1992 was a watershed year for the UFO community--not due to any revelation from the ranks of the saucer-smitten, but for the publication of Angels And Aliens: UFOs And The Mythic Imagination. For the first time in recent memory, an author with a fresh perpective wrestled with a modern history of the subject, and more importantly, the people who study or are at least affected by the phenomenon.
Keith Thompson chose to look at the 20th century evolution of the UFO phenomenon as a developing system of mythology, complete with heroes, villians, power struggles, battles and innocent bystanders. If you caught the first issue of this magazine, Thompsons name was in evidence throughout, reflecting our collective fascination with this novel point of view. Through a series of electronic pulses delivered through the hydra of the internet, we managed to gain a more coherent picture of the man over the course of a few weeks...
EM: Angels and Aliens is, to me, one of the most important books dealing with the subject of UFOs. I'm curious about the process that inspired the book. Was there a specific series of events or circumstances that led you to feel a book of this type was necessary?
KT: I came to the UFO phenomenon, or it came to me, by a circuitous route. One evening Walter Cronkite opened The CBS Evening News with a dramatic rendition of a UFO sighting in Michigan. Dozens of witnesses reported a football-shaped object the size of a car performing gyrations in the sky, before maneuvering out to a nearby swamp. J. Allen Hynek, the tragic hero of the Air Force's ill-fated Project Blue Book, arrived on the scene only to be quoted -- misquoted, actually -- as saying the witnesses had seen "swamp gas." This in turn was taken as proof that the military had no intention of dealing sensibly or honestly with the UFO phenomenon and its ramifications.
My twelve-year-old psyche was captivated by this case, with its cast of confounded witnesses, befuddled military experts, know-it-all debunkers, and of course the media circus surrounding it all. I grew up in rural northern Ohio, not far from where the sightings took place. The debate immediately polarized between those who were sure UFOs "had" to be real and those who were equally certain UFOs "couldn't" be real. It was my first exposure to the "mythic electricity" that surrounds the UFO domain. Soon the "Swamp Gas Case" was infamous, and the media forgot about it, and I did too. I didn't pay much attention to the UFO phenomenon until quite a few years later. EM: What prompted you to return to the subject? KT: In the early 1980s I was associated with Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. I coordinated a series of annual think tank-style conferences on subjects such as altered states of consciousness, shamanism, mysticism, quantum physics, and parapsychology. One day I came across an Omni magazine interview with J. Allen Hynek, the dean of UFO studies, and was impressed by his perspective. Michael Murphy, Esalen's founder and my longtime comrade in various adventures of the spirit, suggested that we invite leading UFO researchers to Esalen for a free-wheeling discussion.
There I was, about to receive a symposium of experts on a phenomenon I knew very little about. I spent two months reading everything I could get my hands on, including the works of Whitley Strieber, Budd Hopkins, Jacques Vallee, and the classic books of John Keel. It seemed clear that at least some of the "whatevers" called UFOs didn't fit Big Science's view of reality. I ended up spending five days with leading researchers, getting steeped in UFO evidence, a world brimming with surrealism. This was a phenomenon I could get along with just fine -- I felt sure of that much.
E.M.: You talk about the personality of this thing we call UFO and how it wears different masks: Hermes, who revels in ambiguity, and two mythic shape-shifters, Proteus and Trickster. When you became fully engrossed in producing the book, did you feel that it (UFO) responded to you personally? I guess what I'm getting at is, did anything weird or peculiar happen to you while you were writing or researching the book? Strange synchronicities; unusual dreams; anything?
K.T.: I went into my research wondering whether I was in for something weird, especially since Whitley Strieber's highly strange case was still on everyone's mind. The woman I was dating at the time made me promise not to get abducted. I gave her my word, but neither of us was sure I had much say in the matter. I knew Vallee's research had found a consistent paranormal dimension -- Men in Black, telephone disturbances, ESP, psychokinesis, that sort of thing. But in retrospect, the period that I spent writing Angels and Aliens was remarkably stable and focused. I think the researchers who have the hardest time with the logic of UFOs are those who have bought the idea of the universe as a rationalistic straightjacket. The UFO universe is a strange place, but then again so is ordinary reality -- Latin American magical realism shows us that.
E.M.: Before the book, you were involved in a public symposium called "Angels, Aliens and Archetypes." This was held, I believe, in San Francisco in the mid-1980s and featured, besides yourself, Jacques Vallee, Whitley Streiber, Terence McKenna, Michael Grosso and others. What struck me about that even was that even though each of you had your own ideas about UFOs, you all seemed, for the most part, to represent a "post-modern" or "new paradigm" or "excluded middle" school of thought -- something rare in prior UFO conferences. Do you view that gathering as significant in terms of increasing dialogue about new ways of looking at this phenomenon?
K.T.: A theme that emerged throughout the two days of that conference, among practically every speaker, was best phrased by Jacques Vallee, who emphasized three points: one, the UFO phenomenon is real; two, it has been with us throughout history; three, it is physical in nature yet it represents a form of consciousness that is able to manipulate dimensions beyond time and space as we know them. Vallee's friend and mentor Allen Hynek had arrived at a similar conclusion as early as 1976, when he began expressing his doubts that UFOs are nuts-and-bolts spacecraft from other worlds. He found it ridiculous to suppose that super intelligence would travel enormous distances to do relatively stupid things like stop cars, collect soil samples, perform repetitive "medical exams" on abducted clients, and generally go around frightening people.
Hynek decided it was time to "begin looking closer to home." A key idea at the conference was that UFOs may operate in a multi-dimensional reality of which space-time is a subset -- an idea that doesn't require the reality of UFOs to stand or fall with the extraterrestrial hypothesis. I like to think the San Francisco conference may have helped encourage new ways to think about the phenomenon. For instance, Vallee's idea that the intelligence the phenomenon represents could coexist with us on earth just as easily as it could originate on another planet, or in a parallel universe.
E.M.: One of the themes we found most intriguing in Angels and Aliens was the idea of ufology viewed as an evolving mythology. What inspired you to take this approach?
K.T.: There were a couple of departure points. First, as I began to immerse myself in the literature and attend various UFO conferences, I was struck that many of the personalities in the field of ufology spent much of their time doing to each other what the personalities of Greek mythology are famous for: quarreling, settling scores, jockeying for position, seeking revenge, and so forth. I wanted to find out which of the gods and goddesses, which actors from the timeless annals of mythology might have slipped into the UFO cosmos, like thieves in the night.
Hermes, Greek mythology's swift-footed messenger between heaven and earth, is all over the place. Communication under the sign of Hermes borrows from twisted pathways, shortcuts and parallel routes. Hermes loves to straddle the fence between the explicit and implicit and never tires of inventing nuances to place his message in the "right" context, which involves deliberate ambivalence and strategically partial disclosure. This is a good description of the UFO's style of display. Another Greek divinity who shows up is Dionysus, with his characteristic ways of upsetting our notions about secrecy and true identity -- two key themes in the debate about UFOs. The thing to remember about Dionysus is that he wears masks not to disguise himself but rather to reveal himself. Maybe the UFO's behavior, which fits our fantasy of secrecy, constitutes its own style of self-disclosure. That's a Dionysian way of thinking.
But the idea that ufology involves "mythology" doesn't mean I dismiss the reality of UFOs, although some readers thought that was what I was saying. All of life has a mythological dimension, and the UFO phenomenon is no exception. Myth offers a background of images that allow life to show up with greater richness and depth. The assumption that UFO events must be either real or symbolic -- but not both -- is fundamentalist thinking at its worst. Try as we might, life refuses to be reduced to any flat singular interpretation. Interesting, that the word "symbolism" is derived from the Greek symballein, which means "to throw together." The word denotes the drawing together of two worlds. Hermes is a spanner of boundaries, a mediator between realms, an ambassador between domains which seem separate but are connected by subtle thresholds.
In Angels and Aliens I was trying to show that UFO reality is complex, multidimensional, remarkably nuanced and textured -- and above all, not cooperative with the mental categories to which the Western mind has become so attached.
E.M.: Mythic realities imply much more than can be precisely defined or explained. K.T.: Yes, but that shouldn't be seen as reducing the significance of the search for answers. UFOs beckon the human psyche in the same way a bobber entices a fish toward the surface, where one element, water, meets others, air and dry land. Efforts to understand the UFO in conventional human ways have the effect of locking the phenomenon from perception. UFOs span the chasm between conscious and unconscious, surface and depth -- and this drives us crazy. The UFO's message is that we, too, must learn to move back and forth among separate and diverse worlds. The individuals who report the experience called "alien abduction" may be unwitting pioneers in that quest. E.M.: So, would you say that the conventional scientific procedures to ascertain the nature of things ultimately lead to the wrong answer, necessarily? K.T. Normal science works well enough for normal scientific problems. I think the UFO research field needs a multidisciplinary approach -- physicists and chemists to measure alleged physical traces, along with biologists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, information specialists, all attending to particular aspects of this baffling phenomenon. Ufology also needs more top-notch field workers like Jacques Vallee, who continues to travel the world interviewing witnesses, comparing patterns, rather than appearing on "Geraldo" to make extravagant claims. Of course, a major problem with UFOs is they can't be replicated by researchers; UFOs come and go on terms other than our own. That's why Carl Sagan and his high-tech colleagues have put so much stock in Project SETI. It's quite reassuring to the conventional scientific mind, the thought that extraterrestrial intelligence will become apparent to us as a result of our listening for signals from them on frequencies of our choosing. But after more than 20 years of listening, nada, not a single peep. Meanwhile, ordinary people from all walks of life are reporting close encounters with UFOs -- yet these don't count as "extraterrestrials" because Big Science isn't able to control the terms of the exchange. While he was in the process of writing his book Abduction, Harvard psychiatrist John Mack paid a visit to his old friend Thomas Kuhn, author of the groundbreaking book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Mack said Kuhn insisted that the Western scientific paradigm has come to assume the rigidity of a theology, with a belief system held in place by the structures, categories and polarities of language, such as real/unreal, exists/does not exist/objective/ subjective, intrapsychic/external world, and happened/did not happen. Kuhn urged Mack to continue his UFO research by simply trying to collect as much raw data as possible, without worrying about fitting the evidence into any particular worldview. Only later, Kuhn advised, should Mack look to find a coherent theoretical formulation to make sense of his data.
That's good advice. Sadly, the mainstream of UFO research seems more concerned with pressing its baroque theories about aliens intent on forced interbreeding with the human species, and elaborating details about crashed flying saucers and the supposed all-encompasing government coverup. I think science researcher Dennis Stillings was close to the mark when he described that wing of UFO research as "a playground for the bungled and the botched."
EM: In your book, you invoke the Myth of Sisyphus as a tale of futility that could give us a wise place to stand.
KT: Yes, that's how I ended it. You know the story. Sisyphus is sentenced by the gods to roll a rock to the top of the hill, knowing full well that it will roll back down to the bottom. He must do this for eternity -- no reprieve. He defies the gods by saying yes to his task, even though this amounts to affirming endless labor intended as torture. The task of making sense of UFOs is Sisyphean. Each attempt to explain these hovering shapes manages to get the rock to the top -- and then each theory falls, inevitably, like his rolling rock. On it goes.
I find this strangely heartening. The human spirit always agrees to make the climb to the top, not knowing why. For me it comes down to an article of faith that, in the entangling of human and divine fates, to be human is not to be at a loss. I want to keep asking questions. Keep pushing the rock.
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