JANUARY 12, 2018
SECRET BODY: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, conceived of as an academic memoir, is the latest, bravest, and most accessible book by Jeffrey J. Kripal. Both ambitious and substantial, Secret Body addresses topics as diverse as Hindu Tantra, Christian mysticism, American counterculture, and the history of the paranormal.
Above all, Secret Body is about the perennially controversial, yet inescapable topic of belief. As a critical theorist, Kripal prompts us to reflect on our personal assumptions, as well as the shared assumptions that create and maintain our institutions: materialism is called out as dogma, at odds with the spirit of empirical inquiry, as is unreflective religious faith. And though he often defaults to a mystic monotheism, Kripal also recognizes the monotheism-atheism binary as a limited and limiting construct.
Secret Body is not easy to summarize. Some of Kripal’s richest and most relevant topoi can serve as windows into the book’s elaborate structure: a conservative Catholic home, a small farming community, typical boyhood distractions like Saturday morning cartoons and comic books, and intimations of radical change in society at large. Intelligent, yet credulous, the adolescent Kripal struggles to reconcile the stated and unstated rules of his conservative culture with his attraction to mysterious, powerful, and eroticized comic book heroes and heroines. The result is, predictably, suffering, creativity, and eventually exploration of radically different worldviews. Kripal’s writing is honest, detailed, and poignant, and his story both strange and familiar. His experience is that of young people everywhere, striving to reconcile home and school, home and street, home and popular cultures. While not everyone’s home culture is religious, we are all born into tacit value systems. Most of us have reckoned with some of these influences, but Kripal’s work may be eye-opening and disruptive even for rebels and apostates.
These are not merely biographical and cultural sketches, however. Kripal’s personal story greatly enriches the scholarly introductions and essays. At every turn, readers are invited to reflect on their own experiences, how these experiences have shaped their beliefs, and how beliefs have eventually shaped their lives. In this sense, Secret Body may serve as a model for our common, ongoing work of integrating disparate parts of our cultures and our selves.
The first half of Secret Body explains how Kripal’s early work emerged from his personal struggles, and why he came to focus on erotic elements of the religious experience. At the beginning of his academic career Kripal explored far and wide, delving into Hindu Tantra as well as various Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mystical figures and traditions. Through these studies, discussed in chapters three to eight, Kripal discovered that mystics, though inspired and manifestly extraordinary, are not necessarily models of personal morality or integrity. He recognized the capacity of charismatic religious leaders to inspire, unite, and even heal; at the same time, he did not turn away from complicated and often suppressed facts relating to their deepest personal conflicts. Kripal’s bold scholarship has earned him considerable criticism from various quarters, in the United States and abroad, but it’s also precisely what makes his work relevant within and beyond academia.
An important question related to Kripal’s early work is that of cross-cultural comparisons. Though studies of “exotic” cultures can telegraph and reinforce prejudices, Kripal reminds us that religions around the world have influenced one another for millennia. No culture or set of beliefs evolves in isolation. Even the life of a secular community is shaped by religious traditions and subcultures, as well as by assumptions about the nature of reality, what counts as evidence, what can be imagined and what cannot.
The second half of Secret Body focuses on the history of the paranormal in the United States. Kripal’s research is fascinating for students of American history, as his book engages spiritualism, transcendentalism, Cold War politics, the Civil Rights movement, ’60s counterculture, mass media, the information age, quantum physics, and the neurosciences. Though we tend to think of the paranormal as a marginal topic, the comprehensiveness of Kripal’s analysis suggests that supernatural themes, in some form or another, have touched all aspects of American culture. His cultural analysis of superhero comics and their recent mass-media resurgence, for example, is utterly convincing.
Some of Kripal’s most controversial topics may divide his readers. UFOs, alien abduction, precognition, and reincarnation are still on the margins of serious public discourse and academic inquiry. Those curious about such topics, however, will be heartened, if not inspired, by Kripal’s earnest engagement with them. His cultural insights are products of long-term and in-depth comparative study, as well as conversations with a wide variety of interlocutors. Because Kripal entertains topics that even the heartiest critical theorists generally avoid, Secret Body may be most valuable as a performance of institutional and cultural freedom. Contrary to the sneering attitudes of many academics, Kripal withholds judgment: he takes human experience at face value, and doesn’t rush to foreclose speculative discussions by reducing extraordinary experience to psychological symptoms or cultural constructions. As he repeatedly asserts, extraordinary experiences can be psychological, sociological, and real.
One topic repeatedly raised in Secret Body, though not highlighted as a central theme, is transgression. This arises in the nexus of sexuality and religion, and reappears in Kripal’s closing chapters on alien abduction and reincarnation. But transgression is also an implicit, almost hidden, topic of the biography and historical analysis. By his own account, Kripal was shaped by contrary impulses to conform to and challenge various social mores. As an adolescent, he censored his deepest transgressive impulses by turning against his own body through obsessive fasting; as a graduate student, he explored alternative religious identities in the eroticism of Hindu Tantra, only to discover trauma and transgression in the object of his study, the Hindu saint Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. At this time, he also felt invaded (bodily and spiritually) by an amorphous, but extremely powerful energy source. He then turned to Western mysticism, where he discovered similar themes of spiritual and bodily transgression.
Kripal’s subsequent work focused on midcentury American counterculture. His history of Esalen illustrates how a new breed of explorers transgressed American social conventions by embracing Eastern philosophy, experimenting with psychedelics, and conducting and compiling research into the paranormal. Kripal’s recent studies of science fiction, UFO literature, and abduction narratives as elements of a paranormal “Super Story” question the boundaries between fact and fiction, foreground the transgressive strangeness of cutting-edge sciences, and challenge the relatively conservative ground of identity politics as we know it.
Cultural studies and critical theory have long been invested in transgression. Is Kripal’s focus on mysticism and the paranormal the next subject to be integrated, or is there something particularly transgressive about mystical experiences? To the extent that extraordinary experiences call into question our most basic and closely held assumptions about time, space, mind, and matter, they may, indeed, be categorically different. While identity politics challenge various assumptions, paranormal studies challenges all of them, all the time. Speculations about paranormal events don’t ask if fundamental laws of the universe can be transgressed — they debate which ones. Paranormal events not only interrogate but also assault our working assumptions and methods of inquiry.
Kripal’s book is intended for the intellectually and spiritually curious, not in the least because it’s so wide-ranging. Reading it is like gaining private access to a Victorian mansion, with countless rooms filled with elaborate furnishings and curiosities from all over the world. Just when you begin to wonder if you’ve traveled back in time, however, you open a door and find a biotech lab. Down the hall, a room dedicated to UFO research, and an elevator leading down to a cutting-edge telecommunication and data storage facility. There’s just so much to take in.
Secret Body is a book you can dip into at will, and revisit often. In many ways ahead of its time, Kripal’s work will likely become more and more relevant to more and more areas of inquiry as the century unfolds. It may even open up a new space for Americans to reevaluate the personal and cultural narratives they have inherited, and to imagine alternative futures.