Day Saints is replete with forgery, fraud, and acts of lesser morality. The Church of Later Day Saints is, itself, a hoax, in that it promulgates a history of the Americas which bears no relationship to the truth. One does not need a high powered microscope to see the discrepancies between archeology and the LDS scripture. This stands in contrast to the old testament, which for all of it's holes, flaws, changes, and amendings, clearly comes out of a particular historical tradition. It may not be history, but it is historical. The Hofmann forgeries are closer to history, as forgeries, than the LDS scriptures are. 

This is an important point: Hofmann's hoax is embroidered with close history, the LDS hoax is fabrication. Both are hoaxes. Both are intended to get people to see the past in a radically different way, and both are creations of a particular place and time, as well as a particular intellect. Hofmann's hoax was, in effect, a counter-hoax, an attempt to get people to disbelieve the lies of the Church of Later Day Saints, by telling even more lies, and, ultimately, committing homocide. In doing so he became at least as warped as anything he preached against, and passed from the realm of someone who had the ambition to tell the truth, to, as Worrall correctly points out, into manipulation and a purer malice than what he crusaded against. He was not deluded, but with a clear mind set out to alter the past, and erase the future.

The difference between forgery, I can't say mere, because after all, a forgery is capable of doing far more damage than most hoaxes are, is on display in Hofmann, and ironically, in the posts by Errol Morris, who accepts a hoax, in debunking a forgery.

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