The Truth Behind K. Ungeheuer

K. Ungeheuer's birth was a strange one in the sense that he climbed out of my own head. K. Ungeheuer never existed and this entire website is a work of fiction.

This website started out as a place for my short fiction, but I was looking for a way to pull all of the stories together. K. Ungeheuer was the glue I was looking for. That was back in the late 1990s and I can't quite remember how the idea came to me. However when I look back I can see where the seeds came from. An experiment from a literature professor is one of the first things that springs to mind.

The Importance of Context

Our professor lead a discussion about the role the author plays in any written work. While most agreed that the author affects the text, most felt that the effect was minimal. Many felt that after the work was complete the artist was primarily removed and the most important relationship was between the reader and writing.

Several weeks later we were each given a handout, a newly discovered, unpublished story by Hemingway, and asked to write a critical analysis. After we had handed in the our papers the professor revealed to us that the story had never been written by Hemingway. It had been an entry for the Imitation Hemingway Contest that the professor had written himself.

We were asked to write a second paper now that we knew the truth about the story's authorship. Most of us found that our opinion and analysis of the story had changed to at least some degree. Many were mad that they had been "tricked" by the professor (more on "tricking" readers in a second). However even that emotion colored how the story was perceived by the reader. After learning the true authorship, the work was now being read under an entirely different light, different time, different context. Why shouldn't that affect the story itself?

This shouldn't be a surprise. Meaning is the daughter of context. Words take on deeper meaning when put in context with other words. Words help define each other. What does the word 'bear' mean? Well it depends doesn't it? Take these two sentences:

I hope this tree will bear fruit.
We saw a bear while camping.

Here 'bear' is a homonym. The meaning changes from one sentence to the other. What about in these two sentences?

The bear blocked the only route of escape.
The bear was lead into the ring dressed in a clown suit.

'Bear' has the same literal meaning in each, but the connotation certainly changes when given the context of the sentence. I'd much rather meet the second bear over the first.

Context and its effect on meaning isn't just a game that words play amongst themselves. When we talk about a piece of writing, we also talk about its historical context. The world around the book constantly changes from moment to moment building a history as the words age. As my father once said, "There is a story about this story." Knowing what was going on in the world at the time that a "A Modest Proposal" was written helps the reader appreciate the work. The author, his life and times are part of this historical context. Knowing a little bit about Johnathan Swift will certainly deepen the meaning further.

I want to avoid any sort of “elitist" judgment of analysis here. It's a large step from saying that historical context affects a reader's interpretation of a work to saying that the more the reader understands a work's historical context, the more the reader appreciates the work. To quote Dr. Chris Mullen at the University of Brighton:

Of course the opposite should be equally true. Some readers protest that the "overly educated" critic can't appreciate the simpler things the way a layperson can. Surely a skilled musician can appreciate a bird's song without overt analysis.

"Appreciating something without properly understanding its form, or how and when it is was made, does not surely mean that one is appreciating the artifact at a lower level than those who understand it more. We may appreciate 'Old Masters' paintings without actually knowing that some of their compositions may have been based on geometrical grid structures using 'golden section' intervals or other proportional divisions. We may appreciate a Seurat painting without being aware of his systematic use of scientific colour theory. Some of the symbols employed by artists may allude us as to their meaning. We are able to appreciate a landscape without a knowledge of its topographical location or if it is indeed a specific place at all." - Dr. Chris Mullen; Contextual Knowledge

Of course the opposite should be equally true. Some readers protest that the "elite" critic can't appreciate the simpler things the way a layperson can. Surely a skilled musician can appreciate a bird's song without overt analysis getting in the way.

The Hoax

What I learned from all of this was that it was possible to change the reader's experience with fiction by playing with assumptions. There's an uglier term for this; a hoax.

Hoaxes have a long and rich history and their ability to pass themselves depends on their ability to manipulate the viewer's vantage point. Psalmanazar was able to convince hundreds of thousands that he was a cannibal prince from Formosa through a book translated into English, French, Latin and German and an "educational" roadshow. An almond stone becomes what must be the world's smallest carving of a Flemish landscape when set up as a museum exhibit. Literary hoaxes like Ern Malley seem even more likely than any other type.

Literary types, already well-versed in the arts of creativity and fiction, can be excused for wanting to take that extra step and fictionalize a whole author. It seems a logical step to take advantage of the fact that your reader has probably (hopefully) already suspended disbelief about your identity even before the reading begins.

After all, it is fiction they are writing. Every author is telling a lie in the strictest sense and the line between a story and a hoax is very gray. Books which are a part of our literary canon walk that line very closely. In the preface to Robinson Crusoe, Defoe says "The editor believes the history to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it." Jack Lynch covers this history in his paper I Believe Hardly a Word of It: Fact, Fiction, and Forgery in Eighteenth-Century Narratives.

“...what, in short, constitutes a fake. So let's see: each faker is a liar, who disseminates extended falsehoods, who represents his work as something it is not, and who tries to deceive his audience about the nature of his text. So far, so good. But here a problem arises: notice that I've described not only Psalmanazar and Macpherson, but also Defoe and Richardson. According to these criteria, our beloved novelists are guilty of the same crimes as the mendacious finks: their works are filled with lies, they represent them as something they're not, and they try to deceive their audience about the nature of their texts. The conclusion is inescapable: the eighteenth-century novelists are just as bad as the forgers.”

We could throw the baby out with the bath water and take the same position as Plato (and many after him) when he said of poets in The Republic, "I condemn them because they tell lies." Rather than condemn the perpetrator of fiction perhaps we should agree with Picasso who said, "We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth, at least the truth that is given to us to understand."

The Vulnerable Internet

In this age of “Fake News” and rampant conspiracy theories, we should all know that the internet is very ripe for hoaxes. In fact the internet has very specific features that lend itself directly to the hoax. The main one is that information presented on the internet has very little connection with the physical world.

When Han van Meegeren faked a previously "undiscovered" Vermeer he went through an arduous process of recreating the pigments and canvas that experts would expect a Vermeer to be made of. How many people would be fooled by a website claiming to have found a new Vermeer, with nothing more than a picture of the painting and some testimonials of "experts" as to its authenticity?

The internet is a context free forest of 0's and 1's that can be made to look like anything you might want. The fallout of this is already being felt worldwide. Mailboxes are filled daily with false promises of millions of dollars, cries for help for children that never existed and terrible "truths" about celebrities and politicians. Hackers have inserted fake stories into well respected news sites and taken advantage of confirmation bias on social networks. Information Security expert Bruce Schneier contended for over a decade that semantic attacks on the internet are the next wave of information warfare and history has proven him correct. Back in 2000 he described the difference in the ease of propagating a hoax via the internet versus traditional methods:

“In the book "How to Play With Your Food," Penn and Teller included a fake recipe for "Swedish Lemon Angels," with ingredients such as five teaspoons of baking soda and a cup of fresh lemon juice, designed to erupt all over the kitchen. They spent considerable time explaining how you should leave their book open to the one fake page, or photocopy it and sneak it into friends' kitchens. It's much easier to put it up on a recipe website and wait for search engines to index it.”

The Birth of an Author

So the seeds for Ungeheuer were rattling around my brain, the ground that is the internet was fertile for this sort of hoax and Ungeheuer was born. As I fleshed out his history the stories took on a new color. I became less concerned with the stories themselves as I was with Ungeheuer as a whole. Ungeheuer has slowly spread (or perhaps spread slowly), but over the years I found discussions of his work, author lists would nestle my dear Ungeheuer somewhere between the likes of Mark Twain and Jules Verne, and even a podcaster recorded their narration of one of Ungeheuer’s stories. In fact, having a post to point people to to explain the truth about Ungeheuer is the entire reason I wrote this piece.

We get ruffled when we haven't had the opportunity to suspend our disbelief, but I hope the proper context helps you to enjoy the fiction of Ungeheuer even more. Please e-mail me and share your experience with Ungeheuer.