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Trickster Tales – James Moseley, Sherlock Holmes, UFOlogy

I’ve been reading an unusual UFO book.  It came out about six weeks ago, edited by Timothy Green Beckley, whom I’ve known from our teenage UFOlogist days in the mid-1960s.  It’s entitled The Astounding UFO Secrets Of James W. Moseley: A Special Tribute to the Editor of Saucer Smear and the Court Jester of UFOlogy.

Moseley UFO Secrets

"The Astounding UFO Secrets ..." available from Amazon

Jim Moseley died last November, at the age of 81.  Even those of us who didn’t quite approve of him are bound to miss him.  By “us,” I mean those who are caught up in fascination with the bizarre, maddening, intriguing world of UFOs and UFO belief.

Though Moseley at least intermittently claimed to be a UFO believer, the skeptics were particularly fond of him.  Naturally.  He was their “Voltaire of the UFO movement” (Robert Sheaffer): a mouthpiece, wittier and more knowledgeable than they could ever be, of their contempt for the absurdities of the “UFOOlogists.”  The more sober UFO researchers, who saw themselves as pioneers of a scorned and neglected science which didn’t need one more person making fun, were less amused.  The late Richard Hall, responding to the claim that Jim Moseley “has been and remains a Presence in UFOlogy,” shot back:  “Yes, like a steaming turd on the living room carpet. This sort of silly crap explains why you and your idol [Moseley], who constantly treat the whole subject as a joke, might just as well be on the Government payroll for UFO debunkers.”

Among the tributes to Moseley in The Astounding UFO Secrets is an academic-style article by George P. Hansen, entitled “James W. Moseley as Trickster.”  Hansen, a magician and parapsychologist who’s the author of a scholarly book entitled The Trickster and the Paranormal, tries looking at Moseley from an anthropological perspective.  More specifically, using the model of the “Trickster.”

“The trickster,” Hansen writes, is a character type found worldwide in mythology and folklore, and trickster tales must number in the thousands.  The trickster is something of an irrational being.  He–the trickster is typically male–can be seen as a personification of a cluster of abstract qualities that often manifest together.  These include deception, disruption, abnormal sexuality, boundary crossing, taboo breaking, supernatural/paranormal powers, marginality, and outsider-hood.”

Moseley Princeton

The Trickster at Princeton, ca. 1950. From the obituary for James W. Moseley in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, April 3, 2013

Not only is Moseley personally an embodiment of the Trickster.  To anyone who’s known him or followed his madcap activities–his long-running Saucer Smear, his merry pranks and hoaxes (often perpetrated in collaboration with his old buddy Gray Barker)–this is almost self-evident.  But UFOlogy itself is a sort of collective Trickster.  As Trickster, it’s “anti-structural,” and therefore “incompatible with hierarchical institutions. … UFOlogy has never established viable, long-lasting, well-recognized, widely-trusted institutions that study and comment authoritatively on the phenomena. … UFOs generate massive popular interest.  UFO movies have grossed hundred of millions of dollars.  In contrast, the more serious interest by MUFON, CUFOS, and other organizations gains meager support.  Most research is done by individuals and small groups, who operate independently of larger institutions.  This state of affairs illustrates the anti-structural nature of the field.”

This may contain an answer to the question posed by folklore scholar Thomas E. Bullard in his important book The Myth and Mystery of UFOs.  “Why are UFOs at once so popular and so despised?”  That’s the Trickster all over.  Popular.  Yet despised.

And not without reason.  The Trickster is a type best enjoyed from a distance.  Up close, he can be a pain in the butt.  If you have to depend on him and trust his word, you may as well forget about keeping your sanity.  I can sympathize, actually, with Richard Hall’s turd-on-the-living-room-carpet outburst.  As a gravely serious 17-year-old UFOlogist, I pretty much shared those sentiments.  At the Second Congress of Scientific UFOlogists in Cleveland, in June 1965, I presented a “code of ethics” that I recognize, from my 65-year-old perspective, as a slightly veiled denunciation of Moseley and everything he represented.  (Photos and story on my Facebook Timeline for June 26, 1965.)

Yet it struck me, reading Hansen’s article, that one of my all-time heroes was also a Trickster.  I refer to the world-famed “consulting detective” Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes is a paradox: a Trickster devoted to defending the moral order, albeit with some modifications.  (“After all, Watson,” he confides after allowing a confessed jewel thief to escape the law, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. … I suppose that I am committing a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul.”)  Yet if you run through Hansen’s checklist for the Trickster, Holmes turns out to have a lot of his features.

Deception.  Holmes is a master of disguise.  This is of course important for solving his cases.  But often he indulges his talents, Moseley-esque, just for the fun of it.  In the 1890 novella “The Sign of Four,” he shows up in his own apartment disguised as an elderly sailor fallen on hard times.  Watson and Scotland Yard detective Athelney Jones sit with him, neither suspecting who their company is.  Until …

“‘I think that you might offer me a cigar too,’ he said.  We both started in our chairs.  There was Holmes sitting close to us with an air of quiet amusement.”

Sherlock Holmes with Dr. Watson, as drawn by Sidney Paget for "The Strand" magazine

Sherlock Holmes with Dr. Watson, as drawn by Sidney Paget for "The Strand" magazine. Holmes's pipe hasn't yet acquired its familiar curvature

(A note on “The Sign of Four”: it’s a jewel of a novella, brilliantly plotted, and developed with wit and suspense.  It’s also grossly racist, and represents cocaine as a truly cool thing to do.  NOT recommended as a Bar Mitzvah present.)

Supernatural/paranormal powers. Holmes wouldn’t call his powers supernatural or paranormal, of course.  Unlike his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he has no belief in either one.  (Check out “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot.”)  He describes and then explains his feats as “very simple pieces of reasoning,” or words to that effect.  Yet they come across as pure magic.  “So, Watson,” he announces out of the blue, apparently reading the good doctor’s mind, “you do not propose to invest in South African securities?” In the first chapter of “The Sign of Four,” he peers through his magnifying glass at a watch left behind by Watson’s deceased older brother.  After complaining that the watch has been cleaned, “which robs me of my most suggestive facts,” he casually rattles off the following information about its owner:

“He was a man of untidy habits–very untidy and careless.  He was left with good prospects, but he threw away his chances, lived for some time in poverty with occasional short intervals of prosperity, and finally, taking to drink, he died.  That is all I can gather.”

No wonder Watson at first accuses Holmes of having snooped into his brother’s past, and faking the rest.

Abnormal sexuality. Unless Holmes’s total lack of interest in sex constitutes “abnormal sexuality”–which, come to think of it, it may–I don’t see this feature in the Holmes stories.  But where the “Trickster” classification really fits him is marginality, outsider-hood, boundary crossing. He solves his crimes without the help and often with the active opposition of those he mockingly calls “the accredited representatives of the law.”  To Scotland Yard he’s an airy intellectual, at best a nuisance and at worst a menace–until, as inevitably happens, they realize they’re out of their depths and come begging for his assistance.  As for Holmes–well, he’s prepared to be sporting about them.  (“He is not a bad fellow,” he says of Athelney Jones, “and I should not like to do anything which would injure him professionally.”)  But he takes the official constabulary about as seriously as Jim Moseley took establishment UFOlogists like Richard Hall.  Which is to say, not in the slightest.

Here’s Holmes in action, from chapter 6 of “The Sign of Four.”  Pompous, preening Jones, Scotland Yard dunce, has turned up at a murder scene and is making arrests right and left:

“Ask Mr. Sholto to step this way.–Mr. Sholto, it is my duty to inform you that anything which you may say will be used against you.  I arrest you in the Queen’s name as being concerned in the death of your brother.”

“There, now!  Didn’t I tell you!” cried the poor little man, throwing out his hands and looking from one to the other of us.

“Don’t trouble yourself about it, Mr. Sholto,” said Holmes; “I think that I can engage to clear you of the charge.”

“Don’t promise too much, Mr. Theorist, don’t promise too much!” snapped the detective.  “You may find it a harder matter than you think.”

“Not only will I clear him, Mr. Jones, but I will make you a free present of the name and description of one of the two people who were in this room last night.  His name, I have every reason to believe, is Jonathan Small.  He is a poorly educated man, small, active, with his right leg off, and wearing a wooden stump which is worn away upon the inner side.  His left boot is a coarse, square-toed sole, with an iron band round the heel.  He is a middle-aged man, much sunburned, and has been a convict.  These few indications may be of some assistance to you, coupled with the fact that there is a good deal of skin missing from the palm of his hand.  The other man–“

“Ah! the other man?” asked Athelney Jones in a sneering voice, but impressed none the less, as I could easily see, by the precision of the other’s manner.

“Is a rather curious person,” said Sherlock Holmes, turning upon his heel.  “I hope before very long to be able to introduce you to the pair of them.  A word with you, Watson.”

Masterful.  Brilliant.  It’s no wonder that in my “tween” years, in the late 50s, I was completely mad for Sherlock Holmes.  (Of course, I didn’t know back then that I was a “tween.”  As far as the 1950s were concerned, I was still just a kid.)  He was my ideal, the image of the man I hoped someday I’d be.  Somehow or other I got hold of a pipe that vaguely resembled his.  Sucking on the empty pipe, I sat in a reclining chair and read the old Ellery Queen murder mysteries.  I loved their “Challenge to the Reader” pages, maybe 50 pages before the end.  (“Reader, you now have all the facts …”; you can guess, or rather infer for yourself, who the killer is.)  I always tried out the deductive skills I assumed I’d need in the real world before very long.  I always got it wrong.

A couple of months before my Bar Mitzvah, I read Gray Barker’s They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, which offers (on pages 129, 140) a “challenge to the reader” that’s precisely similar to Ellery Queen’s–except that Barker doesn’t claim already to know the solution.  A new world opened.  I put away the pipe, along with other childish things.  I became a UFOlogist.

by David Halperin
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6 Responses to “Trickster Tales – James Moseley, Sherlock Holmes, UFOlogy”

  • Dear David,
    A thoroughly engrossing post. Ufology and ufologists are Tricksters. I think I realized this, albeit in different phrasing, as soon as I became involved in the study of UFOs. At some point I had to ask myself just what I truly believed, or accepted, and what was more a flight of fancy.
    As I have communicated with you before, I became interested in ufology because my best friend of over 30 years saw a large, black, triangular UFO that flew low over his house, rattled his windows and shook his intellect. No one but ufologists would believe him. As his best friend, I had to believe him, or else betray a relationship.
    But beyond that, into my own UFO excursions, I have found that I am very unlike what I call the “old guard” of ufology. These are the ufologists who are out to convince the public that UFOs exist, that Roswell was an actual event, that aliens abduct us at night. And, because these individuals are marginalized, they are often embittered.
    After I finished my first young adult novel about UFOs and aliens (entitled Saucerville), I realized that I was not the conventional cast of ufologist. My “non-fiction” book Evolutionary Ufology confirmed that. Here is how I differ:
    1) While I do accept the evidence that UFOs are actual objects, I do not know what they actually are, and I am not concerned with convincing anyone that they actually exist and are alien spacecraft.
    2) I seem to approach ufology more creatively, seeking what film director Werner Herzog refers to as the “ecstatic truth,”a more poetical representation of reality than the “truth of the accountants.” I am more after a gestalt experience than I am the minutiae of facts, most of which must be held suspect in ufology.
    3) One of the reasons facts in ufology must be held especially suspect, I believe, emerge from the acceptance of the supposedly known “if” to the projected “then.” For example, in my view, “if” UFOs exist as actual craft, capable of maneuvers that seem to defy gravity and inertia, “then” I begin to accept that they are not made by humans, but by another intelligence. The “then” then proceeds into what ufology seems to know about this alien intelligence. In come abductions and the Grays. And from what I have learned from the Grays, they are tricky bastards, capable of stealing time, appearing as owls and other animals, erasing memory, immersing humans into full “virtual reality scenarios,” as abductee Dr. Karla Turner put it. So, what are facts when dealing with aliens?
    4) A mythology of ufology then begins to form in my narrative, and as I tell it, the ecstatic truth emerges. Again, I am not at any time attempting to convince anyone of anything. I know the limits of the scientific method, and that what I am doing scientifically, at best, amounts only to the most initial stages of speculation and formation of hypotheses.
    5) So, my identity as a ufologist is as Trickster–for being a ufologist, and within ufology itself. I find myself amused with myself as ufologist. Folks who categorically deny UFOs see me as an outsider of “high strangeness,” and ufologists will see me as outsider because I am laughing and enjoying myself all along the way, instead of growing increasingly more frustrated and embittered by those who do not believe me.
    6) Thus, I have found a new niche for an aspiring ufologist writer. I am the “laughing ufologist.” Not only am I a Trickster to those who are averse to UFOs, and to the traditional ufology community, but I am a Trickster to myself. My imperative is to convince myself of my speculations and nascent hypotheses in order to tell an entertaining narrative! I am playing with ufology just like a child with LEGO bricks. Find a new combination. Take what I know and apply it to a novel construction. Delight in the “mythological” structure I have built.
    7) I do not expect to have my identity as “laughing ufologist” to be understood by ufologists or skeptics. Is it the goal of the Trickster to be understood? I do, however, believe that this persona will be liked. After a possible initial shock, perhaps even accused of being a debunker of one color or another, I think the levity will be accepted readily!
    8) Ufology is sorely lacking a sense of humor.
    9) I taught human evolution at university for 7 years. For those unacquainted with the discipline, I assure you, it is absolutely hilarious! Anyone who cannot find humor in the biological sciences must be bereft of humor! It all comes down to sex and death, just as Woody Allen recognized, and the scientific narrative of our tortuous evolution is every bit as funny as one of his romantic comedies. All the absurd hopes and dreams are there, the seemingly pointless struggle for love against a timeless void of death, the many advances that turned out to be undoings in the long run. What a tragicomedy we play!
    10) If science can be hilarious and the Trickster can find his laughing space, then it must be so in ufology. And about time, too.
    I think one of the reasons that ufology of the Twenty-First Century is turning out to be the greatest science fiction of the era is due in large part to millennial thinking and the very real apocalypse of biosphere collapse. The aliens, whether they exist or not, represent a duality of fate: our extinction or our salvation, maybe even both! If now is not the time to laugh, please, tell me when.
    Sincerely grinning,

  • Lawrence:

    I have always seen James Moseley as personifying the Trickster (in the best sense of the word, in the best sense of the mythology of the Trickster) in Ufology, and as Halperin points out Ufology is the Trickster come alive. Anybody on the horizon who can replace him? I gotta say, I don’t think so. He was one of a kind, whoever fills the Trickster shoes (in the positive sense) in the madness of Ufology can only do it in another way. I see plenty of other tricksters in Ufology still alive and kicking, but largely in the negative sense (I shall name no names here). And Moseley’s shoes are big ones to fill.

    To Jordan above, I have always seen the natural sciences as replete with tricksterism. As far as human evolution goes and its controversies, well there is Piltdown man and Nebraska man, to name two notable fiascos in which the trickster reared his head. I am no Creationist, yet I think that the story or stories of human evolution are more ensnared with the Trickster than any of us imagine.

    • David Halperin:

      Jordan and Lawrence–thank you so much for your thoughtful and insightful comments!
      Jordan, your comment on the “if” … “then” of UFOlogy reminds me of the old debate with the skeptics, in which they’d argue that if we were in the place of our supposed extraterrestrial visitors, we wouldn’t fly light-years to get here and then just zoom around the skies without making contact. Our answer: we can’t put ourselves in the “place” of the UFO pilots, because we don’t know what their “place” is. This always seemed to me a convincing reply. It was only many years afterward that I realized it robbed the extraterrestrial hypothesis of whatever explanatory power it might have had.
      Lawrence, how would you distinguish the “positive” from the “negative” Trickster? I think you are getting on to something profound here, and I’d be interested in seeing you draw it out.

      • David,
        If we consider the occupants of the ships as Ivan T. Sanderson did, then their unannounced presence here makes sense. He believed they were stupid and insane.
        I latched on to this explanation as my favorite!

        • David Halperin:

          But Jordan, can this be called an explanation? If the UFOs are “stupid and insane,” and presumably nothing can be predicated of the behavior of the stupid and insane, then nothing can be predicated of the UFOs. And we’re precisely where we’d be if we just said: we don’t know what they are.

    • Lawrence,
      I totally agree. The study of human evolution (or, “physical anthropology”) is so hotly contested by competing academics that stories of our origins ebb and flow literally monthly! Kennewick Man is another example of the physical anthropology trickster, with deceitful scientists and Native Americans battling over an ancient skull. Yes, Piltdown was the ultimate fraud of this science. Now we don’t have frauds, but academics clamoring for a new tell on the old tale.

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