An Age of Chaos

on October 21, 2009

Although the science-and-democracy vision would dominate Western culture through the 1950’s and into the 60’s, its initial mood of brash optimism had started to fade even before World War II ended in 1945.

The accumulated strain of the war years, the terrifying new reality created by the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the onset of the Cold War all combined to create a mood of apprehension and paranoia. It was at this point that the chaos vision cut loose from the science-and-democracy partnership and became the primary vehicle for expressing dissatisfaction with the dominant culture.

The resulting mixture of chaos and cynicism is clearly visible in film noir, which combined a hallucinatory sense of an unstable and fundamentally treacherous reality with a profound alienation from the corruption and violence of society.

The roots of film noir are to be found in hard-boiled detective novels and German expressionist films of the 1920’s and early 30’s, both of which had embodied certain aspects of the chaos vision. But the genre developed fully only in the 1940’s — and particularly from 1944 on — when it played a central role in depicting the dark side of science-and-democracy.

Film noir was not to everyone’s taste — and there were plenty of other movies in the late 40’s that presented a more positive view of science-and-democracy — but it was far from alone in its expression of a newly independent and alienated chaos vision.

Jackson Pollock 1948Abstract expressionist painting, for example, followed the same timetable of development as both film noir and Bugs Bunny cartoons, emerging during the war years and taking on its classic form in the late 40’s.

This quintessentially American art form was inspired by European surrealism of the 20’s and 30’s — but where the surrealism of an artist like Salvador Dali was elite and mannered, abstract expressionism was populist and spontaneous. And while surrealism maintained ties to old-fashioned, reason-based occultism, the abstract expressionists sought their inspiration in more direct ways of contacting the unconscious, ranging from automatic writing to Native American religion and Jungian archetypes.

The art that resulted was as pure and unalloyed an expression of the chaos vision as can be imagined. The message delivered by a classic Jackson Pollock painting of the late 40’s amounts to a statement that ultimate reality is chaotic and incomprehensible — but that it is also precisely mirrored by the chaos of the unconscious mind and is therefore in some sense knowable and even familiar.

Much the same message was embraced by the jazz-based hipster culture of the 1940’s, which in turn exerted a deep formative influence on the beat writers who were starting to join together in the years immediately following the war. According to one expert on the period who is quoted at Wikipedia:

The hipster world that Kerouac and Ginsberg drifted in and out of from the mid-forties to the early-fifties was an amorphous movement without ideology, more a pose than an attitude; a way of “being” without attempting to explain why. Hipsters themselves were not about to supply explanations. Their language, limited as it was, was sufficiently obscure to defy translation into everyday speech. Their rejection of the commonplace was so complete that they could barely acknowledge reality. … When hipsters did put together a coherent sentence, it was always prefaced with the word like as if to state at the onset that what would follow was probably an illusion. There was neither a future nor a past, only a present that existed on the existential wings of sound. A Charlie Parker bebop solo–that was the truth. The hipster’s world view was not divided between “free world” and “Communist bloc”, and this too set it apart from the then-current orthodoxy. Hipster dualism, instead, transcended geopolitical lines in favor of levels of consciousness. The division was hip and square.

There’s a definite something’s-happening-here-and-you-don’t-know-what-it-is quality to this quote, but what comes through clearly is that the hipsters were thoroughgoing devotees of the chaos vision and had turned their backs on science-and-democracy. They believed in the fundamental uncertainty of all phenomena, saw scientific reality as an illusion, had little use for America’s self-appointed role as defender of the free world, and regarded music as a doorway to true reality that could only be traversed by the enlightened.

As the beat lifestyle evolved, sex and drugs would rank alongside music as primary paths to enlightenment. Both the beats and the abstract expressionists also cultivated an interest in Zen Buddhism, which helped inform their own pursuit of a spontaneous and intuitive approach to higher knowledge.

All these elements, together with a streak of film noir alienation, would be fused and energized in the chaos-based counterculture of the 1960’s. But before that counterculture could start actively challenging mainstream society, one more factor was needed — a decisive loss of faith in science-and-democracy, not just by a few malcontents but across a broad segment of the population.

The necessary conditions for a great disillusionment equivalent to that produced by World War I began falling into place in the late 50’s. Science-and-democracy, like every other partnership, ended its period of success by becoming locked into an ideological straitjacket — and the crucial turning point can be dated to October 4, 1957, when the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite into Earth orbit.

Sputnik had two immediate impacts on American culture. It provided the model for the coining of the word “beatnik,” which marks the moment at which the art, literature, and quaint folkways of the beats — who were then at their peak of literary creativity — entered into general cultural awareness. It also demonstrated that advanced science was not necessarily joined at the hip with democracy and thus undercut the expectations of the science-and-democracy partnership.

Because science-and-democracy had reached the stage of ideological rigidity, the official reaction to this demonstration of its vulnerability was to strike back desperately in an attempt to erase the specter of Soviet military superiority. The influence of the military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned when he left office in 1961, began in that over-reaction.

The next several years were marked by a policy of “brinkmanship” — the deliberate provoking of confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union — which climaxed in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. As the world hung for days on the brink of nuclear annihilation, it seemed to many that the creed of science-and-democracy could lead only to destruction.

In the end, armageddon was narrowly averted — perhaps because memories of World War I were still fresh enough to prevent that particular catastrophe from being repeated — and by the spring of 1963 the initial sense of shock and horror had largely receded. It would take a second and even greater shock to provide the final disenchantment.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, it immediately became clear that neither advanced technology nor democratic goodwill had offered any kind of barrier against a sudden, random act of terror. As the impact of events sank in over the following days and weeks, the only sane explanation appeared to be that the world was ruled by chaos.

And with that sudden nightmare realization, Western society was catapulted into a paroxysm of doubt, destabilization, and wild experimentation that over the next dozen years would completely transform the cultural landscape.


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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