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.

The Election, the Republican Party and Twilight of Traditionalism

It has been almost two weeks since an important US presidential election, and there is a lot to reflect on. Some are talking about an historic change in the American electorate. Some are speaking of demographics. Some are telling us that America is still a polarized nation, and that change will be hard.

I share many of those thoughts and reflections, but have another important observation to add to the mix as well. What struck me about the election can be captured in a simple phrase.

Worldviews matter.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people, including political pundits, talk about worldviews as I have in the last two weeks. I live in a country that is divided not just by left and right, liberal and conservative, but by multiple, distinct worldviews that inform people’s thinking about everything and which frame reality in different ways. In the election, some of those worldviews were rejected by the majority of Americans, especially those that involve pre-rational, anti-science attitudes, and views of women’s issues that involve too much of both.

Worldviews are the critical tectonic plates that underlie so much of what we see in our political and social lives. In my recent book, Evolutionaries, I spent several chapters exploring worldviews, what they are, how they are created, how they evolve and how understanding them is a key to global politics. Understanding the evolution of worldviews helps us understand not just surface issues, but the deeper dynamics of how things are changing, or staying the same, in the subterranean corridors of our collective psyche. So worldviews matter, both nationally and globally. Indeed, how we negotiate the multiple worldviews of our global political landscape matters a great deal.

One conclusion I think we can draw from the election is that the socially conservative, traditional worldview that we have all come to know and love over the last 30 years is beginning its long, slow march toward decline and irrelevance in the U.S. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the Republican Party is in decline. That would be a rash conclusion, and one I would certainly doubt. But it will be going through a period of transition. For the last few decades, the socially conservative, often religious worldview embodied in the Ralph Reed’s, Pat Robertson’s and Jerry Falwell’s of the world has been a kingmaker, capable of swinging elections, capable of striking real fear into politicians on both sides of the aisle.  It has been a national force, not a majority, but a force nonetheless. I’m sure it will continue to be powerful and relevant, but its national power is waning. And its days as full blown Kingmaker in the presidential election may well be over.

Let’s remember how this wing of the Republican Party began. It important to see that it emerged, in its contemporary form, in the 70’s as a reaction to the socially liberal, “postmodern” worldview that burst onto the scene in the 60’s and 70’s. Civil rights, women’s rights, environmental justice, the peace movement — remember the moral currency they had in those heady days of protest and newfound progressive power. The that power was temporary, and by the end of the 70’s, that movement, what I am broadly calling postmodernism had created it’s own counter-reaction in the culture, and the powerful new, united, socially conservative, reactionary wing of the Republican Party was born. Energized and optimized for elections, and outraged by the what it saw as the excesses of the progressive currents of the 60’s and 70’s that were undermining the country’s “moral” majority”, it helped carry Reagan to victory and begin to inform the agenda of the party for years to come.  And just as most movements are largely defined by their birth story, this one was defined by its reactionary nature, by what it was against, by what it wanted to stay the same, by where it didn’t want the country to go, by what it didn’t want the government to do. The way you won national elections was to play to that base, to energize it, and to pick the issues that highlighted the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s and pin those on your opponent. Carter was a weak peacenik. Dukakis lacked any sense of law and order. Clinton was an indulgent boomer with no morals who probably inhaled. Hillary was a radical, militant feminist.  Gore was an anti-capitalist environmentalist. Kerry was a flip flopping relativist. The point wasn’t to be perfectly (or even partially) true. It was to conflate your opponent with those scary postmodernists and their anti-American, dangerous progressive agenda.

By the 1980’s the progressive agenda that had enjoyed some real political weight during the 70’s was fading as an effective rallying force, even as the country itself continued to shift and change beneath the surface. In fact, just about all of the major social and environmental legislation so dear to postmodern progressives was either passed before 1980 or ended lost and forgotten in the heyday of Reagan’s revolution. Simultaneously, the generation of conservative politicians that came of age during that time were weaned on that reactionary cocktail of militant anti-liberalism and triumphalist conservatism. And every social or political position that was dear to postmodern preogressives by default became loathed by this new incarnation of a very traditional worldview. It’s no accident that when Rick Santorum uses the word ‘Satan” you could replace it with postmodernism and it would mostly make sense. Try it; it’s fascinating.

Republicans when I came of age politically were still considered to be the grown up political party, the party of the intellectual realists, the economic stewards, the bottom-line businessmen, the party of self-reliance, independence and free markets, country club conservatives who sought to preserve the status quo and shape a relatively high-minded, business oriented agenda. Bush 41 was the last president of that breed. Romney styled himself that way at the end (and arguably governed that way in Massachusetts) but it was a hard sell. Somehow he always felt slightly tangential even to his own party, whose strongest voices no longer live by that creed. Indeed, by the time Reagan came around, that wing of the party was under attack. The once democratic South and the fiercely independent West begin to exert more influence and the party began to change. Here we stand over thirty years later, and I watch commentator after commentator proclaim that the Republican Party needs to get back to its centrist (modernist) base. And they’ve been saying this for years as if there is this silent majority that will now re-assert itself and I wonder: who is left to hear that message? After thirty years of relying on that traditional, conservative base, are the core elements of that old order still coherent enough to lead the way? I doubt it. They won elections over the last twelve years by doubling down on a shrinking but highly motivated base. But like an economic system propped up by debt, depending more and more on less and less only makes the reckoning, when it comes, that much harder. They are in for a rough ride, as they struggle to find a way forward more rooted in what America is becoming, not what it was. It will be an interesting time, and a healthy re-assessment of exactly what worldview, or mix of worldviews, the Republican Party should embody in the 21st century.