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.
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.
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