DID AMERICA ELECT BARON MUNCHAUSEN?

ON THE APPEAL OF FANTASISTS, STORYTELLERS, AND LIARS

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Baron Münchausen

Tobias Carrol OP-ed

Right about now might be a good time to invoke the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance about fact becoming a legend and what to do if you’re near a printing press. That moment of crossover between reality and myth is paramount in the fictional afterlife of one Baron Munchausen. In her introduction to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s The Return of Munchausen, translator Joanne Turnbull charts out that history: there was a real Munchausen (or, as it turns out, Münnchausen). Whose exaggerated accounts of his 18th-century military campaigns were written up in English by a man named Rudolph Erich Raspe, and then translated into German by Gottfried August Bürger, exaggerating the exaggerations even further and making the fictional Munchausen an icon of the imagination for the centuries that followed.

Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen posited the Baron as a storyteller, dreamer, glorious eccentric, and romantic hero—a man misunderstood in his time and an agent of the sort of chaotic freedom that Gilliam celebrates in a number of his films. (See also: Brazil, The Fisher King, and The Brothers Grimm.) Given that Gilliam went on to attempt a filmed adaptation of Don Quixote, one can look upon the two, at least via his treatment of them, as parallel figures—delusional yet heroic, representatives of a kind of holy imagination that artists and freethinkers can hold up as heroes, cherish, and canonize.

Much of the charm of Munchausen’s adventures comes from the defiance of logic with which they’re told. In Turnbull’s introduction, she cites some examples, including one of the Baron at war.

In another episode Munchausen, while at war with the Turks, leaps astride an outgoing cannonball, the better to infiltrate an unassailable fortress. Halfway there, he thinks better of this plan: “Once inside I’ll be taken for a spy and hung from the first gibbet.” Then he sees an incoming cannonball whizzing by in the opposite direction. The Baron quickly switches cannonballs—and returns to his regiment unscathed.

Gilliam’s film makes some of these exaggerations’ literal, creating a gleefully metafictional adventure story along the way. It’s a fairly singular film, though there are a few subsequent works that it would fit nicely beside, including Tarsem Singh’s hypnotic 2008 film The Fall. (A 2011 essay by Joshua Miller delves into the parallels between the two.) But to assign Munchausen an unabashedly heroic role in various narratives has its drawbacks—and Krzhizhanovsky’s novel, along with recent events in the United States, points to why. 

Exaggeration can certainly be a comedic device—the enduring power of Munchausen over hundreds of years points to that very appeal. But what happens when that same impulse comes into contact with real-world politics? In the case of The Return of Munchausen, this stylized figure encounters a very stylized form of government: Soviet communism in the 1920s. (Tonally speaking, Krzhizhanovsky’s style is reminiscent of, as Elaine Blair pointed out in a 2009 article on his work, “his near-contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov.”) When this short novel opens, the seemingly immortal Munchausen is living a life of comfort in Berlin, recounting various adventures he’s had and testing the very fabric of reality—at one point alluding to his ability to take literal refuge within the pages of a book.

His take on the world around him is similarly cavalier. He refers to both the Crusades and the Liberal Party as “fiction.” When asked by a reporter about the critical sections of “an authoritative newspaper,” his response is telling: “the formal and the fawning.” And he recounts memories of stopping work on a massive railroad project because “at the time railways, you see, had not yet been invented.” Munchausen’s audiences eat this up, and he seems the very picture of a larger-than-life international celebrity, one who can challenge norms, violate conventions, and insult people to their face and receive rounds of applause in return.

Eventually, Munchausen sets out on a mission of espionage, with the Soviet Union as his destination. Much of the book is framed as his telling the story of his adventures there, as he roams the countryside, encountering various bizarre situations and dilemmas that he solves using his decidedly elastic approach to reality. At one point, he visits a village where the aftereffects of the civil war have caused a shortage of horses, leaving an insufficient amount to both plows the village’s fields and pull a reasonable amount of carts. Munchausen’s solution defies anything resembling logic.

My memoirs helped me to solve this problematic case: I ordered a saw to be brought and had the horses sawed, one by one, in two, owing to which their numbers doubled. The front legs were harnessed to carts, the hind legs to plows, and matters began to improve.

We’re in the presence of a true visionary, someone with the bold insight to solve the problems facing a nation in a decidedly ludicrous fashion. One can almost hear the voice of the fictional horror writer Garth Marenghi—who also has a trace of the sinister Munchausen to him, come to think of it—asking his viewers to “leave conventional logic aside.” That does seem to be Krzhizhanovsky’s point here—that this version of Munchausen is both genuinely charming and entirely ineffective, a man whose reliance upon his imagination has curdled into fundamental and essential dishonesty in all things. 

He’s also something of a megalomaniac, boasting late in the novel about mentally constructing his version of the USSR, which he dubs the MSSR. And he speaks to his resentment of writers for the acclaim that they receive—“whereas I, a master of pure, unadulterated phantasms, am defamed as a frivolous liar and windbag.” And he tops this off with that favorite rhetorical device of those blessed or cursed with an ego the size of some prehistoric megafauna: comparing himself to Christ.

So does any of this rhetoric sound remotely familiar? The eluding of logic, an over-the-top celebrity uttering nonsensical statements to rapt audiences, and the juxtaposition of bizarre solutions to everyday problems. I suspect that more than one of you might feel just a touch of deja vu right about now. After having endured the 2016 presidential election, one characterized by bold exaggerations and the point when a can-do spirit gives way to an anything-goes sense of absurdism-turned-monstrous, Munchausen’s adventures in the 20th century seem less like comic surrealism and more like a particularly astute documentary, less a funhouse mirror than, you know, a mirror.

This is not to say that Donald Trump is some literal incarnation of Munchausen in the political world. Instead, it’s an argument that there’s a Munchausen-like temptation that appeals to many in politics, which the United States’s current President-Elect has taken to much further ends than his predecessors. Aspects of his rhetoric seem plagued by inflation and exaggeration: his health care plan, the wall he plans to build on the nation’s southern border, and Bill Clinton’s history with women all come to mind. In a recent New York Review of Books article, Mark Danner charts out a number of these exaggerations and the effect that they have in tandem with Trump’s personality. “He is a supreme performer,” Danner writes early on. Later in the piece, he refers to Trump as “the high-flying song and dance man, of manic energy and ravenous narcissism and colossal neediness.”

The appeal of Munchausen’s exaggerations isn’t hard to miss: something is appealing about tales of the impossible, delivered with aplomb and a wink and a smile. There’s an inherent human desire to want to believe that the impossible is possible—whether it’s a man leaping from cannonball to cannonball in the midst of a battle or a different man miraculously solving political dilemmas that have given experts pause for decades. It’s an understandable temptation, but as recent events have shown, the same appeal that can create charming stories about storytelling can also have dire real-world effects—in other words, the line between delight and horror is an increasingly thin one. Gilliam’s film shows the importance of such stories, while Krzhizhanovsky’s novel attempts to map out the point in which Munchausen begins to lead us astray.

At one point in Gilliam’s film, Munchausen takes a flight to escape a besieged city. An authoritarian character (played by Jonathan Pryce, who’d previously embodied the ideals of imagination in Gilliam’s Brazil) cynically notes, “He won’t get far on hot air and fantasy.” Pryce’s character, as it turns out, was more idealistic than it seemed. These days, hot air and fantasy seem to be a perfect recipe for political success. But unlike Munchausen, the rest of us don’t have immortality in which to hide away until bad times have passed.

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