Suddenly, there emerged this eBook on my eReader. “The Super Natural”, written by Jeffrey Kripal and Whitley Strieber. My fiancee had downloaded it, and as we have digitally connected our virtual libraries, it now also popped up on my screen. In this way, we now could read the same book simultaneously, be virtually on the same page – what a wonderful thing!
Reading the first few pages, it turns out that “The Super Natural” is also a story of a reading/writing cooperation between Jeffrey Kripal, a historian of religions at Rice University in Texas, and Whitley Strieber, the famous horror writer and UFO abductee of the 80s. It shows how, in our digital age of isolation, you can return to a collective form of art-making: “We read each other. We rewrite our chapters in the light of what the other has written. In the process, we rewrite ourselves.”
There are no aliens
Jeffrey Kripal has specialized in comparing “fantastic states of mind […] and their symbolic expressions in human history”. At the beginning of the book, he deconstructs religion for us, preparing the reader for what`s waiting for him on the next 300 pages: “Some of the remembered effects of these fantastic states of mind and energy have been taken up by extremely elaborate social, political and artistic processes and have been fashioned by communities into mythical, ritual, and institutional complexes that have fundamentally changed human history. We call these “religions”.”
His approach to the phenomenon of alien abduction has much in common with the “reader-response criticism” in literature studies, insofar as the attention shifts from the alien to the abductee: “The secret of contact lies in the contactee.” Instead of “the author is dead”, “the alien is dead”. Here, as well as in other parts of the books, the metaphor of reading/writing is very central; Kripal essentially suggests that we read abduction experiences as texts. A technique which is common in the humanities, but far less boring when Kripal writes about it.
He also states that what different people experience/interpret as abductions might actually be many different things, that people often use the term “alien abduction” as a “wastebasket”, throwing in all experiences of a supernatural nature they couldn`t explain. He too condemns the reductionist, ahistoric approach of authors like Erich von Däniken who scream “UFOs!” as soon as they see some old wall paintings with men in strange vessels. Instead, he suggests to shift the perspective: “Why not read modern UFO encounters through the prism of ancient religious texts, that is, as discarnate souls, modern gods, or revelation events?” Here again, the metaphor of reading pops up, as Kripal suggests an intertextual approach to abduction experiences.
Indeed, in our times, we are not restricted to use one sacred text to interpret experiences, but we can choose from a gigantic open library of texts. Spiritual authority is placed within ourselves, not imposed on us by some church or cult. Also, revelation experiences are personal and private, not some experience by a biblical figure which we do more or less have no choice to believe; and they can be experienced again and again, in different forms – like the concept of the series which is so popular in our times: There is a seeming abundance of time and (con)text and you can always switch to a new one if you aren`t “into it” any more (maybe the series is an expression of our craving for eternal life or for different dimensions we can inhabit).
In the process of analysing abductee events, Kripal uses yet another humanistic approach which is not new to me: Phenomenology, or, as he calls it, “making the cut”. Phenomenology is the art of seeing things “as they really are”, freeing them from historical, social, whatever contexts. Seeing things in a simple, unobstructed way, and yet not taking them at face value.
So how did Kripal end up writing about (and being so inspired by) Whitley Strieber, a seemingly avid believer in the concrete existence of an alien species? It`s because Strieber actually sees the whole thing a lot more differentiated than other “abductees”: He, like Kripal, places more emphasis on the contactee, considering it possible that the contactee himself forms his own, very personal vision when getting in touch with “them”. Plus, he engages creatively with his abduction experiences.
This touches the core of Kripal`s beliefs and is at the same time something which one cannot understand fully, a Gordian Knot of thinking: the “two-way mirror”. It is recognizing that by interpreting an abduction, one not only shapes the experience, but is also shapen by it – the classic hermeneutic circle. Kripal goes one step further and claims that the force that shapes us is an active one, that someone stands on the other side of the mirror and watches us. But who are they? And why are they watching us?
No one can really have the answer for the first question, but there are theories concerning the second one. Kripal`s is: “They” want us to get a glimpse of what our future, our evolution will look like. (However, what they get out of it I still can`t understand.)
And what is the most basic foundation of evolution? Sex, of course. This is why in so many abduction experiences, sex is a central element, Kripal argues. Kripal himself as well as Whitley have had experiences involving sex with beings “behind the mirror” – they call them “goddesses”, for the lack of a better word. This discussion of erotic encounters – under the premise that we see them as texts — reminds me of French theorists, for example Barthes`”Pleasure of the text”: He thinks it impossible to assign just one certain meaning to a text and its signs. Instead, you only get brief glimpses of sense, you never know “for certain” – and according to Barthes, therein lies the pleasure of reading. (Compare for example how Strieber speculates if the “goddess” who seduces him might in fact be his wife – and yet he will never know…)
The language of the future
Towards the end of the book, Kripal returns to his premise of deconstruction: “I am suggesting that we recognize that these events and objects are designed to take things apart, really to take us apart, so that we can put things back together again in more creative and flourishing ways.” And he really gets explicit about the reading and writing metaphors: they are not only metaphors, but techniques central to abduction experiences. He describes them as “paranormal technologies”, being able to induce trance states and even abduction experiences.
Both Kripal and Strieber are of the opinion that we need a new language, a new “armamentarium” for describing such experiences (and the paranormal in general): “[A] more sophisticated tongue is needed, one that recognizes not only verbs of present, past, and future tense, but also verbs of permanence. Such verbs would draw their “action” not from duration, but from direction of view and intensity of seeing.” It seems that here, we can learn from the Hopi who do not have any words in their language which directly indicate time (also Chinese language would be more appropriate/ideal for such a project as its verbs also do not have a time component and sentences can be made with one verb without even a personal pronoun.)
Kripal also talks about the content of tomorrow`s paranormal stories, or what he calls the “Super Story”: “The first guess is that these new stories will take modern cosmology, quantum physics, and evolutionary biology as their main sources of inspiration or general framework […] – cosmological, material, and biological, yes, but also cultural and spiritual. … They will also be “green”, that is, deeply ecological in hope and direction.”
For me, The Super Natural is just such a super story, opening dozens of inspiring paths for the fantastic literature of the next few decades. And for me, it certainly is the missing link between the UFO/alien phenomenon and the humanities, shedding a new, interesting light on both fields of study.