A Resonance of Visions

on February 28, 2012

Now that I’ve started trying to look at the system of visions as an interactive whole, rather than dealing with each vision in isolation, I keep finding new ways in which the development of the latest visions is driven by interactions among the older ones.

Most recently, I’ve been struck by the degree to which the association between chaos and holism emerged in precise resonance with the rise and fall of the reason-and-scientific-materialism partnership. The new association came into being at the same time as the partnership in the 1860’s, was closely associated with it during its peak in the 1870’s, and became increasingly independent after the partnership faltered in the 1880’s.

The key to this resonance, I believe, is that both the partnership and the new association combined an inner experience-based vision with a scientifically-based vision. As a result, they were addressing the same philosophical problems and responding to the same emotional needs — and were thus bound to be either collaborators or rivals.

Up to now, I’ve been emphasizing the intellectual basis of these associations between visions and how they grow out of our desire to construct a coherent picture of existence. But on the emotional level, something even more powerful and dynamic is going on — which might be described as the need for a sense of belonging.

When we have that sense on a personal level, it appears to us that everything in the world is in harmony and that we are in harmony with it. But if ever we lose it, we are beset by feelings of alienation, meaninglessness, or just plain wrongness.

Much the same is true in terms of the visions. As long as our various areas of experience can be reconciled within a context of higher knowledge, the culture as a whole remains in balance. But once they fall out of attunement, the entire society is overwhelmed by a pervasive sense of alienation.

When our social institutions are felt to be out of tune with the natural world, they strike us as artificial, oppressive, or corrupt. When we as individuals can find no path for achieving public success and recognition, we feel isolated, undervalued, and demeaned. And when the physical universe is seen as driven by its own imperatives, with no concern for human values, we perceive ourselves as trapped in the gears of of a great, soul-crushing machine.

Periods of profound artistic and philosophical harmony regularly occur when a dominant partnership first comes into being, but these classical periods are just as regularly succeeded by romantic periods of intense emotional anguish and turmoil. And the seeds of this decay are built into every dominant partnership from the start.

The underlying problem is that each partnership is based on a pair of visions that are already past their prime. Once upon a time, they had enjoyed a vibrant association, but they have undergone many changes since then and their ability to engage with one another on a transcendent level on is much degraded.

The association between reason and scientific materialism, for example, was at its peak from the Renaissance to the 18th century, at a time when the human mind was seen as a microcosm of the Mind of God and the world as God’s Creation. But the ability of that pairing to reconcile mind and matter was undercut in the early 1800’s, when science was divorced from religion and could no longer acknowledge reason as a source of higher truth.

As a result, when the partnership between these same two visions was constructed in the 1860’s and tasked with defining the relationship between the human mind and the physical universe, it was unable to do so on a transcendent basis.

This problem was addressed in three different ways. One was to pretend that it didn’t exist and that the tenets of traditional religion still held firm — which was sufficient to satisfy many people.

Pierre Auguste Cot, Springtime, 1873A second and more intellectually honest approach was to reformulate the connection between the two visions in non-transcendent terms, with reason being conceived as merely the human capacity for logical thought and reduced to serving as the handmaiden to materialistic science.

But the third, and most subtle, was to draw upon the two newest visions — chaos and the first hints of holism — and promote the development of an association between them that could reconcile mind and cosmos in an entirely novel way which the dominant partnership would then claim as its own.

These three solutions are clearly apparent in the art of the 1870’s. Mainstream academic art (above — click for larger version), with its emphasis on “uplifting” historical and religious themes depicted in almost photographic detail, can be seen as an attempt to reassert the old relationship between reason and scientific materialism.

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875In contrast, realistic art (right), with its use of contemporary figures and settings that were often considered vulgar or shocking, wholeheartedly embraced the second solution and its downgrading of reason in favor of scientific objectivity.

But Impressionism (below) was very different from either of these. It might concentrate on everyday subject-matter and claim to be based on the latest findings of science about the human eye — but there was nothing materialistic in the result. A typical Impressionist painting is a tapestry of brilliant brush-strokes, with no dark areas or sharp boundaries, so that the figures and the background perpetually hover on the edge of either merging into a formless jumble of color or dissolving into pure light.

In other words, a perfect blend of chaos and proto-holism — but passing as up-to-the-minute science.

Claude Monet, Woman with a Parasol, 1875A somewhat different overlap between rational science and chaotic holism can be found in the early novels of Jules Verne, published between 1863 and 1870. Verne intended stories like Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to be taken as the very epitome of the new scientific objectivity. They featured rational men of science and were chock-full of facts and figures. But the true appeal of these “extraordinary voyages” lay in the stranger and more magical elements — including irrational mental states and travel to mysterious places — that were neither rational nor properly scientific.

In comparison with Verne, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) might seem to be totally dominated by chaos and early intimations of holism. But the books were conceived as nonsense-stories, and their humor would not exist without Alice’s persistent expectations that these dream-worlds and their contents ought to operate according to reason and scientific law.

The balancing-act of superimposing incompatible frames of reference as though they were different aspects of the same thing didn’t remain possible for very long, however. After 1870, Verne began to think of his books as being about real science, and they lost their aura of transcendent mystery. And though Carroll was able to write “The Hunting of the Snark” as late as 1876, the poem lacks an Alice-equivalent to balance its chaos with reason, and after that he gave up nonsense entirely.

And it wasn’t just those two authors. By the late 1870’s, reason and scientific materialism were at odds, the democracy vision — which came next in the sequence — had broken loose, and the culture was plunged wholesale into the fragmentation and intellectual ferment of what I have described in earlier entries as a “romantic break.”

During this phase, the reason vision made a final attempt to throw off its subordination to scientific materialism and present itself as an autonomous source of higher knowledge. The result was a lively but ultimately inconclusive flowering of occultism between the publication of Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled in 1877 and the formation of the Order of the Golden Dawn in 1887.

The weakening of the partnership also enabled the democracy vision to take on a particularly radical and rebellious form. Socialism and anarchism both flourished in the 1880’s, with a climax of sorts being reached in the so-called Haymarket Riot of 1886.

By then, however, the dominant partnership was doing what dominant partnerships invariably do as they enter their phase of decline, which is to regroup and brutally suppress any external challenge. The persecution of anarchists in 1886 was every bit as expectable as the onset of McCarthyism in 1947 or the US government’s targeting of radical environmentalists and computer hackers in 1989-90.

This regrouping also involved a final reining in of the pretensions of the reason vision. In 1886, the influential German physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach (remembered today chiefly for having given his name to the speed of sound) demanded that science must henceforth be based entirely on observable phenomena, without recourse to such abstract concepts as space and time.

But even as scientific materialism reasserted control over both reason and democracy, the association of chaos and holism was slipping through its fingers. That association took on increasingly fantastic and metaphorical forms in the late 1880’s and 1890’s, but at the same time it was growing ever stronger and more independent.

And during those years, the resonance that had bound it to the dominant partnership began to work in the opposite direction, so that the new association was able to pick off whatever bits of both occultism and science seemed most useful and make them its own.

The underlying philosophical dynamic throughout the late 1800’s had always been the need to reconcile mind and matter. That need brought the association of chaos and holism into being and allowed it to pass as the leading edge of the dominant partnership for as long as that partnership was relatively open and flexible. And when the partnership began to reject transcendence for the sake of self-preservation, that same need prompted the new association, even in its half-developed state, to assume the cultural leadership that the partnership had surrendered.


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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One Response to “A Resonance of Visions”

  1. @lilious says:

    I have been going though several articles on your site and find the hypothesis you propose quite fascinating. There’s something that feels deeply true about the way these visions cycles.

    Seeing the word renaissance in your article reminded me of another article I came accross recently:

    It Is Not a Revolution, It Is a New Networked Renaissance:

    I belive you’ll find it of interest.

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