On the psychohistory of reality expansions
A few days ago, in an unexpected bit of serendipity, I stumbled across a book that uncannily fits my current mood: When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (ht Charlie Harrington). The book has shot to the top of my Now Reading list, alongside the collected works of J. G. Ballard and H. P. Lovecraft, which I’ve been working through for a couple of weeks now.
These selections are not accidental. For a few years, I’ve harbored the vague sense that the Ballard and Lovecraft canons are somehow key to my obsession (which has lately grown into a sort of acute idée fixe) with cracking the mood code of the Permaweird. Labatut’s short book provides a key missing piece that almost completes a theory of collective moods and disturbed realities that I’ve been groping for over the last few months, through Lovecraft and Ballard.
I haven’t figured it out completely yet, but in brief, it seems to me that truly historic consciousness shifts, following major genesis events that expand reality in some way, evolve through Labatutian, Lovecraftian, and Ballardian phases. So reading the three in parallel seems like a good idea for making sense of the world right now, as it continues to lurch through what feels like the mother of all consciousness shifts.
Let’s start with the more familiar names.
Ballard and Lovecraft are among the handful of writers whose names have turned into adjectives (I hereby induct Labatut into the club) that describe broad historical moods, and with good reason. Both grokked, mapped out, and lent their names to deep disturbances in the collective moods of their respective eras (the 1920s for Lovecraft, and the 1960s for Ballard), and made those disturbances accessible to less sensitive souls through works that seem to actively construct, rather than merely evoke and feed, historically new moods. The works colonize new psychological territory for humanity as a whole.
The adjectives Lovecraftian and Ballardian point to moods that had never before been experienced by human societies. Moods that originated in specific reality expansions traceable to specific genesis events involving the entry of new scientific or mathematical knowledge into human consciousness. I call the genesis events reality expansions because it is not meaningful to refuse to believe in them, in the Philip K. Dick sense of “that which doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.” Lovecraft and Ballard, you could say, helped install new societal operating systems that accommodated the important reality expansions of the twentieth century.
Their methods seem general — to map out the mood disturbances of any disturbed era (and like the 1920s and 1960s, I think the 2020s are such an era), you have to explore reality with something of a Ballardian-Lovecraftian sensibility. If and when such efforts succeed, you add a distinct new mood to the collective emotional range of humanity. We can then ponder life, the universe, and everything in ways we could not before.
Until a couple of weeks ago, I’d only ever read one thing by Lovecraft (The Call of Cthulhu) and as far as I can recall, nothing by Ballard. It’s been a glaring gap in my SF education that I’ve been meaning to remedy for a while. Especially because readers in recent years have occasionally pointed out a growing Ballardian tendency in my own writing, which I was beginning to dimly recognize, but hadn’t labeled as such.
A couple of weeks into my remedial self-education, I get it. In his introduction to the Ballard volume, Martin Amis characterizes him as a sort of spiritual child of Borges and Saki (H. H. Munro), and that’s a disturbingly accurate description not just of Ballard’s writing, but of my own most nagging impulses and itches in recent years. As a specific particularly clear example, Ballard had an obsession with clocks and time similar to mine; his stories Escapement and Chronopolis in particular, feel like they could be ripped out of my own notes. But the resonances go beyond specific themes. Much as I like to resist even flattering labels and comparisons, Ballardian does sort of get at where my head’s been lately. Whether or not I manage to rise to his level of skill, his manner of interrogating the suspicious familiarities of the present feels very familiar. It is what I think I myself try to do.
Lovecraft (with whom I resonate less directly, but am equally impressed by) fits into this scheme in an obvious way — he’s Ballard’s evil twin. Or evil uncle perhaps, since he was a contemporary of Borges. Ballard’s short story Venus Smiles, for example, is almost a transposition of The Call of Cthulhu from a Lovecraftian to a Ballardian key. Cosmic horror transformed to a kind of terraformed-high-modernity horror.
With apologies to Joni Mitchell, Ballard paved Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and put up a parking lot.
There are key differences I’ll get to, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to Labatut, since that’s where the story begins for me now, at least conceptually.
When We Cease to Understand the World is a lightly fictionalized account of the inner lives of several real scientists and mathematicians on the cusp of the well-known disturbing discoveries associated with them. What was it like to be the first person to imagine a black hole, contemplate the uncertainty principle, or comprehend the deeper structure of all mathematics?
Through deft, impressionistic reconstructions of the inner lives of the relevant individuals through the periods of their historic discoveries, Labatut attempts to provide answers. And in a rather inspired move, he does so in the context of the specific historical circumstances of those discoveries, which, as it turns out, matters a great deal.
The result is a series of revealing inside-out portraits of familiar and unfamiliar figures in the history of science and mathematics, captured just as they have caught fleeting glimpses of unsettling expanded realities, and to varying degrees, come undone as a result. It is something like a series of literary fMRIs of human minds encountering new reality-shattering thoughts for the first time, and to varying degrees, falling apart in the wake of the traumatizing encounters.
To peek ahead at where I’m going with this, one way to understand Labatut’s portraits is as case histories of patient zeros in destructive, ego-shrinking consciousness shifts that eventually spread to entire societies, in part through the cultural labors of writers like Lovecraft and Ballard. The book is a series of portraits of some of the deepest, most profound consciousness shifts in history, while they were still limited to single minds in a state of zero-day vulnerability.
What happens next could be thought of as the psychohistory of a reality expansion, as the collective consciousness of humanity expands to accommodate the new realities, even as the collective ego, the anthropocentric sense-of-the-species-body, shrinks. You could think of such psychohistories as cognitive pandemics that establish new possible states of mind in the human psyche.
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