UFOs, Borges, and the Limits of Reason

At the only “ufological” blog I visit, a complaint has been made that “the conflation of the paranormal with UFOlogy….alien abductions, crop circles, cryptozoology, and hordes of New Age fluff” makes it so ufology, as a serious concern if not nascent discipline, can’t, as it were, get off the ground. My, expanded and developed, response follows.

Methodical inquiry (“science”) only gets under way once its basic concepts are articulated, a workable object is obtained to study and methods of investigation proper to that object grasped and developed. Of course, existing science demonstrates that the same object can be studied by different disciplines, e.g., emotion by psychology, neuropsychology, and anthropology, among others, and that sometimes there is no object to study, as was the case with phlogiston.

In the case of the pseudoscience of ufology, at least three problems arise:

On the one hand, the community of ufophiles is hardly a homogeneous group of like-minded and like-educated persons; it is wildly heterogenous, so discussion goes off in all directions. From such disciples no discipline is likely to arise.

On the other hand, other phenomena get yoked in, because they appear at the same time: glowing balls of light are associated with the appearance of some crop circles; Big Foot sightings do accompany UFO sightings; nor does it take a scholar of New Religious Movements to hear the “New Age fluff” in the preachings of Orthon, Semjase, and their ilk (ignoring for the present that Flying Saucers have always been imagined in the context of occult thought: Guy Ballard met the prototypes of Adamski’s Orthon in the 1930s, for example).

On the third hand, at least three researchers in three different fields (Jacques Vallee (Dimensions), Hilary Evans (Gods, Spirits, Cosmic Guardians:  Encounters with Non-Human Beings), and Terry Matheson (Alien Abductions: Creating a Modern Phenomenon)) have noted parallels between UFO sightings, visions of angels and of the Blessed Virgin Mary, hauntings, shamanic initiation experiences, Near Death Experiences, alien abductions, Fairy abductions, and so on, which would seem to suggest a general theory of apparitions, not without its natural scientific, psychological, and sociological anchors.

As usual, the UFO phenomenon (or not) illuminates, if not creates a vortex that whips together, all manner of material together, precisely in a way to frustrate our existing rational schemata and to suggest there is indeed more in Heaven and Hell than is dreamt of in our philosophies, natural and otherwise. It brings to mind the passage from Borges that so fascinated Foucault, who cites it at the beginning of his Preface to The Order of Things. (The original in English translation is found in “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” in Borges’ Other Inquisitions).

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

(trans. Ruth L C Simms)

Back to the Skunkworks

Just last week, a friend recently publicized a chapbook of mine composed and published airship2over twenty years ago, and the response, livelier than any to any of my work in recent memory, encourages me to return to the work that chapbook began.

I shouldn’t be surprised, in a way. This poem was the center-piece of the performances I gave during a tour of Germany in 1996, and then, too, the response was gratifying:  one audience member excitedly came up to me to say he would buy everything I would publish, and a friend I made during that tour, the German novelist Georg Oswald, approved with pleasure the approach I took to the material. And a few years later this sequence was well-received by Terry Matheson, a professor of English who has applied narratology to alien abduction reports and who was kind enough to even teach the poem below in one of his classes.

arnold_ufoSo, for interested parties, I append one of the first poems from this project, the last poem of my first trade edition, Grand Gnostic Central and other poems. and return to  back-engineering this “modern myth of things seen in the sky”.

 

Flying Saucers

 

Tuesday three in the afternoon 24 June 1947

Kenneth Arnold of Boise, rescue pilot, businessman, deputy sheriff and federal marshal, U.S. Forest Serviceman

At 9,000 feet crystal-clear conditions

Alone in his Callair between Chehalis and Yakima

An hour’s detour searching for a lost transport

Out of the blue a flash like just before a midair crash

Made him look left north of Mount Rainier

To see at ninety degrees

Nine seeming jet planes in a V pointed south

 

The echelon vaguely bobbing and weaving

Flashing reflections

Twenty-four miles off

Against Rainier’s snows, tailless—

Flying nearly forty miles

Between Mounts Rainier and Adams

Three times the speed of sound

The first crossed the ridge bridging the mountains

As the last came over its north crest five miles back

 

Nine crescents needing to be

Half a mile long to be seen

Flying that fast that far away

So smooth mirroring sunlight

Like speedboats on rough water

Wavering in formation

Like the tail of a Chinese kite

Wings tipping flashing blue white

Each like a saucer skipped over water