Camped in the middle of nowhere, an archaeologist is approached by a stranger offering to sell a curious and sinister specimen. Though it sounds like the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, it was an experience recounted by naturalist and sublime science writer Loren Eiseley. Here is his telling of the strange story:
When I first heard of the little man there was no talk of flying saucers, nor did his owner ascribe to him anything more than an earthly origin. It has been almost a quarter of a century since I encountered him in a bone hunter's camp in the West. A rancher had brought him to us in a box. "I figured you'd maybe know about him," he said. "He'll cost you money, though. There's money in that little man."
"Man?" we said.
"Man," he countered. "What you'd call a pygmy or a dwarf, but smaller than any show dwarf I ever did see. A mummy, too, a little dead mummy. I figure it was some kind of bein' like us, but little. They put him in the place I found him; maybe it was a thousand years ago. You'll likely know."
Our heads met over the box. The last paper was withdrawn. The creature emerged on the man's palm. I've seen a lot of odd things in the years since, and fakes by the score, but that little fellow gave me the creeps. He might have been two feet high in a standing posture--not more. He was mummified in a crouching position, arms folded. The face with closed eyes seemed vaguely evil. I could have sworn I was dreaming.
I touched it. There was a peculiar, fleshy consistency about it, still. It was not a dry mummy. It was more like what you would expect a natural cave mummy to be like. It had no tail. I know because I looked. And to this day the little man sits on there, in my brain, and as plain as yesterday I can see the faint half-smirk of his mouth and the tiny black hands at his knees.
"You can have it for two hundred bucks," said the man. We glanced at each other, sighed, and shook our heads. "We aren't in the market," we said. "We're collecting, not buying, and we're staying with our bones."
"Okay," said the man and gave us a straight look, closing his box. "I'm going to the carnival down below tonight. There's money in him. There's money in that little man."
Eiseley portends rather than outright describes exactly how the curious "little man" became interwoven with flying saucer stories. It is not hard to imagine what happened: the rancher did as he said he would and sold the mummy to the carnival down the road.
The little man could have easily been billed as a cursed relic of a lost civilization in the era before flying saucer stories became popular. In times closer to our own, little men like these became alien. Carnivals and their stories evolve, even if only in the labels on the props.
It is worth pausing a moment to consider what a carnival is. They pose as playful places, but they are not. Perceptive children intuit a certain danger in them. Intelligent adults know that they are businesses. Carnivals traffic in cheap liminality. They operate in the realm of controlled uncertainty, something like Eiseley's feverish moment examining the mummy. This is the money in the little man: the vivid hope or fear that there might be mystery in the world made tangible.
Carnivals have somewhat vanished in our own time. They do not have the cultural weight they once did. That said, capitalism's efficient metabolism does not waste market opportunities. The function of the carnival did not really go away. It merely disaggregated, atomizing itself so that it could be taken up in small but constant measure through other means.
Americans in particular have been prolific in our use of the carnival as a leavening ingredient in marketing. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin once observed of Americans:
When we pick up the newspaper at breakfast, we expect - we even demand - that it brings us momentous events since the night before...We expect our two-week vacations to be romantic, exotic, cheap, and effortless..We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive. We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for excellence, to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy...to go to 'a church of our choice' and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God. Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.
We can add further expectations wrought from the carnival: that the mundane be numinous and that mere puzzles be mysteries.
Boorstin's incisive analysis was published in 1962. More than a half century later, the feelings of deception and disappointment have not abated.
UFOs are a natural subject for the carnival. Particular physical characteristics do not define UFOs. Instead, the definition reflects a state of knowledge or perception, as is obvious from unpacking the acronym. Unidentified flying objects are an epistemological and not strictly an ontological category. In practice, descriptions of UFOs vary widely, one might even say wildly. The only truly common feature across the variety of things called UFOs is that they are puzzling to human perception. This vastly simplifies the job of the carnival's prop department.
The puzzle of UFOs also make for a plausible mystery. Space is vast. Who knows what is out there. Imagination can fill that considerable void with what it pleases, or what it fears most. Confusion about something in the sky can be a gateway, if one is not too bothered about the details. The poet Housman once said that the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth. A profitable confusion is not always easily relinquished.
Note in Eiseley's story that the scientist – a person of genuine learning and curiosity – was the first stop in the sales tour for the little man. What scholars pass over as novelties of little scientific value the carnival relishes as reified opportunity.
It is for those who feel most hopeful, or most afraid, that the carnival has the most sway. Curiosity brings them in, and sentiment cashes them out. Now that the colorful tents have largely given way to screens, it is harder and harder to know if you are even at a carnival. Carnies in the costume of a scientist or a journalist can make compelling marketing pitches, even if they cannot help an occasional lapse into carnival cant. Spellbound by the pitch and ignorant of the glossary of the circus, the mark continues on undeterred.
Recall that a carnival is not a museum, and certainly not a library. It is a business. A business made of cheap and thin fabrics, staffed by shifty characters. It will trade in your dread as readily as your hope. It senses the money in the little man, in any plausible anomaly that will profitably unmoor you. The carnival discovered, just before it disintegrated into a cultural spore cloud, that UFOs are very, very good for business.