Archive for November, 2009

In recent entries, I’ve started describing how the holism vision emerged in the 1960’s as the successor to scientific materialism. Before I carry the story along any further, however, it seems important to offer a quick look back at where holism had come from and its earliest stages of evolution.

Just as the roots of chaos can be traced to the reaction against the growing dominance of reason in the late 1700’s, so the roots of holism lie in the reaction against scientific materialism in the late 1800’s. And like chaos, holism went through an extended period of proto-development, during which it was not yet an autonomous vision of the nature of existence but merely a collection of scattered objections and intimations.

Throughout the proto-history of chaos, human beings and the universe were considered to be fundamentally rational, and it was only rare heretics like Horace Walpole, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lewis Carroll who were fascinated by the gaps in reason — dreams and nonsense, madness and intoxication, bizarre beliefs and anomalous events.

These writers were all unique and solitary figures, and the glimpses they offered of a different construction of reality were limited and easily dismissed. Not until the dominance of reason had been thrown off in the early 20th century could these fragments be brought together and perceived as forming a whole.

The proto-development of holism was very similar, but played out in terms of science and cosmology rather than inner experience. It began as an attempt to counter the assertions of scientific materialism that true reality consisted of nothing but atoms hurtling through empty space, that living things were merely elaborate machines, and that higher values like love and morality were an illusion.

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When I started college in the fall of 1963, I had trouble getting my bearings both academically and socially, and by November I had fallen into something of a funk. It didn’t help my mood any when late one evening my roommate read out a particularly depressing passage from Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, which she was studying in her introductory humanities class.

I can’t recall at this point just what the quote was, but it knocked me into one of the blackest moments of despair I have ever known — a state in which all action seemed futile and life merely an extended prelude to death.

One online guide to the play describes its main character as suffering “from existential dread, a fear that the world is absurd and without meaning, a fear that beyond the grave lies absolute nothingness.” That sounds about right. It was precisely that kind of existential nausea — which had arisen out of the cross-breeding of chaos with scientific materialism in the late 30’s — that knocked me for a loop.

It took a day and a half for me to throw off the blackness and start appreciating the beauty of the world again. And just then, someone stopped me on the path to my dorm and said, “Have you heard? The president’s been shot.”

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The psychedelic counterculture that had started bubbling up in 1964-65 would remain in the background for a few years, partly because a distinctive 60’s culture was already in full flower. That was the hedonistic, sex-based “swinging Sixties” so nostalgically recalled in the Austin Powers movies — the Sixties of miniskirts, go-go dancers, birth control pills, the Playboy Philosophy, and James Bond movies.

That version of the Sixties was relatively superficial and mindless, although it did prepare the ground for more serious rebellions to come. When I started this series of posts I thought I could just ignore it, but it eventually dawned on me that anything described as “swinging” had to be an aspect of the chaos vision — which meant I needed to pay attention to where it fit in.

So I dredged up memories of my high school days — when I was learning most of what I knew about contemporary society from Mad Magazine — and it struck me that the swinging Sixties must have been largely an extension of the Hollywood hipster culture of the late 50’s.

The Hollywood hipsters reached the peak of their fame in the Kennedy years, when Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and other members of the “Rat Pack” were considered the very embodiment of cool. I was aware of them at the time, of course — at least on the Mad Magazine level — but it would never have occurred to my fourteen year old self that the Hollywood hipsters might be simply the glitzier cousins of the beatniks.

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