Sunday, August 16, 2020

Flying Saucers from Before the Great War

Six months ago, before the world fell apart, I wrote about the evolution of the flying saucer from nineteenth-century airship to twentieth-century flying disk. Now I write again.

It seems to me that the conceit of the nineteenth century was both progressive and romantic. The conceit was that Science, this new and exciting force, could be and would be used to solve previously intractable human problems. Airships were a symbol of this kind of thinking, the belief being that airships, because of their great power, would render war impossible to wage. There would be other benefits, too, but an end to war would have to come first if the world was to be made a better place. Salvation was literally in the air; it would be dispensed from the heavens. Here at last was progress, wrought not only by science but also by a faith in science and its power to remake (or at least tame) human nature. (1) This was the dream and the vision. And I suppose it's one of the reasons that early science fiction stories could be called scientific romances with some degree of accuracy and without fear of self-contradiction.

The events of the twentieth century taught us a different lesson, at least for those willing to listen. There are many who haven't listened. Sometimes it seems that most haven't listened, for there are still too many among us who believe in progress, the malleability of human nature, and the perfectibility of human society, thereby of individual human beings. They continue to have an overweening faith, pride, and confidence in Science and Reason. Their faith, as opposed to a faith in anything outside of science, helps to explain why the airship became the flying saucer. With all non-material and supernatural things swept aside during the nineteenth century, we as human beings were free to seize power from above and apply it to our own earthly problems. If the world was going to be made a better place, we would be the ones to do it.

Except that we didn't. Instead we used airships, and after them airplanes, rockets, missiles, and guided bombs, as weapons of war. From the heavens we rained down upon each other horrifying death, making of this Earth a perfect hell. The German State of the twentieth century is an object lesson in the progressive/romantic conceits of the one that preceded it. As Germany proved, the airship would not be used to end war. Instead airships were used to wage it. During the Great War, Germany became the first country to use a rigid airship--the infamous Zeppelin--to bombard another. It was also the first to use in war guided missiles in the form of the V-1 Buzzbomb, guided ballistic missiles in the V-2 rocket, jet-powered aircraft in the Me-262, and guided bombs in the Fritz X. Given a few more months, Nazi Germany might also have been the first to use a flying wing-type aircraft against its enemies. (2) And never mind the atomic bomb.

All of these were hard, scientific/technological developments. You could argue that, as such, they were based in a progressive faith in Science and Reason. But Germany, especially Nazi Germany, was also given to romantic, irrational, and pseudoscientific thinking. That simultaneous embrace of science and pseudoscience, of reason and irrationality, of hard materialism and soft romanticism, is itself irrational and one of the reasons that Nazi Germany remains, to me at least, an almost inexplicable phenomenon. But where had we seen this mix of science and romance before? Where had there previously been a representation of pseudoscience as science? Where else but in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century pseudo-scientific story or scientific romance, a genre that evolved during the interwar period into what we now call science fiction. In realizing that, we might imagine Nazi Germany as the ultimate, real-world scientific romance, perhaps starring Adolf Hitler as an extreme perversion of the Captain Nemo-type Byronic and Romantic hero. (3, 4) And if all of that is true, then the scientific romance and the reign of the airships can be seen to have finally failed with the end of World War II. (5, 6) It's probably no coincidence that flying saucers came along just two years later to take their place.

* * *

Problems remained, though. Now, instead of originating on Earth and among human beings, airborne power came from places unknown and was held by equally unknown and unknowable beings. They are by definition alien and inexplicable. With flying saucers, questions follow upon unanswerable questions. Perhaps none is more important than this:

What do they want?

Or, put another way:

What is their function?

When I wrote in February, I speculated on the physical appearance of the twentieth-century flying saucer as a kind of natural evolution from the nineteenth-century airship. But I also touched on the function of the airship. Here is a quote, the same quote that I used before, from The Century Magazine, 1878:
As entirely new profession--that of airmanship--will be thoroughly organized, employing a countless army of airmen. . . . Boundaries will be obliterated. . . . Troops, aerial squadrons, death-dealing armaments will be maintained only for police surveillance over barbarous races, and for instantly enforcing the judicial decrees of the world's international court of appeal. (Quoted in Predictions by John Durant [1956], p. 28)
That function was affirmed in one of the great flying saucer movies of the twentieth century, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It is also in Things to Come (1936). Now I have found another such quote from before the Great War, but only just before:
The world is tending toward universal peace--the abolition of war. And one of the greatest heralds of peace is the airship. It will make war too horrible to exist further.
The quote is from a book called Wonder Stories (p. 61), written by Francis Trevelyan Miller (1877–1959) and published in 1913. My copy is inscribed:

Charles Gray
Dec. 28th 1914

seven months to the day before the Great War began! It's astonishing to think that even at that late date, progressive-minded people had such great faith in human nature and human perfectibility. And such naïveté, too, for as we have seen since Wonder Stories was published, we haven't yet found "anything too horrible to exist." We haven't yet stayed our hands from doing the most depraved and horrifying of things. In actuality, war is proving to be one of the lesser of the horrifying things that we do. At least war is direct. More killing is done behind closed doors these days than on the battlefield. More depravity exists among the élite than among the common man, including the common foot soldier. Airships didn't do anything to change any of that. In fact that old romantic faith in science, reason, technology, and progress that drove the development of airships has only helped speed things along towards evermore horror and ever greater--or at least evermore practicable and efficient--depravity. Airships into airplanes, the promise of Things to Come, didn't halt their march. Nor did airships into flying saucers, which was the message of The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as the contactee narratives of the 1950s and the abductee narratives after that. (7, 8) Flying saucers continue to keep their distance and we continue to kill each other. Under the sway of Scientism and materialism, we threaten to do far worse things. Imagine a coming age in which human beings are genetically engineered to be no longer human . . .

* * *

Another function of the flying saucer is to observe, to watch, to study, to see. One of the now iconic (or clichéd) images of the flying saucer is of the cone-shaped beam of light--or death ray--cast upon the Earth and its inhabitants. Here it is on a poster for another of the great flying saucer movies, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956):

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was based on Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Maj. Donald Keyhoe (1953). Keyhoe, as it so happens, was a teller of weird tales. Click here to read his story.

Here is a similar image from Weird Tales, November 1944, without the flying saucer, although a flying saucer might be implied as the source of the descending green aliens. (9) The cover artist was Matt Fox:

Fox's cover makes me think of the little green aliens in Toy Story. I have been chosen . . . (10) Here is still another, depicting a supposedly real-life event, the abduction of Travis Walton:

This imagery has obvious religious overtones and obvious origins in religious belief and religious art. That's really a topic for another day, or maybe a week, or a month. For now, I'll show just one image and that should be enough to close this case:

The Baptism of Christ by the Dutch artist Aert de Gelder (1645-1727), executed ca. 1710. The image is the same, its elements are the same, the phenomenon is the same, the feeling and the yearning are the same. These are essentially the same picture. There is even a flying saucer in each. (Actually there is a messenger from on high in each, it's just that one is supernatural and the other is material. Both, however, are spiritual.) The difference between these two images is that they are separated by nearly three centuries, moreover by a vast and unbridgeable gap between belief in God and the completely disastrous loss of that belief, not within Travis Walton himself but within our whole culture, which believes in nothing in the form of Scientism and materialism.

Anyway, my point here is to show that the flying saucer, which is an invention of science fiction, is descended from the romantic/progressive airship of the nineteenth century (which has, as the image above shows, its own line of descent from prescientific, pre-materialistic times). So are there similar images of airships? Well . . . 

. . . how about this one from the San Francisco Call, November 23, 1896, during the first UFO flap in America? The Mystery Airships of 1896-1897 are supposed to have been real, even if there weren't any such aircraft known to exist at the time . . .

Just seventeen years later, though, when Wonder Stories was published, there were in fact rigid airships, exemplified by the German Zeppelin, which first took to the air in 1900. The author of Wonder Stories, Francis Trevelyan Miller, even mentions the Zeppelin in his book. Above is its frontispiece. The function of the airship in this picture isn't obvious at first glance. But from reading Miller's chapter on airships, I gather that the men in the airship above are observing enemy troop movements. The idea, then, is that airships will make traditional warfare obsolete because nothing can escape observation from above. It is this image that grabbed my attention when I first saw Wonder Stories because it recalls the iconography of the flying saucer and its casting of a cone of light upon earthbound people below. It also goes along with the idea that airpower--specifically the airship and later the flying saucer--will render warfare obsolete and impossible to wage. That is the message of Things to Come, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and no doubt other science fiction of the twentieth century.

I have said before that flying saucers come not from outer space but from science fiction. But then science fiction has its own origins in nineteenth-century romanticism, progressivism, and, I think, materialism and Scientism. Put another way, flying saucers flew out of the 1800s on the wings of imagination. Whether it was a naïve or even childish imagination is another one of those topics for another day of writing and reading.

Each has its own little story to tell.

(1) It's no coincidence that four of the great scientific, pseudoscientific, or pseudo-historical developments of the nineteenth century--Darwinism, Marxism, Mendelian genetics, and Freudianism--were attempts (or used as attempts) to drill down into the heart of human nature. Only one of these--genetics--is actually a science and only one of the originators--Gregor Mendel--was actually a scientist. Consequently, he was the most hardheaded among them. It so happens that he was also a man of faith.
So: a man of faith (Mendel)-->an actual science-->rejected by a twentieth-century regime--the U.S.S.R.--in which reason was supposed to have been supreme, to be replaced by a pseudoscience, in this case Lysenkoism; or, conversely, pursued and used as a kind of pseudoscience by progressives and Nazis (they're hard to tell apart sometimes) in the form of eugenics, abortion, forced sterilization, and bizarre experimentation on human beings and human society, either real and murderous or aspirational and murderous.
Meanwhile: skeptics, doubters, and outright atheists (Darwin, Marx, Freud, and their acolytes)-->pseudoscience, pseudo-history, or weak or soft science-->embraced by the murderous regimes of the twentieth century, or at the very least embraced by aspiring tyrants and murderers, for example, the New Left, the critical theorist, and the politically correct offspring of the teratogenic mating of Marxism and Freudianism. For another, the Fascist/Antifa people currently overrunning some of our cities and threatening and hoping to overrun our whole civilization.
What a strange and curious world we live in.
(2) Like the airship of the previous century, the flying wing-type aircraft of the twentieth is a symbol of scientific and technological progress. You know that if you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which has as one of its set pieces a fistfight around a Nazi flying wing. In our popular culture, Nazi technology = advanced technology. In recent years, there have even been conspiracy theorists who believe that Nazi scientists were the first to develop flying saucers. For some reason, these flying saucers look like the fakes that George Adamski built out of a chicken brooder or a desk lamp. Some technology. We shouldn't forget, either, that one of at least two early descriptions of the first flying saucers (June 24, 1947), was of a scimitar-shaped, flying wing-type aircraft. If Kenneth Arnold hadn't described them as skipping like saucers, the whole history and iconography of the phenomenon would have been far different, and maybe there wouldn't have been a flying saucer era at all.
(3) Captain Nemo was reincarnated in Maximilian Schell's character, Dr. Hans Reinhardt, in The Black Hole (1981). There is of course a lot of German and maybe a little bit of German romantic in his character. His ship, the USS Cygnus, looks like it came straight out of the nineteenth century, not as an airship so much as a great, flying Crystal Palace, a nineteenth-century progressive/romantic wonder that burned to the ground in the same year that Things to Come was released. "This is the end of an age," remarked Winston Churchill. And how.
(4) The phrase "Nazi science fiction" would, like "scientific romance," seem self-contradictory and any discussion of it might risk foundering on the rock of German-romantic or Nazi irrationality. Here's the best quote I can find on short notice:
The science fiction novel, with its technical emphasis, at first seems to be the most difficult genre to integrate into the National Socialist literary canon. Science fiction, however, fit perfectly into the Nazi project of returning to a preindustrial world where science is really a craftsmanlike technology that has its source in the ancient currents of magic and racial myth but not in rationality. In real life this was the final goal toward which the Führer led the German people in a total war. In literature the irrational that is capable of subsuming technology in a rudimentary sense had been prepared as early as Heimatkunst [the "Homeland Art" movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s]. It would be more precise to refer to Nazi science-fiction novels as magical-technological novels. These novels--because the real-life dismissal of science was at the core of National Socialist ideology and its self-destructiveness--constitute the one literary genre in which Nazi ideology showed its true face most clearly. [Emphasis added.]
See what I mean by near-foundering? But at least we have a workable term, "magical-technological novel," which approximates, I think, "scientific romance." From German Literature of the Twentieth Century: From Aestheticism to Postmodernism by Ingo Roland Stoehr (2001), p. 192.
(5) Perhaps the crash of the progressive/romantic airship was prefigured in the flaming disaster of the Hindenburg, which came to grief on May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New JerseySpeaking of flames, the UFOs of World War II were called "foo fighters," from the Smokey Stover comic strip and its popular saying, "Where there's foo there's fire." For those who don't know it, Smokey Stover is a fireman. Supposedly a nonsense word, foo is almost certainly from the French, feu, meaning fire. (I think that's called a tautology: "Where there's fire, there's fire.")
(6) Ten days before the Hindenburg went up in flames, Nazi and Fascist air forces bombed the Basque town of Guernica, a terrifying event memorialized by Pablo Picasso in his epic painting Guernica. Though not the first aerial bombardment of a town or city, it was one of the first to gain international attention and international opprobrium. Again, the lesson of the twentieth century is that airpower will not end war but only extend it into another element.
(7) The Day the Earth Stood Still can be seen as an abductee/contactee story, screened at about the same time that supposedly real-life narratives of the same kind began making the rounds of flying saucer fan gatherings. The message was the same, too: our space brothers--which tended to be of the Aryan or Nordic type--wanted to bring us peace and brotherly love. First, an end to war, then, brotherly love, hopefully a little sisterly love, too, with those tall, blonde Nordic aliens.
(8) It occurs to me that The Day the Earth Stood Still and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) have similarities except that in the first, the single mother is the abductee, while in the second it is her son who is taken aboard the alien spacecraft. In both, the military is a sort of enemy or at least an obstacle to the fulfillment or salvation-through-knowledge sought by the main characters. The opposite is true in The Thing from Another World, also from 1951 and also a great flying saucer movie. In that movie, the scientist is the sort-of villain, and the military men the obvious heroes. He wants to understand. They mean to defend. The journalist, who might be the intermediate figure between men of action and men of ideas, reconciles the two at the end, a nice touch made by the screenwriters.
(9) At first glance, Matt Fox's cover seems simple enough. But isn't it actually an inversion of traditional Christian imagery? There is the cone of light or beams of light issuing from Heaven. Smaller, lesser angels descend in the background, while two heralds flank the larger and obviously superior angel or archangel in the center. He has come to Earth on a mission, but what is it? What does he want? Here is a similar image, again from an age of faith:

The Annunciation to the Shepherds by Abraham Hondius (ca. 1631-1691), a painting from 1663. It looks like the heralds are missing from this painting, but we have all seen them in other paintings of the same type.

The spiraling cherubs above lead back to another Weird Tales cover:

Weird Tales, September 1941, cover art by Margaret Brundage. In this case, the spiraling figures are being taken up instead of being sent down. And instead of joy, they express fear and apprehension, at least until the taking up and spiraling begins.

The spiral motif makes me think of the Tower of Babel and its spiraling, ascending walkway. In biblical times we built for ourselves a Tower of Babel so that we might ascend to the heavens and thereby gain godlike power. (The title of C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength [1945] refers to the Tower of Babel.) Instead we were scattered. But with the airship first and later with airplanes, we could make our ascent without a tower--we were cut loose from foundations of slime. Again, it seems to me that the purpose of the airship is to exercise godlike power--to make the world a better place without God's help, this in an age that discarded belief in God and substituted for it a progressive/romantic belief in human beings and the power of the human mind. Now, using Gregor Mendel's insights, we are attempting to drill down into the heart of the cell and to manipulate another spiral, the double helix that resides within each. Again, we seek godlike power, in this case to remake the Creation because we believe it to be flawed. In our own very fine thoughts and minds, we believe we can make the world a better place, alone, without God's help. We're trying once again to build a Tower of Babel. That didn't work before. It's unlikely to work again.

The cover story, by the way, was "Beyond the Threshold" by August Derleth, a notably Catholic author.
(10) That statement--I have been chosen--essentially summarizes the abductee/contactee narrative: I have been chosen--I, who am so small and insignificant in my own life goes the subtext--I have been chosen. I stand out. I am specialI alone have been selected to receive the only truth from the heavens and to disseminate it among a benighted and earthbound humanity. I have hereby gained importance and significance. I can hereby feel and am right to feel self-esteemI.

If there had been social media in the 1950s, we would have had selfies taken with aliens, and the abductees/contactees would have posted them on the Internet in their desperate search for the esteem of their peers. Millions of likes and thumbs-up would have awaited. The significance of the aliens themselves would have been pretty negligible, as the flying saucer phenomenon is ultimately not about flying saucers or aliens from space but about human beings and the spiritual emptiness we feel in this overly scientific and materialistic age. We seek transcendence and will find it or make it any way we can.

Well, that's a long article, with lots of ideas and notes. I wanted to give you plenty to read, though, as I'm going to be gone again for a while. I'll let you know when I come back.

Original text and captions copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley


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