The Romantic Break

on June 19, 2010

Since doing the last entry, I’ve realized there is another aspect to the dominant partnerships that had never occurred to me before — and that means I’m going to have to sort it out before I can move on. So let me start at the beginning…

Back in the 1970’s, when I discovered there were patterns in the history of science fiction that also held true across other areas of culture, I had no inkling of the succession of visions that underlies those patterns. I only knew that cultures seemed to go through a recurring alternation of two distinct phases, which I labeled “static” and “creative.”

During a static phase, there would be profound alterations in cultural attitudes, but the fundamental institutions of society would remain untouched. In the succeeding creative phase, however, an accumulation of problems that the static period had failed to address would compel the introduction of far-reaching social and technological innovations. And then, when the most pressing issues had been resolved, the pace of change would slacken and society would drift back into stasis.

I soon recognized that there was also a consistent sequence of sub-phases within this larger cycle. A static phase, for example, always begins with a brief period of extreme cultural stagnation. This is succeeded by the explosive development of a counterculture, which battles against the complacency and falsity of the larger society. And the eventual burnout of the counterculture stimulates a concluding period of fragmentation and questioning — which sets up the conditions for the transition to a new creative phase.

These three sub-phases were easy to identify, but the sequence within the creative phase seemed a lot murkier. The best I was able to do was divide it into an initial “classical” period — marked by a sense of balance and harmony in both society and the arts — and a succeeding “romantic” period, characterized by increasing tensions between idealism and cynicism, rebellion and repression, imperial ambition and artistic disengagement.

My hope was that the details of the creative phase would become clearer to me as I lived through the 1980’s and 90’s — but even that didn’t help much. The difference between the sunny Reaganoid optimism of the 80’s and the dark, Goth-y angst of the 90’s was apparent, but the dynamics remained as obscure to me as ever.

Since then I’ve been able to gain additional understanding of the creative phases by considering each one as the rise of a particular dominant partnership. From that perspective, it’s clear that during the classical period the partnership is new and fresh and society is largely unified behind it, while the romantic period is shaped by a loss of faith that is simultaneously undermining and liberating.

But I’ve never figured out the reason for that loss of faith. In part because I’ve been looking at things from the point of view of the emergent visions, I’ve taken it for granted that the dominant partnership eventually just goes sour. But that can’t be right. With the visions, nothing ever “just” happens.

There’s a sharp “break” between the classical and romantic periods, and that sort of thing takes a high level of cultural energy to accomplish. Since the emergent visions are too weak and culturally marginal to serve as the source of that energy, it can only come from some tension within the partnership itself.

And that brings us to a second mystery.

Last December, in discussing the emergence of the chaos vision, I offered a few reflections on the reason-and-science partnership of the late 19th century:

With science moving beyond its ken, the only role that remained for reason was to become a mere adjunct to science — to dwindle into the sort of rational deduction that we see exalted in the Sherlock Holmes stories. This accommodation was what made possible the reason-and-science partnership that dominated Western culture from the 1860’s until World War I.

The reason vision did not give in easily to this loss of status. The late 1800’s brought forth a colorful flurry of occult systems, psychic revelations, and pseudo-scientific speculations intended to prove that there were things in the universe which lay beyond the knowledge of science — but all of it was ultimately a dead end. Reason had passed its sell-by date, and it was time to move on.

I didn’t feel altogether comfortable about dismissing the 19th century occult flowering so casually, but I was hot on the trail of chaos and occultism seemed like an unnecessary distraction. Looking back, however, I can see that the anomaly I tried to sweep under the rug offers vital clues to the nature of the romantic break.

Here’s my current thinking on the matter:

I believe that when a partnership is first constructed, its senior and junior members appear roughly equal. But as it starts to bring about sweeping changes in everyday life, the more dynamic junior vision leaps ahead, not just on a practical level but also in terms of dominance.

At that point, the senior vision is forced to make a choice. It can step back gracefully and accept its subordination to the junior vision, or it can fight to stay on top. Or else — and this is what actually seems to happen — it can do both at once, splitting into two separate reality-states like Heisenberg’s Cat.

For the reason-and-science partnership which formed in the 1860’s, the turning point came about 1877. In that year, Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph set off a 25-year period of world-altering inventions which made it clear that it was technology and not the powers of the rational mind that would determine the shape of the 20th century.

But 1877 also saw the publication of Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled, which — together with the founding of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 — launched a fervent attempt to reassert the power of mind over matter and the superiority of pure thought over physical science. That effort was successful in a way — but its inevitable cost was that occultism passed beyond the limits of reason and into the realm of magic.

There was something a bit twisted about the occult worldview from the outset. Instead of accepting the power of science over the human mind — which was the normal belief of the time, expressed in stories like “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886) — it asserted the exact opposite. This inversion of values was a major factor in the self-consciously perverse and decadent mood that marked the end of the century.

There was even a kind of madness about 19th century occultism, which bestowed upon it power and longevity far beyond anything enjoyed by the reason vision, but which also cursed it with a tendency to become unhinged and do great harm. On all those grounds, occultism might be described as the reason vision’s undead vampire counterpart or perhaps its evil mirror-twin.

The influence of occultism was far from merely negative, of course. It may have been abused by the Nazis, but it also inspired a succession of major schools of art — Art Nouveau, Art Deco, abstraction, and surrealism — as well as several genres of imaginative fiction, including the lost race story, occult horror, and sword and sorcery.

All of these had a somewhat overwrought quality, however, and typically contained elements of horror and perversity. And as the science-and-democracy partnership settled into place in the 1930’s, occultism began to be rejected as old-fashioned, implausible, hysterical, and racist.

And that might have been the end of it — except that it wasn’t. Once the science-and-democracy hit its own romantic break about 1941, an updated and streamlined form of occultism began to make a comeback.

This retooling of occultism can be seen in the affection of the abstract expressionists and early beats for Asian and Native American religion. It appears particularly clearly, however, in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tolkien, who was born in 1893, grew up at the height of occultism’s popularity, and occult ideas were woven into his initial conception of Middle-Earth. The Hobbit, published in 1937, contains almost no trace of these elements, but as Tolkien worked on The Lord of the Rings in the early 40’s, one of his primary goals was to resolve his own ambivalent feelings about occult power.

This he accomplished chiefly by distinguishing between the benevolent magic of Wizards and Elves and the dark powers of Sauron, a distinction which is perhaps most apparent in Galadriel’s reaction when Frodo asks her to take the One Ring:

“You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! …

She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again. …

“I pass the test,” she said. “I will diminish and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

As a result of shedding its more power-trippy elements, occultism was able to establish a fruitful association with the emerging chaos and holism visions. In this revised form, it would exert a major influence on the psychedelic counterculture of the 60’s.

And though the occult belief that there is a non-physical reality which can be mastered by the human mind was never entirely compatible with the chaos vision, for which ultimate reality is incomprehensible, that very tension helped generate the chaos vision’s own successor.

For followers of the creative imagination vision, it seems, the true nature of ultimate reality can never be known — but its power can be invoked through the use of appropriate symbols and rituals. And that may be the ultimate occult legacy.


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.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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