Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Place Where Three Roads Meet Part 4: THE OWLS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM.

I awoke on the morning of the 27th very much as usual, but grappling with a very distinct sense of unease and a very improbable but intense memory of seeing a barn owl staring at me through the window sometime during the night.
                Whitely Strieber, Communion.


An ominous expression recurred throughout the 2010 season of Doctor WhoSilence will fall. The identity of the Silence was finally unveiled in the next season opener The Impossible Astronaut, broadcast on the auspicious date of April the 23rd, 2011. A fascinating concept developed by the show’s lead writer and producer Steven Moffat, the Silence backstory has much of the savour of a cosmic David Icke conspiracy scenario: they are a parasitic alien race which has stealthily influenced the course of human history through the machinations of a secret religious order. Clad in stiff and funereal black suits, the appearance of the Silents was heavily influenced by Munch’s iconic Scream painting, and by John Keel and Gray Barker’s evergreen bureaucrats of the netherworld the Men in Black. A cursory glance at the appearance of the Silents and their chief psychological gimmick reveals, however, that they are a late, 21st century reiteration of the Grey mythos through and through. The Silents have maintained the secrecy of their presence on earth by virtue of one fact: if you see one, no matter how horrifying the impression, you will instantly forget all about it as soon as the Silent is outside of your field of vision. The Silents could have intervened once, or a hundred times, in the course of your life, but you would never remember any of it; all you would retain are their post-hypnotic commands.

In this regard, Moffat understood that the key to the Grey mythos lay in anxiety regarding the fallibility of memory, and the possibility that if our memories are not what we think they are, then we ourselves are not who we think we are. The alien abduction mythos is probably the preeminent mythic expression of the psychoanalytic frame of mind, of the idea that our lives are not what we perceive them to be, and if we could only shine a light on certain dim or repressed areas of memory, on certain seminal and crystalizing events in the past, then we might shed the false sense of self like an old and constrictive skin, and be born anew. This aspect of psychoanalysis – the disassembly of the old, flawed self, and subsequent emergence of the whole, healthy, and reintegrated self – bears a considerable similarity to the process of religious crisis and conversion. Aptly enough, then, Whitley Strieber’s Communion – the most articulate and enduring of the abduction memoirs – is both a book of religious experience, and of the essential psychoanalytic concept of attempting to fix the broken self via a full recapitulation of the past. 

Communion is a particularly compelling narrative, regardless of one’s scepticism regarding the nature of Strieber’s experiences, and much of its power goes back to the Oedipal story which we started with. Strieber’s initial abduction experience of December 26th, 1985 serves as the catalyst, the first indicator that the contours of his identity and life-story are not remotely as he imagines them to be. From this point on, the narrator is driven to tease out the perennial riddle of his own identity: 

I must pursue this trail to the end
Till I have unravelled the mystery of my birth.

What we are struck by most of all is the resemblance of the abduction idea to a kind of virus. Once the abductee accepts an abduction experience in the present, their memories become like an infected hard-drive: dimly remembered incidents from their childhood and youth, and eventually the whole course of their lives, will gradually be made to conform to the paradigm of repeated otherworldly abduction and manipulation. This is a common enough phenomenon: when we find an explanation capable of shedding some light on why our lives feel incomplete or dissatisfactory, this explanation can rapidly become a kind of idee fixe. Explanations are a powerful and occasionally hazardous human need. (In a similar manner to which the private history of the individual abductee became infected by the Grey meme, the idea found itself projected backwards onto our cultural history. In 1980’s The Roswell Incident, William Moore and Charles Berlitz unearthed a peculiar and largely forgotten Cold War incident that caused a brief flurry of media attention in the summer of 1947. Over the course of the 80s and 90s, the Roswell Incident would be firmly incorporated into the mythology of the Grey aliens, and a dimly recalled flurry of speculation and intrigue became a brilliant Postwar American version of the Prometheus myth. In The Day After Roswell, the late Philip J Corso effectively asserted that the great technological boom of the postwar period was a product of reengineered ET tech retrieved from the Roswell site; fire not stolen from the Gods, but gathered up from where it had crash landed in the New Mexico desert. It is impossible to say whether all the witnesses who came forward with recollections of seeing Grey–like corpses at Roswell were lying, or confabulating, or whether something weirder were afoot – but the inclusion of the Greys in the Roswell incident feels much more like a product of the 80s than the 40s.) 

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Grey mythos of memory is the concept of the screen memory. This basic idea again goes back to Freud, who first theorised screen memories in a paper published in 1899. The screen memory is a kind of fabricated memory that is designed to screen out or cover-up something that is either deeply traumatic or unacceptable to the ego. However, the screen memory will contain some pointer or key to the material it seeks to repress, so the psychoanalyst who understands the functioning of mnemic and dream symbols can use the screen memory to uncover the underlying repressed material, or ostensibly “true” memory. In fact, Freud felt that all childhood memories were subject to the creative, dreamlike embellishments and displacements of the screen type: 

“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all we possess. Our childhood memories show us our earliest years not as they were but as they appeared at later periods when the memories were aroused. In these periods of arousal, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, emerge; they were formed at that time. And a number of motives, with no concern for historical accuracy, had a part in forming them, as well as the selection of the memories themselves.” 

The difference between emergence and formation in this instance would be to imply that memories are entities that refashion the past according to the circumstances of the present, rather than to inform the present according to the circumstances of the past. Interestingly, Freud implies that the screen memory can generate a similar viral infection and refashioning of the past according to present memory which we observe in the abductee: “…as though a memory-trace from childhood had here been translated back – at a later date.” The idea that we might be constructing the past anew in the present, rather than building in the past the ground on which we will stand in the future, is an uncanny, vertiginous notion. To conceive of the past in this way would make us feel as though we move through time a little like Wile E Coyote when he runs off the edge of a cliff – the Coyote famously runs across the thin air, and only falls when he looks down and realizes the yawning abyss beneath his feet. Part of the considerable psychological fascination of alien abduction narratives must lie in our own awareness or fear that the bedrock of our identities – the sense of our personal histories as something accurately recalled, solid, and immutable – may not be half as stable and sturdy as we imagine them to be. They are the thin air that we run on, so long as some thread does not come undone, as in the case of the abductees, and unravel the whole edifice.

The screen memory in abduction lore is a specific false memory which has been fashioned – presumably by the abductors – to cover over a period of missing time in which an abduction has taken place. It is like a relatively innocuous screen saver which has been inserted over the memory of the traumatic event. The memory is usually centred on a type of animal, and screen memories have been recorded featuring rabbits, cats, wolves, and a variety of other creatures – but by far the most common of these fugitive and deceptive memories are of owls. Now, anybody who was watching television in the early 90s may themselves be feeling a faint shiver of recognition at this point. This, however, doesn’t mean that you are necessarily an abductee – merely subject to one of the strangest transmissions ever to pass through the cathode ray: Mark Frost and David Lynch’s neo-noir soap opera pastiche/occult murder mystery/all-around baptism of fire Twin Peaks. The fact that David Lynch’s surreal and unfettered imagination was once the object of a global mainstream pop culture phenomenon is a difficult thing to get your head around today – it seems, in hindsight, like an unparalleled feat of culture jamming of the third kind. Of the many mysteries surrounding the show, few have engaged the imagination of its devotees to the same degree as the phrase the owls are not what they seem, first uttered to Dale Cooper in a hypnogogic/sleep paralysis-like vision of a tall stranger who came to be known as the Giant.

Although never explicitly referencing alien abduction, Twin Peaks has many interesting parallels with the subject. The world which Lynch and Frost created for the show, in which the ordinary, everyday world is seen to constantly interpenetrate with a different, dreamlike dimension of White and Black Lodges, has always reminded me of John Keel’s perennial slice of weird Americana, The Mothman Prophecies, albeit with the Men in Black mostly as good guys this time around. (Mothman has a strong anatomical resemblance to the owl, as many sceptics were quick to point out.) The main intersection with the subject, however, is more oblique and unsettling. If one were to strip Twin Peaks of its supernatural elements, or view them as being merely metaphorical, then the whole action of the show really hinges around Leland Palmer’s sexual abuse, and subsequent murder, of his daughter. In this sense, we might see the demonic Bob as a screen memory designed to shelter Laura from the awful knowledge that her assailant is actually her father, and, at the same time, a construction of Leland’s to shelter himself from the knowledge of his abhorrent crimes. While this is not, I think, exactly how we are meant to interpret the show overall, it is nevertheless a resonance that is certainly there, and which cannot help but remind us that some instances of putative alien abduction are themselves a kind of screen memory constructed around the trauma of sexual abuse. (This subject is explored in the Scott Heim novel and subsequent Gregg Araki movie Mysterious Skin.)

Lynch’s adoption of the owl motif we can only assume to have resulted from an awareness of Strieber’s Communion (released three years earlier) or a knowledge of abduction lore in general. If he was completely ignorant of these things, and the phrase merely came to him in a dream, then we can all rest a little less easily, although this seems somewhat unlikely. Since we know, more or less, where owls come from, lets return to our earlier question of where Greys come from. The first appearance of the Greys in actual witness testimony is said to be the Hill abduction. I was initially sceptical about this, since the appearance of the putative aliens is one of the points about which Barney and Betty are not entirely consistent, and the hypnosis tapes don’t give us much of a sense of the presence of Greys (with the exception of Barney’s frequent reference to their mesmerising and terrifying eyes.) However, I was a little surprized to find in The Interrupted Journey (1966), that after hearing the tapes and mulling over his recollections of the abductors, Barney does indeed provide a classic description of the Grey:

“The men had rather odd-shaped heads, with a large cranium, diminishing in size as it got towards the chin. And the eyes continued around the sides of their heads, so that it appeared that they could see several degrees beyond the lateral extent of their vision. This was startling to me. And something that I remembered, after listening to the tapes, is the mouth itself. I could not describe the mouth before, and I drew the picture without indicating the mouth. But it was much like when you draw one horizontal line with a short perpendicular on each end. The horizontal line would represent the lips without the muscle we have. And it would part slightly when they made this mumming sound. The texture of the skin, as I remember it from this quick glance, was greyish, almost metallic looking. I didn’t notice any hair – or headgear for that matter. Also, I didn’t notice any proboscis, there just seemed to be two slits that represented the nostrils”.

Before the Hills, we look to popular and pulp culture, where we might find a great many aliens roughly analogous to the Greys; the large, bulbous head and prominent eyes were a very common general cranial type applied to aliens in Hollywood b-pictures. However, some of the most striking precursors are far more obscure. In 1889, HG Wells wrote an article called “The Man of the Year Million”,  in which he speculated that man’s increasing specialisation and concentration on mental rather than physical activity would lead in time to a pronounced growth of the cranial area and a correlative atrophy and shrinking of the rest of the body.  Wells appears to take a certain relish in the grotesquery of the brain-centric future man:

"They are the descendants of man - at dinner.  Watch how they hop on their hands – a method of progression advocated by Bjorsen – about the pure white marble floor.  Great hands they have, enormous brains, soft, liquid, soulful eyes.  Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, are shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendent to their minds."

As we can see from the sketch above, Wells’ futuristic man was not particularly Grey-like, but the example is worth citing, since the idea that the Greys may be a future offshoot of contemporary humanity is one of the more intriguing interpretations of the abduction mythos: the idea that the Greys may be our sad, shrivelled, affectless, post-human descendants, restlessly probing and examining us in order to find out what it is that makes us so much more vital and alive than they.  In a similar manner, it could be argued, some alienated denizens of the modern world look to the distant past with a romantic sense that it contained a more authentic, natural, and integrated humanity.  Whether the athletically averse geeks and svelte hipsters of today represent the first gradual steps in the direction of Wells’ Man of the Year Million, the reader knows as well as I. 

In 1933, the Swedish novelist Gustav Sandgren scored a far more direct hit in his science fiction novel for children Den okanda faran (in English, aptly enough, The Unknown Danger), in which he describes a race of aliens who “did not resemble any race of humans.  They were short, shorter than the average Japanese, and their heads were big and bald, with strong, square foreheads, and very small noses and mouths, and weak chins.  What was most extraordinary about them were the eyes – large, dark, gleaming, with a sharp gaze.  They wore clothes made of soft grey fabric, and their limbs seemed to be similar to those of humans.”

There are doubtless a great many images from the pulps which are prescient of post-Hill abduction Greys, but I would just like to look at a couple which I came across more or less accidentally.  The first is an obscure Italian imprint of an equally obscure novel called The Martian Missile by David Grinnell.  The novel was published in 1963, the year the Hills were tentatively beginning their hypnotic regression sessions with Doctor Simon; viewers from the late eighties on would instantly recognise the wraith-like ETs abducting the astronaut as being akin to the Grey on the cover of Communion:

The final image feels far more strikingly out of time; a 1957 cover of Fantastic Universe which would pass in every regard for an 80s/90s depiction of the mythologized Roswell crash-site ( the proto-Grey reminds me particularly of the cadaver from the notorious Santilli hoax autopsy movie of the early nineties):

How, one wonders, does an anonymous artist toiling away illustrating disposable magazines in the late 50s produce such a prescient image of the cultural fantasies of many decades hence?  Or does a single ephemeral image such as this suffice, once registered in the peripheral memories of the right person or persons, to re-emerge much later on as a fantastic projection onto reality?  Is the underlying reason why so many disparate writers, artists, and abductees were drawn towards the Grey-type image of the alien ultimately prosaic, or does it require a more exotic Jungian-type of explanation?  With regard to the prescience of the above image, since we are fonder of exotic explanations here, let us imagine that the image above is a modification of the past by its collective remembrance in the future, such as was imagined by Borges in Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.  In the idealistic kingdom of Tlon, a lost object may become duplicated if two people find it unbeknownst to one another; more powerful than an object which was lost and multiplied, however, is one which had never existed in the first place, but rather derives from a will alone for it to exist:  “Stranger and more perfect than any hron is the ur, which is a thing produced by suggestion, an object brought into being by hope.”  These reality-warping effects allow for a new kind of archaeology, which is akin to Freud’s notion of a childhood constantly modified by its remembrance in the present tense:

"Mass investigations produce contradictory objects; now individual and almost improvised jobs are preferred.  The methodical fabrication of hronir (says the Eleventh Volume) has performed prodigious services for archaeologists.  It has made possible the interrogation and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile than the future."

Continued shortly.