A Multiplicity of Worlds

on July 22, 2010

It’s been fun chasing after the more dramatic consequences of the “romantic break,” but it occurs to me that I’ve been neglecting the details of the break itself — what triggers it, how it unfolds, and what the basis is of the distinctively romantic mood that accompanies it.

The answers to all these questions turn out to involve a complex interplay between the two established visions which form the dominant partnership and the three younger emergent visions. And that, in turn, means that those emergent visions must play a significant role at a far earlier point than I had previously realized.

When I started working with the cultural cycles back in the 70’s, I interpreted what I was finding in the simplest terms possible — as a linear sequence of “worldviews,” with each new worldview displacing the one before it.

By the late 80’s, I’d developed a more elaborate model in which worldviews were the product of an overlapping sequence of visions of three different kinds — scientific, social, and inner experience. But I was still thinking in very linear terms and believed that only one vision of each type could be active at any given moment.

For example, I identified the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s as the Era of Science and Democracy — with chaos developing on the sidelines and eventually bursting out in the 60’s counterculture. Even though I was aware that holism had also begun emerging during this period, I did not see it as playing an independent role until the very end of the 60’s.

Since then, I’ve realized that the roots of holism go back much further than the 1930’s — to the mid-19th century, in fact. But even when I began this blog a year ago, I still thought of each new vision as starting off vague and fragmentary and only gradually taking on focus and coherence.

As a result, the biggest surprise for me has been discovering how well-defined every vision is from the moment of its conception. It seems as though each vision starts off with a basic set of core principles, which deliberately contradict the assumptions of its predecessor, and then expands upon the implications of those principles as it develops.

The democracy vision, for example, began in the 1600’s as a rejection of hierarchy and despotism and an assertion of equality and freedom. Chaos began in the 1700’s as a rejection of reason, and holism in the 1800’s as a rejection of scientific materialism and reductionism.

Looked at in this way, there were actually five visions in play between the 1930’s and the 1960’s: the dominant science and democracy visions, the proto-countercultural chaos vision, and the emerging holism and multiculturalism visions. And it was from the interplay among all five that the romantic break of the 1940’s arose.

This can be seen clearly in the development of science fiction. When the science-and-democracy partnership formed about 1934-35, science was as important to SF as democracy, and story types which conveyed the awesome powers of the universe of time and space — mad scientists, alien invaders, unknown cosmic forces — remained prevalent.

By the end of the 30’s, however, the democracy vision had taken the lead, and science was reduced to a merely functional and supportive role. The two most influential new writers of 1939-41, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, were celebrated for pioneering a style of SF that focused on the social and psychological impact of technological progress rather than on scientific speculation. Those stories were the epitomal expression of the science-and-democracy partnership at its peak — with just a touch of chaos on the side.

But when the United States was drawn into World War II at the end of 1941, science fiction changed direction again and began to pursue far more fantastic and imaginative themes. Heinlein stopped writing for the duration, Asimov plunged into the galactic vastness of the Foundation series, and plausibility frequently took a back seat to the wacky and bizarre.

At the time, this change was attributed to the impact of the war. But since every dominant partnership appears to hit a romantic break at about the same point, it seems inevitable that no matter what the external circumstances had been around 1941-45, SF would have found some excuse to detour from the roadmap to the future laid out by science-and-democracy and follow a yearning for wider horizons.

That yearning for something more than the two dominant visions can provide is perhaps the most characteristic element of the romantic break. It is the initial source of the typical “romantic” quality of this phase, and its most immediate result is a great flowering of the three younger visions.

When Alexei and I wrote The World Beyond the Hill in the 1980’s, we carried our story of the conceptual development of science fiction only as far as 1945 — which was the point at which the trail of the science vision, whose evolution we had followed from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, finally petered out.

We originally had every intention of continuing with a second volume, which would have run from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. We expected that its central theme would be “consciousness” — which is to say, the chaos vision — and even had a tentative title, An Empire of Mind.

But as we started making lists of the authors and stories that would have to be included, it became clear that consciousness alone was not an adequate description. We tried switching our proposed title to A Multiplicity of Worlds, but that was more a matter of labeling the problem than of solving it. Eventually we turned our attention to other things and let the project drop.

I still have a fat folder of notes under that second title sitting in the file cabinet by my desk — and though the topics may be all over the map, some of it is pretty good stuff.

Here’s one note which lists the most oddball SF stories of 1943-48 and suggests that their common message is, “Mind is not isolated from matter. Mind is not isolated from mind. Matter is not dead and inert — it is alive, in flux, creative, potentially sentient. All physical realities are mental realities and vice versa. We have access to knowledge and capacities beyond our conscious understanding and control.”

That’s a pretty accurate description of the most transcendent aspects of the holism vision. And here’s another note referring to certain stories of the late 40’s and early 50’s which depicted a variety of “decentralized, pluralistic, non-hierarchic, pastoral, semi-anarchic” future societies. That’s multiculturalism, for sure. And here’s a third which evokes the chaos vision, suggesting that the rejection of scientific determinism in the 40’s made possible “a fully existential SF grounded in flux, adaptiveness, and flexible systems of awareness.”

It’s clear that all three emergent visions were at a high point of creativity between about 1943 and 1953, fruitfully generating new imaginative possibilities even as the science-and-democracy partnership fossilized into being merely an ideological justification for things-as-they-were.

I suggested in an earlier entry that the emergent visions were not yet operating at a level of cultural energy that would have enabled them to trigger the romantic break — and I still believe that’s true. But they were certainly in a position to take advantage of it when it happened.

As for what does cause the break, I would suggest that the success in tackling old problems which accompanies the start of each dominant partnership quickly raises the level of expectation beyond what the partnership is actually able to deliver. This leads to a peculiar combination of attitudes — increasing cynicism where the partnership is concerned, mingled with a kind of free-floating idealism that is easily projected onto the newer visions.

The first phase of the romantic break is marked by a widespread openness to new possibilities, but soon the partnership begins to regroup and reassert its dominance as society in general grows more conservative. The French Revolution gives way to the Napoleonic Empire, the Wild West gets domesticated, or the Republicans secure a majority in Congress and go on an anti-Communist witchhunt.

As conventional thinking takes hold, hopes of a new world get squeezed out of the sphere of the possible and into the realm of myth, dream, and fantasy. Those hopes may take the form of a nostalgic yearning for an Edenic world that no longer exists or that never was. They may be expressed in a studied cultivation of the bizarre, the perverse, and the self-consciously decadent. Or they may be channeled into a wild proliferation of heretical theories.

This second phase of the romantic break thus becomes a time of ever greater romanticism and ever greater cynicism. In the late 40’s, for example, science fiction seemed incapable of imagining plausible futures but was dominated on one hand by stories of atomic doom and on the other by a revival of old-style pulp adventure, space opera, and science fantasy.

This dichotomy was not limited to American SF. Hollywood films in 1948-49 were similarly divided between the bleakness of film noir and the nostalgia idealism of classic John Wayne westerns, with very little middle ground. And in England, George Orwell’s 1984 was published in 1949 — while in the same year, J.R.R. Tolkien finally finished writing The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis was at work on the first of his Chronicles of Narnia.

But amid all this speculative ferment and emotional turmoil, almost unnoticed, something extraordinary was starting to emerge out of the final phase of the science vision — a technological revolution.

Of which more in the next post…

Related:

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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