The Era of High Strangeness

on April 14, 2016

I’ve been reviewing the previous entry and I think the way is finally clear to move forward.

As I suggested there, the transformation vision appears to have gone through a very rudimentary form of the cycle. It was born at a time of crisis when mastery of fire and other basic technologies became essential to human survival. It helped resolve that crisis but then subsided back into supporting the existing order.

The kinship vision was born during a succeeding crisis — say around 400,000 years ago — when our survival was enhanced by peaceful interactions among scattered human groups. But before it too subsided, it formed a strong philosophical bond with the transformation vision. This led to the older vision’s observations of the natural world being organized according to a schema modeled on the male-female dualities of the kinship vision: fire-water, drought-rain, day-night, and so forth.

Around the same time, the human brain was undergoing a final expansion and reconfiguration to meet the cognitive demands of remembering and categorizing large amounts of information. And as it did, it became wired in a radically new way that involved cross-connections and long-distance associations of a sort that were not present in any other member of our family tree.

As I noted a while back, recent studies have concluded that our own brains differ from those of the Neanderthals in possessing greatly expanded association cortices. A New York Times article explains that these “are not connected in the relatively simple, bucket-brigade pattern found in other mammal brains. Instead, they link to one another with wild abandon. A map of association cortices looks less like an assembly line and more like the Internet, with each region linked to others near and far.”

That “wild abandon” appears to be the source of our capacity for imagination, intuition, and creativity, but it is also responsible for our high rate of mental illness. Our brains operate on the edge of chaos, and sometimes they slip over.

However, it’s been widely reported that shamanistic societies do not suffer from mental disorders the way ours does — not because these phenomena are absent, but because they are interpreted as a form of meaningful engagement with the spirit realm:

In the shamanic view, mental illness signals “the birth of a healer,” explains Malidoma Patrice Somé. Thus, mental disorders are spiritual emergencies, spiritual crises, and need to be regarded as such to aid the healer in being born.

What those in the West view as mental illness, the Dagara people regard as “good news from the other world.” The person going through the crisis has been chosen as a medium for a message to the community that needs to be communicated from the spirit realm. “Mental disorder, behavioral disorder of all kinds, signal the fact that two obviously incompatible energies have merged into the same field,” says Dr. Somé. These disturbances result when the person does not get assistance in dealing with the presence of the energy from the spirit realm.

Belief in a spirit realm is enormously ancient, as are the shamanistic techniques for dealing with its energies, but it is not hard-wired into the human brain. It is the product of the spirit vision, which was originally devised as a sophisticated model for dealing with spiritual crises. However, that vision was worked out only after tens of thousands of years of proto-shamans seeing visions and hearing voices and entertaining anomalous beliefs.

A study reported just this week concluded that “LSD really does wake up the mind, sparking connections in areas of the brain which do not usually communicate. … The drug appears to break down barriers which usually separate areas of the brain from each other, allowing vision, movement and hearing to blur together, stimulating ideas that probably could not happen in a normal state.” So it might not be far-fetched to see that era as one long acid trip.

Meanwhile, of course, the more stable majority kept on with the business of everyday life, tending the fires and making sure there was food on the table. But even they could be thrust at times into strange states of consciousness, because the proto-shamans were not only tellers of weird tales but also the original tricksters. They pulled every imaginable kind of prank, even decking themselves out in leaves and feathers and pretending to be fantastic monsters, just to scare the crap out of everyone else.

And as still happens today, whenever people start to believe weird things, genuine weirdness often joins the party. Inexplicable lights hover overhead. Unknown creatures moan in the darkness or leave their footprints to be found the next morning. Coincidences abound and effects precede their causes. And the impact of such events would have surely been greater when it was all happening for the first time..

However, the pattern of recent cycles suggests that this sort of high strangeness represents only the high point in an extended process of adjustment. Initially, the tall tales and antics of the proto-shamans might have been received in a carnival mood as a harmless source of entertainment. But at a certain point, shit got real.

This sudden acceleration in strangeness is part of what I’ve described as the “romantic break.” And though its true nature remains something of a mystery — even in its most recent occurrences in the 1940s and 1980s — it’s possible to find parallels to what might have happened the first time around.

It would have begun at a time when our ancestors became overly complacent, perhaps when a particularly severe ice age ended abruptly around 340,000 years ago. Temperatures were warmer than at any other time in the last million years and life was easy and secure. That complacency was what allowed the trickery of the proto-shamans to be viewed at first as a welcome diversion.

But for the same reason, the technological know-how of the transformation vision was coming to be taken for granted. It was simply the way things had always been, and the geeks and hackers who loved it and longed to extend it even further were dismissed as wild-eyed dreamers.

The model on which I’m drawing is that of science fiction writers and fans in the early 1940s. They knew that the society in which they lived had already been transformed by science and technology. They had a bone-deep conviction that this would occur over and over again in the future, and they had some ideas as to what form it might take.

And yet they themselves got no respect. Their status was not even what it had been in the early 1920s, when science was the measure of all things and Albert Einstein became a superstar. If the larger world took notice of them at all, it was to mock them as propeller-beanie wearing adolescents, devotees of “that crazy Buck Rogers stuff.”

But that very lack of respectability freed them up to entertain more radical ideas. Science fiction became less science-minded and more intent on imagining future societies. It also made common cause with occultism, as writers who in the 1930s had been associated with Weird Tales moved over to Astounding and began spinning lightly rationalized accounts of anomalous events, alien intruders, and psi-powered mutants.

At the same time, occultism was becoming more science fictional. Figures like Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard, who moved in both SF and occult circles, shifted their paradigm away from old-fashioned spirit realm stuff and towards an interplanetary framework, which then became central to the UFO craze that broke out in 1947.

In much the same way, I see the geeks of 340,000 years ago as becoming socially disaffected, making common cause with the proto-shamans, and developing a worldview that combined the perspectives of both groups.

They expanded the transformation vision to include not only natural phenomena but also bizarre occurrences and supernatural beings. They rationalized the fluctuating nature of such things by analogy with the evanescent qualities of fire and wind, in much the same way as SF writers of the 1940s might use quantum theory to justify psi powers.

The proto-shamans eagerly latched onto these explanations, which helped normalize their own experiences and made them less disconcerting. And the result was a powerful upsurge of both radical speculation and inexplicable events. Even the young rebels of the kinship vision were swept up for a time, if only because of their joy at seeing the stuffy old folks thrown off balance.

At this point, the proto-shamans did not yet have a vision of their own. They were riding on the coattails of the transformation vision, which reflected their most extreme fantasies back to them in exaggerated form. And the end result of all this unfocused energy was a massive crashout.

My template here is the conservative retrenchment of 1947 which followed World War II. Science had become associated with the threat of atomic doom and social activism with the menace of Soviet Communism. Paranoia ran unchecked and there was a powerful wave of nostalgia for a simpler and more secure time. The CIA was created in that year and anti-communist witch-hunts broke out in the US.

The science fiction writers and occultists weren’t prominent enough to be targeted by the witch-hunters, but they were definitely affected by the mood of the moment. Science fiction turned either bleak and self-doubting or bizarre and escapist. Occultism dwindled into a fringe belief system, especially following the deaths of Aleister Crowley in 1947 and Gurdjieff in 1949. And when SF revived in the 1950s, it was fixated on pursuing literary respectability, denying any connection with those weird UFO cultists, and putting its juvenile space opera past behind it.

I would guess that something similar happened to the alliance of geeks, rebels, and proto-shamans around 300,000 years ago. But just what was it and what form would it have taken?

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