Seeing Things

Patrick Harpur
From Magonia 42, March 1992

I have always felt uneasy about the complacency with which ufologists repeat the assertion that 90% (or 95%) of UFO sightings are misidentifications of ordinary aerial objects such as stars, planets, birds, clouds, aircraft, etc. (I don’t believe in weather balloons); or else of natural phenomena such as patches of light, optical reflections etc. (whatever they are).

I don’t like the superior air which creeps into reports of UFOs which turn out to have one of these simple explanations. It reminds me of a school seniority system: the scientists look down on the ufologists for believing in UFOs, and the ufologists, who want to become (of all things) scientists, look down on poor benighted passers-by who mistake simple weather balloons (or whatever) for what they are pleased to call genuine UFOs.

At a Magonia conference in Mortlake some years ago, we listened briefly to a radio phone-in on UFOs which happened to coincide with the conference. How we all hooted when Val of Peckham rang in to say that she had been disturbed by a weird light in the sky! It had seemed to be watching her, it was definitely intelligent, she had come over all funny, etc. It was obvious from her description that the light in question was a planet. John Rimmer, our kindly host, quelled the derision by reminding us that Val’s experience was in a sense the very stuff of ufology — indeed, that many of the eminent ufologists present had been seized by the subject through just such an encounter, mistaken or not. We were suitably chastened.

And so we should be. After all, if I may lapse for a moment into fancy existentialist talk, Val had been confronted in her fallen inauthentic condition with a sense of the uncanny. This idea plays a key part in Heidegger’s philosophy, for uncanniness is the hallmark of those moments in one’s life when, as he says, angst brings dasein (being-there) face to face with its terrible freedom — either to dwell in inauthenticity or to make a bid for self-possession. (More particularly, the uncanny is the summons of conscience, at which we experience a primal guilt — schuld – at the fact that the source of our being is a nothingness or, rather, that our being necessarily implies the possibility of non-being. Guilt, then, may play a part in people’s reluctance to report uncanny experiences, usually put down to simple fear of ridicule… )
That way of seeing the world, and being seen by it, which has been derisively labelled ‘animism’, is not the prerogative of poor benighted primitives, but an experience of reality which can strike at any time
However, I didn’t get you here to show off my profound grasp of existentialism. I just want to suggest that Val had the kind of experience we all have at some time, especially as children: that of seeing a world we had been told was dead, as alive, intelligent, watchful (we all remember the sinister dressing-gown, up to no good on the back of the bedroom door). In other words, that way of seeing the world, and being seen by it, which has been derisively labelled ‘animism’, is not the prerogative of poor benighted primitives (or even of children), but an experience of reality which can strike at any time, just as it struck a couple (one of whom was, of all things, a scientist) who were driving from Shropshire to Cheshire one night in October 1983. They were lengthily and systematically hounded by an aerial object which shone menacing beams of light into their car, terrifying them. In a state of shock, and after much thought, they reported it to (of all things) the Jodrell Bank radio telescope, who passed the report on to Jenny Randles, who kindly wrote it down for us. It turned out that the couple had misperceived the moon.

Perhaps ufology should be less concerned with the nature of the object than with the nature of perception. Here, for instance, is another well-known case of misidentification:
“…do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea? O no, no, I see an Innumerable Company of the Heavenly Host crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”‘

The percipient is of course the visionary poet and artist William Blake. The ‘disk of fire’ is the sun. Blake insisted that his poems were not mere figures of speech but true accounts of the natural world, transformed (invariably personified) by the power of the creative imagination. He could see the sun perfectly well as everyone else does, as a golden Guinea; but he could also see its deeper reality as a heavenly host. He distinguished between seeing with the eye and seeing through it.

I’m not saying that there are no such things as visual errors. We’ve all seen lights in the sky which might have been UFOs, but which on closer inspection turned out to be aircraft lights or whatever. But even such simple misidentifications are not wholly neutral or without significance. They are like visual equivalents of Freudian or, more accurately, Jungian slips: they point for a moment to the Unknown which lies both in our depths and in the heights of the sky. Even when we see with and not through the eye, as it were, we are already imagining what we see. Blake’s description of the normal sun is already embroidered by a simile, ‘like a Guinea’. The whole world is an imaginative construct. There’s no such thing as a simple unadorned perception, nor a simple misperception — let alone Val of Peckham’s sighting, charged as it was with potentially frightful significance.

Was Val satisfied with the explanation that her sighting was ‘only a planet’? Was she not made to feel a little foolish, even a little cheated? And what of ‘Mrs A’ of Hollington, West Sussex, who was watching television on 4 October 1981, when she felt ‘compelled’ to go to the window, only to see a large bright yellow object in the sky? Joined by her daughter-in-law Janette, the two women watched astonished for half an hour as the object wobbled, pulsated and repeatedly changed shape. Several times, as an aircraft passes nearby, the object emitted smoke and hid itself behind a cloud. Janette saw lights on, and structural sides to, the object. Both women suffered severe recurrent headaches over the following weeks — a sure sign of a close encounter — and Mrs A experienced a 14-hour blackout four days after the sighting. The witnesses were convinced they had seen a spacecraft piloted by aliens. Investigation revealed that the object had been the moon.

If Blake had been running the phone-in when Val of Peckham rang, he would not have told her that she had misidentified a planet; he would have said she was privileged to have glimpsed the awesome form of foam-born Venus rising in splendour from the sea of night

The usual ‘explanation’ for such lunatic experiences is ‘projection’. The term, derived from Freud and the early Jung, is taken to mean that images from the unconscious are thrown forward, by-passing consciousness, on to the world or on to objects in the world (the night sky makes a particularly handy screen) where they are perceived as something external. This has come to mean that the images are ‘only subjective’ but are wrongly seen as objective. (Jung became much more equivocal about projection as a result of his alchemical studies.)

However, as Lee Worth Bailey, among others, has argued (in ‘Skull’s Lantern: psychological projection and the Magic Lantern’, Spring: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought, 1986), the idea of ‘projection’ is a metaphor drawn from the model of the magic lanterns which caused so much excitement in the 19th century. While the common people were astounded and terrified by the slide-shows which tended to project images of ghosts and demons, experts and debunkers delighted in exposing the ‘fraudulence’ of these images. Scientists like David Brewster (d. 1868) published widely read descriptions of how the magic lanterns worked and went on to claim that all so-called visions and apparitions were attributable to them. He asserted that ancient priestcraft employed similar devices to trick people into believing that gods and daemons exist when they were, in fact, only projected delusions.
Our primary mode of perception is imaginative, we simultaneously see and transform the world

This notion was to influence Freud who deprecated visions as ‘nothing but projections’. And, naturally, just as we tend to model the psyche on our own machines (it’s computers now), so it was not long before the magic lantern became the model for our own heads out of which subjective images were projected on a soulless world of objects. The psyche became restricted to the skull, and any of its images encountered outside became delusions which had to be withdrawn back inside. Thus the autonomous myth-making imagination was reduced to a kind of cine-projector which mechanically threw out fraudulent visual, images — and to hell with the powerful affecting visions of poor benighted bystanders.

I suggest that the idea of projection won’t wash. It’s simply the corollary of Locke’s equally erroneous description of the mind as a ‘blank sheet of paper’ which passively receives the stamp of external sense impressions. We should rethink our epistemology along the lines of a Blake, understanding that our primary mode of perception is imaginative. We simultaneously see and transform the world. As the ancients knew, the moon is not just a barren planet but a dangerous goddess liable to induce delusions or revelations, madness or mystical experience; and if my two examples are anything to go by, she potentially still is.

We have been brought up with a literal-minded world-view. We demand that objects have only a single identity or meaning. We are educated to see with the eye only, in single vision. When the preternatural breaks in upon us, transforming the profane into something sacred, amazing, we are unequipped for it. Instead of seizing on the vision, reflecting on it — writing poetry if necessary — we react with fright and panic. Instead of countering like with like, that is, assimilating through imagination the complexity of the image presented to us, we feebly phone scientists for reassurance. We are told we are only ‘seeing things’ and so we miss the opportunity to grasp that different, more primordial order of reality which lies behind the merely literal.

I’m not suggesting that we strive only to see the world as visionaries. To perceive all aerial objects as angels — to see only the heavenly host sun and not the guinea sun — leads to the madhouse. It is just as literal-minded as seeing a light in the sky as only a ball of hot gas or a barren planet, or an extraterrestrial spacecraft. This, too, is a kind of madness, albeit established and called normal. The remedy is to cultivate a sense of metaphor which, as its etymology suggests, is the ability to ‘carry across’ — to translate one view of the world in terms of another. Sanity is the possession of what Blake called ‘double vision’, which allowed him, for example, to see “with my inward eye … an old man grey / With my outward a thistle across the way.”

If Blake had been running the phone-in when Val of Peckham rang in, he would not have told her that she had misidentified a planet; he would have said she was privileged to have glimpsed the awesome form of foam-born Venus rising in splendour from the sea of night. She might then have been emboldened to prise wider that momentary crack in literal reality and to enter that other, imaginative Reality which alone infuses the world with beauty and terror. We don’t need to see UFOs in order to enter that Reality because, to the poetic imagination, everything in the sky –stars, birds, clouds, balloons — is a UFO whose final reality can never be known.