Monday, April 30, 2012

The Curious Case VIII

There are alternatives to Corky’s story. In place of the mythological tale of guidance from beyond the world we live in, there are naturalistic, historical narratives.

Recall that before he was visited by his Summum beings, he said he’d always thought that those who said they had had visitations from otherworldly beings were “either lying or mentally ill.”

Let’s say that Corky himself was lying. One such narrative, then, might run like this.

Corky’s stint as a salesman was coming to an end, courtesy of natural forces. He’d been a great hawker of wares, but the terrestrial beings who were driving him to do their bidding noticed that his M.O. couldn’t be squared with the practicalities of the business world. Down on his luck and recently divorced, in late 1975 he began telling some of his close friends that he’d been visited by extraterrestrials. Not much later, he was selling them on the idea of constructing a warehouse, building a winery, and going into the mortuary business. By 1977, he’d convinced a critical mass of investors that they should go in with him on his enterprise, which came to be known as Summum. Several years later, his old college compadre Ron Zefferer had contacted him with a deal he couldn’t refuse: in exchange for a large stake in what was now a corporation, Ron would be chief philosopher. Within a decade, Ron and another of Corky’s friends, Bernie Beichert, had collaborated on the Kybalion Project to produce the official book of the corporation. When they took it to the US Patent Office, they were told that it could only be copyrighted as a derivative work. The two, with Corky’s advice, went to PR and had them work up an official explanation of why the book was more than just a copy of the original. This story (see above) seemed to satisfy the clients who wandered into the weekly philosophy sessions Corky was holding in his pyramid. By this time, the corporation was exceeding expectations, though salesman Corky was always thinking of Bigger Things. Then, in 2003, he had a brazen idea: in order to publicize his organization, he’d try to sell several Utah towns on the idea of placing a monument bearing what he and his confidants had been calling the “Seven Aphorisms” in their city parks alongside the monuments featuring the Ten Commandments. Knowing there wasn’t a glacier’s chance in a volcano they’d be successful on their initial sortie, they lawyered up and took their case all the way up the elevator to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them a year after Corky was being transferred to a far, far better place with a GPS in his figurative pocket.

Now let’s say that Corky was crazy.

The narrative here is more compact. It starts with his tour of Vietnam and ends on the couches of his first wife, his interim girlfriend, and an empathetic shrink. That ringing in his ears? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those visits with the perfect, blue people? Hallucinations. All that work on the Summum hobby? Hmm. Maybe compensation for an insecurity regarding his true identity—caused, no doubt, by being shuttled from state to state and from name to name by his birth parents.

Erik Erikson would have the seen the Corky story as a treasure trove.

These explanations are speculative. They don’t always fit the contours of the case, but they come close. The psychoanalytic narrative could have some truth in it. If so, one wonders about the converts. Were they also candidates for professional help? That might be. Many a teched mortal has converted the masses to discipleship. Max Weber’s sociological theory of charisma was built to explain such phenomena.

The fraud narrative appears to neglect the fact that Corky and his entourage dedicated their lives to the Summum cause; he himself went so far as to have himself mummified. Might he have believed his own gospel, as have other recipients of angelic visits? That’s at least possible.

The sticking point of such a kind verdict, however, is threefold. First, it seems clear that Summum was designed as a moneymaker, if only for the basic needs of the organization. Second, the piece about the extraterrestrials was borrowed—okay, cribbed—from the widespread New Age cosmology. And third, Corky and his crew had fabricated in other instances. They’d plagiarized. They’d been careless about historical facts. When it came to counting their members and their accounts, they were creative.

Guilty in one, suspect in all.

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