Magonia 16, July 1984
By ‘authorised myth’ we understand a belief or set of beliefs which, despite inadequate scientific evidence for its existence, obtains the sanction of widespread acceptance within the prevailing culture. In unsophisticated Catholic communities it may be the prospect of a visit from the Virgin Mary, for the tribespeople of New Guinea an aeroplane bringing cargo, for an ascetic saint in the desert a tempting demon; and so forth.
The most widely accepted of contemporary myths – as evidence such reliable indicators of prevailing cultural beliefs as TV commercials – is the possibility of extraterrestrial intervention on Earth. This comes in two forms. The simple form, authorised by our own space ventures, envisages surveillance and even visits by extraterrestrial spacecraft. The more elaborate form, authorised by the failure of orthodox religion to provide a convincing basis for belief, envisages direct contact with cosmic guardians.
The role of the authorised myth in ufology
It was Michel Monnerie who explicitly specified the authorised myth as a rational explanation for irrational UFO repurts. He proposed that the sighting of an inexplicable object induces the witness, conditioned by the prevailing myth, to exclaim Mon Dieu, perhaps it’s one of those UFO things? and this triggers a waking dream in which his mind constructs a fantasy in which the external sensory stimulus is modified in accordance with the fashionable myth.
Monnerie’s proposals came at a time when some such hypothesis was needed. A few diehards continued to see UFO sightings as a wholly objective phenomenon – subject to misinterpretation, no doubt, but not to unconscious mental modification. But a growing number of ufologists were ready to accept that the mind of the witness plays a more creative role in the sighting experience, and were consequently disposed to entertain a hypothesis which linked an objective stimulus to a subjective psychological process. Monnerie offered just such a hypothesis.
“Force est de conclure,” he said, “que le fond émane des themes universels, des archétypes fondamentaux d l’humanité, tandis que la fame est donnée par les acquis inconscients de chacun des sujets, l’ensemble se developpant dans le mythe modern, credible, acceptable.” [Naufrage, 215] (We must conclude that the basis of the sighting derives from the universal themes, the fundamental archetypes of mankind, while the form is supplied by the contents of the subject’s unconscious, the two forming an ensemble which develops within the parameters of the modern myth, credible and acceptable.)
How tempting to nod our heads and murmur, But of course: We know all about archetypes, they have all the blessing of holy writ. We know too about private fantasy and how it can substitute for reality. These are known psychological concepts, it is reasonable to find them operating in the UFO context. All we have to do is say Oui, M. Monnerie, to as raison…
And there is a wonderful bonus. Subscribe to my hypothesis, says the tempter, and you can give up ufology with a clear conscience and go back to being a normal person. For says he, “il devient parfaitment clair qu’on ne peut, a partir d’une construction illusoire de l’esprit, batir use science, l’ufologie, digne de ce nom:’ [Naufrage, 56] (It’s obvious that a science of ufology worthy of the name cannot be built on a foundation of mental illusions)
I shall resist the temptation to argue Monnerie’s logic, beyond questioning his assertion that fantasy is not suscepible to scientific analysis. What concerns us is whether his neat package is really valid?
According to him, a UFO report comprises two elements. First, the basic form, dictated by an archetype of some description. This is no place to discuss the whole notion of archetypes, so I will simply state my opinion that Jung’s concept, however stimulating, has in practical terms only very limited application. True, many UFO sightings can be matched with his archetypes – spheres, eggs, discs, etc. But not every sphere-shaped object is to be interpreted as an archetype: a football is round for physical, not metaphysical, reasons, because it is the ideal shape for kicking and rolling, not because it echos something deep within our psyches.
Well, however he establishes its basic form, the UFO witness – according to Monnerie – proceeds to modify it according to the contents of his unconscious mind. It could well be so. But he them goes on to say that these modifications are dictated by the modern myth, credible and acceptable.
Well now, are they?If a myth is to have a meaning, it must have coherence. If this myth of extraterrestrial spacecraft is to mean anything, then the objects reported should be more or less like what people accept extraterrestrial spacecraft to look like. But if there is one aspect of ufology more than another which drives us all to despair, it is the reluctance of one UFO to resemble another, and for more than a handful to look anything like what we would expect an extraterrestrial spacecraft to look like.
True, the reality – if there is any – is liable to transcend our expectations; but it is with those expectations that Monnerie’s myth is concerned. And the fact is that for every logically shaped UFO there is one that is a shapeless jelly, or a Christmas tree, or a wineglass, or a transparent box like a TV screen – you name it, somebody’s seen it.
The shapeless jelly may be, indeed, what an extraterrestrial spacecraft looks like; it may be what the extraterrestrials choose for us to see; or it may derive from deep down in the witness’s unconscious. But neither way, I submit, does it derive from any authorised myth.To explain why a witness sees a strange object and immediately starts thinking in terms of UFOs, the concept of the authorised myth may be useful. But when it comes to understanding why the sighting experience took the form it does, the concept is quite inadequate, and we must look elsewhere.
MONNERIE, Michel. Et si les OVNIs n’existaient pas?, Les Humanoides Associes, Paris 1977.
MONNERIE, Michel. Le naufrage des Extra-terrestres, Nouvelles Editions rationalistes, Paris 1979.