Taking a completely different turn in my reading habits, I spent a three-hour plane ride yesterday blowing through a little more than half of Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision. Anything but up-to-date in the realm of any science at all, I have no idea what experts think now of all the guy’s assertions, made back in 1950, about the origins of planetary formation, comets, and Earth’s history. I can see why he might have been/still be dismissed as a nut job; in addition to his seeming to place a bit too much faith in mythology as part of the historical record, it’s hard not to interpret his wrangling together ancient lore in support of his cosmic theories in the same mode as a History Channel special on the truth about aliens creating Easter Island. But– again, this comes from the pen of a scientific ignoramus– unlike our contemporary televised ET-hunters, Velikovsky doesn’t seem to have all that much of a personal axe to grind or an evangelical tone with which to do it. And, believable or not, damn if this stuff isn’t just plain fun to consider.
The effect of his bringing together both (some) scientific theories and an array of examples from ancient Egyptian, biblical, Mayan, Maori, etc., etc., etc., thought to support his arguments feels to me like the best of imaginative adventures kids are still allowed to indulge in, where secret codes mean something, and where something globally relevant is made clear through a variety of disconnected practices and traditions. And while still pretty skeptical about all of this, I have to wonder: was/is it Velikovsky’s taking ancient mythology seriously, whether as history or not, that so disturbed/s people? Admittedly, I’m not prone to taking Babylonian creation myths and biblical assertions about the divine as anything more than different people’s attempts to do the best with what they had– usually a well-developed narrative talent that included some artful embellishing– to explain their worlds. But try to explain they did– and the possibility that any part of those fabulous accounts of wheels upon wheels and giant serpents might be based in something factual is probably just terrifying enough, even if they’re not describing an actual leviathan, that we’d rather dismiss it all, along with those who take that possibility seriously, as the product of primitive minds and the wishful imaginings of the naïve.
So many of those creation myths seem, in addition to being an attempt to explain what’s going on, period, to involve a search for meaning– and so, too, does Velikovsky’s own narrative, grounded in the reasoning of a scientific age and yet desiring to see mythology as, if not history tout court, at least reflective of it in some real way. It’s not that Velikovsky’s looking for a god; I think he would have denied he was doing anything of the sort. But in seeking explanations* for how we got where we are now, this author is engaged in figuring out how that which transcends us, even if only spacially, has shaped our world– and in that sense, his project really isn’t that far, genre-wise, from the prophets and astronomers he references from BCE days. In addition to, and maybe even more than, any scientific questionability Velikovsky’s work contains, it may be that “aspiring” aspect of his work– a curiosity willing to go against the grain in order to make some sort of meaning out of what surrounds him– that gets the more serious and/or objectively-minded among us up in arms. Because it’s the same itch that, lazily pursued, gets a general public so hooked on pseudo-scientific cable documentaries and Dan Brown trips through dark Vatican vaults. Admittedly, even if it were discovered that aliens did build the pyramids, that fact still wouldn’t give us the meaning of life. But while we’re trying to figure it all out, a little bit of speculative fun makes the project all that much more interesting.
* And let’s admit: all this collation had to have involved a ton of research and a real talent for holding together parallel scenarios in a manner entirely worthy of Dickens.