“Stars fell to earth in a blaze of light, and where they fell, monsters were born, hideous and blind.”
—Gore Vidal, Messiah
That was the question I asked myself, with some excitement, as a teen-age “UFO investigator” reading Vidal’s 1954 novel Messiah. This book—one of Vidal’s less successful—describes a world of some indefinite but not too distant future that’s been taken over by the death-cult of the “Cavites,” so named after their messianic founder, John Cave. The only holdouts are a few Muslim countries like Egypt; these protect themselves from the irresistible pull of the Cavite gospel by walling themselves off from it. The narrator, an elderly Cavite “heretic” who lives in Egypt as a refugee, reflects back upon the awful world transformation of which he’s been a part.
There were omens, he says near the beginning of his narrative, of what was about to befall. Notably, “the luminous crockery which was seen in the sky … never entirely explained.”
“Luminous crockery”? Flying saucers! And now I was intrigued. I still am, actually.
Vidal went on to refer to actual incidents which I’d known from reading my UFO books. “In daylight, glittering objects of bright silver maneuvered at unearthly speed over Washington, D.C., observed by hundreds, some few reliable.” These were the famous Washington sightings of July 1952. “In West Virginia, a creature ten feet tall, green with a red face and exuding a ghastly odor, was seen to stagger out of a luminous globe, temporarily grounded. He was observed by a woman and four boys, all of unquestionable probity; they fled before he could eat them.” Allowing for a bit of poetic license—the creature was never “seen to stagger” out of the luminous globe—this was the “Flatwoods monster,” a.k.a. “Braxton County monster,” of September 12, 1952, the Thing that launched Gray Barker’s UFOlogical career and whose story opens his They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. (See my post of February 1, “They Knew Too Much …”)
“Never entirely explained.” So—did Vidal believe? Could I enroll the distinguished novelist in the UFOlogists’ camp? I read on, waiting for some clarification. I never found it.
“Eventually all was satisfactorily explained or, quite as good, forgotten. Yet the real significance of these portents was not so much their mysterious reality as the profound effect they had upon a people who, despite their emphatic materialism, were as easily shattered by the unexpected as their ancestors … Considering the unmistakable nature of these signs, it is curious how few suspected the truth: that a new mission had been conceived out of the race’s need, the hour of its birth already determined by a conjunction of terrible new stars.”
Now, what was I to make of that?
I read the book to the end; the UFOs never reappeared. (Actually, they do, sort of, on p. 90 of the 1965 Ballentine paperback edition, which speaks of “the apparent wonders which had preceded the mission” and “the race’s need of phenomena as a symptom of unease and boredom and anticipation.”) Looking back at the opening chapter, I could see that Vidal went out of his way to gibe at Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches to UFOs. Yet my beloved “extraterrestrial visitors” theory also came in for gentle mockery. “[E]xplanation, in the end, was all that the people required. It made no difference how extraordinary the explanation was, if only they could know what was happening: that the shining globes which raced in formation over Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were mere residents of the Andromeda Galaxy, at home in space, omnipotent and eternal in design, on a cultural visit to our planet … if only this much could definitely be stated, the readers of newspapers would have felt secure, able in a few weeks’ time to turn their attention to other problems, the visitors from farther space forgotten.”
Calling UFOs visitors from outer space, in other words, was just as much a conventionalization as any other way of explaining them. Something I could not have understood at age fifteen.
Can I understand it now? Really, really understand it? What seems clear to me, rereading, is how seriously Vidal took the UFOs, and especially their enigmatic, unknown and perhaps unknowable quality. Also that, in some way hardly to be defined, they’re not about the external universe but about us, understood as a collective. “A new mission had been conceived out of the race’s need.”
Sounds very much like what Jung was to say a few years later in his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. Only expressed more concisely, more poetically, and—dare I say it?—more effectively.
Yet as a whole, Messiah is not a very effective novel. John Cave appears, preaching his message to humanity: “That it is good to die.” Conscious existence, Cave teaches, is an aberration to be escaped, extinguished as soon as feasible, in favor of the blessed darkness of oblivion. This is the doctrine, with its inevitable practice (suicide, now dubbed “Cavesway”), that we’re meant to imagine sweeping the world, irresistible.
Cave’s hypnotic presence is invoked to make his gospel’s appeal seem believable. I remain unconvinced—by the premise, by the story. The human, the animal impulse toward self-preservation, the drive to maintain one’s existence just one more minute, is a force of nature. A faith that runs counter to that impulse, is a faith that’s doomed.
But grant for a moment that a cult of death might become a world religion …
And grant that UFOs might be the harbingers of that cult’s explosion onto the world stage …
Wouldn’t it follow that, to Vidal, the deepest meaning of the UFO phenomenon—the UFO myth, Jung would call it—is bound up with death?
Which is pretty much my own intuition.
“Deep calleth unto deep” (Psalm 42:8). The depth of the UFO, to the depth of this great writer’s creative unconscious. The “call” then expressed in one of said writer’s less memorable creations.
Perhaps, sixty years ago, Gore Vidal had already solved the UFO mystery.
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