The Underground Stream

on February 21, 2014

I thought when I finished the previous entry that I’d said as much as was necessary to embark on a discussion of Henry Kuttner’s role in laying the groundwork for the birth of the creative imagination vision. But it turns out that it’s not that simple, and I can’t get to Kuttner without first exploring the tensions within the chaos vision that made the birth of its own successor inevitable.

Every vision starts off extremely pure and self-contained. It begins with a few simple premises out of which an entire structure of belief is constructed, and it presents a single coherent way of engaging with reality. But as a vision matures, it becomes a kind of clearinghouse for all sorts of related materials. That broadens its scope and enables it to aspire to being a general philosophy of life, but it also takes the vision outside its original belief system and self-image.

I’ve previously described how this process played out for the scientific materialism vision in the 1700s, when it expanded beyond a narrow emphasis on machines and ballistics and laws of motion and turned to the study of Nature. This created internal contradictions which were only resolved in the 1840s, when scientific materialism reverted to its original focus on purely physical interactions and the holism vision was born to pursue those elements of complexity and design in living things that could not easily be reduced to matter in motion.

The chaos vision went through a similar period of expansion starting around 1915 — when the failure of the reason vision left the unconscious mind as the only generally accepted model for explaining human thought and behavior — and ending with the birth of the creative imagination vision in the early 1970s.

During that period, chaos was getting more novel ideas tacked onto its premises than it was ultimately able to assimilate — yet that alone doesn’t account for the degree of tension that would require the birth of a new vision. There was one additional factor that did more than anything else to push chaos beyond its natural limits, and that was the legacy of 19th century occultism.

The occult revival that began in the 1880s and lasted until the 1930s is difficult to explain in terms of the visions alone. It got under way just as the reason vision was entering into its final decline and before the chaos vision had fully crystallized, and though it had aspects in common with both of them, it was stranger and wilder and more overtly shamanistic than either.

A while back, I spent several entries wrestling with this problem (here, here, here, and here) and I concluded that there is a conceptual gap between the waning of one vision of a particular type and the waxing of its own successor that allows for a welling up of deep, primal materials. I initially described these manifestations as “shadow” visions, but I soon realized that they lack the formal structure of ordinary visions and may be older than the visions themselves. As I wrote then:

I’m coming to the conclusion that the “shadow” visions are not offshoots of the normal visions at all, but constitute a single, continuous underground stream that runs alongside the normal visions and breaks into public awareness only when a dominant vision begins to falter.

But where the ordinary visions are evolutionary in nature — being rooted in practical experience and the best knowledge of their era — this parallel tradition seems comparatively unchanging. It is both deeper and possibly more primitive and always presents the same coherent message about human potential, technological empowerment, and the need for a society which maximizes both.

Nineteenth century occultism was one such “shadow” vision that flourished in the gap between reason and chaos. It began to lose momentum following the final collapse of the reason vision around 1915, but it was still powerful enough to contend for influence with the chaos vision in the early 1920s. Chaos, however, was more plausible, more modern, and more socially relevant, and by the end of the decade occultism was being rejected as old-fashioned and unscientific.

Yet despite its failure as a belief system, occultism had posed a challenge to the chaos vision that could not simply be dismissed. Occultism was more magical, more hallucinatory, and in many ways more emotionally satisfying, and attempts to explain it away as consisting of nothing but delusion and madness always seemed to miss the point. That in a nutshell was the source of the tension that would make the birth of the creative imagination vision inevitable.

H.P. Lovecraft was the first writer to be fully aware of that tension, and he drew upon it as a source of artistic energy. He considered himself a strict materialist who did not believe in the occult assumptions that he used to evoke supernatural horror, yet at the same time he persistently attempted to make occultism more believable by associating it with the emerging image of a scientific universe that in many ways defied materiality. Here, for example, is the narrator of “From Beyond,” written in 1920:

“What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers.

This artistic strategy reached its culmination in the Cthulhu Mythos stories, which Lovecraft began writing in the late 20s when occultism was starting to fade but science was growing steadily more bizarre. Here is a typical passage from “The Dreams in the Witch House,” published in 1932:

Possibly Gilman ought not to have studied so hard. Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension. Gilman came from Haverhill, but it was only after he had entered college in Arkham that he began to connect his mathematics with the fantastic legends of elder magic. … Gilman had some terrible hints from the dreaded Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred, the fragmentary Book of Eibon, and the suppressed Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt to correlate with his abstract formulae on the properties of space and the linkage of dimensions known and unknown.

Both these stories end with the protagonists falling prey to malevolent alien forces, but the identification of higher mental powers with contemporary theories about consciousness and reality could be put to better purposes than the evocation of cosmic terror. In the 1940s, when occult horror had largely fallen out of fashion, Henry Kuttner would pick up Lovecraft’s dire hints and take them in a very different direction.

Kuttner was in many ways ideally placed to serve as a bridge between Lovecraft and modern science fiction. He had been a participant in Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents and had started his writing career in Weird Tales in 1936, but as that magazine declined he began producing stories to order for any market that was available and soon developed a reputation as a derivative hack.

In 1940, however, he married C.L. Moore, a well-respected author who was known for her distinctive brand of science fantasy that presented Lovecraftian elements against a background of space opera or sword and sorcery. And in 1942, the two of them began to write for Astounding Science Fiction under the joint pseudonym of Lewis Padgett.

Although most of those stories were done collaboratively, Moore continued to write romantic science fantasy under her own name, so it seems likely that the driving vision was Kuttner’s. It also appears that Kuttner’s primary goal was to express an occult intimation of higher potential in the form of science fiction stories that even John W. Campbell would accept as good and logical and possible.

And that was where Kuttner’s apprenticeship in shamelessly stealing other people’s ideas really paid off. His chief method of selling to Campbell was to swipe story devices from Campbell’s leading writers but reframe them to suit his own purposes.

For example, he might combine the drunken inventor from Robert Heinlein’s “–And He Built a Crooked House–” with the insubordinate telepathic robot from Isaac Asimov’s “Liar!” and some of A.E. van Vogt’s notions about superpowers and come up with “The Proud Robot,” in which a perennially intoxicated intuitive genius constructs a robot with more-than-human sensory powers.

But there was an additional factor over which Kuttner himself had no control. In 1942, the certainties of scientific materialism were starting to waver, just as those of the reason vision had in the 1880s. The underground stream was coming to the surface again, but this time it would fill the gap between two scientifically-based visions.

Where 19th century occultism had dealt with strange powers of mind, this new manifestation would focus on the higher powers of science and technology. Those in turn would revitalize the older notions of transcendent mental powers. And the altered concept of mind that resulted would lead to the birth of creative imagination.

(To be continued …)

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