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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After posting the previous entry, I kept thinking about the association between horizontalism and creative imagination, and it struck me that the roots of this association can be found in the subculture that grew up around science fiction in the 1930s and early 40s.

When the horizontalism vision was taking shape in the 1930s, science fiction fandom was one of its earliest manifestations. In an era dominated by top-down mass media, fandom was bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and free of any kind of centralized leadership. It was a functioning anarchy in everything but name, being carried on by amateurs who were held together solely by a commonality of interests.

As summarized by Wikipedia, “Science fiction fandom started through the letter column of Hugo Gernsback’s fiction magazines. Not only did fans write comments about the stories — they sent their addresses, and Gernsback published them. Soon, fans were writing letters directly to each other, and meeting in person when they lived close together, or when one of them could manage a trip. In New York City. David Lasser, Gernsback’s managing editor, nurtured the birth of a small local club called the Scienceers, which held its first meeting in a Harlem apartment on December 11, 1929.”

These early relationships flowered over the next decade into an extensive network of clubs, fanzines, and conventions, climaxing with the grandly-named First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939.

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Pagan Anarchism

on December 21, 2013

In between my forays into the remoter reaches of prehistory, I like to keep an eye on current events for signs of significant transitions. It seems that one such transition is upon us now, as indicated by the fact that “economic populism” — or “economic justice” or “social justice” — has become the hot new buzzword of the moment.

Four years ago, the issue of inequality was not even on the table. Two years ago, it was being pushed only by those noisy folk down at Occupy Wall Street. But now it is something that even the elites and makers of opinion are having to recognize.

That’s not just a switch in the zeitgeist. It’s a sign that we’re at a crucial turning point in the cycle of visions where the horizontalism vision starts to attract mainstream attention.

If the pattern that I worked out last spring holds true, we’re about to see horizontalism — like holism in the late 60s and early 70s — become the focus of a tug of war between established interests looking for practical solutions and the wild romantics and radicals who have been nurturing the vision for the last several decades.

The ultimate outcome of that struggle will be a split between a “safe” version of the vision on one hand and a more dangerous and mystical version on the other. However, that split will remain latent for the next dozen years or so. In the meantime, I see nothing wrong with getting as many tangible benefits as we can out of this window of opportunity when the elite are running scared and willing to make concessions.

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Suppose as a thought-experiment that you are the first true human, living some 400,000 years ago. You have been awakened by a stroke of higher knowledge to a sense of your own nature and potential — but you have no one with whom to share that awareness.

The near-humans around you are by no means dumb. Their brains are probably larger than ours today. They have prodigious memories and an encyclopedic knowledge of the local plants and animals and inorganic materials. But they are very literal minded. They take their guidance from a collective belief system that tells them what to think and how to act, and they are incapable of seeing beyond that.

What would you do? How would you go about breaking them out of their limitations and raising them to a higher level of awareness? You are, after all, just one person, with a narrow lifespan and little chance of finding disciples among your contemporaries.

Your only option is to institute changes in the belief system itself that will live on after you.

Those changes will have to fulfill three criteria. They must have an immediate social value that will cause them to be accepted and maintained even by the unenlightened. They must include a subversive element that will chip away at rigid assumptions and speak directly to those who are prepared to break free of their cultural conditioning. And they must contain coded information that will provide those few with clues on how to further the great project of humanization.

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Higher Intentionality

on November 18, 2013

I went back to the previous entry after posting it and found it kind of murky, so I reworked it a bit to make my points clearer and tie up most of the loose ends. There was, however, one point that I’d deliberately deferred until later, because I knew it would take an entire entry to do it justice. That is the question of intentionality.

The dilemma I’m facing is that the cycles can look very different depending on the angle from which you view them. Seen from a distance, they give a strong impression of conscious design — especially the phase which extends from the collapse of one dominant partnership to the formation of the next. That’s why I wrote in the previous entry that “this cascade of adjustments, which I’ve repeatedly compared to a wacky Rube Goldberg device, might be better characterized as a deliberate juggling act, guided at every point by higher intentionality.”

On the other hand, if you examine these changes from the perspective of someone living through them, there’s no obvious sense of deliberation. They appear instead as the summation of a host of spontaneous decisions on the part of many autonomous individuals. We all contribute to this process through the attitudes we endorse, the people with whom we associate, even the clothing we wear and the food we eat. Some of us may take a more active role by offering new interpretations of existing visions or giving artistic and philosophical form to the vague hints of emerging visions. But it’s always done on-the-fly and in-the-moment and shows no sign of being coordinated on any higher level.

But then again, if you step back and focus on the picture instead of the pixels, all those individual choices start to blend together into something that resembles the thought processes of a single great mind — mulling over the deep questions of existence, trying out various experiments and marking them as successes or failures, occasionally arguing with itself about how to proceed, and crafting increasingly elaborate frameworks for understanding.

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There can be something intensely liberating about referring back to old research notes. They may appear outdated or irrelevant, but they can also remind you of forgotten truths and send your mind racing off in unexpected directions. That’s what happened to me in the course of writing the previous entry, and I wound up expressing opinions that were at odds with much of what I’ve recently said about dominant partnerships.

I’ve been somewhat scornful of dominant partnerships lately, dismissing them as fossilized and untranscendent in comparison with the younger visions — but that wasn’t always the case. When I first recognized the existence of the cycle of visions, it was because the dominant partnerships leaped out at me. It seemed plain that they set the distinctive tone of each era, legitimized its social and religious institutions, and inspired its major cultural achievements.

It took me longer to realize that younger visions were already developing around the margins of the partnership, and even then I focused chiefly on the next one in line, which serves as a focal point for discontent and opposition to the reigning worldview. I regarded the two newest visions as no more than vague, mystical intimations that might inspire the occasional artist or philosopher but had little impact on society as a whole.

Over the last year or two, however, my attitude has undergone a complete reversal. I’ve become fascinated by the birth and growth of the youngest visions, and I’ve come to see them as having a mysterious, subterranean power that inspires the most creative and progressive aspects of society and serves as the engine of cultural evolution and transformation.

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