The Atlantis Syndrome P.2

Earlier the Theosophical, and next the Nazi ideology, horribly romantic, has been the most extreme and pernicious expression of the myth of the divinely sanctioned elite to date, and a far cry you might think from ideas of some secret brotherhood of wise old priests struggling to carry the torch of learning and spirituality down all the dark ages of prehistory and history. But I do believe that some of the proponents of modern Atlantology, especially since the Second World War, might have stopped and thought about the strain of colonialist and missionary condescension - if nothing worse - implied in their ideas. They might yet stop to think that, short of extraterrestrial intervention, every civilization on earth must in any case have been created by ordinary human beings in natural situations, out of their adaptive cleverness of mind - Atlantis in any guise is only a postpone the recognition of this human potential. If you insist on re acknowledge that any known human civilization created its course of its own experience on earth and likewise insist that each and every civilization got its impetus from an earlier lost civilization, then you only put off consideration of how that earlier civilization came about. Unless you invoke alien invaders or gods like Poseidon you must still seek to enquire (if you really have an enquiring mind) by what natural processes of social evolution civilization can ever come about. And if it can naturally come about once, then like all good things in this world it can come about again and again and the single founding civilization loses even the appeal of primacy since primacy has evaporated as a necessity of explanation. (To say nothing of the fact that not a scrap of reliable evidence for such a primal civilization exists anywhere on Earth.) If you do invoke alien invaders or gods like Poseidon, then you really ought to admit to yourself that you have left the realm of rational enquiry altogether and are merely conjecturing within the imaginative confines established by popular entertainment and religion.

Other psychological forces at work close to the core of the syndrome include anxiety and the lure of the quick fix. The catastrophist outlook that always goes, to varying degrees, with Atlantological speculation is itself of a deeply anxious character. If comets and asteroids can strike out of the blue, if the earth's crust might suddenly pitch us to the poles at any moment, if the precessionary cycle can go haywire, if whole civilizations can disappear without trace, then we are living not just with the threat of car accidents, air crashes, fatal epidemics, political oppression, nuclear war, race hatred, famine and common mortality, as we thought we were, but with something more cosmically unsettling. It may be that those of us with a developed sensitivity to the uncertainty of things are predisposed to Atlantology or, at least, are vulnerable to its appeal. Certainly some of the Atlantological authors appear to think so.

Uncertainty also contributes to the need for a quick fix, either by way of explanation or reassurance or both. If you don't know much about archaeology, haven't given it a lot of thought or ever learned much about it, then a lost ancient supercivilization may look like a readily plausible explanation for the pyramids, or Stonehenge, or Cuzco, or the Nazca Lines (the more so since you are likely to have seen some piece of science fiction that floated the idea or even a "documentary" programme that espoused it). As we saw earlier, such an explanation will probably chime in with unexamined bits of your mental furniture derived from religion and memories of empire. Not for you the academic papers and excavation reports, full of dry data about pollen grains and potsherds and probability ranges of radiocarbon dates, with distribution maps of unexciting finds and hatched sections through archaeological deposits. You don't need all that - you know how the past works and it's just like recent history. Superior immigrants sort the natives out and missionaries let them in on a few of the profundities, in a simplified form of course. Wouldn't be at all surprising if that was what happened ten thousand years ago, would it? And since we're about to launch ourselves into space (or at least it looked like that a while ago), what more natural than that it was spacemen who brought civilization to Earth? Now anybody can follow an explanation like that, straight off: common sense, really. As L. Sprague de Camp put it in his patrician way when discussing the old diffusionist theories of archaeology to which Atlantology is closely akin: 'Therefore, say the diffusionists, everything must have come from somewhere else - it doesn't matter where. Laymen who read a little anthropology or Atlantism tend to agree with them, perhaps because, never having made an invention themselves, they find it hard to imagine anybody else's having done so.

The quick fix can be more than a mere explanation: it can be an emotional support, too. Where anxiety is running high, then there is a need for reassurance. This can take the form of something relatively sophisticated like belief in a grand cosmic principle of collapse and renewal that can be spiritually understood in terms of rebirth and immortality. It can take the simpler form of belief in "space brothers" or at least secret brotherhoods of some sort who helped us out before and might do so again. It may function simply as just some kind of an account of things at any price, that helps to ward off apprehensions about the possible meaninglessness of life. For some writers and readers of Atlantological literature, I think the "alternatlve archaeology" idea in general (the specifics hardly matter) serves as an antidote against what they believe to be the bleakness of scientific cosmology and Darwinian evolution. Any alternative scheme of things that went against the tenets of modern science would recommend itself to these people as a potential way round a view of life that they find unpalatable. In specific detail, any new ideas about - say - the age of the Sphinx or the calendrical predictions of Mayan monuments or the real import of ancient carvings from Egypt or the Far East fall like manna from heaven for these unhappy folk. If anything about the current world view of the professional archaeologists could be overthrown, then out could go the whole approach to the past that troubles the "alternative" enthusiasts so.

Talk of manna is not inappropriate, for we are once more faced with the essentially religious pedigree of much Atlantological thought and wish. This is why the "ancient wisdom" is never far away in the musings of Atlantology - that not so precious heirloom of the classical world's infatuation with Egypt and Europe's infatuation with Genesis. And if not a religious impetus as such, then at least a romantic one propels a deal of inclination towards "alternative archaeology." Some people find modern science, of which modern archaeology hopes to form a part, religiously unsatisfying - many more, in all probability, just don't find it romantic enough, especially in this era of science fiction as popular entertainment. (In today's science fiction there is a lot more fiction than science.) If Atlantology were sold as just another branch of the entertainment industry, we might see little more to cavil at In it, but it is not and so we have more to say.

A further key feature of the Atlantis Syndrome is one often seen among enthusiasts for the unorthodox in all its forms, among sectarians of every sort. It is the sense of belonging, in defiance of conventional authority, to a select coterie of those "in the know," to a happy band of brothers with privileged knowledge of the real truth of things, versus the vested interests of academic orthodoxy or general public indifference. There can be a whiff of martyrdom, pleasing to some personality types, attached to all this (and followers who might not care for martyrdom themselves often like to lend their devoted support to their martyred gurus). Readership of the works of "alternative archaeology" and, even more so, participation in the Internet's range of 'alternative archaeology' sites brings together in spirit a wide body of disparate types in a shared enthusiasm, without even the need for the most part to meet one another as real academics might do at conferences or in the pages of peer reviews of published work. The loner personality, which always figures largely among the enthusiasts of this sort of thing, finds a natural home at his keyboard, chasing his interests with a semblance of research (and sometimes even fancied scholarship), without having to face directly the sort of watchful criticism that professional academics are used to dishing out and receiving. In line with this camaraderie of the truly enlightened goes the reliance on unconventional sources of "evidence" that we have so often highlighted in the course of our review of the literature. This is a truly diagnostic feature of the syndrome: all that number-crunching, amateur philologizing and myth-picking that is supposed to supply, via "encodings" understood only by the various Atlantological authors and their eager readers, the "proof" of their theories, along with a host of stray and anomalous finds without proper context. Myth seems peculiarly attractive in this respect. It has it seems lost none of its hoary appeal, which is the appeal of the simple and colourful. But it is not mythology that has had any success in explaining the world, it is science. Myth only explains away.

I have tried to sketch some of the core features of the Atlantological predisposition: the literal-mindedness, the reluctance to credit the common inventiveness of the human race, the underdeveloped capacity to step outside prejudices of time and place, the longing for a quick fix both as explanation and reassurance, and the need to belong to just such a "secret brotherhood" with esoteric insider information as some writers of Atlantology picture operating in the past. All the readers (the committed ones at least, not just reading for idle entertainment) of the Atlantological genre may be expected to share these traits and the writers of the material often show most of them. But the writers are, in the end, more interesting than their readers and our characterization of the syndrome may be refined by reflecting upon their attitudes in detail. Why, after all, are they writing these strange books of theirs?

Plato was a wealthy man. Whatever the vicissitudes and disappointments of his life, he did not need the money. The worst that any commentator of his own day ever said about him was that he might have plagiarized other writers in the composition of his own works. It is not a charge that was made to stick at the time and there was no suggestion that any plagiarism was, in any case, undertaken for financial gain, nor even for reasons of vanity. It is clear that Plato wrote to propagate his ideas, which were driven by an unusual degree of moral fervour. It seems safe to conclude that no subsequent writer on the Atlantis theme could claim to be so purely motivated by moral considerations, but to what extent any of them is open to the charge of writing just for the money can only be a matter of private opinion. Certainly, money has been made since Donnelly did so well with his books in the late nineteenth century and a glance at the recent bestseller listings is enough to show that money continues to be made out of this genre.

As I remarked earlier, if Atlantology never represented itself as anything more than a branch of the entertainment industry then there would be little to complain about in its money-spinning. In the modern world, in any case, as Dr Johnson observed, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. But not exclusively for the money, I think, in the field of Atlantology. What convinces me of this, in almost all cases, is the sheer devotion to tedium evinced by so many of the writers of this genre. I have had occasion to notice, in reviewing their work, that whole tracts of the output of the Atlantological writers are liable to be extremely tedious to get through, invariably with little reward when at the end the shaky conclusions built up on the feeble foundations of all this labour turn out to be so thin and insubstantial. (I believe a large part of the untutored readership of these volumes can, at best, only mistake such heavy passages for evidence of real scholarship, without necessarily reading them closely.) But whatever the merits of all the labour, labour it is. Many people are well used to working hard at tiresome jobs to make a living and we cannot entirely discount a purely money-making motivation for much of the Atlantological literature, but there is frequently something so dedicated about the pursuit of such dubious material that I think other purposes have to be considered.

We don't find many women writing in this field. Rose has written with Rand Flem-Ath and there is always the Blavatsky phenomenon, though I think we can readily discount her as not really belonging to any of the subdivisions of the Atlantological persuasion that we are interested in here. Among the scholars of orthodox archaeology, there have noticeably always been women - excavating, publishing reports, teaching, writing papers and books. Some of the most distinguished archaeologists and prehistorians have been women. But there are next to no women among the producers of Atlantological material. It may well be that this situation offers us a clue to one of the essential differences between real and "alternative" archaeology.

There is in fact something rather male about the Atlantological interest in itself, and in the ways its practitioners go about it. With some of the writers of Atlantological literature, though not all of them, there is more than a hint of obsession. (On occasion they will even artlessly admit to it.) It is most obvious in the curious way in which some of them are so determined to make something, anything, of every scrap of data (or pseudo-data) that ever comes their way. It seems akin at times to a collector's mania to possess and show off every beer mat from some brewery or every piece of porcelain from some workshop; akin, too, to the relentless pursuit of some hobby or all-consuming interest in something or other, often with an urge to be seen to command the field. On the whole, men are more prone to these things than women, for whatever reasons. When a treasured theory lies at the centre of such an obsessional interest, then we commonly find that for the proponent of that theory virtually everything is grist to the mill. Professional scholars (on the whole) are more relaxed about their business, perhaps because it is more their business than their personal raison d'etre. But more than that, the disciplines of scholarship have usually taught them, or their colleagues have brought it home to them, that no theory explains everything and that some data (or apparent data) will always fail to conform to any available theory. They are used to this situation, it goes with the territory. The amateurs, though, rarely have a feel for this.

Often working alone, without the benefit of a professional context in which their efforts will be judged (sometimes quite harshly), the amateurs are all too liable to surrender to the urge to dominate their material with an absolute obsession. Everything must be seen to fit their theory, to play its part in the proof - as they see it - of the correctness of their view. Anything they find in the old literature, anything they stumble across from new research sources, anything they see in the papers or on television, anything anyone tells them: it's all sucked in and more or less hammered into their scheme of things, which must be seen to explain everything, even if it is always the same old sample of everything. In this way it comes about that they often make so much of stray, anomalous, doubtful material that a professional would be content to leave aside as unprofitable without further developments. We have even seen that, on occasions, the Atlantologists may incorporate material that they themselves will have to repudiate within a few pages or less as useless even for their purposes. (And we have also noticed how their enthusiasms are apt to come and go between books.) Everything it seems must be somehow, if only temporarily, bent to their will. (As must, I fear, the judgement of their followers - this is a great field for would-be gurus.) It does look rather obsessive and I think this may explain that capacity of theirs to endure the profitless tedium of some of their material. (Of course, we must be careful not to put it all down to obsession - when the material is as thin and incoherent as the Atlantologists' often is, then you might as well bring in everything you have to hand.) I don't wish to suggest that there have never been any obsessives among the professional scholars of archaeology, but I do hazard that there are more of them among the amateurs of the "alternative" brand.

To go with the obsessiveness, there is the touchiness. It may be mild and good-natured when someone close to straight archaeology embarks on an unorthodox proposal, or - more usually - it may be virulent like le Plongeon's, a sample of whose invective (against the university teachers of American archaeology of his time) well conveys the flavour of so much Atlantological reaction to real scholarship. "Not only do they know nothing of ancient American civilization, but judging from letters in my possession, the majority of them refuse to learn anything concerning it . . . The so-called learned men of our own days are the first to oppose new ideas and the bearers of these. This opposition will continue to exist until the arrogance and self-conceit of supposed learning that still hovers within the walls of colleges and universities have completely vanished." It was the college and university types who laid the basis of our knowledge of American prehistory: le Plongeon was a crackpot so zany that even Atlantologists scarcely lean on him anymore. But they do go on railing at the university teachers in just the same old way. Of course, in many ways this may be natural enough as I've said before, even prudent. If I advance a novel theory, at variance with the ideas of the professionals in a given field like archaeology, and they reject my theory or worse still ignore it, then I am likely to feel touchy about the situation. Perhaps deep down I even wonder whether I may in fact be completely wrong, hopelessly unequipped by my lack of anything but self-education in the field. I feel insecure: and there are so many stratagems available to human beings to compensate for insecurity.

Meanwhile, if I am in the business of selling books about my theory, I may well feel it to be only good business to reassure my readers with a show of pained but plucky defiance against the authorities who deny me. Out of the mix of personal and practical insecurities comes the characteristic range of attitudes to the professionals that so many of the amateurs display. (Incidentally, it is an interesting fact that the only other field in which amateurs show such a driven defiance of the professionals appears to be medicine.

On the whole, people leave say physics and structural engineering to their professional practitioners, but large numbers seem to doubt the entire system of orthodox medicine and chase after a whole host of "alternative" therapies, many of them of a highly dubious nature to say the least. Our health and our past are, it seems clear, our most personal concerns as human beings.

See also:

The Atlantis Syndrome P. 1

The Atlantis Syndrome P. 3

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