From Visionary to the Fringe
I knew it probably wasn’t true. But it was fascinating and mysterious—far more entertaining, thought-provoking and strangely concrete than the ethereal 2001: A Space Odyssey. Shortly thereafter, I returned to the same movie theater to see In Search of Noah’s Ark, the 1976 documentary presenting the alleged rediscovery of the wooden fragments of the biblical ark on Mount Ararat. “This may be the most incredible film you will ever see,” its narrator promised. “But the facts that will be presented are true.” It may as well have been the voice of Velikovsky, the guru with a strange scholarly posture inspiring bold rereadings of a distant past.
Born into a wealthy Russian Jewish family in 1895, Velikovsky experienced a peripatetic education that took him to many places—Moscow, Montpellier, Edinburgh and ultimately Vienna, where he studied with one of Freud’s disciples. His ambitions to make his mark on the intellectual world grew with his move to Berlin in the 1920s. There, Velikovsky collected and published the writings of leading Jewish intellectuals in his arcanely titled, grandiosely presented Scripta universitatis atque bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum. Though he failed to enlist Freud in this venture, he did persuade Einstein to edit the sections on physics and mathematics. Velikovsky would later take credit for founding Hebrew University, one of many occasions when his inflated sense of importance got the better of him. His vision of a Zionist intellectual project crystallized into a personal plan of action that led him to emigrate to Palestine with his family in 1924. In the land of his biblical forefathers, Velikovsky continued to pursue medicine and psychoanalysis, boldly elaborating his own interpretation of Freud’s dreams.
The seeds of his historical cosmology seem to have germinated while he read Freud’s final work, Moses and Monotheism, in Tel Aviv in 1939. Freud proclaimed the Old Testament prophet to be the last of the great Egyptian theosophists. Eager to refute him, Velikovsky set about trying to prove that the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten was actually the Greek Oedipus; it was the first step in rethinking the universal origins of history. With absolutely no training in the reading of Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets, Velikovsky dug into a century’s worth of scholarly arcana. He chose New York as the location for a sabbatical, disembarking on Ellis Island with his family shortly before the outbreak of World War II. Freud died two months later in London, so Velikovsky never had the pleasure of hearing what the great psychoanalyst thought of his efforts to reinterpret Freud’s synthesis of psychoanalysis and history. A temporary stay of less than a year stretched into a lifetime of exile in America.
Early in the project, Velikovsky’s research took an unexpected turn. Seeking to confirm the historical reality of Exodus, he read the modern translation of the Ipuwer Papyrus and began to consider the potential correlation between ancient Egyptian catastrophes and biblical plagues: What had caused them, and were they indicative of a common pattern across cultures? After consulting Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas, he explored the records of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Velikovsky’s quest led him from the textual and archaeological challenges of deep history to the empirical findings and theoretical underpinnings of astrophysics, geology and paleontology. There, too, he found his greatest inspiration in historical sources, namely the scientific literature of the late seventeenth through early twentieth centuries, which lay neglected and largely forgotten in the stacks of the Columbia University library. Science’s past inspired his new vision of the present.
Velikovsky later observed that he rarely met professors in the library, lamenting the narrowly defined limits of their erudition in comparison with the breadth of his own. He read musty tomes that experts considered hopelessly out of date, attempting to absorb something from every possible domain of knowledge. In defense of his methodology, Velikovsky declared himself a historian and not a scientist, while nevertheless proclaiming the revolutionary importance of his findings for science. Historical data became his tool for rethinking science, though since Velikovsky failed to meet the empirical standards of either subject or to demonstrate his competence in basic research skills to expert satisfaction, neither discipline embraced him. However, scholarly disapproval has never been a serious impediment to public acclaim (consider the case of Trofim Lysenko or Malcolm Gladwell). Indeed, it became the cornerstone of his reputation as an anti-establishment figure, a latter-day Giordano Bruno or Galileo willing to be condemned as an intellectual heretic for defying authorities in pursuit of truth.
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Gordin treats Velikovsky’s “pseudoscience” as a mirror image of science. Briefly defined, a pseudoscience is that which seems scientific to non-specialists but not to the majority of specialists. It is a particularly interesting category wherever science is powerfully authoritative yet not immune to criticism. Velikovsky’s being labeled the greatest pseudoscientist of his age became a test of expertise in an era in which the status of expert opinion was increasingly cast into doubt—from Senator Joseph McCarthy’s public assault on the left-leaning politics of certain scientists to the growing liberal unease with science as an arm of government, enmeshed in secret projects that might bring about a nuclear Armageddon. Velikovsky was responding to the vibrant culture of American science, filled with talented minds, vastly ambitious projects, and a lingering anxiety about the world it had wrought during World War II. He wrote a history for his own times that was also a critique of contemporary science.