Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey J. Kripal, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained. Tarcher/Penguin, 2016.
“If Communion is not a piece of modern erotic mystical literature, then I do not know what it is. I consider Whitley Strieber and his most famous text to be, in effect, litmus tests for my field. If we cannot take this text seriously, if we cannot exegete it in some satisfying fashion, if we cannot make some sense of this man’s honest descriptions of his traumatic-transcendent experiences, then we have no business trying to understand his spiritual ancestors in the historical record. We either put up here, or we shut up there.”
–Jeffrey Kripal, “Better Horrors: From Terror to Communion in Whitley Strieber’s Communion (1987),” in Social Research 81:4 (Winter 2014).
Jeff Kripal is the kind of scholar who “puts up.” A distinguished professor of religious studies at Rice University, he rises to his own challenge in the extraordinary book called The Super Natural. Using all the tools of his trade, the same ones he’d apply to the mystical experiences of St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th century or the Hindu holy man Ramakrishna in the 19th, he dares to tease out the meaning and implications of Whitley Strieber’s encounters with “the visitors”–usually but lazily identified as UFO aliens–at the end of the 20th.
It’s a controversial book, but Kripal is used to controversy.
When his psychoanalytic study of Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, came out in 1995, it won the American Academy of Religion’s prize for Best First Book. It also provoked an orgy of rage in India, with two formal attempts made in the Indian Parliament to have it banned.
Of course, Ramakrishna couldn’t talk back to Kripal. Whitley Strieber can; and in alternating chapters of The Super Natural, he does. It’s the dialogue between these two partners, the “experiencer” and the “theorist” as Kripal puts it, that makes this book such an exhilarating read.
What is the “erotic mystical” experience described in Communion? At its heart is something that happened, or allegedly happened, to Strieber on the night of December 26, 1985. His bedroom in his cabin in upstate New York was invaded by one, or possibly more, small beings. Naked, paralyzed, his arms and legs extended, he felt himself carried out to “a small sort of depression in the woods,” which transformed itself into a “small, circular chamber” above the trees. (This is the closest Strieber comes to actually speaking of a UFO.)
While in this chamber he was subjected to a string of weird, unsettling experiences, including a sort of anal rape performed by a narrow, “gray and scaly” object. He also seems to have first encountered the female entity, uncanny and inhuman in her appearance yet for him “the most essentially and powerfully feminine presence I have ever known,” whose portrait on Communion’s cover has given us our iconic image of the UFO alien. She would be a feature of Strieber’s life through the years to come.
When he awoke in the morning, he remembered nothing of this. He had only an implausible but compelling recollection of a barn owl staring at him through his bedroom window sometime during the night. The details of his experience came back to him about a week later, spontaneously, without the aid of hypnotic regression (though that would come later).
This was only the beginning. For the next thirty years the “visitors,” in different sizes, shapes and colors, remained intertwined with Strieber’s life. They manifested their presence in a long string of bizarre, inexplicable events that must have been as unintelligible to him as they are for his readers. The aggregate meaninglessness soon grows tiresome. I want to shake off my frustration and bafflement with a dismissal like Aah, he’s nuts, or The guy’s making it up as he goes along!
But Kripal shows me why I mustn’t do that.
These reflexive reactions, says Kripal, are “protective strategies” employed to ward off the threat posed by a book like Communion to our preconceived notions of how the world ought to work and what a human being ought to be. (He speaks of “the public shaming of sincere and serious people … who see or say otherwise,” and since Communion’s publication Strieber has been showered with public mockery of the grossest kind.) Yet they’re wholly natural. To acknowledge and absorb an event, or a series of events, we have to be able to fit them into some recognizable pattern of meaning. Strieber’s encounters resist any such patterning.
Hence the odd experience I’ve had more than once, of picking up my copy of Communion and realizing that I had no notion what was inside it. Had I really read it? I must have—the pages were blanketed with annotations in what I recognized as my handwriting. But I had no recollection of what I’d read. Only the face on the cover; that I would never forget.
Both authors make the point forcefully: if Strieber’s encounters with the “visitors” refuse to show the coherence I expect of them, the problem lies not with them but with my expectations.
I’ve long noticed, for example, that Strieber’s recollections are drenched in sex. It’s pretty obvious; I doubt if anyone past puberty would fail to notice it. My next step follows naturally. What Communion is about is Strieber’s very terrestrial, very human sexual fantasies and anxieties, with a strong masochistic component. (That “essentially and powerfully feminine presence,” he says in The Super Natural, caused him to be “dragged out of the house and essentially beaten until I realized that she was real and I was not dreaming.”) With this Freudian Open Sesame, I ought to be able to make sense of the whole string of experiences.
I can’t, so I blame Strieber.
What I ought to blame, says Kripal, is not my awareness that Strieber’s experiences are fundamentally about sex—that is beyond all question—but my implied “nothing but sex.” In other words, I limit sex to what goes on in our fleshly crotches. If I’d incorporated the ancients’ awareness of it as something “sacred … [with] a terrifying and terrific divinity in it,” I’d be better poised to grasp what Strieber is talking about.
“I am haunted,” Strieber writes in this new book, “by the paradoxical sweetness of many of these ferocious experiences. One way to put it would be that I had a love affair with a goddess. Another would be that it was an affair with an alien. But the third way to describe it–which is, I suspect, closer to the truth–is that I didn’t know who or what my wife really was, or myself, or any of us. I don’t know what human beings are, and, based on my own life experience, I have every reason to suspect that the form we live in every day is not our only state.”
We’re miles away from any simplistic notions of people being kidnapped by space invaders. The UFO experience is essentially a human experience–I can stand up and cheer that sentiment–only, “I don’t know what human beings are.” Both Strieber and Kripal suggest that we’re something vaster, grander, and stranger than we’d ever imagined.
Strieber speaks now of Anne, his passionately loved wife of 45 years, whom he lost to cancer about six months before The Super Natural came out and whose longed-for ghost pervades the book:
“Sometimes when Anne was sleeping or distracted or her face blossomed with pleasure, I would see in it a flickering shadow of the great-eyed being I’d painted for the cover of Communion. [Actually the cover was done by an artist named Ted Jacobs, at Strieber’s direction.] Now, I am not making a claim here that my wife was an alien or anything so concrete as that. What I am saying is that the shadow of my wife–her life, her ways, my awareness of her body–ghosts through the experiences that I am about to describe like a sylph.”
Kripal, the religious-studies professor, believes in the truth of these experiences. He believes, not least because he’s had one of his own. When he positions himself as “theorist” as opposed to the “experiencer” Strieber, he’s not being entirely fair to himself. He’s an “experiencer” too.
November 1989. Young Jeff Kripal is in Calcutta, researching his Ph.D. dissertation on Ramakrishna. “I had been participating in Kali Puja, a multiday cycle of festivities and rituals celebrating the goddess in her fiercest and, in some more esoteric traditions, most erotic forms.” And it would appear that the goddess, or something very like Her, came to him in his hotel room.
“As this presence did whatever it did to me (the unprintable f-word would be entirely appropriate), the aroused state I was in became more and more intense. It felt as if the energies were reaching down into every single cell of my body, or–if this is even possible–into every subatomic particle, each of which seemed to be humming at an unbelievable frequency. … Whitley’s description in this book of ‘being with an invisible tiger or an invisible saint’ (the double sacred) perfectly describes what I knew on that Night, tigers and saints being what they are: oh so common in West Bengal.”
This is about as strong as an endorsement as you can give, and it functions as empirical groundwork for Strieber and Kripal’s joint assault on the materialist orthodoxy of contemporary science. Strieber is not religious in any conventional sense. To my recollection, he mentions the idea of “god” (lower case) only to dismiss it.
Yet the materialism that equates the human being with the physical body and brain is just as false. So Strieber’s encounters with “the visitors” have taught him.
Experiences like his, or like Kripal’s own (says Kripal, taking up the baton) can lead “out of the consensual trance of culture and religion into something other or more, something so other that it feels and seems alien. … It is not us, not us as rational social egos anyway. And yet it is us, as soul, as spirit. … Consciousness is not ego. Consciousness is not culture.”
Nor is it a product of the brain, doomed to perish with the brain. It’s something transcendent, eternal, filtered through the brain yet unaffected when the brain turns to dust.
This explains, says Kripal, “why the skeptics are so honestly and understandably skeptical (their egos or consensual trances have not yet been invaded or broken). It explains the utter convictions of the mystics, poets, and modern-day abductees (their egos or consensual trances have been invaded and broken).”
So where does that leave me?
Alas, with the skeptics, my “consensual trance” still unbroken, my cherry yet untaken. Which puts me, as I read Communion and The Super Natural, in the position of a lifelong virgin doing his feeble best to understand what sexual ecstasy is all about.
And how on earth do I do that?
by David Halperin
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