The Los Angeles Review of Books has a lengthy and very positive review of D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic, the recent volume from the Oxford University Press in which the author investigates UFO culture and compares it to religious practice and belief. The review, by Samuel Loncar, a scholar of religion who describes himself as “healing the divide” between mind and matter, is overly credulous (he falls into the fallacy, for example, of thinking that government interest in a subject equates to its scientific importance and reality) but he makes a few interesting points that are worth discussing
First, Loncar describes Pasulka’s probe into UFO culture as a “Grail quest by proxy” and the search for UFOs as parallel to the search for the Grail, which I found particularly interesting since there is a great deal in common between the hunt for flying saucers and the medieval quest for the Holy Grail. For Loncar, the similarities revolve around questing for a supernatural object whose physical reality would confirm beliefs held through faith. But in my mind the parallels are a bit different. In both cases, genre fiction was the driving force behind the quest, shaping perceptions and actively rewriting facts into new legends. In the Grail quest, whatever original layer of meaning once existed was heavily reconstructed by vernacular medieval epic poets like Chrétien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, who invented, largely from whole cloth, many aspects of the Grail legend now taken for “ancient” mysteries. Similarly, science fiction governed how reports of flying objects in the midcentury skies were understood, transforming what were originally small reflective arcs or balls in early reports into alien spaceships. Most elements of the alien mythos originated in science fiction before becoming canonized as UFO “fact.” In both cases, it was popular literature—vernacular poetry and pulp fiction—rather than elite high culture that shaped the myth.
Beyond this, the parallels between the fruitless effort to hunt down every potential clue in the hope of finding the hidden location of the Grail closely resemble the efforts to track down every lead to expose the U.S. government’s alien secrets and to achieve “disclosure.” In both cases, there is an expectation that solving the right puzzle or uncovering the right piece of hidden information will release an orgasm of truth that will transform humanity through the achievement of a great boon of supernatural power. The Grail provided eternal youth, prolonged life, etc. Disclosure is supposed to provide more modern boons, such as faster propulsions systems and other technological wonders.
At the heart of Loncar’s essay, however, is a paragraph that sums up where he went wrong. I remain amazed that even well-educated and intelligent people have difficulty divorcing facts and observations from their interpretation:
Anyone considering reading American Cosmic should be ready for what the truth can do, and I would be remiss, as a reviewer, if I did not say that serious scholarly study of strange things can have strange effects. This fact may be because, as an ancient adage puts it, we become what we behold. The study of UFOs is the study of contemporary humanity’s upward gaze to the heavens in shock, awe, terror, and, for some, reverence and piety. The believer’s gaze is directed toward phenomena that seems as real as our cars and planes, but far greater. The oddest thing about UFOs — and this is a fact of which we, no matter how skeptical, most remind ourselves — concerns their physicality: these phenomena are captured on radar and can be photographed. Whatever they are, they cannot be dismissed as immaterial phantasy.
Here, Loncar sees part of the truth—that UFOs are a mediator between humanity and the divine in the guise of technology—but he gets the connection between the physical and the spiritual exactly backward. Yes, there are blips on radar. Yes, there are (blurry, ambiguous) photos of objects. But these physical pieces of evidence are not themselves proof that they were caused by spaceships from another world any more than making a shadow puppet of a bunny on the wall is proof that you are living through the Night of the Lepus. These pieces of random noise in the background of everyday life have been elevated into a pattern and evidence of otherworldly invasion precisely by the power of belief—before their actual cause had ever been understood.
I am instantly reminded of the arguments for the existence of giants, which rely on the same stew of belief, ignorance, and ambiguous evidence. Since at least the time of the Greeks, the arguments have been the same: Literature tells us that giants exist. We don’t really know anything about the past, so when workmen dig up big bones, learned men pronounce them the remains of the giants. Big buildings, too, are proof of the giants, for who else could raise such constructions? As knowledge advanced, the “evidence” for giants faded away. Big bones were recognized as those of Ice Age megafauna. Big buildings were reevaluated as the work of ancient human cultures. And yet the belief persisted because the stories still existed. The UFO myth works the same way. Science fiction created the legend of spacecraft. We don’t know anything about space aliens, so when pilots and prophets see lights in the sky, learned men pronounce them the physical traces of flying saucers. Industrial waste, scorch marks on the ground, and dead cows are “proof” that the ships have landed. Even as knowledge expands and different pieces of the “phenomenon” become understood for what they really are, the overarching story doesn’t die because it lives on, independent of the evidence, which can always be pushed and prodded to fit the narrative.
The fundamental error, as I have pointed out since 2013, is to accept the narrative of a singular UFO “phenomenon” rather than examining all that we can really prove, which are some largely minor astronomical or aerial anomalies that, absent a science fiction narrative of galactic explorers, would not be lumped together or woven into an interstellar cosmology. Anyone who seeks to explore the “UFO phenomenon” for evidence of vehicles and otherworldly beings is working backward from the conclusion, and that’s why they get nowhere.
8/7/2019 09:29:07 am
HI Jason -
8/7/2019 10:04:37 am
"Literature tells us that giants exist." As you say. At this point "eyewitness accounts" of people from the 17th century are "literature".
8/7/2019 03:09:09 pm
"THE literature" carries a particular meaning when it comes to a blanket description of excavation reports, articles, books, etc. Unfortunately, there isn't much of anything in the literature to support the idea of large numbers of "giants" roaming about. A few examples of folks in the 7 feet range and an article indicating a small sample of Native Americans who were a couple inches taller than the average European of the time is about it. Unless one wants to take late 19th century tabloid accounts of 10 feet tall mummies and Smithsonian conspiracy theories as gospel.
8/7/2019 05:05:50 pm
Doc, Kent -
8/7/2019 05:39:27 pm
That's the problem E.P. We have all these claims of giants uncovered in the past but apparently all those remains have pretty much disappeared and nothing new has been uncovered for generations. Have you ever found it interesting that great new archaeological sites are discovered all the time or new components of sites. But apparently ALL the giant remains have been recovered and lost and no new ones have been found. One would think that by now Farmer Bob in the Illinois Bottom would clear off a hillock that turns out to be a burial mound full of 8 feet tall Indians. Or, a crew of shovel bums doing a phase 2 alongside an internet expansion route would have come across something in the past 50ish years that CRM surveys have been crawling all over the country?
8/7/2019 07:02:51 pm
Doc, you're a professional. I expect you to read Draggoo and Neumann's "Mounds fpr the Dead".
8/7/2019 07:54:54 pm
Mounds for the Dead was based on excavation conducted 60+ish years ago. That would be generationS ago. It yielded a small number of people about the size of the center on any given Serbian national basketball team. That would be a few examples of people who would be unusually tall for the time but not exactly record breakers.
8/7/2019 08:46:42 pm
Doc, I understand the distinction. I was quoting Jason exactly.
8/7/2019 09:37:07 pm
Actually, historical accounts of unusually tall natives integrated into published work could also be considered as part of the literature as opposed to simply literature. But not really an issue most people would dwell on unless they have a Ph.D. in historical anthropology and spent 30 years talking about this type of stuff. But my comments were largely directed toward what Is usually to be expected from EP on this topic since i knew that he would evoke dragoo. so take it for what it is worth within your frame of reference.
8/7/2019 10:43:34 pm
Yeah, I get the distinction between "literature" and "the literature". Dragoo's work, if based on excavations, doesn't even enter into the realm of eyewitness accounts.
8/7/2019 11:08:07 pm
Kent, since you don’t seem to appreciate the distinction, allow me to explain it to you.
8/7/2019 11:13:23 pm
Thank you. Now I can cross "Find a mental patient willing to offer unneeded advice" off my list.
8/7/2019 11:49:00 pm
Sick burn bro!
8/7/2019 11:55:55 pm
8/8/2019 02:29:57 am
Mr. Grondine: On Wed Jul 22, 2015 at 9:01 am you wrote:
8/8/2019 10:18:20 am
Hi Doc -
8/8/2019 02:13:01 pm
Dragoo conducted a professional excavation and analysis. It yielded data indicating a small number of people of estimated unusual height but well within documented parameters. That was 60 years ago and not much of anything since to even indicate unusually tall people as anything other than a very rare occurrence.
8/8/2019 10:37:04 pm
Hi Doc -
8/14/2019 03:41:17 pm
"Doc, you're a professional. I expect you to read Draggoo and Neumann's "Mounds fpr the Dead"."
8/17/2019 07:11:02 am
If you point out the times The Great Grondini is so far beyond wrong that wrong can't even be seen in the rearview mirror you're a retarded racist who hates Indians. Also you're interfering with his "deadly serious work" of making a list of rocks that fell from the sky. Have a nice day!
8/17/2019 10:46:08 pm
8/18/2019 01:07:44 pm
I generally ignore youtube links because I like to know what I'm getting into and posting a youtube link is the equivalent of the person saying "I've got nothing" but based on your description, now I'm watching!
8/7/2019 05:41:03 pm
8/7/2019 07:04:41 pm
8/7/2019 09:07:31 pm
I got as far as I could (not very far) with that awful u tube video.
8/7/2019 09:17:38 pm
It’s the same nonsensical, nephilim crap that has been making the rounds for years among the ding dong crowd of crazies who fervently believe that the Smithsonian has been dishonestly hiding evidence of biblical giants.
8/8/2019 10:02:29 am
Jim, its too bad you did not watch the video to the two accounts from people who lived with the Andaste.
8/8/2019 11:47:10 am
Well, to be honest your voice isn't well suited to this, it is sort of grating.
8/8/2019 01:32:21 pm
I suspect Mr. Grondine unknowingly slept with Nietsche's sister.
8/7/2019 10:13:19 pm
It is some minor nitpicking but Chretien de Troyes was in fact protected by Marie de France in the court of Champagne, one of the major and most sophisticated court of the time.
8/7/2019 10:54:07 pm
Waiting for the translation...
8/8/2019 06:46:36 am
You're right... I should have said that the audience was intended to be aristocratic but not scholarly. It wasn't intended as an academic work for philosophers and rhetoricians.
8/8/2019 02:17:39 pm
Gee Whiz. Jason wrote a review of a review of what is actually a quite decent book and the discussion ends up being entirely about some (possibly) over-tall Indians. A much-discussed topic hereabouts.
Jr. Time Lord
8/8/2019 09:44:38 pm
The Holy Grail and UFOs are both human sciences hidden from the masses behind a veil of bullshit. One being astronomy and the other physics.
8/9/2019 11:15:16 am
Hmmm. Well, with all due respect your Lordship, whatever I saw was not “human science” - at least I sincerely doubt it. I’m not exactly sure what human science is other than science that has been developed/falsified using scientific method by humans. What are the astronomers and physicists hiding?
Jr. Time Lord
8/10/2019 06:36:37 pm
8/11/2019 01:21:50 am
I can think of one human who's definitely NOT being studied.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.