Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Of This Men Shall Know Nothing: Max Ernst meets the UFOs

Max Ernst, The Twentieth Century, 1955

Every 10 years or so a new wave of enthusiasts gets all excited about UFOs.
It's often preceded or accompanied by a hit movie or TV show, which in turn inspires a clutch of imitators. That brings outs out a new wave of UFOlogists, and rekindles interest in the works of elder statesmen in the field. 

The topic gets a lot of play in the media, there are a lot of sightings and rumors of sightings and all kinds of expectations arise and all sorts of prophecies are made. 

The problem is that the UFOs themselves never seem to care much. The flaps die down. Sometimes there are major hoaxes or accusations of hoaxes and nothing ever seems to go anywhere. Then all of the new, young UFOlogists turn around and declare UFOlogy 'dead' and competition breaks out to see who be the most militant born-again debunker or have the most dramatic skeptical conversion epiphany.

Max Ernst, Two Foolish Virgins, 1947

The problem is that UFOlogy still remains an "ETH (extraterrestrial hypothesis) or bust" proposition, with all of the attendant messianic/rapture displacement grafted on thereto. The aliens are coming to save us from ourselves, just you wait. The religious aspect of this changes form from boom to bust to boom to bust, but the impulse is roughly the same.  

While I certainly think it's possible---even probable-- that ETs have sent probes here and possibly manned (or more likely, robotic) missions here throughout the past what we call the UFO phenomenon is way, way too familiar and intimate with us to be anything truly alien.

Max Ernst, The Dark Gods, 1959

My ETH enthusiasm peaked first with the series premiere of The X-Files and then again with the release of the first X-Files film. After that I found myself looking at all the usual data and finding myself at the all of the usual dead-ends. It took some time to sort out but I later found that UFOs minus the ETH (namely, the Elusive Companion Hypothesis) worked quite well when I plugged them into all of the obsessions I plunged myself after dealing with those impasses; Synchronicity, High Weirdness, deep symbology, and so on. 

In fact, the ECH was the missing puzzle piece that kept eluding me when dealing with those topics. I also soon discovered that the ECH was lurking in the shadows of nearly every single obsession-- and often every mystery or conundrum-- in my life without me ever realizing it. I discover fresh examples of this all of the time and share them with you here.

Max Ernst, The Eye of Silence, 1943

The latest is Max Ernst (1891-1976), the great German Dadaist-Surrealist whom I like to call the "Punk Rock Picasso." My obsession with Ernst began in my late teens and was deep, immediate and entirely instinctual. Something about his work spoke to me on a profoundly personal level.

Much of his work is filled with humor and energy, but much of it also depicts a world in chaos, a world in which meaning is forever inverted and negotiable. A world in which menace and violence is either implicit or explicit, but somehow always absurd. But more importantly, his work is a riot of hidden meaning, double meaning, meaninglessness, or beyond meaning. 

Strange and frightening yet strangely familiar characters insinuate themselves from hidden corners. Landscapes and creatures that can only be described as "alien." In other words, it's the work of a man who was intimately familiar with the secret world. It was only much, much later that I found out that Ernst was an Alchemist and was believed by his fellow surrealists to be a genuine magician. 

From the 2001 book, Max Ernst and Alchemy: A Magician in Search of Myth By M. E. Warlick

Alchemical philosophy offers many symbolic parallels to surrealist thought...Ernst played a significant role because of the knowledge of Freudian theory that he brought to the surrealist group early in its development, and because of his contributions to the sexualized nature of surrealist art. Throughout his career, Ernst fused male and female imagery into cohesive hybrids, similar to that most pervasive symbol of perfection, the alchemical Androgyne. Analyzing these aspects of his work reveals the pervasive alchemical symbolism it contains...

The construction of Max Ernst as the magician of the surrealist movement began early in his career.

By the 1930s, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Robert Desnos, René Crevel, and Hans Arp all described Ernst as possessing magical powers of transformation. In (his autobiographical writings), Ernst clarified his indebtedness to hermetic traditions, citing alchemy as a model for his working processes and claiming Cologne's occult past as his artistic heritage.

Chemical Nuptials, 1947

His first hermetic images appeared during the Cologne Dada period...his interests in psychology, alchemy, and other occult phenomena paralleled similar explorations among the early surrealists. Their search for psychic automatism, visits to clairvoyants, group séances, and walking tours of the alchemical haunts of Paris are described as a backdrop for the evolution of Ernst's art throughout the 1920s and 1930s...In "Au delà de la peinture," he described alchemy as the perfect metaphor for his working processes."

Unfortunately, "Alchemy" has become one of those buzzwords that poseurs throw around when they want to sound like they're edgy and profound. As a concept it's become defanged all too often, stripped of its inherent insanity. 

But we don't fall for that kind of thing here. We look at the aspect of Alchemy that some want to run away from-- the Elusive Companion aspect of it. As Jacques Vallee puts it in Passport to Magonia:
Throughout medieval times, a major current of thought distinct from official religion existed, culminating in the works of the alchemists and hermetics. Among such groups were to be found some of the early modern scientists and men remarkable for the strength of their independent thinking and for their adventurous life, such as Paracelsus. The nature of the beings who mysteriously appeared, dressed in shiny garments or covered with dark hair, and with whom communication was so hard to establish intrigued these men intensely.
And again, as Robert Anton Wilson explained these kinds of contacts in depth in the first volume of Cosmic Trigger, quoting Timothy Leary:
Interstellar ESP may have been going on for all our history, Tim (Leary) went on, but we just haven't understood. Our nervous systems have translated their messages into terms we could understand. The "angels" who spoke to Dr. Dee, the Elizabethan scientist-magician, were extraterrestrials, but Dee couldn't comprehend them in those terms and considered them "messengers from God." The same is true of many other shamans and mystics.
And as I added before:
Indeed, these contacts-- whether actual or aspirational --lie at the heart of Alchemical enterprise. All of the great masters were primarily concerned with contact with --and harnessing the power of-- "angels."
Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning, Sedona, Arizona 1947

Max Ernst left his native Cologne for Paris but left for America during the Nazi takeover. Ernst eventually settled in Sedona, Arizona, where he lived with his second wife, the painter Dorothea Tanning. 

Ernst's work became considerably more playful and almost cartoonish during this time, but the Arizona landscape obviously had a profound influence on his work, as did the art and culture of the Hopi Indians. Maybe other parts of the Sedona landscape did as well. Sedona is known as an energy vortex location, as well as UFO hotspot. 

So I got to thinking- did Ernst ever paint any UFOs?

You tell me. 

Aside from this stunning piece (The Almost Late Romanticism, 1960) typical Ernstian foliage with what looks like a classic glowing cigar-shaped UFO, Ernst's work is littered with tantalizingly explicit references to touchstones in the high weirdness canon. Along with the endless parade of alien beings dancing through alien landscapes under alien suns. 

Yet Ernst isn't painting science fiction here-- his alternate reality is blithe, perfectly matter of fact. You take it or leave it. He's not trying to sell you on its reality. He's spent far too much time there to waste time with that. Plus, he doesn't really care what you think about his reality, in the end. Alchemists never do.

This Sedona era piece (Tribute to Yves Tanguy, 1955) pictures the red rock mesas, along with what looks for all the world like the Millennium Falcon, or at least its prototype. Take it or leave it. It's all the same to Ernst.

Then there's this little green man (Old Man River, 1953), who sits among the deserts where the Anasazi once roamed, with a curiously familiar elongated skull. Yet at the same time, that strange bubble around him is oddly reminiscent of the Star Child from 2001.

But Ernst's flirtations with High Strangeness- or any kind of strangeness for that matter-- didn't start in Sedona. There's this collage, from his classic 1929 collage-based graphic novel The Hundred Headless Woman. The numinous power of it is like a punch in the gut and more powerful than any photograph. 

And strangely, more validating. Ernst's unconscious testimony trumps any photo, which after all, can be hoaxed.

And this, which almost seems to depict a classic abduction scenario over an industrial city.

Or this ziggurat-shaped flying saucer. Remember all of this is almost 20 years before Kenneth Arnold and Roswell.

From the same book, we see a version of Ernst's alter ego, "Loplop, Bird Superior," looking for all the world like the Mothman. He's even drawn to the streetlights, like a moth.

From 1934's A Week of Kindness we see a kidnapping (read: abduction) committed by man with the head of an Easter Island Maoi pasted over him. Now that we're finding that some of the Maoi have entire bodies buried beneath the soil, the Ancient Aliens boys must be champing at the bit to get a camera crew down there. 

Of course, Ernst was working in the context of Alchemy and magic and not UFOlogy, but that's exactly my point. Strangeness seems to be the expressway to what is really going on behind UFOs, and what has been going on for a very, very, very long time. 

Arthur C. Clarke is widely quoted for his maxim that any science sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. And god knows there's way too much mindless chatter about magic out there. Even so, maybe our magic is their science after all. 

 But every time I look at UFO photos and read about recent sightings or abductions I get trapped in the letters and the pixels like I'm encased in amber. When I start to look at UFOs through the prism of Synchronicity, Symbol and Strangeness, it all opens like a flower and thousands of puzzle pieces start falling into place like a Tetris game played by an invisible hand. And then things start to happen. In this consensus space-time. Lots of things. Lots of really strange, sometimes impossible things. 

But that's a whole other discussion. And maybe you need to find that out for yourself anyway. 

  UPDATE: Confirming the very foundational thesis of The Secret Sun, the Fortean Times explains how UFOs were the catalyst behind the Sixties counterculture in England, and how Ernst's ziggurat UFO played a talismanic role in that revolution. 

  UPDATE: Loren Coleman explains in a story on the death of Ernst's onetime lover Leonora Carrington how Ernst may have summoned a Mothman-like entity to Cornwall.
The Owlman story began when paranormal researcher Tony “Doc” Shiels was approached by a man, Don Melling, who had been visiting the area on holiday from Lancaster. Melling said that on April 17, 1976, his two daughters, 12-year-old June and her 9-year-old sister, Vicky, were walking through the woods near Mawnan church when they saw a large winged creature hovering above the church tower. The girls were frightened and immediately ran to tell their father. Shiels has suggested himself that surrealism may hold the key. Sixteen days before the first recorded sighting of the Owlman the surrealist artist Max Ernst died (April Fool's Day, 1976- CK). In 1937 Ernst had visited the area with friends (apparently including Carrington according to photographs from that time) and performed rituals to invoke the appearance of all sorts of mysterious creatures. One of these may have been Nightjarman, half bird, half human.