11 November 2012


Jeffrey J. Kripal, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, University of Chigaco Press, 2011.

Mutants and Mystics is a fascinating and stimulating book, and an important one. It's one of the most authentically Fortean works I've read a long time, as well as being perfectly in tune with the spirit of  Magonia, since its addresses head-on the relationship between culture and the paranormal (defined in its widest sense to include everything from psi to UFOs and alien encounters).
Jeffrey Kripal is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, Texas, and since his youth an avid comic book reader and collector, two sides of his life that come together beautifully in Mutants and Mystics. He is the author of an exhaustive study of the pioneering Esalen Institute, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (2008) and Authors of the Impossible (2010), on paranormal and mystical experiences and their relationship to brain function. Mutants and Mystics is a follow-on from both. Its main inspiration was Kripal's realisation, during his seven-year research into Esalen, of the parallels between that foundation, set up in 1962 to study and develop human potential, and Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in The X-Men comics, the first issue of which appeared less than a year after Esalen's founding. This gave Kripal the idea of applying the 'model of the fantastic' he developed in Authors of the Impossible to science fiction and superhero writers and artists. 

Mutants and Mystics tells two intertwined stories. One traces the development of superhero comics in order to explain how the genre developed from cardboard characters and simplistic storylines, which made at best superficial attempts to explain a hero's superpowers, into today's sophisticated graphic novels which employ themes and ideas explicitly drawn from occult and gnostic mystical traditions, as in the works of Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, Batman) and Alan Moore (Promethea). Kripal approaches the subject in the same way as he does comparative religion and mystical literature (which he defines as the study of “how human beings come to realize that they are gods in disguise. Or superhumans”). This leads him to discern a set of “story lines about the metamorphosis of the human form that are deeply indebted to the history of the religious imagination but have now taken on new scientific or parascientific forms in order to give shape to innumerable works of pulp fiction, superhero comics, and metaphysical film.” (As he points out, in one of his many wonderfully incisive observations, the original superhero – a human gifted with special powers who takes on non-human forces for the greater good of his community – was the shaman.)

The second story is the parallel development of key concepts in the paranormal, the two having evolved in a seemingly symbiotic relationship: SF authors and comic book writers/artists draw on the literature on the paranormal for their subject matter, but fantasy literature also often prefigures trends in paranormal phenomena. The paranormal shapes the fiction, and somehow is in turn shaped by it. (Or “The truth needs the trick, the fact the fantasy", as Kripal puts it.)

Kripal identifies a 'Super-Story' – 'a modern living mythology' - that underlies and shapes not only SF and superhero literature but also contemporary American popular culture, in particular beliefs concerning alien contact and humankind's place in the cosmic scheme of things, a story made up of seven mythical themes or 'mythemes', to each of which he devotes a chapter.

Mutants and Mystics is very specifically about American culture, as the Super-Story is grounded in American history and experience, although drawing on wider history and “universal structures of the human religious imagination.” It would be interesting to expand his study to other Western countries (and Japan, which has its own idiosyncratic superhero and fantasy subculture). For example, I was struck by how many of Kripals core mythemes, which developed over the course of several decades in American fiction, can be found pretty much fully formed in the seminal late 1950s British science fiction TV serial Quatermass and the Pit.

Many of Kripals core mythemes, which developed over the course
of several decades in American fiction, can be found pretty much
fully formed in the seminal late 1950s British science fiction
TV serial Quatermass and the Pit.

In each chapter Kripal discusses the key writers of both SF/fantasy literature and paranormal nonfiction whose work has contributed to the mytheme”s development. One of the seminal figures is, naturally, Charles Fort, whose books heavily influenced the pulp magazines of the 1920s, 30s and '40s, which in turn influenced post-war superhero comics and anticipated the contactee and UFO literature of the 1950s. John Keel is also discussed in some detail, as a “modern Gnostic ... who knows that the world is basically illusory, a sinister sham set up by a stupid deity, who is messing with us.”

Kripal shows how American SF and fantasy fiction owes less to science than it does to nineteenth-century esoteric traditions – themselves, of course, developments of earlier occult systems – in particular Theosophy and Rosicrucianism (meaning the modern version as taught by organisations such as AMORC), “modern mystical movements based largely on conscious fictions that nevertheless emphasize the real existence of' 'secret knowledge' and latent 'powers'.” For example, AMORC founder H. Spencer Lewis's 1931 Lemuria: The Lost Continent of the Pacific, which claims that a community of Lemurians survives beneath California”s Mount Shasta, anticipated key elements of later SF and UFO lore, including the ability of the Lemurians, who emerge from their underground base in silver airships, to stop car engines at a distance.

Kripal also points out that the first explicit claim of extraterrestrial intervention in human evolution is found in Madame Blavatsky's writings, in which advanced spiritual beings from Venus helped breed the Atlantean 'root race' from the Lemurian. In this way Theosophy exerted a great influence not only on pulp SF (“In short, before there was science fiction, there was Theosophy”) but also the contactee literature of the 1950s and 1960s.

The link between the occult and the supposedly science-driven superhero genre is demonstrated graphically (no pun intended) in the genesis of the very first superhero, Superman, whose debut in 1938 created the whole new subculture and industry. Superman's creators, Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster, essentially transposed an earlier, unsuccessful and explicitly occult character into a more scientific setting. This was Dr Mystic: The Occult Detective, who flew astrally through the spirit world battling supernatural entities that threatened our material world. “Put simply, Superman is a crashed Alien from the Occult” – or Krypton, which, as Kripal points out, is the Greek equivalent of the Latin occultus.

But what makes Mutants and Mystics really special (and controversial) is that Kripal doesn't – as many would – use the interplay of fiction and real-world claims to argue that the occult and paranormal are themselves merely forms of fantasy or wish-fulfilment projections. He has a much more open mind than that. His study of mysticism and his personal experiences have convinced him of the reality of the paranormal, of the “impossible fact” that the powers that feature in superhero and science fiction are well documented in folklore, religion and psychical research - “the sci-fi and superhero fantasies reflect, refract, and exaggerate these real-world paranormal capacities”. His acceptance of the paranormal is by no means uncritical, though; he positions himself as “neither a denying debunker nor a true believer,” describing these as two “equally silly options.”

The common ground between fantasy literature and real-world paranormal experience is the imagination. Kripal invokes pioneering British psychical researcher Frederick Myers' concept of the 'imaginal' - the key role that the imagination plays in allowing access to a "different order of Mind” that enables psychic abilities to manifest. And it is in the form of fantasy fiction, especially comic books which involve both storytelling and visual art, that the imagination is given its “freest and boldest reign". So, for Kripal, it's hardly surprising that the fiction should help manifest and shape the paranormal.

The strange symbiotic relationship between fantasy fiction and the paranormal isn't simply based on the transfer of concepts and themes from one to the other. Many of the writers and artists who create the fiction had paranormal experiences, often directly connected with their work. Some were prone to such experiences before they embarked on their career, while others seem to have had their experiences triggered by the very process of creating fantasy – and with many it is hard to tell which came first. Some of these experiences, most obviously Philip K. Dick's, are well known, but others discussed in this book, such as those of Alvin Schwartz, writer of Superman and Batman in the 1940s and early '50s, are less so, and make for remarkable reading.

Ray Palmer, a pulp fiction gnostic
who created an entire occult world in the mirror of pulp fiction and his own paranormal experiences

A figure who brings together the strands of Kripal's Super-Story probably more than any other – playing a central role in bringing it from the pages of pulp fiction to those of paranormal literature - is Ray Palmer, editor of the SF magazine Amazing Stories (among others), a keen student of esoteric teachings such as Theosophy, and, of course, a central player in the dissemination of early flying saucer lore, for example through his collaborations with Kenneth Arnold and founding of Flying Saucers magazine. From his youth, Palmer had paranormal and mystical experiences that fed into his SF and UFO writing, and which eventually led him to conclude that a “super Intelligence beyond normal comprehension” manipulates reality. Kripal calls Palmer a “pulp fiction gnostic” who “created an entire occult world in the mirror of pulp fiction and his own paranormal experiences.”

The X-Men, naturally, gets a lengthy treatment, not only as the inspiration for the book but also because it gives one of the clearest demonstrations of the relationship between the comic book subculture and popular culture at large. The X-men mutants debuted in 1963, but the comic was one of Marvel's less successful products until a revival in 1975 proved much more popular. The reason, as others before Kripal have suggested, is that the counterculture revolution of the “60s and early “70s had made the X-Men concept more relevant and accessible to a general audience: the counterculture caused mainstream American popular culture itself to mutate to the point where it could embrace the X-Men. (As Kripal points out, the first hippies in 1966 San Francisco also called themselves “mutants”.)

This expresses one of Kripal”s core mythemes, that of Mutation, in which superpowers (in fiction) and paranormal abilities (in reality) are linked to human evolution. Although mutation has emerged as one of the major themes in recent comic book fiction, it was there, in embryonic form, from the very beginning – even Superman, while a crashed alien, was also originally billed as “Man of Tomorrow”. In fiction, the mytheme derived from the science of Darwinian theory and genetics, but also, again, drew on concepts from the occult and psychical research traditions. The notion of evolutionary progress is central to, for example, Theosophy, and Myers considered that the psychic faculties he investigated prefigured humankind's future evolution. The mutant myth”s precursors are also to be found in the works of Fort and pulp SF of the 1940s and 1950s, in which a staple concept was paranormal powers as a feature of the next stage of human evolution.

Exploring the potential of psychedelic, mystical and paranormal experiences in the context of humankind's evolution was also one of the major motivations behind the founding of the Esalen Institute. But for Kripal nothing “came closer to a true X-scenario” than the US government”s secret Cold War paranormal research programmes of the 1970s, most famously the remote viewing projects carried out by the CIA and Pentagon. The X-Men's Professor Xavier is “basically a remote viewer with added superpsychokinetic gifts” and the machine Cerebro “a fantastic magnification of what was actually being attempted with government-sponsored human machines in the remote-viewing programs.” These programmes (which also involved Esalen) coincided precisely with the X-Men”s 1975 revival.

For Kripal, paranormal events are essentially participatory, in the sense that they require the experiencer”s active engagement, not simple passive observation. As such, he argues, not only are paranormal events real but they reveal the way the world really works. This is his sixth mytheme, “Realization” - the insight that “we are all figments of our own imagination, that we are caught in a story (or stories) that we did not write and that we may not even like.” In one of his favourite phrases, "we are being written".

Kripal defines what is for him the heart of the problem: “Committed as Western culture is to a metaphysically na├»ve vision defined by materialism (matter is all that exists) and contextualism (no human experience can transcend the limitations of place and time, of ethnic, racial, and religious background, of personal history, and so on), we are essentially chained down to a worldview that does not seriously question itself, that by definition cannot question itself.” The result is that “you can't think yourself out of the story you are caught in with the rules and elements of the very story in which you are caught.” But paranormal experiences – especially those involving high strangeness - violate materialism and contextualism, exposing the rules as false and so showing us a way out of the story.

In this way Realization matures into the last of Kripal's mythemes, Authorization: the understanding that “we can become our own authors, we can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons are us.” “If Realization involves the act of reading the paranormal writing us, Authorization involves the act of writing the paranormal writing us.”

Kripal illustrates this by the truly remarkable experiences of Conan the Barbarian artist Barry Windsor-Smith and Philip K. Dick (whose communion with the super-intelligence 'Valis' is by far the better known). Not only were the two sets of experiences eerily similar – both involving a sense of information being 'beamed' into their consciousness from an external source, triggering a series of mystical experiences - but they also took place within months of each other, Windsor-Smith's in June 1973 and Dick's in March 1974.

The insights that Dick and Windsor-Smith gained from their experiences have much in common. One is the sense that human beings function simultaneously on two “cosmological planes,” although most of us are only aware of one. On the higher plane we have a “nonlocal, nontemporal consciousness” which is where mystical and paranormal faculties operate. Kripal links this to the basic characteristic of the superhero, an apparently ordinary individual with a secret life lived by his super-empowered alter ago.

Kripal declares Striebers writings as “thoroughly and completely gnostic” and considers them to be part of Western esoteric and metaphysical, not UFO, literature

Kripal”s final chapter is devoted to the 'visitor corpus' of Whitley Strieber, since “there is probably no author more illustrative of our mythemes and the experiential paranormal currents that they fictionalize within American popular culture.” Kripal has corresponded and conversed with Strieber for many years, Strieber disclosing certain things to him that haven”t appeared in his books (making Mutants and Mystics of interest for that reason alone). For example, Strieber volunteered in discussion that “he is absolutely certain that his visitor experiences appeared the way they did because of the sci-fi movies that he watched as a kid and a young adult” – which certainly backs up the main thesis of Mutants and Mystics. I was particularly interested by Strieber”s acknowledging to Kripal that the childhood experiences described in The Secret School may have been retrospective products of his abductions and subsequent hypnosis rather than genuine memories.

Kripal declares Striebers writings as “thoroughly and completely gnostic” and considers them to be part of Western esoteric and metaphysical, not UFO, literature, pointing out that – a point routinely ignored even by many of his champions - Streiber himself has never said that his abductors were extraterrestrial.

Kripal believes that the Super-Story that is developing gives a vision that – unlike dogmatic religions and spirit-denying science – is capable of handling “the full cosmic potential” of humankind. And for that reason, science fiction and superhero comics not only have value, but can actually teach us something. As can paranormal events and experiences.

It”s a bold, important, exciting proposition, for which Kripal sets out his argument cogently and, for me, persuasively. That isn't to say that I necessarily go along with all of his conclusions - at least not yet. The range and depth of his study and the potential importance of the message he draws from it deserve mature consideration and discussion rather than blanket acceptance. I”m particularly unsure about his conviction that the intentions of Strieber's visitors, whatever they are, are essentially benign and ultimately positive. (It clashes with the note of caution about our dealings with the paranormal expressed earlier in the book, for example in his discussion of Keel's theories.) But at the very least Kripal has provided a new perspective on some very complex issues, if not a key to understanding them.

Mutants and Mystics is a masterly contribution to the study of the paranormal (as well as the history of comic book fiction). It is rich, profound and thought-provoking – as well as entertaining - and is written with clarity, insight and wit. It's also attractively designed, illustrated throughout with classic cover art. It deserves to be a Fortean – and Magonian - classic. 
  • Clive Prince.

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