In 1973, I took a brief sabbatical from college to study in Switzerland at the University of the New World. I still have the small red course catalog somewhere. It was a school started by visionary hustler Al de Grazia, who had been a professor at Brown and … well, you should see what they offered: a faculty that included Allen Ginsberg, John Fahey, Ornette Coleman, Robert Motherwell, Immanuel Velikovsky, John Cage, Ram Dass, twenty-four-hour music rooms/art studios/libraries. There were stalls set up on the quad promoting it.
The university was situated in a tiny canton just outside Sion. The university was actually situated somewhere deep in the recesses of Professor DeGrazia’s mind. There was no university. It was, to be charitable, a work in progress. There were no libraries or music studios or art studios. There were no classrooms. There were no dormitories. There were no teachers. There were only a handful of students—mostly from Antioch—and we were all housed in rooms in a nearby ski lodge. From this distance I can’t tell whether it was a scam or a pipe dream. I had to humbly ask to be readmitted to Brown, and Dean Hazeltine was sympathetic but let me dangle in the wind for a few weeks just … well, just to give me time to reflect.
It turned out to be an interesting time.
On the second day, Immanuel Velikovsky turned up. It seems that he was as gullible as I’d been. And as idealistic. He turned up with the Canadian filmmaker Henry Zemel, who was making a documentary on Velikovsky for the CBC. Tagging along was Zemel’s best friend, Leonard Cohen, who’d been deputized to narrate the film and to interview Velikovsky on camera about the sexuality of the cosmos. So I had a fine time: at night I sat up playing guitar with Leonard Cohen and watched him try to pick up beautiful Swiss girls. They were all wealthy, well dressed, and bored.
“Do you know Bob Dylan?” he asked one of them.
She shook her head.
“What about Charles Aznavour?”
“I’m a bit like Charles Aznavour. But younger,” he smiled.
“Not much,” she pouted.
In the afternoons, I sat with Henry Zemel and Velikovsky in a house they’d rented.
Velikovsky, if you don’t know, was a radical historian and scientist who studied with Freud in Vienna, but who shifted his work to the intersections of science and mythology soon after decamping to the States in the late 1930s to avoid the Nazis. He was best known for Worlds in Collision, a book that expanded on some of Darwin’s theories, trying to prove that evolution was a response to cataclysm or disaster. He was a gracious, courtly man who insisted on holding lectures every day, even if I were the only student present.
One day, there was a knock at the door. I’d been in the kitchen with Velikovsky, helping him unload groceries. I walked with him to the door. There was a man in a long gray raincoat with a hat pulled down over his eyes. The sun was out, it was still afternoon, but he appeared as deep in shadow.
“May I come in?”
“Yes?” Velikovsky continued to stand there, courteous but watchful.
“I have some information that might be of interest.”
Velikovsky tilted his head but said nothing.
“I was Hitler’s astrologer,” he explained.
“Yes,” Velikovsky nodded. “Yes. I’m sure you were. But you’re not today.”
And then he closed the door.
“And now,” he said, turning to me, “now we will wash our hands.”
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.