God vs. the Flying Saucers
by Carl Pfluger
(First published in THE SOUTHWEST REVIEW, Volume 78, Number 4, Autumn 1993.)
I presume it can have escaped no one's attention that a certain very peculiar line of cracked pottery - a spin-off, one might say, of the flying saucer industry - has been buzzing noisily about our heads for some time now, at least ever since Erich von Däniken proclaimed to the world his gospel of God the Astronaut. Chariots of the Gods? inaugurated that series of overblown tracts (one hesitates to call them books, even in this post-literate age) in which he purported to demonstrate that ancient religion and mythology, any number of miscellaneous artifacts from Egypt to Peru, and by implication, human civilization itself, all commemorate the visits of extraterrestrial travelers to our prehistoric ancestors. These aliens, according to our UFOric prophet, descended upon early men (or upon pre-human anthropoids - he's not very clear about such fine points), raised the level of their intelligence by a bit of genetic tinkering (or perhaps merely by interbreeding with them), taught them the rudiments of civilization (giving them also a glimpse of space travel and a whiff of nuclear weaponry), and finally flew off as abruptly as they had come; whereupon men, abandoned and pining for the return of their celestial mentors, built "landing strips" and imitation spacecraft (the Pyramids and such, you know) in order to lure them back to Earth, just like the Cargo Cultists of the South Pacific, who prayed in vain for the return of Allied cargo planes after the Second World War. Traditional religions and mythologies clearly bear witness to these events, says von Däniken, who asks, with charming simplicity, why else should all religions locate their gods up in the sky?
How much attention
is any of this worth? It might seem that von Däniken is merely one more
science fiction fringe cultist; and
if his works, over the last couple of decades, have sold millions of copies all over the world, well, there have always been silly ideas floating around, and millions of simple minds in search of easy answers to believe in them. But I am afraid, as we shall see, that this cult has articulated (albeit in a peculiarly crude and garish form) some inclinations and assumptions tacitly shared by many far more reputable people; and so I do worry about what the appeal of this pathetic fantasy might mean for the health of our culture at large. Yet more ground for concern may be found in the fact that much of this same nonsense was also flagrantly present in two of the most popular science fiction films to appear during those same two decades: 2001: a Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, whose close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke marked a kind of milestone in the entry of "serious" (or at least quasi-literary) science fiction into the world of really big-budget, mass-market cinema; and Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which also drew heavily on the services of a renowned extra-cinematic "expert" - professional UFOlogist J. Allen Hynek - and whose release in 1978 was greeted with scarcely less awe than one would expect should a real UFO land next to the United Nations headquarters and begin dictating revelations to the General Assembly.
Both of these films were saturated with the odor of a quasi-religious sentimentality. Close Encounters (all too aptly described by Stanley Kauffmann as an "epiphany") summoned us, in blatantly mythicizing style, to receive the coming of the UFO as the manifestation of a god. 2001 (which appeared, interestingly enough, in the same year - 1968 - as did Chariots of the Gods?) was even closer in its assumptions to von Däniken's doctrine: not only are its alien Masters of the Monolith to be our salvation in the future; they were the prime instigators of human culture at its very beginnings. (This theme of culture as an alien transplant has been a continuing leitmotif in much of Clarke's other fiction as well;1 while his speculative non-fiction has often revealed a regrettable lack of critical discipline to his imagination: he has even suggested, for example, that religion began with hallucinations brought on by malnutrition - a theory of religious origins hardly less crankish than those of von Däniken himself.2)
It is not as if nothing better could be expected of science fiction writers (or of free-lance crackpots, for that matter.) Toward the end of this discussion, I shall give a few examples showing how the very themes abused in these works have been treated with far more intelligence, sensitivity and respect for humanity. And it was Harlan Ellison, a fairly hard-core member of science fiction's literary establishment, who derided Spielberg's extravaganza as "nothing but a 1950s flying saucer movie"3. But if Close Encounters really had been no more than an exercise in light entertainment on the order of, say, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, it would not have bothered me at all. Rather, it was the transparently portentous solemnity with which it presented itself (and which it shares with 2001) which made it so disturbing. These two films, together with the von Däniken Schwärmerei, may be regarded as the defining syndrome of a certain complex of obsessions very much at large in our time. They both appeal to, and express, a set of aspirations and beliefs amounting almost to a coherent (if covert) doctrine. We might do well to examine more closely these aspirations and beliefs, in an effort to answer the questions: Just what kind of nonsense is this? And why has it been received, at least in some quarters, with such euphoric enthusiasm?
It should go without saying that such a miasma of star-struck musings can not be taken seriously as an explanation of the origins of religion, or of anything else, since to "explain" any human phenomenon, however remote or obscure, by the intervention of extraterrestrial aliens is merely to explain ignotum per ignotius. Rather, this complex is most interesting (and most alarming) not for what it pretends to reveal about our ancestors, but for what it does reveal - unwittingly, to be sure - about our contemporaries. For despite its pretensions, what we seem to have here is not so much an explanation of the traditional religions as a substitute for them: space-age retreads for the chariots of the gods. As phenomena to be explained, UFOs may be legitimate objects of scientific curiosity; but invoked as a means of explanation, they are something else again. An interest in UFOs may be scientific, but a belief in them is religious, insofar as it is not a theory but a conviction, which may or may not be consistent with the facts, but which is not in any case strictly dependent upon them, and which serves primarily to give an extra dimension of meaning to the life of the believer.
The appearance of these ideas, then, may best be understood as an event in the history of religion, and the written and filmed expressions of them regarded as religious documents: produced (as modern Biblical scholars tend to say of the New Testament) not to inform, or even to persuade, but primarily to edify, to confirm a faith already held (at least implicitly) by their viewers and readers. From this perspective our question becomes: Just what kind of religion, what kind of faith, is being presented to us here? The answers may reveal some surprising affinities. None of this is quite so modern, quite so unique to our space-age consciousness, as it pretends to be. Rather, the spirit, method, and aspirations of this cult all turn out to be remarkably archaic.
There is, first of all, something akin to Fundamentalism in all this, and not merely in the obvious sense that von Däniken, like the late Immanuel Velikovsky before him, is concerned to prove that some of the most spectacularly miraculous events reported in the Bible are, somehow, literally and historically true. There is more than enough of that, to be sure. Ezekiel really saw his wheel in the sky (a spaceship, of course.) Sodom and Gomorrah really were blasted by fire from heaven (a nuclear strike.) The "Sons of God" of Genesis 6 really did breed with human females (genetic improvement of our ancestral primate stock) and so forth. But the affinity goes deeper still. Like the cruder sects of the traditional religions, this whole exercise betrays most blatantly an utter lack of sympathy for - and presumably also a total lack of understanding of - any historical or evolutionary view of human development on Earth. For what it really amounts to is a kind of "special creationist" account of the emergence of man. And this, in turn, implies a contempt for the real achievements of our ancestors, as well as for the process of evolution itself.
It is exquisitely ironic: von Däniken and his disciples are never more vitriolic than when inveighing against "orthodox" anthropologists (or against anyone else who declines to take literally the myths of superior beings descending from the sky), accusing them of maligning the good sense and trustworthiness of ancient peoples; yet what could be more demeaning to our ancestors than this notion that they were incapable of inventing their own cultures, and had to receive them from on high? Only the benighted imagination of a crank would conceive men so benighted and unimaginative.
Fundamentalism characterizes the spirit of von Däniken's approach; his method, or mode of "explanation", is even more ancient, being in fact a réchauffé of one of the earliest attempts at a "scientific" explanation of religion and mythology: euhemerism. This is the theory, first given to the world in the third century B.C. by the Sicilian Greek philosophical romancer Euhemeros of Messana, that myth may be translated into history by the expedient assumption that all gods were originally exceptional mortals - warriors, rulers, inventors or whatever - who really lived on Earth long ago, and were subsequently deified in recognition of their services to early men. All that von Däniken has done to modernize this theory is to stipulate that the mortals in question were born on other planets - a small enough distinction, after all, since they remain essentially fellow-creatures with us, though of a kind no one living has ever seen, whose very existence one must still take on faith! This whole doctrine therefore shares the fundamental weakness of all euhemerism as a theory of religion: its lack of psychological depth, its one-dimensional, trivializing character. We may pass over in silence the elementary historical objections, only observing that to construct any historical theory about a period for which there is no historical evidence is, on the face of it, absurd. But then, such readiness to dogmatize without evidence is a lamentably characteristic symptom, in theoreticians of this kind, of their arrogant contempt for history, for human experience as it has actually been lived.
But it is when we look at the aspirations and desires revealed in these fantasies that we have the strongest grounds for believing that we are in the presence of a phenomenon truly ominous. For together with the crass philistinism of what looks like a parody of some paleomaterialist's attempt at a reductionist explanation of religion, there co-exists (less inconsistently than one might have expected) a longing for something occult, for secret gnosis and ancient wisdom, for a whole bag of sorcerer's tricks. The anti-historical, anti-evolutionary bias of this whole line of thought makes some such yearning almost inevitable. We should always remind ourselves just how recent, and how superficially accepted, are the related (but distinct) ideas of evolution and progress, and with them the assumption that, in general, the present is more enlightened than the past, that the direction of historical change tends naturally to be upward. Before the eighteenth century, virtually everyone believed the opposite: that history moves naturally downward, and that the greatest wisdom and virtue therefore existed in the remote past, from which we moderns have degenerated, forgetting what had been revealed to our ancestors at the beginning of time, in the Golden Age, when gods walked with men and instructed them face to face . . . Such a view of human knowledge is implicit in all euhemerism, with its tacit assumption that we have forgotten the technical prowess by which (for example) Herakles, understood as an early civil engineer, was able to perform works which made him seem divine to his posterity; it has always been characteristic of cultists of all kinds; and von Däniken, among others, has undertaken to revive it in a superficially modern pseudo-scientific form. But this understanding of science, as of all other human accomplishments, remains hierarchical: a matter of arcana handed down from a "superior" to an "inferior" order of beings.
What such people really want is magic: the glamor and prestige of science without the plodding discipline of scientific methods. They are enthusiasts and purveyors of technological fantasy. But we have still to ask, what is the nature of their fantasies, their aspirations? Just what kind of gods would they summon up (or rather, down!) for us? One way of approaching this question might be to ask whether von Däniken's speculations, however flat they fall as a general theory of religion, may accurately describe any particular kind of religion. Is there any religion known to man which at all fits this astral Cargo Cult model?
there really is - or was - at least one such, and the parallel is all the more
striking for its being most likely unknown to von Däniken, the saucer-cultists,
and the makers of most science fiction films. It is the religion assumed in
and promulgated by that enormously suggestive and intermittently popular mass
of strange material known as the Hermetic literature. These texts were produced
very late in the ancient world, most probably around the third century after
Christ, in Alexandria, the most Hellenized and cosmopolitan region of Egypt.
Their purported author, Hermes Trismegistus, was in
fact a euhemerized god: Thoth, the authentically ancient Egyptian god of scribal learning, identified syncretically with the
Greek Hermes and represented as a primordial priest-king-philosopher who "gave the Egyptians their letters and laws".
In this guise he was claimed as the author of all Egyptian civilization, religion, science, and philosophy - especially the occult philosophy expounded in the Hermetic treatises. For our purposes, the most interesting feature of Hermetism was its notion of theurgy: the art of working with, or even of making, gods.
In the Asclepius, one of the key documents of the Hermetic corpus, Hermes Trismegistus reveals to his disciple the mysterious meanings of the Egyptian religion, especially those found in the worship of images.4 These idols, he explains, are not mere statues: they are alive, thanks to the hieratic arts of which Hermes is the master. Though made, to be sure, of terrestrial matter, they contain an "occult virtue of divine efficacy" somehow sympathetic with the celestial spheres; and by use of the proper rites and invocations (which are man's best attempt to simulate the life of those upper spheres) it is possible to draw the gods down from heaven and induce them to inhabit their temples, to enter into their very statues as souls within a body, animating them and causing them to serve as potent, magically living beings able to give oracular responses to questions and perform other works of wonder.
Thus the Thrice-Greatest Hermes. From a historical point of view, this sounds like a retrospective endeavor to rationalize the cultic practices of a truly ancient religion (as euhemerism was an attempt to rationalize the myths) in terms of then-fashionable philosophical ideas. As an interpretation of genuinely ancient Egyptian religion it has no more claim to credibility than the alleged antiquity of the Hermetic writings themselves. It is truly revealing, however, as an expression of the occult yearnings and aspirations which were agitating so many forlorn souls in those declining centuries of Greco-Roman civilization - and which have continued to agitate some people ever since.
Two features of this extraordinary theurgical program stand out with particular force and clarity. One is that here at last we have a religion - however young, comparatively speaking, however artificial in its origins - which really did see itself as doing what von Däniken believes all religion set out to do: trying to make an attractive, familiar-looking place for the gods, to entice them down from heaven to earth. The other is that the form this effort takes - by art to make an artificial being come to life - also bears a remarkable resemblance to another perennial theme, of science fiction, of occult fantasy, and latterly of serious technological ambition: the making of artificial life and artificial intelligence. Those science fiction stories in which a computer begins playing God make the parallel even more exact. And this connection brings us back once more, by a second route, to 2001, which is remembered, if for anything at all, for the megalomaniac super-computer HAL 9000. Not only does HAL dominate the action of the film once he appears; he is the only distinct and memorable character to emerge in it - a sign, I'm afraid, that in exploring this whole area we are probing a kind of thought fundamentally anti-humanist in all its assumptions and implications. The predominance of HAL, and the awe which he inspires in his merely human crew (and audience!) is of a piece with that worship of machinery which we see throughout 2001, especially (but alas, not only) whenever people have an encounter with that insipid Monolith.
It is even possible that in this theme of artificial life and artificial intelligence we have discovered not merely an unconscious affinity or a case of parallel evolution, but an actual genetic link: a historical transmission of the idea from ancient Hermetism to modern science fiction.5 In medieval legend, many magicians (including Roger Bacon and Vergil, whose popular reputations became hopelessly entwined with rumors of necromancy) were credited with possessing magic statues and talking heads, which they would consult for advice and prophecies. These legends very probably derive from the theurgic practices described in the Hermetic literature. But the Hermetic philosophy was also intimately related, in its origins, to the origins of alchemy; and the two traditions were transmitted together through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, at which time (simultaneous with the beginnings of modern science) they enjoyed their greatest vogue. And one of the highest aspirations of the alchemists was the creation of another form of artificial life: the homunculus, introduced into the mainstream of modern literature by Goethe in the second part of Faust. Perhaps more distantly related (but certainly an expression of the same theme) is the kabalist legend of the Golem. All of these legends were available to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and provided her with background material (at least) for the creation of Frankenstein, which brings us within easy hailing distance of modern science fiction.
This brief genealogy shows at least that the idea of quasi-human life being created artificially is an old one; it is also evident that whenever this fantasy has been raised, it has generally been received with dread and loathing. That dread - expressed in the cliché of so many science fiction movies that "there are some things which it is better for man not to know" - should not be too quickly dismissed or derided as mere obscurantism. It may express a deep, if dimly articulated, apprehension that those devoted to such things are really offering their supreme service, not to knowledge at all, but to power - a power, moreover, which often shows itself hostile to the very processes of life itself.
is especially revealing on this last point. Not only has Faust become a byword
for the sacrifice of one's
own humanity to the limitless pursuit of intellectualized power, but when Faust's understudy Wagner creates the homunculus,
his avowed motive is an ambition to make obsolete the whole crude and messy business of sexual reproduction, for which
he professes a high-minded distaste. Such revulsion from everything animal in our nature (which in its extreme form tends to become anti-humanist and anti-naturalist as well) is of course an old and familiar prejudice, characteristic of many ancient religions; does anyone suppose that it has disappeared from among us today?
Hermetism, then, may
serve as an approximate description of von Däniken's understanding of religion;
and the Hermetic religion provides at least a psychological clue to the values,
aspirations, and prejudices implicit in this kind of technocratic fantasy: an
intolerance for the slow and often messy processes of life; a predilection to
believe in hierarchical programming as the dominant mode of cultural formation;
and above all a yearning for artificial life, artificial intelligence, and,
if possible, for an artificial God. And the root of all these, co-existing with
a contempt for life and its passions as they are actually lived, is a peculiarly
narrow kind of arrogance, a belief in the limitless possibilities of technological
power. If the first god really was an astronaut, then some of us have already
become gods; and if we can make computers like HAL 9000, we shall soon be on
the verge of creating gods for ourselves.
Today, of course, the campaign to produce artificial intelligence is not confined to the literature of fantasy. It is a serious pursuit engaged in by scientists in industry and universities. (Arthur C. Clarke himself has expressed the opinion that this academic acceptance has settled the question of whether it is a valid pursuit;6 I wonder if he would also agree that the presence, in all the universities of sixteenth-century Europe, of recognized scholars diligently engaged in Hermetic research, alchemy, and astrology then made those pursuits equally valid: surely no pack of Ph.Ds ever went barking up a wrong tree?) But here too, among these hardest of hard scientists, can be found symptoms of some of the same disturbing attitudes rampant among the cranks and avowed fantasists we have been discussing. Marvin Minsky, for example, perhaps the leading activist in the field of artificial intelligence, has described the human brain as "that bloody mess of organic matter." Could any alchemical adept, any Hermetic magus, have expressed more pungently his contempt for the flesh? (I can not help recalling that Minsky has also articulated his faith in another, similarly memorable, aphorism: "What's so special about the human brain? It's just a computer made out of meat."7 Right. Call him Meat-head.) Yes, I know he teaches at MIT; but then, Giordano Bruno taught Hermetic philosophy, astrology, and "natural magic" at half the universities of Europe.
And Robert Jastrow,
even before he came publicly to appreciate computers as operators of SDI battle
extolling them as a "higher" form of existence and prophesying the triumph of that "silicon intelligence" which he thinks will
(and should) supplant our own humble carbon-bonded organisms. It seems that Jastrow is dissatisfied with the way evolution has proceeded: he wants faster (and more powerful) results. Reading an interview with him some years ago,8 I was struck
by how much he, too, has in common with those Fundamentalist agitators who, as one of them once put it during a debate
in the Georgia Legislature, "don't want children to be taught we're descended from tadpoles."9 True, Jastrow, unlike the speakers for the old-time religion, does believe that biological evolution has taken place, hitherto; but he seems scarcely less disgusted by the idea, and is in a great hurry to be done with it once and for all. So their attitudes, their feelings, are not really so very different. "It never happened, praise the Lord," says one; to which Jastrow seems to reply: "At least it won't happen any more, thank God."
It should hardly come
as any surprise, then, that in the same interview Jastrow neatly closed this
circle of ideas by raising one
of the favorite proof-texts of von Däniken himself, and cited Ezekiel's vision of the chariot wheel (apparently in all seriousness) as possible evidence of an extraterrestrial visit to Earth in the sixth century B.C.
If I had to produce one phrase to characterize this whole complex of notions, I think I would call it the cult, not of God the Astronaut, but of God the Artifact. In von Däniken's version of events, the encounters which most impressed early men, and which introduced to them the idea of God, were not with the living aliens themselves (whatever one imagines them to have been) but with their technology. In the films, this worship of machinery is even more evident, and in 2001 it extends to the emphatic presentation of an artificial intelligence as a superior order of being.
But equally prominent is the idea that man also is an artifact - at least man as an intelligent being, capable eventually of performing such technical wonders himself. Essential to these ideas is a profoundly ahistorical and anti-evolutionary point of view, amounting to a total contempt for the very processes of human, or indeed of organic, life itself. Hence the euhemerism, the crypto-Hermetism, the neo-Fundamentalism; hence also the very crankish hierarchical conceptions of knowledge and existence; as if humanity were something manufactured from a blueprint handed down from on high, so that all we need do to understand ourselves and our place in the universe is to crack the code, find the secret key to unlock the vault in which is hidden the master plan of our nature: our "archetype", in the traditional language of Platonic psychology; our "program", in the neologism of the modern computer culture.
The evaluation of our
human position in this scheme of things is peculiarly cramped and oddly contradictory.
One is tempted
to call it schizophrenic, in the full, pathological force of the word. Mankind is here both exalted and abased beyond any reasonable measure. We are both makers of gods, and the deluded artificial products of their manipulations. Our existence
is terminated, at both ends, by "encounters" of these kinds: at the beginning of history, when artifacts of an alien world so dazzled our ancestors that they began to worship them; and at the end of history (coming soon, and proclaimed by such as Jastrow with all the impatient expectancy of a Fundamentalist anticipating the Rapture) when the artifacts of our own making will surpass and supplant us.
What stands out most
starkly in all this, more clearly even than the dim and shallow view of humanity,
is the abysmally low quality of these "gods", characterized as they are merely
by a superiority of power. But how much in the way of religious
insight could we really expect, how much enlightenment of any kind, from people who can believe, for instance, that when Ezekiel expressed a part of his own very complex religious vision in terms of cherubim, chariots, and, yes, wheels (all deeply rooted in the traditional iconography of his own time and culture) he was really seeing something tangible in the sky which he, poor fellow, thought was an apparition of Yahweh, but which we can now see was really a spaceship - because we are now making spaceships and such ourselves?
It would be hard to say whether this farrago offers the graver offense to science or to religion. The lack of critical thinking produces a travesty of science (which must be especially embarrassing to those scientists who are seriously trying to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds) but what shall one say about the understanding of religion expressed or implied, not only in von Däniken's unholy writ, but even more in those vacuously worshipful films which serve as the liturgical dramas of this cult? The deepest objection to this ersatz evangel is not that it is not true, but that if it were true it would hardly call for the euphoria with which Clarke, Kubrick, and Spielberg would have us receive it. The trouble with these "gods" is that they are, no less than ourselves, creatures - in some versions, even artifacts. If ever it could be proven that some such creatures or machines had in fact intervened at the beginning of our existence to make us what we are, or if they should one day come down out of the skies to "help" us, we would have more reason to resent their intrusion on our freedom than to worship them; we would owe them no gratitude for such "gifts".
To worship creatures,
or artifacts, as gods is, to use the plainest theological language, idolatry.
It constitutes a catastrophic impoverishment of our conception, not only of
the divine, but of the human. If the idea of God means anything at all, it means
a being who, however much he may transcend us, is and remains fundamentally akin to us, at one with us, our best and finest image of ourselves.
If to scientific people,
then, this complex is an absurdity, to the religious it is, or ought to be,
an abomination. Yet I can not suppress a gnawing fear. For the melancholy fact
is that the spirit of all this is not very different from that of religion as
it has always been understood by the majority. Rather than an ersatz religion,
perhaps we should call it merely a vulgar religion. At
its highest reaches, religion may indeed offer a summons to responsible existence, to self-examination and transcencence, to
all that sort of thing which theologians write about, sometimes movingly; but for most people in every age, the idea of God
has never been very far from that of an astronautical interloper, and as such they have welcomed him. Is it any wonder, then, that they should now be ready to welcome such gods as are presented to them by von Däniken, by Clarke, by Spielberg,
or by Jastrow?
For today, with our
traditional religions split between the Fundamentalists and the liberal minority,
there is a great mass of people left out: whether church members or not, they
no longer believe in the cruder views of God, and have not assimilated
the higher; but they do believe in Science, and they have the same psychological needs as the Fundamentalists. So we find
that people who can not accept Yahweh and his angels pouring brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah can accept spaceships zapping them with nuclear warheads. A really serious religious question - such as whether any being of such indiscriminate ferocity is really fit to be worshipped - seems never to occur to these people, even though it is raised in the Bible, at least tentatively, by Abraham's haggling with God over the fate of Sodom. Such questioning is beyond von Däniken and his
disciples; they are more primitive than the author of Genesis.
By "primitive" I mean
a religious sense which never rises above the worship of superior power - and
isn't this all we are
allowed to see, and admire, and stand in awe of, in 2001 or in Close Encounters? Our new astral idolaters, lost to their
own humanity in their barren dreams of manipulation and control which they share with the Hermetic theurgists of old,
have a religion indeed, but one of a singularly disappointing and dangerous kind. The beings whom they would worship
come closer to being demonic than divine.
This has been recognized
by some other science fiction writers, who have therefore done better at exploring
the darker side
of these fantasies. Back in the late 1950s, Nigel Kneale created for the BBC a television serial called Quatermass and the Pit, which in 1967 (one year before 2001 and von Däniken's debut!) was made into a feature film and released in the United
States under the title Five Million Years to Earth. Its fundamental premise is very close to that of 2001: that millions of years ago a decisive push was given to the beginning of human development by the arrival of beings from another planet. These
aliens (apparently a form of communal insect dwelling in hives) set to work altering the brains of our hominid ancestors to
make them more apt for civilization - civilization, of course, as they know it. In Kneale's work, however, the effects of this activity are uniformly grim and ghastly: the evidence for it consists largely of the traditions of demonic possession and visions
of the Devil associated with the neighborhood of the buried spaceship. There is a suggestion that the human proclivity to
war and massacre may have its roots in a program of "clearing the hive" practiced on the alien world as a purge of deviants.
In the climactic scenes of the film, the looming specter of this alien life-form provides as credible a simulation of Satan as
one could ask for at any sabbat.
Devils, then, not gods. And isn't this really much more likely? Not, of course, because non-human life must be intrinsically evil, but because aliens will be - alien. No real penetration of their lives into ours could be consummated without doing violence to our nature. H. P. Lovecraft, in his best work, also handled this point well. The Elder Gods, whose evocation is the theme of most of his later stories, are imagined as neither evil nor supernatural in the traditional sense, but simply as powerful beings absolutely alien to us. But it is just this radical otherness which gives their intrusion into our world its quality of absolute horror. Good or bad, the purposes of such beings would not be our purposes, and any intervention of theirs, any imposition of their power upon us, is not likely to be for our good, if by our good we mean that toward which we would aspire in the natural unfolding of our own destinies. But such respect for the natural processes of human (or any other) life is, as we have seen, conspicuously lacking in the fantasies of von Däniken and of Clarke, in the dreams of all those who yearn for the coming of a god-machine with its sterile perfection.
Kurt Vonnegut's famous
planet Tralfamadore appears to be the fulfillment of those dreams: a world in
which organic life has been entirely superseded by a society of intelligent
machines. In his early novel Sirens of Titan (1959) we discover that
of the great works of human civilization - at least as far back as Stonehenge - have been instigated by these Tralfamadorean machines as a means of communicating with one of their couriers stranded in our solar system. Really, were it not for the
earlier date one would have assumed that this story was conceived in parody of von Däniken, as Vonnegut, in his typically heavy sardonic manner, relentlessly belabors the cruel absurdity of a predicament in which all this human effort, contrived
and manipulated from above, serves merely to facilitate the delivery, from one non-human world to another, of a message whose meaning, in the end, turns out to be the single word: "Greetings."
Comfort ye my people.
I have no doubt that
the authors under discussion here - especially Arthur C. Clarke, the militant
atheist who derives religion from the effects of malnutrition! - will be offended
by their being linked to all sorts of bizarre and cranky religious cults:
modern Fundamentalism, ancient Hermetism, theurgy, and so forth. Yet despite the obvious differences, my comparisons
are neither arbitrary nor unfair. The spirit of any doctrine is always more important than its symbolic formulation; and by
one of those conjunctions of opposites so often met with in the constellations of human thought, the most rigid of religious positions and the crassest materialism turn out to have a great deal in common. Both tend to be flat, one-dimensional, and dogmatically reductionist: in a word, anti-naturalist. Both tend to impose themselves on life like a straitjacket, having no
sense of the freedom, creative playfulness, and openness to the unexpected which constitute the very essence (if one may
put it so abstractly) of life itself. One sign of this, on the part of the technophiles, is the neo-asceticism which makes people
like Jastrow and Minsky speak with such contempt of mere flesh and blood, aspiring to a mechanistic, as earlier ascetics to
a spiritual, "perfection" of bloodless, passionless sterility. And to show that the Fundamentalists, on their side, are not entirely unaware of this affinity, one might cite the publication, a few years ago, of something called The Late Great Planet Earth -
an old-time evangelical tract meretriciously decked out under a science fiction-looking cover.
All theology is anthropology,
and our opinions about God (or about the gods, if one prefers) are the deepest
our beliefs about ourselves. At least the traditional religions - not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of the Greco-Roman - offered us gods who were in our image. They were human, or at least, going back as far as ancient Egypt (I mean
the authentically historical Egypt, of course, not the magical Egypt of Hermetic fantasy), animal: and an animal is far more closely related to us than is a machine. They were conceived, in any case, as living gods, who shared with us our experience
of life. The perversity of these latter-day enthusiasts shows in the fact that they seek a god made in an inhuman image; and
not only inhuman, but even inorganic. They ascribe to these aliens, to these machines, all the worst features of the traditional gods - their capricious and irresponsible power, before which we would be absolutely helpless - and leave out the best: their fundamental kinship with, and compassion for, humanity. Some models of religion are compatible with humanism (the finest evidence of continuous human progress being in fact the history of man's progressive humanization of his gods) but this is not one of them: for all its technological trappings, it is rather a regression to the darkest of barbaric fantasies, to the grimmest of archaic rigor. In this vision gods are no longer humanized, but mechanized - and men, too.
It is a sad irony that
in an age when so many theologians - impelled by the challenges of scientific
criticism, or by their own humane and generous values - have made various attempts
to "demythologize" religion, we should have this movement to
make a mythology out of science - or rather, out of some pitiful scraps of scientific fallout. Ironic, but also ominous: for that
so many are so eager to welcome the Alien Powers, to surrender themselves, whether to the UFOs or to a machine-god of
our own making, suggests that more and more people are finding human life unbearable. They yearn to escape our present condition which, with all its uncertainty, forever unfinished and undefined, is the only condition in which man can live as man; they yearn for an eschatological Final Act which will end at last all the ambiguities of our problematic existence. What they would offer is the Final Solution to the Human Question.
It is almost as if such people are trying to incarnate in themselves their mechanistic obsessions, to confirm, by their own choices, their anti-evolutionary prejudices about life in general. At least the very existence of this neo-archaic mythology must remind us that progress in fact does not always prevail - and certainly never prevails automatically - but must be achieved, by disciplined and creative efforts of the human mind and will. Obviously, not everyone is always inclined to make such efforts. But the willful abandonment of humanity, of the spontaneous values of life, is, on the showing of all historical experience, symptomatic of a declining culture - or at least of the decay of humane culture. And that is what worries me most about all this, and has set me to thinking along these lines. It was just such a period, the declining centuries of Greco-Roman civilization, which bred the original euhemerists, Hermetists, alchemists, and theurgists, as well as a swarm of other turbid irrationalities not very different from many which we see around us today. If one were looking for evidence of our own decadence, for signs of our coming decline and fall in the manner of the late Roman Empire, here, I'm afraid, is where to find it, more than in our abortion statistics, or in the "epidemics" of pornography and drug addiction so dear to the rhetoric of fire-and-brimstone moralists; and if one were inventing examples to demonstrate that scientific progress alone has done nothing to elevate the intellectual (let alone the moral) stature of the human race, one could scarcely do better than to come up with this lately born, self-consciously "scientific", space-age superstition.
- END -
1. (p. 3: "This theme of culture as an alien transplant . . .")
I have in mind not only
Clarke's old story The Sentinel (2001's embryonic prototype) but
also his earlier novel Childhood's End, where the "benevolent" alien
interlopers somehow give us the traditional form of the Devil, complete with
horns, and barbed tail; Expedition to Earth, where visiting aliens encounter early man on the future site of Babylon; and in
a lighter vein (or at least on a smaller scale) The Next Tenants, where an eccentric entomologist "cultivates" a civilization
among termites in much the same way as the Monolith-droppers of 2001 do with us.
2. (p. 4: ". . . that religion began with . . . malnutrition.") Clarke dropped this gem in a colloquy with Alan Watts, published in Playboy, January 1972, under the title At the Interface: Technology and Mysticism. Ironically - but not all that surprisingly - Watts, the alleged "mystic" of this pair, generally showed himself to be the more sensible and down-to-earth.
3. (p. 4: ". . . nothing but a 1950s flying saucer movie.") Harlan Ellison made this remark on CBC Radio's science program Quirks and Quarks, January 1978.
4. (p. 11: "In the Asclepius
. . .") For my account of the Hermetic religion and its "god-making" procedures,
I rely mostly on
the extensive summaries by Frances A. Yates in Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (Vintage, 1969) especially pp. 37-41. On the more general subject of theurgy in the religions of late Antiquity, see also the second appendix to The Greeks and the Irrational by E. R. Dodds (U. of California Press, 1951.)
5. (p. 13: ". . . historical
transmission of the idea . . . to modern science fiction.") Dodds (p. 294) mentions
images, said to have been fabricated by medieval magicians, as an inheritance from the religious theurgists of late Antiquity;
and on p. 295 he raises the question of whether the alchemical homunculus was also suggested by theurgical practices aimed
at animating cultic statues; his notes to these pages may give further guidance to anyone who wishes to be really scholarly in pursuing these things further.
6. (p. 16: ". . . academic
acceptance has settled the question
. . .") In his contribution to The Visual Encyclopedia of
Science Fiction (edited by Brian Ash, Pan Books, London, 1977) Clarke writes: "Now that great universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsor "Departments of Artificial Intelligence" this old argument is essentially over."
7. (p. 17) Minsky's provocations:
". . . just a computer made out of meat" was quoted on Quirks and Quarks,
18 June 1977; ". . . bloody mess of organic matter", quoted by Christopher Lasch, The New Republic, 13 & 20 August,
1984, p. 27.
8. (p. 17) Jastrow's interview:
Penthouse, October 1978, p. 124 et seq. (This was a "Special
Issue" of the magazine,
nominally devoted to discussing "Science and the Future", actually devoted to promoting Omni.) Throughout this piece, Jastrow's discourse on "silicon intelligence" is permeated with quasi-religious imagery: "I envision these entities as immortal beings, freed from the prison of life on a planet like the earth. We mortals cannot escape earth . . . But a silicon intelligence . . . could live forever. To such an intelligence, a million years would be like a day." (p. 126). And at the end of the same page
he tells us, reassuringly, that he foresees the computer beings triumphing over us not "in the sense of war, but triumph in the same sense that the mammals triumphed over the dinosaurs. It will be the next stage of perfection." The von Däniken-ish nonsense about Ezekiel's wheel is on p. 136.
9. (p. 17) ". . . descended from tadpoles." Snippets of this debate in the Georgia Legislature were broadcast on ABC TV News, 22 Feb. 1980.
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