Whenever April Fool’s Day comes around, I remember an incident briefly caused a stir some years ago, then abruptly vanished. But as you’ll see, it has relevance all over again today.
In the late 19th Century, a Belgian monk was dispatched to the United States with the idea that the nation’s population was ripe for a spiritual renaissance. Disembarking on the east coast, the young Religious dutifully made his way across the entire continent, sampling the customs and cultures of the budding population and rocking his faith, but, as he wrote later, his heart wasn’t in it. Turns out he was stunned by the rawness and beauty of the country, and felt a powerful spirituality that rendered his own beliefs dusty and trite.
Upon his return to the monastery, the report he delivered to his Superiors was nothing they wanted to hear. The monk prepared himself for a sacking. But the Abbot had other ideas. Knowing the younger man’s artistic skills, he encouraged him to commit his spiritual transformation to graphic arts: paint, charcoal, ink, etc., whatever moved him most. “Stay among us for another year,” he suggested, “after which we’ll look at your work and decide what comes next.’
Long story short: the young monk produced prodigiously that year, and his finished products enthralled the Abbot beyond his fondest hopes. An exhibition was arranged first for the resident brothers, and then for the families in the region who supported the Order. The young monk proved to be a low-key but extremely compelling presenter as well, whose plain, pure speech complemented his extraordinary drawings and paintings, and quite soon the exhibition went national, then global, drawing audiences all through Europe.
Over the next few years, the artist supplemented his work with a book of essays based on both his artwork and his observations as he traveled through America. He became a much-demanded speaker at conventions, salons, and even at the Courts of European Royalty.
Not bad for a doubting Religious in sandals and a burlap sack, innit.
But the story began unravelling in Paris, when a journalist, who had attended these exhibitions elsewhere, noticed that the monk at the podium wasn’t the same one he’d seen a few months prior. When he confidentially confronted the speaker, the replacement Religious admitted the switch, explaining that the original artist has taken ill, and it seemed less problematic simply to make the substitution, especially insofar as he’d been part of the entire process from the outset and was well-versed in the art, essays, and entire experience.
The journalist wasn’t having any of this and probed deeper. He learned that there was a virtual team of speakers, each claiming the identity of the original monk. He also discovered there was no record of the original monk’s travels to America! And ultimately, he couldn’t find any proof of the very existence of the monk at all.
Enlisting the assistance of a Parisian gallery manager, the journalist determined that the exhibited art was created by no fewer than six separate artists, possibly as many as a dozen. As for the essays, a closer review turned up passages and expressions found elsewhere, including among the writing of de Tocqueville, who had made his own memorable American journey decades before.
Not so much shocked as disgusted – fraud among the Creative Class and their fawning socialite patrons had been de rigueur for centuries – he wrote to the Abbot demanding an explanation, saying he would withhold the sordid tale’s exposure pending a response. Unfortunately, that response is lost to history. But the exhibitions and presentations abruptly stopped, and the story exposing the fraud never made the newspapers. The account finally came out years after the journalist’s death, when a descendant discovered the tale among his private papers, and publicized it (on April Fool’s Day, perhaps coincidentally.)
I omit all proper names here – the young (nonexistent?) Religious, the Abbot, the Order, the journalist — and I’ve never seen anything on-line about this scandal. Maybe it’s available in French, German or Dutch: my skills aren’t sufficient to search.
But the parallels to today’s world of social media – fake news, fraud, gullibility, greed – it’s all here, plus one ingredient that doesn’t seem to have survived: shame. And that’s a shame in and of itself.
Happy April Fool’s Day!