December 2011

Tovah Burstein

nonfiction

Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal by Jeffrey J. Kripal

Whether or not a reader agrees with my review will depend largely on his or her own personal experiences with the supernatural and comic books. I think it's only fair to admit this, as James Kripal makes similar confessions at the start of his cultural and spiritual exploration,†Mutants and Mystics:†Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. Kripal approaches the intersection between pop culture and religion neither as a "true believer" nor as a doubter, but he does have a doctorate in world religions and has -- at a multi-day festival celebrating the Bengali goddess Kali -- had an out of body supernatural visitation experience. I, however, have not.

In†Mutants and Mystics, Kripal argues that science fiction and superheroes are the sacred texts that reveal our holiness. He organizes his evidence around seven major themes or story arcs: divination, orientation, alienation, radiation, mutation, realization, and authorization. These motifs do make a great background for exploring the history of the paranormal from ancient folklore to pop culture. These themes, or mythemes, as Kripal refers to them, demonstrate clearly that pop culture depends on real historical events. But Kripal does not set out to write a history. †

For instance, Kripal demonstrates orientation, or the idea of the supernatural happening "someplace else" in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1871 novel†The Coming Race,†which imagines a superior, underground culture that is destined to replace humanity. Kripal points out that Bulwer-Lytton plays on aristocratic England's fear that the colonized "might well resist this Europeanization and assert their own identities over the colonizer." Similarly, stories and comics of UFOs and star people became especially popular during the Russian-American space race of the 1960s. In this sense, Kripal's argument is both clear and instructive. However, his aim is not to write a history of science fiction and where his argument goes beyond historical trends, his reasoning becomes harder to follow.

Part of the problem with†Mutants and Mystics†is the inherent impossibility of proving the sacred, or any other paranormal idea, since the paranormal has no scientific explanation. In a sense, all religion relies on a certain degree of blind belief, and all sacred texts can be considered fiction, or even science fiction. Only Kripal goes further, claiming that "literal forms of all religions are in fact fictions that hide deep experiential truths." That is to say, the Bible,†The Mothman Prophecies, and X-Men are not just allegorical ideas of morality and existence, but documentation of sacred experiences and prophetic people. Through firsthand experiences and accounts, Kripal seeks to prove†that science fiction is sacred and that comic writers are prophetic. At times these paranormal accounts are hard to dismiss.†Did†legendary comic writer Ray Palmer re-grow his spinal column through the power of meditation? Could novelist Morgan Robertson have predict the doom of the†Titanic†in his eerily similar novel,†The Wreck of the†Titan,†published four years before the actual ship sank? I certainly can't prove that they didn't, but disappointingly, Kripal does not even make the attempt at disproving them.

His evidence and references seem endless, which makes fact-checking the book the work of a lifetime; naively, I had hoped that the lifetime would be Jeffery Kripal's. He clearly has a vast knowledge of this subject. Barely into the first chapter "we already have protohumans amid the dinosaurs, alien genetic intervention, occult evolution, and now forest humanoids and silent, silver airships." Kripal, the expert, quips, "Well, we can see where this is all going," but truthfully, I have no idea. Some of his accounts are astonishing and appear beyond reason. What happened with Palmer's spinal degeneration? This miraculous healing seems like a pretty empirical claim to make. Why aren't doctors just obsessing over this anomaly?

The evidence of Shaver's reappearing spinal cord relies on these omitted details, a weak strategy for an academic endeavor. But Kripal's fallacies are often more overt than omission. Take for example Betty and Barney Hill, who witnessed a UFO and then wondered whether a recent episode of†The Twilight Zone†had influenced their story. The couple comes to no conclusion. Thus Kripal asserts that "Barney and Betty's experiences... clearly rendered any such simple explanation patently inadequate." In other words, Kripal negates pop culture as a possible influence; he calls this approach reductive because it dismisses too quickly the chance of an actual alien encounter. Similarly, Kripal rejects the critique that psychedelic drugs, head trauma, abuse, schizophrenia, paranoia, or other mental and emotional stressors may have influenced many of his references. He points out that within madness often lies genius, and that madness itself is a cultural construct. A reader must ignore his or her own earnest pseudoscience doubts in order to follow Kripal's argument, which means a reader must believe in the sacred and prophetic in order to believe in Kripal's sacred and prophetic text theory. Like John Ballow Newborough, who "after years of spiritual searching, which included interviewing and hosting mediums in his home... began receiving his own revelation at 4:30 am on January 1," I suspect that when one wants to find something badly enough, one will find it whether or not it's there.

Kripal's logical fallacies allow him to discredit some and argue for others, almost at random. For instance, he introduces Richard Shaver, a man with his own theory of ancient aliens and alternate dimensions. Although Shaver appears on par with other references, Kripal discredits him by saying "Much of this is, well, too much. Shaver's ancient alphabet, for example, is clearly no such thing." He goes on to point out that while Shaver claimed to be in an underground universe, he was actually in a mental hospital. Why do these arguments make Shaver less credible than other troubled theorists? Perhaps Kripal picks on Shaver to create a case for his own sound judgment, but at the heart of his thesis, his judgment comes across more like a gag. Kripal attempts to prove that we humans can write our own stories by participating in the metaphysical. As evidence, he recalls that "when sales of†The Invisibleswere dipping, [author Grant Morrison] encouraged his readers to empower the series with their own masturbatory magical rituals... the sales went up." Sure, one could conclude that sex magic saved sales. But isn't this just a fancy way to say that sex sells? Isn't the simple solution usually the one to trust?

Kripal would criticize me for "damning" the paranormal, just like "fundamentalist religion" denounces his human-deities and "materialistic" science rejects his metaphysical miracles. He even predicts my reaction and laments that many readers will not be ready for "the full cosmic potential of our species." Perhaps I am not, but then who is? Do we really need radiation and flying saucers to reach something that is beyond our comprehension? Is there anything in measurable, observable science that either science or religion has claimed to explain? Why then should I get so worked up about Kripal citing sťances? Why should I deny him his communion with Kali? Some adhere to the Bible, others follow the Koran, and I find a good morning run to be a spiritual experience. Kripal believes that science fiction and comics are guided by a higher purpose, and he has a lot of fascinating evidence to support his belief. As an isolated "what if," Kripal offers a fascinating look at the area where our culture and our questions collide, and reminds his readers, no matter what their beliefs, that there are still so many questions to ask.

Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal†by Jeffrey J. Kripal
University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 978-0226453835
376 pages