In Search of Mutants and Mystics

I came of age in the early 1980s, so for me, like many in my generation, the Star Wars trilogy represented something more than a great series of movies. It was an archetypal drama, a modern mythology, as Joseph Campbell famously suggested, brought to life on the Big Screen. As Luke, Hans, and Leia battled evil in a galaxy far, far away, there were more than a few young boys and girls who felt their own impressionable souls embracing not only the drama but also the myth and even the mysticism.

My own mystical sensibilities have taken many twists and turns since those youthful days, but there is little doubt that the ideas contained in those movies still carry with them a lot of cultural currency. For example, the notion of a living energy field; a mystical, immanent “force” that connects everything, binds us all together and even offers us super-human capacities, may seem like a nice science fiction fantasy for twelve years olds, but it also calls to mind contemporary visions of spiritual realities. This is no accident.  Lucas was influenced by Eastern mysticism, and has called himself a “Buddhist Methodist.” We might say that even in its pop culture form, Lucas’s vision has been very influential in how we as a society think about spiritual and metaphysical realities, and at the same time, Star Wars was itself a pop-culture expression of the changing perception of those same realities. And here’s the kicker. At least some of this can be traced to comic books.

Lucas was a comic book reader in his childhood, and it has often been suggested that his remarkable imagination and storytelling capacity was forged in contemplation of those brightly colored pages of far-flung heroism. Indeed, there is more than a passing connection between the mysticism of the Obi Wan Kenobi, the changing face of Western culture in the 20th century, and the visions of generations of comic book creators who first impressed themselves on Lucas’s young mind. This nexus between comic books, science fiction, pop culture, mysticism, and how all of them influence each other and work together to create emerging cultural myths is the subject of Jeffrey Kripal’s fascinating new book, Mutants and Mystics.

Kripal is one of the more prolific and respected scholars of mysticism in the U.S. He began his publishing career in 1995 with a controversial first book, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna (Chicago, 1995). In Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, he tracks the history of that great cradle of the human potential movement and how it rose from family vacation spot for Michael Murphy and family to enormously influential purveyor of East-meets-West visions of human transformation. In his latest work, Mutants and Mystics, Kripal returns to the territory of human transformation and it’s evolutionary significance, though this time following less-traveled paths. In fact, Kripal may be the first scholar to connect the dots between Eastern mysticism, evolutionary spirituality, pulp fiction, the paranormal, the modern obsession with UFOs and aliens, science fiction, and the whole genre of superhero comic books. To a skeptical mind, that list might sound unlikely—a strained and superficial linking of areas of study that are already strange enough when tackled on their own. But one doesn’t have to get too far into Kripal’s book to see not only that he is quite serious but that the connection is more profound than casual comic book readers would ever guess. In fact, one starts to see the whole superhero comic book, pulp fiction, and science fiction genres as both vehicles and repositories for a whole subterranean mystical/paranormal message. This set of “mythical themes,” as Kripal puts it, were deliberately injected into the bloodstream of American culture through this most unlikely conduit, embraced explicitly by many of the creators and woven deeply into the texts of their creations.

For Kripal, these pop-cultural literary creations and the stories they convey, when taken as a whole, constitute a broad narrative, a super-story fusion that is telling us something about where we are and where we are going as a human race, and is also secretly shaping much of pop culture. “These modern mythologies,” he writes, “can be fruitfully read as cultural transformations of real paranormal experiences.” They have two distinct components: a public mythical level and a personal paranormal level. They are attempts, in other words, to come to terms with real individual experiences, and they also represent a sort of collective desire to understand something deeper and subtler about the nature and destiny of human society. Like an impressionist painting they are capturing some essence, some truth about private and public cultural realities—not always literal truths, but real and significant nonetheless.

By the term “paranormal” Kripal is talking about ESP, clairvoyance, and so forth, but he also includes a whole range of esoteric, mystical, spiritual, trans-rational and otherwise supra-normal experiences and synchronicities that are actually quite common, but simply fall outside the range of conventional discourse on what it means to be human. Whatever we think about the particular legitimacy of these sometimes hard-to-believe experiences, Kripal’s goal is not simply to prove them true or affirm them as real. He seeks to place them in a larger cultural narrative of great symbolic and mythical, if not literal, significance.

So is Kripal himself a believer in the paranormal? Well, yes and no. For him, the question itself is flawed. In an important paragraph at the beginning of the book, Kripal states clearly where he stands (even if the result is necessarily ambiguous)  “I want to suggest that the psyche and our social consensus of what reality is somehow ‘make each other up’ within a constant loop of Consciousness and Culture and that the Culture through which Consciousness often manifests itself most dramatically as the paranormal is that form in which the imagination (and so the image) are given freest and boldest reign: popular culture. You will find here, then, no proofs or debunkings of this or that extraordinary experience. . . . I am neither a denying debunker nor a true believer, and anyone who reads me as either is misreading me.”

Kripal organizes the book around seven orienting “Mythemes,” or general narrative areas that make up this super-story informing our collective culture. Each mytheme comprises a chapter, and in each chapter, Kripal examines the writers, thinkers, and historical figures that best represent that dimension of the over-arching narrative. For example, in the mytheme of “Orientation”, Kripal examines the nature of place and perspective in these works and the tendency to see knowledge coming from afar, from the Orient, or from a long time ago, or a secret society (Rosicrucians) or a secret lost civilization (like Atlantis). In the mytheme of “Radiation”, he looks at the new scientific understanding, so often highlighted in the pages of these works, that at the heart of matter are powerful, immaterial forces that affect us in unpredictable ways. Such subtle but powerful forces are all over the comic book and science fiction landscape, and several super heroes are well known for getting their power from radiation, like Spider-Man. Or the Fantastic Four.

As he works his way through these mythemes one by one he take us through an impressive and often surprising journey into the heart of sci-fi and comic book history and mythology. On that level alone, the book is something of a scholarly breakthrough. Along the way, he encounters some of the pioneers of these many overlapping fields, individuals like Frederic Myers, Michael Murphy, John Keel, Charles Fort, Ray Palmer, Phillip K. Dick, Sri Aurobindo, and Carl Jung. And we also encounter a whole host of extraordinary and sometimes strange purveyors of these mythemes, some who deserve to be better known and respected by history, some who simply leave us shaking our heads at the brilliant and bizarre personalities that have had such an outsized influence on pop culture. Kripal has done a simply outstanding job of uncovering the incredible connections, surprising histories, and remarkable paranormal experiences that were the actual background of so many of the superheroes and science fiction fantasies that many of us were raised on.

Both mutants and mystics abound in these pages, and their outlandish and unexpected stories keep the narrative engaging throughout. Indeed, Mutants and Mystics is easy to read and Kripal’s knowledge of the field vast. One can’t help but be impressed by a scholar who can make an extensive analysis of Whitley Strieber’s Communion on one page, X-Men on the next, and the mystical experiences of Ray Palmer and Gopi Krishna on yet another. In that sheer breadth, quality, and volume of history lies the book’s most powerful and convincing argument. But it is also the source of what is perhaps its most questionable characteristic. Amidst the raucous and enjoyable cacophony of characters crisscrossing the pages, the book can feel a bit like a mass of compelling but untamed information, a wide-angle shot that needs to be brought into focus—so much raw data, more explanation and context needed. Compounding this issue is the fact that Kripal makes little effort to distinguish between the less credible and more credible individuals inhabiting his super-story. Clearly there is a world of difference between the integrity of a Frederic Myers and the patently paranoid ramblings of a schizophrenic who thought he’d uncovered the key to the language of Atlantis. This will understandably frustrate the discerning reader. I certainly felt this way, wanting him to more directly acknowledge that person A is probably trustworthy, while this other person B…well, not so much.

Yet I suspect that ranking his sources on some kind of scale of credibility would have distracted attention from Kripal’s primary purpose—demonstrating the sheer pervasiveness of this mythical, paranormal super-story underlying our society and ultimately the human experience. His purpose is not to separate legitimate experience from delusional, but to see how they all arise from and operate within a larger narrative. Indeed, the book functions primarily as an eye-opening guide to an important evolutionary subtext hiding beneath pop culture and hidden in the biographies of the people who created it. Amidst these outcasts and underground travelers; these esoteric rebels and artistic misfits; these pioneers of the strange, the unseen, and the impossible; are secrets and mysteries galore. And even as we have loved and embraced their creations—such vision, such imagination! —we have failed to see the depth behind the painted smile, the mystic and the madness behind the entertaining mask. Kripal tears the mask away. He attempts to shows us that we may are all part of an extraordinary story, much grander, much greater than any one of his mutants or mystics could alone grasp. It is a story not yet fully understood, much less written, but influential, fundamental, and somehow informing much more of our reality then we yet realize. If only we could put aside being either dismissive skeptics or uncritical believers long enough to notice.

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