JANUARY 31, 2017
THE BARON VON MUNCHAUSEN is a raconteur who cannot be contained by time and place, nor fact and fiction. First published in 1785, Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia was purportedly written by a real-life baron who regaled dinner guests with barely believable, yet compulsively listenable stories of his travels. Every sentence seemed to put ironic quotation marks or italics around claims about what might be real or true. The “real” author, Rudolf Erich Raspe, had assembled and elaborated the stories from other sources, and he was slippery (and canny) enough to encourage the book to travel out of his oversight. The Baron von Munchausen took on a life of his own in print; like Voltaire’s Candide, the story was popular enough to gain translators, imitators, sequelizers, illustrators, and other fans who transformed the tale to keep the Baron talking.
Munchausen became a medium for Menippean satire, a form of parodic prose satire that comments on social mores and education by way of rambling, talky, picaresque tale. The genre is so wide-ranging that one could include Gulliver’s Travels, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dead Souls, and even Gravity’s Rainbow in the mix. Not all of the Munchausen-inspired storytellers had their mind on the third-century Greek Cynic satirist Menippus — some just used him to tell a great story — but his inheritors could tweak the equivocal conventions of diplomatic talk and aggrandizing adventure stories. Munchausen had a way of radiating a story with shimmering skepticism about how desires for narrative are stoked and satisfied. What, the Baron asked, do we want from a story, even when we know it is not wholly true?
In a 19th-century edition, the tales are “authenticated” with a prefatory note from the Baron himself: “Having heard, for the first time, that my adventures have been doubted, and looked upon as jokes, I feel bound to come forward and vindicate my character for veracity.” Another note follows that assures readers “that all the adventures of our friend Baron Munchausen, in whatever country they may lie, are positive and simple facts. And, as we have been believed, whose adventures are tenfold more wonderful, so do we hope all true believers will give him their full faith and credence.” It is signed by Sinbad, Gulliver, and Aladdin.
Fast-forward to Russia in 1918, when Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky revived Munchausen to comment on the waves of revolution across Europe over the previous 150 years. Always a creature of print, Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen shrinks and flattens himself to travel inside a small morocco volume. He squeezes his legs around the arms of a gigantic clock and hangs on tight as he “jounces” through time: 1789, 1830, 1841, 1871, 1914, 1917, 1918 … Those dates may look familiar: he carries with him a briefcase full of diplomatic documents from Washington, Versailles, Brest, Amsterdam, Sèvres, and now he is in Berlin, soon to jolt over to Moscow.
“Jounce” is translator Joanne Turnbull’s word to account for the Baron’s peripatetic style. Turnbull has translated Krzhizhanovsky’s other books, The Letter Killer’s Club and Seven Stories; for this volume, she writes thoughtful notes and gives an important introductory grounding to the author’s unusual work. Krzhizhanovsky came from a Polish family who had settled in the Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. His satires were largely unpublished during his lifetime, under Soviet censorship. His satires were largely unpublished during his lifetime, under Soviet censorship. He died in 1950, and his satires were not published until 1989. His Munchausen jounces to Russia in 1918, only to see truth and lies playing out in the streets in front of him. At one point, he gazes on a pair of allegorical figures (at this moment in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but he jounces between cities too):
“What is that?”
“A true representation of Truth and Falsehood, sir.”
“And which of them is Truth?” The baron squints.
“If I may say so, sir, that one.”
“The last time, as I recall, you said that one was Falsehood.”
Even Munchausen’s bibliophilic substance has an acrid stench as he travels by a train that burns books for fuel. When he is in Russia, starving citizens are fed sawdust and told it is food. He reflects on his travels: “Always and invariably my phantasms won — always and invariably, that is, until I chanced upon the country about which one cannot lie.”
Later in the novella, Munchausen gives a lecture about Soviet history and science as a long performance of mixing truth and embellishment for public consumption. He meets the compiler of the Dictionary of Omissions, Complete & Unabridged; a man who collects cracks; “the famous geographer who discovered the Spur of the Moment” and other quixotes. He comments wryly on these epistemological questions: “In other words, I apprised myself of those burning questions to which Red science has devoted its efforts.” Turnbull’s translation is yet another mediation in the Baron’s long life in various forms of print, where the footnotes extend the story into history, philology, and politics. Menippean satire loves a good footnote to serve as a rabbit hole to fall (or dive) into as one reflects on the vagaries of how we know what we know.
Before the Moscow trip, a poet named Ernst Unding (Earnest Nonsense) finds Munchausen in his study and expresses some disbelief at this time travel method. Munchausen scolds him: “You are a bad poet, I swear by my pipe, if you do not know that books, if only they are books, may be commensurate with, but never proportionate to reality!” He produces a white card to introduce himself:
Hieronymous von Munchausen
Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations
In and Out of This World
When he leaps out to tell his tales, he ingratiates himself into every newspaper in the land, a one-man propaganda machine:
Meanwhile the multiplying lines of Munchauseniads went on flinging his again-flickering name from candle to candle, as saltpeter threads will fling fire, and soon the entire world press, tangled in tinsel and wire-ribbon flashes, was clad like a Christmas tree in small yellow tongues. A week went by, another week, a month, and the baron’s name began to feel cramped in newspaper columns: leaping out of newssheets, it slithered up playbill pillars and rippled down from illuminated signs — over the asphalt, the brick, and the flat bottoms of clouds.
After their first meeting, barely sure of what he’s just encountered, Unding looks between the designated pages to find “the fine black rules of an oblong box, but inside the box was only the blank stare of white space — the illustration had disappeared.” The Baron travels in print but seems to be able to leap out of it to different mediums.
Munchausen sprinkled his magic over my research for this review. I checked out an old library copy of a 19th-century edition of Raspe’s Munchausen with charming illustrations by the prolific illustrator Gustave Doré. From Krzhizhanovsky’s shape-shifting, booky Munchausen, I was ready to believe he had leapt out of this old library book, which had been checked out only once previously. A little slip of paper fluttered out. On the front page, there was a yellow stained rectangle of old glue: the bookplate had fallen away. I thought of Krzhizhanovsky’s blank rectangle where Munchausen lived and peered at the slip: it was a stylized Ex Libris image, possibly of Don Quixote and Dulcinea, surrounded by books. You can imagine the rest of my (yes) quixotic, over-determined journey to detect Don Quixote leaping out of an old book about an embellishing storyteller; I was remixing Raspe and Krzhizhanovsky with Cervantes’s jokes about his novel’s many translations, piracies, reprintings, sequels, adaptations. Why didn’t the knight errant affix his name to the “authentication” of the “original” story, along with Gulliver, Aladdin, and Sinbad?
There is either too much or not enough to say about an unglued bookplate. Munchausen made me indulge in this storytelling! In Krzhizhanovsky’s tale, he tells the poet Unding:
Back in the days when I lived in Russia, they invented a saying about me: Every baron has his flights of fancy. The “every” was added later — names, you see, like anything else, become forgotten. In any case, I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider uses than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.
My trip down the rabbit hole is like a book historian’s form of Munchausen syndrome, where a reader believes she is not only implicated in his flights of fancy, but she is also ready to study them. Munchausen by epoxy! After all, books may be commensurate with — but never proportionate to — reality.
What do we want to hear from a story? Infected with the Menippean itch, I looked for the Baron everywhere. From Doré’s illustrations, he has an outlandish mustache, a distinctive powdered wig, and a glint in his eye. I found some version of him in Stephen Colbert’s 2016 political convention-crashing performances as Julius Flickerman, unacknowledged brother of Stanley Tucci’s outrageous Hunger Games announcer, Caesar Flickerman. Colbert dressed up in a blue-and-black powdered wig and blue eyebrows, grabbed a guinea pig, and snuck into the Democratic and Republican National Conventions this summer to fake-announce “the Hungry for Power Games.” He dodged earnest staffers, bantered with TV news reporters, all while keeping character as a buffoonish, power-hungry tyrant who grimaced for any camera he could find. This 21st-century Munchausen had no diplomatic papers to shuffle, lectures to deliver, or dinner guests to entertain; the entertainment, as derived from The Hunger Games, was in providing commentary on the cynical spectacles in front of him.
The original Flickerman Tucci came on The Late Show to meet his parodist, who replied “for legal reasons, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” They bantered some more and then parodied the gratuitous self-promotions of celebrities on the late-night TV circuit, as Tucci shifted his gaze, mock-seriously with a grimace of his own, to the camera to promote his then-current role in the journalistic exposé Spotlight. In this way, Tucci and Colbert added another layer to the political satire: even a meta-jokey “sequel” to the “Hungry for Power Games” segment which congratulates viewers for getting the satire (and appreciating real journalism) is also an advertisement. All banter is selling something.
Colbert has made a career in Menippean satire: in his nightly performances on The Colbert Report, he treated interviews as a burlesque of news shows, a parodic, picaresque journey through American politics and culture. When the “authentic” Baron may joke about where veracities may lie, and Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen observes how a government lies to its people, Colbert gave us “truthiness” as a parodic word to satirize political discourse. By the end of 2016, the word had transformed into “post-truth” as a political stance taken by one of those Republican candidates, the one Colbert seemed to be channeling, partly, as he grimaced for any camera that would let him banter.
Those Late Show clips and interviews were shared all over social media last summer: in the 21st century, Munchausen’s truth and lies travel not in rectangular boxes of the printed page or the morocco volume, but as monetizable #content. Those clips are a boon to advertisers — small enough to be rehashed, aggregated, eyeballed, commented on, monetized, except that no one’s quite sure what the advertising model will look like from month to month. There is something unsettling about watching the satires of the conventions now, in the context of no context, after the election, after all the pieties about social sharing “fake news” that helped elect Donald Trump.
Does the digital Munchausen travel in one of those chumboxes from Taboola that follow you with ads, impervious to “close tab”? How does he make the well-meaning effort to classify and combat “fake news” complicated, by showing the ways that viral aspirations to “slither up playbill pillars and ripple down from illuminated signs” belong to all kinds of internet publications, not just nefarious ones? We return to his first fictionalizer’s question: what do we want from a story? We look to Krzhizhanovsky, who asked what counts as truth in a country about which one cannot lie, and then we ask what media looks like in a post-truth culture.