Tag: myth

The Myth Maker

A New York City performance artist called Zardulu claims to be behind many of the most outlandish stories of the past year. A deep-dive into causing amazement and wonder in an age of fake news.

In June this year, the digital newswires briefly lit up with the photo of a raccoon riding on the back of an alligator. The picture was featured on countless publications, among them even the venerable BBC. But “Gatorboarding”, as the incident came to be known, wasn’t without controversy. After having being called a fake, fact-checking site Snopes took up the matter, ending their investigation with the ominous line “Time will tell if Mr. Jones surfaces to provide corroborating evidence for his Gatorboarding photo.”

Which facts can you trust?

In many ways, the fact-checking is as absurd as the story itself. Here was a perfectly harmless – if unlikely – incident, a nice story for the slow summer months. But in hindsight, the story stood for what would become a much bigger controversy: In the fallout of Donal Trump’s election, the internet became embroiled in a fake news scandal. If even the animal pictures were staged, which facts could you still trust? And who would go through the trouble of setting up such an elaborate hoax?
The answer to the latter question – if one is to believe it – is a New York City performance artist called Zardulu, who has claimed or been revealed as the mastermind behind this and other stories. It’s a person that vehemently rejects the term hoax, and instead prefers the term “Zardulism”.

An alleged Zardulism: The infamous Pizza Rat that delighted the internet in late 2015.

The artist is completely anonymous. On the internet, she inhabits the personality of nefarious-looking wizard, with the bio reading “I am the Mythmaker. Writer. Artist. Founder of Zardulism. (…)”. Even by the internet’s standards, it’s an eclectic appearance – and to our knowledge nobody knows the true identity behind it.
That, of course, is all part of Zardulu’s mission. The artist believes that myths are sorely lacking in our 21st century existence – and that new ones need to be created. In her self-authored “The Founding and Manifesto of Zardulism”, the artist writes:

“In their classical sense, myths are dead. (…) They were once messages in bottles from shores our ancestors had visited, how they made the passage and what beauties awaited us along the way. We no longer gain these valuable lessons from mythology. It is produced with the sole purpose of exploiting us and has stripped out lives of substance and forced us into a repetitive and automated process of life.”
“In Zardulism, the imaginary streams into the actual and washes over it, flood it until it has been engrossed. (…) Zardulism asserts that the creation and perpetuation of myth is art of the highest form. (…) Zardulism is the master we crave in an attempt to counter our mastery and understanding of the world.”

You can read the Manifesto here

Zardulu’s story isn’t just intriguing, it’s also timely: Both in the U.S. and Europe, political polarization is on the rise, and the battle lines that get drawn between opposing factions are often based on the question of what is factually correct. That’s why we reached out to Zardulu with some questions.

Where is the line between a myth and a lie?
Well, by definition, a myth is a lie. However, referring to something as a lie creates a negative connotation. It’s the same with the term hoax. One difference I think is the intent and the consequence of the lie. To lie for financial gain is fraud. To lie in an effort to defame someone is slander or libel. To lie simply to establish a sense of wonder in the world, that’s mythology.
The difference is authorship: A myth exists without there being one specific person that we can attribute it to. But once we know who is behind it, we start to wonder about the purpose or the intention of that person. Do people misunderstand you sometimes and think that you do it for attention or financial reasons?
Every myth was written by someone. Unicorns, mermaids, dragons. They didn’t just enter the collective consciousness. Someone put them there. I’ve never made a dime off of what I do. Quite the opposite.

The internet is a hype machine: It skews towards the scandalous or the unexpected, spreading the most outlandish news at lightening speed. In this game, Zardulu isn’t just training rats and setting up alligators, the artist is effectively gaslighting: Calling in question our collective sanity as the animal kingdom around us behaves in unexpected or unlikely ways.
Of course, making such claims is a whole lot easier than verifying them. The artist, after all, hides behind an opaque identity, a mask, and a wacky nom de guerre. But if their mission really is to delight and surprise, it’s the very mystery that enables it.

Would you prefer that people would not know that you are behind the rat and the racoon on the alligator?
That’s really why I hadn’t come forward. However, I’ve learned a lot since I first suggested that no one reveal the works of Zardulism.
The raccoon riding the alligator was sent out on news wires around the world. It appeared in the largest papers in China, India, Russia. Everywhere. Tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people saw it. When I told the Washington Post that I fabricated it, the story got a few hundred shares. No one cares about the reveal so, no one ever hears about it”

What makes a myth so appealing is that it makes for an engrossing story. A good myth also plays on our confirmation bias, reaffirming the belief that there are truly astonishing things in the world – a perfect escape from the “repetitive and automated process of life” as Zardulu called it in the manifesto.

Zardulu, posing with the props for “Gatorboarding”.

But that quality of a myth is a double-edged sword: As much as a myth is wondrous, it is still a lie, only exponentially more powerful because of the way it is delivered. The internet is awash with ideological battles about “fake news”, right down to the double whether such a thing exists or simply serves as an excuse to silence inconvenient opinions. Sharing the picture of an alligator and a raccoon suddenly seems to stand for a much more dangerous tendency: That of buying into a hype because it sounds good.

One myth’s revelation can lead to a whole other myth. I guess you are the prime example of that.
For me, I wanted to be in the conversation about fake news. No one was covering any other aspect of it than the divisive political mythology. For me, there’s a trade-off: I’m exposing a myth I wrote but I’m getting the Washington Post to publish an interview with a wizard. For me, that’s an artistic sacrifice that I’m willing to make
Did you also mean to highlight how easy it is to lead people to believe in things once it is on the news or even just social media?
The “gotcha” aspect has never been my motivation. It’d be like a painter who is painting something just based on what they think would be a positive reaction. It’s creatively vapid.
There is the danger that it brings people to the point where they doubt everything – even the real maybe danger is too judgemental but you get what I mean. The belief in the fake can make us disbelief in the real and thereby take away all enchantment
People used to rail against Rene Descartes and Cartesian philosophy for the same reason. The idea of a Dues Deceptor, or evil demon, that could alter our sensory information and control our reality. In the end, it didn’t cause society to crumble but it did lead to a lot of interesting philosophical discussions and still does.
I agree. I mean I want to believe in what I know is not real.
Does it hurt children to believe in fairies? No, no more than it hurts adults to believe in a raccoon riding an alligator.

The self-proclaimed mythmaker puts a focus on staged animal behavior that leaves the rest of us amazed and puzzled. Animals inspire her, she says. To her, a subway rat taking a selfie is as inspiring as Adele Bloch-Bauer was to Gustav Klimt. But it is about more than pure aesthetics or the viral characteristics of a pizza-carrying rat in an age of trending animal videos.
Zardulu thinks of her work as true myths, the way the ancient Greeks or Romans did. The raccoon riding the alligator is absurd. But so was Sisyphus attempt to roll up that rock.

“Perhaps the alligator represents the mythological boatman, Charon. Hermes acted as psychopomp bringing souls to Charon for passage into the netherworld. Of course, Hermes was also the trickster, like me. You could also look at the raccoon and alligator in archetypal patterns of love and cruelty or bravery and sacrifice.”

Ultimately, this could be her rebellion against an age that has exchanged deeper meaning and narratives for memes and gifs. Zardulu says, that there are still about 60-70 myths that she has not yet disclosed. Some she cherishes and wants to share them with the world. The biggest mystery however, remains her persona. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character Verbal Kint says that the greatest trick the devil had ever pulled, was to make the world believe he doesn’t exist. “I suppose it’s the problem with being anonymous is that you can’t really prove you’re real”, she says. Could Zardulu’s ultimate trick be to convince the world that she does, in fact, exist?


"Nobody is safe from psychosis"

Have you ever believed that you are already dead or the star of a Reality-TV series? Psychiatrist Joel Gold has seen his fair share of delusions and believes that our culture has more impact on it, than we might think. A conversation about Donald Trump copycats and our vulnerability to insanity.
In your book Suspicious Minds, you describe how culture shapes madness. How does it?
Throughout the history of mankind, our culture has influenced the content of our delusions. There are many forms of delusions such as paranoid or religious delusions. The forms stay largely the same but the content of the delusions changes over time. In post-revolutionary France, many people that suffered from the grandiose delusions that they were Napoleon. Today a person with a grandiose delusion might believe he is a TV celebrity. Thirty years ago, some paranoid people might have believed that they were being targeted by the CIA or KGB, today it might be ISIS or the NSA.

Photo by Elizabeth Graham
Dr. Joel Gold is the author of a new book, “Suspicious Minds, How Culture Shapes Madness.” He’s giving a talk about the book at Greenlight Bookstore on the 24th.

Madness is always updated?
Yes, but the more controversial question is: can the environment actually induce madness when it would not have otherwise manifested itself in a different environment? Are there circumstances or environments that are likely to cause psychosis? These are fundamental questions.
Distressing situations are obviously fostering mental illness but can they induce it then?
There is actually evidence that shows that the opposite can be true, that in very stressful or painful situations like war, some people with mental illnesses actually do better. They pull themselves together. There are a lot of theories about this but I think that if somebody’s external and internal world match, things make more sense to them. In situations like these, your suspicion or your fears are legitimate, not irrational. But of course in many people war can induce anxiety or depression. In our book, my brother and I argue that environments like the surveillance state and our culture in which seemingly anybody can become a star without any special talents, might be prone to induce delusions. I think the Truman Show delusion could be such a manifestation.
You coined the term the Truman Show delusion which is the belief that one is the star in a reality-TV series and that the world surrounding you is completely fake – just like in the famous movie The Truman Show.
It might be an old delusion in a new guise but the content is new. That specific belief did not exist 200 years ago. But I don’t think that the movie caused the delusion. Some people with this delusion had it before they had ever seen the movie – if they had seen it at all. But many people who have this experience feel it confirmed when they see the movie. It perfectly encapsulates their feelings. The movie is a scaffolding around which the delusion is built.

“Delusions are social in nature”

Delusional people often share the same stories or beliefs. What is it about a certain narrative that makes it so credible for delusional people?
My brother and I believe that delusions are social in nature; our minds are wired to negotiate the social world. There is a part of our brain that we have labelled for descriptive purposes the suspicion system. The suspicion system is meant to monitor the environment for social threats. When the suspicious system is disconnected from the reflective system of our brain, the part that analyses a situation and counterbalances the suspicion system, then delusions can form. Another factor is social interaction. We are not suspicious of furniture but of other people and today there is a huge variety of ways in which we are connected to others. At the core of most delusions is the belief in the malignity of other people. Police, co-workers and family can be the perfect cast for such scenarios. That’s why certain themes recur in delusions.
Is the form of delusion a decisive factor in choosing the adequate narrative?
I think so but as I pointed out, most of them are linked to our social surroundings. That is the common denominator. Take the Napoleon delusion: It is not necessarily a paranoid delusion but more a delusion of grandeur. But it is also social in a way: if you think you are superior, you are less likely to be in danger. You put yourself in a position of power to escape social threats. Today we are surrounded by some people who are famous for no particular reason. That can give the impression that power and fame are easy to acquire.

I hope there won’t be too many cases of Donald Trump copycats.

It would not be surprising if more people with grandiose delusions report that they are Donald Trump. In fact, a colleague of mine told me that he has had some patients of late that believed just that or that he is spying on them. He is the most famous person in the world right now and he is ubiquitous.

“Madness is an experience we are all capable of having”

Delusions are a different perception of reality. Usually that reality is an isolated and unique perception but if a delusional reality spreads and enough people believe it, it can quickly become an alternative reality all together.
That is a valid point. We have criteria to diagnose certain mental illnesses. The problem however is that if a large enough number of people believe something, it is not necessarily recognized as a delusion. Conspiracy theories are good examples. Some of these theories are completely fact-free but we don’t categorize them as delusions but as conspiracy theories because many people hold the same beliefs. The line between the two is very thin.
Myths are another thing that could qualify as delusions but are considered important narratives for our existence.
It’s often said that if you can prove something, it is not a delusional idea. But you can “prove” a lot to back your claims. People can be led to believe a lot, so myths and conspiracy theories are extremely hard to debunk.
Myths not only influence the delusional mind. There are also a lot of myths when it comes to how to cure madness. People used to believe that the “stone of madness” caused insanity or that “black bile” – a humor of medieval physiology believed to be secreted by the kidneys or spleen – caused melancholy and depression.
This is not just true for mental illnesses. There were a lot of medical myths at the time because people didn’t know about viruses or bacteria and so came up with other explanations. Instead doctors used things like leeches to cure patients. Today that would be considered malpractice. When knowledge is absent, people come up with ideas that might seem strange later on. But if many people believed it, it was considered science. Consider the example of vaccinations: A British researcher published an article in the renowned medical journal The Lancet that stated that vaccines could cause or at least increase the risk of autism. People still hold on to that idea well after it has been debunked. Now there is a highly charged controversy surrounding vaccines and his theory is still gaining traction.
Society has a very strange view on mental illnesses, it seems to me. On the one hand, people don’t want to interact with mentally ill people but on the other hand, we cherish the myth of the manic genius or the tormented writer. It could be concluded that we only accept mental illness if it enables you to produce something good from it, if it propels you to another level of creativity.
That’s true. Madness is something we are very afraid of because it is an experience that we are all capable of having. Nobody is safe from psychosis. On some level, possibly unconsciously, we realize that. The right conditions can drive almost every sane brain into madness. If we see a person with mental illness on the street, we find it uncomfortable because we know on some level that it could happen to us. On the other hand, we almost envy some people with mental illness because we believe that their illness has enabled them to do something we are not capable of. Think about somebody like the brilliant mathematician John Nash who suffered from schizophrenia. We tend to think that because of his alternative view of reality, this geniuses realized things that are beyond our imagination. And sometimes that is true, but there is a price you have to pay for that. People with bipolar disorder can show great creativity and productivity during their manic phases but that is by no means guaranteed. In most cases, you pay the price without getting the benefit.
Over the years, you have seen and heard about so many delusions. Is there one in particular that still fascinates you?
Two actually: The Truman Show delusion of course because it was such an important influence on my work. But I also find the Cotard delusion fascinating. It is the nihilistic belief that one is dead but still walking the earth. It is amazing to me because it is such a wild contradiction. Somebody is telling you that he is dead. “But Sir, you are talking to me. How can you be dead?” The belief sticks regardless. New delusional contents might be added to the list but the old forms remain. Still, the list grows.

"Of course I want to turn away from sin"

Ezra Furman is a gender-fluid rock musician and practicing Jew. To him, that’s not a paradox but an empowering identity.

Religion seems to be very central to who you are as an artist and private person. A lot of your lyrics deal with God and you describe yourself as a religious Jew. That is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about a self-proclaimed gender-fluid rock musician.
I don’t see any contradictions there. Music and religion have always gone hand in hand. Gospel and other church music are the most obvious examples but also Blues was hugely influenced by the musicians’ faith or interest in god. Music has the power to bring people into a state of transcendence in which they experience extreme joy or sorrow. Music gets you to think and act beyond your regular and mundane state of being. Religion has that power too. To me, these are just the two things that I care most about. My purpose in life is connected to both of these things. I think God wants me to use music to improve people’s lives.

“It is tough to be a religious Jew and a rock musician”

Other rock musicians like Little Richard became extremely religious to turn away from what they considered a sinful life. With you, it seems that you embrace both religion and the sins that come with the life of a rock musician.
I wouldn’t put the two in such opposition. It’s not like every rock musician leads a sinful life or that you can’t sin and yet be interested in religion. Especially in blues and early rock, the devil was a very important and widespread symbol of the temptations of everyday life. But I come from a Jewish background and the devil is not that central in Jewish mythology. In Jewish tradition, there is no personified master of evil. We believe that there is only the evil inclination in each and every one of us, and that is something I concern myself a lot with. Of course I want to turn away from sin. That was the impetus for my song One day I will sin no more. But when I think about sinning, it is mostly not related directly to my profession. There is a culture of heavy drinking and casual sex in rock and although that is not necessarily sinful, I am morally weary of these things. It is tough to be a religious Jew and a rock musician, but mostly so because of clashing schedules.
You never played shows on Fridays to observe Shabbat.
That is one example. It’s hard to follow the rituals if you are constantly on the move. That is the biggest problem.
But the mythology and rituals of rock music seem so at odds with how religion wants us to behave.
I don’t necessarily agree. I know what you mean but consider that rock is about disobedience and so is a lot in religion. Yes, religion often wants us to live in a certain way and to obey rules but my belief is that there is only one judge of humankind and so nobody apart from god has any authority over me. The more religion becomes a strange thing rather than the mainstream of society, the more it becomes a revolt against that same mainstream. There are many variations of religion and therefore many ways to practice it. I don’t come from a conservative background; there was never any pressure to live in a certain way.

“Religion is empowering the underdog”

Would it be correct to argue, that you are more interested in god than in religion?
Yes and no. I do practice my religion but I think religion should be for god’s sake and not for its own. The Bible is full of examples of pious people that worship god but act immorally outside of the temple. That is a performance of religion. That is not what I want. If you practice religion truthfully, it is about justice and compassion. That’s another thing that it has in common with rock music: it’s empowering the underdog.
Do you feel like Judaism gives you more liberties than another religion would? There is no high authority like a pope in Judaism, so the religion is a bit more open to different interpretations. 
That’s a bold statement. I partially agree that Judaism is often against hierarchies in the way that it is about empowerment and freedom. At the same time, the religious texts are clearly based on a social hierarchy: men are more important than women for example. Having said that, I think that any religious text is an ongoing process. The Bible is not a definite guide to modern society. These texts need to be repeatedly, even constantly re-interpreted to fit into our real lives. Religion is—can be—progressive. We shouldn’t let fundamentalists convince society of the opposite. That’s why it is so important that people like me don’t walk away from it but embrace it and improve it. I understand that some people just want to reject religion all together but that’s not for me.
Do you feel welcomed when you go to the synagogue or do you feel prejudices because of your appearance?
I go to a very liberal synagogue, so there is not a lot of stigma. I know that’s not true for every church or synagogue. Many Orthodox places wouldn’t want me to attend their services, at least not dressed the way I tend to dress. There is a lot of shaming going on in some places because of how people look or behave. But where I go, embarrassing or shaming fellow believers is a sin, it’s almost as bad as murder.

“The Bible is not a finished guide to life”

You describe your music as a healing process for the downtrodden that do not believe in traditional gender categories. Religion very often propagates and cements the latter. How do your fans react to your religious beliefs?
I see what you mean but at the same time, it’s not like every religious institution is the same or oppressive. There are gay churches that are there to welcome gender-fluid people. Sometimes people criticize me for being religious and being a champion for gender freedom at the same time. They show me religious texts that are homophobic or misogynic and ask: “How can you support this?” A lot of text passages are deeply disturbing but the majority of religious people don’t take them literally. I mean we don’t slaughter lambs every day for instance. Jewish texts are always read with the understanding that it they are meant to be expanded upon and continually adapted, keeping our principles and moral intuitions intact above all else. The Bible is not a finished guide to life, ancient or modern. It was always missing details and intended to be interpreted. The same goes for the U.S. Constitution. It is the foundation of our political system and lays down a set of rules – many of which are incomplete, completely outdated or morally wrong. But we try to keep it updated and make it better.
Is there a religious narrative or part of mythology that is especially sacred to you?
I like King David’s psalms a lot. As a songwriter you have to look up to him. I like Psalm 34 in particular. He wrote it when he was being persecuted by the king at the time and he pretended to be insane so that they would not kill him. He pretended to be crazy to escape a dangerous reality – that’s something I can relate to.
Ezra Furman’s latest release is called “Big Fugitive Life”. He is currently working on a book about Lou Reed’s album “Transformer” for the 33 1/3 book series. Check out his website at ezrafurman.com.