Reading the paranormal writing us: An interview with Jeffrey Kripal

posted by Nathan Schneider

Jeffrey Kripal, who chairs the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, is an authority on the mysterious. His books include a wildly controversial study of Ramakrishna’s mysticism; a history of Esalen, an influential spiritual retreat center tucked away in the cliffs of Big Sur; and, now, a probing investigation of several very mysterious thinkers: Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.

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NS: I know there have been some pretty calamitous misreadings of your work in the past, so I’ll let you say it, not me: what is Authors of the Impossible about?

JK: Most simply, the book is an attempt to tell the story of how the technical categories of the psychical and the paranormal migrated from the academy, where they were carefully created and widely celebrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, into popular culture and the media, where they now sit in intellectual disregard and confusion. The book is also an attempt to make sense of paranormal experiences from the perspective of the humanities. I read the paranormal as a semiotic event that plays out on both the mental/subjective and material/physical planes as a bridging sign or mediating story between two orders of experience: one conscious and constructed, the other not. Such a project, of course, violates our Cartesian epistemologies involving an interior, solipsistic, illusory subject looking out onto a real but dead, indifferent, and inert objective world ruled entirely by math and mechanism. It is this same useful Cartesian mistake that renders such events “impossible,” even though they happen all the time.

NS: Is the meaning of the word “happen” at issue here? Mistakes, after all, happen too.

JK: I am saying that you cannot read genuine paranormal events as simply subjective occurrences, as “anecdotes”—talk about an intellectual cop-out or sleight of hand!—but neither can you read them as stable, predictable, replicable, measurable things “out there,” unrelated to subjective states of consciousness. They are both subjective and objective. Or, if you prefer, they are neither. I am sure some will now perform calamitous misreadings of this work, concluding that I am ignoring the material, biological, sociological, historical, and neurological dimensions and arguing for some kind of simplistic idealism or total transcendence. Let’s just get this out of the way: I am not.

NS: And why “impossible”? Are you influenced by Derrida’s use of the term?

JK: My graduate student Chad Pevateaux keeps telling me how Derridean I am. I don’t know whether to be pleased or offended by this, as, frankly, I don’t understand Derrida. He was never a major influence on my thought. I would very much like to read more of him, though, particularly because of what Chad has taught me. I certainly will not make the mistake of misreading someone I myself do not understand.

In my own mind, by the impossible, I mean to signal a both-and logic, a dwelling in the middle of two possible readings, neither of which are really adequate and satisfying. I mean to signal a refusal to land or close the question. In terms of possible philosophical influences, I have read and absorbed a good share of Bataille since my graduate days at Chicago, where I studied Christian mysticism with Bernie McGinn. So maybe that is the closer source. Bataille, yes; Derrida, no—not yet, anyway.

NS: How did you come upon your impossible authors? Where does one look for this sort of thing?

JK: I came upon them researching my history of the human potential movement, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion. For example, my first author of the impossible, Frederic Myers, who coined the term “telepathy” in 1882, was a major influence on Michael Murphy, one of the two founders of Esalen. But it was much more than that. There was a consistent ethnographic dimension here, too. I kept encountering fantastic stories, obviously heartfelt and honest, about precognition, clairvoyance, remote viewing (read: Cold War psychic espionage), and UFOs that fit into none of my academic models. Honestly, I was boggled, not just because of the stories themselves, but because I now realized that the usual “rational” explanations—that these are all delusions, perceptual mistakes, tricks, or coincidences, that these people are lying or stupid, etc.—are not rational at all. They are dodges. And they are propaganda. Then, one day, the folklorist and expert on supernatural assault traditions, David Hufford, said something to me to the effect that my writing reminded him of Charles Fort. “Who the heck is Charles Fort?” I asked in so many words. So I picked up Fort’s The Book of the Damned. I was hooked. That was the beginning.

NS: What does Charles Fort mean by the “damned”?

JK: By the damned, Fort meant all those strange events in our lives that cannot be explained by the “Dominants” (we would say “epistemes”) of Religion or Science and so are viciously shamed, explained away with fake explanations, or, more often, simply and politely ignored. Fort, I should add, neither “explained” nor “believed” these stories. Explanation and belief, after all, represent the epistemologies of the previous Dominants of Science and Religion. Rather, he read them as “expressions” of, well, of something. He didn’t know what. He called this way of expression the New Dominant, turned to disciplines like parapsychology and quantum physics for his best models (in the late 1920s and early ’30s, no less), and jokingly wrote of the coming Era of Witchcraft. He was only half-joking.

NS: What do you think would fall under Charles Fort’s idea of the “damned” today, for instance?

JK: Fort wrote pages and pages on what he called “superstructures in the sky”—spaceships—which were commonly reported in his primary sources: the English and French newspapers of the time, which he voraciously read each afternoon in the New York Public Library. Of course, we now call these “UFOs.” Here we have an impossible stew of fraud, propaganda, secret military projects, paranoia, science fiction, a modern technological angelology and demonology, mystical illuminations, psychical experiences, out-of-body experiences of various kinds, and occasionally some very convincing sightings by multiple reliable witnesses. Definitely damned. There’s lots more, of course, none of which we talk about anymore in the study of religion. We don’t talk much about miraculous healings, for example, or supernatural assaults. Ever read David Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night? We don’t talk about monsters either. Ever read John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies? Or Colm Kelleher and George Knapp’s The Hunt for the Skinwalker? Go read them. Then let’s talk. Definitely damned. Way, way damned.

NS: Should I expect some kind of evasion if I were to ask what you really believe?

JK: I don’t believe anything. And I believe everything. I am not being evasive or cute here. I am being precise. I don’t believe anything, in the sense that I think religious experiences are symbolic or semiotic—speakings across a gap, as it were—and so should not be taken literally, ever. I believe everything, in the sense that I think that extreme religious experiences express, through image, symbol, and myth, some revelation of the real, some very dramatic contact with the sacred, always, of course, filtered and constructed through the body-brain in a particular place and time.

NS: But what, then, counts as real? What are we dealing with here, behind the symbols?

JK: I suspect that we are. But who is this “we”?  That is the deepest question we can ask, I think. If there is anything I believe, it is that we are not who we think we are. “Mind” or “consciousness” is not some neurological froth or emergent property of the computer brain, much less some ethnic or religious ego. Rather, it is a non-spatial, non-temporal presence of proportions so vast and so fantastic that there is really no way to exaggerate it, and there is certainly no way to “explain” it with either the absolute contextualist and relativist epistemologies of the humanities or the objectivist epistemologies and naïve realisms of the sciences. Basically, I am suggesting that the human form is a hidden presence of truly mythological proportions. A recent dissertation, by Jason Kelly at the University of Ottawa, has attempted to capture my thought under my own early rubric of “mystical humanism.” I accept that. Everything religious can indeed be reduced to the human, but it turns out that the human is not at all what we thought. That is very close to “what I believe.”

NS: Are you gratified that Catherine Albanese calls you “no fluffy believer” on the dustjacket? Is that a relief?

JK: Cathy Albanese can call me anything she wants. Besides, she’s just trying to protect me from the usual knee-jerk idiocies. I appreciate that.

NS: Do you think that the pro-paranormal subcultures—UFO theorists, for instance—will be vindicated someday?

JK: Not in the way they think they will be. I think much of this is philosophically naïve, as it keeps relying on science, science, and more science to “prove” something that is not an object at all, that escapes all of our objectivist ways of knowing. There are, of course, more sophisticated forms of science being developed, forms that recognize first-person narratives and subjectivities as real dimensions of the real world. I have been working for years now with enlightened neuroscientists, biochemists, quantum physicists, and philosophers on these very themes at Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research. They have convinced me that there is real hope here, that there are open-minded scientists at the highest levels that know better. I think any future way of knowing that might “vindicate” anything paranormal will have to combine and move beyond what we now call the sciences and the humanities. It will have to be more than “science” and more than the “humanities.” It will have to be, in effect, a new epistemology and ontology, a new way of knowing and being.

NS: Let’s turn back to religion. Can the “impossible” encompass what Mircea Eliade called the “sacred,” or the “transcendent”? Can this term, which you use to describe the paranormal, be used to refer back to the religious supernatural?

JK: There is an interesting story that speaks to this. My original subtitle for the book was “Reading the Paranormal Writing Us,” which gets at the wildly reflexive and hermeneutical nature of the paranormal that I am trying to explore. But when the University of Chicago Press and my editors—who know me very well—got a hold of the thing, they wanted to change the title to “The Paranormal and the Sacred.” When I asked why, they invoked the Chicago School and, by implication, Eliade. I thought to myself, “Well, okay. They are onto something here.” It stuck. So, yes, there is some fundamental resonance between what I call the impossible and what earlier theorists called the sacred. I am definitely writing in that “history of religions” lineage.

NS: I can imagine why that original subtitle would scare an editor. But say more about writing and authorship. What does writing about the paranormal require?

JK: A truly open mind. An attempt to think in terms of paradox rather than binary logic. A willingness to entertain the possibility that materialism, objectivism, constructivism, and naïve realism may not have a total purchase on all of cosmic reality, including, and especially, the human form. And, most of all, an impish delight in the weird and wonderful. It also requires a willingness to be tricked from time to time and an understanding that the truth can be hidden in the trick, that the two are not always mutually exclusive, as with a placebo. The paranormal, after all, is a trickster through and through.

NS: How much does one’s willingness to take the paranormal seriously depend on one’s direct experience with it—for you, at least?

JK: I think this is key, actually. I know it is not PC to say this, but I think it is true. If you have experienced the paranormal, then you know—well, you know that it is real, in the simple sense that it happens. If you have not, well, then you have two choices. You can leave that door open and do all sorts of interesting work—look at its historical genealogies and influences, for example, or its cognitive structures, or its social functions, etc. Or you can shut that door and deny, debunk, and deconstruct. Sorry, but Rudolf Otto was right: if you have not experienced the sacred (or the impossible), you are missing a very important key. It is not the only key. But it is most definitely a key.

NS: Must one wait for those experiences to happen? Or can one make them happen?

JK: I am of the opinion that you can’t. This, of course, is a well-worn trope in comparative mystical literature: The ego can do nothing to transcend the ego. To use the Christian categories, grace is grace. It has nothing to do with works. Or to use the Hindu categories, karma can never get you to moksha. Liberation is liberation. Nonduality is nonduality. It has nothing to do with karma, that is, with act or ritual. And trying to do something is precisely what gets in the way of anything really happening, for every conscious effort simply reinforces that which you need to get beyond: the left-brain ego structure. What we have in the academy are a bunch of very fine left-brain methods that essentially deny the existence of right-brain forms of consciousness. This is understandable. It is also kind of silly, at the end of the day. Again, why either-or? Why not both? We, after all, are both.

NS: What, then, would a right-brain method look like?

JK: Technically, there are none. The whole notion of “method” is a left-brain strategy. Remember, more “work” or “reason” can’t get us there. What we could do, if we were really brave and wanted to make real progress here, is select for altered states in those we choose to train for the field, much like we now select for linguistic capacity or philosophical training (which, of course, we should also continue to do). I mean, if a person has had a dramatic out-of-body or telepathic experience, that person is going to read accounts of ecstasy, near-death experiences, or clairvoyance very differently. I also cannot help recalling here a proposal that has been in the air for a very long time but has, for legal reasons, never really been integrated and institutionalized: the careful, controlled use of psychedelics among professional intellectuals and artists. I am not advocating this, unless the legal situation changes dramatically, but it is another example of how I am thinking here.

NS: That would make for a very different kind of graduate school application.

JK: Yep—real X-Men stuff.  But, again, let me be very clear: none of this frees us from selecting and training for all the rigors of intellectual work and philosophical precision. It’s both-and, not either-or. I suppose what I am advocating here is not another “method” but an “openness,” a radical openness to the impossible.

NS: How far, then, must one go to take the paranormal seriously? Does it really mean just openness? Or is building an alternative metaphysic necessary?

JK: I definitely think we need a bigger, broader, bolder, and, above all, more positive worldview. Otherwise, we will just keep damning the paranormal, and it will keep appearing, like the return of the repressed that it is. The simple truth is that our reigning metaphysics—materialism, constructivism, contextualism—are grossly inadequate to the data of the history of religions, which is just full of this stuff. Until we shift our metaphysical commitments, we are doomed to just keep repeating the usual solipsisms and relativisms. And no one outside our little clan will listen. Why should they? We have nothing to say. And when we do say something, it is inevitably depressing. That’s where pure materialism and solipsistic contextualism get you. That’s what happens when you completely erase sameness for pure difference. That’s where you go when you deny the comparative project and the shared human nature at its base.

NS: How much of our curiosity can we expect to be satisfied—about UFOs, for instance? I would really like to know what they are.

JK: The book is designed to excite, enthuse, and re-ignite the comparative project. It is not designed to satisfy. I am not satisfied with it. So I keep writing.

NS: Don’t you feel just a little bad about pulling an ancient astronaut trope as a surprise ending? Like the new Battlestar Galactica, or 2001: A Space Odyssey—or even the last Indiana Jones movie. Still, for me, it works every time.

JK: Nope. I think it works just fine. And that’s my point. Why does it work? Don’t you think that’s just a bit weird?

NS: It’s completely weird. It’s like a part of us is always waiting to have our worlds turned upside down, to discover one little fact that flips the whole gestalt. I’d chalk this particular case up to the fact that extraterrestrials now seem somewhat more plausible to us than Olympus-type gods. But I’d assume that’s because they’re more materialistic an explanation, not less.

JK: Yes. I’m deeply skeptical of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, interpreted literally at least. I like to employ the alien hermeneutic to destabilize the older religious hermeneutics (and this is what I think the whole UFO phenomenon is about, on one level—a massive deconstruction of our religious histories and their sky gods). But I also think we should use the older religious hermeneutics to destabilize the current alien hermeneutic. Let’s not be naïve. Let’s not assume that our present Cold War sci-fi mythology just happens to be the true one into which we can stuff everything else. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe anything.

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