Psi-Fi: Popular Culture and the Paranormal
by Jeffrey Kripal
We grossly underestimate the weird powers of reading and writing. Take the Library Angel, so named by the Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler. These are not subtle beings with wings, but magical moments in which one picks up a book or turns to a page, seemingly at random, and—Whammo!—there is a precise answer to one's own mental state. Such Library Angels can be very humble (the right page at the right time) or very dramatic (a book literally falling off the shelf to be noticed).
I met a humble one last week in BoingBoing's reposting of Brent Lambert's "Buddhist Temple Design Inspired by Superman, Spiderman, Batman, and Keanu Reeves." The piece features the Wat Rong Khun Buddhist temple in Chiang Rain, Thailand, which sports on its interior walls paintings of various pop-cultural and astronomical scenes: Superman (with the end of his cape subtly imitating the "fiery" style of Thai architectural art), one of those psychedelic pterodactyls from Avatar, Neo of The Matrix, an exploding nuclear bomb (or is that a meteor strike?) somewhere in the north Atlantic, and—not to be missed—NASA's international space station.
I live just a few miles from the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and am a big fan of NASA, but it was the superheroes that really got to me, mostly because I immediately recognized in the Buddhist Superman a most striking confirmation of a book I have just finished on some of the extraordinary ways that the paranormal experiences of artists and authors have helped inspire pulp fiction, science fiction, and superhero comics. These paranormal patterns were so strong in the 1950s and 60s that sci-fi fans began speaking of Psi-Fi. Think pulp editor Ray Palmer's use of his colorful clairvoyant dreams to write short stories. Think sci-fi master Philip K. Dick's mind-blowing experience of "Valis," that Vast Active Living Intelligence System that zapped him with its bright pink light in the winter of 1974 and led him to believe that his earlier novels were predicting, intuiting, leading up to this. Think legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby absorbed in the ancient astronaut theory and playfully predicting a Spider-Man cult in 2450 in the editorial pages of The Eternals. Or think the famous comic strip writer Alvin Schwartz writing two metaphysical memoirs that draw on Tibetan Buddhism to understand the synchronistic ways that Superman and Batman functioned in his life and work—like Tibetan tulpas, it turns out. With the Wat Rong Kuhn temple, we don't quite have Kirby's Spider-Man cult (but, hey, it's only 2011) or Schwartz's Buddhist Superman and Batman in Tibet, but we do have Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man in a Thai Buddhist temple.
I'm reading a Marvel graphic novel at the moment entitled Ultimate Galactus Trilogy. Long story, but it features things like a discussion of the Brazilian psychedelic tea ayahuasca as a kind of plant machine that our bodies, as biotechnologies themselves, can click into and "ride," or an image of an invading alien presence whose twisting, multidimensional form looks exactly like a photo of, of, well, something that appeared over Stephenville, Texas, a few years ago. Indeed, the graphic novel image is that something. I remember well the Stephensville flap, just a few hundred miles north of here, which extended from early 2008 well into 2009. Some witnesses described a floating ship "as big as a Wal-Mart." Deliciously, the newspaper that did most of the reporting on the flap was the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, in short, the Stephenville E.T.
A Buddhist temple featuring Superman and a Marvel comic reproducing an actual UFO photo? A pulp fiction editor using his own precognitive dreams to write short stories and a sci-fi master getting zapped by an alien space machine? What is going on here? It would be easy to fall into an either-or mentality, as in "This happened, and that didn't." or "This is true, and that is false." That, I want to suggest, is precisely what is wrong with much of our thinking about popular culture and the paranormal. Much better to pay attention to all the back-and-forth loops, that is, the incredibly messy, "loopy" ways in which popular culture informs paranormal events, which in turn informs popular culture, which in turn informs … well, you get my point. I mean, where exactly are we supposed to draw a line between the real and the unreal in, say, a graphic novel and an actual UFO sighting? It would be easy to suggest that the graphic novel is pure fiction and the UFO—whatever it was—non-fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that the UFO encounters of the second half of the twentieth century often followed, down to precise details, the pulp fiction fantasies of the first half (for more on this, see my discussion of Bertrand Méheust in Authors of the Impossible). It would also be easy to call it all fiction, except for the uncomfortable fact that people really experience such things, all the time. There were F-16s chasing that floating Wal-Mart. Not your typical piece of fiction.
We need to be more sophisticated about this. Perhaps, as a humble start, we need to let go of our hyper-rational either-or mentalities and embrace the both-and of the imagination and the fundamentally paradoxical structures of consciousness. Perhaps we will then begin to understand that we are both being written by the stories we tell ourselves (as in "religion"), and that we are also writing these stories ourselves (as in "popular culture"). We also, I think, would do well to leave the door open to the possibility of entirely outside influences on our stories. Humanity has traditionally understood these latter forces in religious terms. Today more and more people are reading, and experiencing, them in sci-fi or pop-cultural terms. That is, we are beginning to author ourselves, even as something else continues to author us. Hence a Stephenville UFO sighting appears in a Marvel comic and Superman flies on the wall of a Thai Buddhist temple.
It's a loop and a both-and, not a dividing line and an either-or.
Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He has just finished a two-volume study of the paranormal in theory and culture. The first volume, Authors of the Impossible, appeared in 2010 and received a Choice Outstanding Academic Title Award. It treats four of the most sophisticated writers on anomalous phenomena: Frederic Myers, Charles Fort, Jacques Vallee, and Bertrand Méheust. The second volume, Mutants and Mystics, treats the intersections of science fiction, superhero comics, and the paranormal. It is due out from the University of Chicago Press this coming October. He is also presently working with XL Films of Richmond, Texas, on a feature documentary on Authors of the Impossible. For summaries and discussions of these and Jeff's other books, see http://kripal.rice.edu/