A Modern Man; a Man Surely to be Emulated
No one lives forever. Full of energy yet and apparently in robust health as I write this, Jacques Vallee is in his 85th year. When his time for passing does come, Vallee's obit most likely will tag him first as a well-known "ufologist," for he has studied the Phenomenon since the 1960's and written and lectured widely about it for much of that time. Most who are deeply into it would characterize him as the Phenomenon's leading intellectual figure, a man who above all others has brought his most formidable mind to the subject with a deep intellectual integrity and seriousness of purpose. (The historian Richard Dolan (like Ohio State in the Coaches' Poll) will garner a few votes, and not undeserved.) In fact, when Steven Spielberg was in the process of conceptualizing "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," he decided to add to his ensemble a Jacques Vallee clone of sorts, played in the film by none other than Francois Truffaut, who bore a passing resemblance to Vallee, albeit without his towering height.
Vallee's perspective on the source and meaning of the Phenomenon has evolved. He cut his teeth as an assistant to astronomer J. Allen Hynek at Northwestern University, which awarded him a Ph.D. in computer science when that science was in its infancy. His early work, like Hynek's, was all but exclusively focused on the "extraterrestrial hypothesis," or ETH. But by the time he published "Passage to Magonia," a classic in the field that has only grown more compelling with age, in 1969, he had come to believe that there must be a common origin for all of the high strangeness sub-phenomena that have been with us, in various manifestations, for a very long time, from the fairies and elves of Celtic lore, to the great airships that passed over the central United States in 1897, to the "Miracle of the Sun" at Fatima, and perhaps reaching all the way back to Ezekiel's Wheel in the Old Testament.
What is that common origin? When presented with this question, Vallee has always seemed maddeningly elusive. He speaks of a "control mechanism." But who is doing the controlling, and to what end? In the field, there are those that think that ET will come to save us from ourselves, from our environmental degradation and our endless and ever more destructive wars. But there are others who believe that they themselves have documented, largely via hypnosis, which Vallee disparages as a scientific method, that the purpose is nefarious, to wit, to interbreed with humankind with a view towards colonizing the planet and ultimately displacing us. And not much more comforting than this hypothesis is the school of thought that posits indifference, because it's said to be the same indifference that we feel towards the worms and the voles when we hire a contractor to replace our backyard septic system; that indifference doesn't end well for the lesser creatures. About this spectrum of motives, Vallee after more than 50 years of intense study seems still to be agnostic.
In contrast to some peers in ufology, Vallee carries a gravitas and credibility that have been enhanced by his remarkable achievements in other more prosaic areas of life. If not a Father of the Internet, he was definitely in attendance at the manger way back then, and he has managed to remain at the cutting edge of IT throughout its modern trajectory, at least to the extent that he has been able to create and nurture a number of companies in the field that have blossomed, making him, apparently, a very wealthy man. Indeed, Jacques has been a practicing venture capitalist for decades, riding out the same storms in the market as you or I, but with a lot more of his, and his partners', money in the game in good times and bad.
Further, Vallee is in many respects an old-school European, and specifically French, man of culture. Great food and wine, fine classical performances, nights spent in opulent medieval castles, obscure museums. And most impressive of all -- Jacques became so enraptured in late middle age by the stained-glass masterpieces of the great Gothic cathedrals that he managed to be tutored by, and installed part time as an apprentice at, the workshops that repair and maintain the ancient glass at Chartres. He was allowed to bang hammers at the iron work that holds the precious panes in place. This was a different sort of vie en rose for him, as he wryly notes. These points of reference to great Western culture are his touchstones as he travels the world, mostly in search of investors, but also in search of the keys to the Great Mystery.
Jacques will, in fact, when a new lead warrants it, eschew both the prescribed European comforts and his fiduciary duties to his investors for a spell in order to scrub the scene of a newly-uncovered event for clues, believing as he does that there is no substitute for such on-the-ground research and, most especially, for direct interviews with those who have had the encounters.
On one such occasion not so very long ago, he traveled to the rural border area that spans Argentina and Paraguay to investigate the story of a gaucho, Juan Perez, who had become a virtual hermit after having had a dramatic close encounter in his youth. Ridicule and shunning had ruined the man's life. But local writer/director Alan Stivelman was making a film about Juan. He and Jacques staged a virtual intervention as the film was being made. They brought Juan back across the Argentinian border to his ancestral Guarani village in Paraguay, where the local shaman held a night-long vigil that ended with Juan being made whole again in some fashion, and reintegrated into his community. The moving and universal story of Juan Perez is told with both economy and due reverence in the film, which was released in the US in 2019 as "Witness of Another World."
Uniquely in the world of ufology, Vallee has made us witnesses to his own world via the publication, in a number of volumes, of a journal or diary that he has kept since 1957. All are called "Forbidden Science," but the whole of Vallee's life is laid out for us, with great candor, and the self-portrait of the man is more gripping in my view than the "science," which seems stymied at every turn. The fifth and last-to-date volume of these memoirs, published just this year, covers the decade from the death of his mother to the culminating illness of his beloved wife Janine. It's an odd amalgam, because the notes follow Jacques wherever his peregrinations may take him, and the journeys are motivated by business and personal concerns as much as by the Phenomenon. So a given two-week period might find him in Paris and Tokyo and Brunei, intent on reconnecting with his brother over dinner or scrounging up foreign capital for one of his funds, with only a brief respite in the geography that he now calls his home base, in Northern California.
Has a completely honest autobiography ever been written? One gets the impression that Vallee comes close, choosing to steer away from subjects about which he can't speak honestly rather than stooping at any point to disingenuousness. He is an unapologetic capitalist, scorning the French bureaucracy that handcuffs innovation, but also a severe political critic, from the left, of American foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. In the UFO field, when he disagrees with respect to something fundamental with a long-time friend, himself a big name among the cognoscenti, he does so in a straightforward way, but somehow without doing damage to the relationship. On the other hand, when a deep fissure develops in his family between him and his wife on the one hand and his son and his daughter-in-law on the other, one that threatens the Vallees' relationship with their grandson Maxime, we follow the fissure but we are never told its source.
Not only does this latest Vallee journal flit among UFO conferences and investigations, venture fund-raising, and trips to the opera with Janine; stylistically, it adjusts to its various subjects in a most admirable way. Many of the entries are pure, dry reportage of conversations with other luminaries of one sort or another, but Vallee returns over and over again to lovely impressionistic passages -- glimpses of his physical surroundings. These may be the streets of Paris, where he maintains an oft-visited abode, seen and portrayed in their many, seasonal moods, or in like fashion the streets of Tokyo. But in this volume, and for this decade, the center of gravity was the refuge of the Vallees on Tamales Bay, near Point Reyes National Seashore, some 60 miles northwest of San Francisco. Whether the spectacular vistas from this homestead were open, or rather shrouded in fog, they brought a particular sort of bliss, and simple pleasures to be savored, to Jacques and his wife. And so, towards the end of the book, when they make arrangements to sell the property, as part of a comprehensive plan to dispose of everything not essential, as Janine copes with an aggressive and incurable brain cancer, it is easy and natural to share the pain of the narrator.
Indeed, if Vallee's candor in the book extends to his true feelings about his wife, then we mere mortals in love walk away from this book with more than a little envy, and more than a little guilt. The entire book is a love letter to Janine and even, and perhaps especially, when he is globe trotting without her, he often turns to address her directly, with unabashed and still ardent love. There is something French, something charming, in this. We should perhaps not ask, for the sake of politesse, whether over the decades he may have, from time to time, strayed.
Things tend to come full circle in UFO world. Waves of interest come and go. Events tantalize, but we never seem to advance much towards the goal of finding out what really is going on.
In a new Netflix documentary series sponsored by one of Steven Spielberg's production companies ("Encounters"), one episode focuses on a mass sighting by school children in 1994 at the Ariel School in Ruwa, Zimbabwe. A young African man who was a witness then and stands by his story even now without shame or apology echoes both the lofty perspective of Jacques Vallee and the questions posed by Gauguin in a certain painting that hangs in a certain museum in Boston -- "Most people think the question is 'Are we alone?' I think the question is 'Who are we?'"
D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous?