By training and profession, I am a historian of religions, a field that most people would probably better recognize as "comparative religion". Basically, I study and compare religious systems like other people study and compare cultural systems, political philosophies, novels, or movies. More especially, I read, translate, and interpret mystical literature, that is, texts from around the world that express and enact “the secrets” (Greek: ta mystika) of humanity’s fundamental unity, even identity, with divinity. Put bluntly, I study how human beings come to realize that they are gods—or superheroes—in disguise.
In the spring of 2007, I published a book on the history of the human potential movement. I organized much of this book around the occult novels of Michael Murphy, who in 1962 co-founded with the late Richard Price (1930-1986) something that soon came to be called the Esalen Institute. Murphy and Price adapted the idea of "human potential" from the British-American writer Aldous Huxley, who had spoken of something he called "human potentialities." Much indebted to his famous experiments with psychedelics (another key-word which he helped coin), Huxley used the expression "human potentialities" to argue that human consciousness and the human body possess vast untapped resources of Mind and Energy. Consciousness, for example, is not something produced without remainder by the brain in Huxley's thought. It is something filtered through and reduced by the brain, something like how a television set or radio tunes in to a particular channel in order to receive a very distinct and specific signal that is not really in the box (or the brain). Mind, then, in its true nature is something to capitalize for Huxley. It is essentially transcendent, metaphysical, cosmic. He called it Mind at Large.
Drawing on such altered states and altered words, writers like Murphy would go on to suggest that the human potential includes all sorts of extraordinary powers that are “metanormal” or “supernormal," from psychical abilities like clairvoyance and telepathy to extraordinary physical phenomena like dramatic healings or remarkable feats of strength, even in a few rare cases (like Teresa of Avila and Joseph of Copertino) apparent levitation or flight. All of these things, of course, have been exaggerated in religious literature, folklore, and modern fantasy as supernatural. They have also been faked and imitated by hucksters and hoaxers. But, according to authors like Murphy, when genuine, they are better understood as foreshadowings or intuitions of the hidden potentials of evolution. Murphy and his colleagues, in other words, believe that evolution has granted at least some human beings extraordinary “superpowers,” and that these have been encoded, if no doubt also exaggerated, in fantasy literature, movies, science fiction, and superhero comic books. Seen in this light, such pop cultural genres are essentially human potential genres in disguise, genres that “might prefigure luminous knowings and powers that can be realized by the human race,” as Murphy put it in his 1992 magnum opus, The Future of the Body. Esalen imagined itself from the very beginning as a kind of alternative private academy for this evolving future of the body, that is, as a place where the human potentialities hinted at in psychedelic, psychical, and mystical experiences could be supported, nurtured, and developed further through consistent transformative practices and a stable institutional structure.
Consider, for example, the case of the late George Leonard, who just recently passed away. Leonard was a LOOK journalist, education reformer, and later aikido master who coined the phrase "the human potential movement" with Murphy in 1965 (after that other recently coined phrase, "the civil rights movement"). Leonard was well known in the late 60s for his radical models of education reform. Hence one of the opening scenes of his wildly popular Education and Ecstasy (1968). Leonard enters a classroom and senses a young witch whose psychic powers, he realizes, are laced with an obvious and dangerous eroticism. He can feel his skin tingling as he exits the room and wonders about the young girl’s fate in a superficial and uncomprehending world. In Leonard’s model of mutant education, at least, the typical American high school classroom is a place where occult talents are first manifested (often around puberty and the appearance of the sexual powers) and then cruelly crushed under the weight of social control, disbelief, and pure neglect. The young woman will forget about her own human potential, about her own magico-erotic superpowers. She must forget them.
As I came closer and closer to the end of my research for Esalen, I became more and more surprised by—okay, obsessed with—a thought that went something like this: “Well, this looks a lot like the X-Men mythology of my youth. Actually, this is the X-Men.” That was the basic idea in the throes of excitement. In my calmer moments, I would frame it in a more qualified fashion, something like: “The X-Men are fictionalized and exaggerated versions of my human potential colleagues.” But either way, this was just way too interesting—and, frankly, way too cool—to let go. Not that I could have. I was more or less possessed now by the idea. So I sat down to write a book on the paranormal and popular culture, with a special emphasis on the real-world paranormal experiences of authors and writers and the occult dimensions of science fiction and superhero comics, particularly as they relate to the human potential movement and other modern metaphysical currents in the U.S.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, that is not the book that “came out.” What came out was another book, which then became the first volume of a two-volume work on the paranormal in theory and popular culture. This first volume is out this May with the University of Chicago Press and is entitled Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred. It treats, in significant depth and detail, the lives and works of four major theorists of the paranormal: (1) the nineteenth-century British classicist become psychical researcher Frederic Myers; (2) the American humorist, novelist, and collector of anomalies Charles Fort; (3) the French astronomer become American computer scientist, novelist, and ufologist Jacques Vallee; and (4) the French sociologist and philosopher Bertrand Méheust.
Myers and Fort left us long ago, so I obviously could not interview them in any traditional fashion (although I visited Fort’s grave in Albany, New York). Vallee and Méheust are very much still with us. I was fortunate enough to interview both men at some length. I suspect, but am not entirely certain, that Authors of the Impossible constitutes the fullest study and analysis of Vallee’s work to this date. Since all of Méheust’s work is available only in French, including a provocative book entitled Science Fiction and Flying Saucers: A Mythico-Physical Reality, this will certainly constitute the fullest presentation of Bertrand’s complex and subtle thought in English, and probably in any language.
Very briefly, the book as a whole explores the fantastic ways that literary and interpretive processes (that is, writing and reading) and real-world paranormal events mimic and even produce one another. Put a bit differently, the book demonstrates how many paranormal events look a lot like living texts or stories and, vice versa, how texts and stories can catalyze real paranormal events. This is why "automatic writing" played such an important role in the history of psychical phenomena and why we still speak of "psychical readings." That is, after all, exactly what they are.
There is another way to say this. Although paranormal events certainly often involve material objects, many of them are finally organized around signs and meaning. They are about story and narrative, not just matter and numbers. And—and this is the really weird and tricky part—we are probably their ultimate authors. An “author of the impossible,” then, is someone
• who understands that these particular stories are necessary, but also fundamentally relative and illusory; and
• who reads a genuine paranormal experience not as a meaningless coincidence or random anomaly, but as a sign or symbol that (a) one is indeed “caught in a novel” and (b) the mind has the power to step out of this story and write itself anew.
That is the basic idea of the book, but it is by no means the book. The book itself is a vast array of story after story, some of them very serious, some of them very funny, each of which illustrates this “impossible” idea in a different way. A ghostly love story at the heart of the London Society for Psychical Research, the cultural histories of telepathy and teleportation, the mind-boggling paradoxes of the UFO phenomenon, the occult dimensions of science fiction, cold war psychic espionage, galactic colonialism, poltergeist girls, consciousness as the creator of culture, and culture as the crystallization of consciousness—it is all impossible, and it all happens in these pages.
Imagine, if you will, an audience. Captive since birth in a dark cave, they are unable even to turn their heads. Their entire reality must be constructed from the images—mere light and shadow—being projected before them. The setting, of course, is from one of the best known of all philosophical parables, “Plato's Cave.” The setting and the parable are rather obviously, if also imperfectly, analogous to our modern day cinemas, or, increasingly, our modern day living rooms with all those big, flat-screen televisions. There are significant differences, of course. Plato's audience is, after all, literally captive. And although it is rather beside the point of Plato's parable, I cannot help but wonder about the puppeteers responsible for creating the crude ancient movies of firelight and shadow that comprise the prisoners' worldviews. It is probably safe to assume that they are deliberately deceiving their audience.
We, of course, are not forced to absorb the images that we do. We come before the screen as willing participants, seeking entertainment and, perhaps, a little bit of enlightenment. But precisely because we are not literally captive, the puppeteers must work much harder at keeping us captivated. In the inherently expensive business of movie-making, those creating today's worlds of projected light and shadow must pay the bills, and so they tend to skew their efforts toward that which is most profitable and popular, which means that they usually end up producing grand visions of diversion rather than divination or, much less, divinization.
Still, one must ask why it is that so little of what we see on our modern-day screens sufficiently addresses the many, truly profound questions raised by a genuine paranormal experience, which most people have known at some point in their own lives. Why are so many films on paranormal or psychical themes little more than shallow attempts to either frighten the audience or suggest vaporous ways to materially enrich them? Why is the deepest question most of these films ask something like: “Is the phenomenon (take your pick) real or not”? Put most bluntly, why are the general lot of films on the paranormal either (a) cheesy or (b) purely fictional?
I have always been interested in metaphysical questions and have always preferred films with a philosophic bent, but as we started on the production of the Authors of the Impossible, my film viewing took on a new urgency. In the last year and half, I have watched many metaphysical and paranormal documentaries. But in a strange irony, the films I have found sublimely transcendent, in the past and as of late, are, virtually without exception, not films about the metaphysical, and certainly not about the paranormal, which inevitably disappoint (and if the reader knows of any, please do tell). This said, I have decided that while many of the filmmakers creating films on the paranormal can be accused of producing commodities aimed at merely making a buck, I do not believe that they are deliberately deceiving their audience, as were Plato's puppeteers. Instead, I think that filmmakers genuinely do not know what to make of the paranormal. They are simply baffled.
Late one night years ago, I was watching television with my wife when I flipped on an episode of Crossing Over with John Edward. I said out loud, “He is either a complete fake, or he is doing something truly astonishing.” Fake or not, I thought, this guy is good. I was aware of the historical precedents for what Edward was doing, that is, I knew about the many nineteenth-century mediums borne of Spiritualism. But at the time I thought more like the skeptics who dismiss what Edward and his ilk do as a cruel form of performance theater, wherein he is merely "cold reading" the audience rather than contacting their loved ones' ghosts. I watched closely, admittedly entertained, looking for signs of fraud or genuine occult ability, caught in the simple and rather silly game of the professional skeptics and the true believers, the game of “It’s all true or it’s all false.”
Reading Jeff, I have come realize that it is way more complicated, and way more interesting, than that. I have come to see that John Edward's act may be one of trickery and transcendence. As with the well-documented and indubitable “placebo effect” in medical research, real paranormal experiences may require things like tricks, stage acts, and science fiction to manifest at all. The truth may need the trick.
When we finally got to know one another and he let me read an early draft of Authors of the Impossible, I knew immediately that I wanted to try to make a film based on the book (I also understood why he wore all those superhero t-shirts). It felt very much like a kind of “calling,” if a heterodox or most unusual one. I have since told Jeff that, if his work had been about anything else (or not as good as it is), I almost certainly would not have been willing to put forth the massive effort that it takes to make a full-length documentary film. Which is just another way of saying that, for me, the project is “meant to be.”
What makes Authors so powerful and so ultimately convincing is its broad historical perspective, coupled with the fascinating theories of the four authors profiled, each of whom Jeff traces, contrasts, and compares. This or that particular paranormal event that he describes may have been illusory or even fraudulent. Jeff is very clear about that. But the sheer weight of the stories as they pile up—together with (and this is really important) the striking patterns that they begin to form as they are classified and compared by Jeff—becomes nearly impossible to ignore or deny. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that something very real, and very strange, is going on here, and that Jeff has intuited something of its basic structure or form as it is taking shape right now.
Among the many things that appealed to me about the book was Jeff's subtle, sophisticated, and paradoxical way of thinking about such things. He is always dancing between and beyond the polarities of reason and faith. He seems open to just about anything, even as he is also rigorously critical in how he approaches and thinks about these impossible cases. It also did not hurt that he is one heck of a writer and a world-class scholar. What ultimately sealed the deal for me, though, was my growing realization that, if his thinking is even partially correct (and I believe that it is mostly, if not entirely, so), he is pointing toward much more than just a new way of thinking. He is pointing toward a new way of being.
How to make a film about all of this? How best to envision Jeff's vision? In Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film, Eric Wilson meditates on the enduring split in film criticism between what is called “formalism” and “realism.” Briefly, formalism, derived from the world of art, is reflective of the inner workings of the mind and all its attendant oddities: dreams, fantasies, the subconscious, and the like. The formalist approach to filmmaking allows the artist to shape his filmic world to fit his abstract ideas. Realism, on the other hand, aspires to immediate presentation of the real. It does not seek to reduce reality to the familiar, but to paradoxically reveal what we might call the mystery of the real. Wilson describes a “golden mean” between these two extremes, a middle path that he calls “transcendental irony.” In such an approach, formalism and realism are placed into a tense, conflicted relationship, which in turn invites the viewer or seer to consider a kind of transcendence of opposites. This is what Wilson calls Gnostic cinema.
Wilson’s Gnostic cinema is very close to what Jeff has been doing in his own books, one of which advances an almost identical thesis with respect to the professional study of religion, his The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion. Indeed, Wilson’s Secret Cinema and Jeff’s The Serpent’s Gift could easily be read as two books on the same Gnostic transcendental irony. As can Authors of the Impossible.
This, I suspect, is one of the deepest reasons that I was so taken with Jeff’s book and the idea of making a film version of it. Jeff did not just “nail” something about the paranormal. He “nailed” something about the paranormal possibilities of film. The viewing of film, after all, is an especially powerful and appropriate way to “capture” and “perform” this Gnostic irony or both-and thinking. The entire genre and experience is inherently reflexive. While viewing a film on the cave wall of a modern theater, consciousness (encoded now as culture) is reflected back to consciousness (encoded now as an individual), who in turn is trying to make sense of—what else?—consciousness. It all quickly becomes a hall of mirrors, until, that is, one “pops” out of the game and emerges on the other side of the mirror. Here is Wilson again in Secret Cinema:
My opening homage to Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone (“Imagine, if you will...) was not accidental. Part Rod Serling, part Joseph Campbell, Jeff is our guide through this strange and wonderful world. We are heading back to the cave, willingly, hopefully, where we will peer through a hole in our illusive worlds and, if we are lucky enough, catch brief glimpses of the bright Sun of Mind outside the Cave of Consensus, where we will make at least some sense of these enduring secrets and, in the process, become our own authors of the impossible.