Smart people who ‘believe in “synchronicity.”‘

by waxbanks

(Wrote this three weeks ago, never got around to revising it. I’m of two minds about the book under consideration, because it’s really two books, only one of which seems to me to be of lasting value — and unfortunately, the other book takes over toward the end, leaving a sour aftertaste. This is, as you can see, a first impression rather than a proper review. –wa.)

Having recently read and enjoyed Jeffrey Kripal’s (mostly very valuable) Mutants & Mystics, I’m again left wondering about the attraction of ideas like ‘synchronicity’ and alien visitation. To me, ‘skepticism’ means not dismissal of possibility but a tendency to favour parsimony, systemicity, provability in explanation — e.g. the idea that extraterrestrials exist and regularly visit earth rests on a number of physically impossible premises, massive coincidence, and conspiracy in order to be true, so I am ‘skeptical’ of same. There are better explanations for the alien-visitation phenomenon available, which I favour but not exclusively.

This isn’t ‘materialism’ except coincidentally; I’m starting with an epistemological position and from there working my way to an assumption about visitors from other planets.

Kripal’s book deals with a number of mid-20C writers and artists, and he’s generally quite good about rendering their experiences in a balanced way — what happened in Philip K Dick’s head in 1974, say, is less important to us readers than what he made of it in his art, so Kripal spends most of his time talking about the art. That’s good; his handling of Dick’s story is sensitive and insightful. But then there’s stuff like this:

A neuroscientist may want to invoke something like temporal lobe seizures, and Windsor-Smith himself may or may not find these sorts of descriptions appropriate as neuroscientific labels of what his brain was doing at the time. But again, what do such “explanations” really mean? Is the filter really the filtered? And how do such easy labels explain the objective fact that the artist saw, in precise detail, two events in 1970 that did not occur until three years later in 1973? Just how much of [Windsor-Smith and Philip K Dick’s] courage and honesty do we need to savage … in order to protect our little materialist worlds? …

The easy explanation is that Barry Windsor-Smith didn’t actually experience precognition, only believed he had and acted accordingly, and that Philip K Dick’s VALIS experience was as accurate an account of reality as, say, Saul’s seizure-induced conversion on the road to Damascus — i.e. whatever those great writers claim they ‘saw,’ it didn’t mean anything until they started fictionalizing around it. Kripal goes further than this, though: he seems to want to claim that Windsor-Smith and Dick experienced a kind of higher or deeper reality, caught a glimpse of a secret of the universe. (Victoria Nelson’s superb Secret Life of Puppets, which I’m very profitably reading right now and which (if I remember right) Kripal approvingly cites, tends strongly in the same direction.)

The problem is that he’s cagey about his subject. He starts the book with a coincidence — he finds a cross-shaped piece of jewelry or something on the ground in a parking lot, thinks it’s the X in X-Men, and is startled into writing this long book about comics — and the closer he gets to talking about the experience, the more he favours ‘magical’ explanation. It’s not enough that this random occurrence had personal meaning for him; something else, something Significant, had to’ve been going on. But since that idea is ‘problematic’ in Kripal’s field of religious studies, something he talks charmingly about in the book and in interviews, Mutants & Mystics gets vague and handwavey at the precise point when it should be…skeptical, in the sense of ‘precise and limited in its determination, expansively agnostic in its inquiry.’ The book is admirable and excellent on that second point, but wishy-washy on the first.

Kripal can point to something like Whitley Streiber’s ‘visitor corpus’ and talk for dozens of pages about how strangely wise and beautiful it is without ever asking whether the whole thing isn’t a record of, in a word that’s nastier in its connotations than I mean it to be, delusion — a record of a state of alternate consciousness which Streiber, living as he does within his own perceptions, will fictionalize around in order to keep from experiencing a debilitating break with reality. (The alternative explanation, that it’s all a cynical fiction, is unappealing — I’ll take Kripal’s word for it that Streiber’s a decent man with no intent to deceive.) I don’t require a purely ‘materialist’ explanation, e.g. hallucinations, but I do ask that critics not throw out the scientific method in order to make the reasonably correct but arguably trivial claim that Life Is Special and Interesting and We Are Capable of So Much More If We Just Awake to the Beautiful Dream.