The Dark Side and the Light SideCory Panshin on April 5, 2014
I keep finding there’s more to say about the underground stream before I move on with 1940s science fiction.
One thing I’m particularly coming to appreciate is the extent to which the underground stream functions as an altered state of consciousness. It operates out of its own strain of dream logic that has little in common with the formal premises and conclusions of the conventional visions. It seizes hold of the imagination in such a way that works produced under its influence often display a strangely hypnotic quality.
It is also like dream and intoxication in that we may forget its insights when we return to a more rational state of mind, only to recall them instantly once we are back in the dream. This is why there is typically a direct continuity of attitudes and assumptions from one period when the underground stream is prominent to the next.
There were, for example, multiple links between the fantasies and mythic speculations of the 1940s and the birth of the creative imagination vision at the end of the 1960s. Similar affinities tie the most utopian dreams and most radical works of imaginative fiction of the 1980s and early 90s to the present day.
The interplay between the dream states of the underground stream and the intellectual formulations that reach their culmination in every dominant partnership also appears to underlie the recurring four-phase sequence of the cycle of visions.
As I laid it out here last fall, in the classical phase of the cycle a newly-formed partnership between two mature visions provides society with a sense of rational harmony and intellectual clarity. But the partnership’s own success leads it to overreach and lose credibility, initiating a romantic phase in which the underground stream breaks loose and challenges all accepted verities.
The partnership eventually recovers and fights back, but in doing so it cuts itself off from the nourishment of the underground stream, which it has demonized and repressed. The result is a phase typified by enforced rationality and widespread feelings of alienation. This leads to the irreversible collapse of the partnership, the resurgence of the underground stream, and a complete reformulation of the current system of visions.
The repeated waxing and waning of the underground stream explains why the period of reformulation tends to mirror the preceding romantic period — but there is also a significant difference between them. During the romantic period, objections to current orthodoxy are raised only tentatively and set aside unresolved. But when the underground stream returns, they command the full attention of society.
This difference can be clearly seen in the way the underground stream challenges the three most mature visions, as well as in the nature of their responses.
During the romantic period, the youngest of the three, which functions as a kind of unruly sidekick to the dominant partnership, still retains enough flexibility to respond positively to the challenge. In the 1940s, for example, the chaos vision was able to move away from the overly rationalized Freudian model of the unconscious and take on shamanistic overtones that formed the seeds of its own successor.
In contrast, the junior member of the partnership perceives the underground stream as a threat to its authority and responds with fear and paranoia. In the case of the democracy vision, this reached a peak in the hysterical anti-communism of the late 40s and early 50s.
And what happens to the senior member of the partnership is precisely what the younger member fears. It is disrespected, rendered irrelevant, and condemned from every side.
The aging scientific materialism vision was in that position in the 1940s. It had given up the last of its transcendence in the course of the 1930s, as the formerly soul-crushing power of the physical universe was subordinated to an optimistic faith in human technology and the democratic aspirations of the World of Tomorrow. But when the underground stream burst out, even that faith was called into question.
Science fiction in the middle and late 1940s was typified by stories of machines run amok, aliens and time travelers casually visiting present-day earth to play games with our heads, and futures where our descendents have turned their backs on advanced technology. The dropping of the atom bomb in 1945 raised these anxieties to a fever pitch, and scientific materialism never fully recovered.
By the 1950s, the partnership briefly seemed to be back on an even keel. The underground stream had faded out, the democratic ideal was still vibrant, and the consumer economy offered technological gadgets that were friendly and accessible. But when things came unglued, it happened very fast and very hard.
In the 1960s, the underground stream resurfaced and sent the chaos vision into an epiphany of psychedelic wildness. The old doubts about science and the machine future were renewed. And widespread indignation over the failed promises of democracy energized both anti-war protesters and hippie dropouts.
But this time the issues were resolved. The democracy vision went into a last-ditch paroxysm of attempted repression during the presidency of Richard Nixon before hitting a wall in the form of the Watergate scandal. The chaos vision responded by accommodating itself to mainstream respectability, while setting loose its most radical impulses in the form of the creative imagination vision. And finally the democracy vision was retooled, much as scientific materialism had been in the 1930s, and subordinated to the do-your-own-thing individualism of chaos.
In view of this pattern of events, it’s tempting to conclude that the underground stream is the answer to the question I keep raising about the external power source that keeps the cycles in motion. It is associated with both the birth of new visions and the demise of old ones and acts as a persistent destabilizing factor.
And yet there are aspects to the underground stream that give me pause. Its influence isn’t limited to casting doubt on the over-intellectualization of the current visions or fostering a romantic nostalgia for simpler times. It also has the ability to throw us back into something like the dream state of 500,000 years ago, when we understood the world in terms that were neither scientific nor philosophical but purely personal and magical.
When we look at the world that way, we see unexplained events not as the outcome of logical cause-and-effect but as the product of sorcery. Instead of regarding the universe as a set of inert objects to be manipulated, we feel ourselves to be surrounded by an invisible world of supernatural beings with their own purposes. And rather than viewing social transactions in terms of visible rules and regulations, we suspect that they are instigated by small and secretive groups with hidden agendas.
In other words, the underground stream brings with it a tendency to believe in occult powers, spirits or aliens, and conspiracy theories. And these are not fringe elements that we can take or leave as we will but are at the very heart of its hold over our imagination.
This magical aspect of the underground stream is definitely a mixed bag. Embracing it can make life richer and stranger and counter the alienation that comes from reducing the world around us to rules and categories. But it’s also undeniably wacky and its irrationality is all too often mingled with overtones of violence and perversion.
We in the West like to think we’ve outgrown the darker side of the underground stream. We pride ourselves, for example, on having stopped believing that all diseases are the result of witchcraft — a belief that even today can cause harmless old women to be abused and murdered in New Guinea and lead African villagers to ignore the obvious connections between female genital mutilation and death in childbirth.
But we’re not nearly as enlightened as we hope we are. The occult associations of Nazism have been a continuing problem for those who would like the underground stream to be all sweetness and light, and the Manson murders raise equally confounding questions about the darkness at the heart of the 60s.
Since the 1700s, there has been a concerted effort in Western society to exclude the cruder aspects of the underground stream. We’ve done our best to adhere to Enlightenment values while relegating the more brutal practices of our species to the purely imaginative confines of historical novels, crime fiction, and horror stories. But if the Senate ever succeeds in prying loose that CIA report on torture, we’re going to have to admit once again that things aren’t working out as we expected.
So what other answers are there?
The system of visions itself may hold clues. I’m starting to think that dominant partnerships were initiated in the first place as a means of keeping the underground stream in check — but they have their own limitations. They easily become dogmatic, grandiose, and intolerant, and once they do they’re inclined to cast ordinary citizens as unruly children who need to be whipped into line for their own good.
However, there’s one factor in the cycle of visions which appears to operate from a loftier vantage point than either the ordinary visions or the underground stream while drawing on the best of both. That is the element of higher knowledge, and it is particularly in evidence in the two youngest visions.
Those two visions — a niche filled by holism and horizontalism from the 1940s to the 60s, and by horizontalism and creative imagination from the 1980s to the present — are neither occult nor excessively rules-based. They are intensely pure and mystical, and their influence over the more mature visions appears to be entirely for good.
Their greatest limitation has been that they speak only to the few, but that may be a change we are currently preparing ourselves to make.Read the Previous Entry: Speaking with the Cosmos
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