Friday, November 4, 2011

Mutants and Mystics

When I was ten or eleven, I fell in love with Batman comics—as well as with (I’m not afraid to say it) the campy Batman television series starring Adam West. But then I became consumed with collecting football cards, a passion that a few years later gave way to yet other obsessions—Tolkein, the Beatles, the Dune series.

So, by the time I got to college, I was far removed from superheroes. However, when I needed a symbol to explain one of my sophomoric realizations, I instinctively invoked the world of capes and spandex.

In a philosophy class, I was required to read Nietzsche, who thought that all of our systems of knowledge and belief are but fictions that we mistakenly take for truth. The proper philosopher, Nietzsche claimed, realizes that we live by these fictions and refuses to submit to those artifices he finds oppressive. He in fact creates new fictions—more expansive, flexible, wondrous, and beautiful ones that open fresh, more imaginative possibilities for being.

Nietzsche’s ideal philosopher, whom he calls the Over-man, or Super-man, is an artist: someone who understands that he can conform to pre-existing fictions, and so relinquish his agency; or that he can fashion his own scripts and thus exist in a universe of his own making.

For a boy brought up in a rather conservative Southern Christian community, this idea was blissfully liberating. It allowed me to undermine the collective wisdom of my elders—so much artifice—and forge my own more imaginative myth.

Drunk on my rather immature rebellion, I vowed to fashion an impossible myth of total freedom—a myth that would self-destruct the minute I made it, and so require a new myth in its place, which in turn would also destroy itself, and so on. The goal was not to imprison myself in any prior language system, no matter how varied and fertile and ecstatic. I wanted to live ironically, undercutting my claims the minute I made them. I wanted to be: Meta-man, as I tried cleverly to put it, always beyond my own being.

After reading Jeffrey Kripal’s brilliant new book, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal, I now understand that my somewhat silly conceit was actually profound in ways that I did not then understand. Maybe it was even a rather weak paranormal experience—a pre-cognition of an insight that would later affect me deeply, transform me.

(I’m recording my thoughts on Kripal’s book as a member of a roundtable discussion of the volume at the Patheos Book Club (, where you can read an excerpt, an author interview and engage in further discussion on the book.)

In Mutants and Mystics, Professor Kripal explores how comic book heroes have symbolized a variety of paranormal experiences, such as precognition, telekinesis, and UFO abductions. One way superheroes and their authors have figured these weird occurrences is by showing that the “world . . . works remarkably like a text or a story. Through the uncanny practices of writing, reading, and artistic production, these individuals come to realize 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.”

When we understand that paranormal events are real—and Kripal marshals overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that they are—we realize that these happenings are “participatory, that is, paranormal events behave very much like texts: they appear for us and rely on our active engagement or ‘reading’ to appear at all and achieve meaning.” “In some fundamental way that we do not yet understand,” Kripal continues, “they are us, projected into the objective world of events and things, usually through some story, symbol, or sign. Realization is the insight that we are caught in such a story. Realization is the insight that we are being written.”

Alvin Schwartz, a writer of early Superman and Batman comics, had such a realization. After several paranormal experiences, Schwartz came to understand Superman as an archetype of our “sense of nonlocality that is always present in the back of our minds—the capacity to be everywhere instantly.”

We are all exponents of a World Soul, eddies of a vast ocean, but most of the time we believe that we are self-contained, autonomous egos. In his ability to transcend space and time, basically to be everywhere and “every-when” at once, Superman reminds us of our distributed natures, of the fact that there is no difference between self and cosmos. We are all infinite, all the time.

But we can’t sustain this ego-shattering formlessness for long, this annihilation of particularity. To live in the everyday world—to have a spouse, children, a job—we need to return to the comparatively secure confines of space and time. Enter Clark Kent, the necessary polarity to Superman—the left brain to his right, the profane to his sacred.

Schwartz concluded that the human imagination bridges these poles. The imagination is the “phone booth consciousness,” where super-consciousness, beyond language, is translated into comprehensible words. Imagination is thus the faculty by which the World Soul expresses itself to the individual souls it animates. It, the imagination, creates the narratives—scientific, religious, cultural—that we take to be real. It makes the cosmic book in which we are all characters.

To realize this is to grasp that we are written, but not necessarily in the way that Nietzsche meant. Yes, as Nietzsche believes, we are all imprisoned by the language systems into which we have been born. However, these language systems—so Schwartz and Kripal would have us believe—aren’t simply fictions hiding an inaccessible physical reality, indifferent to human striving. They, these linguistic constructs, are inflections of an ungraspable metaphysical reality that all humans, if they are to realize their full potential, should aspire to know.

As long as we simply accept the symbol systems that we inherit from birth, we are written, and nothing more: actors performing a script not of our own making. But when we become aware of the play, we can re-write the script—author our stories in which we are the super-heroes. We can become Meta-man, or women, in earnest, endlessly playing with new worlds just beyond the boundary of the old.

As I suggest in my own book, My Business Is To Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing, this is living ironically, if we see irony not as deflationary sarcasm but as a mode of transcendence, the ability to create and destroy at once, affirm and deny, write and erase.

Mutants and Mystics brims with such invigorating, inspiring insights. It is more than scholarship—though it is that, in the best sense, replete with fascinating information and rigorous analysis. It is a handbook for living, a soul guide, a powerful call to what is super in all of us.

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