Archive for March, 2010

As I was finishing up the previous entry, it struck me that we ought to be noticing the first signs of a successor to holism around now — and in trying to think of possible examples, I was reminded of a paradox I’ve been wrestling with for the past several weeks.

Last month, I quoted Mario Savio’s famous address during the Sproul Hall sit-in at Berkeley in 1964: “That brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience. There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus – and you’ve got to make it stop!”

I assumed that Savio had come up with this image of the government as a out-of-control machine specifically to evoke the tension between a faltering science-and-democracy partnership and the disruptive power of chaos. But it also occurred to me that if I was looking for insight on the emergence of the chaos vision, it would be worth checking out what Henry David Thoreau had said about civil disobedience when he invented the concept in the 1840’s as a means of protesting slavery and the Mexican War.

So I dug up a copy of “Resistance to Civil Government” (1849), and to my astonishment I found Thoreau writing, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth — certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

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It’s not easy to introduce a new vision that goes against the grain of all conventional assumptions. Especially in fiction, it may be necessary to smuggle much of it in under banners that read “this is only a joke” and “don’t take this too seriously.”

That was more or less what Horace Walpole did when he offered intimations of the chaos vision in The Castle of Otranto to a generation living under the sway of reason. He had to pretend that he was just doing his best to accurately represent a superstitious past era and explain apologetically that “belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them.”

Walpole’s pretense of embarrassment over the prodigies which were the very heart of his story might seem laughable now — except that Alexei and I did something very similar in “The Sons of Prometheus” when we located our man of wisdom on a backward and superstition-ridden colony planet. The hapless do-gooder from the ships might gain insight from contact with such a man, but he could never share his beliefs or understand the source of his wisdom.

In the same way, it was possible to imply strange beliefs on the part of a wacky alien like Torve the Trog, but only as long as there was no chance Villiers would ever manage to fathom Torve’s thought-patterns, much less emulate them.

And yet, despite these barriers, the question of how someone with a late 20th century mindset might make the transition to a level of higher understanding became our chief preoccupation in one story after another through the early 70’s.

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Shortly after I wrote Alexei that fan letter on Star Well in October 1968, Richard Nixon was elected president — and from that point on, the world grew steadily darker and more paranoid.

Alexei had begun working on the third Villiers book by then, and where the first two had poured out of him quickly and easily, this one came slow and hard. It was darker as well — a story set entirely at night — and there was an air of doubt and apprehension underlying the wackiness. By the time he finished, just before our wedding that June, it was clear that to push on with the fourth book would only lead further in the direction of negativity, violence, and disintegration.

All we knew at the time was that real-world events were making it difficult to hold onto the light-hearted spirit these books required. But in retrospect, there was something deeper going on. The chaos vision, which had provided the central organizing principle for the Villiers books, was breaking down under pressure, falling into self-doubt and turning bleak and violent and increasingly paranoid.

Alexei was faced with a choice between two paths. One was to follow the chaos vision into decadence and despair, as so many did over those next few years. The other was to set chaos aside, along with the Villiers books, and focus instead on holism, multiculturalism, and the successor to chaos, all of which retained their idealistic sheen. And in the course of 1969-70, that was exactly what he did.

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When Alexei and I got married in 1969, we each brought with us a set of Russian nesting dolls. Mine had been bought for me when I was little, purchased by my mother at a store on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and they are larger and shinier and rather crudely made. His, I believe, were brought back by his father from a trip to Russia. They are more delicate and contain many more layers to be stripped away before reaching the final almost shapeless pea-sized doll at the center.

But large or small, elegant or crude, there is something mystical about Russian dolls. Like the progression of ever-smaller cats in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, they suggest that if we could only follow the sequence to its final vanishing point, that tiniest of seeds would be revealed as the ultimate source of creative power and truth.

The visions can feel that way, too. There is a sense that each one pulls back the curtain a little bit further. And it is that feeling which drives some people on to want to know more and see more — while at the same time, it makes others inclined to pull up short and start hammering in warning signs saying “Here Be Dragons!” and “Abandon All Hope!”

That dichotomy was very apparent around 1968-76, when holism and multiculturalism and the first intimations of a successor to chaos were all developing rapidly. There were some who feared anything that was new and different and wanted things to stay just the way they were. And there were others who had no attachment to things-as-they-were and wanted nothing more than to push ahead.

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There’s a new article at Washington Monthly, titled “Who Broke America’s Jobs Machine?” that I found quite interesting in itself — and even more interesting for the light it sheds on the visions. It indicates a major change of direction during Roosevelt’s New Deal, previously unknown to me, that appears to be directly related to the emergence of the holism vision in the late 1930’s.

Authors Barry C. Lynn and Phillip Longman argue that starting after World War II, the American economy served as a reliable job-creating machine, with innovative small businesses constantly providing new opportunities for employment and investment. This process was disrupted, however, when the Reagan administration allowed consolidation to take place in nearly all major industries, resulting by the 1990’s in the formation of monopolies and near-monopolies with no interest in innovation.

These corporate Goliaths, Lynn and Longman explain, feel no need to innovate because they find it easier to increase profits by jacking up prices or squeezing their suppliers. At the same time, their dominance inhibits the start-up of potential competitors, or else they buy them out before they can get established. The result is that the job market shrinks and investors have no place to put their money except into financial bubbles.

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