Fortune Tellers and Elmer Gantrys

"The Fortune Teller" by Caravaggio, circa 1596-97, oil on canvas. (Credit:  Coyau / Wikimedia Commons)

“The Fortune Teller” by Caravaggio, circa 1596-97, oil on canvas. (Credit: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons)

Because I have a warm place in my heart for psychics, fortune tellers, crystal ball diviners, palm and tarot readers, and all sorts of street mystics, I did not fail to notice the following passage in Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (see previous post):

At present, if a woman opens a consulting room in Bond Street, and sits there in strange robes professing to foretell the future by cards or crystals or revelations made to her by spirits, she is prosecuted as a criminal for imposture.

Psychic Readings by Nadia, Ellicott City, Maryland, 2015. (Credit:  Bohemian Baltimore / Wikimedia Commons)

Psychic Readings by Nadia, Ellicott City, Maryland, 2015. (Credit: Bohemian Baltimore / Wikimedia Commons)

But if a man puts on strange robes and opens a church in which he professes to absolve us from the guilt of our misdeeds, to hold the keys of heaven and hell, to guarantee that what he looses or binds on earth shall be loosed and bound in heaven, to alleviate the lot of souls in purgatory, to speak with the voice of God, and to dictate what is sin and what is not to all the world (pretensions which, if you look at them objectively, are far more extravagant and dangerous than those of the poor sorceress with her cards and tea leaves and crystals), the police treat him with great respect; and nobody dreams of prosecuting him as an outrageous impostor.

"Preaching" by George Bellows, 1915. (Credit:  Boston Public Library)

“Preaching” by George Bellows, 1915. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

Europeans like Shaw had before them the singular achievement of Moliere’s (whom Shaw admired over Shakespeare) Tartuffe as a guide to this type of male religious impostor. The particular American version of this kind of con man was exposed by Sinclair Lewis in his novel Elmer Gantry (brilliantly played by Burt Lancaster in Richard Brooks’ 1960 film). Gantry turned the American Protestant belief that material success in this world was a sign of spiritual salvation upside down. He held that trafficking in the spiritual realm could lead to wealth, material pleasures and political powers in this one.

The objective explanation of his immunity is that a great many people do not think him an impostor; they believe devoutly that he can do all these things that he pretends to do; and this enables him and his fellow priests to organize themselves into a powerful and rich body calling itself The Church, supported by the money, the votes, and the resolution to die in its defence, of millions of citizens. The priest can not only defy the police as the common sorceress cannot; he has only to convince a sufficient number of people of his divine mission to thrust the Government aside; assume all its functions except the dirty work that he does not care to soil his hands with and therefore leaves to “the secular arm”; take on himself powers of life and death, salvation and damnation; dictate what we shall all read and think; and place in every family an officer to regulate our lives in every particular according to his notions of right and wrong . (429-430)

As the three-ringed circus of American presidential elections begins, it is helpful to remember that we are particularly susceptible to the wiles, snares and trickeries of this native mountebank. We who are too sophisticated to believe that mediums speak with the dead have no difficulty accepting allusions to the “unborn.” We who will not believe scientists on global warming are prompt to believe Dick Cheney when he cries out about terrorists, and Condoleezza Rice when she predicts mushroom clouds. We who were doubtful when Hillary Clinton “channeled” Eleanor Roosevelt had no problem when Nancy Reagan consulted her astrologer. And we who resent the small fee of the tarot reader do not hesitate to tithe doubtful religious operations (as long as they are vaguely Christian). We wish to deny the palmist her coin, but contribute to presidential races based on promises never kept.

OG

Closeup of bumper sticker with famous Sinclair Lewis line "When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." (Credit:  Robert F.W. Whitlock / Wikimedia Commons)

Closeup of bumper sticker with famous Sinclair Lewis line “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” (Credit: Robert F.W. Whitlock / Wikimedia Commons)

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