Ufology and Romanticism

Nigel Watson
Magonia 9, 1982.
With the rise of industrialization in the 18th and 19th centuries, people such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Adam Smith (1723-90) sought to discover the laws that they believed determine patterns of human behaviour. They postulated that human activities worked on the same principles as any vast mechanism and, as a consequence, they thought individual free will had no part to play in effecting social changes.

Although Thomas Carlyle (1795-1889) was not entirely against machine production he did believe in the power of individual moral responsibility. He argued that:
‘… there is a science of Dynamics in man’s fortunes and nature, as well as of Mechanics’. He explained that ‘the wise men, who now appear as Political Philosophers, deal exclusively with the Mechanical province; and occupying themselves in counting-up and estimating men’s motives, strive… to guide them to their true advantage…’
This he regarded as inadequate because of the infinite variety of human ‘motives’ and because it ignored the Dynamics of human behaviour. Dynamics, he claimed,
‘…addresses the primary, unmodified forces and energies of man, the mysterious springs of Love, and Fear, and Wonder, of Enthusiasm, Poetry, Religion, all of which have a truly vital and infinite character…’ (1)
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) noted that those interested only in what Carlyle called the Mechanics of human behaviour were mere ‘reasoners and mechanists’. (2) On the other hand ‘Poets’ were concerned with the Dynamics of human behaviour and feelings. For the benefit of this article it is convenient to regard those who Shelley called ‘poets’ as people who embraced the romantic ethos.
Romantics tended to look to the past when man lived in (what they believed to be) greater harmony with both physical nature and his own psychological nature. The French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau [left] (1712-78) was one of the first people to express doubts about human material ‘progress’. He argued that civilized society had made man more obsessed with the acquisition of material goods, and more dependent upon each other owing to the greater division of labour and property. In opposition to these trends he subscribed to a faith in the concept of primitive or natural man who, he believed, ‘aspires only for the satisfaction of needs whose fulfilment gives him contentment’. (3)

The romantic writers who reacted against the mechanistic determinists and instead believed in the power of individual free will and naturalism, like Wordsworth, Shelley, Scott and Byron, created some of the finest literature ever produced in Britain, which was highly praised and very popular. In the same way, artists like J M W Turner (1775-1851) portrayed the wilder side of human emotion and imagination through the illustration of the power and the glory of the natural world in a grandiose style.

Later, novels such as Jane Eyre, can be seen as part of an informal, romantic revolt against the ‘reasoners and mechan-ists’. Indeed, Charlotte Bronte used Jane Eyre to criticize the ‘Mechanical Age’ philosophy; to shout out for personal liberation; to advocate equality in male and female relationships; and to lambaste many of the conventions of British social and religious life. That this was seen as a dangerous attack upon the structure and stability of British society can be seen from this quotation taken from a review of Jane Eyre written in 1848: ‘…the tone of the mind and thought which has overthrown authority and violated every code human and divine abroad, and fostered Chartism and rebellion at home, is the same which has also written Jane Eyre’. (4)

The term ‘romanticism’, as we have seen, covers many different elements which are easier to recognize than to define. Basically we can assert that a Romantic is fascinated by and aware of nature, and is attracted to strange faraway exotic locations. A spirit of rebellion, rejection of the mundane, emphasis on sensual experience and extreme emotions constitute part of this outlook. We can also include the gothic elements of the irrational, supernatural, dreams, religion, the past, and danger, along with the appeal of the fascinating foreigner, the person with a mysterious/threatening past (a part of the concept of the Byronic ‘fallen angel’), and the need to communicate inexpressible feelings through the use of surrealistic and symbolic imagery, as being part of the romantic orientation.

In Freudian terms we could say that the romantics wish to release the instinctual natural powers of the unconscious from the chains of mechanistic repression. But even before Freud could formulate his views the philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was unconvinced that the release of these impulses would be a good thing. He argued that there are two primary meanings of the word ‘nature’. The first meaning is everything which happens or exists, and is actual as opposed to fictional; in the second meaning, natural events are those which would happen without some kind of intervention, and are natural as opposed to artificial incidents. In the first sense of the word we cannot help conforming to nature. In the second sense of the word we find that human existence is improved by intervening in the actions of nature; indeed man has to ‘fight’ nature in order to survive in certain instances. So from Mill’s point of view the romantic concept of conforming to nature was ridiculous because it would leave us free to carry out any irrational impulse.

Despite these objections to the romantic outlook, it still has maintained a hold on thinking in the 20th century. For in-stance, strands of the romantic attitude can be seen in the work of D H Lawrence who “hated what he called ‘mental knowledge’, a merely knowing-about things, as distinct from immediately sensing their concrete existence, their ‘otherness’. His passionate dismissal of scientific evidence stemmed from a conviction that it wasn’t a knowledge of living systems known by living men, but of abstractions, a shadow-world known merely ‘in the head’, which then came between living men and their potential for direct ex-perience”. (5)

In the UFO literature many examples of romantic thinking can be found. Since the publication of my interviews with Paul Bennett in MUFOB New Series 11 and 12, we have remained in communication with each other, and it has been increasingly apparent that he is inclined towards a romantic attitude. The faith in nature is expressed by Paul in these two quotations taken from his booklet The Metro Triangle: 1977. Book 2:
‘Embrace the perfections of Mother Nature with all your thoughts and life will fall into your hands … Life is a beauty, cradled by the magic of nature.’

His interest in the occult has gained strength over the years and this is manifested in the following statement contained in a letter he wrote to me, dated 13 January 1981:
‘Recently I have become more and more prepossessed with the ideas of virtually all aspects of the black arts. It all began as a fascination of the points made by Keel in his works involving the relation between demonic beings and unidentified flying objects. I felt that to find out whether there was a real connection or not, I had best find out for myself – and I have! Take my word for it, dabbling in the forbidden arts of magic and wicca is a very strange journey indeed.’

"The area is named after a certain Judy Marsden,
a woman who lived in the woods
during the 17th and early 18th Century.
She lived alone in a very small hut,
and here she practised the arts of witchcraft"

He is interested in experiencing the supernatural directly, and his ‘dabbling in the forbidden arts’ reveals a delight in toying with potentially dangerous phenomena. An interest in the past, danger, powerful hidden forces, witchcraft, a strange location, is shown in a letter dated March 1982 which tells of some incidents in Judy Woods, Bradford. He wrote:
‘The area is named after a certain Judy Marsden, a woman who lived in the woods during the 17th and early 18th Century. She lived alone in a very small hut, no larger than your front room, and here she practised the arts of witchcraft … A Mrs Walls (in 1981) took her dog for a walk in Judy Woods one afternoon, and she hasn’t been seen since! Days following that, decapitated dogs appeared all through the woods – their skulls sawn straight down the middle! … Judy herself could control the little people, although she apparently fell victim to their mischief every now and again. The little folk used to get Judy to carry them over the large stream which runs through the woods.’

Also he noted that children had seen a UFO whilst walking through the woods in 1981.

Without going into too much detail we can note that UFO contactees, such as Adamski, have reacted (either consciously or unconsciously) against the objective, materialistic, scientific orientation of our Western culture. The contactee is a hero in a story of cosmic importance who, by transmitting the wisdom of the aliens, (who divest their knowledge in long and usually arid philosophical discussions on exotic space trips) feels that the necessary changes in our attitude have to occur, otherwise the cataclysmic forces released by our technological ingenuity will tear us apart. In Briefing for the Landing on Planet Earth by Stuart Holroyd (Corgi, 1979) one of the extraordinary messages from the unknown agrees with this outlook because:
Human greed, desire, jealousy and emotional imbalance are responsible both for the dire situation the planet is in ecologically and for the general cosmic crisis, and as it would require a fundamental change in human consciousness and orientation to overcome these failings it is important both for the Earth and for the universe that such a change be effected. (p. 164)

In his important article ‘Why have all the UFOs gone?’ (Magonia 7) Peter Rogerson makes a distinction between what he calls the ‘flying saucer mythology’ and the ‘UFO mythology’. If we use Shelley’s terminology the adherents to the flying saucer mythology can be regarded as ‘poets’ whilst those subscribing to the UFO mythology can be re-garded as ‘reasoners and mechanists’.

Although it can be argued that Peter’s attempt to link the dominance and variations in the manifestation of each approach with specific events is difficult to substantiate, this does not invalidate the view that the UFO/flying saucer mythologies are just another part of a long-standing debate about human behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and values, which has gained impetus and im-portance owing to the ever greater pressure of population, resources and technology upon our social structures.’

Whether or not we are being guided, informed, deceived or manipulated by hypothetical UFO forces seems rather irrelevant when we are confronted by such issues. But in reality the power of the UFO/flying saucer mythologies is in their ability to communicate these problems in a manner which is completely different from the effect the disclosure of any number of facts, figures or statistics might have.

These mythologies act as a frame-work into which the worries and problems of social groups and individuals are integrated and expressed in a dynamic and dramatic fashion. In this sense they stimulate an unconscious artistic ‘need to create an external, concrete experience in order to identify or communicate a nebulous, and in many cases almost totally non-understood, emotional or philosophical feeling’, as John Rimmer put it in ‘Facts, Fraud and Fairytales’ (MUFOB New Series 9).

Objective proof of these experiences is needed if they are to receive acceptance without reservation by the public and scientific community. Surprisingly, even those who are interested in the philosophy of the space people wish to offer tangible evidence as proof of their experiences, when one would expect a dismissal of scientific abstractions in the manner D H Lawrence displayed. For instance, Adamski seemed obsessed with the need to obtain photographic evidence, and his books contain long descriptions of the alien hardware. Even the editor of Britain’s most romantically orientated UFO magazine Magic Saucer cries in an exasperated tone: ‘Why aren’t any impartial UFO investigators trying to find out what the intelligences behind UFOs want’ (letter by Crystal Hogben in Common Ground No. 4). In reply we can answer by stating that if the UFO forces are nothing more than the inarticulate fears which contain metaphorical/symbolic meanings of importance to the individual and/or society, then the task of examining these data in a scientific manner seems to fall upon the disciplines of psychology and sociology primarily.

Having said that we must note that psychologists battle over the question of whether normal mental events can ever supply legitimate data worthy of their rig-orous scientific standards. On the one hand, some psychologists think that subjective experiences can be the source of reliable data under the right laboratory conditions; others think the task is a logical impossibility. Given the problems of dealing with mental events in a scientific manner and the controversy generated by this debate we seem to be a long way from being able to study the messages from contactees in an objective fashion that would be agreeable to everyone. The content and social consequences of UFO beliefs are the concern of sociologists who can study these elements whether they contain any truth or not. So from a sociological (and a psycho-dynamic) view the statement from a UFO percipient that ‘the sighting seemed real even if it might have been a vision’ indicates that the ‘poets’ so beloved by Shelley are still around, and worthy of our attention.

  1. CARLYLE, Thomas. Signs of the Times, 1829.
  2. SHELLEY, P B. 'The Defence of Poetry', extract in Nature and Industrialization, A. Clayre (ed.) Oxford University Press, 1977.
  3. ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 1754.
  4. MARTIN, Graham. ‘D H Lawrence’, in Twentieth-Century Responses to Industrialization, Open University Press, 1978.
  5. RIGBY, Elizabeth, Lady Eastlake. Extract in Study Companion to Jane Eyre, by C Havely, Open University Press, 1978.