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Literature : Interview

The Mystical Arts of Pop Culture

by Peter Bebergal Jeffrey J. Kripal

Peter Bebergal and Jeffrey J. Kripal on the experience of pop culture and its mystical and mythological implications.

Roughly around the same time in 2011, Peter Bebergal and Jeffrey J. Kripal both published books on the intricate crosscurrents between American popular culture, altered states of consciousness, and religious mysticism—Bebergal’s Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press) and Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics: Superhero Comics, Science Fiction, and the Paranormal (University of Chicago Press). Too Much to Dream is both a memoir and cultural history of psychedelic culture. It relates the story of a teenage quest for personal illumination couched in the pop culture of occultism and psychedelics drugs. This project led Bebergal through a journey involving comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, rock ‘n’ roll, and occultism, all of it fueled by drugs. Too Much to Dream is also a story of recovery and a meditation on addiction, spirituality, and art. Mutant and Mystics is a joyride through similar terrain, a pop history of the paranormal as it expresses itself in comic books, science fiction, and other modern myths. Kripal draws a strange and compelling secret history that reveals how paranormal experiences influenced the very grammar of comic books and suggests that the stories of alien supermen, mutants, and cosmic adventurers are windows into the true shape of consciousness often ignored by science.

Peter Bebergal Both of our books emphasize the way in which pop culture works on the unconscious, how it creates a grammar by which we understand and frame non-ordinary experiences. At the same time, these kinds of experiences shape pop culture in often hidden ways. As you write “consciousness needs culture . . . just as culture needs consciousness.” But inherent in this is the chicken and egg problem. How can we trust the authenticity of any person’s experience if they are so mediated?

Jeffrey J. Kripal Wow, you go right to the heart of things, don’t you? There are two parts to my answer. First, as a historian of religions, terms like “authenticity” and “pure” are extremely suspect. Authentic to whom? These sorts of experiences, when honestly reported, are always authentic to the experiencer (of course, sometimes they are not honestly reported, that is, they are fraudulent). It is orthodox religion, orthodox science, or the normative social censor that then comes in and declares experiences that cannot be slotted into their systems “inauthentic,” “heretical,” “anecdotal,” “crazy,” “New Agey,” or whatever. Second, the chicken and egg problem you cite is just as present and just as powerful in orthodox religion as in pop culture. When the Catholic mystic experiences the stigmata, she or he develops wounds that follow the religious art of the place and time, not the actual crucifixion of Jesus, whatever that involved; a Buddhist near-death experience takes on Buddhist contours; a medieval Hindu encounter with a deity displays Hindu notions; and so on.

PB But should we even compare alien abduction experiences with say those of Saint John of the Cross? It would always drive me crazy to see images of aliens people drew who claimed to be abducted and the figures always looked like those from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. How can we trust there that there was a pure experience before our minds close in on the pop culture artifacts?

JJK Well, I personally wouldn’t compare John of the Cross and an abductee (unless they display similar patterns or insights), but I would also insist that the alien abduction phenomenon is as authentic and as genuine as any other religious experience, even and especially when it looks like Spielberg. But just to complicate things, remember: Spielberg was basing those images on previous reports of real-life encounters. He had J. Allen Hynek and Jacques Vallee on the set as consultants. So the fiction was not simply fiction. It was fiction based on real experiences, which, of course, were in turn informed by previous fiction, which was in turn based on previous real experiences, and so on.

PB So does this mean that we can never step out of this seemingly infinite loop of culture and consciousness and have a “pure” unmediated experience of consciousness or Mind?

JJK Actually, I do think human beings can have such experiences, but these experiences will not be coded in any images, since they will be, by definition, experiences of unity or nonduality. John of the Cross was clear about that, no? But that is not what I was writing about in Mutants and Mystics. I am writing about visionary experiences, which, of course, involve images and duality and so all the loopiness of culture and history.

PB It’s incredible to me how many of our generation (the freaks at least) and even much of American culture since World War II used the language of superheroes as the coded language for all sorts of phenomena, both unconscious and otherwise. I vividly remember how an image of the Silver Surfer brooding as he “surfed” through space tapped into something very essential to my adolescent self—that strange mix of the existential and the cosmic. Those comics made my hormonal angst seem as if it were part of something mythic. It seems that by the 1970s, traditional religion really had become somewhat impotent in its ability to provide that for a great many people.

JJK Why do you think the Silver Surfer, aka Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, spoke to you in this way, Peter? Do you think it was because they gave your religious imagination the freedom to be, well, imaginative, not to mention more honest, whereas the traditional religious register was too familiar, too stale, and too old? For me, it was the sheer color of it all—that and all those ripped erotic bodies straining in so many natural and unnatural ways (the “hormonal” part of your observation). The Surfer, after all, had a perfect body, just no penis.

PB I first gleaned this connection between the sex and the numinous when listening to my brother’s David Bowie records. Bowie’s sex is absolutely alien, but it was that much more compelling for its other-worldliness. But it’s an other-worldliness that is charged with knowledge of something greater. All of Bowie’s personas—From Ziggy to Aladdin Sane—are going through a kind of Gnostic transformation, and sex (and rock ‘n’ roll) is the means to get there. So much of the rock of the 1970s fused sex with mysticism, but Bowie really sent it out into the stratosphere. But Bowie is also the superhuman, right? He is the perfect living androgynous hero, and even the state of his genitalia is questionable. It’s remarkable how so much of pop culture drew from this sensibility, androgynous cosmic gods suffering through their own consciences, loving and hating humanity.

JJK I try to get at the cosmic message all wrapped up in adolescent sexuality in chapter three. Actually, I think human sexuality is cosmic. And you?

PB I think it’s cosmic insofar as its immanence is a reflection of transcendence. We can’t get to whatever is cosmic about it except through the body, of course, but I’m not sure we can ever fully undress ourselves of the physical. For me, the mystical experience is still bound up in what Alan Watts calls our “animality.” It’s the tension between the cosmic and the earthly that charges those mystical ions. Sex pulls out of ourselves as much as it draws us so deeply in. The question of cosmic sex reminds me of the ur-story with the theme, found in Genesis where the angels mate with the “daughters of men” who in turn give birth to the giant heroes called Nephilim. How much of things like Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Close Encounters, and sexual alien abduction stories have their roots in these ancient myths?

JJK The mystical-mythical theme of gods or superhumans mating with humans is as old as we can see back. I suspect that these stories are expressions of this same cosmic sexuality—these weird, morphing energies that spike and spark somewhere between the purely physical and the purely spiritual and so often catalyze extraordinary experiences of cosmic unity. As for transcendence and immanence, I don’t think I believe in either, as both are only relevant in relationship to the ego, which I am positive I don’t believe in.

There is another theme behind this one. You may not have written about sexuality in the book that much, but you wrote most eloquently about what I would call a kind of religious disillusionment and the paradoxical forms of the spiritual life that this disillusionment often produces, a kind of “religion of no religion.” This is one of the things I found most powerful about your writing, Peter—the incredibly frank and honest way you dealt with trying to have a spiritual life in an age in which traditional religion has ceased to make much sense to many thinking people, like you, like me. How does one set upon a path that has no markers? How does one search for God within a religious culture that now sounds, quite frankly, absurd and ridiculous? In such a situation, why not turn to art and pop culture? They at least are honest. They at least do not pretend to be something they are not.

PB Mystics are always the outsiders, the marginal. I think it has to do with the way in which, historically, religious hierarchies have felt they should be the conduits for religious experiences, that no one should have a direct experience except by way of the priest, the text, the community. When someone claims a direct experience, they often go off and start their own sect with their own followers, but then the cycle happens all over again. A hierarchy is formed, a canon is created, and people essentially “wait” to be given divine instruction through all these various mediators.

JJK So religion is fundamentally about control and power? This is a very old and very well-thought-of stance in the study of religion. I think this is half-right. I once heard a John Cleese clip (please forgive me, John, if I get this wrong), that goes something like this: “Religion is about two things: communion with God, and crowd control.” Scholars write thick tomes. The comedian usually nails it and in a single sentence. Damn.

PB And yet when people do have direct encounters or are confronted with some inexplicable phenomena, they still tend to fall back on these traditions to provide them with some language and context, even if it’s by way of popular culture. The mystic rarely starts from zero. The great scholar of Jewish mysticism, the late Gershom Scholem, once explained that there is no generic mysticism, only Christian mysticism, Sufi mysticism, etc.

JJK As for no generic mysticism, I disagree, and Scholem himself backed away from this late in life, after, I believe, some exposure to Walt Whitman and the American scene. It’s simply not true, and the claim that it is true serves implicit conservative functions in both the scholarly and religious worlds, as if we really do need the religions just as they are. The historical truth is that human beings have mind-blowing mystical experiences all the time, and many of them are in entirely secular contexts. My friend Paul Marshall wrote an entire book on “mystical encounters with the natural world,” all of them in the modern English-speaking world, and many of them devoid of any traditional explicit religious context.

PB What is so interesting to me, something I got from your book, is how the myth of the God-man is so potent. While we can go as far back as Gilgamesh to get a hero who is part divine, Christianity, through its Gnostic vein, seems to have solidified in the popular consciousness that we all contain a latent divinity, and we can have direct access to God through our very humanness.

JJK I too was moved by the return of the God-man in the pop world. I recognize, of course, that that’s my book, and this pop God-man may be my Catholicism returning in a new form, or in a new costume. I’m cool with that. But I think it’s also something more, much more. I think the God-man or God-woman is always returning in mythical and mystical thinking because the human is two, is half-divine. The other half is the social ego, Cleese’s crowd control self.

PB But why not just reinvent Christianity? Is it because we also realize that we need the language of science as well given the profound impact it has also had on us? That our mystics have to be mutants also?

JJK I think you nailed the reason we cannot just return to Christianity, or Judaism, or any other traditional religion. Science. We know too much. Let’s just admit what we know and be adults about it. And let’s move on to forms of spirituality and being in the world that are scientifically savvy and mature. No more dumb literalism. No more reading myths as simple history. This is why I am so sympathetic to all those voices that want to fuse, say, quantum physics or evolutionary biology and mystical ideas or even practices—mutant mystics. Why not? If physics and evolution are our best models for everything that is in the physical world (and I have no doubt that they are), and if mystical experiences are real events that really engage this physical world (and I have no doubt they are and do), then how on earth could mystical events not be related to physics and evolution? But this, of course, calls for a very different kind of religion (and science). Not the end of religion, mind you, but a different way of being religious, for sure.

PB I am still skeptical that mystical experiences engage with the physical world, only because I think that even though religious and spiritual consciousness is “real,” it is not measurable in the same way that, say, physics is. The website BoingBoing recently pointed to an amazing quote by Alan Moore from an interview he did with New Humanist where he said, “We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we’ve developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas, which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real—they’re just real in different ways.”

Mystical experiences gain a foothold in the physical through their expression. And this is what really excites me. We’ve been talking about pop culture, but hidden here is art. Pop culture still has a negative connotation to it, but when I am referring to comics and the like, I really am trying to get at the creative impulse that goes hand in hand with this kind of mythologizing. Alien abduction testimonials are not nearly as interesting to me as Jack Kirby’s imagining of spiritual cosmic encounters.

JJK What you are articulating here is a form of psycho-physical dualism. It was most famously articulated by Descartes, but it is found all over the world in countless forms. It is an ancient and most venerable tradition. As it is articulated by Moore above, I think it is way too “safe,” as it leaves the mystical locked up in its own realm, safely tucked away from the material world, where it defers everything about the world “out there” to professional science. This seems way too convenient to me, way too polite.

PB So you don’t buy it?

JJK I don’t buy it and for two reasons. First, once you adopt such a dualism, you then have to explain how these two separate systems interact. They clearly do, so what connects them? Second, historically speaking now, I think some mystical experiences are actual cognitions of reality, including material reality, and that these sorts of encounters—always, of course, filtered through the cultural imagination—deeply challenge the materialist, naively objectivist models of contemporary science. So that’s okay. We differ. It would be surprising if we did not disagree on something!

PB In terms of psychedelic experiences, I have found that music does a much better job describing non-ordinary states of consciousness than even the experiences! Music has a foothold in something extremely physical even when it tries to transcend physicality. I think this tension is particularly valuable when trying to get at meaning behind mystical and paranormal encounters. Sometimes the expression is merely about the desire for the experience, or a glimpse, or the melancholy of coming down. Sometimes it’s about our inability to get beyond ourselves at all. Art is the great mediator of all these various kinds of encounters with the ineffable, better I dare say than any priest or any substance. I think religion functions best of all when it provides rituals, symbols, stories that can be re-imagined again in art.

JJK Alas, I am not musically gifted, like you. When I was in the seminary, I got C’s in only two classes: Christian ethics and musicology. I think I’ll not comment there. I can say much more about art, though, as a historian of religions. I’m totally with you here. And it goes back to everything I was trying to babble about above. We spoke of our mutual disillusionment around religion above, largely because they have come to take their art not as symbol but as literal truth. We also spoke about our love of comics and sci-fi, largely because they can express the mystical so powerfully, and yet still do not take themselves quite literally.

So the key question, for me anyway, is this: What is our understanding of the imagination and its relationship to art, symbol, and religion? Is the imagination, as the common secular wisdom has it, simply a spinner of subjective fantasies, just “pop art”? Or are its most famous historical products (religious revelations), as the conservative religions have it, not imaginary at all, but literally, historically true? Or is there a more nuanced, both/and answer to be had somewhere here? Can the imagination, in some rare moments, function as a translator of a greater reality, an organ of cognition that is really and truly cognizing the real, but then translating this reality into culturally shaped images, narratives, and colors? In short, cannot there be a trick and a truth at work here, at the same time? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions for me. I am in the third camp.

PB I think the role of consciousness is the key, as both mediator of ultimate reality and artificer of how that reality becomes transposed into language, myth, symbol.

JJK I read you, Peter, as adopting something similar with your invocation of Aldous Huxley’s “filter thesis” of consciousness in the book. The brain here is indeed a kind of cultural and neurological filter, but it is also filtering the real, or what Huxley calls Mind at Large. The mystical is definitely not locked away in another world for Huxley. It is accessing the real, the real out there. Hence my concerns again about Moore’s answer as framed above. Whether he intends it or not (and I suspect he does not, given what I have read of his own paradoxical occult encounters via the imagination), this kind of position easily slides into the first imagination-as-weaver-of-subjective-fantasies camp. I want to suggest, argue really, that the imagination, in rare moments anyway, can become a filter or translator of something immeasurably more. I want to suggest that in a mystical event, consciousness reveals itself as the artist, the paint, and the canvas all at the same time. Science can’t get to that kind of paradox or practice, that kind of nonduality, but art can.

Peter Bebergal is the author of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood (Soft Skull Press) and co-author of The Faith Between Us. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Times Literary Supplement, Tablet Magazine, The Revealer, Killing the Buddha, and The Believer. He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is the author of six books, including Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal. He thinks he may be Spider-Man.