The Great Disillusionment

on November 30, 2010

Ever since I started working with the visions, I’ve been wondering how such an elaborate, recurring cycle could have gotten started.

A year ago, I compared the dance of the visions to a Rube Goldberg machine, because it has something of that quality of disparate elements zooming around and banging into one another in ways that trigger new flurries of activity. But unlike Rube Goldberg’s ingenious devices, the cycle of visions is circular and self-sustaining. New visions emerge to take on the roles formerly held by older ones, and the same sequence of events keeps repeating over and over.

In recent entries, I’ve suggested that the three original visions — the transformative, kinship, and spirit visions — might have arisen out of attempts by the first modern humans to reflect upon and systematize their own scientific, social, and inner experiences.

And I’ve speculated that after perhaps a hundred thousand years of gradual development, a desire for even greater systematization might have brought the transformative and kinship visions into a secure intellectual partnership, which was also able to encompass at least part of the spirit vision.

That urge towards systematization may be key. If we assume that the evolutionary leap which produced us modern humans resulted in a raging desire to make sense of the world, it would go a long way towards explaining the creation of the first three visions and the first dominant partnership. It would also indicate why new visions should have continued to appear as new information and new experiences rendered the old ones inadequate.

If that was all there was to it, though, the new visions ought to click into place as smoothly as software upgrades — slide the old one out, slide the new one in, no fuss, no bother. But that isn’t what happens at all.

Instead, we humans have a history of endless contention. Wars and revolutions are fought between adherents of new visions and diehard supporters of old ones. Even at best, there is prolonged generational conflict as established ways of doing things are scorned and rejected.

One reason for the conflict is that dominant partnerships are not merely tidy philosophical packages. They provide the essential underpinnings for society, serving to unify and stabilize social institutions, and their collapse can be a matter of excruciating pain and dislocation.

So the real puzzle involves not just the first three visions and the first partnership, but also how the cycle of replacement got started — why, despite the turmoil it causes, we always seem willing to set aside the safe and familiar in favor of the new and untried.

To explain that, I think one more element is needed. We humans are not only great systematizers — we are also natural mystics. We believe to our core in the ultimate oneness of all things, and that is the source of our drive to integrate everything we know into a single, coherent system.

But the same mystical bent also underlies each of the visions at a level far deeper than mere intellectual coherence. Every vision is born out of an ineffable glimpse of transcendence — of inherent pattern and meaning beyond the disorder and uncertainty of ordinary existence.

That transcendence is what powers the vision in its earliest and most visionary phases, but it is inevitably lost once the vision starts to be adjusted and cut to size to meet the practical needs of society.

By the time two visions join in a dominant partnership, the senior vision has lost virtually all of its original transcendence, while the junior vision is already starting to be compromised. Initially, however, that doesn’t appear as a problem. The synthesis of the two visions releases a sudden blast of cultural energy that re-energizes both of them and makes it appear that the partnership has achieved a sustainable balance of idealism and reality.

But that balance never lasts — and when the partnership stumbles, the disillusionment can be crushing.

I wrote a few months ago about how the science-and-democracy partnership that was established in the 1930’s hit what I called its “romantic break” in the early 40’s under the impact of World War II. Since then, I’ve run across a foreword by science fiction writer Clifford Simak for a collection of his classic “City” stories which perfectly captures the mood of that moment.

The first four of these stories appeared in 1944 and another four after the war had ended. They envision a turning away from the high-tech “World of Tomorrow,” which had embodied the core aspirations of science-and-democracy, in favor of a radically decentralized and pluralistic future based on aspects of the emerging chaos, holism, and multiculturalism visions.

Recalling the genesis of those stories thirty years later, Simak wrote:

City was written out of disillusionment. Perhaps few others were disillusioned, but they should have been. The world was going through a war that not only cost millions of lives and blighted millions of other lives, but spawned a new weapon that held the capacity of destroying not only armies, but nations. …

I, personally, was not so struck with the massive destructiveness of the weapon concept as I was by this evidence that man, in his madness for power, would stop at nothing. … The original disillusionment was occasioned by war; Hiroshima and Nagasaki served only to confirm and deepen the disillusion.

City was written not as a protest (for what good would protest do?) but as a seeking after a fantasy world that would serve as a counterbalance to the brutality through which the world was passing. Perhaps, deep inside myself, I was trying to create a world in which I and other disillusioned people could, for a moment, take refuge from the world in which we lived.

That kind of disillusionment with respect to the dominant partnership, combined with an urge to escape into what may seem like pure fantasy, forms the essence of the romantic break. And if I am correct in assuming that the recurring cycle of visions began when the transformative-and-kinship partnership first stumbled and began to be rejected, there ought to be evidence of precisely that sort of romantic break occurring in the later part of the Old Stone Age.

As it happens, there is.

I first came up with the idea of the romantic break back in the 1970’s, when I was doing no more than charting out a recurring pattern of shifts in cultural mood and had not yet identified the underlying succession of visions. One of the most obvious of those shifts was an abrupt transition from classical balance and harmony to romantic intensity and turmoil — a change which I perceived in the difference between classical Greece and imperial Rome, between the neo-classicism of the late 1700’s and the romanticism of the early 1800’s, and between the 1930’s and the 1940’s.

I also saw signs of the same kind of romantic intensity in the powerful and hallucinatory cave art that appeared in southern France and northern Spain during the final millennia of the Ice Age.

The earliest securely-dated examples of this art go back to about 28,000 years ago, making it a few thousand years younger than the first of the European Venus figures. As I have previously suggested, those abstract female statuettes can be readily identified as linked to the ancient transformative vision on the basis of their lozenge-like shape, ochre coating, and association with human reproduction.

But the art of the deep caves is radically different from that. It is apparently shamanistic in nature and may well have been intended as an expression of the powerful energies associated with the spirit vision. Especially in its final flowering, which came around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum some 19,000 to 17,000 years ago, it has an overwhelmingly dreamlike and psychedelic quality.

Although the precise uses of this art are not known, it is apparent that it creates an artificial fantasy world full of powerful alien beings — not so different from the world that Simak sought to evoke in his stories of faithful robots, talking dogs and intelligent ants.

By the time the great cave painters came along, however, the romantic break was already in its final stages. The start of the process — the equivalent of the World War II years, when disillusionment was first creeping in — must have occurred quite a bit earlier.

I would date that start to 70,000 years ago, when the onset of a new ice age dealt a heavy blow to the human cultures that had flourished during the previous 50,000 years of mild interglacial climate.

The first attempts at art appear to have come to an end at that time. Modern humans withdrew from much of the Middle East, ceding the territory to the more cold-adapted Neanderthals. And as the bitter cold and drought reached its peak between about 65,000 and 55,000 years ago, the human community must have felt very beleaguered indeed.

The transformative-and-kinship partnership had been founded on a promise of balance in all things — that drought would always be followed by rain, and cold by the return of warmth. So when the world kept getting colder and colder and drier and drier, and the lakes and streams vanished and did not reappear, it would have given rise to an almost inconceivable sense of betrayal.

But even as this profound disillusionment dealt a crippling blow to the transformative-and-kinship partnership, it would have energized the emergent visions — particularly the spirit vision, which was able to offer both shamanistic guidance and imaginative escape.

And so, at what may have been the very lowest point of the human enterprise, the power of renewal came from the spirit within — and history as we know it was set into motion.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory 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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