“The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds” – William James
One of the iconic images of 21st Century inquiry into strange phenomena is the poster adorning the basement office of beloved fictional Fortean Fox Mulder of Chris Carter’s X-Files, a flying saucer captioned with the phrase, “I want to believe”. The mournful strings of yearned for faith mired amidst the incredulity of experience in this simple stage prop are palpable, and accurately reflect a deeper, visceral tension that is both what attracts and distracts those who find themselves drawn towards the odd, the inexplicable, and the anomalistic. A common tongue-in-cheek trope in anthropology is that a good anthropologist doesn’t return from years in the field to find themselves experiencing disorientation within their culture of origin, rather they were attracted to anthropology as a method to madness in the first place because they already felt the disjunction, were already an outsider, a lay observer of discontinuity. Perhaps immersion in another culture, another way of existing, hones the perceptions and provides a technical ergot with which to measure the distance between realities, but it is the willingness to suspend disbelief in other ways of understanding ourselves, our societies, and our universe that underlays the desire to make the inquiry. The carnival freak, the magician, the monster, the alien, the special effect – the siren call of those elements that we know to be a performance, but nonetheless crave – drive us to seek out the impossible, improbable, and intangible, and for the merest of moments we “want to believe”. Not to investigate, uncover, or understand, rather to participate in Mircea Eliade’s heirophany, piercing the veil between the sacred and the profane.
This foundation in “wanting to believe” is the fertile ground that nourishes the disdain of the skeptic, the accusations of bad historiography from historians, and the compulsion to disprove and debunk from the scientific community, fields which philosophically would otherwise approve of the manifest curiosity about what happened and how it should be interpreted. Those of us who wait with bated breath for the next close encounter, photo of a ghost, cryptozoological oddity, time slip, or near death experience to add to the voluminous list of intrusive otherness that like-minded individuals have cataloged across the years sense that for all our earnest examination and investigation, research and reasoning, our quarry remains elusive, not because we have blundered into a pitched battle between the noumenal and phenomenal, due rather to an insistence on the significance of patterns. There is certainly no shame in looking for patterns when in fact that very activity is the foundation of all human inquiry that presumes not to simply be encyclopedic. A fall of fish on London, and a fall of fish on New Dehli, and a fall of fish on Chicago must signify something, be it an act of God, bizarre weather, a conspiracy of disgruntled flight attendants, or a merry trickster playing pranks. We want to find the commonalities and revealed truths underneath for if we cannot, the world is truly insane, cause does not follow effect, and our conception of natural order is so fundamentally flawed as to be discarded. Yet the modern world works. We cure disease. We launch rockets to the moon. We microwave TV dinners. Humanity has successfully applied its grey matter empirically to countless practical questions and come up smelling like roses. Why then, when so many bright minds also turn to the esoteric, the occult, the anomalistic, or the just plain strange and ask the same questions any decently trained scientist might, the disingenuous oddity skitters off into a twilight realm, daring us to follow and mocking us if we do? Has it no respect for order and reality? I have it on good authority that one of the seven habits of a highly effective eternal mystery is, well, remaining mysterious. The essential question is not “what is real”, rather “what does it mean?”, but we can err on the side of a scientific “explaining away” or equally err in an interpretive “explaining into”. We are demonstrating, strict logical positivist and strange phenomena devotee alike, that we want to believe, in either a mundane or magical universe.
This is, of course, how an entire industry, replete with accompanying literature can arise surrounding ancient aliens. Even were we to ignore the fallacy of historical presentism that the luminaries of ancient alien theory indulge in, shaping everything they can lay their hands upon in a modern idiom that would not necessarily have been cognitively available in the past i.e. it’s in the sky, it looks funny, it must equate with our current understanding of unidentified flying objects, and the poor barbarians just didn’t know what they were looking at. Obviously gods were aliens, since gods don’t exist. This is simply the flip side of the coin that leads the materialist to conclude that the intangible is also impossible. Yet an entire alternative universe can be constructed if you want to believe, complete with compelling evidence, curious correspondences, and an absorbing narrative. Most aspects of the world respectfully contain themselves within our dominant paradigm of reality, that is, physicality with a begrudging nod to the role of consciousness in perception. Those elements of the universe that are irritatingly occasional and averse to laboratory testing are what we label as anomalistic, or in the common parlance, “just plain weird”. Sasquatch has eluded capture. Ghosts remain annoyingly incorporeal. Aliens still fail to make their presence known except through photobombing, periodic abductions, crop circles, and cattle mutilations. The question becomes, properly framed, not how such things could ever be possible, instead the question is how do we make them plausible?
The study of strange phenomena, which so often finds itself arrayed against an imagined monolith of science, might justifiably consider itself a manifestation of a seemingly oxymoronic “post-modern” science, the application of reason to the breakdown of ideological containment, in this instance the ideology of the real. Truth can never be discovered in the endpoints. It is the space between, the acts of categorization, from which we grope towards universal gestalt, destined never to find the ultimate facts, rather the apprehension of meaning.
This led me to ponder a fascinating research question. Could I construct, not fabricate mind you, but assemble a plausible argument analogous to the popular ancient alien theories, founded firmly in history, sociology, archaeology, mythology, folklore, anthropology, and other marginally respectable disciplines that offered a compelling alternative to accepted truths, and having done so, what could be learned from both process and product. Consequently, I have been pouring over literature on the folklore surrounding “the subterranean origin of the species” – that is, the suggestion that human life began under the earth (there will be a book at some point). Whether I truly believe that, contrary to more or less all sober understanding of the subject (and personally I feel sobriety is a fallback for lazy minds), that humanity first emerged on the sunlit fields of our green earth from underground is entirely beside the point. Let’s just say that I began this effort determined to discover what happens when I “want to believe”. What fantastically real world can I create? What meaning can be derived from such a thought experiment? What mysteries of our world will obligingly fall in line? What minutia will become mountains? At times it may seem that I am not taking my objects of inquiry seriously, but if I have learned nothing else about scholarship (and several former professors of mine would no doubt graciously point out that in their estimation, I have indeed learned nothing else about it), it is that if you cannot find humor in your topic, no matter how bleak, dark, or inhumane it is, the odds are you aren’t doing it justice, for what is a joke, but playing with meaning? Take an idea and turn it over in your mind. Pull it apart. Piece it back together. Feel out the nooks and crannys where the subtexts hide. Mock the earnestness of true believers. Poke the eyes of the self-assured skeptics. A good anomalist won’t balk at playing the clown because the pies we are throwing are aimed at the faces of gods. That is after all, the real reason they invented smiting.
A passage from Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum succinctly captures the warp and the weave, the want and the wish, the way in which we work towards belief and understanding. The wise occultist Dr. Agliè, commenting on a fictional work called The Secret Language of the Pyramids, explains how the author measured the Great Pyramid of Cheops and determined that esoteric knowledge was encoded in its dimensions, proceeding to do the same with a newspaper kiosk in downtown Paris. Eco’s conspiracy enthusiasts are disconcerted, assuming that Agliè consequently rejects all numerologies out of hand. Agliè protests, “On the contrary, I believe firmly. I believe the universe is a great symphony of numerical correspondences, I believe that numbers and their symbolism provide a path to special knowledge. But if the world, below and above, is a system of correspondences where tout se tient, it’s natural for the kiosk and pyramid, both works of man, to reproduce in their structure, unconsciously, the harmonies of the cosmos. The so-called pyramidologists discover with their incredibly torturous methods a straightforward truth, a truth far more ancient, and one already known. It is the logic of research and discovery that is tortuous, because it is the logic of science. Whereas the logic of knowledge needs no discovery, because it knows already. Why must it demonstrate that which could not be otherwise? If there is a secret, it is much more profound. These authors of yours simply remain on the surface”.
This is the essence of the strange, the raison d’être of anomalistic inquiry, the willingness and mental discipline to, if only just for a moment, ponder the imponderable, to ask the simple question of what it would mean if the canonically impossible happened? And happened again. And again. Rabbits don’t regard “going down the rabbit hole” as anything remarkable or intellectually rebellious. Be a rabbit. Just for a little while.