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VELIKOVSKY AND CULTURAL AMNESIA

  •  The Symposium at University of Lethbridge

Last May II the University of Lethbridge became the first institution of learning to award Velikovsky an honorary doctorate.  At the convocation ceremony his work was cited as an epitome of the ideals of interdisciplinary education for which the university has striven since its foundation in 1967.  The Lethbridge campus in the austere plains of western Alberta physically symbolizes this aim, in that almost all the normal college functions there occur within one vast building (1000 feet long, 100 feet high) trestled on two sides of a coulee bordering the Old Man River.  The creation of Vancouver architect, Arthur Erickson, this Academic Residence Building often strikes those who find themselves spending time in it with a strange sense of futurism, as though its intricate dovetailing of functions should be matched by a dovetailing of disciplines taught there.  And as though to give final proof that this challenge had been accepted, the Lethbridge faculty voted to precede Velikovsky's doctorate with a two-day symposium on the most advanced problem in his work, that of cultural amnesia.

As with other of the pioneer symposia in the last few years, no one was surprised, and no one was disappointed, when it became clear that the intellectual forces on display were highly centrifugal.  The participants represented the disciplines of art history, ancient history, and history of science; clinical psychiatry, political science, and anthropology; Shakespearean studies, Egyptology, and classics.  And the splicing of one of these onto another was the rule rather than the exception.  The art historian made psychological concepts the backbone of his argument, while the psychiatrist focused on the art work of psychotics.  The historian of science was concerned with political influences present at the foundations of modern geology, while the political scientist discussed a classical text.  Both the classicist and anthropologist spent half of their time with native American cultures, turning for the other half, respectively, to ancient Egypt and the counter-culture of the Sixties.

With a few exceptions, it seemed agreed that the theme of cultural amnesia challenged the present structure of disciplines in a different way from the rest of Velikovsky's work.  It is only natural that the lion's share of scholarly labor now has to be given to the task of proving or disproving that certain historical events could have occurred and did occur.  To this end the disciplines have to be restructured in order to accommodate more different kinds of data than they have heretofore been able to.  The discussion of cultural amnesia, on the other hand, can only begin once it is granted that catastrophic events occurred.  The task then becomes to construct a psychological model of the peculiar ways in which the human species reacted to them; and once that task has been begun, it becomes impossible to confine it to past reactions of the species and inevitably leads to discussion of our present behavior.  The peculiar atmosphere of the Lethbridge symposium was doubtless due to this necessary ambiguity of the methodology.  On the one hand, virtually no one was in the toils of acrimonious proof or disproof.  On the other hand, virtually everyone seemed aware of the urgency of the theme.

The symposium was organized by Prof. John Hamilton, chairman of the psychology department at Lethbridge, with the assistance of the physics department chairman, Prof.  Earl Milton.  There follow rough summaries of the eight papers given.

1)  Professor Alan Gowans (chairman, department of history in art, University of Victoria).  "Social Function in Historic Arts as a Basis for Periodization in Ancient History."

The opening paper was perhaps the most rigorously restricted to the task of constructing a model of the human psyche, and at the same time the most non-committal as to the possibility that catastrophic experiences had affected it.  Gowans elaborated a theory of four-phase development meant to apply simultaneously to the mental development of children and to the cultural development of mankind.  He approached both in terms of the progress of artistic representation.

In the first case he drew upon extensive study of children's drawings, which he correlated with Piaget's four phases of child development in the following way: First, a period in which imagery substitutes for concepts, corresponding to Piaget's "sensori-motor" phase.  Second, the appearance of a baseline (though without visual perspective) and the equation of scale with value, corresponding to the "pre-representational" phase.  Third, the emergence of an attempt to beautify the subject in ways inessential to the substitute imagery or implied story, corresponding to the "concrete operational" phase.  Finally, conscious precision and conviction set in objective space, corresponding to the phase of "formal operation."

In the development of artworks in mankind at large, these four phases were compared to: 1) cave paintings (with the suggestion that their datings might be brought down as low as -10,000, corresponding to a reduction of the development of language to a comparable period); 2) the universal appearance of a baseline ca. -4000; 3) the emergence among the Greeks ca. -600 of the conscious intention to beautify, as exemplified in the refinement of the column and entassis; and 4) the subsequent introduction into art of abstract causality.

Rather than bring this general scheme of phases into any relation with Velikovskian dating of catastrophic events, Gowans twisted the parabola of his talk at the end to a detail of the revised chronology, pointing out that the artistic refinement of the Amarna period in Egypt goes well with his third phase and would match the dating of the same phenomenon in Greece more closely if Ages in Chaos is correct.

2)  Dr.  George Grinnell (history department, McMaster University).  "Catastrophism and Uniformity-a Probe into the Origins of the 1832 Gestalt Shift in Western Science."

The second paper was aimed at laying bare the tissue of non-geological considerations behind the fabrication of the principles of uniformitarianism.  That intellectual event, Grinnell argued, is less well explained by Charles Lyell's objective encounter with geological evidence than by his membership in the London Geological Society, a group of amateurs (doctors, lawyers, and M.P.'s) who at the time of the 1832 Reform Bill were meeting to discuss the theological and political implications of geology.

Tories supporting monarchy had long made much of Biblical accounts concerning catastrophic interventions by the deity in nature, on the grounds that these gave precedent for the equally abrupt and severe intervention by the king in human affairs.  Woodward's theory of strata caused by precipitation after the Deluge, and Paley's reiteration of the cosmological foundations of monarchy, were both held to by the Tory cause.  By 1832, however, the rise of food prices in England after the Napoleonic wars, and the growth of industrial disaster areas such as Manchester, were among the causes motivating liberals to reform Parliament and give the people greater representation.

The London Geological Society, a liberal group, was quite conscious that the cause of reforming Parliament would be well served by theoretical justifications as lofty as those invoked by the Tories.  Grinnell traced the earlier effort of Stroke to ascribe catastrophic events to laws of volcanic uplift established by God at the beginning of time, with no subsequent intervention necessary; but this was too radical for the L.G.S.  When Lyell, a young Whig lawyer, then proposed the subtler argument that diluvial theories were mythological and impeded science, the L.G.S. elected him president and Stroke congratulated him.  And when Agassiz in 1839 presented his theory of the ice ages with catastrophic explanations, it was too late; the data for catastrophism were immediately taken over by the uniformitarian Gestalt.

3)  Dr.  Irving Wolfe (department of English studies, University of Montreal).  "Shakespeare and Velikovsky: Catastrophic Theory and the Springs of Art."

Concentrating on two plays, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Antony and Cleopatra, Wolfe attempted to trace the Shakespearean patterns of encounters between lovers back to patterns of encounters between planets as anthropomorphized and allegorized in Greco-Roman mythology.  In Midsummer Night's Dream the quarrel between Oberon and Titania is described as resulting in the flooding of banks, contageous mists, and disruptions of the seasons; the tribe is threatened, and in order to assure survival, the right pairs must be gotten to mate; young lovers at the court of Theseus then become involved in a pattern of amorous conjunctions and instabilities.  In Antony and Cleopatra two principal lovers are explicitly compared to celestial bodies; they are planets who have left their orbits and endanger the Earth; and only once they have been stabilized through death can they safely be elevated to myth.

Wolfe acknowledged that the sources of Shakespeare's inspiration in manipulating these themes were unclear.  At one level it is arguable that acquaintance with ancient authors (such as Ovid) who showed marked predilection for catastrophic myths would be sufficient stimulus to the imagination of the Elizabethan poet; on another it is just possible to think of such stimulus as activating unconscious memory of the events transmitted biologically.

4)  J. MacGregor (departments of art and psychiatry, Ontario College of Art).  "Catastrophic Themes and Psychotic Delusions."

As the one clinically trained psychiatrist besides Velikovsky participating in the symposium, MacGregor had a certain obligation to face head-on the origins of Velikovsky's work in Freudian psychoanalytic thinking.  This challenge he accepted with grace, presenting the only paper to explore the theme of amnesia in the context in which Velikovsky first developed it.

He began by describing the third-generation Freudian school in Vienna, where Velikovsky received his psychoanalytic training under Wilhelm Stekel.  He then proceeded to trace the inner dynamic of the Freudian circle, focusing on Freud's discussion of the concept of phylogenetic inheritance with his greatest rebel, Jung, and his loyal biographer, Jones.  At this point MacGregor made an important distinction: that while the concept of "collective repression" of the memory of catastrophic events is a "crucial underpinning to Velikovsky's theory," the concept of "phylogenetic inheritance" of these same memories is not.

Collective repression, if it occurred, was neither instantaneous nor complete, and may chiefly consist in the inability of later generations to interpret the catastrophic accounts passed down to them.  Phylogenetic inheritance, on the other hand, is a concept which would explain the compulsive behavior of later generations by positing memories which were transmitted to them biologically from the ancestors who originally experienced the traumatizing events.  These later generations would then be seen as still traumatized and still repressing memory by the techniques of amnesia.  If such inheritance occurs, MacGregor argued, its purest manifestation should be in the archaic mental structures of psychotics.  Here he was content to conclude by suggesting the sources of ambiguity in the available evidence, and by giving examples of some of the few cases in which patients using drawing as therapy have given planetary associations to the figures in their own work.

5)  Dr.  D. Mueller (department of history, University of Lethbridge).  "Chronological Implications of Velikovsky."

As a point of academic freedom, the symposium committee felt obliged to make a place on its program for the university's own most vociferous opponent of Velikovsky's work and of the reward being accorded it.  This proved unfortunate, since the opponent in question was so little interested in catastrophic interpretations of the past that he concentrated solely on attacking the revised chronology, and thus marred the symposium not only with his malice but also with his irrelevance.

Methodologically the attack was satisfying to no one, since, as Velikovsky pointed out in his reply, it at no point engaged the arguments of the printed volume of Ages in Chaos.  Rather, it dealt only with the period between Akhnaton and Alexander, and yet was based on no direct knowledge of Velikovsky's treatment of this period in the unpublished volumes of his work.  The result was a game of guessing how Velikovsky might treat the problems of reconstructing the period and then of ridiculing the guess as, for instance, by suggesting that he might have tried to eliminate the extra centuries by proving that the years were shortened, or that "Ramses VI-XII may have perished in a catastrophe."  The paper concluded with heavy sarcasm, suggesting that historical research should be reclassified as a creative activity, open to "women's lib, minority groups, and academics seeking to bolster their ego."

The process of apologizing for the behavior was begun on the university's behalf by Dr. J. Penton, chairman of the history department, in the course of his introduction to a subsequent talk, when he stated that he felt it quite admirable that historical research be pursued by women and minority groups.  Later the university president himself apologized to Velikovsky in a letter.

6)  Patrick Doran (department of anthropology, McMaster University).  "Velikovsky and the New Anthropology."

In contrast to the preceding paper, Mr. Doran, a graduate student in anthropology, spoke personally and seriously of the sense for apocalypse present in his own generation--that which came to consciousness in the late Sixties.  He centered his discussion around the popular compendium of survival techniques known as the Whole Earth Catalog, which he called an "annotated bibliography of catastrophic consciousness . . . that shouts 'rejoice; the apocalypse has already occurred.' "

"In effect," he continued, "whether the apocalyptic agent is perceived to be an extraterrestrial jostling; biospheric poisoning; atomic weaponry overkill; overpopulation; or whether the person has experienced the disintegration of his world view by chemical inducement--a magical mushroom or the fabled LSD--the result is the awakening of consciousness, the veil of amnesia has been lifted."  This heightening of sensitivity and humanity Doran compared to that of the Hopi Indians, whose world view is conditioned down to the smallest detail of ritual and prayer by their culturally transmitted memories of repeated migration at times of world destruction.  Velikovsky's work, in this context, becomes properly a paradigm provided for the specifically western consciousness, which seems to demand the authority of scientifically established proof before it will be convinced of a basis for action.

7)  Dr.  W. Mullen (Hodder Fellow in the Humanities, Princeton University).  "Structuring the Apocalypse: Old and New World Variations,"

Continuing Doran's use of specific cultural examples, Mullen attempted to explore the syntax of apocalyptic compulsion in four Old World civilizations (Egyptian, Hebrew, Christian, Islamic) and four New World ones (Teotihaucano, Mayan, Hopi, Aztec).  The effort was to establish a common language describing the various misplacements of syntax by which religions interpret catastrophic alterations of space and time as divine events.  The basic misplacement is the apocalyptic: from stating that "heaven and earth were once remade, and we lament the destruction but celebrate the reestablishment of stability," religions tend to move to the fear that "heaven and earth will be again remade unless we act in a certain way," or "heaven and earth will be again remade and therefore we must act in a certain way"; at which point the element of compulsion enters.

In Egypt Mullen touched upon the rituals by which the king reenacted for the people the passion and triumph of the planetary god.  In Israel he suggested how the Jewish character was formed by the tension of sustaining an historical burden based on belief that the deity had intervened catastrophically in history on the unique behalf of one people, and might do so again.  In Christianity and Islam he stressed how the teachings of the original founders were conditioned by vivid belief in imminent apocalypse, and how these teachings were then radically remodelled when the apocalypse failed to come.

In the New World he dwelled first on the fundamental notions of the Teotihuacano civilization out of which the later Mesoamerican cultures grew, principally the belief that during the last catastrophe the Sun had been made to rise only through the willing sacrifice of the gods, and therefore that it would be sustained only through the continuing sacrifice of human beings.  The Mayan culture he singled out as particularly intellectual in its means of controlling apocalyptic fear, through astronomical numerology and through rituals of worshipping the units of time as gods.  The Hopis, who claimed to be a splinter group from the Mesoamerican peoples, he compared to the Jews in their belief that they were chosen by the god who led them to the sight of their present habitation and commanded to preserve a unique purity in their actions.  The Aztecs, by contrast, he characterized as having barbarized the ancient Teotihuacano concept into a political scheme of aggressive warfare, theologically justified by the need to gather as many victims as possible for sacrifice to the Sun.

8)  Prof.  Alfred DeGrazia (department of political science, New York University).  "Pataetiology of Human Fears."

The final paper, by one of the co-authors of The Velikovsky Affair, zeroed in on the two key concepts on which any psychological theory must turn in treating Velikovsky's events: fear and memory.  In respect to fear, DeGrazia used a number of examples and formulations to, evoke the continuous over-reaction to threatening stimuli which seems to be built in to all human society, concluding that "natural catastrophes must be the origins of the overload of fear-affect that has driven man to create most of his goods and evils, his arts and his institutions."  He stressed that a theory of acquired traits, genetic mutation, or racial unconscious is not necessary to explain "the eternal play of good and evil."

On the other hand, the prospects for therapy are not simple if it is correct that "we are ill-prepared to meet present fears on a one-to-one basis but must overreact continuously," partly because of the very tendency of fear-reducing-movements to engender more fear themselves and also to "tear down the fabric of what is defensibly genial as well as what is diabolic and fearful in society."

In regard to memory, DeGrazia elaborated a similarly paradoxical view, beginning with the notion that "the laws of remembering are the laws of forgetting." Alluding to a work in progress which analyzes certain passages of The Odyssey, he suggested that some of the earliest civilized achievements of mankind in dealing with catastrophic events consisted in forgetting some portions of them and transforming others into graceful and trancelike song.

His talk served to remind the symposium that if psychological models were at issue, then the question of therapy based on them could not be far behind, and that this question needs to be approached with extraordinary delicacy, that is to say, with full consciousness of the extent to which catastrophic memories and amnesia are woven into the fabric of human institutions.

Velikovsky himself, recently returned from a several-week visit to Israel, was content to attend only part of the presentation of papers and to make some brief remarks at the ends of the two sessions.  He spoke at greatest length of his predecessor in the research of cultural amnesia, the 18th century French encyclopedist, Nicolas Boulanger.  Boulanger alone, among the men whom he perceived to have anticipated his ideas, carried the conviction that natural catastrophes had occurred into the study of religious motivations.  He cited passages from Boulanger's principal work, L'Antiquité Dévoilé par ses Usages, in which the "sad and lugubrious" character of ancient rituals is evoked alongside explicit signs that they sprang from a compulsion to reenact world destructions.  Boulanger had gone so far as to speculate that the content of esoteric cults, such as the Eleusinian mysteries, had to do with knowledge of previous worlds and information on how to survive future destructions.

To the interest of many, Velikovsky's talents as an occasional speaker were several times called upon in the various banquets connected with the symposium and the convocation.  In a dinner for faculty and symposium participants the night before the doctorate was awarded, he rose and remarked that he felt slightly wistful at finally being rewarded for his labors by a degree, since before he could always have the pleasure of knowing that the work itself was its own reward.  And in a speech to graduating seniors the following night, he exhorted those who plan to continue their studies to develop independent habits of mind, and particularly to respect their own original ideas as long as the available evidence supported them.

Late Note: The Saidye Bronfman Centre of the Montreal YMHA (similar to the YMCA in the United States) is planning a weekend program January 10-12, 1975, titled "From Prehistory to Prophecy: Velikovsky's Challenge to Conventional Belief."  There will be no registration fee, or at most a nominal fee, for the event, which is part of the Centre's cultural affairs program.  All presentations will be designed more for the general public than for specialists.

There will be six speakers: Dr. Irving Wolfe (English studies, University of Montreal); Dr. C. J. Ransom (General Dynamics); Prof.  Alfred DeGrazia (author, The Velikovsky Affair); Dr. William Mullen (classics, Boston University); Paddy Doran (anthropology, McMaster University); and Dr. George Grinnell (history of science, McMaster University).

Ransom will make a slide presentation, DeGrazia will discuss "The Approaching Cosmic Debate in the Sciences and Humanities," and Grinnell will consider "Velikovsky and Nietzsche: The Coming Revolution in the West."

The Saidye Bronfman Centre is located at 5170 Cote St. Catherine's Road in Montreal.  For further information contact Irving Wolfe, 5104 Lacombe, Montreal, Canada.

PENSEE Journal X

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