I have to start with a confession. I am very fond of Le Matin des Magiciens (published in English translation quite inappropriately as The Dawn of Magic), the book that Louis Pauwels (1920-1997) and Jacques Bergier (1912-1978) launched on the world in 1960. Mixing philosophical speculation based on the teachings of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff with pseudo-scientific speculation, it even contains the short story The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke translated into French as Les Dix Milliard Noms de Dieu! Its charm lies in part in this near incoherence. The authors almost stumble between subjects and, as with the works of Charles Fort, it is difficult to discern any underlying paradigm or theme other than ‘science has got it wrong’.
Nevertheless, it has been an enormously influential book, although perhaps it appears more often in bibliographies than it is actually read or cited. Its influence has been so great that it is no exaggeration to say that without it, there would have been no Chariots of the Gods? (Erich von Däniken, 1967), no The Occult (Colin Wilson, 1971), perhaps even no Fingerprints of the Gods (Graham Hancock, 1995). In its wake came the journal Planète, which had a readership of around 100,000, huge for a ‘fringe’ publication. The book is a real piece of sixties memorabilia, dealing with so many of the central themes of the popular culture of that era—alchemy, Nazism, Crowley and the Golden Dawn—and yet remaining a personal adventure, sometimes written in the first person.
The book begins with what has become a familiar litany in ‘fringe’ writings: objects falling from the sky, objects found in rock, people with uncanny powers. All the staple stuff of 1950s writers like Frank Edwards, but in the hands of Pauwels and Bergier it ceases to be a meaningless catalogue of wonders but becomes part of their central argument.
Soon we are plunged into speculation on the belief system of the Nazis. Louis Pauwels had been captured by the Germans as a member of the Résistance and imprisoned in Mathausen, while Jacques Bergier was a Jew born in Odessa, grandson of a Rabbi, and was tortured by the Nazis. They seem to be trying to tell us that the Nazi system is so difficult to understand today because its entire world view was alien to western thought. Instead of being founded on principles of rationality and logic, they suggest, the Nazi paradigm is one in which magic played a central role. This is why they have presented numerous ‘magical’, inexplicable phenomena. Not to convince us of their reality (they appear take that for granted, although I may be doing them an injustice), but to prepare us for their exposition of Nazi beliefs. They may have been the first to put forward these ideas, but they have spawned a whole industry that has entered the public consciousness.
The next part of the book does not touch on material that may be considered archaeological, as they turn their attention to the future. They speculate that the next stage of human evolution is upon us, that hidden abilities are about to break through to transform humanity into a superhuman and that there are forces at work to bring about the transformation. They try to convince us of conspiracies (Nazism being the greatest of all) and of secret rulers of the world who eerily prefigure the New World Order conspiracy beloved of the American Far Right.
The book was perhaps more notorious in France than in the English-speaking world, being the subject of considerable academic discussion. The form of the book (if it can really be said to have one, as it rushes headlong from one idea to another) is one that dispenses with hypothesis setting and testing, but piles idea upon idea, slowly building up an alternative reality. The book moves away from the existentialist pessimism of the 1950s towards the hippy-dippy ‘New Age’ of the 1960s by mixing eastern philosophy (tempered through the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) with a critique of the post Enlightenment rationalist world view. Perhaps, like Charles Fort, Pauwels and Bergier were post-modernists ahead of their time.