Wednesday, February 23, 2011

David Halperin

Back in the 1960s, David Halperin was a teen-age UFO investigator. He later became a professor of religious studies—his specialty, religious traditions of heavenly ascent. Journal of a UFO Investigator, released this month by Viking Press, is his first novel.

Earlier this month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
For the first time in some years, my current reading consists of newly published books in which UFOs are a main topic. The quality is vastly higher than I remember it as being in my “UFO investigator” days fifty years ago.

The gorgeously illustrated Hidden Realms, Lost Civilizations, and Beings from Other Worlds (Detroit: Visible Ink, 2010), by veteran UFOlogist Jerome Clark, puts UFOs into the broader spectrum of what Clark calls “anomalous” phenomena. These Clark divides into “experience anomalies” and “event anomalies,” the latter being those that seem to belong to consensus reality. (Like, in Clark’s opinion, a small core of inexplicable UFO sightings.) The former category, which Clark plainly finds the more intriguing—as do I—are things that can’t possibly exist in the usual sense of the word, and yet appear to be something more than products of witnesses’ imaginations. Genuine experiences, that is, of things that can’t genuinely be.

Take the “Great Airship Mystery” of 1896-97. This term refers to the numerous, seemingly reliable sightings, from many parts of the US, of a winged flying machine that can’t have existed. Yet it was on multiple occasions seen to land, its pilots encountered and conversed with. No small gray beings from distant galaxies, they. Rather, they appear in the reports as American inventors, on at least one occasion from New York State, often with an odd tendency to be named “Wilson.” The stories can’t possibly be true; are they therefore lies? Fantasies? Clark thinks not, and what they really are is an unsolved mystery.

As a former professor of Judaica, I’m fascinated by the appearance of one Rabbi Aaron Levy of Beaumont, Texas, among the airship witnesses. The European-born Levy, whom Clark has shown to have been an unquestionably historical person, claimed to have hurried out to a farm where the airship had landed, spoken with one of the pilots who’d gone into the farmer’s house, shaken hands with him. Now, what was a rabbi doing investigating landed airships? Maybe this is no question at all, and Levy’s interest in the notorious airship was something perfectly natural for any alert citizen. But maybe there’s more than meets the eye.

One of the themes of the UFO myth—for so I regard it—seems to me the experience of alienness, and the transcending of it. Surely Aaron Levy, foreigner and Jew, was a double alien in the rural Texas of the 1890s. By narrating (imagining?) himself into the Great Airship Mystery, transporting himself to the farm where it had landed, he wove himself into rural America and the quintessentially American narrative of daring invention that a few years later was to reach a high point at Kitty Hawk. By grace of the Unidentified Flying Airship, alien no more.

From this to Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (University of Chicago Press, 2010), by Rice University professor Jeffrey J. Kripal. The core of this book, which I’m now in the middle of reading, is a series of close studies of four writers, from the 19th-century Frederick Myers of the “Society of Psychical Research” to the contemporary Jacques Vallee and Bertrand MĂ©heust. What the four “authors of the impossible” have in common is their use of writing as a means of widening the borders of consensus reality, taking in those eerie entities that historically were relegated to religion or anti-religion (witchcraft)—when they weren’t ignored altogether.

In this gallery of the strange, UFOs occupy a prime spot. Vallee, whom I knew briefly in California forty years ago, has devoted most of his life to UFOlogy. (He’s the model for the Francois Truffaut character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) An early rebel against the extraterrestrial-visitors hypothesis, Vallee reveled in the resemblances between UFOs and traditional folklore. He didn’t conclude from these parallels, as he might have, that UFOs don’t exist any more than fairies and elves do. Nor did he turn the elves into misidentified spacemen. UFOs, fairies, elves—to Vallee they all manifest some reality beyond our current understanding, for which interplanetary spaceships are a banal conventionalization.

I’m yet more fascinated by Kripal’s second author, Charles Fort. Fort died in 1932, fifteen years before the modern flying saucer age began. Yet he managed to be a UFOlogist before there were UFOs; and in his embittered rebellion against the smugness of conventional science, he was a culture hero of my own UFOlogist days.

I don’t think he wears well. Flipping through the 1062 pages of the collected Books of Charles Fort, which were once a sort of Bible to me, I now find myself put off by his nyaah-nyaah-nyaahing at the scientists, which strikes me as nihilistic and juvenile. Maybe we need to “subvert the dominant paradigm,” as the bumper sticker says. But it’s awfully difficult to live without paradigms, scientific and otherwise, and somebody has to build them so others can have fun poking holes in them. Was it really unforgiveable for the scientists to ignore Fort’s beloved anomalies, like tadpoles falling from the sky (as dead birds do nowadays), supposing that sooner or later they’d probably be explained and in the meantime probably weren’t all that important?

And yet. There are times when Fort’s hyperbolic, almost hysterical language takes on a remarkable poetic resonance. Consider the opening of his first truly “Fortean” work, The Book of the Damned (1919):
A procession of the damned.

By the damned, I mean the excluded.

We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded.
Read this without “data” and “Science”; keep it at the level of metaphor. It might serve as a cry of liberation for an adolescent who thought he knew the pain of exclusion, who in his loneliness—largely self-inflicted, though I didn’t know it at the time—felt himself damned to a solitary hell. Decades before I was born, Charles Fort carried my banner, emblazoned with the post-Fortean image of a flying disk. A writer who evokes such feelings, in a boy separated from him by more than two generations and a world transformed, cannot be without some merit.

Kripal likes Fort better than I do. He’s persuaded me I need to take another look.
Learn more about Journal of a UFO Investigator at David Halperin's website and blog (“my thoughts on UFOs, religion, the writer’s life, and other subjects dear to my heart”).

Watch a video trailer for Journal of a UFO Investigator.

The Page 69 Test: Journal of a UFO Investigator.

--Marshal Zeringue