At the beginning of this month I blogged about the terse, baffling Kabbalistic text called Sifra di-Tzeniuta, “The Book of Concealment.” It’s found in the second volume of the Zohar, written in Aramaic like the rest of the Zohar, yet orders of magnitude more cryptic and therefore, perhaps, more intriguing. (“The Book of Concealment. The book that weighs in the balance. For until there was the balance, they did not look at one another face to face, and the Ancient Kings died … “)
What I didn’t say in my post is that there’s a UFO connection. Here’s the story. (And it will take me a while to bring it back to the Sifra di-Tzeniuta, so please be patient.)
In 1953, a book appeared with the title Flying Saucers Have Landed. It was co-authored by what must have been one of the oddest couples in the history of publishing: an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, playboy, and man-of-many-parts named Desmond Leslie–who happened to be a cousin of Sir Winston Churchill–and a Californian named George Adamski, self-described “philosopher, student, teacher, saucer researcher,” who sold hamburgers and the like in a “Palomar Gardens Cafe” downhill from the famous observatory on Mount Palomar. Who, according to himself and several other witnesses whose signed affidavits were reproduced in Flying Saucers Have Landed, met the Venusian pilot of a flying saucer in a nearby desert late in 1952.
Adamski wasn’t the first of the “contactees” who brought uplifting messages from our “Space Brothers” into the UFO scene of the 1950s and 60s. But he was the first to put his experience between hard covers, as a 54-page “Book Two” of Flying Saucers Have Landed. “Book One,” three times as long, was Leslie’s contribution: a “scholarly” exploration of flying saucers–Leslie preferred to call them “vimanas”–which functioned as an extended preface to Adamski’s tale, validating its plausibility if not exactly its truth.
“About eighteen million years ago, say the strange and ancient legends of our planet … came a huge, shining, radiant vessel of dazzling power and beauty, bringing to earth ‘thrice thirty-five’ human beings, of perfection beyond our highest ideals; gods rather than men, divine kings of archaic memory …” It was under the tutelage of these “gods,” millions of years ago, that we ourselves became human. It was again these “gods” whom Adamski met in the California desert.
Of course Adamski was a liar and a huckster, who let slip in an unguarded moment that he’d gotten into “all this saucer crap” for the money. But Desmond Leslie … ?
I must have been 13 when I read Flying Saucers Have Landed. Like most of its readers, I suppose, I was impressed by its learning, its easy familiarity with texts like the Mahabharata and the Popol Vuh and the mysterious Book of Dzyan (“said to be of Atlantean origin”). Of course I had no way to judge the accuracy of its quotations or its interpretations; neither did most people who read it. That was the whole point.
Yet I was troubled. In an endnote to chapter 13, debunking the astronomers’ belief that Venus and Mercury would be too hot to support life, Leslie wrote: “Why should they be? Mount Everest’s summit is nearer to the sun, but it is certainly no warmer.”
Now that was just damn ridiculous; even at age 13 I knew that. We’d learned in 6th-grade science why the top of Everest is cold! It’s far from the solar energy absorbed and then radiated by the earth. Was Leslie really ignorant of a fact so basic?
Of course he wasn’t. Robert O’Byrne’s 2010 book Desmond Leslie (1921-2001): The Biography of an Irish Gentleman depicts an exquisitely cultured, multi-talented man, a gifted musician and intermittently successful novelist who wasn’t afraid to try his hand at filmmaking. His education, though interrupted by military service during World War II, was certainly the equal of what I got in the Pennsylvania public schools. In pretending that the snows of Everest have any bearing on the temperature of Venus, he must have been pushing the limit, seeing how much garbage the rubes would swallow.
And swallow they did. According to O’Byrne, Flying Saucers Have Landed sold 250,000 copies in its first year on the market, was translated into 30 languages, and eventually sold something like 1,000,000 copies. There’s no way to know for sure how much of this success Leslie’s “Book One” was responsible for, but I can’t imagine the book could have been such a hit without it.
From the perspective of more than 50 years, I feel sure: Leslie was as much a charlatan as Adamski, albeit in a different, more bookish mode. This doesn’t cancel out his genuine talents and accomplishments, but in the baffling manner that’s typical of the human soul, co-exists with them. He may or may not have believed in flying saucers, in Adamski’s contacts with the saucer people. (“About 1951,” O’Byrne quotes him as saying, “I became pottily obsessed with Atlantis, then Egypt, then flying saucers until 1953 when I met Adamski and we looked twice at every visitor in case he was ‘one of them.'”) He may have persuaded himself that a little shading of the truth–or a lot of shading of the truth–was justifiable, if that could help him and Adamski get their point across.
Take, for example, what he says about the “Book of Dzyan.” It’s part of his polemic against 20th-century science, his loathing for which–whatever else may be fraudulent about his writing–appears to have been perfectly genuine.
“Now in order to sustain the physicist on his throne of infallibility is is necessary to preserve certain illusions. Of these perhaps the most deliberate, is to rear young minds to believe, without hesitation or suspicion, that we have the privilege to be members of the most enlightened and progressive humanity that has ever adorned this long suffering planet. So it comes as a rather painful shock to any who rashly peruse the more ancient literature of races that perished tens of thousand years sago, to find a strong suggestion that there existed previously, not one but several humanities greater, wiser, more moral, and more advanced in certain aspects of natural science, than ourselves. Their buildings, like their thoughts, have defied time. Their books–such as have survived translation–cause one to pause and wonder. A glance at the Laws of Manu is enough to make our civilisation seem like a mechanical jungle. The Chaldean books of astronomy make Hoyle and Jeans seem old-fashioned. And in the rolling Stanzas of Dzyan (translated into Sanskrit and old Chinese from a still earlier tongue) one catches, as far as the modern ear trained to cacophany [sic] can catch anything so profound, an echo of the Music of the Spheres, reducing one’s intellectual pride to ground level as it senses the presence of giants–giants in spirit and in mind” (chapter 6).
To his reference to “the rolling Stanzas of Dzyan,” Leslie appends an endnote:
“A recently discovered ancient Kabbalistic manuscript, translated by Professor Scholem in Jerusalem has turned out to be an early hebraic version of the ‘Dzyan’.”
The Book of Dzyan, in case you’ve never heard of it, is a document supposedly found in Tibet by the theosophical writer Madame Blavatsky, written in an otherwise unknown language called “Senzar,” on which she based her 1888 tome The Secret Doctrine. In all probability it existed only in her imagination. Can Gershom Scholem, the greatest of all 20th-century scholars of Kabbalah, really have “translated” an “early hebraic version” of it from an “ancient Kabbalistic manuscript”?
Of course he didn’t.
What Scholem actually wrote, in an endnote to Lecture VI of his Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, was this:
“There can be little doubt in my opinion that the famous stanzas of the mysterious Book Dzyan on which Madame H.P. Blavatsky’s magnum opus, The Secret Doctrine, is based owe something, both in title and content, to the pompous pages of the Zoharic writing called Sifra Di-Tseniutha … [whose] solemn and magniloquent style … may well have impressed her susceptible mind.” He backs up this suggestion with a quote from the beginning of Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, which speaks of “the most ancient Hebrew document on occult learning–the Siphra Dzeniuta.”
In other words, Blavatsky cribbed the title and something of the style of her imaginary Book of Dzyan from the real Sifra di-Tzeniuta.
Leslie had to have read Major Trends. He had to have seen this endnote. He had to have known–whatever he was, he wasn’t stupid–that it flatly contradicts the notion promoted in Flying Saucers Have Landed, that the “Book of Dzyan” is a marvelous mystery text from the lost continent of Atlantis. He cited it with deliberate dishonesty, in garbled and distorted form. And yet he cited it.
And he kept Scholem’s name, in what must be one of the most unusual contexts in which “Professor Scholem” has ever been invoked.
Thus did the fake scholar pay homage to the real one. I have to admit: I’m touched.
by David Halperin
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