Something that is but cannot be
Kripal explores paranormal activity in new book, film
BY JESSICA STARK
Rice News staff
The history of human knowledge is littered with misperceptions and misinterpreted realities — once upon a time the world was flat, a rock could not fall from the sky and there were only two forms of carbon. But Christopher Columbus didn’t sail off an edge, meteors were revealed and researchers at Rice University discovered carbon’s third form. Now, through a new book and film, Jeffrey Kripal is taking on what he sees as a current misunderstanding — paranormal activity — by probing and presenting the work of great thinkers who tackled the oft-disparaged topic.
Jeffrey Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor in Religious
“We have a hard time exploring the paranormal because it violates the traditional boundaries of knowledge and the way we think of reality,” said Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor in Religious Studies and chair of the department. “We think of things as ‘objects’ or ‘subjects,’ as matter or meaning, but a paranormal event is both — or neither. Accordingly, it’s something that can’t be explained with our current ways of knowing. It is something that is, but cannot be.”
Kripal’s book, “Authors of the Impossible,” aims to give a history of psychic phenomena through the last two centuries of Western thought to provide a framework to discussing the ideas and events cited as paranormal, such as near-death experiences and telepathic dreams.
“Our minds are interacting with physical reality in ways that don’t make sense, so we just write it off,” Kripal said. “The easy way out is to say it’s a coincidence or simply fraudulent, but the evidence, in the best cases anyway, is just too strong.”
For the book, he pored over the research and writings of F.W.H. Myers, a British psychic researcher; Charles Fort, an American writer and humorist; Jacques Vallee, an astronomer, computer scientist and UFOlogist; and Bertrand Méheust, a French philosopher. In the process of presenting their work, he illustrates how psychic and paranormal events once considered mystical, spiritual or occult are manifesting in today’s modern scientific culture and how they can be fruitfully approached as moments in which the world ceases to function like a mechanistic machine and begins to look more like a living story.
“These authors show how the mind is involved in not only mental but material events,” Kripal said. “We don’t have a way to study these events that are both about matter and meaning, so we try to write it off and leave the unexplainable unexplained.”
Kripal asserts that when handled correctly as signs or living stories, many of the paranormal events that are denied and discarded by today’s materialist mindset are, in fact, real, and that society’s present dismissals of the universally experienced realities reveal a broad cultural naiveté regarding the deeper nature of consciousness and mind.
Manuscript to screen
The subject matter is so gripping that local film company XL Films signed on to produce a documentary of his findings.
“The ideas Jeff advances are so compelling,” said Scott Jones, director for XL Films. “He gave me an early copy of his manuscript, which I found utterly astonishing. I found it such an extraordinary discovery there was never any question as to whether or not I was going to try to make a film based on it.”
However, a film was not the intention of their first meetings. They were simply dads to daughters who were friends. They talked in passing but it was several years before the chord struck.
“It was by chance that we met … or was it?” Jones said.
After Kripal had been traveling to and from California for another of his books, “Esalen,” that was being turned into a movie, the idea of working with a local filmmaker became more appealing. Jones and his company had just finished up the a video for the Rice University Centennial Campaign, a billion-dollar fundraising effort to train more student leaders, boost Rice’s research program and expand its community and international outreach during the university’s next century.
Both agreed it was an ideal time to embark on the film project for “Authors of the Impossible.”
“Culturally, we lack a language to discuss many of the ideas presented in the film, so part of our purpose will be to spark a public dialogue around these ideas,” Jones said. “We’re aiming for an audience that doesn’t fully subscribe to the dogmas of religious orthodoxy, nor to a purely rationalistic materialism — an audience we believe will be quite large.”
Kripal said if his lectures are any indicator, there will be great interest in the book and film. He said that when he speaks on this topic at seminars or in the classroom, people are always asking more questions or telling him their own experiences.
“These types of discussions happen all the time,” Kripal said. “It’s deeply meaningful to people. Just look at the movies and TV shows out there. Authors and writers might hide it in fiction, but there’s something about it that’s deeply compelling.”
And, according the Jones, that’s what makes the project so fitting of a Rice professor.
“Rice is and has always been a place where the truth is fearlessly pursued with uncommon intelligence and vigor,” Jones said. “‘Authors of the Impossible’ is no exception.”