Forged document with tragic consequences
Although conspiracy theories about the Illuminati date back to the 1790s, many of the more fantastical versions of this story currently circulating on the internet are unintentionally derived from The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), an eccentric, counterculture-derived novel written by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, two editors of Playboy magazine. Intrigued by the numerous letters sent to the magazine asserting all sorts of unbelievable conspiracy theories, the initial premise of Shea and Wilson’s novel consisted of imagining what would happen if “all these crazies were right, and all the conspiracies they complain about were actually real.”
The most significant example of a made-up but real conspiracy text is called the Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion. This forged document was first published in 1903 in Russia and was presented as the record of a secret meeting of Jewish elders plotting world domination. In 1921 it was revealed to be a forgery, but this did not prevent the document from becoming part of the Nazi justification for the Holocaust.
It is still circulating in many countries today, and is at the basis of many contemporary conspiracy theories directed against the “elites,” the “globalists,” and the “financiers” – often code words for Jews. Research has shown that parts of the text were adapted from an obscure 19th century German novel – Biarritz, published in 1868 by German anti-Semitic writer Hermann Goedsche – while other elements were taken from Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a French satirical pamphlet published by Maurice Joly in 1864, which attacked the regime of Napoleon III. Plagiarized from fiction, the Protocols present a fictitious conspiracy that, in turn, came to be taken as fact – with tragic consequences.
Evil plots and secret societies
For readers, fiction texts – including forgeries like the Protocols – have advantages over the forms (like the exposé, the pamphlet, the documentary) in which conspiracy theories appear more frequently, because they can dramatize the supposed moments of conspiracy in smoke-filled rooms. Although literature has long been involved in conspiracies and secret societies, it was only in the 19th century that they became a central element of drama.
Gothic literature and melodrama, for example, commonly feature sinister stories of villains who secretly manipulate their innocent victims into evil plots. Nineteenth-century Germany witnessed the rise of the Geheimbundroman, or “secret society novel,” while British writers were both fascinated and disgusted by the specter of Masonic, Italian, and Irish secret societies conspiring against the government.
However, it was with detective stories and suspense stories that conspiracy fiction really took off, around the turn of the 20th century. These genres were founded on the suspicion that there is a deeper reality hidden beneath the clutter of surface details.
Identification with a heroic figure
However, conspiracy fiction does not only show the inner workings of the conspiracy. It also often encourages readers to identify with an individual character – usually a detective-like, heroic, solitary figure. In detective fiction and conspiracy thrillers there are actually two stories that push in opposite directions. One narrative is the detective’s journey of discovery, the thought-provoking story that progresses ever more rapidly – from the initial realization that everything he or she believed was a lie, to a final exposition of the plot and the hoped-for restoration of order in the present.
Often in conspiracy fiction, the more the detective discovers about the conspiracy, the more the imagined plot is amplified. The tension between these two narrative structures helps explain why the path toward final discovery in conspiracy fiction is endlessly postponed, as we repeatedly discover that what we thought was the truth was only a false lead planted by the evil conspirators. Much of the pleasure of conspiracy fiction comes from wanting to get to the big reveal, but also from wanting never to reach that destination.
The literary focus on suspicion and interpretation has its roots in the work of nineteenth-century writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James, and became a staple of modernist writing in the twentieth century. However, conspiracy fiction reached its full flowering in post-World War II American literature. Conspiracy as a theme is a central concern of some of the most prominent postwar American writers, including William S. Burroughs, Don DeLillo, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, and Thomas Pynchon.
Repeatedly, they create plots in which the hero (almost always a white man) feels that his freedom, his identity, and his capacity for action-and even his body-are in danger of being controlled by vast, dark forces. In order to understand what is really going on, these fictions voluntarily embrace a form that Pynchon called “creative paranoia.” They present conspiracy theory as a way of understanding impersonal systems in the age of state power, corporate capitalism, and mass media. The conspiracy is no longer an easily detectable foreign plot to infiltrate the country, but a more ambiguous and pervasive threat from within the country itself.
Given this situation, it is not surprising that much of this fiction consciously focuses on the question of how we know what we think we know. A shift has occurred from conspiracy narratives that dramatize plots to conspiracy theory narratives that consider the possible existence of such plots. These more recent fictions usually have ambiguous and inconclusive endings, since the supposed detective is never quite sure whether the clues were merely false leads.
If modernist writing invites a form of paranoid reading – for it encourages readers to discover hidden meanings and allusions – then postmodernist writing calls for what has been called “metaparanoia,” a self-reflexive focus on questions of radical suspicion. As the conspiratorial narratives of science fiction writers like Philip K. Dick or movies like Matrix suggest, what we assume to be reality may be a deceptive construct, devised by an evil conspiracy. “Trust no one,” as the TV series X-Files puts it.
Postmodern conspiracy literature’s focus on the uncertainty of knowledge also holds affinity with the dominant mode of literary and cultural criticism of recent decades-fueled by what French literary critic Paul Ricoeur has called the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” This critical tradition began with Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, who sought to reveal the hidden economic, moral, and psychological forces that determine human behavior and the unfolding of history.
Nothing is what it seems to be
This mode of interpretation assumes that there is a deeper reality that lies beneath deceptive surface appearances, and the critic’s task is to detect it. Similarly, conspiracy theories start from the assumption that nothing is what it seems to be, nothing happens by accident, and everything is connected. Conspiracy theories often involve dangerous delusions, and sometimes conspiracy literature has contributed to causing such damage.
However, at best, conspiracy fiction creatively explores the fuzzy boundary between justified interpretation and paranoid overinterpretation. It forces readers to think about the nature of free will, especially in an increasingly complex world economy, leaving us to make an impossible choice between a world of pure randomness, where nothing makes sense, and a world of total conspiracy, where everything has been planned in advance.
By putting the reader in the position of a detective, conspiracy literature can help us understand the seductive lures of conspiratorial thinking, while offering thoughtful reflection on the problems of conspiracy as a way of making sense of the world.