Ich lebe, damit ich erkenne: ich will erkennen, damit der Übermensch lebe. Wir experimentiren für ihn!
I live so that I know: I want to know so that superhumans may live. We experiment for them!
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Fragments from the Period of Thus Spoke Zarathustra
It’s not me. It’s the books. Students and visitors come into my faculty office at Rice University and are inevitably put in a state of quiet awe. The fluorescent lights above our heads are never on. The room is softly lit with two lamps and a bit of angled sunlight pouring in. The floor is decorated with a beautiful wool Persian rug of many colors, mostly rich blues and deep reds. The shelves are peopled with the busts, faces, and forms of various gods, goddesses, and superhumans from the history of religions and American popular culture. Most of all, the walls are lined and the floors are piled with a few thousand books. Their bright and varied spines turn the room into a kind of spiritual-intellectual cavern that welcomes and soothes.
I always know what is coming next—the question. It is always the same question: “Have you really read all of these books?” My answer is always the same: “No. A library is not a sign of accomplishment. It is a sign of desire.” My guest is relieved.
This book is a lot like my university office. It displays and desires. It does not accomplish. It is about a shared collective beauty, not a personal achievement. As such, this book holds in it many books and many lives, countless books and countless lives, really.
Not that I do not have my own moments of pretended grandeur. As I wrote these pages, mostly during the global pandemic, I realized that almost every section could expand into an entire book, an entire lifework. I wanted to return to my earlier training in Indian languages and the astonishing nondual philosophies of the Hindu traditions. I wanted to learn German, the language of my maternal side of the family, and become a scholar of Friedrich Nietzsche. I wanted to read all the books of W.E.B. DuBois and immerse myself in contemporary critical race theory, particularly in its Afrofuturist genres. I wanted to relearn and develop my long forgotten high school Spanish and become an interpreter of Gloria Anzaldúa’s queer life and New Age esotericism in Santa Cruz, California.
But then it hit me. I realized that the whole point of this book is not any one of those lives and works. The point of this book is all of those works and lives. The point of this book is the “humanities,” a modern Euro-American take on what is a much more global, more diverse, and, frankly, much richer set of reading practices and intellectual-spiritual disciplines that have engaged, and changed, countless human beings over the millennia around the globe.
Still, that is not quite right. Or that is not quite enough. This book is also an extended essay about why a strong and unapologetically comparative study of extreme and often culturally anomalous human experiences—historically coded as religious but increasingly separated today from these established historical associations—must be central to the transformation of the humanities; why what I would much prefer to call the history of religions (with an emphasis on history and on religions, plural) holds a very special key to the whole shebang of human knowledge and its present inadequate ordering, the sciences included.
This deeper impulse before and beyond any discipline or department is why, although I am definitely working within a particular Euro-American spiritual-intellectual lineage, I do not really want to become a scholar of this or that thinker, or, frankly, be bound by European or American thoughts. Nor do I want to claim any expertise that I in fact do not possess. Rather, I want to put the pixels of each and every author on those office bookshelves together to form a much bigger picture, a vision of who we really are . . . or who we might yet become. Most of all, I want to try to “turn around” and try to fathom the conscious light that has long been projecting all such visions, peoples, cultures, and knowledges on the endless screens of space-time. I want to get behind the whole damned thing.
I better explain.
When I Grow Up . . .
I was born in 1962 and so I remember the early children’s television shows of the 1960s. This was well before Sesame Street, even before the American childhood ritual of Saturday morning cartoons of the 1970s. Before the rubber dinosaur creepiness of The Land of the Lost or the psychedelic romp of H.R. Pufnstuf (did anyone just think about that title?), we had the more staid programs of the 1960s. A typical episode might feature a couple dozen children sitting on simple bleachers in some bare studio being entertained by adults in bad costumes with silly names, or maybe with basic puppets with even sillier names. Throw in a few gigantic candy bars or lollipops as gifts, which awed our little brains, and you have the basic recipe.
Then there was the standard question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The microphone would go around the little group to capture the always predictable answers, all, of course, culturally bound, historically determined, and heavily gendered. The boys would say things like, “I want to be a fireman,” or “I want to be a policeman,” or, if they were really brave, “I want to be a doctor.” The girls would say things like, “I want to be a teacher,” or “I want to be a nurse” (never a doctor).
I suppose I was a little less culturally bound. But not much. I never got to be on such a show, but if I had, I would have said something like, “I want to be a clown in a traveling circus” (yep), or, a little later, “I want to be a comic book artist.” Actually, what I really wanted to be was an NFL quarterback, with the Dallas Cowboys no less (I had plans).
Adolescent anorexia was going to wipe that one out, if it were ever remotely possible at all. Still, I would dream for decades about playing in the big game, never quite ready, never quite suited up properly. Later, I would much identify with the adult character of Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite (2004), pathetically filming himself throwing footballs into the landscape around his orange van, as he imagined, in utter vanity, just how great he could have been. At one point in the movie, Uncle Rico proudly shows one of his self-made videos to his two nephews, Kip and Napoleon. “This is pretty much the worst video ever made,” Napoleon comments in his typical dry style.
Such are my football dreams.
What the heck is my point here? My point is that no American kid grew up then (or now) saying, “I want to be a professor of the humanities,” much less, “I want to be a professor of comparative religion.” That would have been one weird kid. Even pathetic Uncle Rico throwing footballs into the empty field makes more cultural sense than that.
But why is this? Why does no one grow up wanting to be us? And why do we think the humanities are so important? Are they? What is the point? Is there a point?
My fundamental answer to such questions may shock you. I hope so, anyway. I think the humanities are so important because the humanities are really the superhumanities. I think there is something cosmic or superhuman smoldering in the human, something that seems ever ready to burst into flames, and sometimes does. A few fortunate souls intuit this superhuman smoldering in particularly inspired books, themselves about to burst into flames—yes, books, of all things—and decide to give their lives to the pursuit and nurturing of that, whatever “that” is.
Usually, of course, such souls end up pursuing the (super)human in terms that are more respectable and more culturally bound, which is to say: in ways that can get (a very few of them) paying jobs. They learn not to fess up to their original dreams. The superhuman becomes the simply human again. They go back to being doctors, which literally means “teachers” (the medical profession stole it from us until everyone forgot what it means and small children grow up wanting to be doctors but never professors). These proper humanists will talk endlessly now about anything but the super, unless, of course, they want to critique the super and reduce it to something else, something always bad and sad.
That’s how we forget. Or are made to forget.
But, deep down, what at least some of these individuals really want, or at least what they once wanted, is to become superhumans, like the authors whom they first read and loved.
That’s because they really are.
So are you.
That is the argument of this book.
Sit with that for a moment, even if, yes, I know, I know, you are not yet clear about what I mean by the superhuman. Can you imagine what the humanities might become if they were seen anew and widely understood as the superhumanities? What if we just called them that, put that on our buildings? Can you imagine what this might mean? New sources of funding might well appear. New institutional structures would certainly be called for, whole new kinds of schools, whole new ways of organizing knowledge. Entirely new cultural imaginaries, new meanings, new worlds would be revealed. And—to take us back to my opening thought experiment—little kids, of all kinds, would grow up saying, “I want to be a student, maybe even a professor of the superhumanities. I want to be a superhuman.”
Who wouldn’t want to be that?
Yes, of course, we would also have new problems and new questions (and I can well imagine the hesitations of some of my colleagues about now—our immunological responses are heavily scripted and so utterly predictable). But at least these would be truly interesting problems and passionate questions to have. Things would not seem so damned bleak. Honestly, the secular scientisms, nihilistic materialisms, and unbelievable fundamentalisms of contemporary American culture are truly saddening. No wonder so many of us are on drugs. We are depressed because we are, deep down, perfectly sane. We are sad because we once saw. We are disgusted because we know better and more than this.
Reprinted with permission from The Superhumanities: Historical Precedents, Moral Objections, New Realities by Jeffrey J. Kripal, published by the University of
Chicago Press. © 2022 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Praise for The Superhumanities
“It’s relentlessly fascinating, profoundly important and beautifully written. It should be required reading for everyone who reads books other than computer manuals.”
“[Kripal proposes] de-colonising reality itself and enlarging our understanding of human identity, and hence of meaning and purpose. This is a major and indeed essential cultural enterprise, and this book is an extraordinary tour de forceto this end.”
“An electrifying, glorious, loving, and almost deranged romp through humanity’s greatest recurrent ideas and experiences, The Superhumanities is for anyone who senses that the transformative power of books, ideas, and spiritual experiences are intertwined and too often estranged.”
―Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
“One of the foremost historians of religion and a consummate storyteller, Kripal makes a compelling case for restoring the anomalous and inexplicable to the heart of inquiry in the humanities. A must-read for anyone interested in the future of education, society, and indeed reality and for all who have experienced or would like to experience amazement.”
―Priscilla Wald, author of Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative
“In this magical mystery tour of the superhumanities, Kripal takes us inside and out of the pantheistic, the paranormal, the metaphysical, the extrasensory, the anomalous, the weird, the wonderful, the awe inspiring. Reading the book is an experience—a mind-opening guide to the superhuman and soulful, as you feel where it leads you.”
―Richard A. Shweder, author of Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology
“Kripal’s recent foray into the troubled waters of the nature of reality and the human may be his greatest work yet. Kripal does not make categorical claims; the end is uncertain, but he does hold space for the hopeful possibility that the superhumanities might help us envision and create a new and more egalitarian world.”
―Stephen C. Finley, author of In and Out of This World: Material and Extraterrestrial Bodies in the Nation of Islam
About the Author
Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, The Flip: Who You Really Are and Why It Matters.