Speaking with the CosmosCory Panshin on March 20, 2014
Having come to the conclusion in the previous entry that the “underground stream” had a significant influence on 1940s SF, I’m finding that there’s a great deal more I need to say about it before I move on. It promises to clarify many things that have previously struck me as obscure about the culture of that decade.
I’ve noted here previously that my theory of history as a recurring cycle of visions began with one sudden insight: that the last several centuries have been marked by an alternation between periods in which a dominant worldview maintains complete cultural hegemony and periods when the worldview collapses and everything is in flux until a new worldview emerges from the wreckage.
Over the next few years, I refined that original insight and extended it further back in time. As I did, I discovered that what I’d thought of as unified worldviews could more accurately be described as temporary partnerships between two well-defined visions of the nature of existence — such as the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership of the late 1800s, the scientific-materialism-and-democracy partnership of the mid-20th century, and the democracy-and-chaos partnership of the last several decades.
More recently, however, I’ve paid only minimal attention to the partnerships. My primary focus has been on the birth of new visions and on the periods of creative flux during which an aging vision is cast aside and the relationships among the other visions are redefined. I’ve assumed that once a new partnership settles into place there’s not much to be said about it, except that it undergoes a slow decay as the younger visions become more powerful.
I’m realizing now that I was wrong. The “romantic break” that succeeds the classical peak of every partnership is actually marked by a frenzy of activity. It’s just not easy to define it in rational terms, because most of it derives from the impact of the underground stream.
When I was initially developing the theory of the cycles, I sensed there was an odd murkiness about the 1940s and early 50s. I hoped at the time that living through the next dominant partnership would give me a better sense of its dynamics — but no such luck. The 1980s and 90s remained just as obscure to me as any other romantic break.
Part of the problem is that there are no clear battle lines separating the older and younger visions, and this makes it hard to define a clear narrative line. The two dominant visions maintain their near-monopoly over the cultural imagination, even as they become increasingly inauthentic, grandiose, and hypocritical. The three emerging visions are more vibrant and creative, but they speak only to small numbers of artists and utopian dreamers and do not challenge the dominant visions for control.
And yet despite the lack of visible conflict, powerful things are happening under the surface. The younger visions are evolving rapidly, refining their basic premises and constructing their central metaphors and mythic archetypes. At the same time, the dominant visions are starting to display a strange insecurity, succumbing to fits of paranoid hysteria at precisely the point when they would seem to have arrived at a position of unchallenged supremacy.
These reactions suggest the presence of a source of transformational energy that stimulates the younger visions while posing a threat to the stability of the older ones. The nature of that source has previously eluded me — but now I believe it can be identified with the underground stream.
The underground stream appears to be an echo of the childhood of our own species. It may date back half a million years or even a million — perhaps as far as the common ancestor of ourselves, the Neanderthals, and the Denisovans. It speaks of a time when we already had the ability to perceive the world around us as a marvelously integrated whole but did so in personal rather than intellectual terms.
Everything we encountered then was alive and eager to tell us of its nature and purpose. The plants and animals and sticks and stones of the natural world were as much a part of this ongoing dialog as our own families and friends, and so were the supernatural beings of our dreams and hallucinations.
But at some point, we chose a different path from our cousins. Our brains expanded in certain specific areas and our use of language became more precise and abstract. We constructed elaborate systems of grammatical rules to convey our understanding of spatial, temporal, and causal relationships, and we began to see the world not in terms of persons to whom we could relate but as something to tease apart and reduce to formal rules and categories.
This hyper-intellectual way of relating to things has never been emotionally satisfying. It conferred a major survival advantage upon our own species — which is why we’re here today while the Neanderthals and Denisovans aren’t — but it cursed us with a tendency to become alienated from everything and everyone around us, including the contents of our own minds.
That is why we never completely let go of the earlier system. Instead, we developed the visions as a means of harmonizing the older and newer ways of relating to existence.
I’ve previously stated that the visions are based on a combination of the mystical intimations of higher knowledge with one area or another of ordinary experience. That’s not incorrect, but it might be more accurate to say that they’re designed to reconcile our unitary experience of a living universe with a more pragmatic, rules-based approach to the world.
The rules-based nature of the visions places serious constraints on how much of our experience any one of them can encapsulate. We’ve responded to this problem by coming up with visions of three different types — derived from our scientific knowledge, our social interactions, and our inner experience — but even a set of three complementary visions can only express a fraction of the full range of human existence.
The visions’ built-in limitations are one reason why they eventually wear out and are replaced with successors that are of the same general type but founded on different premises. A second reason is that even though every vision starts out close to the raw sense of wonder inherent in the underground stream, they invariably become more rules-based as they mature.
Scientifically-based visions give rise to elaborate systems of natural laws or first principles and refuse to admit of any exceptions. Socially-based visions become obsessed with subordinating human relationships to comprehensive kinship systems, hierarchical structures, or legal codes. Even inner experience visions grow narrow and dogmatic and resistant to non-conforming beliefs.
By the time two mature visions come together to form a dominant partnership, the rules-based aspects of both are overwhelming. At first, there is still a degree of conceptual looseness — a willingness to acknowledge alternative perspectives and interpretations — carried over from the preceding period of flux. But as the partnership’s authority becomes absolute, it grows ever narrower and more intolerant.
As it does, an unbearable sense of alienation overtakes those of a particularly sensitive nature. That is the trigger for the “romantic break,” when the underground stream rises to the surface and prompts people to start entertaining heresies and other dangerous ideas.
Because the underground stream is neither intellectual nor rules-based, the periods when it flows most strongly display a characteristically romantic and dreamlike quality. These manifestations are difficult to pin down in terms of formal definitions, but they share certain recognizable characteristics.
One is a nostalgic element, a longing to get back to basics, that may give rise to utopian images of a society based on small, intimate communities or prompt an interest in do-it-yourself projects and handicrafts. Another is a powerful shamanistic strain that underlies a range of occult beliefs and practices.
These characteristics are distinct from the core premises of any of the visions. Nineteenth century occultism, for example, was very different from both the fading reason vision and the emerging chaos vision, although it overlapped with the most magical aspects of both. When it is in full flow, however, the underground stream impacts all the visions in varying ways.
The two youngest visions are still very close to their origins in the underground stream, so its latest outbreak serves chiefly to energize them and accelerate their development.
For the slightly older “outsider” vision, which has already started to shift over to a more mainstream, rules-based way of doing things, the underground stream offers a wake-up call that temporarily summons it back to its roots. That was what befell the chaos vision in the 1940s — and the ultimate effect was to sow the seeds of the vision’s own successor.
For the junior member of the partnership, the underground stream appears as a looming menace that challenges its legitimacy and sends it into a frenzy of paranoid suspicion. The resulting wave of repression is directed most strongly against the outsider vision and has the effect of hauling it once more in the direction of conformity.
And for the senior partner, the underground stream delivers the simple message that it has become irrelevant and is due to be superseded.
Of course, these various impacts can never be neatly separated out, which is an additional reason for the murkiness of these periods. A few people embrace the underground stream wholeheartedly, but most remain ambivalent — like Robert Heinlein, whose stories in the early 40s displayed a dedication to upholding the rules mingled with an uneasy fascination at the prospect of something wilder breaking out.
Eventually, the uneasiness becomes predominant, the repression takes hold, and the underground stream retreats. But by then the world has changed radically and is as different as 1956 was from 1942, or 1998 from 1984.Read the Previous Entry: The Underground Stream
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