Jeffrey J. Kripal thinks he may be Spider-Man.
A fantastic statement, perhaps. But the truth is that we’re burying the lede … because Jeffrey J. Kripal may be right.
Such is the wide, wide berth we give to Mr. Kripal when it comes to statements one might view as odd or even impossible, a berth born of our readings of his books, books like “The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion,” “Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion,” and his most recent work – and the impetus for this interview – entitled, “Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.”
Regardless of whether or not Kripal is Spider-Man – friendly, neighborhood-based, or otherwise – we have great confidence that he is, in fact, the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University, where he is also the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
We have even greater confidence that Kripal – as represented by the books mentioned above – is among the most thoughtful, creative, and utterly energizing writers we’ve ever had the great fortune of encountering.
Close readers of this psychedelic-simian site (both of them) will recognize that we have been both reverently referencing and remorselessly ripping-off many of the themes (or “mythemes”) introduced by Kripal’s work for many months, since our first reading of “Mutants and Mystics” (seen most directly in this introduction to the Texas sci-fi maniacs of Mind Spiders, which also references the origin of Kripal’s complex Spider-Man complex).
Yet trying to summarize the breadth and depth of what we read in Kripal’s work strikes us as a fool’s errand – not because we’re certain to exclude massive, important points, but also because it’s been summarized well through the words of others, including the book’s publisher, the University of Chicago Press:
“In Mutants and Mystics, Kripal offers a brilliantly insightful account of how comic book heroes have helped their creators and fans alike explore and express a wealth of paranormal experiences ignored by mainstream science. Delving deeply into the work of major figures in the field—from Jack Kirby’s cosmic superhero sagas and Philip K. Dick’s futuristic head-trips to Alan Moore’s sex magic and Whitley Strieber’s communion with visitors—Kripal shows how creators turned to science fiction to convey the reality of the inexplicable and the paranormal they experienced in their lives. Expanded consciousness found its language in the metaphors of sci-fi—incredible powers, unprecedented mutations, time-loops and vast intergalactic intelligences—and the deeper influences of mythology and religion that these in turn drew from; the wildly creative work that followed caught the imaginations of millions. Moving deftly from Cold War science and Fredric Wertham’s anticomics crusade to gnostic revelation and alien abduction, Kripal spins out a hidden history of American culture, rich with mythical themes and shot through with an awareness that there are other realities far beyond our everyday understanding.”
Agreed. But what else? How does Kripal’s work achieve such great resonance – how does writing move from super-cool to a superpower?
Certainly, there is something to be said for Kripal’s position in higher education, his dedication to the subject matter of his profession and his curious and inquisitive nature.
Yet we see these as Batman powers and – let us not forget – Kripal believes he may be Spider-Man. Which makes sense, as Kripal has without question been bitten by the bug.
The “bug” in this case is – to quote here from Kripal’s “Esalen” – is …
“… a model of writing, reading and understanding that is deeply hermeneutical – a model that recognizes a truly profound engagement with a text can alter both the received meaning of the text and one’s own meaning and being (this, by the way, is also physiologically true in regards to the ‘subtle body’ of the brain’s neural pathways – reading is an embodied practice that literally changes some of the body’s most subtle processes). That is, we need to recognize that the act of reading, far from being a mechanical, disembodied exercise of vocabulary and grammar, is in fact an immeasurably complex psychophysical event in which two horizons of meaning and being (the reader and the read) are ‘fused’ and transfigured in a mysterious process that we do not, and perhaps cannot ever, truly understand … In effect, a kind of initiatory transmission sometimes occurs between the subject and object of study to the point where terms like ‘subject’ and ‘object’ or ‘reader’ and ‘read’ cease to have much meaning. And this, of course, is a classically mystical structure – a twoness becoming one, or, perhaps better, a not-two. Reading has become an altered state of consciousness.”
You may already have access to your own superpowers – read more to find out how. We feel tremendously fortunate to have access to the superpowers of Jeffrey J. Kripal, and for his willingness to respond to our ridiculous questions below. Enjoy.
Can you recall the first comic book that truly captured your imagination in a way apart from what we might term as the “common” adolescent enjoyment? What was it about that book that struck a chord within you at that time? How have your feelings about that particular book evolved over time? Are there any examples of comics that failed to capture your imagination during your youth, but now stand among the most compelling or intriguing to your mind?
What an interesting set of questions. I suppose it was not a single comic, but the genre itself, which somehow took the lid off my imagination. For example, I still remember, vividly, reading those weird occult sports comics with stories about things like the devil playing baseball and the occult dimensions of bowling a perfect game. I suppose these “hit” me because I was growing up in an athletic culture playing baseball, football, and basketball all year round. Sports was our practice. I also distinctly remember all the drawn and exaggerated bodies of the comics—the lithe, muscled, breasted bodies. And Spider-Man’s eyes. Between the bright colors and the erotic suffusion and my own hormone-buzzed body, well, it was just, just, . . . just what? How could have a twelve-year-old boy have articulated all of that? Sort of like those weird Saturday morning cartoons (think H.R. Pufnstuf) after eating six bowls of Cap’n Crunch—that was awesome. Except for that talking flute—that was just creepy. As for comics that failed to capture me, that would be the early X-Men. The X-Men mythology is, by far, my favorite now, mostly because it reads like a mythical version of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, which has become a kind spiritual home for me and was born, partly at least, out of a very similar evolutionary mysticism and vision of human potential. The X-Men mythology also lies at the genesis of Mutants and Mystics.
On the topic of religious study, when did you first realize that the study of religion and spirituality would be central to your life? What do you think is the single biggest misconception about religious studies held by the public at large (if your feel there is even a conception at all)? Is there a single book, film sci-fi novel or even comic book that you can identify as being essential to fueling your academic interest in religion?
I became intensely, annoyingly pious in adolescence around the budding of sexuality (when the mutations appear) and my attempt to repress all of this. But I was not really turned on to the study of religion until college, when I learned the craft from some amazing Benedictine monks who approached reading as a spiritual discipline and study as a sacred vocation or calling.
The single biggest misconception about the study of religion is that scholars of religion are here to make people more religious. We are not. We are here to question everyone’s most fundamental assumptions about religion, about reality, and about human nature itself. The study of religion is neither belief nor non-belief, but endless questing and questioning. Because there is no study of religion in the high schools, first-year college students, and everyone else, generally confuse us with religious leaders or institutions. Wrong. Very wrong.
Which is not to say that scholars of religion are not sometimes, maybe even often, religious in their own nontraditional ways. I am a religious freak, but I doubt that most traditionally religious people would recognize me as “faithful” in any sense whatsoever.
My early interest in religion was fueled by a smoldering and repressed sexuality, not by popular culture. Although one could say that the lives of the saints bore a certain resemblance to the superheroes of my comics, and that that played some role in my own desire to be a saint. There is a later influence here, though. I have long had this uncanny sense that my early scholarship on the Hindu goddess Kali was somehow fueled by my earlier fascination with Spider-Man (their eyes are virtually identical, and they both resemble human spiders, if in different ways). Or was my adolescent fascination with Spider-Man fueled by an earlier (as in previous life) devotion to Kali? I can’t tell.
For lack of a better term, the “mission statement” of “Mutants and Mystics” can be found in the opening chapter, entitled “Origins” – “… showing how these modern mythologies can be fruitfully read as cultural transformations of real-life paranormal experiences, and how there is no way to disentangle the very public pop-cultural products from the very private paranormal experiences.” What drove you to fully explore this assertion within the pages of “Mutants and Mystics”? In your view, does the conventional wisdom of our modern society seek to disentangle or perhaps only seek to ignore these connections?
I study extreme religious experiences for a living (think out-of-body, near-death, and paranormal events), so people, mostly readers and students, are always sharing with me the most extraordinary stories—impossible stories, really, but also real stories. I know that nature, and especially human nature, is not what we are told it is. It is way weirder than that. So I was struck, really struck, how these pop-mythologies of “superpowers” did a way better job of expressing and exploring the weird stories I was hearing than the standard cultural dogmas around materialism and scientism. I knew, of course, that the comic books and sci-fi novels were fantasies, fictions, but they were also fantasies and fictions that were speaking real truths, that reflected the actual “feel” and shape of the paranormal experiences I was reading and hearing about regularly. How did this happen? How is it that the deepest truths are spoken in myths? How is it that elite religious and scientific figures can’t handle the full scope of the human being, but comic books and science fiction can? That was my question.
Speaking of that ol’ canard called “modern society,” after reading about the mytheme defined as “Orientation” in “Mystics and Mutants,” we were curious with regard to your thoughts on how advances in communication will alter this concept. Will sacred power and wisdom still be located “far away” in the age of Google Street View and beyond? Will the power of perceived wisdom located “in the East” remain potent as the East looks more and more like the West, with Starbucks and our endless televised diversions?
No, of course not. Globalization is connecting us all, and flattening us all. I am ambivalent about globalization—so much to hope for there, and so much to mourn and be critical of. I also worry a lot about the effects of technology on us—cognitively and spiritually, especially. I can observe as a teacher that it has pretty much destroyed the classroom space—total Armageddon. There I am with two hundred young people, most all of whom are watching YouTube or buying shoes or God only knows what. It’s really quite awful, and incredibly stupid.
My sense is that technology is “flattening” us. It keeps us on the surface, “surfing,” as we so accurately say. It prevents us from going deep. It also encourages us to confuse information with knowledge and wisdom. Information can be just “bits,” but knowledge and wisdom are something entirely different, and I do not think that they can be achieved by a computer or a machine, much less an Internet search. That claim is simply another symptom of our reigning materialism.
I should say that I am just as addicted as the next person. And I’ve noticed: as soon as I start doing e-mail in the morning, my creative writing ends, right there, right then. That genre does something to me cognitively. It changes me. It pulls me up from the depths.
We noted with great admiration the note in “Mutants and Mystics” that indicates nearly all of the comic images presented within are from your own collection. To what do you attribute your foresight in holding on to the comics of your youth – or do we presume too much, and did you actually re-acquire many of these gems years later? Do you wish to comment on the rumor (the rumor we are attempting to start right now) that says you will soon ship much of your collection to my home address, for proper care and keeping?
That is a false rumor. Let’s get that out of the way. Though I hardly blame you for trying to start it. Yes, everything in the book is from my own collection, much of which I collected while writing the book. What happened was that I discovered in mid-life that I could now afford these “key issues,” as long as they were of mid-grade quality. That thrilled me. Most of the more valuable pieces I purchased, as I put it to myself, “so that I could write this book.” That is to say, I rationalized their purchase. It was either that or a Harley.
You write about the counterculture resonances being “everywhere” when considering the work of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in particular. Can you elaborate a bit more on your thoughts regarding how these artists influenced “the psychedelic aesthetics of the counterculture,” particularly (if you dare) in the realm of the pioneering psychedelic rock music of the mid-to-late 60s? Perhaps more broadly, in what ways do you see those same psychedelic aesthetics (or inaesthetics, as the case may be) have influenced our sense of spirituality or religion a whole over the past 50 years?
I think psychedelic culture was massively influential, far more influential than we will ever consciously know. Chris Knowles of the Secret Sun community has taught me to look at Kirby’s mid-1960’s transformation as “psychedelic” in some sense. We don’t know whether he ever ingested any, but it seems pretty obvious that his art took a most remarkable visionary turn about then. Ditko’s Dr. Strange is also there as well. Here is the question, though. Did the young people “see” what they saw because of Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer, or were Ditko and Kirby responding in their art to the album covers and psychedelic poster art? My own answer is: Yes.
We were also fascinated to learn about John E. Mack in your chapter on the mytheme of authorization – particular the quote wherein Mack states, “you can’t deal with something such as the alien abduction phenomenon that is so shattering to our literalist, materialist world-view, and then try to understand it from a literalist, materialist worldview.” How does this “hopelessly incomplete” worldview impact your work as a religious scholar? Within the realm of academia as a whole?
Materialism is the reigning worldview of the academy in all its disciplines, from physics to history. Even in a discipline like the study of religion, the assumption is that a person can never escape or transcend his or her historical moment. We are all locked down tight to history, which is to say, matter. My own position is that this is almost always the case, except when it is not. There are moments of real transcendence. There are altered states of history that shape history, and we will never really understand something like the history of religions unless we can take these seriously. We cannot also, by the way, really understand the history of science fiction and comics, which are filled with similar impossible moments of transcendence, psychical perception, and cosmic Mind, as I tried to document in Mutants and Mystics.
Almost wholly unrelated to your latest book or your academic pedigree, may we ask what music you enjoy listening to, if any? Can you think of a piece of music that has moved you in a profound – even spiritual – way? What was it about that music that (forgive me) struck a chord within you?
I am a musical idiot. There were two classes in college that I got C’s on. One was musicology. The other was Christian ethics. I’ll just leave it at that.
I love listening to music, though, mostly what most people would call soft rock. I tend to gravitate toward the era of my youth, that is, the late 1960s and 70s, when the music was still counter-cultural and not so corporate (though I think contemporary artists like Pink, Melissa Etheridge, and Lady Gaga are occasionally incisive). I’m a fan of Queen, for example, and certain Michael Jackson and Madonna eras. I also like the later Beatles. I just listened to a collection of all of the Beatles’ number one hits. It is amazing to listen to them in a row and see how the lyrics develop from the utterly simplistic to the complex, poignant, and paradoxical. I mean, we start out with things like “I love you, yeah, yeah, yeah” and “I wanna hold your hand” and end up with cross-dressing, day-trippers, John and Yoko being described as “two gurus in drag,” modern mystics and occult magicians on an album cover, and deep reflections on the seeming meaningless and loneliness of life, with a sermon no one hears and a funeral no one attends.
In his excellent book “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” author Don Lattin writes the following:
“Psychedelics inspired many of us to take a more positive, expansive view of our potential as human beings. Psychologists transcended Freud. Sociologists and political scientists moved beyond Marx. Cynics, skeptics and hard-core materialists suddenly found themselves interested in the spiritual quest. People of faith began to see beyond the doctrine and dogmas of their own religious traditions to envision a more inclusive understanding of the contemplative core that runs through all of the world religions.”
I know Don. I consider him a friend and colleague. Don is spot on here. His new book, by the way, is on a similar theme with respect to the shared and mixed “distilled spirits” of alcoholism and spirituality. It is a beautifully honest book.
What’s next for Jeffrey J. Kripal?
Well, dinner and a nice bourbon. But you’re probably thinking of books. I am contracted to write a history of sex and religion in America over the next few years. You ready?
Which means we just covered all the bases: sex, drugs, and rock’n roll. Geez, we even got comics in there. You’re good.