“We dare to hope that the day will come when scientific methods yet unknown to us will give us direct evidences of the existence of the inhabitants of other worlds, and at the same time, also, will put us in communication with our brothers in space.”
– C. Flammarion, La Planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité (Paris, 1892)
NPR just ran a story looking at some interesting enigmas in the Martian landscape, strange black spots that appear seasonally on the surface of the sand drifts during the Martian spring. Scientists have been batting around speculations on what they could be since they were first observed in 1998.
The most accepted hypothesis, at the moment, is that they are some sort of mineral deposit left after the increasing heat of the sun on the surface of Mars allows CO2 deposits to spew forth from beneath:
“Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, from Hungary, from the European Space Agency have all proposed explanations; the leading one is so weird, it’s transformed my idea of what it’s like to be on Mars. For 20 years, I’ve thought the planet to be magnificently desolate, a dead zone, painted rouge. But imagine this: Every spring, the sun beats down on a southern region of Mars, morning light melts the surface, warms up the ground below, and a thin, underground layer of frozen CO2 turns suddenly into a roaring gas, expands, and carrying rock and ice, rushes up through breaks in the rock, exploding into the Martian air. Geysers shoot up in odd places. It feels random, like being surprise attacked by an monstrous, underground fountain. “
Obviously the appearance of unexplainable black somethings that seem to grow and dissipate with seasonal changes on the surface of Mars has a few folks thinking that these anomalies might represent an unknown form of life. The question of life on the Red Planet has been brewing for a long time, and it’s interesting to note that the more colorful moments in its history have nothing to do with speculative interpretations of satellite images or government space programs.
In 1900 Theodore Flournoy, a professor of psychology at the University of Geneva, published From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of a Case of Somnambulism with Glossolalia, his account of a popular French trance-medium, Hélène Smith (real name, Catherine-Elise Muller.) Much of Flournoy’s investigation was focused on the linguistic component of Muller’s mediumship.
She became well known for her channeled Martian scripts, translated by her ‘controls’ into French. These included examples of automatic writing and glossolalia that further investigation found to be linguistically similar the French, but re-patterned through her unconscious creativity.
While in trance Muller also recounted vivid, cinematic scenes from, what she felt, was a past life on Mars:
” The afternoon of the following day, at her desk, she found herself enveloped in a red light, and at the same time felt an indefinable but violent affection of the heart (aura of the voyage to Mars).
“The red light continues about me, and I find myself surrounded by extraordinary flowers of the kind which I saw on my bed, but they had no perfume. I will bring you some sketches of them on Sunday.”
She sent them to me, in fact, on Monday, with the following note:
“I am very well satisfied with my plants. They are the exact reproduction of those which it afforded me so much pleasure to behold [No. 3, in Fig. 16, which, beforehand, Hélène despaired of being able to render well], which appeared to me on the latter occasion, and I greatly regret that you were not here to see me execute the drawing:
the pencil glided so quickly that I did not have time to notice what contours it was making. I can assert without any exaggeration that it was not my hand alone that made the drawing, but that truly an invisible force guided the pencil in spite of me.
The various tints appeared to me upon the paper, and my brush was directed in spite of me towards the color which I ought to use. This seems incredible,”
In interpreting Muller’s experiences, Flournoy reasoned that “while we certainly know less concerning the planet Mars than of India, the romance which it has inspired in the subliminal genius of Mlle. Smith is relatively less difficult to explain than the Oriental cycle. In fact, the former seems to spring from pure imagination, while in the latter we meet with certain actual historical elements, and whence Hélène’s memory and intelligence have gained a knowledge of them is an extremely difficult problem for us to solve. “ This interpretation, once the book was published, lead to some tension, as Muller, fully accepting her trance visions, was concerned that Flournoy did not really understand what she was experiencing.
Without dipping into the rough waters of whether her trance visions of Mars were real, Flournoy’s rational analysis shows why mediumship remains a subject of interest even when we assume there are no anomalous elements at play. Once ill intention and fraud are ruled out, the phenomena still offers up mysteries into personality, memory, communication and human consciousness.
With her Martian romances Flournoy felt that Muller was reprocessing material gleaned from some of the popular scientific periodicals of the time that were detailing new astronomical discoveries. As telescopes became more powerful, new details of the Martian landscape were revealed and lead to increased speculation on the possibility of life on the Red Planet. He was fascinated by her ability to correlate and reinterpret unconscious data from these sources, allowing her to create visionary sequences that were as real to her as true memories.
The public imagination was spurred on by figures such Giovanni Schiaparelli, who observed what he thought was evidence for Martian seas, and the astronomer Percival Lowell whose theories around the possibility of Martian canals where widely published at the time. What Muller channeled during her trance states reflects the public fascination surrounding Mars, and in turn served to interpret, and further fuel, the fires of investigation.
Lowell’s passion for exploring the topography of Mars lead him to develop the first ‘modern’ observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. In choosing Flagstaff he focused on the optimal location, with less cloud cover and the proper elevation, to make his observations. This small advance was a huge leap for astronomy, and helped bring increased accuracy to our Earth based observations of the celestial spheres, which in turn helped us decades later in planning accurate off-world missions.
While critically engaging speculative claims has its place in the broad scope of the scientific milieu, it’s important to recognize that even untouched these dreamy Martian visions are vital for expanding scientific inquiry. We can look at contemporary examples of this in a similar light, and see how, regardless of their accuracy, speculative claims serve society in ways that are not always obvious to those bent on debunking them.
Richard Hoagland’s controversial work on anomalous shapes that show up in satellite images, or Andrew Basiago’s tales of time-travel and teleportation, call the public imagination to pay attention to space exploration, and advances in science, in a way that touches those who would normally fall asleep at the hard science of space travel, cosmology, and physics. Hoagland’s work in particular provides an, admittedly strange, adjunct to the move towards privatization of the space industry.
If we think in terms of speculation as a framework for the inspirational animus moving through the social order, we can see how Hoagland’s theories of a secret space program provide a way for the public to move past the glory days of the nationally organized efforts of NASA, and the Russian and Chinese space programs, into a more decentralized space program supported by private groups such as Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, or Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. While both of these companies will eventually work their way into the interweaving narrative of conspiracy and unpublished intentions, this will also have a functional role to move on to the next steps necessary for society to mutate and foster new forms.
With nearly a hundred years of continued Martian observations we can look back on Catherine-Elise Muller and further assess how her recontextualizing of illustrations garnered from telescopic inquiries at times are very similar to what the actual Martian landscape looks like. Their deviations can give us insights into the function of imagination as it processes our hopes, experiences and expectations.
Contemporary figures like Richard Hoagland and Andrew Basiago can be seen in a similar context. Understanding their function, we can easily see how they are imaginative interpreters for the movement of underlying influences in society. Rather than dismissing their theories as pure fiction, we can recognize that they play a very important part in generating the motivation necessary for advancement, and call public awareness into areas that it would normally avoid. Curiosity is a powerful impetus for action, and curiosity fomented in the fires of controversy even more so.
With such profitable developments coming from Martian fantasies, and with exciting, scientifically realistic, possibilities for enigmas like the black spots on Mars, it seems a shame to mention what the psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor points out in a biography of Muller he includes in his book Those Mysterious People.
Suffice to say that, during her trance sessions which Flournoy labeled the Oriental Cycle, “to the amazement of all, Helene Smith actually spoke Hindustani in this phase of her personality, and wrote a few words in good Arabic. She used Sanskrit words well adapted to the situation. They expressed a personal thought and were not merely a series of senseless phrases. “
But, for now, let’s just enjoy the pure potency of raw speculation, and save any revelations regarding the possible reality behind what many consider fantasy for another time…