Wild TalentsCory Panshin on July 13, 2011
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.
The proto-development of the chaos vision had begun in the 1700’s, but it was initially visible primarily as tentative hints and fragmentary insights — some philosophical, some literary, some acted out in the form of cultural bohemianism. The more overtly magical aspects of chaos were also incubating during this period, but for a long while they appeared as no more than nostalgic throwbacks to the wild childhood of the reason vision.
Even as romantic nostalgia, they had a rocky start. When Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto (1764), he began by making excuses for the implausibility of his “Gothic story.” He claimed in his introduction that the book was a rediscovered work from 1529 and let it be known that he was aware a ghost story of that sort “can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment. Even as such, some apology for it is necessary. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances.”
But Walpole had his finger on the pulse of the moment, and by the time he died in 1797, his novel had set the pattern for a flood of stories involving sorcery, apparitions, and deals with the devil, ranging from the most lurid potboilers to works as serious as Goethe’s Faust. There was even a conscious revival of Renaissance occultism in the 1780’s and 90’s, mainly carried on by wealthy young freethinkers who aimed to modernize it and purge it of its conventional religious trappings.
The 19th century occultism that derived from this effort was very different from anything that had gone before. It started off with the usual mixture of hermeticism and kabbala, but this was further crossbred with snippets of paganism and Asian religion, and it was increasingly expressed in terms of the latest concepts of science — subtle forces and etheric vibrations, higher dimensions and planes of being, lost civilizations and Darwinian evolution.
This occult concoction at times had a pseudo-religious aspect — particularly in the popular enthusiasm for communication with the spirits of the dead that erupted in 1848 — while in other contexts it was more explicitly pseudo-scientific. But no matter from where it derived its premises, it was never entirely plausible, and by the end of the century it was decaying into outright fantasy.
Along the way, however, it had given rise to a large body of interestingly anomalous data: The impressive if erratic abilities of spirit mediums. Evidences of telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition. Accounts of hauntings, poltergeists, and apparitions of the dead. And any number of bizarre and inexplicable events.
The late Victorian era was dominated by the reason-and-science partnership, and for people of that mindset, this data appeared to be crying out for the imposition of scientific order. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was accordingly founded in London in 1882 with the goal of investigating “that large body of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical and ‘spiritualistic’, and to do so ‘in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems.’”
But the simple truth is that psychic phenomena never have been and never will be reduced to anything resembling scientific order. Higher knowledge has a trickster nature, and just when you think you have it under control, it wriggles free and thumbs its nose at you. The founders of the SPR may not have recognized this fact, but when the last of them died in 1901, just as the Victorian era was coming to an end, they left behind a legacy of valuable materials to be exploited by people with very different objectives in mind.
Around that same time, science itself had begun to abandon the concept of a stable and rationally comprehensible physical universe. The discovery of subatomic particles in 1897, followed in 1905 by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity — which demonstrated that matter was equivalent to energy — suggested that the harder you chased after the ultimate building-blocks of existence, the more you would find them dissolving in your hands. And a few years later, Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1916) upped the ante by proclaiming that there was no fixed frame of reference anywhere.
By the time World War I ended in 1918, the universe seemed a very chancy and uncertain place indeed. In the course of the war, the reason vision had been fully discredited and the science vision set adrift. The moment was ripe for an upstart vision to plunder the ruins of reason-and-science and appropriate whatever caught its eye to construct a new, chaos-based philosophy of existence.
There were any number of such philosophical scavengers at work in the late 1910’s and early 20’s, but the most industrious may have been an idiosyncratic writer named Charles Fort, whose goal was nothing less than to marshal a century’s worth of anomalies in order to demolish the founding assumptions of scientific materialism.
“A procession of the damned,” his first book began. “By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded. … The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science. But they’ll march.”
In The Book of the Damned (1919) and New Lands (1923), Fort deployed a barrage of incidents and observations that science had denied or explained away — from rains of frogs and fishes to anomalous astronomical observations — all with the intention of demonstrating that “the laws, dogmas, formulas, principles, of materialistic science never were proved.”
Along the way, Fort offered any number of whimsical theories to explain the possible causes behind these anomalies, but his only true, abiding conviction was that our world is a mere “quasi-existence … an intermediate stage between positiveness and negativeness or realness and unrealness.” And he would shake his head in wonder and suggest that “if our existence is an organism, it would seem that it must be one of the most notorious old rascals in the cosmos. It is a fabric of lies. … Imposture pervades all things phenomenal. Everything is a mirage.”
By the end of the 1920’s, however, much of the dogmatic 19th century science that Fort railed against had been swept aside. When he published his final book in 1932, he felt compelled to admit that “the science of physics, which, at one time, was thought forever to have disposed of werewolves, vampires, witches, and other pets of mine, is today such an attempted systematization of the principles of magic, that I am at a loss for eminent professors to be disagreeable to. Upon the principles of quantum mechanics, one can make reasonable almost any miracle.”
That may be why Fort had switched his attention by then from purely physical anomalies to those which suggested the operation of psychic powers. He structured Lo! (1931) around the notion of “a transportory force that I shall call Teleportation,” which he suggested might underlie not only his beloved falls of frogs and fishes but also sudden appearances and disappearances of both animals and humans.
And in Wild Talents (1932), he focused on mysterious deaths, invisible assailants, and poltergeist phenomena, concluding that all humans possess extraordinary powers which typically operate without conscious awareness. In other words, Fort identified intuitive insight and spontaneous action as the keys to operating effectively within a random and nonsensical universe.
“My notion is that wild talents exist in the profusion of the weeds of the fields,” Fort stated. “I should like very much to be a wizard … and I have had many experiences that lead me to think that almost everybody else not only would like to be a wizard, but at times thinks he is one. I think that he is right. It is monism that if anybody’s a wizard, everybody is, to some degree, a wizard.”
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