Archive for January, 2010

Move a single piece in the kaleidoscope and all the rest shift in response — revealing new patterns so obvious you wonder how you missed them the first time. But until that one piece shifts, the pattern remains hidden.

Two months ago, in an entry titled “The Search for Meaning,” I discussed the transition that took place during the 1960’s from visualizing chaos in terms of old-fashioned scientific materialism to visualizing it in terms of holism.

In the hipster version of the chaos vision, the one which had grown stale and tired by 1963, chaos was identified with a universe of soulless atoms plowing blindly through empty space. It was that concept which resonated with black turtlenecks, heroin, abstract expressionism and cool jazz.

But the version of chaos that gave rise to the counterculture drew upon a new image of the universe as a web of energy in which everything flows into everything else. And that holistic embodiment of chaos found its own resonances in paisley and tie-dye, marijuana and LSD, psychedelic art and psychedelic rock.

I wasn’t wrong in my understanding of the transition — but I went astray in thinking that it began only after the rise of the counterculture. The realignment of chaos towards holism actually started several years earlier and was the catalyst which made the counterculture possible.

Read the rest of this entry »

I truly thought I’d be almost done with the 1960’s by now and ready to move on — but in the course of writing the last several entries, I realized I didn’t know nearly as much about how countercultures get started as I thought I did. That’s something I need to sort out.

I’ve believed for years that the 60’s counterculture emerged directly out of earlier, more tentative expressions of the chaos vision and differed from them mainly in being energized by the decline of the science-and-democracy partnership. That image of energization was what I had in mind when I suggested (in “Moral Agents“) that each vision generates the seeds of its successor during its countercultural peak, because it grows over-confident then and starts to run up again its own limitations and moral weaknesses.

But as I worked on the succeeding entry (“The True Voice of Chaos“), I found myself saying something very different — that the first hints of discontent with the reason vision had been based not on morality but on boredom and that they had appeared as early as the 1730’s, prior to the peak of the reason-based counterculture.

As I thought about that, it occurred to me that perhaps each counterculture begins not as a mere amplification of what has come before but in an attempt to reinvigorate a vision that has already begun losing intensity and mystery as it gains mainstream acceptance.

Was there any suggestion of that happening prior to the rise of the 60’s counterculture? Indeed there was. Around 1962-63, the year that I was finishing high school and preparing to head off to college, the chaos vision appeared to have gone distinctly flat. Rock ‘n’ roll was dead, Hollywood hipsters like Frank Sinatra seemed outdated and irrelevant, and even the beatniks were past their glory days of the late 50’s.

Read the rest of this entry »

If Alice in Wonderland represents the peak of Lewis Carroll’s powers as a spinner of pure nonsense, then Through the Looking-Glass is something very different — and far stranger.

Carroll himself was well aware of this. When he was called upon in 1886 to write a preface for a facsimile edition of his original handwritten Alice’s Adventures under Ground, he concluded his otherwise conventionally sentimental remarks by quoting the reaction of a little girl whom he had recently asked whether she had read his books:

“‘Oh, yes,’ she replied readily, ‘I’ve read both of them! And I think’ (this more slowly and thoughtfully) ‘I think “Through the Looking-Glass” is more stupid than “Alice’s Adventures.” Don’t you think so?'”

Carroll offered this anecdote as a self-deprecating joke, but if we take the word “stupid” to mean “bizarre,” “baffling,” and “rationally incomprehensible,” the description becomes oddly apt. Through the Looking-Glass really is more stupid than Alice in Wonderland — and also more profound, more philosophical, and more deeply mystical.

Read the rest of this entry »

There is a special problem with inner experience visions that does not affect either scientific or social visions, and that is that the more we learn about ourselves and the world, the less able we are to take the stuff of inner experience at face value. So although the facts of inner experience barely alter, our interpretation of those facts becomes more and more circumscribed.

The shamans of prehistory were genuinely convinced that the mysterious beings they encountered in dreams and hallucinations were visitors from the spirit world. The prophets who created the great world-religions two thousand years ago were less willing to take spirit visitors at face value, but they believed implicitly in the possibility of divine revelation. The early modern creators of the reason vision may have had their doubts about revealed truth, but they were certain that the human mind was a microcosm of the Mind of God and human reason a reliable guide to higher knowledge.

But by the 1860’s, belief in the validity of higher knowledge of any sort was dissipating rapidly, as sophisticated modern intellectuals subjected the contents of their own minds to ever-closer scrutiny. The growing inclination of religion to turn to nature for proofs of divine intervention was one consequence of this radical loss of faith in inner experience. It is no coincidence that the word “agnostic” was coined in 1869 by Thomas Henry Huxley to describe a person who has concluded that any higher reality is not only unknown but unknowable.

Read the rest of this entry »

In the moment of total flux that was the 1860’s, with reason and science both mutating rapidly as they headed towards conjunction, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was perhaps the single person best suited to assimilate the possibilities and limitations of this new era and then see beyond them to something completely different.

In his day job, Dodgson was a professor of mathematics, with a professional awareness of the developments in mathematical logic that were helping to draw reason into the narrower confines of the reason-and-science partnership. In his free time, he entertained a lively interest in popular science and invention and was an avid amateur photographer, always getting his hands stained with chemicals and emulsions. On that basis alone, he might have seemed like a surefire advocate of the new reason-and-science partnership.

But despite his fondness for gadgetry, Dodgson had no attachment to the reductionist assumptions of scientific materialism. He was to all outward appearances conventionally religious, and the science books in his personal library were mainly of the sort which argued that science and religion weren’t really in conflict, no matter what anybody might say to the contrary.

Arguments of that sort were getting difficult to maintain by the 1860’s, however, largely as a result of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). By offering a mechanistic explanation for the adaptations found in living things, Darwin had effectively kicked the skids out from under the 18th century belief that the hand of God could be seen visibly at work in Nature. It was starting to appear that you could believe in science or in religion but not in both, a dilemma that people like Charles Dodgson found extremely painful.

But Dodgson had a secret way out, one that was not available to just anybody. In his private life, he was a covert heretic, a lover of nonsense and fairy tales and the strange whirling assumptions of the not-quite-emergent chaos vision. And even as science rudely thrust aside the assumptions of traditional religion, Dodgson’s alter ego of Lewis Carroll would concoct a unique amalgam of chaos and mysticism that would break through the constraints of both logic and science.

Read the rest of this entry »