Jack Womack, Flying Saucers Are Real! Brooklyn: Anthology Editions, 2016.
Flying Saucers Are Real! is a beautiful book. Given the author’s background, it had the potential of being an intelligent and insightful book as well. It is neither, and the missed opportunity is saddening.
First, a mea culpa. On my Facebook Fan Page about a week ago, I called this “a really nice book.” Alas, when I wrote those words I hadn’t done much more than admire its gorgeous illustrations–full-color reproductions of the covers of UFO books, classic and not-so-classic, from days of yore; striking black-and-white photos taken from those books; and blueprints, also drawn from the books, of the structure and propulsion mechanisms of the flying saucers. Lavished with pictures like these, how could it not be a winner? I hadn’t yet read the accompanying text with any care.
Womack, it appears from his opening chapter, was once upon a time a UFO believer. He was turned on to the subject in 1964, at an unspecified but obviously tender age, by a TV promotion for Frank Edwards’ paperback Strange World. In the ensuing years, one gathers, he assembled the impressive collection of UFO literature that he’s now donated to the library at Georgetown University and whose star attractions are enshrined in his book.
“Flying saucers,” he writes, “inspired in me the same sense of wonder about which my friends in science fiction speak. Both were ways to see beyond the neighborhood.”
These are powerful words. My old friend and fellow UFO-hunter Rick Hilberg spoke to me in much the same language, when we met in Cleveland a year ago June for the 50th reunion of our “Congress of Scientific UFOlogists,” of the “wonder, awe and dreaming” that UFOs once evoked in him. But Rick’s eyes lit up with tender warmth at the recollection. Womack’s attitude toward the belief system he once shared seems more like sardonic contempt.
The literature of UFOlogy, according to Womack, is replete with “fantasies fascist or murderous; sexual imaginings, confessions of lonely souls, inchoate attempts to understand one’s personal visions, spectacularly pointless hoaxes, folk myth, psychological insights, poetry, the perfect lunacy of Holy Fools.” Precisely what’s intended by the elements of this catalogue, not all of of them disparaging, isn’t very clear to me. But the final item seems to sum up the rest: “perfect lunacy of Holy Fools.” The young Jack Womack was presumably a “Holy Fool” (whatever that means) in the estimation of the mature Jack Womack. It’s from this perspective that the mature Jack Womack introduces us to the Fools’ Gallery of the early UFO years.
His descriptions of the books in his exhibit, though passably accurate for the most part, are disfigured by this perspective, which invites us to laugh at them and and thus forecloses any understanding of them.
The Flying Saucers are Real, the pioneering UFO book published by Donald Keyhoe in 1950 and the source of Womack’s own title, is described as “the template for all Serious, Thoughtful saucer writing to come.” Quite possibly true, until we reflect on the implications of the capitalized words “Serious, Thoughtful.” Those capital letters clue us in that we’re to pronounce the words with a h-e-a-v-y, sarcastic intonation–and thus mock the real seriousness with which Keyhoe took his subject, the genuine (if mostly uncritical) thought that he gave to it.
With a wink the reader is told: no one could truly be serious about the saucers. Any “thought” of their existence is bound to be silly.
Let it be noted that I am no great fan of Donald Keyhoe. His journalistic style affects me like fingernails drawn across a chalkboard; Jerry Clark has given examples of how careless and inaccurate he could be in handling his sources. (The UFO Encyclopedia, I, 59, II, 914.) But any writer, living or like Keyhoe long dead, deserves straightforward criticism, not snarky dismissal through a rhetorical trick. The “Holy Fools” of UFOlogy apparently do not merit this basic decency.
Another example: “The best-known ‘saucer’ abductees were Barney and Betty Hill of New Hampshire. In 1965, while under hypnosis, they claimed their car was stopped and that they were taken aboard a spacecraft not to share cosmic wisdom with Space Brothers, but to be questioned and probed by small, humorless gray beings.” Leave aside that the Hills’ hypnotic regressions took place in 1964, not 1965, and that their captors weren’t “gray” and were only slightly shorter than the average human. What does it mean to call them “humorless”?
Surely this: that they’re so ridiculous that if they had any sense of humor they’d laugh themselves out of existence. (Wink, wink.)
But if there’s anything certain that can be said about the Hills’ abduction, it is that there was nothing funny about it. “On one tape,” wrote UFO skeptic Philip Klass, “I heard Barney Hill relive his close-quarters encounter with the UFO … scream[ing] hysterically. Dr. Simon told me that he had never had a patient become so excited under hypnosis. At one point, the doctor said, he feared that Barney might try to jump out of the office window. … I could agree completely with the doctor that Barney had indeed seen ‘something,’ and it had been a terrifying experience.” Believe the literal truth of that experience or (like me) disbelieve it. But for God’s sake–or truth’s, or humanity’s–don’t laugh at it.
Womack’s treatment of Jung’s Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (1959) is particularly interesting. Jung “supposes both saucers and aliens to be hallucinations, projections of religious longing that have emerged in the anxieties of the postwar era via humanity’s collective unconscious.” This is a fair one-line summation of Jung’s thesis, although naturally it glosses over Jung’s plentiful subtleties and ambiguities. It also omits the really crucial point: that by calling UFOs a myth Jung wasn’t belittling them but insisting on their dignity and significance.
But Womack cannot end here; he has to go back to winking and making funny faces. “Longtime investigators in the field chuckled at the impossibility of such a theory, and returned to examination of contrails, space amoebas, and the like.”
Amazingly, Womack proceeds to give a quote from Jung’s book that flatly contradicts his claim that Jung regarded flying saucers as hallucinations. “So far as I know it remains an established fact, supported by numerous observations, that Ufos have not only been seen visually but have also been picked up on the radar screen and have left traces on the photographic plate. I base myself here not only on the comprehensive reports by Ruppelt and Keyhoe [yes, the same Keyhoe who wrote The Flying Saucers are Real], which leave no room for doubt in this regard, but also on the fact that the astrophysicist, Professor Menzel, has not succeeded, despite all his efforts, in offering a satisfying scientific explanation of even one authentic Ufo sighting. It boils down to nothing less than this: that either psychic projections throw back a radar echo, or else the appearance of real objects affords an opportunity for mythological projections.”
Did Womack not notice the inconsistency? Or is the young Jack Womack, mightily impressed by the likes of Keyhoe and Keyhoe’s friend Frank Edwards, crying out through Jung’s voice to be heard?
Womack’s fellow-science fiction writer William Gibson has contributed an introduction to Flying Saucers Are Real! There Gibson reveals himself as having been, like Womack, a youthful UFOlogist, “interviewing” his mother about the UFO that appeared over her Tennessee farmhouse shortly after his birth. He speaks of her as having been “infected, in her loneliness, her anxiety, by what we now think of as a meme.” (Plausible enough, I guess; but I don’t see what is gained by using the “meme” terminology.)
Gibson is absolutely right, in my opinion, when he says that–“The X-Files” to the contrary–the truth is not “out there” but “in here.” He’s absolutely wrong when he praises Womack’s book as having revealed “the source-code, the veritable root of the enigma.”
That “root” is indeed human, perhaps tragically so, and not extraterrestrial. In my opinion, it’s discoverable by us humans. To find and recognize it, however, we have to wipe the smirk not only off our faces but out of our souls. That’s a tall order but it can be done. A pity Womack doesn’t even try.
by David Halperin
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