Here’s a proposition—a UFOlogical proposition.
UFOs are a human phenomenon. A UFO sighting, therefore, is not bounded by the sky in which it’s appeared, or seems to have appeared. The observer—better, experiencer—is a part of the sighting.
So is everyone who believes in that sighting. So is everyone who invests emotion in debunking it. The Donald Menzels and the Phil Klasses are as much a part of the UFO phenomenon as the Barney Hills and the John Macks and the Gray Barkers—who, in turn, are as much part of it as the bizarre events whose reality they proclaim.
In this proposition, I perceive the crux of what my friend Matt Graeber calls “21st-century UFOlogy.”
(I call Matt my friend, although I’ve never met him. That’s the way it always was among us UFOlogists. As a teenage UFO investigator, I built my “invisible college” of fellow-researchers—most of them teenage boys like me—with a string of four-cent postage stamps. Now I use email. But it feels very familiar.)
Two UFO cases from the 1970s, which Matt published in two articles in the British journal Magonia, illustrate his method at its best.
The earlier of these articles, “The Raefield Affair,” discussed the case of four disk-shaped objects seen by a young man driving to work near Chester, Pennsylvania, on August 26, 1976. “I estimate that they were about the size of a single-engine aircraft—like a Piper cub, about 19 feet long. No noise was apparent. A pale yellowish-white colour emanated from all the UFOs. Also, as they left, a very pale green colour was around the middle of the entire craft from the direction I was coming.”
Matt makes a strong case that the UFOs—or, more precisely, the physical triggers for the UFO sighting—were birds of some sort, probably gulls or terns. The moment I read this, I was ready to say: yes, yes, yes! I’ve never forgotten the evening my wife and I took a walk in the vicinity of a tall illuminated tower in the city where we live, and spotted 6-10 strange lights wheeling over the tower. I was mystified until my wife said, “They’re birds.” And I looked again, and they were birds. In the dark, without depth perception, they gave the impression of being much farther away and therefore much larger than they actually were.
For a Menzel or a Klass, the identification of Mr. Raefield’s UFOs as birds would be the end of the story. Case closed. For Matt—and, I’d think, for 21st-century UFOlogy in general—it’s only the beginning. How was it that this intelligent, level-headed man perceived birds, however distorted their appearance may have been by atmospheric conditions, as four flying disks?
The answer, says Matt, comes from within the observer.
“But, since our witness’s sincerity in filing the report is beyond question and because it is the very ‘stuff’ of so many other UFO reports, we must consider the fact that the mere sight of these strange objects must have been a tremendous psychological shock for Mr. Raefield. In fact, we might even go so far as to suspect that in such a state … he was probably experiencing the event emotionally and physiologically as well.”
Raefield’s marriage, Matt discovered, was disintegrating at the time of the sighting. He was living alone, apart from his wife and two children. He was seeing another woman. Could it be that the four UFOs—three to the left of the road on which he was driving, the fourth to the right—functioned for him as symbolic representations of the three members of his estranged family; and, “on his side” of the road, a fourth, his girlfriend? And that his chance encounter with gulls, or terns, or whatever they were triggered a healing vision, by which his psyche found a path to guide itself through its emotional difficulties?
Well, yes, sure it could. And if you say, “Pure speculation!”, I’ll have to agree. Reading Matt’s discussion, I couldn’t help but think that the fourth was more likely Raefield himself (though the identification of the three with his wife and children still made good sense to me). And that, beyond what the four disks meant to Raefield’s personal unconscious, the archetypal Jungian Quaternity (3+1, the fourth somehow different from the other three) was making yet one more appearance.
But what have we got but speculation, in the current state of 21st-century UFOlogy? Hypotheses need to be advanced, then tested. To hold back out of timidity gets us nowhere.
Matt’s second case is presented in an article entitled “On Down-to-Earth UFO Experiences.” It happens on the night of November 17, 1977, in southeastern Pennsylvania. A woman and her three young daughters see a disk flying low over their car. The disk makes a humming sound “like a motor”; it’s no wild conjecture that what they’re seeing is in “reality” a small airplane. But why do they all perceive it as a disk?
At the time of the sighting the woman was in the process of leaving her husband; she suspected him, reasonably, of molesting their daughters. She was rethinking her relationship with her Roman Catholic faith, which condemned the step she was taking. In the middle of this pain and chaos, she looks up into the sky. And lo and behold! a UFO.
You came to me in motion
I do not know from where
If memory serves me right
You just happened to be there.
You were my childhood dream, come back
On the seventeenth of November
A dream I’d often dreamed
And now always will remember.
It’s not great literature, this poem the lady wrote about her experience. But it’s haunting in its emotional authenticity. What was the “dream” she’d dreamed as a child, now fulfilled by the UFO? It’s a major weakness of Matt’s article that he doesn’t explore this question. But the conclusion seems inescapable. The stimulus for the UFO came from the outside, in the form of a misidentified airplane. The UFO itself came from within.
Says Matt Graeber, on the aftermath of the sighting:
“Mrs. Bailey now expressed the thought that her existence was not mundane but rather exceptional and filled with new purpose (a sentiment often expressed by UFO observers). These remarks were not the kind of ‘ego-inflating’ statement that might signify the lifting of one’s mind from its hinges, but, rather, the kind which bolsters an already battered personality, defending it from more harm.
“Indeed, hers were expressions of an extraordinarily soothing nature, which emerged in her mind in a rapid-fire form of cognition. In them she found refuge, strength, and hope. Was her UFO sighting the modern-day equivalent of a genuine religious experience? Her philosophical and ‘spiritual’ transformation (or conversion) seems to be, at least in part, related to the event.
“She found herself writing more poetry, sleeping and eating much better (gaining ten pounds in one month), most interestingly, a nightly skywatch (UFO surveillance) performed with binoculars borrowed from her brother became a family ritual for about three weeks (nothing unusual was observed during this time). Since then, her situation has improved–all of her children now live with her and she has met someone who is very special and she thinks that he feels the same way about her. She is thirty-nine years old at the time of this writing and has just started to really live.”
Is the UFO experience hallucinatory? I wouldn’t shy away from that word. But we’re used to thinking of hallucinations as pathological. Matt has shown that it’s possible to think of UFO hallucinations as the precise opposite–manifestations, not of disease, but of the psyche’s self-healing. It’s pretty much what Jung intuited a half-century ago; only supported (as Jung’s guesses usually were not) by specific data.
Misperceived reality + healing vision = UFO sighting
Might that equation serve as the watchword of a 21st-century UFOlogy?
by David Halperin
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“I am not a prophet, nor am I a prophet’s son …”
None of us is. Doesn’t stop us from trying. For those who write science-fiction, it’s practically a professional obligation.
“Terrifyingly prophetic”—aren’t those words you’d love to have on your jacket blurb? I’ve heard them applied to George Orwell’s 1984, which isn’t exactly S-F but shares with it the impulse to limn the shapes of things to come. As applied to 1984, they’re only partly true. “Terrifying” the book is—I don’t dare dip into its pages, lest I find myself swept along by the power and persuasion of Orwell’s writing and carried to its horrific climax. But “prophetic”? No way.
1984 came and went a long time ago. It didn’t bear the slightest resemblance to Orwell’s nightmare. The issue is not just chronology. Orwell, it’s now become clear, had the trends all wrong. Extrapolating from the 1930s and 40s, he imagined the future as belonging to a tiny clique of malignant monster-states, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to the nth power, merciless and perduring as the slave empires of antiquity to which Orwell compared them. He couldn’t conceive—any more than he could have foreseen the Internet—that the problem at century’s end would be the opposite. Societies fragmenting into nasty little ethnic nationalisms, often with a medieval religious edge, ghastly technologies of slaughter at their disposal.
(Orwell himself, actually, would have denied any claims of prophethood made for him. The best way to feel yourself omniscient, he once wrote, is to not keep a diary. That way you forget all the predictions you made that went wrong.)
Of all the writers I read in my youth, the one to whom I’d most readily grant the title of prophet is not Orwell, nor Aldous Huxley with his Brave New World, but science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who passed away last June 5 at age 91. His story “The Murderer,” published in his 1953 collection The Golden Apples of the Sun, is a stunningly accurate portrayal of the way we live sixty years later, in a world dominated by “machines that yak-yak-yak.”
It’s not a dystopia. Not exactly. The US, where the story seems to be set—though I don’t think this is stated explicitly—is still a democracy. People are pretty comfortable, pretty contented. Except for one.
“When it wasn’t the telephone it was the television, the radio, the phonograph … it was inter-office communications, and my horror chamber of a radio wrist watch on which my friends and my wife phoned every five minutes. … I love my friends, my wife, humanity, very much, but when one minute my wife calls to say, ‘Where are you now, dear?’ and a friend calls and says, ‘Got the best off-color joke to tell you. Seems there was a guy—’ And a stranger calls and cries out, ‘This is the Find-Fax Poll. What gum are you chewing at this very instant!’ Well!”
The voice you hear is Albert Brock, the “murderer” of the title. So named because he rises in rebellion against the tyranny of the gabby machines by murdering his house.
“It’s one of those talking, singing, humming, weather-reporting, poetry-reading, novel-reciting, jingle-jangling, rockaby-crooning-when-you-go-to-bed houses. A house that screams opera to you in the shower and teaches you Spanish in your sleep. One of those blathering caves where all kinds of electronic Oracles make you feel a trifle larger than a thimble … A house that barely tolerates humans, I tell you.”
Brock lays his plans. Then he strikes.
“Next morning early I bought a pistol. I purposely muddied my feet. I stood at our front door. The front door shrilled, ‘Dirty feet, muddy feet! Wipe your feet! Please be neat! I shot the damn thing in its keyhole.”
The systematic annihilation continues. (And as I write these words I have an uneasy sense of other act-alone “murderers” of our time, perhaps animated by rage like Brock’s, who do not confine their mayhem to houses.)
“Then I went in and shot the televisor, that insidious beast, that Medusa, which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little, but myself always going back, going back, hoping and waiting until—bang!”
The police take him away. At the end of the story Brock’s in a mental hospital, facing a long—lifelong, perhaps—confinement. He’s not unhappy. Like Sam McGee, warm at last in the fires of his cremation, he’s found his yearned-for quiet. He dreams of the revolution his act has sparked. He tells the psychiatrist who’s interviewing him what’s gone wrong with their society:
“It was all so enchanting at first. The very idea of these things, the practical uses, was wonderful. They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even. So they rationalized their nerves as something else. ‘Our modern age,’ they said. ‘Conditions,’ they said. ‘High-strung,’ they said.”
The psychiatrist offers a different diagnosis:
“Seems completely disorientated, but convivial. Refuses to accept the simplest realities of his environment and work with them.”
“The simplest realities”! And Bradbury wrote this story at the beginning of the 1950s, when cell phones could be imagined only as Dick-Tracy-style wrist radios and television as we know it barely existed.
A prophet? A prophet’s son? Whatever—he was great, and now he’s gone.
Will a biography of Carl Allen, a.k.a. Carlos Allende, ever be written? I doubt it. In the events of his life there’s not much of interest. Mystery shrouds his one great achievement—the creation of a myth that’s spawned at least one novel, at least two purportedly non-fiction books and two movies, innumerable cultural references, and still calls forth upward of 60,000 Google searches (for “Philadelphia Experiment”) each month.
Does the myth have some nucleus of truth? Did something happen in the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1943, or at any other time, that served as irritating sand-grain to the formation of Allen’s pearl of legend? (Such as “degaussing experiments which have the effect of making a ship undetectable or ‘invisible’ to magnetic mines,” to quote a 1982 version of the Navy’s semi-official debunking.) Is Allen our sole witness? Do there exist any sources for the “experiment” that can’t be traced back to him, directly or indirectly, and to his 1956 letters to Morris K. Jessup? I can only say: I haven’t found any.
The Allen materials in the Barker files suggest some mysteries of their own. For example, the files contain a passport issued to Allen in 1964, along with an apparently empty immunization booklet. How did these items get there? Did Allen send them to Barker? Why would he have done that—especially given that, to judge from the tone of his letters to Barker, he neither liked nor trusted the man? When I visited the Barker Collection in 2004, I asked that question of curator David Houchin. David had no idea. Neither do I.
Yet a few items from the files help round out our picture of Allen and his background. In a letter of 6 March 1978, sent on the stationery of a Guadalajara hotel, Allen provides information about his family that supplements the details given by Robert Goerman in his classic 1980 Fate magazine article. Following Goerman’s example, I omit the names to protect the family’s privacy—although, 32 years later, I’m not sure it still matters.
“Members of the Board of Governors of SITU [I don’t know what this stands for] once accompanied me to the old Homestead Farm, which erring legend says ‘was deserted’ [on this “erring legend,” see Goerman’s article] and met both my sister & earlier that day, my Dad.” The next sentence or two, which I accidentally omitted from my photocopy, seem to introduce Allen’s brothers, “who also live in the New Kensington, Penna. Area. One, _____, is a realtor & the other, _____ is a Science teacher in a nearby but long famous third class City Jr. High School. My Dad was raised in West Virginia near to Clarksburg, W. Va. [Barker’s town!]. And If you go over to the Grafton, W. Va. Bluemont Cemetary, you will find a considerable group of ALLENS who are interred thereat: My [paternal] Grandfather included … he was a Methodist Minister & Man of God and a fine baseball player who died during a typhoid semi-plague that occurred nearly 80 years ago in poverty. … He was a lay-minister of the Methodist Church. My Sister … still yet lives on the old farmstead as has my divorced and remarried mother up until 22 ½ months ago.
“So, you see, as did the governors of SITU, the old ‘Deserted Farmhouse’ (unquote) has NEVER, in its hundred & thirty four years, been neither ‘deserted’ nor ‘Empty’. There has ALWAYS been some member of my Clan living on the good ole Farm Homeplace Since year 1907 A.D. when my [maternal] Grandfather _____ purchased it seventy one years ago. My Uncle _____ still lives within a country mile of it.”
I page forward through my folder of photocopies from the Barker Collection. I find a series of related documents from 1981, centering on an astronomy professor at a distinguished state university whom I will leave unnamed. “Dear Dr. ________:” Barker writes on 25 March 1981 (on the stationery of something called “MCA Media Consultants Associates”). “I read with great interest an account of discussions between yourself and Carlos M. Allende, provided by the latter. In view of your interest and concurrence with Allende’s theories, you may be interested in some of the enclosed materials for your library.”
To which the professor responds (29 April 1981):
“I would like to correct one thing. I do not in anyway support, concur, or agree with the views of the very imaginative Carlos Allende. His account of our discussions is almost totally a fictional one. I have read his account of our meeting last summer, and having been there obviously, I believe its greatest value is to show the extent to which Mr. Allende is out of touch with reality. He completely fabricated my comments, my background and interest in him (which is merely curiosity over encountering a genuine crackpot), and my opinions about his views. He is a sad, frustrated old man who lives in his own peculiar world. He knows no physics beyond a bit of jargon, he has no evidence to support his claims, and he has no contribution to make to the factual understanding of anything in the universe.”
The professor had been aware of what Allen was saying about him, well before being contacted by Barker. Already on 29 January he’d sent a letter to Allen, addressed to Las Cruces, New Mexico but forwarded to General Delivery at Socorro (already famous for a 1964 UFO landing). The letter was apparently forwarded by Allende to Barker—with his characteristic underlinings and annotations—and thus made its way into the Barker files.
“First,” the professor writes, “I was very irritated to read the copy of your description of our meeting last summer. It is so filled with errors of fact and misquotations as to be a work of fiction. How dare you manufacture opinions and attribute them to me. I consider your article slanderous and insulting.
“Second, you disturbed me at my motel at an impolite hour of the morning, and then interrupted my breakfast with several very close and important friends.
“Then you write an annoying letter to me about my opinion of you and your ‘quaint’ (your word) ideas, or what you imagine them to be. Believe me, amigo, I do not underestimate your ability.”
To this last sentence, Allen adds the notation: “TO TEACH ADVANCED EINSTEINIAN PHYSICS.”
Who can doubt that, as far as Carl Allen’s scientific competence goes, the truth lies with the professor? That the eccentric visitor who interrupted him at breakfast with his colleagues was indeed a “frustrated old man” with no knowledge of physics beyond some jargon? Yet Allen was also right: the professor did underestimate him.
“He has a fantastic mind,” Robert Goerman quotes Allen’s brother as recalling. “Take school, for instance. He did all he could to get out of it, out of the work, the routine. Slept most of the time when he had to show up. But if the teacher had a difficult algebra or calculus problem on the blackboard that needed solving, he’d wake Carl up and Carl would stare at it for a minute, recite the correct answer and go back to sleep.”
And anyway—what does it mean to “underestimate” a man who, singlehandedly as far as we can tell, created a myth that flourishes unabated nearly twenty years after the man himself died, alone and all but unknown, in a Colorado nursing home?
How, in fact, do you “estimate” him at all?
I had to listen to the recorded announcement on the telephone three or four times last night, before I could believe I’d heard it right. “All jurors summoned for Tuesday, February 7 at 8:30 a.m.—you have been relieved of jury duty. You do not have to appear. Thank you and have a nice and safe evening.”
I felt as I had back in school, when they announced a snow day.
But happy as I was to have the next few days freed once more for my own affairs, I wouldn’t have minded too much if I had been called. I’ve served on three juries in my time, and the third of these stints was one of the finer experiences of my life.
The first time I served, the trial was over in a day. The defendant was charged with having abetted the killing of a deer out of season. It was completely obvious the guy was guilty. Obvious, though, from the fact that he hadn’t provided any counter-narrative explaining his actions that would be an alternative to the one given by the state—and was that a valid legal argument against him? (“The world,” says Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, “must construe according to its wits. This Court must construe according to the law.”) After all, as the man’s lawyer pointed out, the defendant doesn’t have to do one single thing to prove himself innocent. It’s the state’s burden to prove he’s guilty.
That was why it took us a while. But we found him guilty.
My second jury service was for a family dispute, the details of which I’ve mostly forgotten. The third trial is the one that’s most stuck in my mind; it went on for several days, and its more sensational details made the local newspapers. It made me rethink what I was doing as a university professor.
It was a little over fifteen years ago. A young woman, who worked for a lawyer in some sort of secretarial capacity, was charged with having stolen from her boss. The case was pretty complicated—“Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive,” the prosecutor intoned in her opening argument—and I can’t say the details are quite straight in my mind. What I remember most vividly is the jury itself.
A friend of mine, a professor like myself, once said to me, “They don’t pick educated people for juries, do they?” The implication was that we educated folk are too smart to see through lawyers’ tricks, therefore lawyers prefer we not be there. Well, there were two Ph.D.s on this jury, myself and a thoroughly brilliant woman who was chosen as foreperson. A couple of our fellow-jurors seemed to have very little formal education; most were in between. About halfway through the trial, a young high school English teacher who was on our jury said to me: “I think I’m serving with the ten smartest people in the county.”
(Ten, not eleven; she made one exception. I’ll come back to that.)
The juror who “cracked the case,” as they say, was a bus driver. She could hardly speak a grammatical sentence. But she knew very well how to read a text—in this case, a thick pile of telephone records—and draw from it the inferences that went straight to the heart of the defendant’s deceptions. Once she’d laid out her argument, all but one of us had no doubt we would vote “guilty.” This gave me pause. For years I’d taught critical reading of ancient religious documents in my university courses, and reasoned that I was training my students in intellectual skills they could use afterward in more practical contexts. That, I argued, was one of the benefits of an education in the humanities. But now, lo and behold, it appeared that no university education was necessary to do that kind of thing. All you needed was a clear and powerful mind. Our Ph.D. jury foreperson had that—she demonstrated it over and over in our deliberations. So did this bus driver.
There was one holdout, unpersuaded of guilt. This was the one whom the English teacher had made the exception to her “smartest people” rule. Her name was G_______. When we gathered on Friday morning, after a week that had left us all frazzled and irritable, our foreperson announced: “We’re going to take a half-hour and just listen to G_______. We’re not going to argue. We’re just going to hear her.”
G_______ spoke. “I’ve been praying,” she said; and her prayers had been answered. She now had the clarity she’d needed. She was ready to vote with the rest of us. When the verdict was read, and the lawyer for the defense asked that we all be polled, G_______ spoke her “Guilty!” in a voice as firm as any of ours.
The English teacher had misjudged. Twelve of us, not eleven, were the smartest twelve people in the county. Only, G_______ felt, more sharply than the rest of us, the immense moral gravity of declaring “Guilty!” about another human being.
The sentence having been read, and the judge having at last declared us free to go home and talk about the case, I stepped into a neighboring bank to get some cash for the weekend. G_______ was there. “Have a good weekend,” she said, and touched me on the shoulder. I never saw her again.
For that touch on the shoulder, I was glad to have given up my week to jury duty. I’d gladly do it again.
The week before last I blogged on “Peanuts.” Not the most august subject, I know. But there’s something about that comic strip that haunts me, that continues to mystify me. So I’m returning to it today.
In my earlier post, I wrote that for the last three decades of the strip’s existence the spirit was gone. Charles Schulz just imitated himself over and over, hardly ever striking an emotionally authentic note. But there’s an exception. I remember one episode from sometime in the 1990s where the feeling was exactly right—not the same feeling “Peanuts” had in the 60s, but something just as true, that ran just as deep. Three years ago, reading David Michaelis’s brilliant biography Schulz and Peanuts, I hoped he might discuss the episode, where it came from, what it means. I was disappointed. Michaelis doesn’t even mention it.
Here’s what I recall:
Charlie Brown goes to dancing classes, hoping to find relief from his loneliness. There he meets a lovely little girl whose name I remember as Emily. The two glide about the floor in each other’s arms. Not his unattainable “little red-haired girl”; plainly she likes Charlie Brown a lot, and he’s smitten with her. Dancing with her, he’s in heaven. Lying in bed that night, he muses: “I like to think about good things that have happened to me during the day,” and the ensuing frames recall the joys of dancing with Emily.
The next day he goes back to the dance studio to find her. She isn’t there. Nobody there has ever heard of any Emily. In the last frame of the strip Lucy, who’s been observing Charlie Brown’s bafflement, says something like: “Poor Charlie Brown. He doesn’t understand …”
Huh? Understand what? What has Lucy realized, that Charlie Brown—along with myself—has been unable to grasp? That Emily never existed, that she’s a figment of his yearning imagination? But in the strips where they dance together, there’s no clue she’s any less real than Lucy or Linus or Charlie Brown himself, or that these strips depict anything other than the “consensus reality” of the “Peanuts” world.
I was baffled, yet deeply moved, when I read these strips. I’m still baffled. The sudden appearance of this cryptic, evocative episode, amid the dreary waste of banality, repetition, and gimmickry that was the later “Peanuts,” points to something powerful, perhaps transformative emerging within the soul of its creator. I have no notion what.
Michaelis, who probably knows Schulz and his work better than anyone, provides no enlightenment.
I’m taking a break this week from my regular postings. My friend Karen Thornburg has sent me some wonderful photos from my February 10 reading at the Regulator Bookshop, on Ninth Street in Durham, NC, and today I’d like to feature those pictures.
Karen is the mother of Adrian Thornburg, who played Danny Shapiro in the book trailer. On the left of the photo below, you’ll see Adrian’s grandmother Elaine Bauman–a good friend, who read a draft of Journal of a UFO Investigator and helped me get the book into the shape it’s in today. Then come Adrian, his parents Karen and Brian and his brother Ben, and on the right, my beautiful wife Rose.
Here I am, signing a book for Danny Johnson, a terrific emerging novelist and author of the short story collection Harry and Bo and Other Stories from a Rambling Mind. Next to Danny in line are Laurel Goldman, author of Sounding the Territory and The Part of Fortune, and Peggy Payne, author of Revelation and Sister India. Peggy is not only a great writer, but a very fine book doctor whose skills served me well when I was in the beginning stages of Journal of a UFO Investigator. You can learn more about her and the services she offers at her website.
And here I have the honor of signing a copy for Laurel, one of the wisest and most generous people I’ve ever known, mentor and guide to more writers than I could begin to name. What an evening that was! In the words of the traditional Jewish prayer, “Blessed art Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast kept us alive and sustained us, and brought us to see this day!”
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.
– Simon & Garfunkel
I don’t know what made me think of “The Graduate.” Maybe it was reading an article about the new film “Barney’s Version,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays the main character’s father, that brought to mind the vastly younger Dustin Hoffman who made his name and career playing Ben Braddock, the bewildered, unmoored “graduate”–class of ’67, or was it supposed to be ’68?–of the movie’s title.
When “The Graduate” came out at the end of 1967, it was widely interpreted as depicting the “generation gap” of the time, with Ben’s idealism and sensitivity set against his elders’ coarse materialism. But I don’t remember Ben as less materialistic than anyone else in the film, or with any particular concern for anything except himself. Whether being bedded by the seductive Mrs. Robinson, or mooning over his hopeless love for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, he spends most of his time being acted upon rather than acting. Yet in a time when power seemed evil, especially American power, passivity and helplessness might pass as a sort of virtue. Ben, and the middle-aged yahoos who surround him, are all adrift, morally and spiritually. Ben at least knows it, feels it. They don’t.
But what’s happened to the Vietnam War? In 1967 or 1968, the massive reality that any male college graduate had to face, that was bound to dominate his plans for the future, was the war and the draft. In “The Graduate” there’s not a whisper about either one. Ben can dither about what he’s going to do now that he’s out of college, without a thought to how he’s going to keep from going into the Army. The war? We never hear of it.
Or do we?
Listen to the film’s pivotal song, “Scarborough Fair.” The surface lyric–a traditional song used by Simon & Garfunkel–is an elegy for lost, impossible love. (“Tell her to find me an acre of land / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme / Between the salt water and the sea strand / Then she’ll be a true love of mine.”) But from beneath the surface, in intervals between the words and phrases, fragments of another song keep forcing their way out. These lyrics tell of soldiers ordered “to kill … to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.”
So there’s the movie, in microcosm. Hidden, overlaid, unrecognized but persistently present, is a war fought without purpose, corroding the society that wages it. It’s at the root of the moral anomie, the thwarted yearning for love, that plagues Ben, his parents, his parents’ friends. The adulterous Mrs. Robinson.
That which is unseen is that which determines. With its deafening silence about Vietnam, by alluding to the war only in obscure hints, “The Graduate” proclaims how absolutely central it was to that nightmare of an epoch we call the Sixties.
As Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav used to say: “Nothing cries out louder than silence.”