Mutants and Mystics: The Jeffrey Kripal Interview

by Troy Williams

They’ve been described as modern literature’s bastard children – comic books, B-movie and pulp science-fiction. Despite their humble origins, they have become the dominant form of entertainment in our pop-culture fantasies; Batman, the Avengers, Star Trek, the X-Files and on.

But is there something about the super-hero archetype or alien abduction story that speaks to something deeper in the human experience?

On a recent KRCL RadioActive I welcomed Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of religious studies at Rice University.  He is the author of several books, including Authors of the Impossible and most recently, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal.

We discuss the lives of comic book writers and artists who themselves have reported extra-ordinary paranormal experiences – and in turn encoded their mystic encounters into the fictions they created.

Phillip K. Dick – John Keel – Alan Moore – Grant Morrison – and maybe even a New York farm boy turned author, Joseph Smith.

Listen to the entire interview here:

Troy Williams: You study religions and in particular the writings of mystics, but you write that you are neither a believer or a debunker.

Jeffrey Kripal: The study of religion inhabits this strange middle zone of people who are fascinated by religion and take it’s claims very seriously but don’t take it literally. We study how all religious systems come to be.  It’s a very creative middle-approach that is neither believing or debunking.

TW: Obviously people are having some kind of spiritual experience, but perhaps the literalness of the flood and an arc that brought every animal together isn’t what you are interested in?

JK: People are always having spiritual experiences and those experiences are always being mediated by the imagination and how that imagination is shaped by a particular culture in a particular time.

TW: You write that you yourself have a secret origin story. In Calcutta where you were celebrating the goddess Kali – take us through that.

JK: I was doing my PhD at the University of Chicago in a field called the History of Religion and I was living in India studying a famous Hindu saint Rama Khrishna. They were celebrating the goddess Durga and Kali.   I was taking part in these rituals which have a festive atmosphere.  In the course of this ritual cycle I went to bed one night and woke up asleep – and by that I mean my awareness came online but my body was utterly asleep and frozen.

As I lay on my back I had this sensation of this incredible energy entering the room and entering me and overwhelming my body and mind until it literally took me out of my body.  I had an out of body event going on.  It felt frankly like I had been radiated or electrocuted by god.  I could still feel those energies inside me.  That event became the core origin event for me and my books.

TW: You grew up Catholic. Did you have any extrasensory experiences in Catholicism that helped inform your experience in Calcutta?

JK: I certainly was profoundly experienced by Catholicism but I can’t say I had any mystical experiences within that tradition.  My most profound mystical experiences was in Hinduism.  That was an irony really.

TW:  You write that “Orientalism” is really a pathway to mysticism in some of our earliest comic books and novels.

JK: That’s right.  It also has elements of the “hero’s quest”.  To find yourself you have to leave your home, culture and religion – and come back to see things differently.

TW: One of the comic-industries most popular and influential writers is Grant Morrison – he currently writes Batman and Superman – he had a multi-dimensional encounter in Kathmandu – tell his story briefly.  How does it compare to yours?

JK: Reading Grant’s description of this experience was one of the origin points of this book.  I realized that comic book writers like Morrison had experiences that were identical to my own.  But they were much smarter than me and they became comic book writers!

What happened to Morrison by his own account; he was in Kathmandu in 1994 and on a personal pilgrimage to a Buddhist temple.  After he visited the temple he went back to his hotel room and laid down for a nap.  Then these shiny silver anti-bodies emerged from the wall and interacted with him in a kind of electrical or plasma fashion.  He actually uses the term “electrocuted by god”.  That was one of the events that really changed Morrison in the 90’s and inspired him to interact with his characters on the two-dimensional page the same way these fifth dimensional being were interacting with him in our own three or fourth dimensions.  And this is what fascinates me; he took that experience and instead of making a religious claim, he turned it into fantasy and his own creative art.  That’s really what this book about.

TW: You both describe this energy as intelligent.

JK: It was clearly not me.  By “not me” I mean not my ego.  It clearly knew what it was doing and it was interacting with my body and in particular my sexual system.  It had it’s own mind.  It seemed to encode a certain way of knowing as it worked with me.  It was in control and knew what it was doing.

TW:  Morrison describes these mercurial intelligences that taught him the true nature of reality – and once he got above “Time” he saw it not as a linear element – but rather as a single whole.  He saw humanity was like a cosmic caterpillar – devouring our resources before we transform into something new.  It reminds me of the common theme in Science Fiction – beautifully depicted in 2001 A Space Odyssey with the star-child – is that humanity as we are now is just a transitory state.  Moving toward something else.

JK: Yes.  This theme of evolution is absolutely everywhere.  In both the alternative religious traditions I study and in the comics.  It’s the key mytheme as I call it.

TW: In this an empirical materialist world – where many of us are rather skeptical of the supernatural – you say that the paranormal needs the vehicle of pop-culture to appear. Take us through that.

JK:  First let’s talk about what I mean by a paranormal event.  The term “paranormal” was coined by French scientists around 1900 who were studying poltergeist phenomena.  By the paranormal they did not mean the supernatural.  They meant something normal beyond our present scientific understanding.  What they really meant was an event in the physical environment that corresponds perfectly to a subjective state.  A paranormal event is an event that breaks down and denies this sense that we have that we are here and the world is “out there”.

What happens in a paranormal is that the world becomes part of us.  Or that we somehow effect physical change in the environment.  That’s not supposed to happen in our standard materialist models.  But that’s exactly what happens in a lot of these paranormal experiences.

TW: We’ve traded the world of enchantment for a Newtonian worldview.  We live in a universe governed by laws we can’t influence or affect.

JK: Yes. What I mean by “the paranormal needs the fantasy” to appear at all – is that whatever triggers these events seems to activate the human imagination.  The imagination seems to be this organ of cognition that taps into these other realms and other dimensions.  But always translates what it knows through the imagination — through a myth or a story.  So we tend to think of knowledge in our empirical egos as logical or mathematical.  But there are other forms of knowledge that require narrative, symbol, metaphor and poetry to appear at all.  With a lot of these paranormal experiences, if you actually listen to people talk about them they sound exactly like a living story.  They don’t sound anything like a mathematical equation.

TW: We use narrative to make sense and to make meaning of our lives. So, discuss then what you call the “Secret Life of Super-powers”.

JK: One of the things I argue is that superhero mythologies and science fiction are really participating and drawing on the religious imagination.  They display these patterns that are indebted to the history of religions but that are also now engaging science in creative ways.  I isolate what I call mythemes, which are essentially patterns or tropes that these stories use over and over again.  The first one is called “Orientation”.  It’s a play on the Orient.  It’s the mytheme that works by locating the magical power or the god somewhere in the East, somewhere or “far far, away”.  Sometimes it’s in Africa or a polar region.  Or Tibet. Or the inner world – the Hollow Earth. It’s always somewhere else.

TW: Like say, Atlantis?

JK: Right.  The reason that mytheme was so central to the 19the Century is that was the heyday of western colonialism.  We were traveling the world searching for the extraordinary and the special.  Tarzan is an example – the European who goes to Africa and becomes a hero in the jungle.

Next is “Alienation” which of course is a play on “alien”.  In the late 19th, early 20th Century the globe is basically explored out.  In turns out there is no magical place on the globe in a literal sense.  So human beings begin to imagine the god or the divine super humans as coming from outer space.  The Orient is replaced by outer-space. Starting really with H.G Wells you get these stories of aliens come to either conquer or colonize us or in some cases enlighten us.  That’s really the mytheme that the first superhero comes out of in 1938 — Superman. He is a crashed alien.

TW: He’s also the “man of tomorrow” – the man from the future.  That’s when we enter the Silver Age.

JK:  Yes, “Alienation” dominates the Golden Age of comics, which is really the World War 2 era.  But once the war is over the superheroes go away because they are not needed anymore.  But WW2 ended with the dropping of two atomic bombs which then generates an entirely new imaginative structure which I call “Radiation”.  This is the idea that superpowers come from some kind of radioactive accident or encounter.  This becomes THE mytheme the Silver Age starts to generate in the late 50’s and early 60’s.  Most of the superheroes particularly those created at Marvel are almost all created by radiation.  The Hulk, Spider-Man, Daredevil, all of these superheroes derive their powers from some kind of radiation.

TW: You also talk about the way sexuality is sublimated into the Silver Age.

JK: There’s a big difference between the Golden Age superheroes and the Silver Age superheroes.  By Golden Age, let’s just stick with Superman and Batman and throw in Wonder Woman too. For the Silver Age heroes let’s pull in Spiderman and the Fantastic Four.  What you find in the Golden Age, is that radiation takes powers away – Kryptonite for Superman for example.  But in the Silver Age radiation bestows powers.  What I’m suggesting is that radiation is often a kind of code for human sexuality.  Not in a simple biological sense but in a kind of magical pubescent sense where sexuality still has a supernatural charge to it.  So it then becomes the source of all super powers and creativity.

In the Golden Age, the less sex you have the more super powers you have.  And the more sex you have the less power you have.  For example, Superman is celibate.  He’s virtually omnipotent.  He’s as powerful as you get.  Batman, who is a literal playboy, has zero superpowers.  He’s just a really rich guy who knows martial arts and has cool gadgets.  A character like Wonder Woman is really interested because she was invented by the man who invented the lie detector and was obsessed with bondage.  Hence the golden lasso.  She lives on this island with just women.  In this golden age there are these crises in the culture of the sexuality of Batman and Wonder Woman.

Batman and Robin get read as a gay couple and Wonder Woman gets read as a lesbian.  This is a huge problem in the 1950’s.  It almost sinks the comic book industry.  The industry responded by essentially sublimating sexuality into radiation in the Silver Age.  These characters are drawn in very erotic ways.  They have sexual lives but in a different sort of way.  Sexuality doesn’t remove their super powers.  It just makes them more complex people.

TW: Frederick Wertham was right!

JK: Yes.  He was the psychoanalyst who almost brought the industry down in the 1950’s

TW: There is an interview the recent issue of Playboy (which I can honestly say I only read for the articles) Grant Morrison talks about Batman as being “very, very gay”.  Not necessarily homosexual, but he has all of these women coming after him and he couldn’t care less. He wants to hang out with a young boy and a man-servant in his cave.

JK: It’s almost so obvious it’s ridiculous.

TW: And as we move to the next mytheme of “Mutation”, sexuality is integrated more into the idea of the superhero.

JK: “Mutation” is the other great mytheme.  It kicks in because of science.  Frances and Crick discover DNA in the early 50’s.  The X-Men are really the iconic characters here.  They are kind of a dud in the 60’s.  They are recreated in 1975 and become the bedrock of the Marvel Universe.  They make cultural, and gender and eventual sexual difference the key.  The X-men team in 1975 you have an African goddess, you have a German Catholic mystic.  You have a Japanese and Native American warrior.  One’s mutation is often told in a way that is identical to how our culture has treated homosexuality.

TW: Take us through the last two mythemes, which are really the heart and soul of your book.

JK: The last two I call “Realization” and “Authorization”. You first have to understand that my model of the paranormal is as a story or a narrative.  When you speak to people who have these experiences they’ll often say, ‘gosh, you know it’s as if I was a caught in a story, or I was a character in a novel.’  What they are communicating by that is there is a narrative or fictional quality to the experience, which is really at the core of it.  This understanding is what I call “Realization”.  That a powerful paranormal event is essentially behaving like a story.  And to some extent, we are the ones authoring that story.  Not consciously.  Not as egos, but as a culture, perhaps unconsciously, we are somehow involved in these extraordinary events.  If we can push this process further as culture or community or perhaps even as an individual, my sense is that at some point we can take more control over the cultural and religious narratives that really determine much of our world and tell better stories.

TW: As I was getting into these ideas of authorization and the feeling that your life is being written by invisible forces – I went and saw Joss Whedon’s new film Cabin in the Woods and also The Hunger Games. These films both have the idea that these kids realize that they are being scripted by game-masters.  And they begin to rewrite the story.  They begin to restructure the rules of the game — and transform themselves in the act.

JK: Right. That’s exactly what I mean by “Authorization”.  I think that’s why fiction and fantasy writers are often precisely the people who have paranormal experiences because the paranormal is totally linked to super-creativity.

TW: To understand your book and these sci-fi pieces, we also have to understand a bit about Gnosticism and how it works itself into these stories.

JK: First we have to understand Gnosticism because these authors and artists constantly invoke the term.  It has a long history.  Generally what historians mean by Gnosticism is a group of Jewish, Christian and Greek mystery religions in the second, third and fourth century, who emphasized “gnosis” the Greek word for knowledge.  But what it really means is mystical experience or direct and immediate knowledge that saves one and liberates someone from this world.  The Gnostic Christians were particularly keen on this.  They were very much against the kind of institutional orthodox Churches that were forming in the Second and Third Centuries.  They disagreed profoundly with the direction Christianity was going.

The Gnostics tended to read the biblical stories in the opposite ways that the orthodox Christians read them.  The easiest example is Adam and Eve.  Orthodox Christians read that as a story about the fall, the serpent as Satan, and on and on. The Gnostic Christians read it in a reverse way and saw the snake as the hero of the story, obviously.  He’s the one granting knowledge.  The bad guy in the story is the petty god who shows up and tries to prevent the young couple from gnosis.  And when they do achieve some kind of gnosis he kicks them out of the garden so that they don’t become gods.  So we can look at Gnosticism as being religious in the west that emphasizes a kind of personal divinization and a direct, mystical form of knowledge that frees one not just from this world and the body, but also from religion.

TW: We’ve been discussing how people with mystical experiences encode their new worldview into the fiction they create and I can’t help but draw a corollary with Joseph Smith. He has a mystic encounter – produces an American Bible. People here in Utah have one of two views – he is either a true prophet of god or he is fraud – a conman. Is there a third option?

JK: In this model, Joseph Smith was embedded and imbued in the magical mystical worldview of his own place and time.  He almost certainly had some kind of encounter.  He could have been in some kind of altered state.  He could have easily written such a book in this sort of inspired fashion.

Now, does that mean everything that he wrote was literally true?  No, why should it?  But he certainly believed it.  I’m sure his followers believed it.  Again, I’m a scholar of religion, I’m not a believer.  I inhabit this weird middle space where I take people’s religious experiences as fact, but I’m very aware that every religious experience is shaped and formed by the place and time.  To the extent that Joseph Smith and the early community were historical human beings, all of their experiences would have been shaped by their culture.  I think you can definitely be both/and.  By the way, I know that if you read well into the UFO literature, the good literature, you will see constant comparisons between UFO encounters and Joseph Smith.

TW: Right. William Bradley has a book called Gods of Eden where he posits that Joseph Smith was not visited by God and Jesus but was actually visited by aliens – and the only cultural lens he could interpret that through was a the Bible, angels, etc.

JK: Yes, I address this is my book – it’s the “ancient alien hypothesis”.  Ancient religions and cultures had no space narrative. They had no clue that the sun was a star for example. So when the gods came down in the ancient world, the only framework they had was religion and mythology.  That’s not only how they recorded it, it’s how they experienced them.  Today, we live in a very different world, we are very aware of the structure and shape of the universe.  We tend to experience these things in an outer-space mode.

But don’t be naïve there.  Again, we are simply interpreting these experiences in our own cultural place and time.  I’m not actually a proponent of the ancient alien hypothesis because I think it’s naïve. I think you’re taking a modern symbolic framework, i.e. the alien and projecting it into the past.  I think all of human religious experiences are coded and shaped by the cultural imagination.

About Troy Williams

Troy is currently the public affairs director of KRCL 90.9 FM in Salt Lake City and the executive producer of RadioActive. His work has been featured in The Nation, Interview Magazine, Huffington Post, The Gay Times and OUT Magazine. He also co-wrote the one-woman show, The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon. In 2011 Troy will appear in the new Errol Morris documentary, Tabloid.
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