Carl Jung is best known for his development of the concept of the archetypes in human psychology. Few know that he also dabbled in UFO research in the hey-days of the 1950s, shortly after the end of World War 2. From his own admission in 1958, the year of the book’s release, UFO sightings had increased tremendously after the war. Jung attempts to tackle this phenomena from a psychologist’s perspective in Flying Saucers.
The preface to the English edition begins by stating the case:
“The primary question -- and apparently this is the most important point--is this: are they real or are they merely fantasy products? The question is by no means settled yet. If they are real, exactly what are they? If they are fantasy, why should such a rumour exist?”
Jung then states the core psychological problem as: why should it be more desirable for UFOs to exist? After all, if people are hallucinating all over the world about the same subject matter then what psychological process - conscious or unconscious - would produce this phenomena with such strikingly similar patterns? What is the mind hoping to gain from it?
Carl outlines the data as he sees it. Thousands of people from every country were reporting - in startling numbers - interactions with objects that resemble “weightless thoughts”:
“From many of the reports, particularly the early ones, it is evident that the UFOs can appear suddenly and vanish equally suddenly. They can be tracked by radar but remain invisible to the eye, and conversely, can be seen by the eye but not detected by radar. UFOs can make themselves invisible at will, it is said, and must obviously consist of a substance that is visible at one moment and invisible the next.”
The descriptions are so similar to 2021 that it is uncanny. Most modern news outlets have presented the phenomena as a “recent” development, but it appears that even in 1958 people were experiencing the exact same phenomena.
Jung acknowledges that this phenomena does indeed have physical properties - including being tracked on radar and in images - but constantly returns into a reductionist psychoanalysis due to his area of expertise:
“The longer the uncertainty lasted, the greater became the probability that this obviously complicated phenomenon had an extremely important psychic component as well as a possible physical basis.”
“As a psychologist, I am not qualified to contribute anything useful to the question of the physical reality of UFOs.”
To me, this confession is a rather awkward statement, as if a farmer cannot comment on the physical existence of horses. Certainly we all are capable of remarking on the physical existence of a thing, especially a thing which leaves physical traces!
Nevertheless, it is on the psychological topic that he spends the majority of the book. Most of it was quite repetitive to read, if I am honest. Jung had a tendency to tie together abstract pseudo-religious concepts over millennia to explain everything, which feels a bit like the same style of thought as palm reading with a scientific twist. His attempt to explain the phenomena as one would explain religious imagery, the spiritual background of yoga, or the shapes in a mandala bleeds through on every page. The phenomenon is treated as a projection from the subconscious. The symbols bubble up and somehow project themselves through an elevated form of vision or hallucination into the real world.
This clearly runs into issues when there are sightings involving more than one witness. As was the method of Jung in most of his books, when these unusual synchronicities, as he called them, reared their confusing head, he resorts to appealing to the effervescent and as-yet unproven concept of the collective subconscious that was the bucket in which he threw all explanation-defying experiences which can not be reduced into a single human brain. It was quite frustrating to me that he offers absolutely no evidence for the existence of the collective subconscious but just assumes that one must exist.
To the best of my understanding, his idea is that all human subconscious are connected like the cells in a brain through an as-yet-undiscovered natural phenomena. In other words, the collective subconscious is a telepathic form of communication of which we are not conscious. From this well of unconscious processes bubble up symbols that then project themselves into the real world. This, in his estimation, explains why the same types of archetypal symbols appear around the world in different cultures (for example the hero-savior, the warrior-king, witches and warlocks, and the demonic).
It is interesting to me that Carl Jung and C.S.Lewis came to startling different conclusions from this same phenomena throughout cultures. Lewis popularized the idea of Christianity being the “myth that became reality” as the epitome of these archetypes, while Jung saw it as a deity-free subconscious phenomena. The two are in stark contrast.
Consequently Jung saw the symbolism and consistency in UFO reports as a sign they too must be coming from subconscious symbols. He discusses at length every connection to Mandala’s, Christian symbolism, symbolism of eastern religions, and even Islam. He talks about connections to subconscious sexual urges, mankind’s need for a savior figure, and our fear of death and being alone. A star UFO might represent a soul, an oblong UFO might be a subconscious phallic symbol, a disc shaped object could represent a technological savior of mankind. This results in what is, in my opinion, repeated word salads of free-form thought that seem to be coming from the imagination as much as he claims the UFOs might be.
There is some discussion about the rumors associated with UFOs. He discusses the same types of theories that are seen on UFO forums and in books and YouTube videos today, including the connection to nuclear experiments:
“It also seemed that airfields and atomic installations in particular held a special attraction for them, from which it was concluded that the dangerous development of atomic physics and nuclear fission had caused a certain disquiet on our neighboring planets and necessitated a more accurate survey from the air. As a result people felt they were being observed and spied upon from space.”
Rumors, combined with military personnel reports, had reached such a rancor that the government was forced to get involved. An eerily similar story still exists today. He talks about the calculations that they can move from a standstill to tens of thousands of miles per hour and make right turns without stopping. Clearly a feat which would kill a human from sheer G-forces.
“Sometimes they appear to be up to 500 yards in diameter, sometimes small as electric street-lamps. There are large motherships from which little UFOs slip out or in which they take shelter. They are said to be both manned and unmanned, and in the latter case are remote-controlled. According to the rumour, the occupants are about three feet high and look like human beings, or, conversely, are utterly unlike us.”
He expresses the exasperation one has in trying to make sense of the reports, as some of them are so outlandishly contradictory to each other one is almost forced to reckon with the idea they must be all coming from the psyche only.
“But if it is a case of psychological projection, there must be a psychic cause for it. One can hardly suppose that anything of such worldwide incidence as the UFO legend is purely fortuitous and of no importance whatever.”
Extending the exasperation further:
“The fact that the UFOs neither land on earth nor show the least inclination to get into communication with human beings is met by the explanation that these visitors, despite their superior knowledge, are not at all certain of being well received on earth, for which reason they carefully avoid all intelligent contact with humans.”
It is clear that Jung is referencing a “mass landing” here and not anecdotal stories, as he then admits some people have claimed they did indeed land. Today we have stories like the Ariel UFO incident that seem to put to rest Jung’s insistence. But once again even today they are just stories, even though they contain mass numbers of witnesses. He expresses his disdain that people seem to forget to take photos of them, as they are so enraptured with awe at the sight.
Then Jung begins to look at the faulty state of the world and surmise what psychological factors might underlie stories like these. Is it the post-war world? Is it the dangers of catastrophe? Are we looking for help from the skies?
Despite searching for a psychological explanation, he clarifies:
“They are not meteors, not misidentified stars, not ‘temperature inversions’, not cloud formations, not migrating birds, not aerial balloons, not balls of fire, and certainly not the delirious products of intoxication or fever, nor the plain lies of eyewitnesses.”
Then he reverts back to the same problem, again;
“Nevertheless, the apparently physical nature of the UFOs creates such insoluble puzzles for even the best brains, and on the other hand has built up such an impressive legend, that one feels tempted to take them as a 99 percent psychic product and subject them accordingly to the usual psychological interpretation.”
Dipping into the psychological aspects, Jung then writes about the dreams of some of his patients that involved UFOs. It is interesting to note that people who had never seen a UFO had dreams involving them, and described them in similar fashion (albeit it is hard to compare the similarity of someone else’s dream to reality) to experiences people had in waking life. This to me is the best argument in Jung’s favor that there is a subconscious connection, although dreams are not caught on radar.
It is curious that Jung was coaching some of his patients on how to respond in their dreams, as evidenced by the following:
“I was walking, at night, in the streets of a city. Interplanetary “machines” appeared in the sky, and everyone fled. The “machines” looked like large steel cigars. I did not flee. One of the “machines” spotted me and came straight towards me at an oblique angle. I think: Professor Jung says that one should not run away, so I stand still and look at the machine. From the front, seen close to, it looked like a circular eye, half blue, half white...”
Most of the dreams were similar in nature. Worth a read, if not just for the novelty of dreams about UFOs by someone who claimed to have never seen one in a waking state. But most of it is filled with what I can only describe as jargon:
“The projected image then appears as an ostensibly physical fact independent of the individual psyche and its nature. In other words, the rounded wholeness of the mandala becomes a space ship controlled by an intelligent being.”
Jung refuses to explain how a projected image could be caught on radar, which somewhat defeats the main point in his book.
“It boils down to nothing less than this: that either psychic projections throw back a radar echo, or else the appearance of real objects affords an opportunity for mythological projections.”
He then dives into paintings that have connections to UFOs and takes a stab at being an art interpreter and spends considerable time explaining the importance of modern art as a collective Rorschache test.
There was a quote I found to be quite true and profound, though, that had little reference to UFOs, but is still evidenced today in many explanations for the complicated parts of life:
“Therefore it does not commend itself to the relatively unconscious man driven by his natural impulses, because, imprisoned in his familiar world, he clings to the commonplace, the obvious, the probable, the collectively valid, using for his motto: “Thinking is difficult, therefore let the herd pronounce judgment!” It is an enormous relief to him when something that looks complicated, unusual, puzzling and problematical can be reduced to something ordinary and banal, especially when the solution strikes him as surprisingly simple and somewhat droll. The most convenient explanations are invariably sex and the power instinct, and reduction to these two dominants gives rationalists and materialists an ill-concealed satisfaction: they have neatly disposed of an intellectually and morally uncomfort able difficulty, and on top of that can enjoy the feeling of having accomplished a useful work of enlightenment which will free the individual from unnecessary moral and social burdens.”
He spends time discussing how people are abandoning Christianity, looking for other meanings, and the importance of doing so. And therefore people resort to their most base instincts of life and sexual reproduction to explain all that is. How poignant.
A short section explores some of the historical sightings in Biblical texts and in the middle ages of phenomenal craft in the skies and of messages.
Yet in the entire book Jung fails to find any meaning in the phenomena, other than an esoteric connection to the subconscious. The most relevant parts of the book to the modern day are the consistency of the descriptions of the craft, their impact on human consciousness, and the varying explanations given. It causes one to pause, and wonder if perhaps the reason we continue to posit the same explanations for the same phenomena is because the meaning for the phenomena is beyond our grasp or perhaps we do not want to acknowledge its connection to the spiritual and the divine.
“If these things are real—and by all human standards it hardly seems possible to doubt this any longer—then we are left with only two hypotheses: that of their weightlessness on the one hand and of their psychic nature on the other. This is a question I for one cannot decide.”