Sweet Sweet Fantasy

August 6, 2010

George Psalmanazar was a famous imposter who fooled early 18th century England into thinking he was a visitor from Formosa (present-day Taiwan).

Psalmanazar told various fibs about himself and his supposed homeland to a public hungry for stories from the mysterious east, including that Formosans rode around on camels and that men had the right to eat their wives. When asked the reason for his white skin—he was most likely born in southern France in around 1680—Psalmanazar replied that Formosans lived underground.

For added authenticity, he also spoke a completely made-up language—which was studied by linguists of the day—and it’s worth looking at his ‘translation’ of the Lord’s Prayer for an example of very deliberate nonsense. Wonder how long it took him?

Amy Pornio dan chin Ornio vicy,
Gnayjorhe sai Lory,
Eyfodere sai Bagalin,
jorhe sai domion apo chin Ornio, kay chin Badi eyen,
Amy khatsada nadakchion toye ant nadayi,
kay Radonaye ant amy Sochin,
apo ant radonern amy Sochiakhin,
bagne ant kau chin malaboski,
ali abinaye ant tuen Broskacy,
kens sai vie Bagalin,
kay Fary,
kay Barhaniaan chinania sendabey.
Amien.

Psalmanazar became famous and hung out in London with literary giants of the day such as Samuel Johnson, before eventually owning up to his deception in the years leading up to his death in 1763.

It’s an interesting story, and we wonder how he could have gotten away with it for so long. It’s also fascinating to ask why he did it, and what he was thinking while he was spinning his elaborate stories.

Was he fully aware of what he was doing – just coldly calculating that this was the best way to achieve the fame and fortune that he so obviously desired? Or did he start out that way, before eventually coming to believe it himself due to telling the same story so many times?  Did his lie end up filtering his own reality? Or was he a complete fantasist, who believed that he really was a nobleman from Formosa, where they slept sitting up in chairs?

I encountered a kind of modern-day Psalmanazar in Tokyo when I lived here five or six years ago. His name was Gerard, and we worked together at a company that sold advertising space in business magazines. Gerard was a heavy-set American guy from Atlanta with dead eyes who would always dress impeccably for work – 3-piece pinstripe suit, smart briefcase and a different coloured handkerchief in his top pocket every day.

He was also a compulsive liar.

For some reason – maybe I’ve got a trustworthy face – he saw me as a prime target for his tall tales.  His stories revolved around being a massive player on the Tokyo nightlife scene: business meetings on private jets, driving around town in a white Ferrari, drinking champagne with models…that kind of thing.

When I asked him what his ‘business’ was, he told me he was the CEO of a firm that handled security for A-list celebrity events in Tokyo. Although why he needed to keep schlepping all over town selling advertising was never explained.

One Friday I asked him his plans for the weekend –that standard conversation piece for work colleagues—and he stunned me by saying he would be handling security for Mariah Carey’s post-gig party at Tokyo Dome, which mainly involved driving down to the Dome in a Hummer and parking it outside the front door.

On Monday morning, I was of course eager to find out how it all went.

“How’d it go, Gerard?” I asked.

“Yeah, not bad,” he replied. “Mariah was all over me at the party, but I was dancing with Beyonce.”

Pretty soon after that he stopped coming into work. I eventually found out he’d bartered advertising space with a swanky tailors in exchange for a new suit – a deal he could never deliver on. Our boss was furious…she had to honour the agreement he made…and that was the last I heard of him.

I often think of him, and wonder where he is and what he’s up to. In many ways he was a very sad figure – his actual life was very far removed from his fantasy (excuse the Mariah pun) – he lived on his own in small apartment around an hour out of the city. He had some acquaintances in Tokyo, mostly alumni of his university fraternity as far as I could tell (this kind of thing is quite strong in the US, apparently) but I think he may have been a bit of a figure of fun for them.  Some of them were moderately successful, I suppose – and I often thought his lies may have been in compensation for his envy of them.

But what I really wanted to know was – what was he thinking when he looked me straight in the face and told me he had to turn down the advances of Mariah Carey? Did he think I believed him, and that I was a sucker for doing so? Did he believe it himself? Did he really think he was a high-roller? If so, how did he feel when he got back to his lonely apartment?

We’ve all told lies, sometimes fairly big ones: I remember telling my mates at school I had a motorbike, even though I didn’t.  But for a lie to loom so large in your life, and yet carry on anyway – pushing it down and living on as if it was true or not true – is that something any of us can say we’ve had experience of?

And if we do recognize this state – what Sartre called ‘bad faith’, when we are aware of yet simultaneously deny fundamental truths about our existence – then perhaps we can begin to see, in the distance, the faint outlines of the kind of place inhabited by people like George Psalmanazar and my old mate Gerard.

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3 Responses to “Sweet Sweet Fantasy”

  1. McCrack said

    There was a lad at school who when, to take one example of many, you asked what his plan was for the day he would say things like ‘michael schumacher’s coming over to take me out in his car.’ Thing was he was about 16 at the time and although still not strictly an adult should have known this wasn’t a plausible thing to say. Last i heard of him he’d gone totally off the rails.

    Some people seem to have an inability to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Almost like a disability, or something missing that the rest of us have.

  2. berglington said

    A few years ago, when Robin and I were practising with the ‘band’ for Tilly and Dom’s wedding, I bought a new navy-blue v-neck sweater. The same week, Robin walked into rehearsals, told me he liked my new sweater and then asked me where I got it. I told him I’d got it from Gap.

    The following week, big Robs walks in wearing exactly the same sweater. When I quizzed him about it, and teased him for buying the same one, he looked at me as if I were stark raving mad. To this day he denies this ever took place. Sheer fantasy…

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