The following article is a modified excerpt from Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). In his book, Kripal surveys the history of psychical phenomena, which he contends is an untapped source of insight into the sacred and an important but overlooked field of religious study. Kripal grounds his study in the work of four major figures in the history of paranormal research: psychical researcher Frederic Myers; writer and humorist Charles Fort; astronomer, computer scientist, and UFOlogist Jacques Vallee; and, philosopher Bertrand Meheust.
The in-text reference to IS, FS1 and FS2 are to Vallee’s books The Invisible College, and Forbidden Science Volumes 1 and 2 respectively.
Jacques Vallee’s The Invisible College
by Jeffrey Kripal
Jacques Vallee’s The Invisible College (1975) represents a development of the ideas and theories first set out six years earlier in his seminal book on the crossovers between UFOs and folklore, Passport to Magonia. There would be other developments and ideas, of course, but it is probably not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that these two books constitute the heart and soul of Vallee’s thinking on the subject of UFOs. That the first is named after a legendary land in the clouds whose existence was denied by a major representative of the Church and the second after a group of contemporary intellectuals interested in paranormal matters who were meeting secretly in the late 1960s and 70s out of fear that such interests would threaten their academic and professional standing in the universities should alert us to the “impossible” nature of their subject matter from the perspectives of faith or reason. Vallee is perfectly aware of this. He states very clearly that his speculations “will contradict both the ideas of the believers and the assumptions of the skeptics” (IC 28). Again, beyond faith and reason there is gnosis.
It was Vallee’s mentor, J. Allen Hynek, who suggested that they call themselves “the Invisible College” in order to capture the deeply felt sense that they were pursuing a kind of forbidden knowledge, that they were after a new form of science that was not yet acceptable to the powers that be.1 The same year Vallee’s book appeared Hynek explained the history of the expression in, of all places, the FBI Bulletin. The FBI had requested the piece; why, Hynek was never sure (FS 2.251). Vallee provides his readers with the relevant passage in his own Introduction. Here is Hynek writing for the FBI now, as quoted by Vallee at the beginning of The Invisible College:
Way back in the “dark ages” of science, when scientists themselves were suspected of being in league with the Devil, they had to work privately. They often met clandestinely to exchange views and the results of their various experiments. For this reason, they called themselves the Invisible College. And it remained invisible until the scientists of that day gained respectability when the Royal Society was chartered by Charles II in the early 1660s.2
And so Hynek, Vallee, and their confidential colleagues met too, throughout the late 1960s and early 70s, working quietly in the background and refusing to be intimidated by either the conservative attitudes of their professional colleagues or “those three fierce paper dragons, Bizarre, Magic, and Ridicule” (IC 114-115). They also hoped for their own Charles II, who never appeared, and for their own Royal Society, which never materialized.
It is not difficult to see why. The group’s basic theory as publicly explained by Vallee is a difficult truth for most people to swallow. No, I take that back: it’s an impossible one. What he was arguing, after all, is that UFO appearances may be part of a huge “control system,” a kind of mythological thermostat on the planet designed to adjust and control the belief systems of entire cultures over immense expanses of times.3 As he described it in his journals, this control system “acts upon human consciousness, preventing it from going beyond certain limits” (FS 2.454). Vallee seems to have in mind a kind of cosmic Puppet Master, a “manufacturer of unavoidable events,” as he puts it in one of his short stories, who pulls the strings of history from above and prevents us from developing our own psychic potentials.4 The religious doctrines and mythologies of the human imagination are the main object of control and adjustment here. Put crudely, we are being manipulated by our own belief systems, which are in turn being implanted, influenced, and guided by “alien” forces well outside our conscious selves.
The precise nature of this “outside” is debatable, and Vallee never stops suggesting that that outside may still be a human one, that is, I gather, that we are all part of some immense form of Mind or Cosmic Consciousness that is playing tricks on itself. This, of course, is basically what Charles Fort suggested with his playful suggestion that he himself was an inconsistency, or a consistency-inconsistency, in the mind of some super-imagination. Either way, the implications would be disturbing for the reasonable or the believable. It is not an easy thing to entertain the possibility that one’s deepest held beliefs are mechanisms of control, that one is bound, defined, and restricted by one’s own, largely unconscious, categories, that one is secretly a puppet or, to employ the more modern neuroscientific reductionism, that we are all biological robots programmed to believe that we are not robots.
Vallee, it turns out, had long felt part of an esoteric intellectual community. Originally, he seems to have understood this community as stretched out through time and available to him in books and old manuscripts. Later, he and Hynek decided to turn this historical textual community into a contemporary social one. Vallee then gave their esoteric community an exoteric form. He turned their private discussions into a public book. He never, though, lost his sense of the forbidden nature of what they were up to. He never lost, that is, his gnostic orientation to the world. In the Foreword to the 1996 edition of his published diaries from the late 1950s and 60s, he is especially sensitive—and, in my opinion, especially correct — about how the subject of their Invisible College’s study laid well outside — that is, offended — the acceptable academic categories of knowledge and possibility:
This diary was written by a young scientist as he wandered into the minefield of the paranormal, a taboo subject among academics and a source of some fascinating questions: What should a small group of researchers do when they find themselves confronted with a phenomenon that does not follow the recognized laws of nature? How far should they go in alerting their colleagues and the public in the absence of definite proof? Can they really hope to influence an academic community that is notoriously enamored of the status quo and intimidated by political intrigue? (FS 1.1)
Toward this end, Vallee had offered five working theses in The Invisible College. First, he points out, humorously but accurately, that, “unidentified flying objects are neither objects nor flying.” They commonly materialize and dematerialize at will and often synchronize with the subjective states of those witnessing them (for example, they are sometimes “announced” precognitively in dreams), which eliminates the simplistic term “object” from any proper description. Moreover, they maneuver in ways that violate the most basic laws of possible flight patterns, which renders a term like “flying” equally suspect. Second, UFOs have been active throughout human history, always appearing and acting in the cultural terms of the place and time. This, of course, is essentially the thesis of Passport to Magonia. Third, the structure of space-time as we know it implies that the question “Where do they come from?” may be meaningless, and may be better asked as “When do they come from?” That is, UFOs may come from a place in time, in the future, no doubt, perhaps even our own future. Fourth, the key to the UFO phenomenon “lies in the psychic effects it produces (or the psychic awareness it makes possible) in its observers.” Vallee writes here of lives deeply changed by encounters with UFOs and of “unusual talents” developing with which their possessors may find it very difficult to cope.
Fifth and finally, Vallee sees meaning in the absurdity of the narratives, a meaning he will call the meta-logic of the encounter stories. Such a meta-logic, which appears as absurdity from the outside, more or less guarantees that the encounters will be rejected by the elite members of the target society (that is, by professional academics and scientists), even as the symbols conveyed through the encounters are absorbed at a very deep and much more lasting unconscious level. The absurdity of the extraterrestrial explanation, in other words, is a kind of intentional ruse or cloaking technique that allows the phenomenon to accomplish its real work, which is symbolic and mythological.
Everything works, in my opinion, as if the phenomenon were the product of a technology that followed well-defined rules and patterns, though fantastic by ordinary human standards. The phenomenon has so far posed no apparent threat to national defense and seems to be indifferent to the welfare of individual witnesses… But its impact in shaping man’s long-term creativity and unconscious impulses is probably enormous. The fact that we have no methodology to deal with such an impact is only an indication of how little we know about our own psychic world. (IC 30)
“Our own psychic world.” This is the central teaching of The Invisible College. By psychic, Vallee does not mean “psychological.” He means “the interactions between consciousness and physical reality.”5 Thus if Passport to Magonia was about constructing “a picture of a different level of existence, a reality that seems to cut through our own at right angles… what I call the reality of Magonia” (IC 6), then The Invisible College is about exploring “the psychical component” that appears to be a common core result of human exposure to UFOs. This is the book’s most important, and most daring, contribution. Vallee notes that it came only gradually to him, as the frequency and richness of the close-encounter cases became both overwhelming and inescapable. The amount of evidential data was just too great.6
It is not simply the psychical component, however. Vallee also intuits profound similarities between UFO abductions and “the initiation rituals of secret societies.”7 Moreover, he suggests a similar phenomenology at work in both UFO encounters and the modern out-of-body experience (OBE), particularly as the latter is mapped by the American businessman turned metaphysical writer Robert Monroe.8 Monroe’s books are especially provocative for their elaborate descriptions of out-of-body states, literally thousands of which Monroe experienced throughout his life. Vallee cites three descriptions from Monroe’s notes, from the nights of September 9, 16, and 30 of 1960, in order to gloss the meaning of the UFO encounters. Note both the fantastic nature and the disillusioning honesty of Monroe’s descriptions:
I suddenly felt bathed in and transfixed by a very powerful beam… I was completely powerless, with no will of my own, and I felt as if I were in the presence of a very strong force, in personal contact with it. It had intelligence of a form beyond my comprehension and it came directly (down the beam?) into my head, and seemed to be searching every memory in my mind. I was truly frightened because I was powerless to do anything about this intrusion.
The same impersonal probing, the same power, from the same angle. However, this time I received the firm impression that I was inextricably bound by loyalty to this intelligent force, always had been, and that I had a job to perform here on earth…
It is an impersonal, cold intelligence, with none of the emotions of love or compassion which we respect so much, yet this may be the omnipotence we call God… I sat down and cried, great deep sobs as I have never cried before, because then I knew without any qualification or future hope of change that the God of my childhood, of the churches, of religion throughout the world was not as we worshipped him to be—that for the rest of my life, I would “suffer” the loss of this illusion.9
As a comparative point, Vallee then offers the story of the twenty-eight-year-old French Legionnaire on duty in Algeria, who in March of 1958 saw an immense UFO (1000 feet in diameter) descend within a few hundred feet of him and “zap” him with a beam of gorgeous, ecstatic, emerald light. He became depressed when it departed. He later recalled how in the presence of the object time seemed to run very slowly, as if he were in another world.
Though a real admirer of an author like C. G. Jung, Vallee seriously questions the usual psychologization of these experiences: “Are we faced here with something more than a projection of Jung’s archetypal images, a psychic technology whose applications know few if any limitations in space and in time?” He can see no better way to explain the data and the clear “pattern of manifestations, opening the gates to a spiritual level, pointing a way to a different consciousness, and producing irrational, absurd events in their wake.” This, he suggests, is a technology “capable of both physical manifestations and psychic effects, a technology that strikes deep at the collective unconscious, confusing us, molding us—as perhaps it confused and molded human civilizations at the end of antiquity” (IC 140).
He is quite serious about that word: technology. And he relates it to another: physics. A chapter dedicated largely to the Marian apparitions at Fátima, Lourdes, Knock, and Guadalupe follows in order to study what he calls, rather shockingly, “the physics of the B.V.M.,” that is, the physics of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He arrives again at the same conclusion: “We are faced with a technology that transcends the physical and is capable of manipulating our reality, generating a variety of altered states of consciousness and of emotional perceptions… The B.V.M. may dress in golden robes and smile radiantly to children, but the technology which ‘she’ uses is indistinguishable from that of gods and goddesses of other tongues and garb; it is also indistinguishable from the technology surrounding the UFO phenomenon” (IC 153-154).
A psychic technology. The physics of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A technology that transcends the physical and is capable of manipulating our own individual and collective realities. These are jarring phrases that strike at the very roots of the way we separate and divide our experience of the world into subjective appearances and objective realities, into “religion” and “science.” There are three final points to make with respect to such phrases before we graduate from The Invisible College.
The first is to suggest a double whammy. What Vallee, after all, is most interested in here in his fourth book on UFOs is building a bridge between the UFO data and the evidence that has been amassed for psychical phenomena over the last two centuries, beginning with Fred Myers and the Society for Psychical Research in the late 19th century (Myers is another whose work is discussed in Authors of the Impossible). This is a truly incredible proposal, as either subject alone is sufficiently outrageous to merit complete exclusion from the boundaries of intellectual respectability. Vallee happily ignores such exclusions and treats the two damned fields together, essentially doubling (if not squaring) the provocations of his thought.
The second point to make is that the psychic technology Vallee imagines depends on the manipulation of time as well as space.10 What I read him reading in the history of folklore is a future technology projected, somehow, back into our present. Such a hypothesis—which is a common trope in science fiction, not to mention well within the imagination, if not the present technology, of contemporary physics—implies that these need not be space aliens from another planet. They may well be human beings from another time, from the future. They may be us. The future technology of folklore that Vallee is imagining here, in other words, is a technology that we may be using on ourselves to manipulate our own past, to control, as it were, our belief systems and mythologies that lie well below the present political system or cultural fad of the day.
It is precisely these religious systems that control our history for Vallee, hence his privileging of Jung in the concluding Part Three of his science fiction novel Fastwalker: “It is not starvation, not microbes, not cancer,” Jung writes and Vallee quotes now, “but man himself who is mankind’s greatest danger; because he has no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating in their effect than the greatest natural catastrophes.”11 Hence, to employ an overused metaphor that is nevertheless quite apt here, mythologies and beliefs can be seen as the “operating systems” of that cognitive and behavioral software we call culture. What Vallee is imagining, then, is a kind of “re-writing of the computer code” from the future, before the viruses that determine us now can take over and crash the system for good.12
Third and finally, it is worth underlining the basic disillusionment, which is also an awakening, that appears with such poignancy in The Invisible College. Monroe had confessed his own disillusionment with respect to religion. Vallee now expresses his own with respect to science. Vallee once thought that science was enough, that it would eventually recognize the reality of paranormal phenomena and so generously and definitively expand our conception of what it means to be human. Essentially, he believed that science could and would rewrite our code. The Invisible College closes with the confession that he no longer possesses such a faith. Science cannot supply the key to our psychic crisis. How could it? Its strict commitment to a method that only recognizes objects prevents it from even admitting the presence of psychical phenomena, which are objects and subjects at the same time. How can a method that denies the very reality of the subject study the magical and mystical qualities of that subject? The answer: it cannot.
Nor, though, will we find our answer “in some secret file in Washington.”13 The solution to our psychic crisis, he suggests in the very last lines of the book, “lies where it has always been: within ourselves. We can reach it any time we want” (IC 209). Which is to say, once again, that the solution lies well outside the present parameters of the scientific method. It lies rather in the fundamental mystery of human consciousness, in the subject doing the science. It lies in us.
Hynek had originally, in early 1965, proposed “the Little Society,” a playful spin on Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” (FS 1.134). By the spring of 1967, he had switched the name to “the Invisible College” (FS 1.270). By August of the same year, Vallee had bound seven volumes of the Archives of the Invisible College, which included letters, confidential sighting reports, and the very best material from the Air Force files (FS 1.310).
J. Allen Hynek, “The UFO Mystery,” in FBI Bulletin, vol. 44, no. 2, February 1975, as quoted in IC 4.
Vallee had hinted at this control thesis already in PM 48-49. He returned to it again in his most recent essay, “Consciousness, Culture, and UFOs,” where he wrote the following, presumably against those authors who see benevolent forces at work in the UFO phenomenon: “We are not dealing with spiritual transformation here, but with social trance-formations” (in Tumminia, ed., Alien Worlds, 208; italics in original).
Vallee discusses the Puppet Master in relationship to Philip K. Dick’s Valis at Forbidden Science 2, p.278. “The Manufacturer of Unavoidable Events” is the title of the short story that Vallee considers to be his most important piece of fiction.
Personal communication, 13 October 2008.
Forbidden Science 1 p.2. Vallee, however, had proposed to Hynek as early as 1963 that the saucer question “plunges deep into mystical and psychic theories” (Forbidden Science 1 p.88).
Invisible College pp. 117, 120-122. As political scientist Michael Barkun has convincingly shown, this UFO/”secret society” connection — which, as demonstrated in chapter 1 of Authors of the Impossible, goes all the way back to Charles Fort — will be picked up by any number of paranoid, racist, and anti-Semitic political movements in the late 1980s and 90s (see his A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003]). This period and its troubling developments fall well after Vallee had formed his own opinions and theories. It is also worth noting in this context that Vallee, although certainly suspicious of government intelligence and official manipulation and their grossly distorting effects on the scientific study of UFOs, generally resists radical forms of conspiracy thinking, as Barkun himself notes with reference to the infamous MJ-12 document and likely hoax (ibid., 143).
Later, scholars of new religious movements will expand on this list, adding observations about the clear historical links that exist between the early contactee literature and esoteric movements like Theosophy and the I AM movement, the use of channeling practices to contact various alien entities, and the different ways this material challenges the dominant scientific and religious paradigms. This literature is large, but the state of the art is probably best represented by two books: Brenda Denzler, The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); and Christopher Partridge, ed., UFO Religions (London: Routledge, 2003). Denzler focuses in on the tension between science and religion as competing or complementary explanatory frameworks within the UFO community. Partridge identifies the later abduction spiritualities as developments of an earlier theosophical esotericism within a New Age matrix, tracing, for example, the transformation of the “ascended masters” of Theosophy into the “descended masters” of the UFO religions.
Invisible College pp.137-138. Later researchers will pick up on this comparative phenomenology and add near-death experiences (NDE) to the mix. See especially Kenneth Ring, The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (New York: William Morrow, 1992).
As far as I can tell, Vallee first suggests this in a journal entry of 26 January 1964 (Forbidden Science 1 p.95).
Quoted in Vallee, Fastwalker, p.159.
Vallee engages in a similar thought experiment in Forbidden Science 1 pp.161-162.
This is a good example of Vallee’s resistance to grand conspiracy thinking.