Archive for July, 2011

The 1920’s were a strange and dislocated time — and much of that dislocation had to do with the uneasy transition from reason to chaos.

For more than two hundred years, Western civilization had been grounded in a pair of reassuring assumptions. One was that the world was constructed according to a kind of blueprint in the Mind of God. The other was that human reason, being made in the image of Divine Reason, had an inherent capacity to decipher the underlying Order of Nature and thereby approach the Mind of God.

This interpretation of higher knowledge as rational enlightenment remained unquestioned through the 1700’s and into the 1800’s, but during the late 19th century it was progressively undermined by modern science. Darwinian evolution dealt the heaviest blow when it suggested that the order of nature was the product not of intelligent design but of the brutal and indifferent operation of natural selection, but the physical sciences also appeared to be pointing in the direction of a cosmos that was humanly incomprehensible.

Between 1900 and the 1920’s, it became commonplace for writers and artists to suggest that the universe made no sense, that human beings were controlled not by reason but by primitive subconscious urges, and that if there was a God he must be either a gibbering idiot or perversely cruel and capricious.

Charles Fort stands out as the rare individual who was capable of stating these conclusions frankly, humorously, and with considerable generosity of spirit. However, the writer of this period who expressed the emerging chaos vision with the greatest intensity and precision was H.P. Lovecraft.

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Now that I’ve finished my survey of the deep supernatural waters of the spirit, revelation, and reason visions, I realize to my surprise that I’ve never done the same for chaos. I’ve examined the philosophical and psychological aspects of the chaos vision in some detail — emphasizing its focus on intuitive insight and spontaneous action as the keys to dealing with a random and nonsensical universe — but I’ve left out out all the really weird stuff.

If I’ve been downplaying the magical side of chaos in hopes of making it appear more serious and respectable, that was a mistake. Strange beliefs and hallucinatory experiences have been as central to hipsters and hippies as they were to Renaissance mages or Iron Age prophets or prehistoric shamans.

On the other hand, the chaos vision itself hasn’t always been prepared to admit to its true magical heart. It seems as though each vision starts off with a concern to appear plausible in light of existing beliefs and only reveals its stranger side once the preceding vision of the same type has failed. It then loses its transcendent edge again as it gains broad popular acceptance.

The revelation vision, for example, was most fervent in its pursuit of higher knowledge between the loss of faith in the old gods around 800 BC and the reestablishment of religious orthodoxy after 300 AD. The reason vision similarly made its leap to natural magic when traditional religion stumbled in the 1400’s and was reduced to mere rationality after it gained dominance in the early 1700’s. And in much the same way, the chaos vision was at its peak between the great disillusionment that accompanied World War I and the start of the 60’s counterculture.

I first encountered chaos as an adolescent in the 1960’s, which has no doubt colored my perceptions of it. The most epitomal expressions of chaos, however, are to be found among its devotees of the preceding half-century.

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