The Death of Reason

on September 21, 2009


At the same time as the partnership of science and democracy was being put together and then coming to dominate Western culture in the 1930’s and 40’s, a new vision based on inner experience was gradually emerging at the artistic and philosophical fringes of society.

For the previous two centuries, the workings of the human mind had been defined primarily in terms of reason. Reason was considered the highest mental function, the dividing line between human and animal, civilized and savage.

A partnership between reason and science had dominated Western society from roughly 1865 to 1915, in much the same way that the partnership of science and democracy would dominate the mid-20th century. The alliance of those two visions underlay the Victorians’ utopian faith in progress and provided them with a justification for their conquest and colonization of “backwards” nations.

As the 19th century ended, however, there were growing doubts that either the universe or human beings were truly rational — doubts that appeared to be fully confirmed by the horrors of World War I. By the early 1920’s, reason, progress, and civilization itself were widely regarded as sentimental illusions concealing a far bleaker underlying reality.

The twenty years or so between the failure of the reason-and-science partnership around 1915 and the construction of the science-and-democracy partnership starting about 1934 were a strange, wild time. It was a moment of bitter disenchantment and decadence, but also an era of extreme openness to heretical new ideas.

As the certainties of reason slipped away, there was great fascination with the irrational, the subconscious, and the “uncivilized.” In music, the improvisational and rhythm-based forms of jazz replaced the far more formal and cerebral structures of classical music. In art, this period gave rise to the hallucinatory dreamworlds of dada and surrealism.

Two new forms of popular culture — comic strips and animated cartoons — proved particularly suited to conveying images and situations that defy all logical explanation. The comic strip Krazy Kat, for example, was a jumble of obscure motivations and surreal backgrounds that alter from panel to panel. Many early cartoons ventured even further into a nonsense realm of bizarre distortions, unexpected reversals, and sudden transformations.

Not only is the world crazy in these cartoons, but the characters have to be more than a little mad themselves to deal with it. As Betty Boop sings in Crazy-Town (1932), “Foolish facts, foolish facts, foolish things and silly acts, but we have nothing else to do, so let’s go crazy.”

Although it was not apparent at the time, there was a lot more going on in the art and music of this period than a mere turning away from reason. They were also laying the groundwork for a dramatically revised outlook on reality — one in which the universe is acknowledged to be rationally incomprehensible but a touch of “craziness” can be the most effective way to deal with it.

In Search of Higher Consciousness

Inner experience visions differ in significant ways from those based on either the facts of science or the norms of society. For one thing, inner experience is not easily communicated in words. It is subjective and often ineffable, and even symbols and poetic analogies fall far short of doing it justice. For another, the essence of inner experience never changes. As the Rig-Veda puts it, “Truth is one, the sages call it by many names.”

Because of both these factors, visions derived from inner experience are all very similar in their insistence that true reality is radically different from the world of ordinary perception. Where they differ is in external qualities — such as the methods used to attain higher consciousness and the conclusions that are reached on the basis of those methods. In the words of another old saying, “The color of the wine is the color of the glass.”

Stone Age shamans, for example, appear to have relied extensively on the use of psychedelic drugs to achieve hallucinatory states, and their reports of their adventures focused on encounters with supernatural beings and mysterious other-world journeys. Over many thousands of years, these spirit-journey stories evolved into elaborate mythologies featuring pantheons of gods.

Around 2500 years ago, the focus shifted away from shamanistic hallucinations — which by then were discounted as illusion — and towards meditation and related practices that could promote a mystical sense of oneness with the cosmos. The inner experience vision which emerged out of these techniques became the basis of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism in the East and of the great monotheistic religions in the West.

Since then the pace of change has accelerated. It took only another 2000 years before the reason vision was born from the Renaissance passion for cabala — an occult system of such extraordinary complexity and subtlety that any attempt to master it can flood out ordinary one-two-three-four thinking and open the mind to enlightenment.

greatwarModern Western civilization is generally considered to have come into being between 1500 and 1700, during precisely the period when the reason vision was emerging. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the central organizing principle of Western civilization was a dream of giving concrete form to the cabalistic intimation of vast unknown systems of knowledge and power lying just within reach.

And it is also not hyperbole to suggest that Western civilization itself perished in the vast catastrophe of World War I — which was over-optimistically known at the time as “the Great War for Civilization” — and that the many contemporary stories which featured lost races or lost civilizations were a subconscious recognition of the actual state of affairs. Such is the unique ability of inner experience visions to transform the world.

Brain-Hacking for Fun and Prophet

As one civilization falls, another rises — but the inner experience vision that emerged in the early 20th century is vastly different from its predecessors. It is not based on the private esoteric studies of shamans, mystics, or occultists. It features no secret knowledge, no prolonged initiations, no schools of adapts.

It relies instead on some of the oldest and simplest techniques for consciousness alteration — story-telling, striking visual imagery, and highly rhythmic music — but elevated to an unprecedented level of intensity by modern technology.

The media of the 20th and 21st centuries — film and musical recordings and their digital successors — are not only more powerful in their impact than anything previously known, they are also far more pervasive. As a result, all of us constantly swim in a sea of consciousness-altering impacts that are remolding us in ways we cannot even imagine.

Some clue as to the nature of those impacts may be found, however, in a recent study which I mentioned briefly the other day.

The subjects of this study were given a surrealistic horror story to read, following which their ability to accurately identify hidden patterns in strings of letters was enhanced in comparison with a control group. The researchers suggest that being confronted with the disturbing and inexplicable forces the brain to resolve its discomfort by discerning pattern and meaning in what might otherwise seem like random events.

I’m not entirely convinced by this explanation — and I also suspect that the study represents only the tip of a far larger iceberg. The researchers have pulled back the corner of a tarpaulin covering an immense elephant and are inviting us to gaze in wonder at the beast’s toenails — but we are still very far from witnessing the entire elephant. However, even this small glimpse suggests a few observations.

One fact of interest is that the story used for the experiment was written by Franz Kafka in 1919. It is thus as much a manifestation of the post-1915 period of strangeness and dislocation as Krazy Kat or Betty Boop and helps to confirm the sense of creative dislocation that hangs about this period as a whole.

Another and more provocative conclusion which might be drawn from the study is that religion and occultism are no more essential to higher consciousness than the vision quests of the Paleolithic shamans. The real objective is to reprogram the brain to operate in a more intuitive manner — and that can be accomplished by something as simple as reading a story.

But not just any story. The control group in the study, which had been given a version of the same story rewritten to make more sense, showed no enhancement of their pattern-recognition abilities. It appears that only stories which are bizarre, disconcerting, and contrary to expectation can be truly psychoactive.

The Genius of Horace Walpole

Most stories that are strange enough to shake our nerves and rattle our brain fall into one of two categories. Some are recountings of unnatural events, like Kafka’s surreal tales or the supernatural horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Others are absurdist comedies, like Betty Boop cartoons and early Marx Brothers movies.

Strikingly, both these genres originated not only in the same period — the late 18th century — but with a single writer, the eccentric and prescient Horace Walpole. Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) was the first Gothic novel and his self-published Hieroglyphic Tales the first collection of nonsense stories.

Walpole’s aim in both cases was to undermine the certainties of the reason vision at precisely the moment when it ceased being radical and dangerous and became one of the dominant visions of late 18th century society. He was unsuccessful, of course — at that point, reason still had a long run ahead of it — but the seeds he had planted would germinate slowly throughout the 19th century and finally sprout 150 years later in the form of a new vision of inner experience.


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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