The Imaginary Mongoose

Cary Grant was once told, “Every time I see you on the screen, I think, ‘I wish I was Cary Grant’” He replied, “That’s just what I think!”

I’ve been repeating that story ever since I first heard it, and it never fails to amuse audiences, all of whom seem to understand it immediately. Everybody groks that Archie Leach, the poor boy from Liverpool who became “Cary Grant” never fully believed in “Cary Grant,” since Cary was, after all, his own invention. On the other hand, here’s a similar story, which I also like to tell, that produces very mixed reactions, with some people laughing and others looking puzzled or slightly offended:

An art dealer once went to Pablo Picasso and said “I have a bunch of ‘Picasso’ canvasses that I was thinking of buying. Would you look them over and tell me which are real and which are forgeries?” Picasso obligingly began sorting the paintings into two piles. Then, as the Great Man added one particular picture to the fake pile, the dealer cried, “Wait a minute, Pablo. That’s no forgery. I was visiting you the weekend you painted it.” Picasso replied imperturbably, “No matter. I can fake a Picasso as well as any thief in Europe.”

Personally, I find this story not only amusing but profoundly disturbing. It has caused me to think, every time I finish a piece of writing, “Is this a real Robert Anton Wilson, or did I just fake a Robert Anton Wilson?” Sometimes, especially with a long novel, I find it impossible to convince myself that I know the answer. After all, as Nietzsche said, “there are no facts, only interpretations.”

I first encountered the Picasso parable in a little-known, virtually forgotten film, which I and a few other film buffs—damned few—consider the greatest movie Orson Welles ever directed. The film was called F For Fake, and, like most of Welles’s work, it died at the box office; unlike most of his other films, it has not been rediscovered by the cognoscenti and is not because F For Fake is certainly the most Wellesian movie Welles ever made, and it was also so far ahead of its time that we are only now beginning to become contemporary with it.

F (as I shall call it for short and to avoid monotony) is a documentary about the impossibility of making a documentary. That is to say, it does not belong in the world of Aristotle, The Master of Those Who Know, but in that of David Hume, The Master of Those Who Don’t Know. It deals with magic (both kinds) and fakery (many kinds) and might almost be considered a lengthy commentary on the famous aphorism of the great Soviet director, Eisenstein—“The camera is a liar.”


How big was King Kong? He only reached as high as Fay Wray’s Knee.
— The Stunt Man


You will get some of the flavor when I fell you F begins with Orson doing magic tricks while asking the difference between magic and acting, and ends with a scene in which Orson, fat and old as he then was, plays a beautiful young woman and a beautiful young actress plays an old man: a scene which makes perfect sense artistically and is moving dramatically despite the violent Brechtian alienation-effect of reversing the sexes and ages of the two players.

Concretely, F is about a man called El Mir, and of course that is not his real name, any more than Cary Grant was the real name of Cary Grant When Welles made F in 1975, “El Mir” was living in semi-respectable retirement in Ibiza, after having served a moderately short prison term for faking Van Goghs, Cezannes, Modiglianis and various other modern masterpieces. Also living in Ibiza was Clifford Irving, who had written a biography of El Mir, proclaiming him “the greatest art forger of all time.” El Mir himself brags, in the film, that most of his forgeries have not been discovered even yet and still hang in museums all over Europe and the U.S.

Of course, Irving’s biography of El Mir is not entirely trustworthy; Mr. Irving, you may remember, was the man who once got a million dollar advance from a publisher for a biography of Howard Hughes, based on a contract allegedly signed by Hughes, but the Hughes‘ signature itself turned out to be a forgery. And we cannot easily trust the boasts of El Mir, either, since he won’t even tell us his real name. The first of the Strange Loops in F, then, is that it is a documentary about a faker who wrote a biography of a faker. Welles, however, assures us at the beginning that F itself contains no lies or deceptions, since he and his staff (he claims) set out to find, and tell, the whole truth.

By the end of the film, it is obvious that Welles was deceiving the audience when he said that; but, of course, he has artistic justification for this hanky-panky. What better form could there be for a film about a fake biographer of a fake painter than to make the film itself a bit of a fake?

Actually, the lies that Welles reveals at the end of F are only part of the fakery he had imposed on the audience. F looks and “feels” like an Orson Welles movie, but large parts of it were not shot by him at all: he bought them from the BBC documentary department and re-edited them to give them the “Orson Welles flavor.” But does this “really” make the film a fake? The cubists began pasting newspapers and other extraneous matters onto their paintings 60 years ago; Pound inserts real letters and historical documents into his Cantos; Duchamp submitted a toilet bowl (upside down) to an art exhibit; Picasso once made a sculpture of a bull’s head, and a mighty sinister one, out of the handlebars and seat of a bicycle, with a few bits of his own work glued on …

When does a fake become “real”? Most people who have seen F believe they have seen Orson interviewing El Mir and Clifford Irving: actually, they have not. Welles simply edited the film so that he appears to be in the same scenes with other fakers, and they appear to be answering his questions. In fact, they were answering other people’s questions—people from BBC—and their answers are often not in reply to the questions by Welles that we hear but to other, different questions that we do not hear. Is this more “fakery” or a development of the creative editing by which, in Citizen Kane, people in one scene seem to be answering remarks by people in another scene, separated by years in time?

The dramatic turning point in F occurs when El Mir reflects that it is no crime to paint in another man’s style; the crime only begins when the other man’s signature is added. “I never did the signatures myself,” he says blandly. Should we trust this convicted felon? Clifford Irving comes on screen and says bluntly that El Mir is lying, and forges signatures as skillfully as he forges art styles. “And,” Orson asks quietly, “who forged the Howard Hughes signature on that famous contract?” Irving looks down-thoughtfully, or guiltily? No audience, and no member of an audience, is the final authority on what a man’s face “really” reveals. (Witness any Columbo show.) But Irving did not look down (thoughtfully or guiltily) in response to Welles’s question, since Welles inserted himself and the question into BBC footage in which Irving was responding to something else …

A Picasso by Elmyr de Hory
A Picasso by Elmyr de Hory (Source)

We seem to be back with the primordial Welles, the man who scared the hell out of America, in 1938, by presenting a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds in the form of a series of news bulletins interrupting and gradually replacing a music show. But Welles said at the time that the news form had attracted him because much alleged news is as fictitious as much alleged drama and he wanted to explore the interface between genres.

Actually, I think, F For Fake recapitulates Welles’s whole career and has its earliest roots in the unproduced play about John Brown which he wrote as an adolescent. In that play, Brown never appeared on stage: instead, various people recounted their own memories of the man and argued about the morality of what he did. In Citizen Kane, too, Kane never “appears” in a real sense, although we see Orson Welles playing Kane at various ages: the direction and format continually remind us we are not seeing “the real Kane” as ding an sich but only a series of pseudo-Kanes recalled by people who either loved or hated him. Like Brecht and Joyce, Welles was always a non-Aristotelian artist, a post-Einsteinian.

In fact, Welles even managed to impose this Wellesian (Brechtian? Joycean?) format on a biography of himself completed shortly before his death. He told the biographer that she could not write “the truth about Orson Welles” and should not even attempt that—“Do you think you’re God?” he asked—and persuaded her to write the book as the story of her attempts to discover “the truth” about Orson Welles.

(Similarly, Niels Bohr revolutionized physics-even more than Einstein had—by asserting that the scientist can never describe “reality” but only “what we can say about reality based on our current instrument readings.”)

Those readers who are not thinking of the constantly shifting perspectives in Ulysses at this point are probably thinking of my own novels. Like Joyce, Brecht and Welles, I have always considered the Victorian novel, with its omniscient (personal or impersonal) narrator and its one block-like “objective reality,” to be totally obsolete and incapable of conveying 20th Century experience. All the novel (or film) of today should attempt to do is recount how various people create their own individualized reality-tunnels in their quest for that ever-receding Holy Grail, “the real truth,” which exists, if at all, outside our space-time continuum.

I think it was Malraux who defined art as “lies like truth.” Marianne Moore, more precisely, said poetry creates “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In A Portrait of the Artist, Joyce becomes Stephen Dedalus who vows to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” but in Finnegans Wake, Joyce becomes Shem the Penman, forger (metallurgical) of alchemical transmutations and forger (illegal) of bad checks. Aristotle said art imitates nature, and what is the difference between an imitation and a counterfeit?

Andy Warhol, as is well known, used to keep a pantry full of Campbell soup cans, and if he liked you, he would autograph one and give to you, so you could own “a genuine Warhol original.” Such is the magic of art and the art of magic. The logical next step, as Hugh Kenner once pointed out, would have been for Warhol to sue the Campbell Soup Company for selling cheap imitation Warhols.

I have pondered long and hard, for many years, on the difference between “real” money and counterfeit money, and the best analysis I can offer is that we are supposed to believe the wizards at the Federal Reserve Bank have a magic wand which turns paper into something of value, but the counterfeiters do not own the magic wand. This can hardly be called fakery or imposture (despite the grumblings of some right-wing money cranks) since the Fed’s notes are indeed accepted as something valuable on international money markets.

But why would a dollar become worth several million dollars if it were hung on a museum wall by Warhol as an example of “found art?” And would it make any difference if such “found art” were blessed by the wizards at the Federal Reserve or just printed in a basement by the Mafia?

Maybe humans are creatures who create realities out of the flux of experience by faking (imposing?) meanings and forms. Or is that too Buddhistic a view for most of you reading this?

Does this belong in an occult journal or should I have published it in an art magazine? Well, before you answer that, consider a final parable, which comes from Aleister Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practise and is said by him to contain the whole secret of practical occultism:

Two passengers are sharing a railway carriage. One notices that the other has a box with holes in it, of the sort used to transport animals, and asks what animal his companion is carrying. “A mongoose,” says the other. The first passenger naturally asks why this eccentric chap wants to transport a mongoose around England.

“It’s because of my brother,” says the second man. “You see, he drinks perhaps more than is good for him, and sometimes he sees snakes. The mongoose is to kill the snakes.”

“But those are bleeding imaginary snakes,” says the first man.

“That’s as may be,” says the other placidly. “But this is an imaginary mongoose.”

And the next time you see a Van Gogh in a museum, stop and ask if it’s an El Mir. As for me, I’m already wondering if this is a genuine Robert Anton Wilson article or just another fake I dashed off because I was too tired to write the real thing.

The Imaginary Mongoose
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Magical Blend, Issue 24 in October 1989.