Do You Believe in Magic?

on April 18, 2014

The underground stream is always present, always speaking to us across the full range of human experience. However, the mature visions normally drown out its voice. They act as a kind of control valve that causes us to dismiss the magical assumptions of the underground stream as implausible and unfounded.

It’s only when an aging vision starts to falter that the underground stream is able to break through in the specific area covered by that vision. For example, when the reason vision began failing in the 1880s, it provided an opening for unrestrained speculation about the potentials of the human mind.

The successor to reason — the chaos vision — was still very close to its mystical roots then, and its focus on non-rational states of consciousness such as dream, madness, and intoxication was entirely compatible with the raw shamanistic perceptions of spiritualists and occultists.

The idea of psychic abilities, in particular, was considered worthy of serious scientific investigation. When the Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882, it had a range of interests that encompassed everything from thought-transference and mesmerism to spirit mediums and haunted houses. Its mission was “to approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled science to solve so many problems.”

But time moved on, and by the 1930s the chaos vision was heavily rationalized and closely identified with the Freudian unconscious. Psychical studies had lost touch with the underground stream and been reduced to the “parapsychology” of Professor J.B. Rhine, whose aim was to turn the occult into a branch of science subject to laboratory experiments and statistical analysis.

However, another channel for the underground stream was already opening up. The narrow horizons of 19th century materialism were giving way to belief in an ever-expanding universe of space, time, and dimension — an inconceivably vast domain in which any kind of bizarreness might find its place.

Early intimations of this wider universe go back to the 1890s, when H.G. Wells wrote of travel in time and space and the conquest of Earth by invading Martians. But Wells shied away from the occult, and his stories lack the shimmering, magical quality that is characteristic of the underground stream.

In the 1920s and early 30s, H.P. Lovecraft made a stab at combining the Wellsian universe with intimations of occult weirdness. In stories like “From Beyond,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and “The Dreams in the Witch House,” he suggested that under appropriate conditions the human mind might be open to glimpses of profound cosmic mystery.

But those stories were founded on the assumptions of 19th century occultism, in which Lovecraft himself no longer believed. And contemporary science fiction remained largely confined to the Wellsian paradigm of exploration of other worlds and times. Mystery might be encountered out there, but it did not surround us or permeate our lives.

By the time Lovecraft died in 1937, SF was becoming even narrower. The scientific materialism vision that had inspired Wells was subordinated to the younger and more vibrant democracy vision, and late 30’s SF was increasingly focused on the power of technology and its potential for transforming human society.

With the onset of World War II, however, the techno-utopian promises of the World of Tomorrow seemed like less of a sure thing, and it became possible to imagine a universe in which the sphere of human dominance formed just one small corner.

The shift seems to have started in Unknown — the fantasy companion to Astounding Science Fiction — which was dedicated to de-romanticizing fantasy and hauling it out of its usual pseudo-medieval settings. One by-product of that effort was a flood of whimsical tales about supernatural beings quietly going about their business in seemingly mundane present-day settings, especially New York City.

A similar type of story soon filtered into Astounding, but with the gnomes and dryads replaced by aliens, time travelers, sentient robots, and mutants. And with that seemingly trivial alteration, the rational universe of science fiction was turned on its head.

It suddenly became possible to imagine that the strange beings of SF might not be passively waiting out there to be discovered but might already be here among us. They could be living in the apartment next door or downing a beer in your neighborhood tavern. Even your pricey new high-tech radio or the furnace in your basement might be sentient and plotting against you.

That sense of immanent mystery is the very essence of the underground stream. It was the source of Lovecraft’s power as a writer, and the stories that Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore co-wrote for Astounding as “Lewis Padgett” in the early 40s conveyed it just as effectively, though with less horror and a lot more humor.

And they were not alone. Much of A.E. van Vogt’s fiction from the same period rests on an assumption that galactic civilization already exists and is aware of Earth, even if the current inhabitants of our planet have not yet been let in on the fact.

Van Vogt’s stories also display an interaction between the underground stream and the emerging holism vision that is comparable to the temporary alliance in the late 1800s between occultism and the chaos vision.

As long as the premises of scientific materialism had set the tone, the universe was perceived as a collection of isolated planets, cut off from one another by the abyss of outer space. But when scientific materialism faltered in the 1940s and holism gained strength, it became more credible to view the galaxy as a network of many interdependent worlds, with Earth being just one node.

That change in perspective gave the holistic universe an extra dimension of mystery while simultaneously making the perceptions of the underground stream seem more plausible — at least within the special, dislocated mindset of World War II and the immediate postwar years.

This temporary shot of plausibility allowed the underground stream to surface more fully and expand its sphere of influence. It even restored the believability of psychic powers, since it could be argued that although we humans might never master the art of extra-sensory perception, other inhabitants of the wider universe might not be so limited.

That conclusion underlies the Lewis Padgett story “The Proud Robot,” which I discussed here previously. The central character, Gallegher, is a brilliant inventor whenever he gets sufficiently drunk to unleash the powers of his subconscious mind — but that was the limit of what could be plausibly envisioned within the boundaries of the chaos vision. In contrast, the robot that Gallegher constructs during one of his bouts of intoxication possesses an assortment of “enigmatic senses” unavailable to ordinary humans that include X-ray vision, super-sensitive hearing, vastening, and sagrazi.

“I’m afraid of that robot,” Gallegher says at one point. “He’s vastened me into quite a spot.”

For the next decade or so, the magico-scientific universe would exert the same kind of power over the imagination as occult powers of mind had enjoyed at the end of the 19th century. In the late 40s, it would even gain a degree of mainstream credibility in the form of the UFO cult, which would be taken seriously for a time by the likes of the CIA and the US Air Force. But by the 1960s, belief in alien intruders would be undercut by the lack of physical evidence and eclipsed by the achievements of the actual space program, and it would slowly dwindle into the stuff of crackpottery.

And then the wheel would come full circle in the 1980s — but this time it was a loss of faith in the now-aging democracy vision, with its assurances of governmental transparency and accountability, that would provide an opening for the underground stream. And the primary form it took was that of conspiracy theory.

A conspiratorial view of politics was already on the rise, fueled by the assassinations of the 1960s, the covert activities of the Nixon White House, and the questions raised by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1976. But it was not until the middle 80s that it became fully possessed by the glamour of the underground stream.

The transition can be seen in the work of Alan Moore, which evolved over the course of the decade from V for Vendetta, a relatively straightforward account of an anarchist revolution in a fascist near-future Britain, to the full-on conspiratorial bizarreness of the Jack the Ripper graphic novel From Hell.

And just as the magico-scientific universe had reinvigorated a fading belief in occult powers in the 1940s, the relative credibility of conspiracy theories did the same for ideas about alien visitors in the late 80s and 90s. It could be argued, after all, that even if aliens hadn’t landed on the White House lawn or left traces of their presence on other planets, it didn’t mean they weren’t here. Perhaps the crucial evidence was being suppressed by a government cover-up, as depicted in The X Files, which premiered in 1993.

But we’re now another twenty years along and this particular surge of the underground stream is petering out. The more plausible of our conspiratorial fears have morphed into the mundane actualities of NSA surveillance and the manipulation of financial markets while the rest are turning hopelessly silly.

That’s what always happens, of course, and we can be sure the underground stream will be back as soon as the psychological certainties of the chaos vision falter and make way for a fresh burst of speculation about the powers of the human mind. But meanwhile there are serious questions to consider about the impact of the underground stream upon the cycle of visions.

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