One of the more dismaying discoveries around the US Presidential election, for most of us at least, was the reports that 56 per cent of Republican voters, according to one poll, either partly or entirely believe the claims of the QAnon theory.
This theory holds, for those who haven’t been burrowing through the madder corners of the internet lately, that the world is run by a secret cabal of Jewish Satan-worshipping cannibal paedophiles who hold trafficked child sex slaves in a network of secret tunnels below Washington DC. And there’s a crazy bit, too: it’s also holds that Donald J Trump is the anointed paladin of destiny tasked with leading the fight against these characters.
Theories like this one are not merely nutty ideas, though: they are whole nutty systems and habits of thought. What distinguishes them, from the off, is that the more you seek to disprove them, the more their adherents will tend to double down. The absence of evidence becomes the evidence of a cover-up. And down the rabbit-hole we go.
Once that sort of thinking sets in – which is why these things spread like topsy – it gets a positively tentacular reach. A new conspiracy theory will eagerly subsume and incorporate an old one. Conspiracy theories meet and mate and propagate. You start out wondering, say, whether vaccinations are as safe as advertised. Then you move onto the idea that there’s something rum about 5G. And then you start to see how the government is using lockdown as a means of suppressing dissent. And at once you realise that the government itself is just a puppet for something bigger and more sinister. And you start wondering about 9/11, the moon landings and JFK… Soon you’ve gone full David Icke.
What’s odd, though, is how literary that process is. Truth, runs the cliché, is stranger than fiction. And the “truths” of conspiracy theories are not just stranger than fiction: in the strict sense, they are fiction. There’s plenty of fiction that dips its toe into the waters of the conspiracy theory – think of the paranoid works of Umberto Eco, Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo.
But the ironies of authorship, join-the-dots connection between disparate events and signs, the teasing out of patterns from the white noise of history – these are the materials that all writers work with. Literary form itself, in the most basic way, gives shape to chaos: real lives take shape for the most part through a series of trivial accidents, and history is, as a wise man said, one damn thing after another. But as pattern-seeking creatures we take pleasure in imagining the world to be otherwise.
So the impulse to consume fiction and the impulse to consume conspiracy theories are not so far apart. And the boundaries between prank, hoax, agitprop and literary or art-world experiment, always blurry at the best of times, have become blurrier in the digital age. The internet may be the ultimate unreliable narrator.
It’s even plausibly suggested that QAnon may have its origins not in a dispatch from the heart of the Deep State (the theory’s adherents follow the gnomic utterances of a mysterious insider calling themselves Q, who posts on 4Chan) but with a prank by an Italian art collective. The 1999 novel Q was written by four Italian authors under the pen-name of “Luther Blissett” – and it deals with a hidden history of resistance to the 16th-century counter-reformation. Its authors called it a “handbook of survival skills” and its protagonist is anonymous. Could Q be a theory-steeped prankster seeking to extend the reach of a postmodern literary game?
That it is rooted in the 16th century in no way disconnects it from the conspiracy theories of today. Quite the opposite. The old conspiracy theories are the best – or worst – ones; and it’s a baleful pointer to the way these things work that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Tsarist forgery from the very early years of the 20th century, continues to circulate online as if its grotesque anti-semitic libels were documented fact.
Long after the Knights Templar were consigned to the history books, real-life Freemasons had become indistinguishable from members of the Rotary Club, and the Illuminati were (or should have been) relegated to the footnotes of church historians of 18th-century Bavaria, these ancient organisations have had a flourishing imaginative afterlife in fantastical literature and the minds of the conspiracy-minded. Every pulp writer loves a secret society with a centuries-long mission; and so does every New World Order wackadoo.
The Grail Quest is one of the most enduring literary archetypes – and the conspiracy-minded are constantly in search for a grail, often a literal one. A particularly touching example of this fact/fiction blurring came, for example, when the authors of the bestselling The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail – a fantastic piece of 1980s Templar-bothering that claims the real Holy Grail is not a drinking cup but the bloodline of Christ from a bastard child he had with Mary Magdalene – sued Dan Brown for plagiarising their story in The Da Vinci Code. The problem being, of course, that there’s no copyright in historical facts – so for their suit to prosper they’d essentially have to admit that their book was fiction. They didn’t get very far.
And it seems like nothing of a surprise to read that another 1970s blockbuster – the 800-page Illuminatus! Trilogy – is being mined for insights in QAnonish corners of the Internet as if it were a work of non-fiction. In fact, hilariously, it was boshed together as a lark by a pair of young Playboy staffers who had got fed up of reading the mad letters that conspiracy theorists wrote to the magazine. They started from the premise that “all these nuts are right, and every single conspiracy they complain about really exists”, and from that they wove a demented web of occult speculation that – we can say — has done nothing over the years to prevent people from ascribing dark meaning to the pyramid-and-eye-of-Providence logo on the US dollar bill.
Their smorgasbord – numerology, druggie Seventies counter-culture nonsense, ancient heretical sects and paranoia about the mass-media planting subliminal messages in order to keep the populace docile – was intended as satire on the absurdities of the paranoid imagination; but, of course, that paranoid imagination is more than capable of co-opting satire and repurposing it as part of the narrative. The book was only pretending to be taking the mickey: a deeper truth was being told in jest.
Nathanael West’s comic novel A Cool Million – published as long ago as 1934 – contains a smart joke that feels very contemporary. At a political rally we see a rather familiar sort of demagogue called Shagpoke Whipple ranting: “We must drive the Jewish international bankers out of Wall Street! We must destroy the Bolshevik labor unions! We must purge our country of all the alien elements and ideas that now infest her! America for Americans!”
As he orates away, a burly man peels unobserved away from the back of the crowd and makes a pair of swift, cryptic phone calls. A few minutes later: “Mr. Whipple had just enrolled his 27th recruit when the forces of both the international Jewish bankers and the Communists converged on his meeting. They arrived in high-powered black limousines and deployed through the streets with a skill which showed long and careful training in that type of work.”
That’s just a gag in a satirical novel, of course. Or is it?