Monday, September 2, 2019
How George Psalmanazar Escaped From History :: History Historical Essays
How George Psalmanazar Escaped From History Moravagine is an idiot, but he is also an idiom...a term whose meaning is established by usage, and not deducible from the meanings of its constituent parts. Idioms are the place where language shows signs of wear: those phrases have been said so many times they have fused into a single unit and can no longer be pried apart. -- Paul La Farge, "Idiots!," The Believer 1. In early 1703, a man named George Psalmanazar arrived in London and had a few discreet conversations. Within a year, he had a publishing contract and the ear of the British royal courts; not long after that he was given a post at Oxford. Psalmanazar's book, An Historical and Geographic Description of Formosa, describing the virtually unknown East Asian island society from whence he came, was read throughout Europe, and his beliefs - among them, that false accusations were worse than cannibalism, Jesuits were the ruin of pure societies, and the blood of snakes could keep a man alive for a century - were repeated as ethnographic dogma. In keeping with the traditions of his native land, Psalmanazar ate only raw foods and recorded the Lord's Prayer in an alphabet unknown to Western civilization (Aldington 44). His conversion from pagan heathenism to the Anglican Church fueled a thousand heated theological debates in learned society. Once ingratiated into European literary circles, he use d his unique firsthand knowledge of Formosa to help compile one of the greatest encyclopedias British society had to that point seen (Stagl 186). When at last Psalmanazar passed away in 1763, leaving behind a small estate, a room of empty laudanum bottles, and a request to be buried in a pauper's grave, it seemed that the idiom would never be pried open. The man from another world was modestly interred and there the matter appeared to rest. In 1764 his papers were given a more thorough examination, and the following facts were discovered: - The deceased man's name was not George Psalmanazar. - In almost no way did the actual island of Formosa resemble Psalmanazar's celebrated account of it. - Psalmanazar had, in fact, been born in Europe, and never left it in his lifetime. - The society, language, history, belief system, and culture of Formosa, right down to the calendar, were products of his own invention. The strange case of George Psalmanazar lies somewhere at the uncomfortable intersection of truth and credulity.