In the Air: Problems with Jung, Archetypes, and Flying Saucers

Jung’s Flying Saucers:  A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky is rightly famous for being probably the first book by a well-respected cultural figure to address the UFO mystery. Not unsurprisingly, Jung fit the phenomenon into his ideas of the Collective Unconscious, the Archetypes, and synchronicity to propose that the saucers’ circularity was a timely symbol of unity, one that compensated for the existential anxieties of a war-weary and war-fearing populace in the early days of the Cold War, which had split the globe in half.

As David Halperin reminds us in his recent book Intimate Alien:  the Hidden History of the UFO (pp. 42 ff.), Jung’s insight was later developed by Eric Ouellet to interpret the Belgian UFO Wave of 1989-90. The Belgian UFOs were characteristically large, silent, black triangles with white lights at the points and a red one in the centre. It is suggested, following Jung’s thoughts on flying saucers, that the pattern of three white lights and a fourth red were a manifestation of the archetype of the quaternity: the three white lights symbolizing NATO, at the time headquartered in Brussels, and the one red star, symbolizing the then-collapsing Soviet Union (the Berlin Wall fell 9 November 1989). Just as the conditions of the Cold War inspired people to see archetypal images symbolic of the then-absent unity, the surprise over this unforeseen resolution of the Cold War and resultant profound relief and euphoria evoked visions of a western Europe ascending in victory over its Communist rival.

As valuable as Jung’s proposal is, especially for a mythopoeic rendition of the UFO myth (such as that one underway here in various guises at Skunkworks), I have increasing reservations about its explanatory power. I’ve already voiced some of these in my notes on a recent podcast with Micah Hanks and Thomas E. Bullard. There, I observed that Jung’s kind of “thinking dissolves what is uniquely modern about the phenomenon as we experience and communicate it now into some vastly more general distillation of species-wide experience, occluding what light the present version of these stories might throw upon our present predicaments.”

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Kenneth Arnold’s sketch of his “flying saucers”

If we return to the early days of the Cold War and Arnold’s inaugural sighting, we’re reminded that Arnold witnessed crescent, not disc, shaped craft, however prevalent the disc becomes in the following years. The manner in which Arnold’s story was modified by a journalist, the expression “flying saucer” coined and disseminated, and how those words seemed to guide and govern what people claim to have seen subsequently is a rich case history for sociology and communications studies, imaginably subject to an analytical psychological treatment as well:  the journalist’s pen (or typing fingers) were merely taking dictation from the Collective Unconscious, which was answering the psychic needs of the American population of the time, including those of the journalist.

Setting aside this famous, intriguing metamorphosis of what Arnold claims to have seen, what did witnesses describe? In his disputed memo of September 1947, General Nathan Twining summarized the discs’ appearance as follows:

(1) Metallic or light reflecting surface.
(2) Absence of trail, except in a few instances where the object apparently was operating under high performance conditions.
(3) Circular or elliptical in shape, flat on bottom and domed on top.
(4) Several reports of well kept formation flights varying from three to nine objects.
(5) Normally no associated sound, except in three instances a substantial rumbling roar was noted.
(6) Level flight speeds normally above 300 knots are estimated.

At least four explanations were offered at the time (if not in Twining’s memo) to make sense of these mystifying reports: misidentifications due to “war nerves”; domestic or foreign inventions, friendly or hostile; or extraterrestrial space ships. I contend that these hypotheses are sociopsychologically suggestive in their own right, capable of revealing a deeper meaning of the appearance of the saucers without needing recourse to concepts problematic as they are grand, such as the Collective Unconscious or its archetypes.

The immediate aeronautical context informs the proposal that the sighting of what will come to be known as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) could be accounted for as paranoid misperceptions. In 2020, it is perhaps difficult to imagine how novel the skies were in 1947. The recent war had seen the first, large-scale deployment of air forces and conflict between them, perhaps most famously in the Battle of Britain. Radar itself had been deployed only in the early days of that chapter of the war and was still a very new, unfamiliar technology. Air travel itself, taken for granted today (at least before the Covid-19 outbreak), was, as it were, first taking off. The skies were under constant, anxious scrutiny, by both professional military personnel and civilians. All in all, the skies and flight were new and fraught with threat. Little wonder both qualified and unqualified observers should file unnerved and unnerving reports of aerial anomalies. Indeed, this insight might well be applied to sightings of “foo fighters” in the war-torn skies of World War Two, as well. At any rate, the psychological implications of UFOs appearing to vigilant, anxious observers are two fold. On the one hand, this explanation eases the fear that gives rise to sightings:  the novelty of aerial phenomena and the heightened, wary awareness of the observer understandably lead to misidentifications; in this case, there is, in fact, no threat. On the other, that the skies are under such intense scrutiny is reassuring, as well, since, should an enemy attack, the threat will be quickly detected and answered; the nation’s skies are, in a sense, air tight.

A similar emotional logic is at work in the idea that the flying discs represented breakthrough aeronautical technology, whether ours or theirs. If they’re ours, then our technical and, by extension, military superiority is affirmed and our anxieties about a potential “hot” war with the Soviet Union are, to a degree, assuaged. If, on the other hand, the discs are evidence of an enemy nation’s technological leap, the heightened anxiety drives the fearful populace of the Free World that much more eagerly into the protective arms of the Military-Industrial Complex, steeling the public’s resolve and patriotism in the face of such a wily adversary. The same logic might have been at work in the Phantom Air Ship sightings of 1896-7, on the eve of the Spanish America War. Either the airships are examples of Yankee ingenuity, affirming American industrial and military superiority in the face of a looming conflict with a world power, or the airships are Spanish, with the same patriotic effect noted above.

Finally, the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis plays into a similar, if more complex, pattern of reassurance and fear. That an extraterrestrial race is visiting earth with technology far in advance of our own suggests that they, too, at one time, faced the threat of nuclear self-annihilation (they must have at some time discovered nuclear energy in the course of their technological development) but came through; if they can, we can, and, maybe, they have come to show us the way, having witnessed, from their planets or distant stars, our detonating A-bombs. Little surprise, then, the earliest stories of landed saucers reported their pilots were peaceful, enlightened humanoid beings, come to warn us of the danger we found ourselves in. Or maybe, seeing our science and technology had split the atom, we were being observed as a preparatory step in being contacted and invited to join a larger, interplanetary if not interstellar community. Again, all would be well, better than we could have imagined. Alternatively, if the discs proved to be an extraterrestrial enemy’s scouts and probes, then, again, who better to defend us than the Cold War status quo of an America recently ascended to the status of a global power, allied with the Free World? Or, as Ronald Reagan so famously imagined, perhaps a threat to earth would unite her otherwise divided nations (again, mollifying the tensions underwriting the sightings in the first place). More cynically, one might suggest that being carried away by the mystery of the flying saucers served as an escape from more urgent, earthbound concerns.

In all these cases, the appearance of mysterious flying discs set in motion a process of thought and feeling that leads to either a relief of anxiety or a redoubled resolve in the face of it. In this light, one wonders how rational at base the three or four hypotheses cited above are, how much they are inspired or motivated by the anxieties of the time. Framing the advent of flying saucers and, later, UFOs, in the moment of their appearance in this way enables an understanding that does not stand in need of more general, and by extension more questionable, psychological theories. Indeed, the UFO becomes all the more revealing being related to its more specific spatiotemporal (historical) locality than if it is spun off to hover over all times and places, emerging from a region beyond space and time, the Collective Unconscious.

However tempting, it would be disingenuous to leave the matter here. In its own terms, the approach I venture here demands, too, that the phenomenon be examined with an eye to the local culture and what is “in the air” at the time, much the way Halperin and Ouellet reconfigure their account when they move it from the mainland United States to Belgium. This is to say, the phenomenon will always reveal something about the culture over which it appears, an insight not lost on those who mark the local inflections that differentiate North and South American ufology. The reflections, above, are, therefore, pertinent, strictly, to postwar North America. More interestingly, the canny reader will be quick to point out how the hypotheses offered above hover between three or four, a classic quaternity….