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On the Horizon: The Meteoric Velikovsky

Just when everyone has pretty much recovered from the excitement of Worlds in Collision—that saga of the ancient encounter between the comet Venus and the planet Earth, as a result of which the earth stood still for a day—Immanuel Velikovsky will shortly be in the news again with his second book, Ages in Chaos. Gerard H. Wilk after several long interviews with Dr. Velikovsky, remains unable to judge the merits of the scientific controversies that his writings have provoked; but he did find Dr. Velikovsky to be a person of more than common interest—as the present article bears witness.

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“And he [Joshua] said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Aijalon’” (Josh. 10:12). To which Immanuel Velikovsky replied, quite a few centuries later: “It was the earth that stood still that day. . . .” It was quite a surprise. Now, the author of the best-selling Worlds in Collision (more than 100,000 copies) is about to put a new book on the market, Ages in Chaos—A Reconstruction of Ancient History from the Exodus to King Akhnaton. This one appears under the imprint of Doubleday, who adopted Velikovsky after his original publisher, Macmillan, had abandoned him under the fire of outraged scientific opinion. (“Fifty years ago such a book would have been laughed at,” lamented Waldemar Kaempfert, “and now it is used as a weapon against science.”) On the dust jacket of the new book is an authorized statement by Robert H. Pfeiffer, head of the Semitics department of Harvard University: “If Dr. Velikovsky is right, this volume is the greatest contribution to the investigation of ancient times ever written.” Velikovsky himself does not expect such cautious sympathy from the academic fraternity at large. “This time the historians will attack me,” says the tall, gray-haired, distinguished-looking man, with a friendly indulgence for what he regards as human weakness.

In spite of his preoccupation with comets running amuck, Velikovsky looks very much like a refined man of this world; he is no medieval mage buried under dusty folios; there are no owls, no obscure scrolls, no mysterious instruments in his comfortable middle-class apartment in uptown New York, which is not even overstocked with books. The strangest fact that I encountered about this Russian-born intellectual was his willingness to submit to the American custom of making tea with tea-bags. Ladies probably find him attractive, with his imposing head, high forehead, large Greek nose a bit pointed—the face of a dreamer, if it were not for a very determined chin. He is a superb but quiet talker, witty without being sarcastic, with a flair for attention-catching metaphors, and a good listener, too. He is affable to the point of being gently pitying to those who disagree with him.

For all his interest in the stars, Velikovsky does not believe in astrology, and he surely had not the faintest presentiment of what the celestial spheres had in store for him when he came to this country from Palestine in midsummer of 1939, a man forty-four years old, who had for the last sixteen of those years been a practicing physician. He came for a reason that often sends Americans scurrying abroad. “I felt it was the last chance of my life to devote myself to research—full-time research, that was my great desire. . . .”

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Immanuel Velikovsky was born on the tenth of June, 1895, in Vitebsk, Russia, the youngest of three brothers; he likes to remember that this was the year Theodor Herzl wrote his Judenstaat. Immanuel’s father, Simon Velikovsky, had already long been a Zionist by then, belonging to the Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) movement. Simon had been born in 1859 in Mstislav, the grandson of Rabbi Jacob Hotimski, who traced his family tree back to Ezra the Scribe. Simon studied hard to become a rabbi, but he could not find it in his conscience to be loyal to every jot and tittle of the Law, and he left the Yeshiva at Mir where his father had sent him. Returning home, he encountered his boyhood friend S. M. Dubnow, who was later to win fame as a Jewish historian, and the two came to be intimate companions. Dubnow introduced Simon to the Haskalah (the Enlightenment movement), and Simon awakened in Dubnow an interest in the Jewish national idea. (Sixty years later Dubnow wrote about this mutual inspiration in the Hebrew periodical Haaretz.) With the help of a Russian-Hebrew dictionary, Simon Velikovsky learned Russian and soon became a learned autodidact in “Gentile” matters. To the astonishment of Mstislav, he applied to the House of Vogau—one of the most important mercantile firms in Moscow—for a job as its representative in the city of Smolensk; to the greater astonishment of Mstislav, Simon got the job, even though he refused to sign his contract on the Sabbath. Simon was soon steadily climbing the ladder of business success, taking on the way as his wife Bela Rachel Grodeski of Grodno, an unusual woman who, without any formal education, had a fluent command of several languages and a wide acquaintance with European culture.

“From his youth,” says Immanuel Velikovsky, “my father had set himself three goals: to help make Hebrew a living language again, to redeem Israel, and to found a Jewish academy.” To revive Hebrew, the older Velikovsky sponsored the institute Sfatenu, which published anthologies and dictionaries in Hebrew; he also established prizes for books interpreting the aims of Zionism—in 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, when business was slack, he spent his last eight hundred rubles as prize money. In his old age, Simon became a writer himself; living in Palestine, and nearly seventy-five years old, he wrote two plays in Hebrew: The Jew of Munich and Rabbi Akiba. As a redeemer of Israel, he was a cofounder of the collective settlement Migdal in Galilee, and the sole founder of Ruhama in the Negev; in the latter, only individuals who spoke Hebrew were permitted to settle. Then, after the First World War, his son Immanuel helped him fulfill his third goal, by creating the publication Scripta Universitatis, in effect a forerunner of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Immanuel was brought up in a home where learning was more in esteem than money, and where a good deal of both was available. At four, he began to study Hebrew, at six, Russian. His mother tongue was German; Yiddish he never did master. At seven, he started the study of French, at twelve, Latin, and shortly thereafter English, in which language he now writes his books. When Immanuel was six, the Velikovsky family moved to Moscow on the insistence of his mother that he be enrolled in a good school. Only after he had passed the examination at Medvednikov Gymnasium four times, was he allowed to enter the school—the first three times he was rejected because he was a Jew. Finally, when he did get into the Gymnasium, he became something of a rebel there; twice he was on the verge of expulsion, and only his excellent marks—which were highest in mathematics and Russian—saved him. While still at school, he published a small volume of Russian verse and dreamed of becoming a Russian poet.

He completed his studies at the Gymnasium; but then, despite his high marks and his gold medal, the numerus clausus kept him from entering any Russian university. To his great delight, Immanuel was sent to study medicine abroad, at Montpellier in Southern France. There he found about five hundred young Russian Jewish students, of whom many were Zionists, and he shortly became the leader of their organization. The news from their families at home was anything but good. It was the time of the infamous Beilis ritual-murder trial in Kiev. The students at Montpellier took more and more to looking beyond the Mediterranean, and talking of the Promised Land. One morning, while Immanuel was lounging among the ruins of Charles Martel’s castle, the urge to go to Palestine suddenly became irresistible; next day he gave notice to the university—it was the middle of the winter term, 1913—and he departed immediately.

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“I wandered through the deserts, over the hills, I slept in kvuzot, I visited the ancient ruins. . . . It was a time when I was deeply religious.” (He still maintains a kosher household.) But his mother insisted that he come back to Europe to finish his medical studies. This time he went to Edinburgh, where he took courses in medicine, botany, and zoology. The guest lecturer that year was Henri Bergson, discoursing on the élan vital. Velikovsky admits he did not understand him very well. But he did understand, and was fascinated by, London’s Whitechapel. “It was for me a mystical region. I have always felt attached to poor Jews.”

The outbreak of World War I found him home in Russia on his summer vacation. There was no possibility of getting abroad and the medical faculties still were closed to him. He finally enrolled at the so-called “Free University” in Moscow, created by the rector and some professors of the Moscow Imperial University who had resigned in protest against violations of academic autonomy. There he studied law, history, and economics. Later, after the Revolution, he was able to return to his original studies and in 1921 he received his degree as a doctor of medicine at the University of Moscow. Before completing his studies, he had published under the pen name of Immanuel Ramio a booklet on Jewish history, The Third Exodus, in which he predicted that the European Jews were threatened with a new deluge of hate and terror aiming at their annihilation, and in which he also prophesied the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In 1921, he and his parents left Russia. His parents went directly to Palestine, but Immanuel stayed over in Berlin, thinking the time ripe to put into practice his father’s ideas of a Jewish academy. He was soon in touch with the leading personalities of the German Zionist movement, and particularly with Dr. Heinrich Loewe, a well-known scholar now living in Israel. Simon Velikovsky placed at his son’s disposal the money for the founding of Scripta Universitatis atque Bìblìothecae Hìerosolymitanarum, which Dr. Loewe and Immanuel Velikovsky published jointly. Immanuel was then twenty-six years old, though managing to look much older with the help of a beard. Albert Einstein became the editor of one of the two parts of the Scripta, the mathematical-physical section, while the other part was dedicated to Hebraica-Orientalia. In the Scripta, contributions of outstanding Jewish scholars from all. over the world were published in their original languages and in Hebrew translation. The volumes were sent to academies and universities in exchange for their publications, which were then given to the University Library in Jerusalem. One of those who encouraged the Scripta was Chaim Weizmann, who, according to Velikovsky, in 1923 asked the young man to become head of the new Hebrew University in Palestine. Velikovsky did not accept.

In Berlin the young publisher met a violinist, Elisheva Kramer, from Hamburg, and married her. (Later, in Palestine, Elisheva Velikovsky played first violin in the Palestine String Quartet. She is also a sculptor and painter, and this winter exhibited a lime-stone figure, “Caryatid,” at the New York City Metropolitan Museum’s “American Sculpture 1951” show—a national competitive exhibition.) They have two daughters, both born in Israel, both now in the United States, and both married. One, a physicist, lives in Princeton, after having served with the Israeli army during the War of Liberation. The other teaches art at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

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Shortly after their marriage the Velikovskys left Berlin. “I went to Palestine with my wife and the printed volumes of the Scripta. On the day the Hebrew University was opened, the Scripta was laid on the table before Lord Balfour. The wind from the Dead Sea played in its pages. . . .” During the next sixteen years the Velikovskys lived first in Haifa, then in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He was a general practitioner but later, after a course of study in Vienna—under Dr. Wilhelm Stekel—he specialized in psychoanalysis. “Many patients. . . no time for research and writing. . . .” He did manage to write some medical papers and to go for a time to Zurich for courses on brain physiology. Yet he more and more had the sense that “life runs away.” He was forty-four years old and quite well off, but he felt that he had not yet accomplished anything of importance; he experienced what in the German language is vividly referred to as Torschlusspanik—“fear of the closing of the gate.” He made up his mind to go to America to devote himself to full-time research. In the summer of 1939 the Velikovsky family arrived in New York.

In Velikovsky’s trunk there was a manuscript he hoped to finish, on “Freud and His Heroes.” He had known Freud personally, had been in correspondence with him, and in 1932 had invited him to Palestine; Freud had declined, explaining that he was too ill to travel and had to stay in the Behaglichkeit of his house in Vienna. Velikovsky had previously re-interpreted Freud’s own dreams as given in his writings, his thesis being that at the time he wrote his Interpretation of Dreams Freud was much occupied with the question of whether or not he should remain a Jew. Velikovsky called this study “The Dreams Freud Dreamed,” and it was published in October 1941 in the Psychoanalytic Review. In New York, attempting to finish his work on “Freud and His Heroes,” Velikovsky met some difficulties. Two of Freud’s “heroes,” Oedipus and Ikhnaton, yielded easily to his historical research and their lives seemed to make an interesting story, quite pertinent to the story of Freud’s own life. But the third hero, Moses, brought him up against some biographical and historical riddles he could not solve, for all his wearying hours at the library of Columbia University.

Meanwhile war had come to Europe, and in April 1940 the Velikovskys decided to go home to Palestine. But on the day before they were to board ship, Velikovsky dropped in on a publisher to whom Professor Horace M. Kallen had given the unfinished manuscript of “Freud and His Heroes.” In the office he found a lady who turned out to be the publisher’s wife and secretary; she told him that her husband would be happy to publish his work and asked him to postpone his departure in order to sign the contract. Velikovsky, his luggage packed, at first refused; but the publisher called him at home that evening and talked excitedly about the success the book was bound to have. The ship sailed the next day without the Velikovskys, who were busy unpacking. They had just about finished when they learned that the publisher had changed his mind and would offer no contract until the manuscript was completed.

Preparations for departure were started all over again. This time, fate intervened in the person of a rabbi bringing greetings from a friend. Leisurely, the man of God and the man of Freud sat and talked, overlooking the Hudson and discussing the Jordan. Velikovsky brought up a question that had been bothering him for a long time: “Why did nobody thoroughly examine the origin of the Dead Sea?” The rabbi did not know, but Velikovsky kept to the subject. Had there not been a geological change? At the time of the patriarchs, this region is spoken of as a valley, the “vale of Siddim” (Gen. 14:3). But in Exodus the same region is already spoken of as the Dead Sea. What had changed the valley into a salty sea? What had happened in the epoch between the patriarchs and the Exodus? Suddenly Velikovsky remembered a book, a geological, geographical, and historical account of the Negev—his father had given it to him on his fortieth birthday. Its author, a young Hebrew student named Bar Droma, had made reference in the book to a theory which described Mount Sinai as having once been a volcano. Velikovsky mentioned this theory to the rabbi, and all of a sudden the idea of a “Great Catastrophe” struck him—an idea that would help explain the many riddles facing the scholar at work on the historical Moses, the Exodus, the plagues. Here was what was needed to finish his missing chapter on Moses in “Freud and His Heroes.” Many more ships sailed to Palestine without the Velikovsky family.

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Velikovsky went back to work. Catalogues, encyclopedias, bibliographies, books and books—geographical, geological, historical—he read them before sunrise at home (he is an early riser, and is not able to work late at night) and all day at the Columbia library. Finally he found a book, a translation of the Ipuwer Papyrus, in which he read: “The water in the river turned to blood. . . .” Moreover, every one of the Biblical plagues was mentioned. He wrote to Professor J. Garstang, the excavator of Jericho, and showed him the collated texts from the Papyrus and from the Bible. “It reads as if one is the copy of the other—Bible and Ipuwer Papyrus,” answered the professor. There was a problem, however. According to the accepted time-table of the historians, the Ipuwer Papyrus was written many centuries before the Exodus. “I was in conflict with the conventional history by several hundred years. . . . Six hundred lost years with the Jews, or six hundred ghost years with the Egyptians?”

Suddenly “everything came together.” The difference in time was there, and could not be denied—if one followed conventional history. But there was an amazing coincidence of names and events in Egyptian and Biblical sources. The two historians coincided in their account of every generation, but there was a constant six hundred years’ difference. Working feverishly, Velikovsky came up with more and more parallel facts, and finally decided that the accepted chronology of Egyptian history was wrong, and that he would have to reconstruct anew the history of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. He put aside Freud and his heroes to work, on the book just coming out, Ages in Chaos.

Several months later, he found the clue to an answer to the second question: What was the nature of the catastrophes recorded in the Bible and the Egyptian papyri? It was in the Bible’s account of Joshua ben Nun pursuing the Canaanite kings at Beth-horon: “And the sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13). And there were the earlier verses about the large stones. . . . Metaphor, or ancient memory of natural catastrophes? “Suddenly I had the feeling the verses spoke of facts, of a natural catastrophe that really had happened. . . .” Such a catastrophe could not have been a local event, and again he plunged into ancient sources, seeking for mention of similar occurrences east or west of Palestine. “I was lucky to come across the books of Abbé Brasseur. His work on the Mayas and other aborigines of America described similar events.” Diligently, Velikovsky read hundreds of books, copying excerpts in long-hand in notebooks that resemble the copy books of a model college student (for Ages in Chaos, he took notes from more than four thousand books). And in some way, slowly, the conviction grew in him that a comet had come into collision with the earth, causing destruction in a measure un-heard of and nearly unbelievable. To astronomers—as Velikovsky happened to know—such an event is incredible. But the sources seemed to point to it, and Velikovsky found himself, after every day’s research, submitting more and more to the charm of his comet, reluctant though he was to come into conflict with the astronomers. And soon the comet itself took on an identity: it was Venus, what is now our friendly planet Venus, disengaging herself thirty-five hundred years ago from Jupiter, colliding with the earth and with Mars. There was a time, concluded Velikovsky, when the very careful and cautious old watchers in the night did not know anything about a planet Venus; it became visible only at the beginning of the 2nd millennium B.C.E.

So was born Worlds in Collision, “a pleasant work in between,” while he still labored on Ages in Chaos.

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For eleven years Velikovsky worked on his first two books—“Eleven years, during which I was the first and the last in the library. I allowed myself no Sabbath, no summer vacation. My money that I had brought over from Palestine became exhausted. My other means there were frozen. Sometimes I even tried to save a nickel and took the Broadway bus instead of the Fifth Avenue bus with its beautiful ride on River-side Drive. If I had practiced psychoanalysis, I could easily have had a good income. But I was too much absorbed in my ideas and in my work.” Still, he did find time for other activities. When the situation in Palestine became critical just before the new state was born, he discovered in himself a gift for journalism. He sent, under the pen name of “Observer,” an article to the editor of the New York Post who, without knowing anything about “Observer,” published it on November 25, 1947. The editor found more articles by the mysterious “Observer” in his mail and printed them, too, on the editorial page; it was some time before editor and author came to know each other. Altogether, Velikovsky wrote fifty colorful, well-informed, and impressive articles, which found a great many readers. And when the UN planned sanctions against Israel, he went to Paris, where the Assembly was meeting, and in a corridor he got hold of Dr. Ralph Bunche and exhorted him for forty minutes.

Then he came back to New York and his theories. Harper’s, Collier’s, and Reader’s Digest brought out in the first months of 1950 articles about, and condensations of, the strange story of Venus the comet. They caused a great commotion. Scientists were outraged, the public curious. It had been a long time since a catastrophic theory of history had reared its head—not, in fact, since the idea of evolution had come to dominate men’s minds. Back in 1697, Sir Thomas Burnet explained, in The Theory of the Earth, that a comet had caused the Deluge. “We have heard,” writes Sir Thomas, “as it were a Cry of Fire, throughout all Antiquity and throughout all people of the earth. Those alarums are sometimes false or make a greater noise than the thing deserves. I never trust Antiquity barely upon its own account, but always require a second witness either from Nature or from Scripture. . . .” He expected a new comet to become active at the End of Days, destroying the earth, but not the whole universe, for there would have to be a region where the Last Judgment could take place. A friend of Newton’s, William Whiston, had similar ideas.

Now, in the 20th century, the notion of catastrophe has again become thinkable, even popular, for obvious reasons. Except that where Burnet and Whiston called upon nature and Scripture to verify recorded history, Velikovsky calls upon nature and the ancients to verify Scripture. But he denies that he ever had the intention or wish to confirm the Bible. He looks, he says, for scientific truth, and he is certainly sincere. Yet perhaps even he might not be offended if, some day, a fellow psychoanalyst should study Velikovsky as Velikovsky studied Freud, and reinterpret the dreams Velikovsky dreamed.

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