The True Voice of Chaos

on December 25, 2009

It keeps nagging at me that even though I’ve spent the last three months writing about the chaos vision, I haven’t yet managed to define it in the way I’ve defined democracy in terms of freedom and equality or holism in terms of systems and emergent properties.

There are valid reasons for that. Inner experience visions are a lot harder to pin down than scientifically or socially based visions — and if you persist in trying to put labels on them, their essence is likely to slip through your fingers. As the hipsters knew, you either dig or you don’t.

But even so, I’m going to have problems discussing the changes that the chaos vision went through after 1968 if I don’t begin by laying out some of its key aspects and the circumstances under which they emerged.

I’ve described previously how the first hints of each new vision arise out of the disillusionment that inevitably sets in as its predecessor becomes culturally dominant. Chaos in the 1960’s, democracy in the 1910’s, and science in the 1840’s all had their weak spots, and it was the same with reason in the 1730’s. There were no great social crises during that period — just the opposite, in fact — but it was that very lack of excitement which sowed the initial seeds of discontent.

The boredom factor was probably strongest in Great Britain, where the government’s chief goal in the 1720’s and 30’s was to reestablish stability after the great political and emotional upheavals of the previous century, even at the cost of passion and enthusiasm. As early as the 1730’s, there was a turning away from over-regularity in such minor arts as garden design, and this casual new English style soon began to infect the French as well.

The policy of political stabilization was most closely associated with the leadership of Sir Robert Walpole, who effectively served as prime minister between 1721 and 1742 — and by a neat trick of historical economy, it was Sir Robert’s youngest son, Horace, who would grow up to be the first great champion of the irregular and the unpredictable. Horace Walpole’s literary evocations of bizarre events and disordered mental states, which culminated in his invention of the Gothic novel in 1764 and his pioneering nonsense stories of the 1770’s and 80’s, offer the earliest indications of what was to become the chaos vision.

Before Walpole could actually write The Castle of Otranto, however, a second and even stronger wave of disillusionment would be needed to prepare the ground. The epitomal expression of this new skepticism was Voltaire’s novel Candide (1759), which offers an extended tour of human folly as proof of the proposition that reason will never solve the world’s problems because neither humans nor the world are capable of being truly rational.

Candide ends with a decision by the main characters to turn away from the world and “cultivate our gardens.” This ironic conclusion would be soon taken up far more seriously by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in two books, both published in 1762, which argued for the necessity of rejecting the corrupting influence of society.

Rousseau’s The Social Contract starts off with the famous proposition, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” while Emile, or On Education begins with the similar assertion, “Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of Nature; but everything degenerates in the hands of man.” Emile then goes on to condemn social institutions “that best know how to denature man, to take his absolute existence from him in order to give him a relative one.”

Rousseau himself appears to have believed that this problem of alienation from one’s own true nature was a result of insufficient reason and could be remedied by political and educational reforms — but it was surely not that simple. By the time the 1840’s countercultural period rolled around, a broad spectrum of artists and intellectuals had come to the conclusion that the only real hope of personal authenticity lay in a complete rejection of conventional social norms and attitudes.

The various methods adopted to pursue this agenda — which ranged from Henry David Thoreau’s self-conscious contemplation of nature at Walden Pond to the scandalous lifestyle and studied decadence of the artistic Bohemians of Paris — have continued to be associated with the chaos vision ever since. They can be seen in the hipster contempt for square society and in the hippie dropout ethos of the 60’s.

But although dropping out of bourgeois culture can be a useful first step towards pursuing inner experience, it does not in itself equate to the chaos vision. The proto-chaos of the 1840’s, like the proto-holism of the 1910’s, was still a handful of disconnected fragments. It lacked a common voice and had not yet found its unifying principles.

The catalyst that would bring the chaos vision fully into being was the establishment of the reason-and-science partnership in the 1860’s. Just as the demands of democracy would reconfigure science in the late 1920’s and early 30’s in a way that made possible the emergence of holism, so the impact of science upon reason set up the conditions for chaos to arrive at its own distinctive view of existence.

In the mid-19th century, the reason vision was nearing the end of a long and glorious history. It had first emerged in the late Middle Ages, at a time when reason was expected to do no more than confirm the truths of revealed religion, and had only gradually acknowledged its fundamental — and extremely heretical — belief that human reason could arrive at transcendent understanding on its own, without any need for religious revelation.

As the reason vision developed, this primary article of faith was supported by two further assumptions. One was that the universe had been created by God in a rational manner, much as a human craftsman designs a well-conceived building or work of art. The other was that human reason, being formed in the image of divine reason, was capable not only of recognizing the divine pattern in creation but of being exalted by that recognition.

Belief in a rational creator only grew stronger when reason began to align with the emergent science vision in the 1700’s. That is why Rousseau could speak so confidently of “the Author of Nature” and why the signers of the Declaration of Independence could appeal to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as though there was no difference between the two. For them, there was not.

But as the science vision became culturally dominant during the first half of the 19th century, it found less and less room for a rational and benevolent God in a universe whose mysteries were increasingly being explained by natural law alone — a process of exclusion that culminated with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

Perhaps even more disconcerting, this new godless science was also moving towards a radically unprecedented view of the universe — one that was so strange and so divorced from all human experience that it could not be understood rationally but could only be described by mathematical formulas.

Maxwell’s equations (1864), which defined the electromagnetic spectrum, and Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements (1868-70) may be taken as marking the crucial transition. After their contributions, the universe of science no longer consisted of familiar, everyday objects and forces but of pure matter and energy — much of it in forms that lay beyond human awareness or comprehension.

And these developments were not merely a matter of theoretical science. The same transition from the old human-centered universe to the increasingly alien universe of science can be seen reflected on a popular level in Jules Verne’s pioneering scientific romances of the period, from Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863) to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869-70).

With science moving beyond its ken, the only role that remained for reason was to become a mere adjunct to science — to dwindle into the sort of rational deduction that we see exalted in the Sherlock Holmes stories. This accommodation was what made possible the reason-and-science partnership that dominated Western culture from the 1860’s until World War I.

The reason vision did not give in easily to this loss of status. The late 1800’s brought forth a colorful flurry of occult systems, psychic revelations, and pseudo-scientific speculations intended to prove that there were things in the universe which lay beyond the knowledge of science — but all of it was ultimately a dead end. Reason had passed its sell-by date, and it was time to move on.

There was also a third path, however. Instead of either reducing the reason vision to a mechanical contrivance in the effort to accommodate it to science, or picking holes in science to support the worn-out premises of reason, it was possible to start over from first principles. What was called for was a new vision which would be drawn directly from inner experience but would also have the strange assumptions of modern science in its very bones.

That was the path of chaos, which finally found its true voice in the 1860’s. And the founding documents of the emergent chaos vision were Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871).


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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