The Search for MeaningCory Panshin on November 15, 2009
When I started college in the fall of 1963, I had trouble getting my bearings both academically and socially, and by November I had fallen into something of a funk. It didn’t help my mood any when late one evening my roommate read out a particularly depressing passage from Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, which she was studying in her introductory humanities class.
I can’t recall at this point just what the quote was, but it knocked me into one of the blackest moments of despair I have ever known — a state in which all action seemed futile and life merely an extended prelude to death.
One online guide to the play describes its main character as suffering “from existential dread, a fear that the world is absurd and without meaning, a fear that beyond the grave lies absolute nothingness.” That sounds about right. It was precisely that kind of existential nausea — which had arisen out of the cross-breeding of chaos with scientific materialism in the late 30’s — that knocked me for a loop.
It took a day and a half for me to throw off the blackness and start appreciating the beauty of the world again. And just then, someone stopped me on the path to my dorm and said, “Have you heard? The president’s been shot.”
Oddly enough, the news of Kennedy’s assassination didn’t throw me back into despair, perhaps because it was so much bigger than the feelings of personal self-pity I’d been indulging. Instead, it left me angry, disbelieving, and looking for explanations.
By whatever route they came to it, many people of my generation were propelled on that same quest. You could take Kennedy’s assassination as proof that life really was absurd and pointless — or you could seek higher understanding. There was no third choice.
Drugs were one common starting-point for those who sought a broader framework of meaning. LSD opened people’s eyes to a world that was not only more beautiful, colorful, and intriguing than ordinary existence but was made up of pieces that kept fitting together in constantly new and surprising ways. That sense of both beauty and pattern was what the hippies meant when they used terms like “cool” and “groovy” which they’d appropriated from the hipsters.
There was a continuing question, however, as to whether the drugs were providing a window on the true, hidden nature of existence or merely offering a temporary escape from the cold, hard facts of reality.
This was a debate that came to a head about 1967. “Lettttt me take you downnnnn,” John Lennon sang in stretched-out psychedelic syllables, “cause I’m going tooooo. Strawberry Fielllllds. Nothing is realllllll.”
Was “Strawberry Fields” a pro-drug song or an anti-drug song? A revelation that ordinary life is an illusion or a condemnation of escape into fantasy? And when Lennon sang, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see,” whose eyes did he take as being closed? It wasn’t possible to know for sure, so the final effect was one of ambiguity.
Because of these doubts, both members of the counterculture and interested outside observers started looking for anything that might confirm the insights of the psychedelic experience. There was a wave of interest in various forms of occultism, for example, with the I Ching — the Book of Changes — being one of the first to attract attention and perhaps the most influential.
Science fiction writer Phil Dick had come under the spell of the I Ching as early as 1961 and had incorporated it into his novel The Man in the High Castle (1963). Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters were fascinated by it as well.
Much of the appeal of the I Ching lay in the fact that you could start off with a half-dozen seemingly random coin tosses and immediately find yourself traversing an elaborate web of meaning, patterns that mutated into other patterns, and endless cross-connections. In that way, the I Ching provided the perfect metaphor for the quest to transmute the random events of scientific materialism into higher structures of meaning.
Bob Dylan expressed this meta-nature of the I Ching perhaps better than anyone in his “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” (1966). The lyrics of the song repeat insistently “everybody must get stoned,” which might be taken as either simple drug proselytizing or a summons to higher consciousness, but without ever explaining why or how.
The title, however, is a reference to two I Ching hexagrams. Hexagram #12, which represents Stagnation, is changed by just a single moving line into Hexagram #35, Progress. The radical effect of that simple alteration in perspective was the message that the I Ching held for the searchers of the Sixties.
A third locus of the Sixties search for meaning — and the one which was most significant to me personally — was J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which became a central reference point for the counterculture following the appearance of two different paperback editions in 1965.
Tolkien’s relationship to the visions of the mid-20th century was both subtle and distinctive. He was no fan of modern technology — The Hobbit, published in 1937 at the peak of the science-and-democracy partnership, begins “one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green.” And yet the book offers its own unique take on both science and democracy.
The plot of The Hobbit is moved along almost entirely by what might be described as magical tech — magic maps, swords, rings, and stones — but these devices are small and soundless and often glow palely when activated. In short, they are far more like actual 21st century technology than they are like the great clanking machines and factories of Tolkien’s own time.
Tolkien also offered his own take on the democracy vision, with Bilbo Baggins serving as a populist figure whose sturdy common sense regularly gets the less practical Dwarves out of trouble. And the climax of the story, in which Men, Dwarves, and Elves overcome their differences to fight off an army of Goblins, can be seen as an early example of the democratic pluralism that was starting to bubble up as a reaction against fascism and racism.
The populism and pluralism would continue in The Lord of the Rings — but what is different about the trilogy is that there is very little magical tech in comparison with The Hobbit. Instead, the pivotal events are almost all driven by mystical intimations of higher forces and dimensions. These “psychedelic” moments, which embodied Tolkien’s own understanding of the chaos vision, were what primarily endeared him to the hippies.
Tolkien wrote the first two volumes of the trilogy during World War II and had finished the third by 1948, which was exactly the period when the chaos vision was throwing off the dominance of science-and-democracy and setting itself in opposition to Western materialism. Tolkien’s association of mechanical devices with Sauron and his minions is not identical to the anti-materialism of of the beats, but it clearly resonates on the same wavelength.
But there was also a third important quality in Tolkien, beyond his populism and his mysticism, and that was a precocious awareness of the holism vision which would emerge during the 60’s as the successor to scientific materialism. Tolkien’s holism is implicit in the non-mechanical magical tech of The Hobbit. It can be seen in the environmental overtones of The Lord of the Rings. And it is deeply embedded in the holistic nature of Middle-earth itself.
Tolkien always spoke of his construction of Middle-earth as an exercise in creating a secondary reality — which he described in religious terms as being the closest humans can get to the work of God. But the true value of Middle-earth lies not so much in its “realness” as in its wholeness. It is the interconnected nature of Tolkien’s world and not its specificity of detail that lends it something of the transcendence of actual experience.
I first became aware of the densely integrated nature of Middle-earth’s languages, peoples, histories, and symbolic systems in the spring of 1967, when I was taking breaks from writing my college thesis — on the Old English verb in Beowulf — by compiling an Elvish glossary.
In working with Tolkien’s invented languages, I arrived at a realization that not only were all the elements of Middle-earth woven together in one complex tapestry, but the history of the world formed a single ongoing story that included everyone’s individual stories but also extended above and beyond them.
And that was the first piece of the answer I had been seeking to The Night of the Iguana’s message of futility and death.
A few years later, I moved on to a second and more compelling realization — that what I had found of value in Tolkien was also true of our own world, but even more so. Human history forms just such a continuing story, in which we all play a part, but is vastly broader and more elaborate than the story of Middle-earth, as well as being many tens of thousands of years longer.
It is that story that I have been trying to tell ever since.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
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