• Christine Skolnik

Don't Miss *Archives of the Impossible*





Archives of the Impossible“I never said it was possible, I only said it was true.” – British chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes, 1874 “Look, Bill, I’m not telling you it doesn’t sound whacky. What I’m telling you is, it’s real.” – Former Pentagon official Luis Elizondo to Bill Whitaker on 60 Minutes on the UFO or UAP, 2021 In 2010, I published an intellectual history of the paranormal entitled Authors of the Impossible. The conceptual matrix of the paranormal, it turns out, was not born in the tabloids or in a science fiction novel, but in some of the most accomplished scientific personalities and elite academic institutions of the European and American academies—in figures like Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution with Darwin (who used the earlier terms “Spiritual” and “Superhuman”) and around institutions like Cambridge University, Harvard University (particularly around the psychologist and philosopher William James), and, a bit later, Duke University (around the botanist J. B. Rhine). By an “author of the impossible,” I meant something specific and radical. I meant an author who writes about well-documented historical events and common human experiences that are not supposed to happen but clearly do, and who, by writing about these “impossible” things in an especially powerful way, renders them newly plausible, imaginable, thinkable . . . in a word—real. I meant an author who makes the impossible possible. I featured four such authors of the impossible in the book. One was Jacques Vallée, a French-born American astronomer, computer scientist, and investor in advanced biomedical technology who has written numerous acclaimed books about the UFO phenomenon. Vallée became a legend in the 1970s when Steven Spielberg immortalized him as the French scientist Claude Lacombe, played by Francois Truffaut, in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). The film is worth dwelling on for a moment. For most of the movie, Spielberg followed quite closely Vallée’s classic combination of scientific analysis, which he displayed in books like Anatomy of the Phenomenon (1965), and his folklore and parapsychological approaches to the UFO phenomenon, which he set out in books like Passport to Magonia (1969) and The Invisible College (1975), respectively. These were the books that Spielberg read and loved. Accordingly, the story is structured around a classic UFO encounter that the central protagonist Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfus, experiences in his stalled pickup truck one night during a massive black-out. This contact in turns catalyzes a whole spectrum of parapsychological phenomena, including an overwhelming precognition in Neary about something that is about to happen on Devil’s Mountain in Wyoming, where the extraterrestrial mother ship finally lands at the end of the film. It was there that Spielberg broke with Vallée. After all, there are no unambiguous public landing scenes in the UFO materials, but there are countless apparent spaceships and intelligent lightforms, as well as stalled vehicles, skin burns, electromagnetic effects, and, yes, precognitions, very much like those featured in the first three-fourths of the film. The film was perfectly faithful to the historical materials, then, up to a point. * * * * It is placing that point, somewhere between the furthest reaches of science fiction and the impossible strangeness of the real, that has driven the inspiration and collection of this archive. After Authors of the Impossible appeared in 2010, I continued to work in these twilight zones. Sometime in the early winter of 2014, I was with Jacques in Berkeley, California, when he asked me a question. He was beginning to worry about his research and correspondence files, and he wanted to know if I had any suggestions about a university that might preserve them. He was concerned about these historical items being lost, discarded, or, almost as bad, sold on the rare book market. As he is easily the most admired writer on the subject, his personal papers could fetch a pretty penny. He was not looking for money, though. He was looking for future researchers who would take the UFO phenomenon seriously—as a historical, cultural, religious, and, yes, scientific problem of the utmost gravity and importance. I went back to Rice and contacted our Special Collections Director to see if we could host such a collection. The Director was enthusiastic and asked me to approach Jacques with the possibility of sending his papers to the Center. A year-long conversation and other visits to San Francisco followed. These came to a happy conclusion when Jacques visited Rice University in March of 2016 to give a lecture, meet with the Woodson Director, and agree to a major gift. Such a ufological launch of the archives made more than a little local sense. Rice University, after all, has a historical relationship to NASA headquarters, a rich history which our own Douglas Brinkley has chronicled in such detail in his American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race(2019). Houston became the home of NASA’s new Manned Spacecraft Center after President John F. Kennedy announced the decision to the world in the Rice football stadium on September 12, 1962, in his famous “We choose to go to the moon” speech. In this same cosmic optimism, which the German rocket scientist turned NASA pioneer Werner von Braun compared “to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling upon the land,” Rice University would become the first university in the world to create a space science graduate program. Houstonians would soon enough be proud of the fact that “Houston” was the first word spoken (really, heard spoken) on the moon on July 20, 1969: “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.” We affectionately call our city Space City. Our basketball team is the Rockets. Our baseball team is the Astros. You get the point. I knew an auspicious beginning when I saw one. I approached another major figure in the UFO literary world with the same possibility in mind—Whitley Strieber. Whitley is a horror and science fiction writer who also wrote what is without a doubt the finest and most widely read autobiographical abduction account of the twentieth century, Communion (1987). Whitley also happens to be a Texan. He grew up in San Antonio. I had written a chapter essay about Whitley in Mutants and Mystics(2011), and the two of us later co-wrote a book together on his extraordinary experiences and how to think about them with the advanced tools of the humanities, The Super Natural (2016). We became friends. Whitley responded enthusiastically. Like Jacques’ files, his papers were considerable. After Communion came out, Whitley received upward of a quarter million letters from individuals, many of whom recognized the details of their own abduction experiences in his intimate descriptions (and the now famous face on the cover). Anne Strieber, Whitley’s late wife, took it upon herself to read every one of the letters. She hired a secretary to type up about 800 of them and eventually wrote a book about them called The Communion Letters (1997). The first box Whitley sent us was a box of the 800 letters Anne had had typed up. Then came Ed May. Ed was the physicist who led the U.S. government’s classified “remote viewing” program for about a decade and a half, from about 1980 to 1994 (the research was founded in 1972 by two other physicists, Russell Targ and Hal Puthoff). Dubbed “Project Stargate,” as if we are living in a science fiction movie (I suspect we are), this program was funded by most of the U.S. branches of the military and intelligence communities. The project trained and employed psychically gifted military personnel and civilians to . . . I don’t know how else to say this . . . clairvoyantly spy on the Soviet Union. I had written two chapters about this once classified program in Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (2007). This remote viewing program was a very serious enterprise that was well funded for an astonishing two and a half decades, mostly because, as May has repeatedly argued in his own writings, the remote viewers consistently obtained empirical results that were impossible to deny. The Stargate documents have since been officially declassified. Many of them now sit in our Archives of the Impossible. The intellectual gravity of the gifts of Vallée, Strieber, and May created a kind of “black hole” effect among those who knew. Soon, others were attracted by their gravitational pull and approached us with their own offers of generosity. These individuals included Brenda Denzler and Diana Pasulka, two scholars of religion with extensive ethnographic and interviewing experience with contactees; Robert Fuller, an accomplished psychologist of religion whose father had collected almost every issue of Fate magazine, whose wonderful early pulp fiction covers and real-life stories has functioned since 1948 as a kind of Reader’s Digest of the American paranormal; Richard Haines, a long-time NASA scientist, aviation expert, and author of CE-5: Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind, with a very considerable trove of scientific research on UFO sightings; and Larry Bryant, an employee of the Pentagon who spent much of his life collecting ufological materials and engaging in activist and legal work around the Freedom of Information Act and disclosure movement. Larry and his daughter sent us 102 boxes. At present, we estimate that the total archival collection stands at somewhere well north of 100,000 items, and that this is probably much too modest of a figure. We are professionally archiving the material as fast as we can, with significant help from Ph.D. students and the professional staff of Woodson Research Center. When complete, these Archives of the Impossible will easily constitute one of the largest collections of its kind in the world and almost certainly the largest at an American research university. We look forward to the days when we can welcome researchers and students from around the world into these boxes, folders, and files. The truth may or may not be out there, as one popular American television series had it, but it is almost certainly in here, somewhere. Please come and help us find it. Jeffrey J. Kripal J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Graduate Studies School of the Humanities, Rice University

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