From Superman to Whitley Strieber – Reflections on a “Super-Story”

“I am not denying the obvious.  I am simply suggesting that there is also a ‘secret life’ to Superman that extends far, far beyond his latest incarnation and ‘descent’ (or crash landing) into American pop culture.”
–Jeffrey J. Kripal

It takes a big book to encompass between the same two covers Superman and Spider-Man, Freud and Jung, H.G. Wells and H.P. Blavatsky, plus John Keel and Whitley Strieber of UFO fame.  Mutants & Mystics, published in 2011 by Professor Jeffrey Kripal of Rice University, is that kind of a book.

Nicholas Hyde, "Greek Style Spider-Man"--or UFO alien?

Nicholas Hyde, "Greek Style Spider-Man"--or UFO alien?

The subtitle declares it to be about “science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal.”  That listing could be expanded to several times its current length without doing justice to the range of topics touched upon, sometimes discussed in depth, in Mutants & Mystics.  Its essential subject is the exploration—reconstruction? evocation?—of the mythology, much of it visible but much hidden or communicated only in code, of contemporary (mostly American) civilization. A complex and ramified mythological system that Kripal calls our “Super-Story.”

Full disclosure: I consider Jeff Kripal a friend, though to date we’ve met only in cyberspace.  But even if I hadn’t known the author, I’d have been captivated by Mutants & Mystics.  How could I not admire a book of such broad erudition, as sober and witty, playful and grave, as this one is?  How could I not love a book in which UFOs hold so central a place?

A large part of the book’s delight is its unanticipated correlations, its eerie coincidences that sometimes (not always) feel like more than coincidence.  Did you know, for example, that in 1898–that’s 14 years before the Titanic disaster–one Morgan Robinson published a novella about a super-ship called the Titan, supposedly unsinkable, which went down in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg, with tremendous and tragic loss of life?  The deaths due, in large measure, to the ship’s not having carried enough lifeboats.

This, I think, really does have to be coincidence.  The alternatives are just too implausible.  But here’s another correlation, potentially far more significant: that the superhero Spider-Man, with his “classic almond eyes of the alien,” appeared on the scene in 1962—at the same time that the otherworldly abductors of New Hampshire couple Betty and Barney Hill, with their slanted, “wraparound” eyes, were cooking within the Hills’ unconscious.  Kripal deftly weaves in the insect/spider theme of UFO fantasies, including a now-forgotten book by Gerald Heard (Is Another World Watching? 1950) which suggested the UFOs are piloted by a species of intelligent extraterrestrial insects.

(I first saw the brilliant faux-Greek portrait of Spider-Man by artist Nicholas Hyde, reproduced above, in an email from Jeff.  Initially I didn’t recognize it as Spider-Man.  I thought, “UFO alien,” and figured it must be a joke.  At least, I was pretty sure it was a joke.)

So far Mutants & Mystics sounds like an intricate and multi-layered work of cultural criticism, which in fact it mostly is.  Kripal is a professional historian of religion, and he’s keenly aware of the roots, often very deep, of the “Super-Story’s” themes.  I blogged two weeks ago about his insights concerning Met(at)ron, the DC Comics superhero with a pedigree going back to a super-angel of the ancient Jewish “merkabah mysticism.”  He’s also a comparativist–I’ll soon be posting about his new textbook Comparing Religions, due to be released in a few weeks–and he finds parallels to the slanted “alien” eye in South Asian religious art, particularly that depicting “the sexually aggressive Tantric goddess Kali.”  (Who, as Kripal points out, turns up explicitly in the erotic fantasies of UFO abductee Whitley Strieber.)

But there’s more.  And here’s where the book starts to get controversial.

It’s part of Kripal’s project, set forth at the very beginning, to explore the intersection of collective fantasy with individual experiences of the paranormal.  He accepts that these experiences are genuine, that they are shaped by the “Super-Story” myth but also help to shape it.  He doesn’t have the option of not accepting them.  He’s had one of his own.

Kali and Shiva, at Kolkata (Calcutta), 2010.  Photo by Jonoikobangali.

Kali and Shiva, at Kolkata (Calcutta), 2010. Photo by Jonoikobangali.

“For days I had been participating in the annual Bengali celebration of the goddess Kali in the streets and temples of Calcutta (now Kolkata).  One morning I woke up asleep–that is, I woke up, but my body did not.  I couldn’t move.  I was paralyzed, like a corpse, more or less exactly like the Hindu god Shiva as he is traditionally portrayed in Tantric art, lying prostrate beneath Kali’s feet.  Then those ‘feet’ touched me.  An incredibly subtle, immensely pleasurable, and terrifyingly powerful energy entered me, possessed me, completely overwhelmed me.  My vibrating body felt as if I had stuck a fork in a wall socket. … Perhaps more significantly, my brain felt as if it had suddenly hooked up to some sort of occult Internet and that billions of bits of information were being downloaded into its neural net.  Or better, if felt as if my entire being was being reprogrammed or rewired.  A door in the Night, a portal, had opened.” (page 6)

We have here a learned and rigorously trained academic scholar of religion, who can’t take refuge in the old academic dodge that religious experience only happens to other people–presumably more primitive or at least less educated than ourselves–and that “it doesn’t matter” whether it’s real or not.  Kripal knows it’s real.  The goal is to sort out, as well as the left brain can, the nature of that reality.

So it’s no wonder he gets a bit testy with attempts to rationalize away, e.g., the extraordinary precognitive experience of an artist named Barry Windsor-Smith.  “Just how much of these men’s courage and honesty do we need to savage (or just politely ignore) in order to protect our little materialist worlds?  Must the Black Iron Prison be that fricking thick?” (page 291)

These are good questions, and not necessarily rhetorical.  When I read this passage, I couldn’t help thinking of the obnoxious quip attributed to Thomas Jefferson, that it’s easier to believe two Yankee professors can lie than that stones can fall from heaven.  If Jefferson really said this–the evidence is pretty strong that he didn’t–he deserves the egg on his face.  The “stones from heaven” are of course what we’ve come to call meteorites.

Yet people, Yankee professors and others, do lie.  More pertinently, they (we?) deceive themselves (ourselves?) in all manner of ways.  It may not be polite to say so to their face, but they/we do. And our “little materialist worlds” are worth some measure of protection.  Said the vilely obnoxious Lester del Rey, explaining to old-time talk show host Long John Nebel why “modern irrationals” like UFOlogists ought to just drop dead (literally):  “The closed mind of science, which demands hard facts before theories, rejected irrationality less than five hundred years ago, and has since re-built the world at least a dozen times.” Del Rey’s harangue is crude and disgusting, not to say murderous.  You can’t deny, though, that it has a measure of truth.  You attest to that every time you flip an electric switch and take for granted a light will go on.  Or go to a dentist and expect to be treated with novocaine.

I’ve never had an epiphany like Kripal’s in Calcutta.  The closest I’ve come is an eerie experience a little under five years ago that persuaded me there’s knowledge in my body beyond what I can understand or explain.  This is not quite the same thing as saying, as one writer friend of mine has, that there’s more to this universe than the familiar three dimensions.  But it’s a step along that path.  So I’m open to the wondrous possibilities suggested by Kripal’s “Super-Story,” without being quite ready to buy into them.  Given who I am, I don’t know that I could take a different stance.

Somewhere in her excellent book The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs (2001), Brenda Denzler remarks that UFO belief involves a “re-enchantment” of a world turned disappointingly material.  Whether our universe merits such a re-enchantment, or whether (as per del Rey) we’d be better off without it, I can’t say; on that issue, I waver back and forth.  Either way, Kripal’s “Super-Story” can be read as a massive mythic re-enchantment, compelling even if false, eye-opening and mind-blowing if even in the smallest measure true.

A few years ago I wrote in The Revealer, commenting on my own proposed comparison of UFOs with Greek mythology:

“No sooner do I say this than I hear a skeptical voice whispering in my ear.  Can I really compare Roswell to Delphi, the modern UFO myths to those of the ancient Greeks?  Greek mythology was the consensus mythology of one of the great creative cultures of history.  In our culture, UFO mythology seems doomed to the fringe.  There it perdures, without being able to gain common assent or even serious interest. … The same UFOs, that will not be banished from the dark edges of our cultural awareness, show no capacity to relocate themselves toward the center.  Like Hallowe’en ghosts they knock on our doors, then vanish to the hinterlands whence they came.”

I now think that maybe I was being too restrictive.  Try not focusing exclusively in UFOs; try treating them instead as one vitally important aspect of a broader “Super-Story.”  Maybe that will turn out to be a “consensus mythology” of 20th- and early 21st-century America, pervading our culture, co-existing with our scientific rationalism in inconsistent but comfortable symbiosis.

Maybe Kripal has been the one to describe it.

by David Halperin
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Jeffery Kripal, "Mutants & Mystics," University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Jeffery Kripal, “Mutants & Mystics,” University of Chicago Press, 2011.

8 Responses to “From Superman to Whitley Strieber – Reflections on a “Super-Story””

  • Ross:

    So, according to del Rey, “science demands hard facts before theories”? Fine. “Materialism” isn’t a hard fact; it’s a philosophical position, and it shouldn’t be confused with “matter.” And I’m sure many supposedly “scientific” people would scramble instantly to attempt to explain away Kripal’s religious experience on the basis of any glib theory they could concoct. By the way, neither Windsor-Smith’s nor Kripal’s experiences are “theories”; they are experiences (even if hallucinations), not “theories.”

    • Yea! And hallucinations are phenomena too. We aren’t just ghosts in the world – according to science itself, everything is the product of the laws of physics. And that includes sentience, self-consciousness, dreams, and hallucinations.

      • David Halperin:

        Thanks for posting, Alexander! I completely agree that hallucinations are phenomena. Subject to laws of physics? I’m not so sure. But then, I know a great deal less about the laws of physics than I once thought I did.

  • Thanks for posting, Ross! I find del Rey very hard to take. But I think he makes (or at least implies) a legitimate point–that materialistic science has succeeded in creating a physical environment that we take for granted, and would never want to give up. By enjoying its fruits, we tacitly endorse its philosophy.
    I’ve often thought about what I was told by a friend who’s an anthropologist, and who’s published on shamanism among the Inuit. He said that shamanism suffered a fatal blow during a devastating influenza epidemic. The shamans had their rituals to offer; the missionaries had antibiotics. It was no contest. How ironic it’s seemed to me, that the missionaries triumphed through a technological development that was irrelevant to their doctrine, that they themselves surely could not have created.

    • Ross:

      Science is a method, not a philosophy. It is not synonymous with “materialism.” It can be applied to the study of “material” phenomena without requiring any devaluation or denial of “non-material” phenomena. Enjoying the material fruits of science does not imply any endorsement of materialism. Practicing science does not require one to be a materialist, which is why many scientists also embrace religion.

  • Jeff:

    First, thank you so much, David, for reading me so deeply and writing such a lovely blog post (really posts). I think it’s just great. I really like your ending, where you shift the focus from UFOs to the broader meta-myth that I really do think is forming. By the way, there is a beautiful little essay by James Gallant entitled “The Humiliating UFO” that makes the exact same move between ancient polytheism, including Greek mythology, and modern ufology. I cite it and discuss it in ch. 8 of my COMPARING RELIGIONS. You’d love it, I think.

    Now onto the materialism question. I am hardly against focusing on bodies, matter, and the material dimensions of religion. My early work was deeply informed by psychoanalysis and focused on the erotic dimensions of mystical experience in the world religions (and in the mystical experiences of scholars of religion). So I am hardly rejecting reductive methodologies or a robust focus on matter. Nor am I rejecting the pragmatic power of technology or materialism’s explanatory sweep with respect to the material world. Where I get upset with many of the scientists and some of our colleagues in the humanities is when they make the “nothing but” move and don’t recognize that move for what it manifestly is: an ontological commitment, a philosophical supposition, a belief. I have ontological commitments, suppositions, and beliefs, too, of course. They are not materialist, by which I simply mean that I do not think that everything is statistically organized meaningless dead matter bouncing around in space. Nor do I think that there is no such thing as mind or consciousness as such. And I definitely do not think that mind equals brain, or that mind “emerges” from brain matter. If you got enough beers into me, some form of panpsychism or animism or panentheism would probably come out, but these are just intuitive guesses. I don’t claim to know. What I do claim to know is that our culture’s general materialist commitments have take A LOT off the table, and it is my position that we need to put these things back on the table if we are ever going to understand something like religion or UFOs (or matter, for that matter). That’s really what I am trying to do with a book like MUTANTS: really mess up the neat materialist table.

    I like Ross’s reply to your post and am in basic agreement with it. The problem is that many scientists DO equate science with materialism. Careful ones do not, of course, but it is very tempting to move from the incredible efficiency of modern medicine and science, as David notes, to the materialist suppositions of these practices and methods.

    • Ross:

      Jeff,

      I am well aware that many scientists naively equate science with materialism, but they do so in error. Science needs to be rescued from this error. Thanks for commenting on David’s post.

      • David Halperin:

        Jeff and Ross, thank you so much for your posts!
        I’ve tried to address some of the points you raise in this week’s post. In that post I raise a question I’d like to ask you both (and anyone else who reads this). What scientists can you think of who not only hold religious or spiritual beliefs, but whose scientific work is informed by those beliefs? The ones who came to my mind are the paleontologist/Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin and the astronomer/UFOlogist J. Allen Hynek. I can’t think of any others. Can you?

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