Ever Turning

on April 17, 2013

If human cultures do alternate on a regular basis between states of mature stability and adolescent plasticity, as I suggested in the previous entry, it would certainly help explain the rise and fall of dominant partnerships. However, it doesn’t answer a more fundamental question: Why are aging visions always replaced by successors of the same general type rather than simply being updated and rejuvenated?

The answer to this question is crucial to understanding what happened nearly 200,000 years ago, when the original vision of the physical world took on the moral and practical authority to lead the human community through the great ice age. In the course of that transition, it surrendered its own claims to transcendence, but it gave birth to a successor — the cosmic order vision. This launched the cycle of replacement which has continued ever since.

But why? Why was the replacement necessary?

On one level, the sequence of thought seems obvious. As people developed a greater mastery of the world around them, they became less able to perceive it as a place of inexhaustible wonder. And so they began looking to the heavens for the mystery that was no longer to be found on earth.

But why did that shift require an entirely new vision of existence — starting from different premises and arriving at different conclusions — and not merely a minor tweaking of the old one?

There are a number of ways of expressing it, but the simplest answer is that transcendence, once lost, can never be regained. It is always necessary to return to the source and start afresh.

Newborn visions are maximally transcendent. They are dreamy and mystical, and though they inspire artists and philosophers, they stand outside the day-to-day concerns of the culture.

By the time a vision enters the outsider phase, its dreams have begun to take on a more solid form. Although still utopian and idealistic, they are real enough to attract heretics and rebels — and to strike fear into the hearts of those whose fortunes are bound up with the dominant partnership.

Finally, when a vision becomes fully mature and assumes a leadership role in society, it acquires the power to translate its dreams into actualities. In the course of doing so, however, it abandons its dedication to what-is-not-yet and becomes increasingly committed to things-as-they-are. From that point on, there is no going back, and a new vision becomes the only way to reconnect with the realm of infinite possibility.

But there’s also a deeper and less rational aspect to the story, because the heart of this transition occurs in virtually the blink of an eye. At the precise moment when a dominant partnership finally collapses, casting all existing relationships into doubt, a powerful wave of higher knowledge sweeps across the culture. This is what enables the outsider vision to cross the line from aspiration to reality — but it also does something else.

As the wave peaks, it briefly appears that higher reality may be poised to invade the world of everyday and transform all of existence. The most recent such transition came in the late 1960s, and the turning point was 1967’s “Summer of Love,” when it seemed for a few short months that the chaos vision was about to usher in a universal shift in consciousness.

That didn’t happen, of course. It never does. Things quiet down, the outsider vision repents of its adolescent over-exuberance, and a new normality takes hold.

But during that one superheated moment of anticipation, something extraordinary has occurred. Those who were at the very heart of the whirlwind have been lifted outside themselves by a fleeting glimpse of transcendent possibility — and that glimpse is unforgettable, no matter what follows.

In the immediate aftermath of that moment, the outsider vision becomes like a body in which two souls are fighting for control. This was the case with the chaos vision between about 1968 and 1976, when the practical and moral side of the vision — the side that emphasized the innate value of every individual — started coming into its own. If our own world of 2013 is at all superior to the world of 1968, it is thanks to women’s liberation and gay rights and the other empowerment movements of those years.

But during precisely the same period, the most transcendent side of chaos, the side that had been re-energized by the psychedelic counterculture, was also undergoing a final flowering. This was the era of classic rock and underground comics, of Monty Python and the Firesign Theater, of The Illuminatus! Trilogy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show and early Saturday Night Live.

It seemed at the time as though these two sides of the vision might coexist indefinitely, but that was not to be. Instead, the strange, reality-bending manifestations faded out, just as the practical, responsible side was confirming its new-found social acceptability by becoming the junior member of a restored dominant partnership.

By 1979, the only people who were still maintaining the transcendent legacy of chaos were neo-pagans and chaos magicians and similarly marginal folk. And this was possible only because their understanding of transcendence had taken on an entirely different shape — one based not on madness and the Freudian unconscious but on myth and magic and the power of the creative imagination.

But why did that have to happen? Why was it necessary for the followers of the mythic path to create an entirely new vision instead of simply stretching the boundaries of chaos?

The answer appears to lie in the fact that a vision is not simply an organized collection of data-points with bits of higher knowledge tossed in for seasoning. Instead, it is infused with higher knowledge throughout. It is an integrated system in which everything hangs together and all the parts are fractal reflections of the whole.

Or at least that is the ideal, but the human mind is not quite up to the job and therefore takes certain shortcuts to create the illusion of perfect integration. The most sweeping of these is that every vision is constructed in much the same way as a scientific paradigm or a computer language — by starting with a few simple assumptions and making them the basis of a self-consistent structure.

This method works well enough to start out with, but it eventually reveals its limitations. Every vision is the slave of its own basic premises, and it cannot be revised when those premises become stale or fall prey to the demands of plausibility. It can only be discarded and replaced by a successor.

The initial emergence of a new set of premises is always veiled in mystery. It is born out of a sudden perception of the totality of existence that strikes a few favored individuals like a thunderbolt. They transmit that perception to others in the form of art and story, and it only gradually acquires an explicit formulation of the premises that have been implicit in it from the start.

However, even if the crucial moment of inspiration is hidden, what comes before and after is far more visible.

It’s clear, for example, that each new vision draws its initial materials from the store of heresies that have been lurking around the edges of its predecessor. These heresies are tolerated by a vision during its outsider phase, when it is prepared to accept any wild notion that challenges the expectations of the dominant partnership, and they become even more prominent as that partnership collapses.

In the case of the creative imagination vision, the sources of its core assumptions — ranging from myth and Eastern mysticism to heroic fantasy and superhero comics — had existed on the fringes of chaos since the 1940s. They had not been taken altogether seriously and were often subjected to scientific or psychological rationalization, but they provided a rich lode of inspiration during the psychedelic era of the late 60s. And this same stuff became the basis of a new vision in which wizardry and the mythic imagination were as central as madness and the irrational had been to chaos.

But there is one more factor that is essential to the birth of a vision. As the outsider vision gains general acceptance, it begins to reject anything that might threaten its new-found respectability. In particular, it becomes distinctly uncomfortable with transcendence — not just the strange new premises of its successor but even its own native transcendence.

One example of this can be seen in the founding of the Special Olympics in the summer of 1968. This pivotal event reflected a radically new moral standard — a wholehearted embrace of the chaos-based insistence that every individual is unique and valuable in their own right. And yet the chaos vision had always relied on painting madmen and drunks and other eccentrics as being somehow alien and not altogether human. That was the biggest loophole it had found in the framework of scientific rationality — and now that portal was rapidly closing.

The same shift is apparent in what happened to Star Trek between its initial airing in 1966-69 and its return with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The revived version was far more serious and plausible than the original, more politically correct, and a lot less ready to endorse outright wackiness. But although these changes may have represented a moral advance, the most transcendent elements of the original series had been expunged.

However, by then the torch had been passed. The return of Star Trek had been made possible by one specific event, the release of Star Wars in 1977, and that film displayed very little interest in seriousness or plausibility. Instead, it took its inspiration from myth, mysticism, and heroic fantasy. It unabashedly presented transcendence in the form of wizardry, and in so doing it left chaos far behind and sounded a bell note for the powers of creative imagination.

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