Dreams of the Dead

on September 8, 2014

The last time I wrote about the second vision of existence — the kinship vision — I described its emergence in largely practical terms. I suggested that it became necessary when our earliest ancestors, having acquired the useful ability to create mental maps of their surroundings in space and time, began to flourish and spread out in all directions.

As the human community expanded, the kinship vision made it possible for the members of different bands to continue perceiving one another as family rather than as strangers. The Neanderthals never managed that trick, but our own ancestors did. I would guess this occurred around 340,000 years ago, when the ending of an ice age had opened up new territories.

Two elements went into the making of the kinship vision. One was the sense of belonging to a larger whole provided by higher knowledge. The other was a structuring of human relationships using the same mental tools that had previously been applied to the natural world. The basic family roles — mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers — were generalized to encompass more distant relatives. People began assembling mental maps of their own family trees and using those as a basis for action.

At least that’s how I accounted for the origins of the kinship vision two years ago. But at the time, I wasn’t factoring in the underground stream — the magical and occult current of thought that adds an element of the unknown and the uncanny to the otherwise rational and mystical materials of every vision.

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I’ve been trying for several years to come up with a comprehensive explanation of the sequence of visions that has formed the backbone of human history. I’ve never felt entirely satisfied with any of my attempts, but my recent exploration of the interaction between the visions and the romantic and occult materials that I’ve described as the “underground stream” has given me some fresh ideas.

The excavations at Qesem Cave which I mentioned in the previous entry provide a useful starting point. They indicate that as early as 400,000 years ago, the cave’s inhabitants had developed an ability to orient themselves in both space and time. They divided up their living space according to various functions and they had established a production line for making stone blades that reduced the process to a maximally efficient series of steps.

These capacities correspond to what I identified some while back as a uniquely human ability to construct mental maps of the world around us and share those maps with others through a sophisticated use of language.

I further suggested at that time that the visions through which we make sense of existence arise out of those same mental maps, but with an added element of mystery and imagination. The maps are limited to factual knowledge, but the visions go beyond those limits. They combine known and unknown, the familiar places of everyday and the distant realms of story, the world as it is and the world as it might be.

And I concluded that the dual nature of the visions represents our best attempt to reconcile the intellectual approach of ordinary knowledge with the intuitive flashes and mystical intimations of higher knowledge by granting each its own separate domain of applicability.

That conclusion was fine as far as it went, but it never accounted for all the pieces of the puzzle — and now I’m starting to believe the visions must involve not two but three different modes of awareness.

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Much of what I’ve written at this blog has involved tracing out human history in terms of a succession of visions of the nature of reality.

Each of these visions begins as an attempt to account for an entire area of human existence using a limited set of premises and conclusions. Once a vision matures, it expands its scope to become a general philosophy of life, but at the cost of losing much of its inner coherence. The tensions and contradictions this sets up ultimately lead to the birth of a new vision, founded on very different premises, while the parent vision becomes increasingly rigid and intolerant and finally collapses.

At least, that’s the story as I’ve been telling it up to now. I’ve tended to treat the visions as a closed system, with each one being influenced by visions drawn from other areas of experience but not by anything outside the system. I’ve occasionally speculated that there must be an outside factor which launched the cycle of visions in the remote past and has since kept it in motion, but I haven’t ever managed to pin down just what that might be.

Since last winter, however, I’ve been examining what I’ve called the “underground stream” — a persistent current of occultism and magical thinking that is cruder and less intellectual than the visions but also more idealistic and romantic — and I’m coming to believe that could be my missing X factor.

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I’ve spent the past several entries trying to pin down the relationship between the simple, straightforward visions of reality that I’ve been discussing at this blog for the last several years and the much murkier and more elusive “underground stream.”

The visions are relatively easy to define, since each one is organized around a limited set of premises and conclusions designed to relate a particular area of practical experience — scientific, social, or personal — to a mystical sense of oneness.

The underground stream, in contrast, has no firm philosophical structure, but it does display certain persistent characteristics. The most obvious is a tendency to perceive existence in terms of occult forces: magical or psychic powers, a world in which invisible spirit beings or unsuspected aliens surround us on every hand, and conspiracies both sinister and benign. It also has a distinctive emotional tonality which ranges from mistily dreamlike to lushly romantic to darkly paranoid.

However, there are times when the visions and the underground stream are so closely aligned that they appear as two sides of the same coin.

One recent example would be the use of the word “cyberpunk” in the 1980s. On one hand, the “cyber” part can be seen as referring to the holism vision, in which networks of all sorts are considered the fundamental units of reality, while the “punk” part evokes the streetwise, anarchic aspect of the horizontalism vision. But it would be equally true to say that “cyber” speaks to the magical dreamscapes of cyberspace and “punk” to the genre’s conspiratorial, film noir ambiance.

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The Chasm

on May 21, 2014

Every entry here since the first of the year has been directed towards resolving a single problem — but I’ve started feeling lately that I’m losing focus and need to pause and take stock.

I began with what seemed like two simple assumptions. First, that much of today’s world is the product of certain far-reaching cultural changes that occurred in the 1940s. Second, that science fiction and SF fandom were strangely central to those changes.

As soon as I began to unpack these assumptions, however, I found myself wrestling with the nature of the deep, mystical current that I’ve described as the underground stream. And at every step since, what I thought would be a simple undertaking has become increasingly complex, to the point where it seems necessary to step back and gain a broader perspective.

The best starting place may be with the deep philosophical chasm that currently runs through the heart of American society. It’s generally described as a split between conservatives and liberals, but it’s better perceived as a division between those who fear change and those who embrace it.

The roots of that split go back to the early 1940s, when a major shift in attitudes and alignments was being forged in the crucible of World War II. The right was busy dissociating itself from fascism, the left was putting distance between itself and communism, and both groups were adjusting to the prospect of a postwar world in which the United States would be a dominant global power.

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The underground stream is always present, always speaking to us across the full range of human experience. However, the mature visions normally drown out its voice. They act as a kind of control valve that causes us to dismiss the magical assumptions of the underground stream as implausible and unfounded.

It’s only when an aging vision starts to falter that the underground stream is able to break through in the specific area covered by that vision. For example, when the reason vision began failing in the 1880s, it provided an opening for unrestrained speculation about the potentials of the human mind.

The successor to reason — the chaos vision — was still very close to its mystical roots then, and its focus on non-rational states of consciousness such as dream, madness, and intoxication was entirely compatible with the raw shamanistic perceptions of spiritualists and occultists.

The idea of psychic abilities, in particular, was considered worthy of serious scientific investigation. When the Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882, it had a range of interests that encompassed everything from thought-transference and mesmerism to spirit mediums and haunted houses. Its mission was “to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems.”

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I keep finding there’s more to say about the underground stream before I move on with 1940s science fiction.

One thing I’m particularly coming to appreciate is the extent to which the underground stream functions as an altered state of consciousness. It operates out of its own strain of dream logic that has little in common with the formal premises and conclusions of the conventional visions. It seizes hold of the imagination in such a way that works produced under its influence often display a strangely hypnotic quality.

It is also like dream and intoxication in that we may forget its insights when we return to a more rational state of mind, only to recall them instantly once we are back in the dream. This is why there is typically a direct continuity of attitudes and assumptions from one period when the underground stream is prominent to the next.

There were, for example, multiple links between the fantasies and mythic speculations of the 1940s and the birth of the creative imagination vision at the end of the 1960s. Similar affinities tie the most utopian dreams and most radical works of imaginative fiction of the 1980s and early 90s to the present day.

The interplay between the dream states of the underground stream and the intellectual formulations that reach their culmination in every dominant partnership also appears to underlie the recurring four-phase sequence of the cycle of visions.

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Having come to the conclusion in the previous entry that the “underground stream” had a significant influence on 1940s SF, I’m finding that there’s a great deal more I need to say about it before I move on. It promises to clarify many things that have previously struck me as obscure about the culture of that decade.

I’ve noted here previously that my theory of history as a recurring cycle of visions began with one sudden insight: that the last several centuries have been marked by an alternation between periods in which a dominant worldview maintains complete cultural hegemony and periods when the worldview collapses and everything is in flux until a new worldview emerges from the wreckage.

Over the next few years, I refined that original insight and extended it further back in time. As I did, I discovered that what I’d thought of as unified worldviews could more accurately be described as temporary partnerships between two well-defined visions of the nature of existence — such as the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership of the late 1800s, the scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership of the mid-20th century, and the democracy-and-chaos partnership of the last several decades.

More recently, however, I’ve paid only minimal attention to the partnerships. My primary focus has been on the birth of new visions and on the periods of creative flux during which an aging vision is cast aside and the relationships among the other visions are redefined. I’ve assumed that once a new partnership settles into place there’s not much to be said about it, except that it undergoes a slow decay as the younger visions become more powerful.

I’m realizing now that I was wrong. The “romantic break” that succeeds the classical peak of every partnership is actually marked by a frenzy of activity. It’s just not easy to define it in rational terms, because most of it derives from the impact of the underground stream.

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I thought when I finished the previous entry that I’d said as much as was necessary to embark on a discussion of Henry Kuttner’s role in laying the groundwork for the birth of the creative imagination vision. But it turns out that it’s not that simple, and I can’t get to Kuttner without first exploring the tensions within the chaos vision that made the birth of its own successor inevitable.

Every vision starts off extremely pure and self-contained. It begins with a few simple premises out of which an entire structure of belief is constructed, and it presents a single coherent way of engaging with reality. But as a vision matures, it becomes a kind of clearinghouse for all sorts of related materials. That broadens its scope and enables it to aspire to being a general philosophy of life, but it also takes the vision outside its original belief system and self-image.

I’ve previously described how this process played out for the scientific materialism vision in the 1700s, when it expanded beyond a narrow emphasis on machines and ballistics and laws of motion and turned to the study of Nature. This created internal contradictions which were only resolved in the 1840s, when scientific materialism reverted to its original focus on purely physical interactions and the holism vision was born to pursue those elements of complexity and design in living things that could not easily be reduced to matter in motion.

The chaos vision went through a similar period of expansion starting around 1915 — when the failure of the reason vision left the unconscious mind as the only generally accepted model for explaining human thought and behavior — and ending with the birth of the creative imagination vision in the early 1970s.

During that period, chaos was getting more novel ideas tacked onto its premises than it was ultimately able to assimilate — yet that alone doesn’t account for the degree of tension that would require the birth of a new vision. There was one additional factor that did more than anything else to push chaos beyond its natural limits, and that was the legacy of 19th century occultism.

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The birth of a new vision is the most mysterious aspect of the entire cycle. It is rooted in higher knowledge and the ability of the imagination to conjure something out of nothing, and though its spoor can be followed a certain distance, it ultimately vanishes into the mists of individual inspiration.

When the creative imagination vision came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed to spring out of nowhere in many different places at once and in a variety of forms. That sudden flowering was something of an illusion, however. The seeds of creative imagination had been planted within the nurturing soil of the chaos vision a full generation earlier and had germinated there slowly until the mainstreaming of chaos sent out a signal that it was the season for them to sprout.

Many of those seeds can even be traced back to a single point of origin — a small group of science fiction writers who in the late 1930s and early 40s set themselves to reconciling the wild, improvisational nature of chaos with the scientific assumption of a cosmos ruled by unvarying natural law.

The underlying premises of chaos and scientific materialism had never been particularly compatible, but until that time nobody had tried to believe in both of them at once. The conflict arose only because faith in science had flagged for a time after World War I — leading many people to see the universe as alien and chaotic — and had then been strongly renewed in the 1930s. So the question arose of which was to be master.

The recurring pattern of the cycle of visions would have made the conflict inevitable under any circumstances, but the specific terms on which it was played out were set by two extraordinary masters of higher knowledge: H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell.

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