by Robert Fogarty
There are few passages in the whole of American literature that are more shocking than the one cited in our opening essay “Birds of the New World” by John Nelson that chronicles the reactions of visitors to America as they saw the bountiful array of birds on our shores. It is from Hector St. Jean De Crèvecouer’s Letters of An American Farmer wherein he writes of his encounter with a caged slave in South Carolina that terrifies him.
Most of Crèvecouer’s observations about colonial America were benign and admirable, but this one shakes him to the core. Nelson quotes from the British historian Keith Thomas who wrote that man’s view of birds was an “odd mixture of superstition, moral judgment, competition, gratuitous cruelty and fond familiarity.”
Encounters, by chance or otherwise, are the stuff of history, astronomy, and anthropology as humankind moved outward beyond the self or inward from self. Melville’s reading of Hawthorne’s Mosses From an Old Manse, for example, came with the shock of recognition that he was in the presence of a the greatest author America had produced: ”For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.”
Our essays are all about encounters mostly small, literary, political, and personal, but nothing along the lines of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” written and directed by Stephen Spielberg, which is based on the work of Alan Hynek whose 1972 book The UFO Experience led to a host of sightings and occult religious groups including the notorious Raëlians.
On December 27, 2002 the sci-fi sect known as the Raëlians announced that they had cloned a human embryo, brought the child (“Eve”) to term within the womb of the mother who had donated her own cells and that there were several other cloned babies expected over the next few months (either by surrogate mothers or individuals, like the first experimenter, who gave their own DNA). This all followed on the heels of an announcement by an Italian scientist that a similar reproductive cloning procedure would bring forward a child in January 2003. The news of this first birth and the promised subsequent births sent shock waves through the medical world and brought almost universal condemnation by scientists who had been working on research—called therapeutic cloning—directed toward stem cell studies that would, they hoped, lead to cures in areas like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and immune disorders.
This Quebec-based sect (with a reported 25,000 membership worldwide) was the brainchild of a French journalist, Claude Verilhon, who said he met an extraterrestrial being in 1973 in France and was told by this space traveler (their space ship had landed on the edge of a volcano) that human life on earth was the product of laboratory experiments by these aliens who had mastered the sciences of genetics and cell biology. He later published an account of his experiences in Extra-Terrestrials Took Me to Their Planet (1976). Their “theology” is part Biblical and mythological exegesis, part libertarian notions about individual freedom driven by a fierce belief in the power of technology. When Verilhon (now called Raël) first visited their spacecraft he found among other wonders “voluptuous” female robots on board.
The Raëlians are extreme individualists—almost narcissists—who accept cloning, have a theory based on extra-terrestrial travel, and are publicity mongers. Their religion is all about “me” and their creedal statement of principles is a litany of “rights” that they are entitled to (particularly about their bodies) and further complemented by ideas about world order, peace, and love. Their religion skips over the messy problems of how a society gets from point A (the current bad world) to point B (the future peaceful order), but cloning is clearly the path, the way, the Tao to a radically reordered world. Such grandiose assertions are certainly not new to the world of utopian dreams and fantasies, but they exploited a potent and modern phenomenon, an ultimate expression of both identity politics and Ayn Rand—a politic about me and me and me—all in a comfortable space bubble.
Margaret Talbot, a researcher at the New America Foundation and the author of an important essay on the Raëlians published in 2002 in The New York Times Magazine, wrote: “The fact is, for all the Raëlians eccentricities, there is something about them that is perfectly attuned to their times. The Raëlians are enthusiastic about e-mail and sex and down on smoking and homophobia. And most of all they love, love, love genetic engineering. . . . In this sense you could see them not as bizzaros inflamed by a singular vision but simply as the most fervent proponents of genetic essentialism that is fairly widely shared these days. To put it another way, the Raëlians are just a bunch of people who took literally the cliché that science is replacing religion. “
The keys to the Raëlian experiment are four-fold: the first is its pro-technology theology that places science at the apex of human endeavor, a libertarian and iconoclastic stance that enables them to break social taboos; the second key is found in the recent advances in DNA technology, stem cell research, and fertility clinics; the third centers on the successful cloning of the sheep “Dolly” by a group of Scottish researchers that was the culmination of a hundred and fifty years of “practical” animal science and how that event made all of this esoteric research endeavors “real” in the eyes of the lay public; the fourth lay in their messianic and apocalyptic outlook, their absolute devotion to Verilhon, his ideas and his commitment to carry them forward.
According to their website they believe that “our humanity is at a turning point, as we enter a new era. We have been manipulating atoms for some time now, and are discovering the infinitely small and the infinitely large, and we are starting to reproduce the biological mechanisms of life [emphasis in original]. “ They reject the Darwinian theory of evolution, suggest that cloning will enable us to live ten times longer, oppose discriminatory practices against gays and lesbians and call themselves an “atheist, non-profit, spiritual organization ” and believe that the Elohim (their name for the aliens) will land on earth in the not too distant future. One of their main goals is to build an “Embassy’ to promote their cause and they have petitioned the Israeli government to grant them a building permit in Jerusalem. They run seminars, publish a magazine called Apocalypse and are intent on forging ahead with their cloning experiments in defiance of public disapproval. They have tried—unsuccessfully—to open embassies for the aliens in both Israel and Lebanon. Their American headquarters are in, of course, Las Vegas.
Our other encounters involve a close up view of Ralph Keyes’s mother who was a steady smoker and her smell has stayed with him for all of his life. Ken Bode’s initial encounter with Jerry Springer branches out into a Louisiana political story, and Jeffrey Meyers in “Lee Miller and Martha Gelhorn: Parallel Lives” offers a binocular view of two remarkable women who married Ernest Hemingway. We close our encounters with a young student’s efforts to meet with J. R. R. Tolkien after she put his words to song and how her efforts to talk to him prove elusive. She had met him on the page, but meeting him in the flesh proved difficult.
Our poetry features work by Mary Jo Salter and a number of others who are newcomers to these pages. John Taylor offers—for most readers a first encounter with a gloomy Rumanian poet who has, I imagine, a limited North American audience until now.
Our short fiction is varied as we reintroduce Patricia Lear and Ellen Winter who both last appeared in these pages in 2003; several new voices include Noy Holland, James Kendall, and Magdalena Zyzak. James Farrow Crumley’s first published short story (in the summer of 1982) appeared here. After reading that story James Michener made young Mr. Crumley (then finishing a MFA at Iowa) a gift of $10,000 to spur his career. Money well spent by the large hearted author and a lesson to young authors—you never know who will read your work and be moved by it.
Our “From the Archives” section offers a re-encounter with one of my favorite essays “Driving” by Ken McClane whose final visits with his Alzheimer-ridden father involved going for a ride where they shared memories of a happier time. (see his Backstory on this essay here.)
Robert Fogarty has been editor of The Antioch Review since 1977. Author and editor of eight books, with articles, and essays in the Nation, TLS, Missouri Review, Manoa, and Boulevard, among others. Recipient of the PEN/American Center Nora Magid lifetime achievement award for magazine editing 2003, Fulbright Distinguished Roving Lectureship in Korea; Visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford; New York University Institute for the Humanities; Newberry Library; Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Recent publications include: Duty and Desire at Oneida (2000); “Literary Energy” in Editors on Fiction (1995); Special Love/Special Sex (1994).
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