Back to Basics

on September 23, 2013

Alexei remarked after reading the last entry that he’d found it hard to follow, and I had to admit I found it a bit hard to follow myself. Part of the problem was that I’d attempted to weave several different strands into a single narrative, and the result wasn’t as seamless as I’d hoped.

But I see now there’s also a more fundamental problem. In the course of trying to pinpoint the underlying mechanism of the cycles, I’ve been focusing in finer and finer detail on the factors surrounding the birth of each new vision — and I’m starting to think that this was misguided.

The birth of a new vision is a crucial factor in every cycle. It’s the magical moment, the point at which undiluted transcendence pours into the world. But it’s only the final act in an extended sequence of events that have weakened or distorted the existing visions and made a new vision necessary. It’s not what drives the cycle.

So this strikes me as a good time to take a step back and present a more holistic overview of the landscape. And I believe the best way to do that is to pull out my very earliest notes on the recurring sequence of cultural moods that marks every cycle and start integrating them with everything I’ve learned since.

As I believe I’ve mentioned in passing, my own journey on this path began during the dismal first week of November 1972, when as an alternative to obsessing over the imminent reelection of Richard Nixon, I plunged intensively into exploring certain ideas about cultural change that I’d been toying with during the previous few months.

I’d been reading books on the history of fashion and looking for patterns in the seemingly random shifts and variations, and my first recognition was that over the last several centuries, clothing styles have undergone a regular alternation every few decades between two general silhouettes. These I initially described as “exaggerating” and “concealing,” terms which I later replaced with the more precise “organic” and “geometrical.”

In the course of jotting down my observations, I also noted, “There seem to be marked correspondences with periods of modern science fiction, and perhaps more. Might we say the periods of exaggerated fashion go with idealism ending in despair and the others with cynicism, groping, and rapid change?”

So my quest began with a single unified insight — a sudden flash of higher knowledge at a moment of widespread cultural despair. Everything I’ve done since has been a result of building upon that original recognition and attempting to understand its significance

I’ve realized only recently that my own insight occurred at precisely the moment when a new vision was being born out of that same wave of cultural desperation. But I had no way of knowing that at the time. I felt very isolated and often wondered whether the patterns I was seeing were real or just in my own mind.

However, I pressed ahead, and over the next few months I expanded that original insight into a more sophisticated framework for understanding. Instead of a simple alternation between two broad types, each with certain general styles and attitudes, I began to identify a sequence of more narrowly defined subphases.

I found, for example, that organic periods fall into two roughly equal halves, which it seemed natural to describe as Classical and Romantic. Classical periods are times of social and artistic balance, when everything is in harmony and even artists and scientists are caught up in working for the common good. Romantic periods, in contrast, are riven by internal tensions that give rise to revolutions and counterrevolutions, imperial domination and romantic escapism, and a growing taste for the bizarre and the grotesque.

That transition can be seen in the shifts from Classicism to Romanticism at the end of the 18th century and from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism in the 1880s. It is also apparent at earlier times, when it was the difference between Classical Greece and Imperial Rome or between the Maya and the Aztecs.

Geometrical periods, in contrast, have a very different trajectory, characterized by an abrupt rise and fall. They begin with a brief phase of cultural decay that represents the final guttering-out of a Romantic period. This is succeeded by a sudden explosion of creativity that seems to come out of nowhere. And they end with another brief phase of fragmentation which is marked by decadence but also by a mythic flowering that paves the way for a return to Classical balance.

In recent times, this pattern can be observed in countercultural periods like those of the 1960s to early 70s and the 1910s to early 20s. Earlier examples, which often appear far more dramatic in their abrupt rise and fall, include the building of the Pyramids, the composition of the Homeric epics, and the Italian Renaissance

I worked on refining this model of the cycles throughout the 1970s, dividing these five phases into more and more finely detailed subphases and combing through books on the history of fashion, art, and science to pin down the recurring characteristics of each subphase and their expression in different historical eras.

However, I continued to be troubled by the fact that what I was doing depended entirely on my own “eye” for similarities and differences and lacked any kind of objective basis. That was why I was so grateful when in the course of the 1980s I came up with the theory of overlapping visions that I’ve been presenting here. At last I had something I could lay out in an intellectually coherent manner.

Since then, I’ve worked hard to reduce the cycles to a “dance of the visions” — visions interacting with other visions and giving birth to new visions. But even though that structure works on its own level, it doesn’t account for the variations in mood and attitude that first caught my attention. It certainly doesn’t explain how even a bubble-headed thirteen year old can intuitively follow the complex shifts in fashion that mark each phase and subphase. And it gives short shrift to the human passions that appear to drive the cycles rather more than the search for intellectual clarity.

Recently, however, those passions seem to be creeping back into my descriptions.

In the previous entry, I wrote about the moment of extreme alienation that kickstarts the transition from cultural decay to intense cultural creativity. A few entries back I touched on the despair that occurs as that creative phase is winding down and contributes to the birth of a new vision.

Working from these two reference points, I’ve now come up with a tentative theory that unifies the emotional and the intellectual aspects of the cycles within a larger context of transcendence. The key appears to lie in the interaction between the “transcendent triad” of the three youngest visions and the dominant partnership of the two more mature visions.

The visions of the triad are closest to their mystical roots and are very effective at facilitating higher knowledge, but they tend to be conceptually vague and socially irresponsible. Those of the partnership are dedicated to maintaining social stability but have sacrificed their own direct access to transcendence.

When the triad and the partnership work in unison, everything is harmonious. When they fall out of synch, the result is conflict and turmoil. When the partnership is in the driver’s seat and ignores the triad, it leads to repression and loss of authenticity. But when the partnership falters and the triad dominates, it creates nihilism and social breakdown.

Here’s how that formulation applies to my original set of periods:

In the Classical period, the partnership and the triad are closely aligned. That is the source of its balance, self-confidence, and ability to tackle major problems.

The Romantic period begins when the partnership falls prey to complacency, self-satisfaction, and overreach, all of which lead to disenchantment and a weakening of its bond with the transcendent triad. The upheaval and romantic anguish that follow result from the conflict between worldly power and utopian idealism.

This period concludes with the dominant partnership forcibly repressing anything that seems to threaten its control. The oldest member of the transcendent triad is demonized and subjected to witch-hunts, while the two younger members are kept weak and marginalized. This enables the partnership to maintain absolute power but it also cuts it off from access to transcendence, and that provokes a society-wide state of anxiety and existential dread.

It doesn’t take long before the partnership falls prey to its own inability to respond creatively to crisis. As it starts to collapse, the triad throw off all social restraints and releases a wild outbreak of transcendent possibility. But transcendence alone is not sufficient to maintain social stability, and as things start to fly to pieces, a mixture of higher knowledge and a mature sense of responsibility steps in to put things back on a stable footing.

First, the oldest member of the triad surrenders its transcendence in order to assume the mantle of social leadership. Then a successor to that vision is born to ensure continued access to transcendence, and a new triad is constructed around it. Finally, a new dominant partnership is created that is initially in perfect harmony with the transcendent triad.

And so the cycle continues.

Right now, my intention is to spend several entries tracing out this sequence in greater detail while drawing upon the materials that I developed in the 1970s. After that, I expect to return to the Paleolithic and the question of how all this could have gotten started.

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2 Responses to “Back to Basics”

  1. Tom says:

    So are we in a Romantic/Geometrical period?

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