Waiting for the Saucers

Whether or not synchronicity has the importance that Jung and his physicist friend Wolfgang Pauli attributed to it, it’s something that pops into my life often enough to be worth the occasional comment. A couple of weeks ago, a fine specimen showed up – well, not quite on my doorstep, but in the course of a half mile or so of walking that began and ended there.

My walk that day took me to the post office, to pick up a package, and to the local media exchange, to see what was new there. I’m not sure how widespread media exchanges are just now, but it’s an intriguing business model: people drop off the books, CDs, DVDs, and so on they no longer want; those that are worth $10 or more on the used book market get sold over the internet, and the rest go on shelves, for anyone to take for free. This particular media exchange gets a dizzying assortment of stuff; for that matter, so does my mailbox.

This particular day had parallel finds in both of them. The mailbox contained the first two copies of my new book on the UFO phenomenon, rather unoriginally titled The UFO Phenomenon, an attempt to get past sixty years of bickering between the people who think any light in the sky nobody can identify must be an alien spacecraft, and the people who think that any light in the sky nobody can identify never existed in the first place. The media exchange followed that up with a packet of yellowing paper putting a full stop at the end of one of the oddest and, in its own way, most moving stories I researched in the course of writing The UFO Phenomenon.

The late Dorothy Martin never became a household name, but this is mostly because she had her fifteen minutes of fame veiled by a pseudonym. She was "Marion Keech," the central figure in the UFO cult chronicled in one of the classics of American sociology, When Prophecy Fails. Martin, a suburban Chicago housewife turned contactee, announced to the world that a vast flood would sweep over North America on December 21, 1954, and only those who were flown to safety aboard flying saucers would survive.

A team of sociologists from the University of Minnesota had a couple of grad students join Martin's circle under false pretenses. The result was one of the few hour-by-hour accounts of what happens when a group of true believers has to deal with the complete failure of their belief system. The climactic scene of the story, the afternoon when a circle of middle Americans gathered in a suburban backyard in a Midwestern winter, watching the skies and frantically getting rid of every scrap of metal on their bodies so the flying saucers could land safely, begs for cinematic treatment; it's hard to imagine any series of events more perfectly balanced on the thin edge between drama and farce.

It's hard to get through a degree in any of the social sciences in America without being exposed to When Prophecy Fails, but very few people know the rest of the story. Friends in the contactee scene got Martin out of Chicago just ahead of a psych evaluation that probably would have sent her to a mental institution, and she went first to Arizona and then to Peru, where a group of contactees were attempting to launch the Abbey of the Seven Rays as an international center for the emerging New Age movement. When the Abbey folded, the promoters simply walked away, leaving Martin penniless and stranded.

It took her years to get back to the United States. When she finally made it home, she settled in the small town of Mount Shasta, California as Sister Thedra, the name she believed she had been given by the aliens. With a constancy and devotion worthy of some less delusional creed, she lived in relative poverty, supported by donations from the very modest network of people who subscribed to her newsletter and found her messages appealing, and devoted all her time and efforts to the task of preaching the extraterrestrial gospel to a mostly uninterested world. Until her death in 1992, she remained convinced that the purifying catastrophes and mass alien landings she had announced in 1954 were still imminent.

The packet of aging photocopies I found at the media exchange chronicled the last chapters of her story: several years' worth of her newsletter from the last years of her life, along with a cheaply bound book of messages she had transcribed from the aliens and a brief biography of Martin written just after her death by one of her few followers. I brought it home and read the whole packet several times. It will be going back to the media exchange, but several aspects of her story seem uncomfortably relevant to the current predicament of the industrial world.

To begin with, of course, a remarkable number of people even today remain committed to the same faith in flying saucers that led Dorothy Martin on the long strange trip of her life. I have had several conversations with one person who is convinced that since the problems besetting industrial society are insoluble by rational means, we need to transcend reason and await rescue by spiritually enlightened extraterrestrials. (It never fails to bewilder me how many people these days think that "transcend" and "give up on" mean the same thing.) I have spoken with another person who, having seen odd lights in the sky, is convinced that they must have been alien spacecraft, and on that basis argues that since it's clearly possible for intelligent species to reach a higher technological level than humanity, humanity ought to be able to get through its present predicament and keep on progressing.

All this is a bit like insisting that any hoofprint sighted in a forest anywhere on Earth proves the reality of unicorns, and arguing from there that the best solution to the current health care crisis is to rely on the legendary curative power of unicorn horns. Still, Martin's legacy has a broader lesson to teach. The contactee faith that shaped her career drew its strength from the appalling contradiction between the ideology of progress that dominated twentieth century America and a growing sense that the trajectory being traced by progress was moving toward a future no sane person would welcome. The slogan of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair – "Science Explores, Technology Executes, Mankind Conforms" – had become the ideology of an inhuman future anatomized by Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society and also, in the sly language of satiric fantasy, by C.S. Lewis in his novel That Hideous Strength.

The result invites analysis in terms of Gregory Bateson's theory of the double bind. Put a child into a family setting where the realities that can be discussed flatly contradict the realities the child experiences, Bateson pointed out, and mental illness is a pretty common result. Put an entire society into the same sort of conflict between ideology and experience, and new belief systems that promise a radical resolution of the conflict spring up. The more drastic the disconnection between culturally acceptable beliefs and personal experiences becomes, the wilder and more apocalyptic the resulting belief systems tend to be.

There's an entire literature on revitalization movements, which is what sociologists call the mass movements that sometimes gather around these new belief systems in times of drastic social stress. Some dimensions of the UFO movement came close to that category, though it never quite managed to become a mass movement on the scale of the Ghost Dance of the Native American plains tribes, say, or other classic examples of the type. The social pressures that gave rise to the extraterrestrial faith found other expressions before that faith could find a large following; the widespread but mild belief that there could well be aliens out there somewhere, and there might be something to all those reports of flying saucers, replaced the total conviction that sent Dorothy Martin in pursuit of her destiny.

Just now, though, the double bind that drove the radical movements of the Fifties and Sixties – the gaping disparity between the Utopian visions of progress that flooded popular culture and the manipulative and inhumane technocracy so many people saw taking shape around them – has given way to a different one. Where the stresses of an earlier time grew from contradictions to the claim that progress is good, those of the present and foreseeable future are building around the claim that progress is inevitable. A society founded on the unquestioned belief that economic expansion and technological development will continue forever may have a very, very hard time dealing with a future in which economic contraction and the abandonment of technologies too complex to be sustainable will likely be dominant trends. It's not too far of a reach, it seems to me, to suggest that massive revitalization movements will follow.

Not all of those will be as obviously delusional as Dorothy Martin's belief in the imminent arrival of the Space Brothers, though there will doubtless be some, and the approaching "end of the Mayan calendar" in 2012 – I put the phrase in quotes, because the Mayan calendar doesn't end then, and the recently invented mythology that has gathered around the rollover of one of their calendrical cycles has no basis whatsoever in ancient Mayan tradition – may well give rise to a whopper. Still, it's the apparently saner fantasies that may cause the most damage, if only by distracting us from steps that can actually be taken to cushion the descent into the deindustrial age and make life better for our descendants for generations to come.

Thus I'd encourage my readers to be at least a little wary of any movement in the years to come, however reasonable and hopeful it may seem, that claims to have a solution to the rising spiral of crises that is building around today's industrial civilization. I have argued here and elsewhere that those crises define a predicament rather than a problem – a situation that cannot be solved, only lived with – but that definition flies in the face of some of the most deeply rooted assumptions of our culture. I suspect that unless we cultivate an unusual degree of common sense, a great many of us in the years to come may end up doing some equivalent of standing in suburban backyards, waiting for the saucers to arrive.