I’ve always loved the fantasy that aliens live among us, and I’ve always wanted to be taken up by aliens into their mothership, just like Shirley MacLaine. Maybe it was the mini-series V, which aired on television when I was in middle school and which suggested that any one of my neighbors or classmates could turn out to be a big old lizard lurking beneath a human costume.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the same town as Travis Walton, the famous alien abductee, whose story was immortalized first in print and then in the film Fire in the Sky, rather appropriately starring ET’s Elliot, all grown up. (My mom tells the story that as a kid I’d call Walton “The Moon Man” when I saw him in the grocery store.)
Or maybe it was my love for little Kal-El in his spaceship, sent off from Krypton to save his life.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was my religious childhood that created so much confidence in beings from outerspace who could come and go at will, shining beams of light and everything, salvation in their wings. Is it any wonder so many humans spend their whole lives trying to get to wherever such majestic beings come from?
I’d love to know when the fantasies of interplanetary aliens-among-us originated, but most websites I’ve consulted show how difficult it is to parse out such accounts from older stories about God, the Devil, Wandering Jews, and Bigfoot.
Even more I’d like to know where the metaphor of teenager-as-space alien originated. See, that one’s my favorite of all: the alienated teen, the teen alien. It has so much less to do with waiting to be abducted than it does with the creeping suspicion that you may already be from outerspace — you just can’t remember how you got here.
Hence the premise for my favorite guilty pleasure TV show of the last decade, my beloved Roswell series, which included the pre-Grey’s Anatomy Katherine Heigl. Katherine and her brother and one of their friends were all, it turns out, aliens who had landed in Roswell back in ’49 — but in test-tubes. They gestated rather slowly and emerged, looking like human children, sometime in the ’80s. Raised by normal humans in the small New Mexico town, they eventually become teenagers and — well, you know where this is going — fall in love with human teenagers. Intergalactic calamity ensues, and in the most emotionally and hormonally wrenching ways possible. It’s a shame they didn’t have Smog’s “Teenage Spaceship” on hand to use instead of that awful Dido theme song.
Roswell didn’t invent the trope of course. Nor did Smog.
How to explain the seemingly universal appeal of the teenage alien motif, even to people who are no longer teenagers? Perhaps it appeals as well to people in the midst of mid-life crises.
Or, perhaps, it’s a feeling fundamental to modernity itself. In grad school I had a crappy two-semester seminar from the sociologist of knowledge Peter Berger, the guy who coined the phrase “The Social Construction of Reality” back in the ’60s. His seminar on modernity was pretty much a waste of time, but I do remember one little nugget that I use all the time in my own teaching. Berger locates the arrival of modernity at the point people started wandering outside their villages and encountering other people in other places — each little village with its own cosmology and customs. The recognition that one’s own way of being in the world is just that — one way among many — is what he considers the fundamental experience of modernity.
The anecdote resonated with my own personal experience on leaving my village in the intermountain west and moving to New Jersey at age 19. It also resonates with another grad school “a ha!” moment, my first encounter with Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, which I had to struggle not to swallow wholecloth in the mode of religious conversion. While defining the category of people he calls “ironists” — people who are “never quite able to take themselves seriously because [they’re] always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change” — he drops this paragraph on page 75, which my 25-year-old self marked in the margin with a great big star:
The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being. But she cannot give a criterion of wrongness. So, the more she is driven to articulate her situation in philosophical terms, the more she reminds herself of her rootlessness …
Are Rortyan ironists more prone than others to fantasize about being abducted by aliens? About being an alien oneself, covered with a rubbery mask that could snag at any moment and reveal the green skin beneath?
I used to think Rorty’s concept related most to losing my religion, a long process that finally climaxed about the same time I first read Contingency. But the feeling he describes runs even deeper that that: it could apply, to some degree at least, to every tribal affiliation, every form of identity I’ve ever known: gender or sexual identity, marital or parental status, vocation. Not that any of these nagging, transient feelings of alienation actually requires the forceful break I took in relation to religious belief and activity. I’m more happy than not as a married American male, the father of two gorgeous and talented daughters, a literature professor at a fine university. Moments of alienation are easily outweighed by what I get back from my tribes. Still, when the nagging comes — think of David Byrne singing “Once in a Lifetime” — I sometimes wonder if a sense of alienation is just fundamental to who I am. Perhaps I’m not a liberal ironist after all, but an alien. A moon man.
Could I possibly be alone?