Monday, April 6, 2009

Reading Notes – Bertrand Méheust

This post is reviewing one of the classical books in French analyzing the sociological dimension of the UFO phenomenon, and how it relates to science fiction. The title would translate in English as “Science-Fiction and Flying Saucers”. Once again, it is a book written in the 1970s, and thus before the Roswell/Majestic hysterical period of ufology. The full notice is:

Méheust, Bertrand. (1978). Science-fiction et soucoupes volantes. Paris: Mercure de France.

The psycho-social hypothesis

Many websites, in French and English, categorize the French sociologist Méheust as belonging to the so-called psycho-social hypothesis (PSH) in ufology. This hypothesis essentially considers that the UFO phenomenon has no material basis beyond misperceiving human-made aerial objects or natural phenomena. It also considers that UFO witnesses simply project images and notions drawn from the 20th century technological culture into mundane phenomena. In some instances, there might be some external influences that make one hallucinate, but the content of those hallucinations are filled with those images and notions drawn from our culture. This approach has been seriously criticized for ignoring many irreducible physical traces. On the other hand, researchers following this approach clearly showed that the UFO phenomenon is “too human” in its narrative structure to be of extra-terrestrial origins.

Contrary to many of those web commentaries, Méheust does not agree with the PSH, simply because the physical traces cannot be ignored (pp. 20 and 39). In fact, he is considering that the UFO phenomenon shares many similarities with psi events (p. 17), and that there is no contradiction between the material and psychic dimensions of the UFO phenomenon (p. 39). Furthermore, he clearly states that he does not intend to close the UFO file like some people who support the PSH (p. 39), and ultimately provides a devastating critique of the PSH (pp. 211-219). Méheust does not espouse strongly any particular hypothesis, but it is clear that he favours the parapsychological approach with a sociological twist. In my view, he is a pioneer of parasociology.

Science-Fiction and UFOs

Méheust got the idea of comparing the narrative structure of UFO sightings and close encounter reports to older science fiction (SF) literature when he read about the 1896-97 airship wave in the United States. His first reaction was to see striking similarities with Jules Verne’s novel Robur le Conquérant, published in 1885. Yet, Méheust also understood that thousands of people saw the airships and that such a large collective hoax could not have been orchestrated at the end of the 19th century. Something else was going on. He then decided to do an extensive review of the SF literature mostly dating from 1880 to 1930. What he found is quite astonishing.

In the book he presents, on various topics, a few quotes some are from the SF and some are from real UFO reports. In each case it is impossible to know which ones are fiction (drawn from the 1880s to 1930s) and which ones are real reports (usually drawn from the 1960s or 1970s). It is also important to underline that the SF literature of before World War Two was already completely forgotten in the 1960s and 1970s, and most of that older SF literature was published in French while the UFO reports are coming from all over the world from non-French speaking countries. However, by 1930s, many American writers were inspired by the French SF and developed their own branch of it. Clearly, if there is a cause and effect relationship here, there is also a mediating element that goes across time and cultures. For him, the UFO phenomenon and SF have a common source in the creative power of the human imaginary (pp. 19-20) (and I would say in the collective unconscious).

Méheust provides a detailed analysis of the SF narrative content, and shows how key elements of the UFO phenomenon were also very common in the older SF literature. For instance, the SF identifies two key types of UFOs, the “hard ones” in the forms of saucers, spheres, eggs, cigars, and “soft ones” mostly in the form of light that can change shape at will (pp. 56-61). The machines were described as having no apparent doors, yet an opening full of light appears with strange beings in the middle of it (pp. 170-171). The interior tend to be furnished in a very minimal way with metallic walls (pp. 61-62). These machines are described as either silent or making a buzzing sound; they move in an erratic way, in zigzag, make 90 degrees turn, fall like a dead leaf, stop and start instantaneously at very high rates of speed (pp. 62-64). Rays of light and various strange lights are also very common in this SF literature (pp. 68-80). Balls of light and physical forms fusing with each other’s (pp. 81-83); materialisation and dematerialisation are also quite common (pp. 94-100).

Mental communication and induction from the people flying those machines was also a common theme (pp. 90-94). Mysterious healing and disease, temporary paralysis by strange rays of light are also found in that SF literature (pp. 102-110). Human machines and compass stopping to work and animals freaking out in the presence of those flying machines; aliens and human pilots immune to human weapons were also common story lines (pp. 110-116). Abduction by rays of light and levitation (pp. 160-164), and teleportation were also part of this literature (pp. 117-126), with the experimentation chambers (pp. 172-174). Again, we have to remember that many of these texts date back to before 1930, with a sizeable portion from before the First World War.

Science fiction and Aliens

If this was just not enough, the humanoids described in the older SF have also many striking similarities to close encounter reports emerging from the 1950s up to the 1970s (when the book was written). Aliens with big heads and short atrophied bodies were very common in the older SF literature, as well as human mad scientists who shared the same description. The notion of having a big head as a sign of being more intelligent is something unique to the Western culture (p. 130), and it is interesting to note that early observations of ETs outside the US were quite different from the usual “Greys”. For instance, when Vallée (1992) went to the USSR, the “aliens” were very tall and not looking like the “Greys”. This was at a time when Russia was not yet “contaminated” by Western ufological myths. In the SF, the theme of the mad scientist who was working with only a handful of servants was very common. Although Méheust did not notice it (probably because he wrote before the Roswell/Majic hysteria), but if one extends the theme of the lonely mad scientist to a collective of mad scientists, then you have a major conspiracy on the go. Of course, only the government would be able to have such a conspiracy able to go on... Once again, the narrative found in SF is very similar to the one found in ufology. Beyond the hairy beasts, the older SF focussed also on tall and beautiful aliens (pp. 136-138) (like the so-called Nordic race). Once again, this theme of beautiful “superhuman” is as old as the Ancient Greek mythology, and does not require much more explanations.

Deep patterns

Méheust was not only able to show that there are very deep similarities between SF and the UFO phenomenon, but also that they are so extensive that it cannot be a matter of coincidence. But he goes further in showing that there are clear patterns in all this: UFOs imitate with a delay of 10 to 20 years what has been described in the SF literature. Although there were a few UFO sightings before 1947, they were clearly a few years ahead of the technology of the time: Airship wave of 1896-97, “upgraded” airships of 1909, jet-like ghost planes of 1933, space rockets of 1946 (pp. 188-195). Then, we have the events of 1947 which were just a decade before the beginning of the space exploration era started with the launch of Sputnik in 1957; and this is precisely at this point that UFOs started to become spaceships from outer space. For Méheust, SF is an expression of the human imaginary that can anticipate in advance technical progress, and it is only limited by the capacity to imagine the future with what exists in the present. The UFO phenomenon occurred historically between the moments of something becomes imaginable in fiction but before it becomes an actual reality (p. 197). These periods could be described as liminal from the point of view of the collective imaginary.

Another important pattern is the dream-like nature of close encounters, already noticed by other authors like Vallée and Randles. The abduction scenario was also part of the older SF, and is imitated in the UFO reports. But the abduction scenario is a very old myth that goes back not only to the Middle Ages with fairies and elves, but also back to the Greek mythology. In such cases, people tend to have a mystical transformation because they visited some strange reality. The UFO is a modern version of what Méheust call a “reality exchanger” (pp. 179-185) where one goes from one reality to another, where they receive some message or acquire some strange (and usually useless) knowledge. Although he does not mention it, this makes me thinking of the narrative structure of the Greek hero who had to go through the underworld and come back to become a hero. The Greek civilization had probably a more positive attitude towards these “reality exchangers” than we do. As posted before, it is interesting to note that American Natives have also a quite different attitude towards dreams and “reality exchange” experience.

Parasociological explanation?

For Méheust the clear continuum between SF and the UFO phenomenon calls for a different approach to study it. He is referring on numerous occasions to Jung’s famous analysis in Flying Saucers. He agrees with Jung that the UFO phenomenon is something that needs to be understood as a shared myth, but disagrees with him when it comes to the issue of the materiality of the UFOs. So, Méheust also introduces parapsychology to explain the phenomenon, and does hesitate to underline that the issue of materialization and dematerialization should be at the heart of the analysis. But he is also careful in that he notices that parapsychological explanations tend to be centered on the individual, and implies that the individual has a large role to play in the production of any psi effects. In the case of UFOs, such assumptions are hard to maintain, especially when there are many unrelated witnesses involved. Without really saying it, he opens the door to approaching psi from a different angle; social psi created out of the collective unconscious (understood here in a much more flexible way than what Jung is proposing) that is witnessed by individuals. In other words, although we are dealing with a human phenomenon, it is created and experienced at different levels of reality (or ontology). Here, we can make an analogy between an economist who studies the present recession and someone who lost his/her job. They both witnessing the same reality, but their respective perspective or ontological standpoints are quite different. I think it is time for parapsychology to entertain the idea that psi is also something that has multiple ontological levels, and the individual one is just but one of them.

It is interesting to see that someone, before me, came to similar conclusions about the UFO phenomenon. On the other hand, it is also a bit discouraging as I have the impression of re-inventing the wheel. My saving grace is that Méheust does not explore in any depth the notions of social psi, and of collective unconscious (once again from a much flexible perspective than what Jung proposed).

The next wave?

Based on Méheust’s analysis of the older SF, it is possible to develop further an empirical model for parasociology. The collective unconscious gets a specific content out of the narrative stories of a society (arts and SF included). When such narrative stories as fiction push the limits of what is considered as possible and impossible (as in the case of SF), then new room is created for psi effects (based on my definition of psi developed in the post about Favre). This fiction then gets forgotten a few years later, mostly because as in the case of SF it is read by kids and teenagers; they become adults, they have responsibilities about the here and now. The imaginary additions to the collective unconscious through fictional literature have now time to “cook”, hence the delay of 10 to 20 years. When there is a “crisis” (for instance the danger of a nuclear war, (for the US in the 1950s) or the end of a great power status and outlook (for France in 1954), the collective unconscious releases some of its content, which may cause poltergeist-like phenomena on a social scale (such as a UFO wave). Once the phenomenon is out, if it is properly cultivated by naïve observers (i.e. ETH ufologists) then it can keep going on in a manner similar to a haunting (i.e., in a reduced and less ostentatious way), mostly affecting individuals rather than collectives. This is certainly a testable model for the next wave of social-level PEMIE (which may not be necessarily UFOs).

However, as we are now well into the post-modern era where there are a multitude of parallel and fragmented fictional narrative stories that push the limits of the possible, it is less certain that we will experience “highly concentrated” PEMIE on a social scale like UFO waves. In the last twenty years, the fantasy literature born with the “Dungeon and Dragon generation” may be the most common denominator. In this case, the imaginary is set in imaginary lands, contrary to the older SF which occurred mostly on contemporary Earth. This may weaken the imaginary power of such literature as it from the onset further estranged from the “real” world. The outcome of this, however, would be an increased number of people reporting being visiting other worlds without having a strong technological flavour (as in the case of UFOs). It is to be expected also that smaller crises rather than national ones will be the triggers. The present recession, which is having many local impacts, may be such a trigger. It is also possible to think that the CE4 scenario will mutate and fit better the fantasy literature narrative. The main narrative of the SF is that humans are both in awe and afraid of their own technology. The main narrative of the fantasy genre is the battle between good and evil where pure hearts and magic give an edge. The post-modern world being what it is, there is now a merger between the SF and fantasy genres. So the mutation of the CE4 narrative might be the best bet. This would translate into the abductees having to do something for the good in general. The experience would be less passive, but the something to do would be only meaningful during the PEMIE, and would appear absurd and meaningless once back in the mundane world. I expect it will be different from the “Space Brother” era and from Marian apparitions, where humans are asked to do something good in the mundane world (i.e., preach peace, pray, build churches, etc). The narrative of the new wave should involve doing something good within the PEMIE world. As well, if SF emerged at a time where technologies were fascinating people, the present-day era is marked by issue about collective identities and fundamental challenges to key metaphysical notions (i.e., clash of civilization, multiculturalism, globalization and culture uniformity, etc.). Hence, the stage is set to withdraw back into a culturally safer world, and the fantasy literary genre offers such a world, although it is likely to be mixed with other genres. In any events, this is a testable hypothesis but only time will tell. The key will be to ensure that these CE4 reports not conforming to the Grey ET scenario will not be excluded by investigators because they do not fit the ETH.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet


RRRGroup said...


YOu have presented a brilliant extrapolation of the UFO-psychology

The psycho-social aspects of the UFO mystery or phenomenon haven't been addressed, fully or sensiibly, until now maybe.

Keep up the good owrk, and we'll be linking your blog at our various blogs....

The UFO Iconoclast(s:

The UFO Provocateur(s):

and The RRRGroup:

Again, nice work, and good exegeses on your part.

Rich Reynolds

Glenda said...

Maybe this is where the new biological ufo trend is going... With social fears such as global warming, the melting and breaking off of major ice shelves in Antartica for example, may be partley cause for this type of sighting. I don't read enough of si fi to know of jellyfish ships, probabley have been invented though..And probabley in print somewhere... Leaves me wondering though.........

Eric Ouellet said...

Hello Rich,

Thanks for your kind words.

I will add your blogs on my link list as well. I like to read them as well.


Eric Ouellet said...

Hello Glenda,

There is a part of sci fi that is fixated with the biological side of the story. As our knowledge of genetic engineering is progressing, we may see more of that type of sci fi. One obvious case is the new TV series Battlestar Galactica. The cylons are actual partly biological now, while in the old show they were standard mechanical-electronic robots.