Catastrophism and Alternative Cosmologies
THE VELIKOVSKY AFFAIR
COSMIC HERETICS by Alfred de Grazia
Metron Publications, Princeton, 1984; $23
By BRIAN MOORE
This is undoubtedly the most continually engrossing of all de Grazia's books to date - particularly for the non-specialist as it tells a fascinating story, replete with an all-star cast of remarkable characters. (As it also features a walk-on part for this reviewer, the reader must allow for bias in the rest of this review!)
Cosmic Heretics is comprehensively subtitled "A Personal History of Attempts to Establish and Resist Theories of Quantavolution and Catastrophe in the Natural and Human Sciences, 1963 to 1983". The book is "personal" on several levels. Though autobiographical, its form is biographical; de Grazia appears for the most part in the third person, as "Deg", with a commentating "I" occasionally peeking over his shoulder: an uncommon literary device but possibly not too surprising coming from the author of a work entitled Homo Schizo (in two volumes, naturally). For some readers it will be too "personal"; Dr de Grazia not only appears to lay all his cards on the table, but also the cards of many of the other players, by way of extracts from their personal correspondence published without permission. In fact, for "engrossing" above, a number of prominent American participants in the catastrophist saga might prefer the term "enraging". As a bevy of attorneys may well be working at this very moment to have the book recalled for major cosmetic surgery, I recommend that you obtain a copy immediately, as it may become a rarity (and it has appeared in only a limited edition.)
However irritating for some of the parties involved, de Grazia's refreshing frankness performs a valuable historical service. He is well aware that the bulk of such writing is emasculated in myriad ways; the threat of legal action, possible effects on the writer's career, apprehensive publishers, the wrath of friends et. al., but he has decided to publish, be damned, and rely on the First Amendment. The biographical data have not been "smoothed out", like radiometric dating curves to provide an acceptable picture, but are recorded raw, allowing the reader to reach conclusions of his own.
Beginning with the author's first meeting with Immanuel Velikovsky more than twenty years ego, de Grazia relates his growing interest in, and involvement with, Catastrophism and Catastrophes. Uniquely placed to record the history of the Movement - and with commendable foresight keeping a detailed journal - de Grazia offers a "warts and all" view of the personnel involved in the catastrophist scene. It is about as objective an account of a highly charged debate as one could hope to get - the warts are distributed equably between the proponents and opponents in the conflict. The portrait of Velikovsky, who naturally dominates the book, while being hugely interesting is hardly flattering in some respects: hence, hero-worshippers are strongly advised to shun this book. Hagiography is no part of de Grazia's brief and he has written for those who prefer their heroes to be human. The book is compelling reading as the history of a Movement, but it would be worthy of note simply for its portrayal of this remarkable man.
Each chapter offers some insight--large or small - into Velikovsky's mind and personality. Here is de Grazia writing on Velikovsky's always-ambiguous relationship with "Authority":"V. was fixated on authority, the higher the better; he sought out acquaintances and enemies on high levels. But he did not gather intelligent up-coming young people until late in life; he has written a book on his conversations with Einstein, yet he would never have dreamed of writing a book of his immensely richer conversations with Juergens on electricity and Stecchini on ancient languages and the history of science. Why? Because they were unknown."
"... V. was unhappy with the support he received. It seemed that he would get agreement and aid from exactly those sources he did not himself respect while being rebuffed by those who should flock to his banner. One had to be an anti-authoritarian to support him, but such were rarely to be found in physics, biology, astronomy and geology."
"So he got support from people who usually were just plain folks, intelligent (and therefore I say rare) readers, and a great many confused believers, or at least people who V. at bottom thought had no right to pass judgement on him. Like Moses, V. spent a lot of private time disliking his people. Like the barons of the Magna Carta, he wanted judgement by his peers, but in his case the peers had to be in the other sense 'the peers of the realm.'"
At the same time Velikovsky's own personality was powerfully authoritarian. While disavowing any desire to be a "leader" to his variegated band of supporters, Velikovsky nevertheless showed an ability to manipulate them which bordered on genius. Like Julius Caesar, he "refus'd the crown" offered by the rabble, yet "he would fain have had it". Often remaining aloof from the fray himself, he would marshal his (usually most willing) supporters in vociferous defence. One such supporter, having received an angry letter from de Grazia, admonished him pointing out that Velikovsky had not once, in 40 years of correspondence with his opponents, resorted to "invective or scorn"; reporting this de Grazia sardonically agrees that "This is close to the literal truth, just as the fact that General Eisenhower never killed an enemy soldier".
In the chapter on The British Connection, Dr de Grazia confirms the view put forward in the last issue of SISR by another prominent American supporter of the Movement, Professor Robert Hewsen, that Velikovsky, though ostensibly seeking "objective" appraisal of his work, found objectivity rather unpalatable when it purported to reveal flaws in the theories rather than further support.
Being safely several thousand miles away, the British catastrophist group was insulated from direct manipulation but in any case, having found certain aspects of the revised chronology unacceptable, many historical researchers within the SIS were viewed with great suspicion by the Arch-Heretic and a number of his prominent supporters. Some interesting consequences of this situation are recorded by de Grazia in what might be termed "the Peter James Affair". The American Velikovskian journal Kronos invited James to join its editorial staff but the Father-figure of Velikovsky was not happy about his intellectual offspring keeping such revisionist company and de Grazia reports that he initially brought heavy pressure to bear to have James removed from Kronos. However, for some reason he later relented -- maybe as a good psychoanalyst he was aware of the fundamental incompatibility between the two parties and decided to let nature take its course. If so, he was right as the relationship terminated fairly quickly and with some recrimination. De Grazia reprints -- without permission -- James' letter of resignation which is all the more interesting for the forthrightness which attaches to a private communication.
Apart from the entertaining gossip about the personalities involved and the more serious accounts of the various battles to establish catastrophist theories, Cosmic Heretics contains much material which cannot be covered here. There is purely autobiographical detail, thoughts on the political process, fulminations on publishing and the "knowledge industry" in general and allusions to his own emergent theories on the formation of the human mind and the evolution of religion (part of the groundwork for his quantavolutionary series of no less than 8 books dealing with novel applications of catastrophist theory in major disciplines).
Though highly discursive, sometimes self-indulgent and sprinkled with minor errors, the book is compelling reading. Whatever the fate of de Grazia's own catastrophist model, this particular book will need to be kept in print for its fascinating portrait of the towering intellectual figure of Velikovsky and for its uniquely documented record of what is either one of the most sensational episodes in "pseudoscience" or the first stage in a genuine revolution in scientific thought.
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