Mirror, MirrorCory Panshin on April 25, 2010
I’ve been trying for the most part to present the visions in rational terms, as a series of extended metaphors through which we humans attempt to understand the universe in which we find ourselves.
But I keep being reminded that at the very heart of the visions is something far more mystical and … well … visionary. The visions may provide our best attempts to make sense of the everyday world, but they do so by drawing upon our intimations of a deeply meaningful reality beyond the veil of perception. Every vision represents a fusion of the mundane and the otherworldly, the plausible and the mysterious, and it is that fusion which is the source of their power to convince and to motivate.
The transcendent power of each vision reaches its greatest extent at the peak of the counterculture based on that vision — when for a brief moment, it appears that all boundaries can be transgressed and all opposites can be reconciled. But the world-as-it-is can never fulfill those expectations, so each vision is fated first to overreach and then to collapse like a punctured balloon and shrink down to its most mundane and practical aspects.
That was what happened to the chaos vision when it faltered and lost its way in the late 60’s. But by then chaos had built up as an enormous charge of psychic energy — and the excess had to go somewhere once chaos was no longer large enough to contain it.
Roughly speaking, that energy wound up being divided into three parts. One part remained inherent in the chaos vision, so that even after being toned down it still retained enough juice to serve as the power source for the democracy-and-chaos partnership when it formed in the late 70’s.
A second part was channeled into the holism vision, which became increasingly pure and utopian as chaos fell into cynicism and decadence. The final stages of the counterculture, starting around the time of Woodstock in August 1969, were far more attuned to ecology and getting back to the land than to psychedelic pranks and love-ins.
And a third part provided the psychic fuel that enabled the first scattered intimations of a successor to chaos to begin to consolidate into the creative imagination vision.
It is possible to arrive at a surprisingly exact date for the point when the chaos vision began to fragment. At the very peak of a counterculture, it seems, significant events occur both much more rapidly and with much tighter synchronization than under normal circumstances. And if 1967’s “summer of love” was the absolute peak of the counterculture, then the following October marks the moment at which it began its downward trajectory.
One landmark event occurred on October 6, 1967, when the radical countercultural group known as the Diggers proclaimed the “Death of Hippie” and paraded a coffin labeled “Hippie — Son of Media” through the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco.
A second came two weeks later, on October 21, when a massive anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, DC was marked by the iconic moment of flower power, the absurdism of the Yippies’ attempt to levitate the Pentagon, and the outbreak of significant violence.
After those two epitomal moments, the original spirit of the psychedelic counterculture which had inspired both the Diggers and the Yippies would begin to dissipate. And as it did, the energies it had gathered would be channeled in many directions, like a great river breaking up into meandering streams as it reaches its delta.
There are any number of paths which might be followed through that labyrinth — but the most appropriate starting-place might be with the Star Trek episode titled “Mirror, Mirror,” which first aired on October 6, 1967, the very day that the Diggers celebrated the Death of Hippie.
Although Star Trek was never exactly countercultural, it did have its own sense of the chaos vision, which appears most clearly in the extreme personal flexibility and adaptability of Captain Kirk. Mr. Spock, in contrast, typically served as Kirk’s foil by maintaining a dogmatic adherence to reason — the vision which chaos had supplanted.
But if Spock had been no more than that, his character would never have had the profound cultural impact that it has enjoyed for close to half a century. And there were definitely moments at which the half-alien Spock appeared to be operating at a level of understanding beyond anything accessible to the merely human crew members of the Enterprise.
The most perfect demonstration of Spock’s ability to transcend the limitations of chaos may have come in Mirror, Mirror — best remembered as the “Spock in a goatee” episode.
In a storyline which presages the decay of the chaos vision into violence and negativity, Captain Kirk and three other officers are hurled by a transporter error into a twisted alternate universe where the Enterprise serves not a Federation but an Empire. In that mirror-world, discipline is based on torture for minor offenses and execution without trial for more severe infractions, and the ship’s officers maintain private goon squads and plot the assassination of their superiors.
The familiar crew members hold the same ranks on that version of the Enterprise, but they appear as dark counterparts of themselves — casually violent, self-serving, and licentious. And although Kirk quickly recognizes what has happened and manages to pass as his opposite number, the mirror-Kirk with whom he has been swapped is not nearly as protean. He quickly gives himself away through his bluster and inability to understand that the rules of brute force and vengeance to which he is accustomed do not apply.
There is only one exception to the parade of dark twins in the mirror-world. Spock alone remains quintessentially Spock-like, a bit cold-blooded in his acceptance of the routine cruelties of his world, but still fundamentally sane and balanced. That much-imitated goatee, in fact, rather than identifying him as “evil Spock,” is necessary because without it he would be virtually indistinguishable from the original.
This equivalence is established very early in the story, when the mirror-Spock explains to Kirk that he has no interest in assassinating him because “I do not desire the captaincy. I much prefer my scientific duties, and I am frankly content to be a lesser target.”
“Logical as always, Mr. Spock,” Kirk replies.
A little later, after Kirk’s unusual gestures of mercy have started arousing suspicion, Spock violates the savage protocols of Starfleet by warning Kirk that he has been ordered to kill him for his aberrant behavior.
“He is very much like our own Mr. Spock, isn’t he,” Kirk comments smilingly to his fellow-exiles.
Ultimately, Kirk concludes that he can take Spock into his confidence, telling him, “You’re a man of integrity in both universes, Mr. Spock.” And he talks Spock into overthrowing the Empire on the perfectly rational grounds that it is doomed to collapse anyway.
When we last see mirror-Spock, he has accepted a role as an agent of creative change in his own universe — an outcome which implies that this is the true nature of the other Spock, as well. And even if the premises of the show admit of no sustained challenge to the righteousness of the Federation, the concluding scene of Mirror, Mirror provides a strong hint that Spock has been privately thinking subversive thoughts.
“What I don’t understand is how you were able to identity our counterparts so quickly,” Kirk wonders once he is back on his own version of the Enterprise.
“I had an opportunity to observe your counterparts here quite closely,” Spock replies. “They were rude, savage, unprincipled, uncivilized, treacherous — in every way splendid examples of Homo sapiens, the very flower of humanity. I found them quite refreshing.”
“I’m not sure but I think we’ve been insulted,” Kirk comments good-naturedly.
But behind the forced humor of the “everyone laughs” ending, Spock’s suggestion that the human-dominated Federation is not nearly as civilized as it pretends to be may be the real point of the episode.
And that brings up something odd about the title. Although “Mirror, Mirror” is generally taken as evoking Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the actual phrase comes from “Snow White” — “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” And that doesn’t make much sense in terms of the plotline.
The real purpose of the title, however, may be to draw our attention to the reciprocity of the situation it presents — two universes, each holding up a mirror to the other.
For at least a few natives of the other universe, Kirk’s basic human decency provides a looking-glass in which they can see their better natures reflected. But for the intruders from the primary universe, that other world is a funhouse mirror in which their own images appear hideously distorted — and yet still recognizable.
For us as the audience, the ultimate result may be that the two images cancel out, and we are left seeing ourselves for just a moment through Spock’s eyes — as intriguing yet largely uncivilized savages.
Neither the creators of Star Trek nor anyone else in 1967 was prepared to go beyond that momentary flash of insight and imagine what the next step might be. Even today, in an America whose norms have grown steadily more brutal as the chaos vision continues its inevitable decline, any suggestion that it might be possible to aspire to something better can get you called a communist or worse.
But the problem remains. And the question of how to ratchet human nature up a notch is going to be one of the essential challenges of a 21st century in which indulgence of our own savagery has become a threat to our very survival.
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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