Notes for an Anthropoetics of the Flying Saucers

Talpazan, Ionel (1955 - 2015) - UFO Swarm

Ionel Talpazan (1955 – 2015): Illustrating a UFO Swarm (No Date Given)

Classicist Robin Lane Fox (born 1946) sets aside a chapter in his compendious study of Pagans and Christians (1986) to discuss the topic, current in the 1980s, of “close encounters,” a phrase originating with the Ufologist J. Allen Hynek and made popular by cinema director Steven Spielberg in his Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Fox’s study surveys the religiosity of what scholars now refer to as “Late Antiquity,” a period comprising the centuries from the Third through the Fifth during which the Roman Imperium saw its organizational collapse in the West and, perhaps more importantly, the demise of Paganism as the public religion of Imperial society and its replacement by Christianity in the form of the Church in its Latin, Greek, and Coptic branches.  The religiosity of Late Antiquity has, for Fox, a peculiar flavor.  It runs to intensity, not only in the contest between the old religion and the new, but within the old and the new, where disagreements over belief set people at odds theologically.  Another element in that peculiar flavor is that, on both the Pagan and Christian sides, theology absorbed philosophy, which, at the time, the school of Neoplatonism dominated.  This absorption of philosophy into theology resulted in elaborate systems of strict syllogism, on the one hand, interconnected with mystic speculation, on the other.  Folk-religion also infiltrated these systems and along with it, the motifs of magic.  People of Late Antiquity all over the Mediterranean world had vivid, personal encounters with gods, angels, and demons.  Although Fox criticizes the arguments of E. R. Dodds in the latter’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (1966), he acknowledges that in the folk-basis of Late-Antique worship, prophylaxis against bad luck played a prominent role.  Such prominence indicates a linkage between the psychological state of anxiety, longstanding and pervasive, and the character of religious practice. The mere appearance of a god — on the road, at sea, or in a public place before a crowd — placated the ubiquitous unease of the age.

Burland, Francois (____ - ____) - Des Guerriers (2003)

François Burland (born 1958): Des Guerriers (2003)

Fox, drawing on Homer, argues for the widespread and almost immemorial conviction among the Mediterranean peoples that the gods showed themselves among men although not all men possessed the moral perspicacity to see them when they appeared.  Fox also notes that from the Fifth Century BC on, an upper class of intellectuals, especially the Epicureans, grew skeptical of this bit of lore; but that, among the mass of people, the belief persisted.  This mass included quite a few in the educated levels of society who knew philosophy and identified themselves with the philosophical schools.  Theurgy – the notion that assuming the right frame of mind, conducting the proper actions, and uttering the propitious formulas might induce this or that god into an epiphany – found advocates and practitioners in such persons as Porphyry (233 – 305) and Iamblichus (245 – 325), both Neoplatonists, and their followers.  Signs that a god had made himself present included the subject’s being overcome by an out-of-the-ordinary mood; the sudden rising of a breeze or similar refreshing event; a shimmering in the air; ellampsis or the presence of floating lights; anomalous sounds, high or low; and the appearance of birds, an index going back to Homer.  Theurgy adopted the Aristotelian fifth element.  Aristotle increased the traditional four elements of physics – earth, air, water, and fire – by adding a fifth, ether.  This was the trans-lunar element in which the gods dwelt, according to the Ptolemaic model of the cosmos.  A statue of a god could serve as an etheric antenna; properly prepared it could channel the divine effluvium into time and space.  “From the first century onwards,” Fox writes, “we know of secret rites which were thought to ‘animate’ [statues] and draw a divine presence into their material.”

In Philosophy & Theurgy in Late Antiquity (2010), Algis Uždavinys (1962 – 2010) writes how, from the theurgic point of view, “The practice of beholding the visible images of the gods and uttering the sacred names of the gods [has] the power to raise us up to the gods and unite us with them.”  The theurgic statue or image becomes the mediating plane between the etheric and the physical worlds; it functions as a symbolon or tessera in the original meaning of either term whereby a token, usually a medallion, is broken in half so that the two sharers, who might have met only transiently, will recognize one another in a fortuitous future circumstance by demonstrating the fitment of the two sundered parts.  Neoplatonism asserted as one of its central tenets that the incarnate person possessed a living and eternal soul that was, in essence, divine.  The theurgic worshiper, in his state of theoria before the illuminated statue, matched his half-symbol with that of the god and thereby attested his essential divinity.  Uždavinys addresses at length two other aspects of the theurgic disposition: The idea that the worshiper, in the act of contemplation, draws down a sacred fire, which for the duration of the ritual sublimates the body; and the idea that the sublimated eye suddenly sees with the “lux intelligibilis” or light of the mind.  It is important to note that Late-Antique Neoplatonism rejected sacrifice in the gross sense, as in the offering of animals on the altar as a placation of the deity.  Indeed, an ideal of Neoplatonism was a meat-free diet, and its devotees tended to embrace pacifism.  The metaphor of fiery consummation, however, revives an even more retrograde model of sacrifice, that namely of the living human victim.  How to reconcile that with the philosophical guise of Theurgy?

First: Fire is the element of transformation, as in metallurgy, which has never shed its connotation of magic, and the Neoplatonist urgently wished for transformation.  Neoplatonism was telestic in its doctrines in that every phase of worship constituted another stage in a lifelong process of initiation that reached its apex in mortality; passing through death, the soul would find confirmed the promise that the body constituted, at least to a degree, a prison.  In that case, death would represent the parole of the entombed spirit, with fire as the doorway to etheric freedom; even the order of the elements – earth, air, water, and fire – implies an initiatory structure, with the fiery dimension being adjacent to the etheric dimension.  The Neoplatonist anticipated death in all the stages of his lifelong initiation by sacrificing the chattels of his earthly career along the way.  Second: Modern English gets in the way of understanding this idea by installing a semantic roadblock: English speakers apply the word sacrifice to freeing oneself of chattels, say, in charitable acts and to the letting of blood, animal or human, in some sacred cause.  Greek, the language of the Neoplatonists, had two words for the two things – askesis, which denotes the giving away of chattels and the deliberate avoidance of comforts and conveniences, and thysia, which denotes bloody acts perpetrated before the idol or immolation in the bonfire.  The ritual-symbolic consumption-by-fire of the theurgic rites borrows from thysia its awe, but in harming no one it emphasizes askesis.  The body belongs to the spirit and the subject can give his body away in a metaphysical gesture that leaves the physical world unaltered.

Van Gogh - Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890): Starry Night (1889)

Uždavinys, in commenting on the work of Proclus (412 – 485), the preeminent Neoplatonist of his day, remarks that, for the theurgist, “The end of all spiritual elevation is participation in the divine fruits and filling the soul with divine fire, which allows the contemplation of God.”  When the fire falls, “The soul is placed in the presence of the Father.”  As in every attempt to discuss mysticism, whether in the writings of Porphyry, Iamblichus, or Proclus, language stubbornly limits expression and understanding: Of that concerning which one cannot speak – one cannot speak.  “Fire,” “Father,” and even “God” serve solely as verbal substitutes, rooted in the familiar, that, at best, merely indicate something that words in the earthly dimensions strain (and fail fully) to convey.  The broken medal can only be made whole again on the far side of the fiery portal.  Not incidentally, the language of Neoplatonism inveigled its way into the lexicon of Christian mysticism.  Dionysius the Areopagite (Sixth Century AD – sometimes called “Pseudo-Dionysius” to distinguish him from an earlier figure with the same name) employs the same figures of speech as Proclus although he professes the Christian faith.  In its Pentecostal imagery, Christian mysticism struggles to differentiate itself from Neoplatonic speculation, but with limited success.  Uždavinys quotes Proclus: “Let us become fire, let us travel through fire,” but he might be quoting any number of Christian mystagogues.  In Neoplatonic discourse, “travel” invariably means ascension.  One travels up and out of this lower world into the higher realms.  Both Neoplatonism and Patristic discourse presume the Ptolemaic cosmos, in which Earth counts as the lowest point.

What has any of this to do with the Twentieth Century psycho-social or folkloristic phenomenon of the Flying Saucer Myth?  It has a good deal to do with it even though the transition from Neoplatonism, theurgy, and related aspects of antique religiosity to a modern rumor that most people would locate in the category of science fiction will inevitably be an abrupt one, as it is here.  That transition indeed requires a rhetorical question to get it started; and one can only ameliorate the topical shift’s abruptness after having forced it.  One might point out that the continuity of mystical thought and language from the last pagan centuries through the Christian Middle Ages to the last three centuries runs strong.  One could also point out a parallel continuity in folklore.  As Fox has shown, visitations from realms unearthly proliferated in Late Antiquity on both sides of the Pagan-Christian fissure.  Angelic and demonic apparitions occurred with like frequency in the Middle Ages.  A good proportion of the medieval instances share a majority of traits with their ancient counterparts, enough to say that they represent phases of a typological unity.  Jacques Vallée (born 1939) has documented in his Passport to Magonia: from Folklore to Flying Saucers (1969; revised 2014) the medieval chapter of aerial, other-worldly visitations from a magical realm that exists invisibly side-by-side with this one.  The medieval French, especially in the Celtic regions of France, named this realm “Magonia.”  From Magonia came “little people,” the pre-modern equivalent of the “dwarf grays,” but also indentations in cornfields, flying galleys or whole fleets of them, and other sky borne objects such as lamps and barrels and wriggling serpentine shapes.  Sometimes these visitors interacted with people, making simple exchanges that conformed to the basic pattern of archaic gift-giving; and sometimes they even took select individuals to visit their aerial kingdom.  While the credibility of Magonia ran strong among the people, authorities voiced their supercilious skepticism, just as they do today when stories of extraterrestrial contact erupt and circulate.

Vallée is not suggesting that medieval Europe played host to planetary visitors using the same technology attributed by flying saucer enthusiasts today to supposed aliens from Zeta Reticuli.  He doubts whether flying saucers represent technology; and he barely admits to any logic, as opposed to a pattern, in their manifestations.  “Can we study modern UFO reports,” as Vallée asks, “without reopening the entire problem of apparitions?”  The thesis that “UFOs are scientific devices having nothing to do with the mystic-religious aspect of medieval apparitions,” Vallée asserts, “is no longer tenable.”  The problem of the flying saucers comes down, for Vallée, not to a question of scientific identification, but to a question of meaning in a human, not a technological, context.  Close encounters constitute a hermeneutic challenge best approached from a perspective informed by mythopoetics, metaphysics, and anthropology, not by physics and not even by psychiatry.  The modern mind – taking that word modern in its epistemologically restrictive sense – is unsuited to the understanding of theurgic performances, forays of lutics and farfadets into human precincts, or epiphanies of luminous discs that fade in and out of substantiality while making people who confront them experience sudden psychic dislocations, vertiginous weirdness, and subsequent radical changes in personality or conviction.  For Vallée, bourgeois skepticism in regard UFO sightings is defensive, but so is the reduction of the Flying Saucer Myth to impoverished, purely technical terms.  The phenomenon, even supposing for it a physical basis, is as much psychic as it is physical.

De Gelder, Aert (1645 - 1727)- Baptism of Christ (1710)

Aert de Gelder (1645 – 1722): The Baptism of Christ (1710)

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) made a similar argument in Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1957), which Vallée had no doubt read.  Jung classified the flying saucers as “a visionary rumor” stemming from “an unusual emotion.”  As does Fox in his Pagans and Christians in respect of deific apparitions in Late Antiquity, Jung traces his “rumor” to the pervasive anxiety produced by the Cold War and to a concomitant desire for peace and security rather than unceasing hair-trigger tension in an age of atomic arsenals.  Jung plumbs deeper, however: The ghostly, glowing, discoid object conforms to the mandala, an ancient symbol of totality, which exerts an aura so as to balance “the inner opposites” of a dissociated psyche.  Jung writes: “This symbol, by reason of its antiquity, leads us to the heavenly spheres, to Plato’s ‘supra-celestial place’ where the ‘Ideas’ of all things are stored up.”  Jung invokes “the Hermetic philosophy of the Middles Ages”; and he later cites a book by “Orfeo Angelucci,” a pen-name with Neoplatonic connotations, that underscores the initiatic strand in the “visionary rumor.”  Angelucci, passing through a bizarre close encounter, became an evangelist for the “etheric” messengers, who spoke to him from “vortices of flame.”  Their “Cosmic Law” set its goal in the healing of a fractured world.  When the etherics announce that “Jesus Christ… was the ‘Lord of Flame,’” they have channeled Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, and the Church-Father Origen. Jung would have known these writers and their medieval continuators.  By the 1950s he had made himself thoroughly familiar with the Neoplatonist authors of the Florentine Renaissance school and with their German counterparts of two and three centuries later.  The lore that Jung invokes in his flying saucer book he had already invoked in his studies of alchemy.

The essence of the Vallée-Jung “take” on the flying saucers finds powerful artistic expression in Doris Lessing’s stream-of-consciousness novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971).  An examination of Lessing’s carefully researched cross-patterning of metaphysics and popular narrative not only lends to the irrepressible rumor of the flying saucers a luster of artistic veracity; it points to traits in UFO-discourse that to some extent belie the hopefulness of Neoplatonic symbolism and do so by calling attention to a disturbing deep-structure of space-visitation hearsay.  Lessing (1919 – 2013) sets as her frame the recovery of a psychiatrist named Charles Watkins from a prolonged psychotic episode.  It might be better, however, to describe Watkins’ ordeal as an autotherapeutic dream-sequence of some weeks in duration that his attending clinicians cannot understand but that, in the end, makes profound sense to him and alters his life for the better.  Like many an initiatic itinerary, Watkins’ oneiric progress includes horrific incidents that speak to human propensities which, in everyday life, people prefer to ignore, but whose impulses nevertheless influence their conduct, sometimes destructively and on a massive scale.  Acute commentary sees in the wanderings of Homer’s Odysseus the marks of initiation into higher self-knowledge and commerce with the gods.  Porphyry, for example, wrote a short book interpreting an episode in the Odyssey, when Odysseus returns to Ithaca and conceals the gifts that he received from Alcinous of Phaeacia in a cliff-cave by the seashore, as a mystic allegory in his usual theurgic terminology.  Lessing’s Watkins bears some resemblance to Odysseus, or to Porphyry’s Odysseus.  He even alludes to the Cyclops incident early on in the novel, which mostly employs the first person.  Watkins drifts at sea, first on a ship bereft of its crew and then on a raft; he undergoes harrowing trials; he participates in grotesque events, all of them having a ritual character, until, as it might be said, he discovers the template of ritual.

Lessing brings flying-saucer imagery to the early pages of Briefing.  From the deck of the barque, somewhere in mid-Atlantic, Watkins witnesses the approach of “Them.”  Lessing gives him to say: “We knew them first by the feeling in the air, a crystalline hush, and this was accompanied by a feeling of strain in ourselves, for we were not strung at the same pitch as that for which we had been waiting.”  Note the conformance to the pattern of Pagan epiphanies, as described by Fox.  Watkins sees “a shining disc” floating above “the brisk waves.”  It exhibits peculiar characteristics: “It seemed as if it should have been transparent, since the eye took in first the shine, like that of glass, or crystal, but being led inwards, as with a glass full of water, to what was behind the glitter.”  The disc approaches the barque, provoking “a sensation… all through our bodies,” a resonance “accompanied by a high shrill note in the air, of the kind that can break glasses.”  The object merges with the vessel.  With a “swift-beating light” it absorbs Watkin’s crewman-fellows.  “I was shaking,” he says, “and shivering in a cold dread.”  He leaves the barque to risk himself on a makeshift raft.  Many day-cycles later, the disc returns; it transports him to an unknown island and deposits him on the beach.  He makes his way up a riverine gulch to an extensive high plateau covered with prehistoric ruins.  Lessing’s description puts the reader in mind of the ruined temple-cities, Olmec and Maya, of Central America.  This sacred architecture hints at hoary rites and bloodthirsty deities.

Taskovski, Vasko (born 1937) - Flying Saucers

Vasko Taskovski (born 1936): Untitled Watercolor (2015)

Watkins assumes that he is the sole inhabitant of the island.  While walking at night, however, he encounters a group of proto-human creatures.  They sit about a fire; they roast on spits the flesh of a large animal just killed and greedily devour it.  Three females are “singing and shrieking and laughing.”  Under perverse compulsion, Watkins partakes in the flesh.  When the orgy of consumption ceases, the proto-humans leave nonchalantly.  Watkins notices a dead baby “smeared with blood” who has been abandoned after “that night’s murderous dance.”  Soon after, tribes of animals, seemingly on the continuum of Homo sapiens, but not yet fully evolved out of their bestial condition, infiltrate the ruins.  They crowd the site.  The “apes” mimic the “rat-dogs”; some apes even fawn on the rat-dogs, like servants or slaves, but suspicion eventually overpowers amity.  “The sentinels on the trees and walltops,” as Watkins tells the reader, “watched each other.”  Whereas previously they had turned their eyes outward to the jungle, the same eyes now “were turned inwards.”  Fighting erupts.  The two tribes slaughter one another.  The mêlée intensifies until, in a gruesome scene linking itself to the dead baby, the apes murder a female rat-dog who is giving birth.  This climax of Grand Guignol, attracting all eyes, brings the general mayhem to a sudden stop.  The two tribes vacate the city, precipitating Watkins back into his initial solitude.

Jung – who, in Flying Saucers, points to overpopulation as one source of modern worldwide tension – relates the visionary rumor of the space-visitors to the irenic archetype of the mandala or circle-of-totality.  Lessing recreates another type of circle in the context of her flying-saucer narrative: This would be the sacrificial circle, focused centripetally on the immolation of a victim.  As William Irwin Thompson once pointed out in an essay on Briefing, Lessing puts her protagonist in the position, not only of observing, but of involving himself in, the stages of cultural development.  According, however, to René Girard (1923 – 1915), who turned a skeptical eye on idealistic interpretations like Jung’s of ancient symbols, crisis birthed culture, and primordial culture took the intimidating form of “unanimity minus one,” or the lynch-mob confronting its fall-guy.  In Violence and the Sacred (1966), Girard, seconding Aristotle’s assertion that man is the most mimetic or imitative of the animals, formulates his theory of the mimetic crisis.  At a cross-over point leading from instinctualism to sapience, the hard-wired prohibition on intra-specific violence had failed; in order to survive, the proto-human group needed to find a new way to defer the war of all against all, which threatened the tribe with annihilation.  The solution emerged from violence itself, when, having devolved into pandemonium, the community focused its wrath spontaneously on a single victim, whose death became a victimary scene.  Contemplating this scene, the pack imagined the victim as an outside force – the sacred – that brought renewed calm by what appears in myth as its transfiguration.  As scapegoating, and as its repetition in ritual sacrifice, this “mechanism” provided the basis of every subsequent sodality until the victimary revelations of the Old Testament and the Gospel.  These indeed exposed the mechanism, but never altogether ended it.  Except for a few super-added tropes, culture derives from the matrix of sacrifice.  Human behavior, according to Girard, still largely consists in scapegoating gestures, as modernity through its ideological violence on a global scale has so prolifically testified.  Consciousness itself, and this is its vulnerability, conforms to a scene and therefore organizes itself sacrificially.  All gods begin as victims.  The gods send peace, but only temporarily, as their gift.

A recursion to Fox’s Pagans and Christians will be useful.  In his chapter on close encounters, Fox documents numerous incidents that put the report of a god’s presence in proximity with homicide.  In the period covered by Fox, the “asylum” became common throughout the Empire.  “In these precincts,” Fox writes, “gods kept a sharp eye on their own assets and treasures and exerted a local vigilance which was invoked or described in many inscriptions.” In Lydia, in the Mid-Third Century, the inhabitants of village districts could set up the sceptre: In this custom “the villagers invoked the justice of their local god or goddess.”  A trial would be held under the aegis of the deity; the case would be settled by oracle or augury.  In one case “when three pigs went missing from a herd, the suspects ‘did not agree’ to this appeal to the sceptre, but the appeal occurred nonetheless, and before long the gods had killed every one of them.”  In another case, “When a stepmother was accused of poisoning her stepson, up went the sceptre, and before long she and her own son died.”  The local population would have been in implicit agreement over these acts of extra-legal adjudication and punishment, obviously of human agency, but attributed to the gods.  Belief in the god is the same as taking satisfaction in reprisal against putative wrongdoers whose behavior appears to threaten communal stability.  The vigilantes no doubt regarded themselves as acting on behalf of a god.  Girard would recognize the sacrificial pattern.

Himmelserscheinung uber Nurnberg vom 14 April 1561

Unknown Artist (Sixteenth Century): Signs in the Heavens over Nurnberg (1561)

In Confrontations (1990), Vallée reports on a UFO case from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Niterói Case, so dubbed after the neighborhood where it happened in 1966.  According to Vallée, “Two men had been found dead in circumstances the police had never been able to explain.”  Vallée writes how “it was widely believed that they had died while awaiting a signal from the sky, possibly communication from a UFO.”  If he could find substantiating evidence, Vallée writes, it would force an alteration of “ideas about the [UFO] phenomenon.”  Not least, “Gone would be the gentle visitors… that fill the pages of UFO books,” and “gone, too, the shining presences and the angelic visions of the ‘New Age.’”  A teenage kite-flyer stumbled on the corpses of Miguel José Viana and Manuel Pereira da Cruz on a hilltop.  Next to the bodies, which lay “peacefully side by side,” police investigators found “crude metal masks.”  The local coroner concluded that both men had died from cardiac arrest.  Rumors wafted about that the two deceased had belonged to a contactee cult.  Vallée writes that, “a large number of people” had reported seeing “an oval object, orange in color,” in the vicinity of the hilltop around the probable time of the two deaths.  The suspicion arises that the story tellers invoked cult-affiliation and flying saucers as a deliberate red herring so as not to divulge what they knew or surmised.  In the Niterói Case, the Flying Saucer Myth dissembles ugly petty-criminality and its consequences.  Girard claims that one function of myth is, indeed, to dissemble the collective murder of sacrifice and so to disperse or avoid the guilt of implication.

Aficionados of flying-saucer literature will be aware that imputations of nefarious activity hardly absent themselves from accounts of the phenomenon.  Tales of a stubborn and perverse government conspiracy to keep the existence of extraterrestrial visitors hidden from the public abound and have been in place since the late 1940s.  A large part of public interest in UFOs takes these tales of government mendacity for granted.  People who report UFO sightings and close encounters of the various kinds also report visitations from self-proclaimed government agents who would bully them into silence regarding the details of their experiences.  The notorious “Men in Black” have migrated beyond the Flying Saucer Myth into popular culture generally; they even formed the basis for a popular film franchise.  Many versions of the Flying Saucer Myth stipulate different types of aliens, some benevolent, such as George Adamski’s elegant “Venusians,” and some malevolent, such as the emotionless “Dwarf Grays” or the Machiavelli-like “Reptilians.”  A high proportion of abduction stories entail involuntary physiological investigations and even surgery – the equivalent of medical torture.  If the Flying Saucer Myth had a psychic as well as a physical component, it would also have an angelic as well as a demonic component.  In fact, the Flying Saucer Myth possesses a myriad of elements and connections.  The foregoing paragraphs have sampled the most fascinating of these elements and connections, not least the parallelisms between the modern UFO-story and ancient religious belief.  The same paragraphs have sampled the varying approaches to the Flying Saucer Myth: The forensic approach rooted in the assumption of actual intrusions by artificial objects originating from outside Earth; the psychoanalytic approach, which, while not denying the objects a physical character, interprets them from the perspective of archetypal symbolism and individuation; and the mytho-psycho-social approach, best expressed in Vallée’s books and in Lessing’s brilliant novel.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell is not the only literary treatment of the UFO-topic.  Star Begotten (1937) by H. G. Wells and Messiah (1954) by Gore Vidal deserve consideration.  A systematic renewed exploration of the Flying Saucer Myth would need to explore the manifestation of that myth in serious fiction as well as in genre fiction.  Lessing’s novel not only draws on the Flying Saucer Myth; its narrative offers several interconnected interpretations of that Myth, including its relation to occultism and esoterica.  In popular culture, the “Ancient Astronaut” theory tackles myth, undertaking the euhemeristic project of equating gods, demons, and sprites with space visitors, but in a literal-minded way.  J. F. Blumrich’s Spaceships of Ezekiel (1974) offers a particularly reductive example; but so does Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1969) or any episode of TV’s Ancient Aliens, especially those featuring stand-up comedian Giorgio A. Tsoukalos.  It would be fascinating to explore fully the relation between the narratives of lifetime interaction with extraterrestrials – Whitley Strieber’s allegedly autobiographical books supply an exemplary case – and the precepts and rituals of Neoplatonism, Theurgy, and medieval Christian mysticism.  The Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, and the Theosophists borrow much from the Hermetic writings and from the authorships of Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus.  Is Angelucci’s Nature of Infinite Entities (1952) a flying-saucer exposé or a Rosicrucian tract?  Is George van Tassel’s “Integraton,” that item of “magnetic architecture” in the California desert, a shrine to UFOs or a Theosophical temple?

Bryan, Mark (born 1950) - Visitor, the (2012)

Mark Bryan (born 1950): The Visitor (ca. 2010)

Cinema should figure prominently in an Anthropoetics of the Flying Saucer Myth, but not perhaps in the obvious way.  A fairly extensive critical literature already exists that devotes itself to feature films that deal with alien visitation and flying saucers.  Invaders from Mars (1951), The Thing from another World (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), This Island Earth (1956), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters (1977), and The Mothman Prophecies (2002) all enjoy a good deal of analysis and commentary, but that commentary could be extended in new directions.  The number of intelligent low-budget or “B” movies from the same period that also exploit the Flying Saucer Myth bulks large, too.  Often these “B” movies probe more deeply into UFO symbolism than do the feature films.  Deserving of mention are: The Man from Planet X (1951), Red Planet Mars (1952), The Devil Girl from Mars (1954), Kronos (1957), The 27th Day (1957), and I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958).  Recent independent films that beg admission to the second category are: The Phoenix Lights (2018), Capturing the Light (2008), Skyman (2019), The Vast of Night (2020), and Lights in the Sky (2020).  The Flying Saucer Myth has even permeated into serious music: Licht (Light), composed from 1984 to 2003, comprises seven full-length operas by Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928 – 2007); Licht draws on the Urantia Book (1955), purportedly dictated by extraterrestrials, as well as on astrology, myth, the Jungian archetypes, and initiatic ritual.  Stockhausen’s Sirius (1977) functions as a prologue to Licht.

Initiation might well be the central trope in the Flying Saucer Myth.  Anthropologist Victor Turner (1920 – 1983) spent his life studying ritual processes including those of initiation.  Turner’s concept of liminality seems apposite to a discussion of the subjective side of the encounter narrative.  The supervisors of initiation make sure that the initiand feels that he has been set in the margin, isolated from society and the routine of everyday, but with no substitute.  Turner’s liminality resembles Girard’s emissary status, a term he applies to the victim of ritual sacrifice.  This resemblance is one reason for deriving initiation from sacrifice.  Initiation nevertheless distinguishes itself from sacrifice in that the one singled out does not die, but enjoys reintegration with the community after his ordeal.  During the ordeal, the initiand may well be harrowed by demonic encounters that realistically threaten his life.  As in Theurgic ritual, the initiand must experience death symbolically in a manner that truly frightens him and leaves him with an altered consciousness.  Daniel Myrick’s Skyman, one of the movies mentioned above, puts its protagonist through the initiatic phases of intensifying liminality until, at the climax and from his point of view the audience sees him rapt violently upwards amidst bursts of light that fall on him in the remote desert at night.  In Lessing’s novel, Mercury, an alter ego of Watkins, speaks to the gods about what they risk in descending to Earth in order to help humanity during a cosmic crisis, a descent whose character initiation strongly colors.  Mercury says of human beings that, “Unless we can perfect our adaptation to them, they will attack us.”  Those who descend will suffer from dissociation, disorientation, and discouragement.  Their safety lies in “the grace of Light” to which they must maintain perseverential attention.  Mercury reminds his fellow gods of their goal: “To recruit suitable inhabitants of the Earth – those, that is, who have kept a potential for evolving into rational beings.”  The trial is a long, dark tunnel through which the aspirants must pass.

Wiener Dog

 

One thought on “Notes for an Anthropoetics of the Flying Saucers

  1. Pingback: Notes for an Anthropoetics of the Flying Saucers | Reaction Times

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