The UFO, Mystery, and Différance

David J. Halperin, in a chapter on Raymond Palmer and the Shaver Mystery in his Intimate Alien, recounts how in an interview Eugene Steinberg asked Palmer if he thought the UFO mystery would ever be solved. “No!” Palmer replied, “…I think the mystery is only going to deepen.” Halperin amplifies on Palmer’s line of thought: mystery “is a metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind and soul.”

This sentiment echoes beyond the sphere of the UFO phenomenon and even Forteana in general, reflecting back to amplify a thought-provoking dimension of the UFO.

In the 1990 Pre-face to his assemblage of the Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, Shaking the Pumpkin, Jerome Rothenberg observes that

What the poetry transmits is not so much a sense of reverence or piety as of mystery and wonder….

The same phrase (Indian or not) turns up independently in the assertion by the surrealist master, André Breton, “that the mysteries which are not will give way some day to the great Mystery“: a reconciliation, as in the Indian instance, of dream & chance with the reality or our immediate lives.”

‘Mystery’ at root is that which remains tight-lipped. We might understand philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to be referring to Breton’s “great Mystery” when he writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” This is to say that the, if not an, answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is not forthcoming. Little wonder, at least as Wittgenstein’s contemporary Martin Heidegger had it, the question could be said to have motivated explicitly or tacitly the whole of Western philosophy.

More pertinently here is the way that mystery-as-such maintains itself as mystery. In the wake of Kant‘s Critical Philosophy, the question of the Absolute took on an urgency in German-language philosophy. As the poet and philosopher of the time Friedrich von Hardenberg (better know by his pen name Novalis) put it: “Everywhere we search for the Absolute but find only things.” The sense of Novalis’ fragment, however, is embedded in a German-language witticism, for Novalis writes for ‘absolute’ das Unbedingte (the undetermined) and for ‘things’ the very ordinary Dinge. That is, the Absolute is precisely that which depends upon, is related or relative to, nothing else; however, if the Absolute is to be known at all, it thereby becomes relative to or determined by the knower. For this reason, the mystical experience is the dissolution of the knower in the known. In one classical formulation, that of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite:

The Divinest knowledge of God, which is received through Unknowing, is obtained in that communion which transcends the mind, when the mind, turning away from all things and then leaving even itself behind, is united to the Dazzling Rays, being from them and in them, illumined by the unsearchable depth of wisdom.

Whatever his other predilections, with regard to the question of the Absolute, Novalis was a philosopher, no mystic. The answer he and his circle proposed to the problem was that of “endless approximation.” That is, since all knowledge is relative (in the context of Kant’s philosophy, to the knowing subject), knowledge never reaches an end, but endlessly orbits or pursues its object, always from some new perspective, some new “determination”.

Novalis’ coeval, the philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, sees the same dynamic at work in the interpretation of texts. Since every word finds its sense only in the sentence in which it is found, and each sentence only in the text of which it is a part, the sense of the text in question is oriented (or determined) by its place in the totality of the work of its author, which, in turn, is determined by its place in the literary production of the language it is written in, and so forth. Interpretation, then, is an infinite task. Students of literary criticism will be reminded of the much later formulation of Jacques Derrida‘s différance: because the significance of any sign is determined by its relation to all other signs in the language, that significance spatially differs from itself (i.e., it is determined diacritically by its difference from all other signs in the abstract, synchronous structure of the language), and, in the phonic or graphic chain of any concrete (diachronic) utterance, that significance is, likewise, temporally deferred, as each successive sign and utterance is determined by the next (hence Derrida’s witty conflation of ‘differ’ and ‘defer’ in his coinage ‘differance’).

When I first read about Project Lure, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s attempt to tease flying saucers to land at its Suffield airbase in Alberta, I was struck by the ambivalence of the name. UFOs, it seemed to me, are as much “lures” themselves, teasingly visible but always just out of reach. They escape not only our attempts to grasp them as physical phenomena, leaving only traces, as reports, blurry or questionable photographs, or radar traces, but they slip between the very concepts whereby we make sense of reality, neither material nor immaterial, real or subjective, but “imaginal” or “spectral” (as M. J. Banias was the first to point out). As such, the UFO-as-sign is, after a fashion, characterized by différance, always slipping just out of our grasp (spatially), protean and ever-changing in appearance (temporally), both over time and often within the context of single sighting; like the ever-elusive “final” significance of the sign, the truth of the UFO remains tantalizingly ever out of reach.

The UFO, then, in one regard, is essentially mysterious. That is, like the question of Being (what Wittgenstein called “the mystical”) that stirred the first philosophers, the “great Mystery” that inspired both the traditional singers of North and Central “America”, the Surrealists, and others, the UFO embodies that “metaphysical state wherein lies the salvation of the human mind soul.” But what “salvation” does this “state” promise? Halperin has his own answer, but, if we follow the insights of Novalis and his circle, the mystery of the UFO is a sign, endlessly proliferative of meanings, with any luck never, like Proteus, wrestled into submission and forced to give up its secret. In this respect, the UFO might be said to inspire what the poet John Keats articulated as the genius of Shakespeare, what he termed “Negative Capability”: “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”