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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.”
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. 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.