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  • Review: Return to Magonia February 17, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    return to magonia

    This review should begin with an important caveat. The author loathes UFOs, aliens and Close Encounters of the Third Kind: mosquito smudges on the window of our existence. Yet the book pictured above, which details a series of mysterious objects in the sky (and near to the earth) from 1662 to 1947, gripped and impressed him. So what is Return to Magonia’s secret? Perhaps in part it is the elegance and simplicity of the book’s structure. The authors, Chris Aubeck and Martin Shough take a series of sightings, most little known, and then case study them. Each sighting is described in great detail, then all possible explanations are brought to bear: Venus, submarine volcanoes, April Fool Jokes… The analysis is deep enough that the book could double as a reference guide for certain phenomenon: fire-flies, lying journalists and starling flocks among them. The case study, then, ends with a summing up and sensible but undogmatic verdicts that even sceptics like Beach would have difficulties disagreeing with. Put in other terms, Chris and Martin have bottled the Fortean formula. Here is a natural science murder mystery: let’s solve it, or better still let’s fail to solve it an interesting way, leaving some flashes of the numinous on the horizon. There is also perhaps a hint of the underdog. The book was written by two part time researchers who pack more punch than many university teams in their use of astronomy, meteorology and the wealth of archive material on the internet. On that last point Chris and Martin’s book reminded Beach of Chris Woodyard’s masterful investigations of spooks.

    But though all this is positive, it would not have been enough, alone, to override, even temporarily, Beach’s UFO phobia.  The book is a lot more than just a series of x-files cases. To explain this it is best to think of how not to go about studying anomalies past. Let’s take UFOs. We have at present a UFO mythology involving men in black, greys and abductions. Perhaps the worst thing a modern researcher wanting to study UFOs in the past could do would be to write a book with a chapter on each of these modern categories. The consequence of this is to only open your eyes when you find something that matches your expectations. So the ‘UFO’ shaped like a shield from Roman times gets a lot of excited coverage: but the passages where, say, the moon splits in two and reveals a giant man are ignored. A nice example of this flawed approach from elsewhere in Forteana is Chad Arment’s Historical Big Foot. Chad’s book is packed full of obscure material and so is, without any question, valuable: Beach has spent several happy hours between its covers. But as Chad is looking for a Gigantopithecus he (largely) excludes newspaper reports about ‘entities’ that do not match his (openly and honestly stated) cryptozoological starting point. Yet in nineteenth-century reports there are striking parallels between men who have gone to live in the wilderness as hermits (escaped slaves and convicts, eccentrics, the mentally ill, the poor…) and European or Amerindian bogeys believed to live in the same wildernesses. The modern sasquatch germinates somewhere in the leaf mould of these, for the most part self evidently, non-cryptozoological ‘wild men’. Of course, UFOs in and of themselves are a modern category… More of this in a moment.

    The beauty of taking a series of case studies is that the evidence leads you by the hand, rather than you leading the evidence by the nose. The danger, of course, is that your focus becomes too narrow. But here Chris and Martin prove adept at bringing in parallel cases. Some of these are extraordinarily successful – the discussion, for example, of Men in the Moon: where the authors describe men stepping out of the moon. (The term ‘impossible biology’ is sometimes used for folklore medicine and folklore natural history: perhaps we need ‘impossible astronomy’, too?) At other times ‘historical discipline’ is lax: the book covers ancient Egypt, Amerindian myth and medieval Ireland without the author’s getting too much mud on their shoes. There is also an alarming instance or two where legendary material is treated like witness reports. But as the comparisons are never structural in the case studies the central arguments continue to convince. As a rule the author’s ‘history smarts’ are best for the nineteenth and twentieth century: though they say some extremely important things about ‘the anomaly gap’ (we need a phrase for this too) whereby writers who have the Antichrist mark of the Enlightenment on their foreheads are reluctant to describe the inexplicable. The authors’ wider knowledge of Forteana, meanwhile, serves them and the reader well. About ten times in the book Beach assumed that there was a witness problem (a psychotic episode or pure invention); only for Messers Aubeck and Shough to trot out three other examples of men and women seeing the same thing elsewhere in the world. Of course, that does not mean that the description was not mental illness or mind games or something else…: remember that we have apparently reliable reports about goblins trying to drag people into wardrobes where Venus or bird flocks shed no light on the problem. But it is a usefully humbling experience to dismiss and then effectively be dismissed as your eyes move down the page.

    So what do we find when we go back into the past without shedding our modern clothing? First, the category of ‘UFOs’ as we understand it does not exist: and here this reviewer and the authors might begin to disagree. Yes, there are similar phenomenon (which gives pause for thought), but the way these are understood and categorized is very different. Our modern ordering, after all, deserves no priority save in as much as it is ours: it is just another turn of the kaleidoscope that humanity has been staring into since they came down from the trees. (A nice parallel is the nineteenth-century creation of the poltergeist: which goes hand in hand with the creation of modern psychiatry. Poltergeist phenomena were, prior to this, shared between ghosts and fairies.) Were we able to go back to the witnesses memorialized here to tell them about Return to Magonia they would surely be flattered at being remembered, but they would also, Beach suspects, be confused as to why the authors focus on the sky with such determination. It is not how the witnesses would have done things. On the basis of the sources gathered here, the heavens seem to have been an emerging theatrical stage in western countries in the early modern period: not a central, let alone an autonomous one. It is only as humans take to the heavens in flight that things start to change: flight is surely the key to our UFO obsession? (A new and jaded (?) insight). For example, the authors include a fascinating case called ‘the electric disc’ which would have fit snugly into terrestrial fairylore in much of Europe in the nineteenth century and where the object in question barely left the ground: there is a good deal of fairylore in Return. The authors make the case that saucers and plates were used not just for shape but for size: it is worth remembering here the scores of references from Britain and Ireland to boggarts and ghosts and shucks with eyes ‘as big as saucers’, which covers shape and size.

    Second, and this is the most fascinating point for this blogger, in chronicling such out of the way, ‘irrelevant’ material the authors throw up crazy patterns that confuse and delight. Take the Men in the Moon chapter, one that Beach can’t get his head around, which is why he’s mentioned it three times in this post. Here we have four examples from over two hundred years of men appearing in a split celestial body. WTH!? Just to put this in perspective it is useful to think of there being three levels of known ‘mythic’ phenomenon: (i) common phenomenon that are known to folklorists and tradition; (ii) common phenomenon that are known to tradition but that folklorists have not picked up on yet; (iii) and, as here, rare phenomenon that are not known to tradition. The last are intriguing and unwieldy: how would you tell your friend about a man stepping out of the night sky? They appear, though, with enough regularity for them to be difficult to explain as coincidences, but not often enough to become the staple of story-tellers. (Memories of Jung’s sun penis). How do we explain them? Are they natural events being strained through human understanding; are they archetypes (to use a painfully inadequate word) emerging from within human beings in different times and different places; do they represent contact with ‘something’ external (to be excruciatingly inadequate); or is this sheer sulfurous chance whipping our bare bottoms with a wet towel? No one knows, of course, but Martin and Chris’ guesses are likely worth more than most. What a fantastic book!

    Beach is always interested in good books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com (go easy on the UFOs though)


    25 Feb 2016: Bruce T writes A lot of these experiences remind of what Julian Jaynes was getting at in his ideas on the origins of conciousness. Someone encounters something they’re not equipped to deal with and “BAM!” up pops Apollo giving advice, the Madonna making predictions, a bunch of guys popping out of the moon, or little grey men probing the cat. Jacques Vallee, who wrote the forward to the “Return to Magonia” book was a friend of the late Robert Anton Wilson. He and Wilson referred to these types of incidents as “peak experiences”, self contained but full of mythic/cultural archetypes. I remember reading an article by Wilson in the early 80’s speaking of his own “peak experience” on beach in California. It basically consisted of a bright white light and a minor loss in time, somewhat along the lines of what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. Wilson felt that it was a normal human experience, albeit an unusual one. Given Wilson’s habits, it’s hard to tell if he had a little chemical help to achieve this state.

    25 Feb 2016: Louis K ‘I think that your observation about flight might be correct. As you mentioned somewhere else on your blog, ghosts are always slightly recent. Not many Romans, but by now we do have ghost trains and such. As the first “UFO” sighting was after about 50 years of us leaving the earth (at least temporary) in flying machines, these could be the signs of a lingering feeling that we are not supposed to be up there, and someday something\-one will hold us accountable. So UFO’s instead of ghost planes, is my take on the heavenly obsession.’