Tuesday, April 26, 2011

V is for ... Velikovsky

With the end of the A to Z challenge hoving into view - hoving, moreover, at rather alarming speed, given my somewhat scattershot approach to daily updates in a linear-time paradigm - this seems as good a moment as any to write a blog about an obscure Russian Zionist and revisionist historian.

The obscure Russian Zionist and revisionist historian in question is one Immanuel Velikovsky, a medical man who published in the 1930s the first article advocating the use of encephalography as a diagnostic tool in cases of epilepsy. A disciple of Freud who also authored several papers on psychoanalytic subjects, Velikovsky was a well-traveled man, fluent in several languages and educated in Montpellier, Edinburgh, and Moscow. He obtained his medical degree in 1921, and for much of the next two decades lived in what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, where he worked with other notable Jewish intellectuals - including one Albert Einstein, later to refuse the Presidency of Israel - on the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As a practicing Freudian psychoanalyst, Velikovsky was naturally interested in Freud's own output; as future events were to prove, he shared his mentor's somewhat monomaniac habit of shoehorning all manner of data into a pet theory, and, with war looming, Velikovsky decamped with his wife - the violinist Elisheva Kramer - to New York, there to research material for a book about Oedipus.

The 'Oedipus complex' is one of the better-known offshoots of Freud's comprehensive psychosexual theories of human development - it describes a syndrome in which the son's unconscious sexual attraction to his own mother creates a tension eventually resolved by self-identification with his father, and is named for the mythical king of Thebes immortalized by Sophocles in Oedipus Rex. Freud considered this a universal stage in the development of all males - females passed through a similar 'Electra Complex' in which they fixated on the father - which earned him a devoted following at the time as psychoanalysis flourished, but has since equally drawn criticism from more cautious and more pluralist researchers. Part of Freud's basis for universalizing his theories was the support he sought and found in historical contexts. An example of this was his Moses and Monotheism, which rewrote the Bible and argued that Moses and the Pharaoh - identified as Akhnaton, the first Pharaoh to promote monotheistic worship of the Aten - were one and the same. From this revisionist leap, it was a short journey for Freud to postulate the murder of Moses/Akhnaton as the motivation for the Jewish belief in a Messiah, and thence to characterize the importance of religion in the Jewish identity as a shared guilt complex arising out of the Oedipal murder of the father-figure.

Velikovsky took a different but no less bizarre tack - his psychohistoric theory identified the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaton with the Thebean king Oedipus directly. He was seeking confirmation of his theories in contemporary Egyptian accounts of the Exodus, a task made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 but still fraught with difficulty. He found in the Ipuwer Papyrus evidence that seemed to correspond with the Biblical plagues of Egypt; there was a trifling chronological problem with the centuries these events were believed to have happened, but Velikovsky was equal to that and embarked upon a feat of revisionism that left Freud in his shadow: nothing more nor less than a hybridization of Biblical scholarship with Egyptology into a new Velikovskian history of the ancient world, one in which psychoanalytic theories were consistently demonstrated in the events and personages recorded in the resultant mishmash.

The story takes a turn for the even wierder when, in 1950, we catch up with a Velikovsky now deeply embedded in catastrophic cosmology and hawking his Worlds in Collision around various publishing houses. Despite his track record as a published scientist, and despite the erudition and scholarship of his work, he is turned down by eight publishing houses because what he is writing is deemed to be simply too controversial - too "out there" - for the highly conventional world of academic publishing. Part of their reluctance stems from the unifying thesis of Velikovsky's reimagining of the Bible: he ascribes many of the events of Biblical history to an extraordinary astronomical event, the eruption of the planet Venus from the planet Jupiter, and the subsequent near misses as both Venus and Mars swooped past Earth en route to their current celestial positions. The complete lack of any precedent - indeed, any conventional astronomical evidence - for this remarkable cosmic occurence dissuaded Velikovsky not at all, because he was able to compile all the evidence he needed by selectively culling from widely-disparate sources and, where necessary, guessing.

Eventually, Velikovsky's perseverance was rewarded: the textbook division of prestigious publishing house Macmillan agreed to publish Worlds in Collision. It seemed as though Velikovsky's ideas were going to be aired before the public - but there was a problem. During his research for Worlds in Collision, Velikovsky had corresponded with, among others, Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley - a potential stablemate at Macmillan's scientific division. The problem was that Shapley considered Velikovsky's theory of planetary billards patently absurd, and mounted a vehement, and successful, campaign with the assistance of other scientists contracted to Macmillan to have Velikovsky's book shelved. The success of that campaign demonstrated that Velikovsky's own world was in collision with the monolith of orthodox Science.

Doubleday, a publisher without a textbook division, picked up the book; and the assaults of the scientific community upon it continued. No less a luminary than Carl Sagan used his various bully pulpits, including his PBS show Cosmos, to inveigh against Velikovsky's maverick ideas. He cited the atmospheric composition of Venus, the radioemissions of Jupiter, the physics of celestial orbits, and other established scientific facts to assert that Velikovsky's proposed causal mechanism was junk science - it simply couldn't have happened as Velikovsky asserted it had. Sagan did have the grace to consider Velikovsky's thesis, and reject it on the basis of scientific observations that contradicted it; he criticized others in the scientific community who had simply tried to silence Velikovsky because his proposals were so far outside the mainstream.

This firestorm of criticism came as a surprise to Velikovsky himself, for whom ten years of his life had been devoted to systematically laying out the evidence for something that, to him, had become obvious. In vain, he tried to defend his own claims, pointing out that the vast majority of his evidence was concerned with archaeological and historical matters: what had convinced him of the truth of his assertions was the remarkable concordance between mythologies in places as far-flung as China and Egypt. And he gained a following among the lay public, who were sympathetic to him because of the harshness of the treatment meted out by his fellow scientists. Velikovsky was neither the first nor the last man to have his work ridiculed because its results lay outside the mainstream - Robert Goddard, for example, had been mocked in the New York Times for lacking the knowledge "ladled out daily in high schools" when he proposed the use of rockets in the vacuum of space; a groveling apology was printed when, years later, his theories were employed to put men on the moon.

Science has since moved on from attacking Velikovsky's causal mechanism to attacking the substance of his thesis: the assertion that the miraculous events described in the Holy Bible were actual historical occurences. This transition perhaps illustrates why the reception to his controversial book was so hostile: Science and Religion have always been "worlds in collision." Ironically, the evidence used to undermine the catastrophic theories of Velikovsky was partly compiled to support the catastrophic theories of global warming. Al Gore, a man with no significant scientific background - unless you count his claim to have invented the Internet - earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize, an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Grammy for his advancement of a catastrophic thesis. It's all about who you know, rather than what you know...

Although history will remember Velikovsky as a brilliant but flawed thinker, his years of scholarship did raise questions that remain valid despite his rigorous pummelling at the hands of the scientific community. For example: if there was no Great Flood, as documented in the Book of Genesis... why do the mythologies of Australia, China, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, India, Zimbabwe, and the Americas - cultures that had no contact with one another until well into the period of historic time - agree that there was?

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