Helene Smith went there, first.
“There,” being Mars. Not the Robinson Mars, or the Bradbury Mars (she might quite have liked that one, though English was the lingua franca), not the Wells Mars or the Burroughs Mars or the Marses of Bear or Bova or MacDonald, and not the Mars of Burton or DePalma or Moore. In the end, of course, Mars is what you make of it (ask not what it is about Mars, Red Planet, Bringer of War that so many human societies worshiped it as a blood-caked, vengeful deity: ask instead what it is about humanity)—and Helene Smith’s Mars was made of newspaper columns feverishly entertaining the possibility of life on the Red Planet. Its perihelic approach in the last quarter of the 19th century coincided with an error in translation: Giovanni Schiaparelli wrote of the streaks of color he saw while observing Mars, naming them “canali,” or channels; this was misread by the English and Americans as canals (surely, had French, Queen of languages, been involved, this whole misunderstanding might have been avoided), and on so slim a premise was hung the breathless tale of an ancient civilization, their planet wasting slowly but inexorably into desert, striving against all hope to draw the last water from dying seas to crumbling, mausoleum-haunted cities in an engineering feat the likes of which the Earth had never seen. (Why ancient? Why a desert, when Flammarion had written not twenty years before, “May we attribute to the color of the herbage and plants which no doubt clothe the plains of Mars, the characteristic hue of that planet…”? Mumford, of course, tells us the graveyard is the first sign of cities; it is also the last they leave behind. Still: Why such an air of death, and decadence, and genteel despair? —It is worth noting that Schiaparelli named many landmarks [seas, and canali, but also plains and mountains] after the Classical geography of Hell, but this may have no more to do with it all than the then-recent completion, after much heroic effort, of the Suez Canal through the ancient, mausoleum-haunted deserts of Egypt, or perhaps the decision made by Percival Lowell to build his great observatory in the bone-dry deserts of Arizona, where the air was clearest.) When Clara Gouget Guzman, a wealthy French widow, tried in 1891 to foster peace and harmony among the worlds by offering a prize of one hundred thousand francs to the first person to communicate with extraterrestrials, she excluded Mars from consideration; it would prove, she felt, too easy to contact. —Better to try for the shier off-worlders: those tall and blond Venusians, the squat, fungoid Lunarians, perhaps the as-yet unknown creatures that might brave the Great Red Spot just recently discovered on far-off Jupiter. (The Greys of zeta Reticuli and the reptilian Draconids from the constellation Draco were more shy still, hiding as yet in the wings; we were terribly provincial in those days. —Though one might well remark on the remarkable coincidence, that aliens from the constellation Draco are, themselves, draconic, the wise pattern-maker will smile benevolently, or roll his eyes in exasperation, as may be his wont, and explain, patiently, or through gritted teeth, that there is nothing to remark upon; there are no coincidences. Propter hoc, ergo post hoc; the constellation Draco is so named because we have always known that the aliens from that quarter of the sky are reptilian—here there be dragons. We have merely chosen to forget.)
I say Helene Smith went there first, but this is, in the end, sheer conjecture. She herself went nowhere, of course, except the offices of Theodore Flournoy, Professor of Psychology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. He was interested in her claim to have been a medium or “channel” (canale, in the Italian spoken just over the Alps) for Marie Antoinette (though her handwriting, when under the influence, in no way resembled the former Queen’s, and Smith—which, of course, was not her real name—was more than willing to familiarize her royal chum with the latest contrivances of the Steam Age, so that Marie’s messages from Beyond might refer to telephones and steamships with no evident confusion); he was astonished to discover that, when put under hypnosis, Smith did not renounce her claims, but produced more, many more, as if from a bottomless well: she had lived in ancient India, and on Mars, and proved still literate in the Martial language when entranced, recording a number of messages in the Martial alphabet (for, in the late Victorian era, the sentient inhabitants of Mars were referred to as often as not as “Martials”). —Today, her curious and lovely curlicue script, which corresponds on a one-for-one basis with the twenty-six characters of the Roman alphabet, can only be found in James Randi’s Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, which fact reminds me of a pithy moral, though I cannot find the scrap of paper on which I jotted it down. —The French were delighted to discover that the ancient and advanced language of the Martials was structured identically to their own, which they had always held without peer in grammar or syntax. How nice to find such incontrovertible proof! We can, perhaps, ignore the fact that French was Mlle. Smith’s native tongue. The Parisians were more than happy to do so, and marveled at the sketches of Martial fashions she produced: unisex styles, with loose blousy pants and long, embroidered shirts cinched at the waist by broad belts, quite sensible attire for hot, dry days in the desert. (And we see again how advanced the Martians were, how ahead of their time. Unisex styling, almost a hundred years before the advent of the pantsuit, or the burning of bras!)
She was under hypnosis, and incapable of consciously lying, but Flournoy (unlike the French) was never swayed to believe she had actually lived on Mars, or in ancient India, or had preternatural contact with Marie Antoinette. Instead, he made a crucial distinction: While he did not believe what she said, he believed that she believed. For her part, Smith, who had come to realize Flournoy had been her husband in long-ago India, was furious at this perceived betrayal. She demanded a divorce—easily enough granted, as Flournoy had never recognized the marriage, no matter how much she might have believed in it. She never spoke to him again. By the end of her life, Catherine Elise Muller (for that was her real name, if ever there were one) had come to live full-time as the Virgin Mary.
Flournoy’s slippery concept of the truth, of course, plagues us to this day. (What else could lie behind the undergraduate’s favorite exit strategy from an inconvenient relationship? “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” What you believe to be true is as valid as what I believe—unless, of course, your idea of love inhibits mine, much as her idea of Mars subverted his of a rational, logical universe. —No wonder she asked for a divorce!) So much so that, in an attempt to explain how Muller, or Smith, could so fervently have believed what was so patently untrue—or how Virginia Tighe could have so vividly remembered her life as Bridey Murphy of Cork, Ireland when she had never left the continent of North America—some researchers have coined the term “cryptomnesia,” for that which we know, but do not know we know, and so must remember in other ways. Virginia Tighe’s nurse, when she was an infant, was from Ireland, and told her many stories of the old country; surely it is easier to believe these stories might have permeated the malleable wax of her unformed mind, only to surface later as vivid memories she could not explain, than it is to believe in reincarnation! —Yes, well, sigh the pattern-makers, with a sardonic edge to their grins, it’s not called Draco because it looks like a dragon, now, is it? Look at it. Does that loose rope of stars with a noose at the end look like a dragon to you? No, it’s Draco because we know the Draconids come from those stars. We just don’t want to remember. (Or, says a dissenting voice, they won’t let us remember.) But all nod their heads and agree: cryptomnesia; QED. —Thus do the master’s tools chip away at the foundations of his very house.
But one should not laugh at the concept of cryptomnesia. Otherwise, one might have to believe a little green man really did climb through George Ellery Hale’s window late one night to give him an idea as to how he might build the world’s largest reflecting telescope, by far, on Mount Wilson in Los Angeles. Whether or not one chooses to believe, we must believe that he believed; one cannot argue with the enormous reflecting telescopes he built: three of them, two on Mount Wilson and one on Mount Palomar, much larger by far than any previous. —The little green man continued to climb through his window late at night and advise Hale on the quotidian details of running the Mount Wilson observatory until his—Hale’s—death, in 1938.
I say Catherine Elise Muller went there first, but isn’t the lesson to be learned rather that we all might have been there, at one point or another? (Cryptomnesia, perhaps, but what early childhood experiences could possibly have suggested to her what life on Mars was really like? A critic once described the compositions of Phillip Glass as sounding “like a high mass on Mars.” How did he know?)
Some time ago I picked up a book which purported to outline the curious societies springing up across America, support groups for those who are “walk-ins,” alien entities who, whether accidentally or with a deliberate agenda (always peaceful, of course, or so they tell us, and why should they lie?), have chosen to incarnate themselves as humans on the planet Earth. I was disappointed to learn that the author was not so much a bemused and gregarious skeptic as an enthusiastic fellow-traveler, and soon put it away, though not without gleaning what entertainment I could, much as a churlish man might kick a dog already lying at his feet, simply because he has nothing better to do. I was amused to discover that the symptoms of being a “walk-in” include a profound feeling of alienation, and were, in fact, remarkably similar to the symptoms of Young People who are Having Problems with Drugs. This might begin to explain the rather ambitious estimates of the number of “walk-ins” in the United States alone: some two or three million, in various states of self-awareness and confusion, with perhaps ten times that many still “asleep” to their true selves. Imagine! One in ten of us is from another planet! Does the possibility not fill you with wonder? —Bored, I aimed one last kick at the dog’s belly by flipping to the back of the book, where the author’s afterword promised to detail his own slow and painful journey to the “admittedly incredulous” realization that he was, in fact, an alien. I was not unrewarded. I can only ask you to imagine the peals of laughter which rang out when I discovered that the first inklings of his profound alienation, his questioning of his very identity, began during his freshman year at a small, private, liberal arts college in Oberlin, Ohio.