Mutants, Mystics and Memory

MutantsMysticsParadigms. These patterns of thought are self-reinforcing and very useful. As anyone who’s studied foreign languages knows, paradigms are an effective way to keep all those impossible verb tenses in mind. Until you encounter an irregular verb. Once you discover irregular verbs, you start to find there are more of them than you wish. As with language, so with life. Like most boys, I grew up reading comic books. We didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t as fluent in super-heroese as some kids were, but I felt that irresistible draw to garish colors inking exaggerated muscle-tone under a costume that held a body capable of extraordinary things. Everything seemed possible. Then adult responsibility hit. Who had time for comic books and heroes?

That’s why I was delighted to discover Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. The three sub-topics just about summed up my childhood. But, like Paul declared to Corinthians, the first time around, “when I became a man I put away childish things.” Turns out, maybe my desire to be grown up was premature. I commented on Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible earlier this year. In his work I’d finally discovered that academics can sometimes get away with asking unorthodox questions. Perhaps it was my exposure to biblical studies, a discipline which goes one of two ways—overly facile attempts to maintain a literal reading, or a staid, solid approach tied to serious linguistics and archaeological records—that forced me into a reductionist paradigm. Well, everybody else was doing it! Academic thought had little room for the unusual, the bizarre, the irregular verb. The same applies to our no-nonsense, money driven society. Just shut up and do your job.

Mutants and Mystics, however, shows that our repressed unusual experiences, like a freudian phobia, will find ways into daily reality. It is a mind-stretching book. As for Authors of the Impossible, Kripal is to be congratulated on allowing himself to consider walking down paths that most academics assiduously bypass. Coming to his work as a fellow student of religious studies, I see that he has arrived at similar conclusions to mine, although clearly more advanced. I’d just assumed that since I never had the serious backing of a serious university my way was the low-way. The way of the kid who just couldn’t bring himself to grow up. There is a reason we spent our formative years reading about heroes for whom the impossible was daily reality. Perhaps we were in training after all, and comic books prove the point of old Isaiah that a child may indeed hold knowledge adults often just can’t see.

Kermit’s Secret

When I was a post-graduate student in that Gothic city of Edinburgh, I decided to spend some time reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It was intended as harmless entertainment, but as anyone who has read it knows, the story soon unravels into an unbelievable world of dark religions that haunt a naive protagonist. While I was reading it, a packet, hand-addressed to me, with no return address, came to my student mailbox. The contents consisted of several tracts, in German, warming of the dangers of Satanism. No letter, no explanation. Foucault’ s Pendulum had me paranoid already, and this strange package completely unnerved me. Well, I’m still here to tell the tale. While reading Victoria Nelson’s brilliant The Secret Life of Puppets, I learned that she had a strange episode while reading the same novel. It was an apt synchronicity.

Nelson is a scholar who should be more widely known. I found her because her recent Gothicka was prominently displayed in the Brown University bookstore in May. I saw it after taking a personal walking tour of H. P. Lovecraft sites. Synchronicity. I had read, in a completely unrelated selection just a couple of months ago, Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible. Synchronicity. For many years I have honed my Aristotelean sensibilities, following devotedly in the footsteps of science. Problem is, I have an open mind. It seems to me that to discount that which defies conventional explanation is dirty pool in the lounge of reality seekers. I have always been haunted by reality.

I’m not ready to give up on science. Not by a long shot. Like Nelson, however, I believe that there may be more than material in this vast universe we inhabit. Indeed, if the universe is infinite it is the ultimate unquantifiable. The Secret Life of Puppets is alive with possibility and anyone who has ever wondered how we’ve come to be such monolithic thinkers should indulge a little. For me it was a journey of discovery as aspects of my academic and personal interest, strictly compartmentalized, were brought together by an adept, literary mind. Religion and its development play key roles in the uncanny world of puppets. Those who wish to traverse the realms they inhabit would do well to take along a guide like Nelson who has spent some time getting into the puppets’ heads.

Close Commandments

Okay, so I’ll admit that Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible put me in the mood for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Watching this movie always calls for an investment of time and some emotional energy since it does drag a bit and there are some ponderously majestic scenes that simply make me want to scream. As I powered up the old DVD player this weekend, however, I received an epiphany while watching the movie for the first time in years. Early on during Richard Dreyfuss’s breakdown, the kids (incongruously) gather around the television with excitement to watch the Ten Commandments. The reason, clearly, is that they want to stay up late, and even having to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s warhorse is an adequate excuse. I’ll admit that it was one of my motivations for watching the lush, but equally dull, Ten Commandments as a child. Yes, I took it to be a pious attempt to render God’s literally true memoirs into celluloid, but its 4-hour running time did promise to keep me out of bed until after ten.

Young Moses experiences a theophany.

As my wife and I watched Close Encounters over the weekend, I realized for the first time that much of the cinematography is based on the Ten Commandments. Dreyfuss is a visionary, a prophet, if you will. He is drawn to a sacred mountain (Devil’s Tower) where, like Moses, he makes his way up and down, unable to decide whether to enter the divine presence or not. One of the pacing problems in the book of Exodus is the mental image of an 80 year-old Moses laboriously making his way up and down Sinai as God sends him on various errands. I imagine the children of Israel having time to cast a whole herd of golden cattle. As the UFOs make their grand appearance somewhat near the end of Close Encounters Roy Neary (Dreyfuss) and Jillian Guiler climb the mountain, see the theophanic display, and start back down. Only to go up again. On their way to Devil’s Tower they drive by several dead animals, like those struck down in the fifth plague of Exodus. The army forcing the people out of the area is itself an exodus. The return of those kidnapped by the aliens is a kind of letting go of those held captive. Apparently the Egyptians and aliens have a long history anyway.

I have no idea if Steven Spielberg was intentionally modeling Close Encounters on the Ten Commandments, but corollaries are clearly there. 1977 had not yet witnessed the decline of Erich von Däniken’s star, catapulted into orbit by Chariots of the Gods? where once again we find God driving spaceships and giving the Egyptians a hand with those pesky pyramids. Even the surnames of the characters seem to be a play on their biblical roles. Roy Neary, the one who draws near to God, the only one selected to literally ascend to heaven at the end, and Jillian Guiler, whose suspicion keeps her earthbound with her son Barry, who bears an eerie resemblance to the childlike aliens whom he befriends. Berry is the movie’s Joshua, the one who will keep the faith alive for the next generation. The story came to Spielberg, according to the media, when he saw a meteor shower in New Jersey as a youth. I missed last week’s meteor shower in New Jersey, and my baby ark on the Nile never sailed.

Paranormal Activity

Once in a great while books with the potential to shift paradigms come along. These rare books often deal with taboo subjects, those areas of inquiry forbidden even to the most educated sectors of society. One of those books is Jeffrey Kripal’s Authors of the Impossible. I bought this book because of its subtitle: The Paranormal and the Sacred. I have argued before that paranormal subjects are very closely related to religion, but it is so unusual to find another scholar who openly takes on this question that I was shocked at finding Authors of the Impossible. Kripal is an academic who is willing to consider what is, as he admits, impossible. Those who’ve read deeply in the record of human experience, however, know that weirdness has accompanied us from the time we could write it down. It stands to reason that the uncanny stretches back before even that singular hallmark of human development. I have suggested elsewhere that it might even be the origin of religion itself.

Universities are establishment institutions. Free inquiry is not free, as I’m sure advocates of the National Security Act are glad to know. Most university professors who’ve seen a ghost or some unidentified object in the sky or an anomalous creature will never admit it. The easy equation of such things with mental instability keeps establishment people in line. It also cuts off honest inquiry into things people have experienced for centuries. Kripal is unafraid. In this book he considers the works of explorers most academics refuse to take seriously, despite their obvious intellectual ability: Frederic Meyrs, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Méheust. Let’s have a show of hands: who has heard of any of them, except maybe Charles Fort? Each of these explorers was/is very educated. Each takes an aspect of the paranormal seriously. As Kripal points out, we will accept a physicist from CERN telling us that the impossible happens at the quantum level, but if you see a UFO you belong in an asylum. Is it because the paranormal violates not only the laws of physics, but also the laws of religion?

Life is too large to take it all in. We don’t even know what consciousness is. This is a question to which Kripal returns to conclude his book. His suggestion is that the paranormal is a literary hermeneutic—we are written by forces and powers outside our knowledge. Without denying science, indeed, while advocating it, Kripal suggests that it is not the whole picture. We are animals with two brains fused into one, and even scientists and materialists feel the sting and caress of emotion. Kripal is brave enough to assert that the emotive, imaginary side is just as real as the rational, materialist side. Noone can seriously doubt science and step onto a jet, Kripal shows that one need not doubt science to step onto a UFO either. If we are willing to participate in the reality our minds generate, the potential for human evolution really explodes. The only problem with Authors of the Impossible is that it is too short. An extremely deft writer, Kripal makes you laugh and think at the same time. And when you’re done, you’ll realize just how weird the world really is.