Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Cottingley Fairies, Jesus and Mary

The Cottingley Fairies appear in a series of five photographs taken between 1917 and 1920 by two young cousins, Elsie Wright (1900–88) and Frances Griffiths (1907–86), who lived in the village of Cottingley, near Bradford. Look them up in Google images (as they may be still copyright) and it's important that you do look at them before reading on. Savvy?

The pictures snagged the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and duly appeared as illustrations to an article on fairies he wrote for the Christmas 1920 edition of The Strand Magazine. He summed up thus:

The recognition of their existence will jolt the material twentieth century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life. Having discovered this, the world will not find it so difficult to accept that spiritual message supported by physical facts which has already been put before it.

I'd hazard that the twentieth century mind had already been jolted by the Great War (although to be sure interest in the supernatural in general and spiritualism in particular was one of the cultural fall-outs of the mass slaughter and subsequent flu pandemic).  But - and this is my point - just look at the photographs and wonder that anyone could fall for such an artless prank! Only a credulous dullard could mistake these flimsy paper cut-outs for supernatural entities (although when it came to the supernatural Conan Doyle was the credulous dullard's credulous dullard). The cousins only admitted publicly that the images were faked as late as 1983, by which time nobody really cared one way or the other.  The Cottingley Fairies were always a tiresome and unpersuasive, if well-intentioned fraud. Read more about this queer cultural episode here.

I wouldn't say that my visual sense is way above average but I can tell (say) when the British Film Institute cynically fobs off an audience with a DVD rather than the screening we've all paid to see, and I can tell when something is shot on location, or in a studio, or when special effects are employed, or when there's a clunky cut in the continuity by a desperate editor who has no 'coverage'. I can tell all this because I grew up in a world of television and cinema and later videotapes and DVDs, and because I can be morbidly literal and pedantic about such matters. I'm not, I think, particularly unusual in this and I'm not easily fooled.

But what about simulacra - the appearance of (e.g.) the face of Christ or the Virgin Mary in everyday objects? Examples of such manifestations have occurred in cloud photos, Marmite, chapatis, shadows, Cheetos, tortillas, trees, dental x-rays, cooking utensils, windows rocks and stones, and painted and plastered walls. 

These phenomena were once known as acheropites, from the Greek ἀχειροποίητος, meaning 'not created by human hands', a term  first applied to the Turin Shroud and the Veil of Veronica. Such images are a form of pareidolia - the false perception of imagery caused by the human mind's over-sensitive predisposition to seeing patterns, and especially human facial patterns, in random phenomena. 

The Turin Shroud is self-evidently the result of human ingenuity and not miraculous yet, like the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti and Bigfoot and flying bloody saucers and apparitions of ghosts and those blasted Cottingley Fairies, continues to attract and impress the credulous.  But - and this is my other point - what is one to make of the one indisputable collective apparition of the 20th century, something observed and recorded by an enormous number of witnesses: the Vision of Fatima? This troubles me. Look it up and see what you think.

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