The Alchemical Marriage of Chaos and Holism

on January 26, 2010

Move a single piece in the kaleidoscope and all the rest shift in response — revealing new patterns so obvious you wonder how you missed them the first time. But until that one piece shifts, the pattern remains hidden.

Two months ago, in an entry titled “The Search for Meaning,” I discussed the transition that took place during the 1960’s from visualizing chaos in terms of old-fashioned scientific materialism to visualizing it in terms of holism.

In the hipster version of the chaos vision, the one which had grown stale and tired by 1963, chaos was identified with a universe of soulless atoms plowing blindly through empty space. It was that concept which resonated with black turtlenecks, heroin, abstract expressionism and cool jazz.

But the version of chaos that gave rise to the counterculture drew upon a new image of the universe as a web of energy in which everything flows into everything else. And that holistic embodiment of chaos found its own resonances in paisley and tie-dye, marijuana and LSD, psychedelic art and psychedelic rock.

I wasn’t wrong in my understanding of the transition — but I went astray in thinking that it began only after the rise of the counterculture. The realignment of chaos towards holism actually started several years earlier and was the catalyst which made the counterculture possible.

The first hints of this change were subtle and obscure. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the science-and-democracy partnership was at its peak and the only visible alternatives came from a chaos vision that was still firmly set in the old hipster/beatnik mold. But the holism vision was starting to stir under the surface, and as it did it began tentatively reaching out to chaos.

One early example of this can be seen in Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) — a book which made a profound impression on me when I was assigned to read it over the summer of 1963 in preparation for my college Freshman orientation.

Jacobs’ book offered a devastating criticism of the belief that poverty could be “scientifically” eliminated through urban planning — and in the process demolished one of the most sacred tenets of the science-and-democracy partnership. But what strikes me most strongly now is that she was able to mount that attack only because she was already firmly grounded in holism and chaos.

Here is a description from Wikipedia:

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, is a greatly influential book on the subject of urban planning in the 20th century. First published in 1961, the book is a critique of modernist planning policies claimed by Jacobs to be destroying many existing inner-city communities.

Reserving her most vitriolic criticism for the “rationalist” planners (specifically Robert Moses) of the 1950s and 1960s, Jacobs argued that modernist urban planning rejects the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. The modernist planners used deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan cities. Among these policies the most violent was urban renewal; the most prevalent was and is the separation of uses (i.e. residential, industrial, commercial).

These policies, she claimed, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces. In their place Jacobs advocated a dense and mixed-use urban aesthetic that would preserve the uniqueness inherent in individual neighborhoods. Her aesthetic can be considered opposite to that of the modernists, upholding redundancy and vibrancy, against order and efficiency.

The language here is a bit more contemporary than Jacobs’ own, but it makes the point extremely clear: Chaos in place of reason. A holistic appreciation of self-organization rather than a search for universal “scientific” principles. And a valuing of unique communities over the democratic ideal of the melting pot. All three emergent visions in one uncompromising package.

Unsurprisingly, Jacobs’ praise of urban chaos provoked a sharply negative reaction from Lewis Mumford, a holist of an older generation who had encouraged her earlier work. When social critic and “new urbanist” James Howard Kunstler interviewed Jacobs in 2000, he noted, “You were particularly harsh on Ebenezer Howard and Patrick Geddes and the Garden City movement of the early twentieth century. It was in some ways another one of those really bad ideas that a lot of intelligent people fell for — including Mumford who got sucked in really big.”

And Jacobs replied, “What was a really major bad idea about the Garden City was you take a clean slate and you make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And Mumford fell for that. … He was furious at The Death and Life of Great American Cities, absolutely furious.”

The main legacy of the Garden City movement appears to have been a number of attractive but overpriced developments — like Forest Hills Gardens, which I used to admire from a distance as a child — but there’s no doubt its proponents were early holists. I find a quote in my files (though I do not appear to have noted the source) which says of Mumford:

“It was his ‘Master,’ Patrick Geddes, the brilliant eccentric Scots biologist, sociologist, and city planner, who taught him how to embrace science, technology and society in a single view. Geddes, who described the universe as a ‘vibrant web of interrelations,’ a synoptic, non-mechanical wholeness, unified by the ‘general idea of relativity’ convinced Mumford of the necessity of defending the human spirit against the technological juggernaught.”

That’s certainly holistic thinking — especially the “vibrant web of interrelations” part — but it also retains an obvious remnant of the movement’s origins in the utopian elitism of the late 19th century. If Mumford was harboring dreams of rescuing the children of the poor from the noise and grime of the city and whisking them off to greener pastures, it’s no wonder he was “furious” at Jacobs’ embrace of urban chaos.

Jacobs was not, however, the first holist to come to terms with chaos. Nature writer and ecologist Rachel Carson had suggested much the same thing as early as 1955, in The Edge of the Sea.

Carson’s book begins:

Like the sea itself, the shore fascinates us who return to it, the place of our dim ancestral beginnings. In the recurrent rhythms of tides and surf and in the varied life of the tide lines there is the obvious attraction of movement and change and beauty. There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination born of inner meaning and significance.

When we go down to the low-tide line, we enter a world that is as old as the earth itself — the primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change.

“Movement … beauty … inner meaning and significance” but also “conflict and eternal change.” Despite its somewhat old-fashioned language, that seems as clear a blueprint as you could ask for of the new way of looking at the world that would come to underlie the 1960’s counterculture.

But finding holists with a touch of chaos is relatively easy. The harder part is figuring out how their ideas could have made their way into the counterculture — and that’s a riddle I don’t claim to have solved. There is one obvious channel, though, by which Rachel Carson’s lyrical images of the shoreline might have made a lasting impact.

In the relatively barren years between the death of Buddy Holly in 1959 and the arrival of the Beatles on American soil in 1964, there was just one offshoot of rock ‘n’ roll that underwent a successful flowering — and that was surf music.

According to Wikipedia, “Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly Orange County and other areas of Southern California. It was particularly popular between 1961 and 1965, has subsequently been revived and was highly influential on subsequent rock music. … The sound was dominated by electric guitars which were particularly characterized by the extensive use of the ‘wet’ spring reverb that was incorporated into Fender amplifiers from 1961, which is thought to emulate the sound of the waves.”

By the late 60’s, surfing and surf music would come to be associated with a kind of holistic mysticism, but the connection appears to have been there on a more intuitive level from the start. Bruce Brown, for example, whose film The Endless Summer would create the mystique of “the perfect wave” when it was released in 1967, had been trying to get his message across since the late 50’s in films like the tellingly named Surf Crazy (1959).

That same implicit combination of holism and chaos underlay the music of Dick Dale, the acknowledged inventor of surf music. It was Dale who who forced Fender to develop the new amp that would enable him to combine the power of rock ‘n’ roll with his personal experience of nature.

Dale told an interviewer in 2001, “It started in 1958. That’s when I started creating those sounds. It’s Dick Dale music. They call it surf music because I was surfing. They could have called it ‘Tarzan of the Jungle” music. . . . Because I was raising lions and tigers and cheetahs and leopards. And a lot of that sound came from the roar of my mountain lions and at the same time, when I started surfing, it came from the roar of the ocean.”

It’s possible that neither Bruce Brown nor Dick Dale had read Rachel Carson — but if so, they must have had fellow surfers who had encountered Carson’s “deeper fascination born of inner meaning and significance” and recognized it as akin to their own experience. It is in precisely that fascination that the true roots of any counterculture lie.


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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