Monday, June 5, 2017

New York Times review of Close Encounters, 1995

Giving the U.F.O. Group A Shot at Persuasion
Published: June 5, 1995
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE FOURTH KIND Alien Abduction, U.F.O.'s and the Conference at M.I.T.
By C. D. B. Bryan
476 pages.
 Alfred A. Knopf.

 Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of "Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind," is about as mainstream and respectable as a publisher can be. The author, C. D. B. Bryan, has written estimable histories of the National Air and Space Museum and the National Geographic Society. The book's main event is the so-called abduction study conference from June 13-17, 1992, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the direction of David E. Pritchard, a physicist there, and John E. Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist. 

 So even a complete skeptic is inclined at least to consider what Mr. Bryan has to report. While the very notion of the book remains incredible, more trustworthy circumstances under which to entertain it are hard to imagine. 

The two submitted book cover designs. the one on the right would be chosen

 As Mr. Bryan reports, he attended the five-day conference, took extensive notes, talked to the participants during breaks and over meals, and followed up with "postconference interviews," some of which involved sitting in on hypnosis sessions with witnesses who claim to have been abducted by aliens. 

 If one boils down their testimonies to a single archetypal event, what they experienced involved first a sense of foreboding, the sighting of bright lights in the sky and the stalling of the cars they happened to be driving; then an awareness of missing time, a feeling of acute anxiety and the discovery of cuts or gouges on their bodies. 

 Later, under hypnotic regression, they recalled being wafted into spaceships by small gray beings who communicated telepathically with them and performed medical experiments, often involving sex.  

Understandably enough, the reader's mind boggles at these reports, and one feels some sympathy for the committee at Harvard Medical School that recently criticized Dr. Mack, the co-chairman of the conference, for his research on subjects claiming to have been abducted. 

 You naturally reject the logic of their testimony: that creatures could appear out of nowhere in craft that defy the laws of matter. You wonder why these aliens show up more in English-speaking countries than in the rest of the world, and why, if they are clever enough to travel through different dimensions of time, they would want to breed with humans or perform countless experiments on them. And you look for flaws in the witnesses, presuming them to be publicity-seeking nuts who are likely to be repressing some sort of childhood sexual trauma. 

The Japanese translation

 But Mr. Bryan's report anticipates these objections. Perhaps the case for the believers is best summed up in what Dr. Mack calls the "five basic dimensions" of the abduction phenomenon, which he summarizes this way: 

 "1. The high degree of consistency of detailed abduction accounts, reported with emotion appropriate to actual experiences, told by apparently reliable observers. 

 "2. The absence of psychiatric illness or other apparent psychological or emotional factors that could account for what is being reported. 

 "3. The physical changes and lesions affecting the bodies of the experiencers, which follow no evident psychodynamic pattern. 

 "4. The association with U.F.O.'s witnessed independently by others while abductions are taking place (which the abductee may not see). 

 "5. The reports of abductions by children as young as two or three years of age." 

 The effect of reading Mr. Bryan's book is far from enlightening. Rather one experiences it with the outlook of someone reporting an abduction: although one senses it is happening, one still doesn't believe it. 

 Nor does it help that Mr. Bryan's text is disorganized and repetitive, and shows signs that it was written hurriedly ("Budd Hopkins has arranged for Carol and Alice and I to attend one of his support group meetings after dinner that Friday"). And once you've read a couple of abduction accounts, you might as well have read them all. 

 So you race to Mr. Bryan's final chapter, titled "Various Theories." Here you are not much reassured to learn that some theorists consider alien abductions a phenomenon to make us aware of "other realities; further, that it is during, or within, some sort of overlapping of these realities that alien abductions occur." Others believe alien abductions to be a program to raise human consciousness of the earth's ecological needs, taught us by creatures from another dimension. 

 Still others support the speculation of C. G. Jung in his old age that U.F.O.'s might be "materialized psychisms," or, as Mr. Bryan puts it, "actual physical or paraphysical objects created by the collective unconscious." 

 Finally, the closest approach to a rationally acceptable explanation is a theory that physical abuse in childhood somehow makes people sensitive to electrical disturbances in the brain's temporal lobe. Such disturbances can produce "dream states" or "psychical seizures" in which people mistake fantasies for reality. Yet believers insist that memories of sexual abuse are more likely to be a screen for abduction than the other way around. 

 Mr. Bryan himself comes away from his experiences benignly skeptical. He writes that he "would like to believe" in some of the creatures he heard described, but that "I cannot honestly say I have come across any hard evidence of their presence." With his somewhat rambling report, he persuades you in the end that something very odd may be happening and that, as believers like to say, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. But that's about the sum of what you get from this strange and disturbing book. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bokonist 1969

After reading my post, In Praise of Vonnegut, I thought why the hell shouldn't I post the entire New York Times profile from 1969

Kurt Vonnegut,
Head Bokononist
C.D.B. Bryan/1969
New York Times Book Review.
6 April 1969. pp. 2. 25.
Copyright 1969 by the New York Times Company.
 Reprinted by permission.

 Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of six novels and two short-story collections, lives and writes in an old house in West Barnstable on Cape Cod with his wife, six children, a sheep dog, and a tidal wave of house guests. Vonnegut is over 6 feet tall, a rumpled and shaggy 46-year-old fourth generation German-American with a drooping mustache, a brow chevroned like a sergeant-major's sleeve, and the eyes of a sacrificial alter-bound virgin caught in mid-shrug. 

 Seated, Vonnegut disappears so deeply into cushions that he resembles a courdroy covered bat-wing chair that has been dropped 2,000 feet from a passing airplane. He is the impatient humanitarian, the disappointed-but-constant optimist, an ex-P.R. man for General Electric, ex-Volunteer Fireman (Badge 155, Alpaus, N.Y.), ex-visiting lecturer, Iowa Writers' Workshop, and ex-Cornell chemistry major turned amiable Cassandra whose short stories and novels since 1961 have reflected an admirable -- if not sinister -- blending of H.G. Wells and Mark Twain. 

 Among Vonnegut's earliest fans were Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Marc Connelly, Jules Fieffer, Graham Greene, and Terry Southern. But today whether because of, or in spite of, the fact that Vonnegut's novels are now being taught at universities, the under-30's are beginning to grant him a cultish attention which Vonnegut finds "very gratifying, it really is. It's charming," an attention that has long been overdue. And, happily, an increasing number of general readers are finding in Vonnegut's quiet, humorous, well-mannered and rational protests against man's inhumanity to man an articulate bridge across the generation chasm. For a distressingly long period Vonnegut's novels have been ignored by just exactly the broad readership he had most hoped to reach simply because critics, uncertain quite how to categorize him, either dismissed him as a "science fiction" writer -- 

 (Vonnegut: "I objected finally to this label because I thought it was narrowing my readership. People regard science-fiction writers as interchangable with comic-strip writers.") 

 Or called him a "Black Humorist" -- 

 (Vonnegut: "One day I was sitting on the beach at Cape Cod and this enormous bell jar was lowered over me and I managed to read the label. It said, 'Black Humor by Bruce Jay Friedman.' I find the label mystifying.") 

 Or, with nothing but the best intentions, critics judged Vonnegut a "satirist" and thereby all but doomed him to a life of abject poverty. 

 (Vonnegut: "I speak a lot at universities now, and people ask me to define 'satire' and, you know? I've never even bothered to look it up. I wouldn't know whether I'm a satirist or not. One thing about being a chemistry major at Cornell, I've never worried about questions like that. It was never important for me to know whether I was one or not.") 

 Still other critics, unwilling to forgive Vonnegut for having written patently commercial short stories, ignore his work entirely. 

 (Vonnegut: "When I was supporting myself as a freelance writer doing stories for the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, I was scorned! I mean, there was a time when to be a slick writer was a disgusting thing to be, as though it were prostitution. The people who did not write for the slicks obviously did not need the money. I would have liked very much to have been that sort of person, but I wasn't. I was the head of a family, supporting the damn thing in what seemed -- to me, at least -- an honorable way. During most of my freelancing I made what I would have made in charge of the cafeteria at a pretty good junior-high school.") 

 In the hopes of avoiding similar pitfalls I telephoned Vonnegut and asked him, if he had his choice, what he would most like to be known as. He answered, "George Orwell." 

 In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: Or, Pearls Before Swine, published in 1965, Eliot P. Rosewater, heir to the Rosewater fortune, crashes a science-fiction writers' convention being held in a Milford, Pa. motel and interrupts their meeting to say, "I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more. You're the only ones who'll talk about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one either, but one that will last for billions of years. You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really know what machines do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous mistakes, accidents, and catastrophies do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to Heaven or Hell." The speaker may have been Rosewater, but the voice was Vonnegut's own.

 "All writers are going to have to learn more about science," says Vonnegut, "simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment. To reflect their times accurately, to respond to their times reasonably, writers will have to understand that part of their environment. . . C.P. Snow and I are both very smug on this subject because we both have two cultures -- H.L. Mencken, by the way, started as a chemist. H.G. Wells, too." 

 Vonnegut has stated that he deliberately keeps his books short because he wants to be read by men in power and he knows politicians have neither the time nor the inclination to read thick books. "I've worried some about why write books when Presidents and Senators and generals do not read them," he says, "and the university experience taught me a very good reason: you catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents, and you poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world." 

 Two messages recur through all of Vonnegut's writing. The first is Be Kind; the second is God doesn't care whether you are or not. In his introduction to Mother Night, a novel (published initially in paperback in 1961, republished in hardcover in 1965) about an American intelligence agent whose cover was as an anti-Semetic radio broadcaster for the Nazis, Vonnegut introduced a third message: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." 

 Vonnegut's message in Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children's Crusade is: 

 "I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee." 

 Is he a pacifist? "I've got four boys of military age and none of them are going," he told me. "It's a decision they reached on their own, I've certainly not brought any leverage -- one thing I've said to them, too, is that if I were them I would go. Out of morbid curiosity. This exasperates a lot of people. But, knowing myself, I think I probably would go, although I'd be sick about it the minute I got over there and realized I'd been had." 

 Should Vonnegut go, Bokonon's epigraph at the end of Cat's Cradle seems appropriate: 

 "If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity, and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who."