Can there possibly be anyone who knows the UFO files of the UK Ministry of Defence better than David Clarke? A dogged, affable journalist, a UFOlogist-turned-skeptic with a Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Sheffield, England, Clarke spent years prying UFO documents loose from his government. When, in 2007, the MoD made the decision to release all its UFO files to the public, Clarke was the logical choice to oversee the process.
“It was quite a turnaround,” he reflects wryly in his new book. “After a decade acting as a poacher I suddenly found myself playing the role of a gamekeeper.”
Clarke’s How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth (London: Aurum Press, 2015) is an engaging account of the author’s UFO odyssey, combined with mostly shrewd observations on the nature of the phenomenon. Reading it brought home to me how provincial we American UFOlogists can be. Yes, you knew about the Rendlesham Forest incident of 1980. But had you ever heard of “the Warminister Thing,” the sequence of eerie noises and strange lights in the sky that, in the mid-1960s, turned this sleepy Wiltshire town into “a virtual Mecca for ufologists”? Clarke will tell you all about it.
“Every weekend and bank holiday the 11,000 population of the town was swelled by hundreds of UFO enthusiasts. Pilgrims were forced to camp in fields as there were not enough hotels. As night fell, the hills around Warminster were thronged with expectant skywatchers all hoping for a personal sighting …”
If that’s not a cultural phenomenon, I don’t know what is.
Clarke’s book advocates unequivocally for what’s called the “psychosocial hypothesis” of the UFO. Unlike the more scholarly treatment published five years ago by his fellow-folklorist Thomas E. Bullard, he leaves no room at all for unknown physical objects flying around the skies. “There is no such thing as ‘the UFO phenomenon’ but there are lots of phenomena that cause UFOs,” he lists among the “ten basic truths” of his conclusion. “Accounts of UFO experiences form the core of the syndrome, but stories do not constitute ‘evidence’. They are folklore … The common denominator in UFO stories is the human beings who see and believe in them.”
And finally: “People want to believe in UFOs.” Which Clarke once did, beginning in his childhood. Not any longer.
So this is a debunking book (though Clarke doesn’t like that word), but gently so. In his absorbing accounts of meetings with UFO witnesses and believers, Clarke treats them as human beings in error but deserving of respect. How easy it would have been, for example, to play British contactee George King and his “Aetherius Society” for laughs! That’s precisely what New York City radio host “Long John” Nebel did in his 1961 book The Way Out World, applauding and snickering at comedian Jackie Gleason’s boorish on-air gibes at poor King (who had the misfortune to be a guest on Nebel’s show).
BBC television, which interviewed King in 1959, showed vastly more class. So does Clarke. He approvingly quotes the comments of the BBC’s “consultant psychiatrist,” that it “would be easy, foolish in fact, to deride Mr King … but what the Aetherius Society is really doing is expressing in a symbolic form the fears and anxieties that divide the world. … The fear that our scientific advances have outrun our wisdom and our humanity in some respects, and that we are afraid it might outrun our very existence. We should delude ourselves if we think that there is no significance in these fears and their expression in this form.”
No wonder I was brought up to believe that we have a thing or two to learn from our British cousins.
It’s unfortunate that, of the two quotes featured on the back of the dust jacket, one (from Stephen Hawking) is pointless and irrelevant, and the other, from the author’s namesake Arthur C. Clarke, nasty and false. “Seldom has a subject been so invested with fraud, hysteria, credulity, religious mania, incompetence and most other unflattering human characteristics,” quoth A. C. Clarke. David Clarke’s views are far more nuanced.
The psychosocial hypothesis, he explains near the end of his book, does not “seek to disparage the UFO syndrome as a false belief held by deluded people. On the contrary, the PSH sees all aspects of ufology … as interesting and worthy of serious study. It seeks to understand the whole syndrome both as modern folklore and as a myth in the making.” (Question: does the word “syndrome,” used of UFOlogy throughout the book, carry in itself an overtone of disparagement? In the American language it unavoidably suggests pathology. But maybe British usage is different.)
Clarke protests against the pejorative use of the word “myth.” “Our society tends to disparage myth. We are persuaded from an early age that mythical knowledge is illogical and contrary to reason. But if the UFO syndrome [there it is again!] has taught me anything it is that human beings cannot live without myths.”
But why can we not live without myths? What is the power of this specific myth? It’s on this point that Clarke slips into vagueness.
“We satisfy our thirst for a purposeful existence by communing with otherworldly creatures who we hope might reveal the secrets of the cosmos or the meaning of life.” That’s about as close as he comes to answering his own question about the significance of the UFO myth. It’s true, at most, for a small segment of UFOlogy. It has little to do with Roswell, where the frail, childlike corpses inside the UFO are incapable of either revelation or communion, and teach us mostly that divinity is meaninglessly mortal like ourselves.
It has little to do with the abduction tradition, where the aliens are mostly aloof and impenetrable, indifferent or cruel. It has nothing to do with the bread-and-butter “sightings,” where the objects in the sky are an enigma, revealing no secrets and whose meaning, if any, remains to be decoded.
Although he cites Jung’s classic Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky frequently and approvingly, Clarke conveys almost nothing of the depth and richness of Jung’s conception of the UFO. (Or of myth. Clarke’s own understanding of myth, taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, is far more simplistic.) He represents Jung as having said that the “psychological core of the myth” is summed up in the X-Files phrase “I want to believe.” But that’s not what Jung was saying at all.
Jung’s point, rather, was that the UFOs are something from deep in our unconscious which we don’t “want to believe,” in fact don’t believe, but which force themselves through their own energies into our awareness. Which makes them, as myths, the deepest truths of all.
Clarke’s handling (or mishandling) of Jung points up my main criticism of his book. For all his knowledge of the “UFO syndrome”–and there’s a lot of it between these two covers–he shies away from probing it at any depth. The questions on his agenda go mostly unanswered, or with superficial answers like that believers or witnesses are being influenced by this or that book or movie or TV show. This applies even to the “believer” he knows best, namely his younger self.
The book starts off with Clarke’s own childhood and adolescent infatuation with UFOs. Yet it holds back from exploring what needs and yearnings lay beneath that infatuation. He catalogues the UFO and science-fiction books he read as a boy, the films he watched. Apparently he regards this as sufficient explanation. But what was there about young David that made him susceptible to this particular myth, in a way that others his age, to whom the same books and films were available, were not? The grown David gives no hint.
Which is to say that How UFOs Conquered the World leaves a lot of unanswered questions, a lot of loose ends. But what book on UFOs, in our current fragmentary state of understanding, wouldn’t?
It’s unfair to complain about what Clarke hasn’t done rather than celebrate him for what he has. Not only has his book given us a wealth of information we couldn’t have had otherwise. It puts solidly on the table the “psychosocial” questions–the questions, in my opinion as in Clarke’s, that most need to be asked–and shows how vital and significant they are.
The “one common factor” of the intricately woven themes of UFOlogy, Clarke says on his next-to-last page, “is their human source. Given this fact is it not at least appropriate to begin our search for explanations with humanity itself?”
Indeed it is. That’s where How UFOs Conquered the World ends. It’s where a UFOlogy for the 21st century needs to start.
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+