Like Hugh Gallager, He Slept in a Chair (Psalmanazar)

For those of you who know Hugh Gallager’s NYU entrance letter you might remember that he slept in a chair…

…I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

By remarkable coincidence or perhaps not as who knows what Hugh Gallager has learnt from his tremendous experiences, there is this real fake charachter from the early 18th century.

Exert from Imaging Formosa through Western Writings
By Ping Chou

Meet George Psalmanazar. In the late 17th Century, George wandered around Europe pretending to be a cannibal prince from the exotic Formosa. He made up a whole book of ethnography concerning Formosa, including detailed descriptions of an alphabet system, religious practices and exotic wildlife and so on. In 1704 he compiled these observations into the book “An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa.” It was not until his death in 1763, a posthumous work, his memoirs, was published, in which he confessed to the decades old hoax. Eventually his life was revealed to have been one long work of amazing improvisational dramatic fiction.

George Psalamanazar, was a self-proclaimed Formosan in early Eighteenth-century Britain, an era filled with famous plagiarists and tricksters. He was a man, among many travelers, who identified himself as a native of the faraway island of Formosa. A man who spoke a strange language, followed a foreign calendar, and worshipped the sun and the moon. Consequently, people supposed that he really was a native of Formosa, since at that time the Europeans knew very little about “Far East”. In 1702, this Formosan arrived in the town of Sluis in Holland, where he met William Innes, a Scottish clergyman serving in the English army. Innes gave that Formosan a Christian name, George Psalmanazar. News about Psalmannazar spread throughout Europe. In London his fame spread even wider, where the Bishop of London wanted to meet with him.

Psalamanazar was a fake who had never been to Formosa, nor had he been encountered any person from Formosa. Psalamanazar’s real name is unknown, nor his mysterious background. But it is speculated that he was born to Catholic parents around 1680, possibly somewhere in the south of France. After an onerous Jesuit education, he then commenced up to a wandering journey. For the safety sake and cheaper passage through France, and partly for a lark, he disguised himself as a mendicant Irish Catholic on a pilgrimage to Rome. Due to his lack of knowledge about Ireland, his Irish identity quickly engendered troublesome when surrounded by people who actually knew lots about Ireland.

Psalmanazar then identified himself to the remote, way too remote, corner of the world, where the risk of being exposed of his phony was significantly low. Yes, he then became an indigenous of Formosa. After winning some fame in the military, the charming faux Formosan was introduced to the beau monde, and eventually to England accompanied by Innes in 1703. For making himself more convincing as an exotic Oriental, he spent his time weaving anecdotes about his homeland, and not only linguistically representing them, but also living them. For instance, in order to satisfy imaginations about Formosa, he ate his meat uncooked and strongly spiced, and he slept in a chair with a lamp burning. Such habits made people believe that he was not European; a man who could work through the night without ever resting, for that was the way it was in Formosa.

Psalmanazar then published the book, A Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, in 1704, a year after his arrival in England. Within a year it was expanded into a second edition and translated into French. This work offered European readers a curious glimpse into the Formosan culture. In the book it was described that the convicted murderers in Formosa were hung upside down and shot to death with arrows covering their bodies; that polygamy was allowed; and that every year the Formosan sacrificed 18,000 young boys under 9 to appease their gods (an illustration of the Gridiron upon which the hearts of the young Children were burnt was shown). He won some popularity since then, he was even asked to teach the Formosan language at Oxford.

Despite some serious debunking by Jesuit missionaries, such as Father Fontaney, who had been to Formosa, Psalmanazar safely defended his position, not by the empirical proof of course, but partly by people’s dislike of Jesuit missionaries and partly by their exotic imagination of Formosa. He was even challenged by an astronomer, Edmund Halley, by questions such as: did the sun ever shine all the way down the chimneys in Formosa? (Astronomers at that time believed that sun would sometimes be directly overhead) Psalmanazar’s negative answer was a significant evidence for being phony. But he immediately made it up by saying that Formosan chimneys twist and turn on their way down, so the sunlight never reached the bottom. He even justified his blond hair and faired skin by saying:
My complexion, indeed, which was very fair, appeared an unanswerable objection against me…. I soon hatched a lucky distinction between those whose business exposes them to the heat of the sun, and those who keep altogether at home, in cool shades, or apartments under ground, and scare ever feel the least degree of the reigning heat.

Psalmanazar was being a widely favored Formosan until doubts about his descriptions of Formosa grew overwhelmingly by naturalists. Over the last decades of his life he composed a lengthy confession of himself, published in 1764 (a year after his death) as Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa. There he cdisclaimed his description as “that scandalous romance,” “ a mere forgery of my own devising, a scandalous imposition on the public,” “that vile and romantic account,” “ that monstrous romance,’ and so on

For selections from Psalmanazar’s entertaining book, see An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa.

Thanks Cranky. I look forward to reading it.

A guy called Foley wrote a book about George Psalamanazar. If I remember rightly it was published in the 1960s, and Foley was a missionary from the US.

The book was OK.

More details here:

[quote]Astronomers at that time believed that sun would sometimes be directly overhead[/quote]The sun can be directly overhead, south of about Jiayi.