Archive for July, 2010

When I was a kid in the 50’s and early 60’s, everyone in my generation knew for a fact that our world was radically different from the world of our parents and that there were things about it they would never understand.

Fifty years have passed since then without a similar youth culture arising to challenge the expectations of its elders, and the memory of what it was like is fading. Our own kids tend to minimize the importance of the “generation gap” and some dismiss our belief in it as a form of boomer exceptionalism. But the gulf was very real — and it was almost entirely a result of the technological revolution that began to transform society after World War II.

The first half of the 20th century had introduced numerous technological innovations, but none that resulted in sweeping social change. If you look at movies or cartoons from the 1920’s and 30’s, or even old family photographs, you get a strong sense that the wave of invention which began in the 1870’s hadn’t affected everyday life all that much.

People might go for a Sunday drive in the family car, but they never strayed very far from home. They might take in a Hollywood movie or listen to Roosevelt’s fireside chats on the radio, but those things merely opened a narrow window on an outside world that they weren’t part of themselves. Their own lives revolved around their home town or neighborhood, the local stores and businesses, and a familiar circle of family and friends.

But things started to change about the time of World War II. As I suggested some months ago, Bugs Bunny cartoons from the early 40’s are set in a fast-paced, modern, technological world, very different from the world of Betty Boop cartoons less than a decade earlier. And after the war, as soldiers returned home with a broader viewpoint and new possibilities in their heads, the changes accelerated.

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It’s been fun chasing after the more dramatic consequences of the “romantic break,” but it occurs to me that I’ve been neglecting the details of the break itself — what triggers it, how it unfolds, and what the basis is of the distinctively romantic mood that accompanies it.

The answers to all these questions turn out to involve a complex interplay between the two established visions which form the dominant partnership and the three younger emergent visions. And that, in turn, means that those emergent visions must play a significant role at a far earlier point than I had previously realized.

When I started working with the cultural cycles back in the 70’s, I interpreted what I was finding in the simplest terms possible — as a linear sequence of “worldviews,” with each new worldview displacing the one before it.

By the late 80’s, I’d developed a more elaborate model in which worldviews were the product of an overlapping sequence of visions of three different kinds — scientific, social, and inner experience. But I was still thinking in very linear terms and believed that only one vision of each type could be active at any given moment.

For example, I identified the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s as the Era of Science and Democracy — with chaos developing on the sidelines and eventually bursting out in the 60’s counterculture. Even though I was aware that holism had also begun emerging during this period, I did not see it as playing an independent role until the very end of the 60’s.

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If what I’ve written previously about the “romantic break” that gave rise to late 19th century occultism is correct, it ought to be possible to find an equivalent in other cycles.

There should, for example, have been a moment in the late 18th century when the increasing subordination of the hierarchy vision to the reason vision triggered an attempted reversal — one in which an updated version of hierarchy was seen as superior to reason, and society was regarded as holding an almost magical power to improve human nature.

According to the comparative timetables I worked out years ago, the period equivalent to 1877-83, when occultism emerged, would have been around 1783-94. And there was, of course, precisely such a reversal during those years: the French Revolution.

The French Revolution was a product of the era of hierarchy-and-reason, during which the old medieval notion of society as a pyramid — with the king at the top and the peasants at the bottom — was increasingly displaced by appeals to rationality.

When the hierarchy-and-reason partnership was created in the 1760’s, for example, it seemed perfectly acceptable for kings to continue to rule, as long as they did so as “enlightened despots.” But by 1776, the mood had changed to the point where even a parliamentary monarch like George III of England could be described in the Declaration of Independence as “marked by every act which may define a Tyrant.”

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