The Big Idea: David Halperin
Hey there, folks. As I am busy today doing panels and signing books and fighting back the alien invasion of Chicago, I thought I might fill the void that otherwise might be here today by dropping in a Big Idea post. And what a thematically appropriate Big Idea we have for today, as David Halperin, a former professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, is here to talk about his debut novel, Journal of a UFO Investigator. I mention Professor Halperin’s other gig not just to impress you with his book learning (and Book learning, as it were), but because as you’ll see, for Halperin, there’s a thematic connection between UFOs and his chosen field of academia. Here he is to explain how.
In the fall of 1960, when I was just about thirteen years old, I became a believer in Unidentified Flying Objects. For the next four or five years I made a substantial nuisance of myself, trying to convince anyone with the smallest disposition to listen that our skies were being visited by spaceships from another world, possibly here on a mission of peace and friendship. But more likely, in my considered adolescent opinion, they’d come bent on invasion and conquest.
How was it possible, the grownups around me demanded, that a bright kid like me could believe this stuff? My answer was that I was simply bowing to the weight of the evidence. Now, with the perspective of fifty years, I can see how I deceived myself. For me, and I think for those in our culture who share the views I once held, the conviction that UFOs were real was not a rational belief but something far more important and profound: a myth.
UFOs as myth—that’s the “big idea” behind Journal of a UFO Investigator. “Myth,” not meaning “bunk, hooey,” but in the positive Jungian sense of a collective tale that’s a royal road into the depths of our souls.
What’s its meaning? I start from the data I know best, my own experience. I became a UFO believer upon reading a single book, Gray Barker’s 1956 bestseller They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. This book “revealed” the doings of the Three Men In Black, who visit those who’ve come close to solving the mystery of the UFOs and terrify them into silence—with threats, but also with the awful horror of the secret itself. I believed in UFOs because I believed in the Men In Black. And I believed in the Men In Black because they were a true and faithful mirror of the reality I knew from my household. We indeed had a terrible secret, which none in my family dared to speak. Namely that my mother was not merely ill—a “semi-invalid,” we called her—but slowly dying, of an incurable heart condition.
The Men In Black are part of Journal of a UFO Investigator. The background of the novel is drawn from my own experience as a teenage boy with a dying mother. Other parts are autobiographical, but in a different sense. They start out from fantasies and dreams I recall having had during the years from 13 to 17, my years of being a “UFOlogist.”
Vividly do I remember: imagining myself standing outside my home, gazing into the starlit sky, watching as a glowing red disk blazed its way across the heaven. I say: imagining myself. I never had this experience, or anything close to it. But I was utterly convinced I would have it, might have it, that it was there for the having. This was the scene with which, many years later, I began the story of young Danny Shapiro, UFO investigator.
And I recall a dream I had as a teenager, or perhaps it was a waking fantasy. I was in an old house, somewhere in the country, attending a meeting of a society of ultra-serious teenagers like myself, dedicated to exploring the mysteries that lie just beyond the borders of science. Among them was a beautiful blonde girl in an evening dress … Thus was born the episode of the novel in which Danny visits the headquarters of the “Super-Science Society” and first encounters Rochelle, the lovely young seductress and thief who’ll entice him into the realms of wonder, terror, and ultimately wisdom.
I didn’t remain a UFO investigator forever. The unspoken, the unspeakable, at last happened: my mother died. Not long afterward I went off to college. My UFO belief, its function gone, slowly withered and waned. My interest shifted to other subjects—the mysterious “wheels” of the Biblical Book of Ezekiel, and the otherworldly journeys of the ancient Jewish visionaries who made their shamanic way toward the “chariot” that Ezekiel claimed to have seen. These were respectable subjects. They might yield a Ph.D. dissertation, an academic job, eventually tenure. Of course at bottom they were UFOs once more, a fact of which I was at least intermittently conscious.
I don’t now believe in visitors from outer space. But I’ve never lost my sense there’s something vitally important about the modern UFO phenomenon—the “modern myth of things seen in the skies,” as Jung put it in the title of one of his last books—and not for me alone. This “something” did not yield itself to being set forth in the discursive, analytic prose to which, as a professor of religious studies, I’d grown accustomed. So I turned to the most natural way of exploring a myth, the way of the ancients.
I told it. As a story.
It was my story. But not mine alone. There were times, during the 14 years that went into the writing of Journal of a UFO Investigator, that I felt the glorious winds blowing upon me from something beyond, and looking upon what I’ve written I can say: this is archetypal. The myth is greater than me, but also a part of me, bound up inextricably with my individual pain and hope and yearning.
At bottom, I’m persuaded, UFOs are a myth of death, of our soul-struggles in the face of death’s finality. Death—bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, born with me at the moment of my birth, my inseparable companion all my life. Yet also death, the ultimate alienness, through which I cease to be I, cease to be anything at all.
The unknown interloper in my sky—and yours too—which paradoxically has always been there. The eternal “unidentified,” which can’t be banished or rationalized away. Only contemplated, in awe and wonder.
And its story told, in a thousand different guises.
As I’ve had the privilege to tell it.