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Fiction #23
(published January 18, 2001)
The Giant, the Insect, and the Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman
part 2
by Charles Hoy Fort

"I'll give you a problem," he said, or he equalized, if we think of the difference of potential. "I'll state all the circumstances of an adjustment that I know of; if you say that to every adjustment there is some counter-adjustment—well, what? In this case I can't conceive of what the counter-adjustment could be, because I'm blocked at every turn.

"Very well, now. For thirty-five years there has been, in this city, a little German newspaper, of which I am now the managing editor. For about thirty-four years it was dull and modest and unprofitable; then all at once it burst into sensational journalism. But it didn't know how. To be or not to be is not the question; not to be, but to be, upon indefinite and impersonal authority is sensational journalism. There is a German equivalent for the word `alleged,' yet that word never appeared in our columns. To be sensational, we had to be indignant; there's no use trying to build up a circulation unless you have righteous wrath. So we worked up considerable righteous wrath against old Dr. Katz, who lives over on that corner. We showed him and his rascally patent medicines up for what they are; unfortunately, we were so wrathful as to show him and them up also for what they aren't. Next month the libel suit comes up, and we expect to be ruined by it. Of course we deserve to be ruined; but no one else gets what he deserves, so why should we? I have been doing what I can, taking off whatever time I can, from my duties, browsing around here, hoping to learn something about those people over on the corner, that might be of use. I have learned something; I have learned of an extraordinary adjustment that they have made; but so far as any counter-adjustment is concerned, I'm blocked.

"I'll tell you what that adjustment is. It accounts for some observations that I know you, yourself, have made. In the last few years, it seems, old Dr. Katz has gone all to pieces; aged and withered and haggard. But it was upon his singularly benign, placid, and, of course, healthy appearance, as pictured in his advertisements, that he built up and maintained his patent medicine trade. So then to this change, an adjustment has to be made. Mr. B.F. Ellis, his son-in-law made it. That singularly benign, or philanthropic, and of course, healthy appearance was simply simulated; or a substitute was found. Ellis has substituted another singularly benign and philanthropic-looking old gentleman for his failing father-in-law; takes the healthy and pious-looking old substitute down to the factory every day; displays him before the whole world, but at the same time guards him from those who'd be likely to be inquisitive; and to complete the deception, has copied Dr. Katz's once paying appearance down to such details as a slight limp and a bit of black courtplaster, instead of a mole.

"I see no way of using this knowledge, because Mr. Hauptmeyer has lost all his indignation, and our sensationalism is history, now. Even if we should publish this story, that would make the libel suit all the more relentless, and if we should threaten, Mr. Ellis would say, `Prove it!' and his lawyers would show that I have had delusions since birth. This is the adjustment. What is the logical counter-adjustment to that?"

I had to say, "Come to my rooms, and we'll look the matter up." I can't think without my notes. I have lived with them and for them so long that, though I know where to find the information they have, that information is not available to me in my own mind. In my room, I stacked ten- or fifteen-thousand notes around us. Mr. Rapp looked properly impressed. Then I spread out, in boxes, ten- or fifteen-thousand more notes. That was quite enough; the quest was simple, and I knew about where to look. The idea was to identify this human situation with a similar biologic situation and then find the biologic counter-adjustment for it. We looked through notes upon "Imitation." We were referred to "Simulating," to "Assimilation," to "Protective Coloration," and finally cases, we ere right in identifying our human situation as aggressive, alluring mimicry:

"In India there is a mantis that has taken on the appearance of a flower; by means of its form and pink color, it allures other insects upon which it subsists;"

"According to Mr. Bates, there are certain showy, little spiders found in the tropics, which double themselves at the bases of leaf stalks, to resemble flower buds, and deceive flies, which they feed upon."

The appearance of Dr. Katz's substitute was mimicry, aggressive, because it preyed upon certain factors of its environment; alluring of course to all who were susceptible to the attractions of a notably healthy appearance, presumably resulting from use of the Dr. Katz Remedies.

So then what is Nature's counter-adjustment for aggressive, alluring mimicry? It's a sinister, subtle thing and must be kept in check, in some way.

And we found the answer soon enough. By its own multiplication this phenomenon is kept in check. We found a hint of this in observations by Mr. Bates and Dr. Wallace that mimicking species are always much rarer than the mimicked. We found notes taken long ago by me, but not in the least accessible in my own mind, of Mr. Belt's observation that "each fresh, deceptive resemblance, if it becomes common (multiplied) is sure to be followed by greater keenness of discrimination in deceived species." There were similar observations by Prof. Poulton and F.E. Beddard. But the notes went on and on, confining of course not in the least to biology. I think that data upon the Cardiff Giant impressed Mr. Rapp most. The wider a seeming dissimilarity, the more startling and stimulating to the mind is it when seen to be a similarity. At first there seemed to be nothing in common between a stone image and a showy, little spider; nevertheless, simulating, or caused to simulate, a fossil, the Cardiff Giant was, in relation to the credulous, paying public, aggressive, alluring mimicry. And what proved to be its check, or counter-adjustment? Not exposure of its true nature and origin, because it was exposed and denounced over and over again; for every scientist who proved it to be a fake, there was somebody else to declare it to be Moses or Adam. Then what?

Multiplication was the undoing of the Cardiff Giant. Reproductions of it sprang up all over the country. P.T. Barnum, when he could not buy the original image, had one made and exhibited, as the original, in New York City. It was only that that convinced the public; knowledge of how easily a replica could be made. So ended the career of the Cardiff Giant; it could not survive its own multiplicity.

"I'm very much obliged to you," said Mr. Rapp, "but I can't stay away from the office another moment. Really you know, it may be a good thing to know that multiplicity is the counter-adjustment for aggressive, alluring mimicry."

Really, you know, the whole difficulty lies in translating such abstractions into concrete circumstances. I pondered the matter myself for a while, but I gave that up. The notes gave a formula, but that that formula should be practicable would have such an effect of making me reasonable—I returned to my note-taking, having an especial interest at the time in archaeology and deep-sea diving.

Several days went by—I don't remember how many—doesn't matter—but I must use up some words to signify passage of time, here—so several days went by, and I don't remember how many, and it doesn't matter.

One morning; Riverside Drive:

At about nine o'clock, out on the front stoop of the swollen and suffering house on the corner, came the benign-looking old gentleman: G.A.R. hat, slight limp; long curling, white hair; simulation of a mole upon his cheek. As usually, he stood for a moment, radiating brotherly love and healthfulness. With him was the anaemic-looking man in the virile-looking overcoat: little gingery mustache and eyebrows upon a pale face; framing of great, black, ominous-looking overcoat-collar—ensemble like a far-off view of three timid little foxes, circling in a sandy forest-clearing, half-attracted, half-affrighted by the mystery of dark, shaggy underbrush surrounding them.

There was a passing baby carriage. Down the stoop went the philanthropic-looking old gentleman; he stopped to poke a forefinger under the infant's chin. This is a sure sign of benevolence—

Out from a doorway! He limped slightly; wore a G.A.R. hat; speck of black courtplaster upon his cheek; another benign-looking old gentleman; long hair and white beard—

From behind tree! Two more philanthropic-looking old gentlemen, each with a disc of courtplaster, each atmospheric of the Battle of Gettysburg and then a long life devoted to the welfare of others.

Down the street came a fifth "philanthropist:" white beard and long white hair; G.A.R. hat; and upon his cheek a speck of black courtplaster.

The astrachan overcoat-collar stood up on end. The ferocious vapid-looking man seized his own particular "philanthropist" by the arm—and there was Mr. Rapp speaking to him: cane under his arm, unlighted cigarette in his mouth, Mr. Rapp cleaning his fingernails with his penknife; general air of casualness about him. But the astrachan-gingery man was more emotional; he folded his mighty-seeming arms and said something that probably had considerable profanity in it; something that was quite in keeping with his ferocious collar and cuffs.

Up from an area-way! Upon my word, another of them! Most spiritual-looking and healthiest-looking of all of them: white hair curled; black-specked; blinking up at the tall buildings, so placidly, so exotically, in our wicked city.

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The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #24):

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The Last few Fiction pieces (from Issues #22 thru #18):

The Giant, the Insect, and the Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman
part 1

by Charles Hoy Fort

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