UFO: A Living Myth of Transformation
If we ever wanted to find a contemporary exemplar of living myth par excellence, we would need to look no further than the UFO phenomenon—especially with the recent video leaks and subsequent Pentagon disclosures on “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” (UAPs). These phenomenal sightings share in the paradoxical nature of mythology proper: they are both real and unreal, immanent (to the universe) and transcendent of this earth; they are here and not-here, manifestly self-evident and suddenly disappeared. In this sense, they are a perfect embodiment of the peculiar ontological status of mythic beings as such, their spectral “otherworldly” plane of reality. In its very elusive aspect, UFOs represent the alternating logic of being and nothingness which structures the process of becoming, the processes of change and metamorphosis. As a modern symbol of transcendence, UFOs stand for the process of total transformation and self-creation in the noumenality of space-time.
Unfortunately, the UFO topic has received little attention from contemporary mythologists and historians, respectable academics who would rather operate at a wide girth from such “mass delusions.” Even a maverick like Joseph Campbell, by no means impeded by academic dogmas of respectability, also showed little interest in the topic. When Campbell explores contemporary examples of living myth as he does in Creative Mythology, the fourth volume of the monumental series the Masks of God, the UFO phenomenon finds no place either. Indeed, in the context of Dante, the Bhagavad-Gita, James Joyce, Immanuel Kant and the like, a discussion of UFOs would be grossly out of place.
Nevertheless, influenced as he was by Carl Jung, Campbell probably read and took for granted his monograph on UFOs, Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, which is included in the 10th volume of Jung’s Collected Works entitled Civilization in Transition. In the “Preface to the First English Edition” Jung reflects back on the whole “moral of this story” with the realization that “news affirming the existence of Ufos is welcome, but that scepticism seems to be undesirable,”* which is to say that the belief in UFOs “suits the general opinion, whereas disbelief is to be discouraged.” (CW10 page 309) In other words, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the UFO myth stands in the place of an ideological fantasy used to maintain status-quo thinking and feeling.
Whether they are here or not here, the myth certainly can be used—and has been used—as a tool of state propaganda designed to distract our attention from actual technological developments and experimentation by our secret military. This is perhaps the greatest “revelation” of the recently released four-part docuseries UFO (2021) on Showtime, produced by J.J. Abrams: much of what is mistaken for an Alien presence is indeed our own tech! The fear of stepping into the shadow of our military industrial complex is a big reason we discourage critical thinking on this topic. And we are more than happy to deflect any meaningful criticism into the kennel of a “rationalistic” prejudice.
But anyone who would suggest that we live in a much too “rationalistic age”—in the midst of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” viral lies, and campaigns of disinformation— must be distinctly out of touch with our social reality. Swimming in a sea of conspiracy theories and revisionist histories, by no stretch of the imagination can we say our age suffers from a burdensome excess of reason. Quite the contrary, the sorry state of the world every day tells us that we suffer from an egregious lack of it.
Nevertheless, I think Campbell would have followed Jung’s approach in reading the UFO phenomenon, both real and unreal, as a symptom of a deeper emotional tension in the collective psyche. From a Jungian perspective, UFOs stand for a certain archetypal content that finds no expression within our accepted frameworks of explanation and worldview. It is indeed a projection of a mythic reality that bears an unborn truth within. The shattering power of this truth is what threatens to “invade” our familiar fields of ideology and mythic fantasy, threatens to “abduct” our rootedness in the collective dream of our social hypnosis.
As Jung elaborates further, the need to believe in UFOs, quite apart from the question of their objective presence, indicates a certain degree of collective psychic suffering. It is the “heavenly sign” of a “psychic dissociation” which points to the general “split between the conscious attitude and the unconscious contents opposed to it.” (CW10: ¶591) Campbell himself called this psychic split a mythic dissociation, as we read with emphasis in Creative Mythology:
The Christian is taught that divinity is transcendent: not within himself and his world, but “out there.” I call this mythic dissociation. (528) […] Hence, there has now spread throughout the Christian world a desolating sense not only of no divinity within (mythic dissociation), but also of no participation in divinity without (social identification dissolved): and that, in short, is the mythological base of the Waste Land of the modern soul, or, as it is being called these days, our “alienation.” (529)
The UFO phenomenon, both real and unreal, remains an excellent symbol of our own self-alienation, not only at the individual level but at the global level of the collective. Our sense of “divinity” cannot be divorced from a sense of justice and responsibility not only for ourselves individually but for the whole planet—including the entire universe.
* Spelling and stylization are preserved from Jung’s original text.
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