Masters of Space and Time

on August 20, 2014

I’ve been trying for several years to come up with a comprehensive explanation of the sequence of visions that has formed the backbone of human history. I’ve never felt entirely satisfied with any of my attempts, but my recent exploration of the interaction between the visions and the romantic and occult materials that I’ve described as the “underground stream” has given me some fresh ideas.

The excavations at Qesem Cave which I mentioned in the previous entry provide a useful starting point. They indicate that as early as 400,000 years ago, the cave’s inhabitants had developed an ability to orient themselves in both space and time. They divided up their living space according to various functions and they had established a production line for making stone blades that reduced the process to a maximally efficient series of steps.

These capacities correspond to what I identified some while back as a uniquely human ability to construct mental maps of the world around us and share those maps with others through a sophisticated use of language.

I further suggested at that time that the visions through which we make sense of existence arise out of those same mental maps, but with an added element of mystery and imagination. The maps are limited to factual knowledge, but the visions go beyond those limits. They combine known and unknown, the familiar places of everyday and the distant realms of story, the world as it is and the world as it might be.

And I concluded that the dual nature of the visions represents our best attempt to reconcile the intellectual approach of ordinary knowledge with the intuitive flashes and mystical intimations of higher knowledge by granting each its own separate domain of applicability.

That conclusion was fine as far as it went, but it never accounted for all the pieces of the puzzle — and now I’m starting to believe the visions must involve not two but three different modes of awareness.

One is the ancient magical way of thinking associated with the underground stream. A second is the rational, space-time approach that was already present among the Qesem Cave people. And the third is the integrative power of higher knowledge, which can bind both these others into a single vision of existence.

Let’s start with the underground stream.

Unlike the visions, the underground stream doesn’t depend on distance and difference to introduce strangeness into the world. It simply asserts that the world is inconceivably strange right here and now. Everyday events are ruled by magic. Supernatural beings surround us invisibly on every hand. Routine social transactions may reflect hidden conspiracies going on behind the scenes.

But where could those beliefs have come from?

The most obvious answer would be that they represent a pre-intellectual way of relating to the world. They do not depend on complex reasoning and in many ways seem crude and childlike. They interpret everything, even natural phenomena, in terms of simple human motivations — hunger and sex, power and dominance. So perhaps the underground stream is a vestige of the primitive instincts that we once counted upon to alert us to the presence of lurking predators or unspoken social conflicts.

There could be good reasons for holding onto instinct along with intellect. Scientific thinking is extremely precise but it can also be narrow and reductionist. It focuses obsessively on those aspects of existence that can be explained in terms of simple cause and effect while ignoring those that cannot. So maintaining both systems and operating them in tandem might be a useful way to proceed.

However, there are other aspects of the underground stream that don’t seem primitive or instinctual at all — in particular, its characteristic quality of spookiness.

Mary Shelley was referring to that quality when she wrote of how she’d aimed to write a story “which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.”

H.P. Lovecraft pinpointed it even more exactly when he insisted that weirdness in fiction was not a matter of horror alone but required “a strong impression of the suspension of natural laws or the presence of unseen worlds or forces close at hand.”

In Lovecraft’s definition, horror seems closely aligned with ancient fears of death, decay, and ravening monsters with too many teeth and claws. But weirdness — the sense of something creepy going on just outside the corner of your eye — is a lot more subtle. And the shiver-up-the-back moments it provides might be precisely what you’d expect if you’re running two different systems of perception in tandem and your intellectual side starts getting strong hints that it isn’t the one in control.

But if the underground stream represents the cognitive dissonance that arises at the uneasy interface between instinct and intellect, where does higher knowledge fit in?

I believe the answer can be found in a psychological study that I discussed in an early entry at this blog and have referred to a few times since. The researchers had one group of volunteers read a slightly abridged version of a nightmarish and incomprehensible short story by Franz Kafka, while another group read a cleaned-up and rationalized version of the same story. Both group were then given a test that involved finding hidden patterns in strings of letters, and the first group did significantly better at it.

The scientists concluded that the first group’s inability to make rational sense of the story had motivated them to restore their sense of self-esteem by excelling at the pattern-recognition test that followed — but I don’t buy that. For one thing, it seems way too psychologizing. More important, it doesn’t explain why anyone would actively enjoy reading the stories of Kafka or Lovecraft or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

A better explanation might be that these stories throw a monkey wrench into the space-time-causality centers of our brain and leave us with two choices for how to proceed. One involves sinking helplessly into the prehuman sense of a world full of lurking dangers and incomprehensible menaces. But the other requires making an intuitive leap to a higher level of mental integration.

There are a number of factors involved here, and I don’t claim to have them all sorted out. For one thing, that kind of mental leap isn’t aroused exclusively by horror stories. It can be triggered by any kind of material that appears nonsensical or incomprehensible — from jokes and riddles to Zen koans to the seemingly meaningless over-elaborations of many occult systems. All of these short out the intellect and provide space for a more integrative alternative.

But an element of weirdness does appear inseparable from the underground stream — and it’s the underground stream that is most intimately associated with the birth of new visions.

I’ve been struggling to define that association in the context of 1940s science fiction, but my best guess at the moment is that it works in two different ways. On one hand, the underground stream has the ability to draw our attention to a broad range of phenomena and relationships that are excluded from existing visions. These anomalies then provide the raw materials out of which new visions will be constructed.

On the other, whenever the underground stream comes to the surface, we are reminded that the world is stranger and more mysterious than our rational side allows. That may prompt us to reject the overly-rationalized visions that currently dominate our society and turn towards their more transcendent successors. It also causes us to cast a critical eye on the one vision that is on the point of going mainstream and start entertaining the heretical possibilities that will become the germ of its successor.

Of course, there are always people who fear and reject the newest visions and everything associated with them. If you can’t make the necessary leap of integration when encountering things that are foreign to your understanding, you are likely to fall into xenophobia, homophobia, technophobia — every kind of primitive fear of what seems unknown and alien. But transcending those fears by kicking things up to a higher level of integration is the basis of tolerance and the acceptance of change.

So let us try using this paradigm to imagine the birth of the very first vision, 400,000 years ago. A bunch of would-be rationalists, the original masters of space and time, are sitting around the campfire after dinner — and like present-day fourteen-year-olds, they start to tell the creepiest stories they know in an attempt to freak one another out.

Some come up with accounts of strange things they’ve seen or heard while out scouting alone — even today, half your friends probably have an anecdote of that kind. Others resort to friend-of-a-friend stories that might just possibly be true. And just when they’ve got themselves properly worked up, there’s a blood-curdling shriek outside the cave — and they look around nervously, toss another log on the fire, and wonder if the world is quite as safe and tidy as they thought it was.

But somehow the next morning their affairs go exceptionally well. Tiny spoor along the trail that the hunters might not ordinarily notice add up and give them a first-rate kill. An almost imperceptible gap in the foliage that the gatherers investigate on a sudden impulse turns out to be the start of a trail that leads to rich new meadows.

And being no fools — especially when it comes to matters of cause and effect — they conclude that providing a space in their space-time maps for the weird and the disconcerting may be of sound practical advantage.

As it is even to this day.

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Read the Previous Entry: Searching for the Dawn
Read the Next Entry: Dreams of the Dead

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