Lee Harvey Oswald as Fortean Man

Published with Politics of the Imagination, Headpress Books 2002

According to Assassinations, [1] there was so much packed into a typical Oswald week that an innocent, observing alien could be excused for thinking that any one week was the first week of all creation. Oswald proceeds, with his cartoon mind, rather like Leopold Bloom, throughout the separate “night towns” of Russia, the Marines, the Mafia, the CIA, the FBI, the Cuban sector, corporate conspiracies and a very strange marriage.  He has an equally strange rifle with badly behaved rounds, and a death weirder than all those things put together.  To assume that any single entity could deliberately time and integrate these somewhat complicated schemes of matter, movement, and motivation, down to a two-shot six-second bolt-action manual/lay framework, is the height of rationalist optimism.  The distance between some well-understood (and for once quite rational) overlap between the Cuban emigres, the Mafia, the CIA and the strange dynamics of whatever bullet(s) struck President Kennedy, is simply far too great to be tactically managed.  Similarly, the dimensions of some simple, external, mechanical plot could hardly extend to complete control of the high degrees of strangeness involved in angles, times, and movements.  That this same degree of strangeness accompanies many other major assassinations as concerns rounds, times, and movements makes the Fortean point: that every particle of the social embryo is a smoking gun. 

That this same degree of strangeness accompanies many other major assassinations as concerns rounds, times, and movements makes the Fortean point: that every particle of the social embryo is a smoking gun.

The strange patterns of the last phone calls of Jack Ruby before being arrested, and also the last phone calls of Marilyn Monroe, present much the same problem and, in the second case, bring in a whole creaking stage apparatus of Bobby Kennedy’s hired helicopter, u-turning ambulances, hospitals which have no records, and the whole  humourless farce  seen by other, quite independent observers from other covert networks—all this shows that the rational view is like the short-run formula for primes: some strands of it work, they indeed continue working until, like Fred Hoyle’s view of the downfall of Stonehenge as a wound-down clock, they become increasingly inaccurate.  Their ticking begins to falter just where the rational elements that make up personality, meet the interests of the general ideological field and its own separate domains, interests, and developments.  Historically, figures that command much attention often die strange deaths.  They are close to the much-troubled area where rational elements interface with systems mythology.  Shakespeare had no problem at all with this idea: for him, the “system” is always a dramatis persona whose name is not on the list of players, yet who is tangibly present in every single scene that is played.

Yet, spurning tragedy, the writers in Assassinations, like the pre-Copernican astronomers, still stick further epicycles onto previous epicycles in order to discover a single, objective, systems solution.  In The CIA and the Man Who Was Not Oswald a double-Oswald, of all things, is brought in to correct the orbit-wobbles, as if one Oswald was not quite enough for one lifetime.  Here, the assumptions about the timing are quite something; knowing how many mistakes can be made in tying a shoelace, we may permit ourselves a Fortean smile when we know that, throughout his life, this Marine, this politically confused (and increasingly schizoid) drifter [2] had defied any and every attempt to organise himself and his life.  In this, he quite defeated the attempts of an American mother, the United States Marine Corps, and even the entire might of Soviet Russia to organise his day—not a bad achievement in one short lifetime, especially for a person who, after he left the Marines voluntarily, could hardly be relied upon to pull on a second sock after he had pulled on a first. 

Oswald quite defeated the attempts of an American mother, the United States Marine Corps, and even the entire might of Soviet Russia to organise his day.

This Mitty-like inability to pull on two socks one after the other was, as it were, Oswald’s Fortean “wild talent.” The world, of course, is always looking for two-socked folk, those wearing one sock not usually regarded as being of great account.   Walls, borders, laws, are therefore transparent, irrelevant, or inoperative to those who do not obey the rules precisely because they do not see any rules.  The grain of the seeing of many and varied cultural filters, no matter how fine, remains coarse for the one-sockers. They enter the target system like minnows through a net, and one thing is certain: the killers of the two Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon, and John Hinkley, Jr who tried to kill President Reagan were all dedicated one-sockers. That is, they were back-bedroom heroes who sprang out of their cartoon frame and, trailing wires and smoke, pressed the tinsel triggers of almost cut-out guns.

Trying to fit Oswald into a “real-time” frame is impossible.  From a Fortean point of view he is a wall-eyed tapestry figure; a living Escher drawing of a human being. We cannot square him off because a dimension is missing. Like Walter Mitty, he lives in perspectives that we have long discarded. A true anomaly is a one-sock event.

Oswald is thus a Fortean figure.  He illustrates how useful is the Fortean method of analysis.  Many of the essays in Assassinations try to reconstruct the basic common sense “real time” sequence of his simple physical progress from one week to another—they fail completely.  As an ex-marine radar operator, and dishonourably discharged from the Marine reserve, he practically walked into Russia, married a Russian girl, and calmly walked out with her back to America, even managing to avoid being debriefed when he returned.  During this utterly fantastic process (which very few twentieth-century characters ever came near to matching and which must have made him more obvious than any screaming siren) not a single sector of the American intelligence community admits to having targeted him as a possible threat to anything at all.  Here is Anthony Summers giving us some idea of the difficulties of trying to discover a kind of integrated, mundane baseline for the Oswald dimension:

Oswald’s progress is marked by visits to the employment office, the cashing of unemployment cheques, and the withdrawal of library books.  Even these are not necessarily valid for charting Oswald’s movements; the FBI was able to authenticate Oswald’s signature on hardly any of the unemployment documents. Of the seventeen firms where Oswald said he had applied for work, thirteen denied it, and four did not even exist.  [3]

And then there are the fake addresses of fake branches of extreme sections of the political spectrum; a series of fake change-of-address cards filed to various mail offices, but the most disturbing of all are the Oswald sightings made before the actual assassination took place.  On September 25, 1963, an “Oswald” walked into the Austin, Texas offices of the Selective Service System (the American military draft organisation) and asked if he could have his dishonourable discharge revoked on account of his two years’ good conduct.  The assistant could not help because the name Harvey Oswald was not on her records.[4] Two weeks before the assassination another “Harvey Oswald” visited a supermarket in Irving, Texas and tried to cash a cheque in the name of “Harvey Oswald.” Twenty-four hours before the assassination, the FBI received a report that a “Lee Oswald” had behaved strangely (making anti-government remarks) in a Dallas car showroom.

Of course these three reports are only of interest because they do not line up with the verifiable movements of the so-called “real” Oswald at the times concerned.  These examples are drawn from Summers’ book, and he goes on to give many more examples of strange Oswald appearances at shooting-ranges, gun shops; and even the good old YMCA had a visit.  But the mighty Oswald defeated even this mundane organisation; neither his telegrams nor his money orders could be traced, though witnesses swore that Oswald identified himself by his now famous “library card,” this wretched slip of paper being just about the only constant “fact” he ever had anything to do with.

Like Fort’s examples of Princess Cariboo and Cagliostro, Oswald seems to have put anything and everything he ever had contact with under a kind of enchantment: the space-time around the incident of the shooting of patrolman Tippit, only a few hours after the assassination, seemed hardly to be consistent. [5] Although the round(s) that killed President Kennedy, of course, were fired from an entirely different weapon. [6]  It seems that whenever Oswald pulled a trigger (as when he undoubtedly took a previous pot-shot at General Walker some time before the events in Dallas) [7] only one thing seemed rationally certain: that is, that the whole event would certainly dissolve into a kind of infinity of tragic burlesque.

There are times when Summers, a sober rationalist to the core, appears to be quite overwhelmed by the bizarre nature of the quest for Oswald.  As his investigation proceeds, he confesses that he just cannot account for the High Strangeness he experiences at every turn.  Deeper into the system, and yet deeper again, he understands less and less about how it works.  By refusing to accept anything but fact for his guide, in Fortean terms this superb investigator will understand less and less again.

Assassinations represents a crisis within the great Information Society, a society in which, paradoxically, there is surprisingly little information available.  Given the present situation concerning UFOs alone, nothing less than the validity of the entire rationalist complex is at stake, and rationalism will no doubt shame itself to death, booted off the cultural scene to universal laughter, a fate it has wished upon its Flat Earth opponents many a time.  In Assassinations, as each and every hour splinters, lesser investigators than Summers have no problem in introducing yet more clockwork.  One article even speculates that there may have been no fewer than three assassins acting in concert.[8]  Here, to resolve our cosmological inconsistencies we might suppose, then, that the possible Oswald “double” acted with the three supposed assassins, at which the entire situation becomes like Fort’s example of the millions of periwinkles scattered all over Worcester in one night by many hundreds of charitable fishmongers.  There comes a point when it might as well have been ten further assassins, five more doubles, or some equally fantastic delta-mouth of possibilities involving all the ghosts of every Western consumer’s Christmas past: Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, or Elvis Presley.

The validity of the entire rationalist complex is at stake, and rationalism will no doubt shame itself to death, booted off the cultural scene to universal laughter, a fate it has wished upon its Flat Earth opponents.

Since women and cars, nations and performers, products and events, are all multiple mirrors, we might well think upon a somewhat Fortean story by Borges, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.  This story is related by Ryan, the great-grandson of the assassinated Fergus Kilpatrick, described as “a secret and glorious captain of conspirators,” and whose name “illustrated the verses of Browning and Hugo,” was killed “on the very eve of the victorious revolt which he premeditated and dreamed of.”  As the first centenary of Kilpatrick’s death draws near, Ryan, writing a biography of the hero, discovers that “the enigma exceeds the confines of a simple police investigation.”  Other “facets of the enigma” disturb Ryan:

“…they are of a cyclic nature: they seem to repeat or combine events of remote regions, of remote ages.  Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia saw in a dream the destruction of a tower decreed to him by the Senate; false and anonymous rumours on the eve of Kilpatrick’s death publicized throughout the country that the circular tower of Kilgarven had burned, which could be taken as a presage, for he himself had been born in Kilgarven.  These parallelisms (and others) between the story of an Irish conspirator lead Ryan to suppose the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines.  He thinks of the transmigration of Souls, a doctrine that lends horror to Celtic literature and that Caesar himself attributed to the British druids; he thinks that, before having been Fergus Kilpatrick, Fergus Kilpatrick was Julius Caesar. He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding which then sinks him into more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths: certain words uttered by a beggar who spoke with Fergus Kilpatrick on the day of his death were prefigured by Shakespeare in the tragedy Macbeth. That history should have copied history was astonishing; that history should copy literature was inconceivable …” [9]

If this collage of overlapping confusions sounds familiar, it is certainly like similar books written in the past thirty years on the UFO phenomenon, particularly those concerning the “Magic 12” documents. [10] As yet, for none of these areas is there the beginning of an explanation.  The rationalist fury is appreciated, for neither the Oswald system, the UFO system, nor the Fergus Kilpatrick system can be entered.

If a system cannot be entered, then we must consider that the entire and fundamental relationship we have with such a system has broken down. We have been asking the wrong questions.  It will get worse until the elegant Fortean solution will have to be faced: that what we call “reality,” within a transient complex of knife-edge systems-events, is a movable feast.

The elegant Fortean solution will have to be faced: that what we call “reality,” within a transient complex of knife-edge systems-events, is a movable feast.

Concerning the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, as every Fortean knows, the first anomalies and contradictions, the first wave of unanswered questions and unaccountable coincidences, were not long in arriving.  Connoisseurs of explanations looked askance at the police claim for the 122 mph of her car, equivalent not so much to being driven as to being fired from a cannon point-blank at a wall.  The fast autopsies, the even faster reopening of the tunnel, whose exhaust fumes would very rapidly destroy all forensic evidence, have also been noted, along with the first claims of the doubles seen, the official denials, and the typical chain of associated deaths. These are the tones of the only really authentic twentieth-century sonata form: the figures acting suspiciously nearby, the figures seen along the tunnel walkway, the time and speed contradictions, the bending of all levels of perception by the immensely strong Camelot image field.  And perhaps we may have the bonus of even a “real” UFO over the Tuilleries, reported by a few, denied by many, wanted by all, expected by some, and part-recorded by radar.  Tonal variations will be provided by certain amateur still photographs: some fogged by the local chemist, others lost in the post, and a few photos containing images of an old aunt who happened to be off in Canada at the time the camera was pointed at the family dog.

It is such dream-like elements that defeat the absolutely superb analysts of  Assassinations.  Whenever these fine, new, late-Roman minds come across these modern mysteries, the real problem is that they cannot cope with the breaking of the heart of that near-religion that can be called the continuous product development of a completely stable reality.  They must mass-produce denial structures within which to defend the idea of a clean-limbed and continuous intellectual process.  There is, thus, induced a crisis of belief and explanation within that ark of the consumer covenant, that Boolean colonisation of inputs and outputs, which is at the heart of those modern vanishing-rituals called rational explanations.  The pride of all these analysts is that as they have grown up, they have also fully woken up, and that the car they have just been sold, that looks like a spaceship, is not really a spaceship, and that a rationalist is not really another mythological performer, just like everyone else.

"A rationalist is really another mythological performer, just like everyone else."

Oswald, Fort, and indeed Shakespeare’s Hamlet, were great outsiders.  Fort’s idea of the imagination as the supreme prime mover of all philosophy is well described by another of the same ilk: Jorge Luis Borges, whom we may view as rewriting the story-ending of the other great outsider Walter Mitty, and might well have been writing of these three characters.

The greatest magician (Novalis has memorably written) would be the one who would cast over himself a spell so complete that he would take his own phantasmagorias as autonomous appearances.  Would this not be our case? I conjecture that this is so.  We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world.  We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in this architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false. [11]




  1. Scott, Peter Dale, Hoch, Paul L, and Stettler, Russell (eds), The Assassinations: Dallas and Beyond. London:  Penguin Books, 1978, p. 401.  Hereafter cited as
  2. Oswald completed a pretty stiff US Marines radar and electronics course, and became a qualified radar operator guiding U2 reconnaissance planes and also nuclear-loaded aircraft from the American base at Atsugi in Japan. During his military service, however, his behaviour became increasingly strange.  According to Anthony Summers, he shot himself with his own pistol, and assaulted a fellow Marine.  These were court-martial offences, but Oswald was not charged, serving only disciplinary sentences in the “brig.”  For a detailed account of other strange incidents during Oswald’s military service, see Epstein, Edward J,  Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald.  London: Hutchinson, 1978.
  3. See Summers, Anthony, The Kennedy Conspiracy. New York: Warner Books, 1980.
  4. , p.377.
  5. Meagher, Sylvia, “The Murder of Patrolman Tippit” in Assassinations, 84.
  6. Thompson, Josiah, “Physical Evidence” in Assassinations, 229.
  7. General Edwin Walker was one of Patton’s WWII commanders and had an American tank named after him, the Walker Bulldog.
  8. See “The Case for Three Assassins” in Assassinations, 197.
  9. “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” from Borges, Jorge Luis, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970, p. 103
  10. Which appear just as mysteriously as do the documents in another Borges story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” Here, indeed, is history imitating literature.
  11. Borges, Jorge Luis, “Avatars of the Tortoise” in Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970, p. 243