Make It Work!

on August 21, 2010

The closer I get to the present, the more difficult it is to make out exactly what’s been going on with the visions — and I’m finding creative imagination particularly challenging. This is partly because it’s still in its proto-stage, overshadowed by holism and multiculturalism, and has yet to take on a fully distinctive form.

But even the initial crystallization of creative imagination remains obscure. I’ve pegged it as falling around 1978-81, because I see those years as being equivalent to 1936-39, when multiculturalism emerged, but I haven’t been able to come up with any literary or artistic examples from that time. My suspicion is that visions based on inner experience, being the most esoteric, take longer than social or scientific visions to make a significant public impact.

I do see clear signs of a shift reflected in Alexei’s and my own work. In the late summer of 1979, as we were embarking on the final version of The World Beyond the Hill, Alexei wrote an introductory chapter that pulled together much of what we had been attempting to say since the early 70’s. It was so full of strange new ideas, however, that we soon realized it didn’t fit into our history of science fiction. We wound up detaching it from the book and submitting it separately for publication under the title “Science Fiction and the Dimension of Myth.”

In that essay, we described science fiction as the product of “creative imagination” or “mythic imagination,” which we identified as the means of passage to a mythic dimension which shamans and mystics have always considered realer than the everyday world.

The viewpoint of the common day world is not the viewpoint of the World Beyond the Hill. From that standpoint — one of greater reality, we should remember — culture is not primary, but secondary. … The mythic dimension is the higher reality. It underlies culture, validates it and gives it substance. Mythic imagination is the means of return to the World Beyond the Hill.

Mythmaking is a constant, on-going, self-amending process. Myth — in our abode of corruption — does not exist outside the activity of mythmaking. There is no single, perfect and final Myth that all men should recognize and assent to. There is only the particular expression of myth in a certain time and a certain place for a certain audience. . . .

Myth in practice is not neat, tidy, rational and enduring. Myth is sloppy, contradictory, irrational and ephemeral. It is of the moment and for a purpose. It will be superseded. If the purpose of myth and the human culture that depends on myth is to carry the human psyche out of the abode of corruption and limitation toward the higher realities of the World Beyond the Hill, then myth will always supersede itself until the final object is attained.

In describing myth in those terms, we drew on the insights of the great mythographer Joseph Campbell, but we went beyond his assumptions in two significant ways — first by naming science fiction as contemporary myth, and second by asserting that myth has a reality of its own which is not merely psychological or symbolic.

We were also influenced by our reading of many of the occult works that had been published or reprinted in the 70’s — but although we found that material intriguing, we were not prepared to go along with the New Age tendency to regard it as literally true. For anyone who had become attuned to the ontological anarchy of the chaos vision, rigid certainty about the unknown was simply untenable.

Our central dilemma was that we wanted to take the idea of higher reality seriously — but not too seriously. And our way of resolving the conflict was to conceive of a mythic dimension that had its own reality which could be experienced through the imagination but could never be known directly or pinned down in terms acceptable to reason.

Over the next few years, I would discover that we were not the only ones who had arrived at similar conclusions around the same time. There was, for example, Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, an enormously influential survey of neo-paganism, first published “on All Hallows’ Eve, 1979,” which I caught up with when the revised edition came out in 1986.

The preface to that second edition begins by invoking both holism and multiculturalism. “The real message of Drawing Down the Moon is that the spiritual world is like the natural world — only diversity will save it,” Adler writes. “Just as the health of a forest or fragrant meadow can be measured by the number of different insects and plants and creatures that successfully make it their home, so only by an extraordinary abundance of disparate spiritual and philosophic paths will human beings navigate a pathway through the dark and swirling storms that mark our current era. ‘Not by one avenue alone,’ wrote Symmachus sixteen centuries ago, ‘can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.'”

The philosophical side of the book, however, was primarily concerned not with either holism or multiculturalism but with charting the development among practitioners of ceremonial magic of an intellectual framework that they could use to make sense of their own experiences. As one attempted explanation, originally published in 1973 and quoted by Adler (p. 172), had it:

A major reason why the Craft is reviving now is that it depends on an “open” metaphysics, the only kind that can work in this century. The explanation I have evolved of such an “open” system is this: Reality is infinite. Therefore everything you experience is, in some sense, real. But since your experiences can only be a small part of this infinity, they are merely a map of it, merely a metaphor; there is always an infinity of possible experiences still unexplored. What you know, therefore, may be true as far as it goes, but it cannot be Whole Truth, for there is always infinitely further to go. In brief: “It is all real; it is all metaphor; there is always more.”

I also made a second major discovery in reading Adler’s book, which was that the flowering of neo-paganism in the late 60’s and early 70’s was apparently motivated by a bunch of science fiction fans getting interested in traditional occultism and cross-breeding it with the pragmatic, engineering approach typical of science fiction.

In the 1940’s and 50’s, science fiction had developed a sophisticated, results-oriented philosophy of knowledge, largely through the influence of one man — John W. Campbell. Campbell, who served as editor of Astounding/Analog from 1937 until his death in 1971, shaped the philosophy of several generations of science fiction readers through his monthly editorials, and though I’ve never been able to pin down the connections, I’m convinced that he exerted a formative influence on both computer hackers and neo-pagans — two groups that Adler identifies as having a surprising degree of overlap.

Campbell saw the universe from the perspective of an engineer, and he was always more interested in whether something worked than in whether or not it had a plausible scientific explanation. He might even express skepticism about the laws of science, suggesting at one point that they were, at best, approximations to a “noisy” reality. And he repeatedly insisted that there must be something to psi powers, because if they didn’t work, humans wouldn’t so persistently attempt to apply them.

Alexei and I both learned a lot from Campbell as we were growing up, and though we came to reject his mechanistic worldview, we continued to find value in his mixture of skepticism and pragmatic acceptance — especially when approaching paranormal and occult materials.

Neo-paganism clearly developed out of a very similar mindset — and so did its close cousin, chaos magic, which according to Wikipedia was founded in 1976 and given its first public expressions in 1978-81.

“Chaos magic claims that belief can be an active magical force,” Wikipedia explains. “It emphasizes flexibility of belief and the ability to consciously choose one’s beliefs, hoping to apply belief as a tool rather than seeing it as a relatively unchanging part of one’s personality.”

The most prominent self-described chaos magician today is graphic novelist Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta. Moore recently told an interviewer, “I’ve had years of bizarre hallucinogenic magical experiences in which I believed I had communicated with entities that may well have been disassociated parts of my own personality or conceivably some independent entity of a metaphysical nature. Both would seem equally interesting. I realise that these things can never be accepted scientifically but I’m just happy with them as what they are — experiences I can turn into art, or perhaps philosophical musings.”

Creative imagination is not simply about magic, of course — although an insistence on the validity of magic is one of the most effective ways in which it sets itself off from its predecessor, the chaos vision. It also involves certain assumptions about the nature of reality, as well as a tendency to view creativity as the essential human characteristic, rather than either rationality (as in the reason vision) or self-awareness (as in the chaos vision).

And yet, even seemingly ordinary creativity is deeply entangled with magic. To quote Alan Moore again, from a video posted at YouTube in May 2009:

Art … is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images to achieve changes in consciousness. … The fact that in present times this magical power has degenerated to the level of cheap entertainment and manipulation is, I think, a tragedy. …

I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river. They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment. They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being, that can change a society.

It is that insistence on the transformative power of art-as-magic which may be the true essence of creative imagination.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here and a listing of my posts on myth space 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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