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KRONOS Vol VI, No. 1
CATASTROPHISM AND THE COMPULSION TO MEANING
The work of Velikovsky holds itself at a kind of virginal distance from its own significance. The achievement of the author of Worlds in Collision is neither to have proposed a theory nor expounded a system, but simply to have reconstructed a set of events. These events are only indirectly related to processes occurring in the present, and their causes cannot be traced indefinitely back into the past. They do not provide the intellectual satisfaction of contemplating the structure of reality as we are now able to observe it, nor of defining an original first cause by which subsequent events have been determined in their essence. The evidence that they occurred, no matter how convincing, seems to tell nothing of the mysteries of either Being or Generation. Nevertheless, the mind is compelled to find meaning in these catastrophic events. Until it does so, it is in a state of abhorrence at a vacuum.
The task I have set myself here is not so much to obey this compulsion as to understand why it exists. Such understanding may be the truest condition for finding valid meaning; it may be the best guard against spurious meanings; it may contain the essential meaning itself; or it may simply declare the compulsion to be only that, in other words, a mental hindrance from which we do best to liberate ourselves. In any case, it will not be arrived at without examining some of the categories in which we are most disposed to agree that meaning can be declared. This activity alone should justify the rest.
We should not delude ourselves about the universality of these categories. Meaning is created by a kind of discourse which lacks the universal intelligibility of scientific expression, even though it is more essential to the dignity of human existence. This is only to say that meaning occurs within a specific language, and is shaped by the traditions of discourse within that language. In the West, we are used to a plurality of languages attending to each other, and also to a constant renewal of discourse with the ancient languages of those cultures by which the tradition as a whole was initiated. Nevertheless, any meaning that results is, initially at least, a meaning for the West only.
The caution is all the more worth making when we recognise how badly eroded is the authority commanded by this kind of language, which is essentially a language of the spirit. The immediate prospect for the global future can assure us with certainty of nothing but a scramble for survival resources. The language of spiritual formulations shows no signs of playing a significant role in that scramble. It may accompany it and it may survive it, but it is unlikely that it will determine its course. If this proves to be the case, we can expect the prime meaning of Velikovsky's work to be experienced as paradox for, in the cosmic catastrophes he has reconstructed, a worldwide scramble for survival is always to be inferred, and yet the accounts left of them by ancient peoples are always charged with the highest spiritual meaning they were capable of bestowing. This is the opposite of our present expectations, and we must ask why. Is it only because the imminent catastrophes with which our media condition us to live are so much smaller in scale, so much more easily predictable or potentially controllable, that spirituality seems to be utterly dissociated from them? Or is it because the disposition of humanity has changed in the meantime, by a kind of entropy of the spirit?
If the second possibility is entertained, a further set of alternatives presents itself. Did early man attribute spiritual significance to catastrophic experience merely because he was predisposed to attribute it to everything; or were these experiences the prime shapers of his spiritual categories, into which all subsequent aspects of life in times of stability were then assimilated? This second alternative has probably occurred to all readers of Worlds in Collision whose imagination has not been blighted by their scepticism. What hangs upon it, though, is not always so obvious. If catastrophes have generated our spirituality, there is an inevitable temptation. Modern technological man, a dedicated problem-solver, will sooner or later turn his attention to the problem of his spiritual entropy. And we are left to wonder what restraints he is apt to put on his compulsive activity of helping nature with her own processes.
I do not present this paradox in order to appear either whimsical or alarmist. Some reflection on the major catastrophes by which our own century has already been desolated should make clearer the mode of reasoning to which I am referring. It is well known that the totalitarian systems perfected by Hitler and Stalin derived their ideological bases from appeals to scientific "discoveries", those of Darwin and Marx respectively. But we have shown ourselves perhaps less inclined than we ought to analyse the reasoning by which these systems proceeded from "pure" science to a programme of action involving mass murder and terror. Essentially, they took as an incontrovertible authority for their actions the laws of nature which science was supposed to have established. And since in both cases the laws invoked were supposed to describe not merely a random process but rather a movement from a lower to a higher state, totalitarian ideology felt justified in helping nature accelerate that movement.
The best analysis of this reasoning has been offered by Hannah Arendt in her Origins of Totalitarianism (1950), and it seems still valid after a quarter century:
If this analysis is correct, then it is not difficult to imagine how some subsequent totalitarian system might theoretically appeal to
the "laws" of catastrophism for its ideological programme. To do so, it need only postulate that some good came out of catastrophes in the past. In other words, it need only find meaning in the events and formulate it pseudoscientifically; the claim to authority for action then follows automatically.
What kind of meaning might lend itself most readily to such a programme? Judging by analogy with the earlier totalitarian systems, it would probably be one which claims to restore to man the stature which the scientific law from which it derives threatened to destroy. When Darwinism threatened to leave man merely the descendant of the ape, Nazism answered by claiming that the evolutionary struggle was destined to produce one particular type of man, i.e. the master race, which uniquely justified it. When Marxism threatened to expose all higher human activities as merely the false disguises of class-struggle, Bolshevism answered by claiming that there was one particular group, i.e. the Party, whose activities furthered class-struggle with unique authenticity. In the case of Velikovsky's work, the threat to man's stature seems even more radical. For in it we have the spectacle of the survival of our species by sheer accident. "We are descendants of survivors, themselves descendants of survivors," he states laconically in the last paragraph of Earth in Upheaval. And yet the same last pages of that book provide the notion by which this appearance of randomness might be controverted. It concludes by proposing the possibility of "cataclysmic evolution", that is, the massive generation of new species through mutation under catastrophic circumstances. From this hint it is difficult not to extrapolate the possibility that man himself was "created", i.e. differentiated as a species, by such mutation. It then requires only an appeal to the natural narcissism of our species to endow the catastrophic process with its teleology. And once this process is interpreted as a law of movement towards a higher state, totalitarian reasoning would insist that man has not merely authority but obligation to learn the mechanisms of mutation and imitate them on himself. Perhaps it is for this reason that Velikovsky has said several times he expects that the field for which his work will prove most important is genetics. If so, he has purposefully refrained from putting this importance into an ideological context.
The compulsion to derive meaning from Velikovsky's scientific reconstruction presents itself initially as a danger, then. Fortunately, however, the same first half of our century that saw the climax of the totalitarian experiment also gave us the scientifically-based principle which refutes its reasoning. This is the Indeterminacy Principle formulated by Heisenberg out of the experience of the effort to conduct observations of matter at the sub-atomic level. In its classical statement, it maintains that no quantum-mechanical system can simultaneously possess an exact position and an exact momentum. In its philosophical application, largely provided by Heisenberg himself, it implies that laws deduced from behaviour in the physical world can never have objective authority over the actions of man, since this behaviour will always remain part of a system in which man is present as observer and setting limits to what he can observe. Thus, though there is nothing to prevent totalitarian governments from continuing in programmes of murder and terror, their claim to justify these on grounds transcending human considerations because scientifically based is invalidated. If man can never know the laws of nature objectively, it follows that it will always be in himself and not in nature that he finds the authority to act.
No one has yet made proper use of Velikovsky's work to extend the Indeterminacy Principle to the macrocosm, and it is likely that when this is done the results will outstrip anyone's expectations. If the analogy he invokes between the atom and the solar system in the last section of Worlds in Collision is ever sophisticatedly explored as a result of a comprehensive theory of electromagnetic forces, then one assumes that the notion of strict causality for catastrophic interactions among the planets will soon have to be abandoned for a more general scheme of probability. Moreover, it should already be obvious that the nature of these interactions sets very severe limits on retroactive calculation of orbits or even identification of participants; a problem rather like taking the position of a few billiard-balls towards the end of the game and calculating the positions of the complete set back to the beginning. But these difficulties are minor compared to the philosophical consequences. In reconstructing catastrophic events the most important "measuring instruments" by which we "observe" planetary movements are human accounts. Already as collected in Worlds in Collision they range from mathematical registrations preserved on cuneiform tablets to fragments of folklore relayed by anthropologists from tribes approaching extinction. The overwhelming mass of these accounts is essentially conditioned by what we call "mythical thinking". As stated earlier, it seems characteristic of this kind of thinking to charge all phenomena with spiritual meaning and to find the symbols of catastrophic experience indispensable for that purpose. If we set out to find meaning in such experience, then, no sooner do we turn to the mythical record than we find a myriad of meanings already attached, and usually in abstruse symbolic fashions which make them seem inextricable from the precise astronomical data contained. Never was the interplay between the physicist's measuring instruments and the sub-atomic particles he is tracking down so baffling as this interplay between events that shaped the human mind and the human mind that left accounts of these events.
It thus becomes of fundamental importance to develop a language to describe the ancient mind's efforts to find meaning in catastrophe. This not merely that we may correct it according to our own scientifically based sense of meaning, but rather that we may begin to understand the origin of the compulsion to meaning as such. I have invoked the totalitarian nightmare not necessarily because I believe it will reoccur in the form hypothesised, but rather because it reminds us what is at stake when the relation between science and action is not examined in the light of the more archaic structures of the mind which are expressed in myth. If the Indeterminacy Principle drives us to turn to the mind, and not to the scientific world-views derived from it, for our authority in action, then we have no choice but to inquire whether the history of the mind tells us anything essential about it. In particular, we are forced to consider what the mind has had to say about its own origins, for it is impossible to rid ourselves of the suspicion that the origin of a thing determines its essence in a way that no subsequent accident can undermine.
In fact, archaic mythical structures show a way of unifying experience which may be posited as the diametrical opposite of totalitarian ideology. Arendt notes of the latter that it "orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it; that is, it proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality". Archaic thinking, on the other hand, will start indifferently at any point in reality and proceed from there to explain to you the whole system by which it views things. It does this because it is not conscious of the system as such and cannot view it from without. This is the quality upon which structuralist anthropology has concentrated and which Levi-Strauss has characterised as "alone the true object of science". Borrowing a term from another field, I would describe this unconscious unifying power as "holism". Originally philosophical in usage, this concept is now of prime importance in the description of ecosystems. It refers to the theory that living and non-living components in an ecosystem function together as a whole according to physical and biological laws which could not be deduced separately from the parts. The holism of the archaic mind is such that it cannot account for man in anything but terms borrowed from the rest of the environment, and cannot account for the rest of the environment in anything but terms borrowed from man. In general, it does this by reference to a host of spiritual agents who share qualities intermediate between man and his environment, and whose activities are invoked as the only true cause why anything we perceive with the senses should be as it is. It is the strange contribution of Velikovsky to propose that at some phase for all peoples the primary among these agents were planets.
One of the most common but also the most revealing complaints against Worlds in Collision is that again and again it merely assumes that a deity playing a central role in some catastrophe myth was believed by the culture in question to be a planet, and that it seldom produces concrete evidence of that belief. What is never taken into account in these complaints is that a planet in close approach to the Earth is a phenomenon which utterly disrupts the categories by which normal terrestrial phenomena may be described. Since we are not positing a period before planetary instabilities began, we cannot strictly speak of generations of human beings forming mental categories totally unrelated to them. But it should be evident that in periods of celestial stability the catastrophic categories formed earlier will be given more purely terrestrial content, and that it is quite possible that the celestial origin of a given category should be completely forgotten, only to be activated again by renewed instability .
Thus, for example, the oldest god of predynastic Egypt seems to have been worshipped as a hawk. The hawk was universally admired for the height to which it soared and the terrifying swiftness of its striking power. It is perfectly conceivable that it should be worshipped by a society of hunters, in some pre-agricultural phase, who wished to imitate these qualities. It is equally conceivable that a threatening planetary deity should be worshipped as a hawk because this was the clearest and most potent symbol for the qualities in it that were feared. If Jupiter was the largest among the visible planets, it might well be likened to the bird which flew highest among birds; if it threatened the Earth or other planets with electromagnetic discharges, it might well be likened to the bird that struck swiftest and most lethally. That the god Horus (which means simply "hawk" in hieroglyphic writing) was not merely worshipped as a species of bird is clear from his depiction as a human being with a hawk's head and also from his role in the principal cosmogonic Egyptian myth, in which he is born from two deities depicted in human form, Osiris and Isis, and fights in the sky with a deity depicted as the archetype of some now extinct dog-like species. What is more important, though, is that the power of these deities and their cosmic struggles might well shape Egyptian thinking long after the planet Jupiter has receded to a point-like appearance in the sky and the identification of the hawk with that planet had been forgotten. Too many other categories of human existence - kingship, to name but the most central to the Egyptians - had been attributed to Horus by that time for his worship to stand or fall upon the planetary component. In the case of Osiris, his long duration as an all-important deity is even simpler to explain. Whatever the nature of the planetary struggle in which he was involved, he was conceived as having died in it and then having been reborn as king of the dead (who thereafter were themselves reborn only by being assimilated into him). Long after the planetary events, death and rebirth were at the center of Egyptian thinking, and their mysteries were those of the god Osiris.
Mythical thinking, then, may be characterised as tenacious of a set of categories which can potentially explain all phenomena, including catastrophic events, but which is seldom activated to do so. It would be simple to idealise this holistic power of the archaic mind, since the predicament of our time is not simply the fragmentation of both knowledge and experience but also the inability of either to generate authentic grounds for action. But the fateful events which Velikovsky posits should make us question the origins of this holism more carefully. We must ask, in effect, if it is to be characterised as innate in the human mental structure, or if it was on the contrary developed as a necessary reaction to the disruption of all previous categories by planetary catastrophe. For the only way we can conceive of the events Velikovsky reconstructs is as so unusual that meaning could not be experienced in them and yet so terrible that meaning had to be imposed. We are all familiar with the psychological reflex by which the mind strains to find meaning in an event which when it occurred produced only shock; this is commonest in the experience of someone else's death. The survivors of catastrophes had experienced death on an inconceivably large scale and under conditions that seemed to involve suspension of the normal kinds of causality. The compulsion thereafter to assimilate that experience by attributing meaning to it could not easily be circumscribed. It is more likely than not that it developed into a compulsion to find one unending net of meaning in everything. If successful, it might so thoroughly assimilate catastrophes into the totality of things that they could at last be forgotten.
There is yet one more radical suggestion which occurs when one posits catastrophic experiences as at the origin of the mental structures which we now take to be essentially human. That is, that the categories of space and time themselves were generated by them. One of the most readily comprehensible elements of Relativity Theory is its reminder that what we call time is merely our experience of the Earth's movement in relation to celestial bodies. Perhaps it is a philosophical fine point to determine whether we could experience time without some kind of orderly measurement of it; in any case, to the extent that orderly measurement is possible, it depends on the regular motion of the bodies in the solar system, including the Earth itself. Should this motion become irregular, our time sense would have no secure ground in measurement during the period of irregularity, and would depend upon a new set of measurements once regularity was reestablished. Given that such irregularity was repeatedly accompanied by terrestrial upheaval, changing virtually every known surface feature by "moving the foundations of heaven and earth", it may be accurate to say that the same events which brought man into being as a separate species also created his peculiar mode of experiencing space and time. Heisenberg himself, in discussing the new light the Indeterminacy Principle shed on Kant's description of "a priori" knowledge, speculates along these lines, albeit only in a uniformitarian context:
A mythical registration of the same kind of speculation is to be found in the Hindu tradition that whenever a world-age is brought to an end by flood, Brahman, or Spirit, it withdraws into self-contemplation all things then remain unconditioned by space or time until the beginning of a new world-age.
Such a view of the generation of the categories of space and time suggests conclusions which are not easily drawn. I will restrict myself only to those which point to a fulfilment of the task I set at the beginning. There is a long tradition of attempting to deny or transcend space and time, and its intimate connection with claims for the power of the spirit is well-known. In Western thinking, in the broadest sense, it begins with the Hindu Upanishads, which take the strictly mythical language of the Vedas and forge new terms for speculation that are probably cognate with the terms used later in Greece. The Upanishads are currently dated as having originated in the 8th century BC, and it remains a major question whether the nature of the events Velikovsky posits for that period have anything to do with the development of a new turn of thought. In Western thinking in the narrower and more conventional sense, the effort to transcend space and time is crucial from at least Plato to Kant, and at its most ambitious is always integrated into a system where cosmology or more specifically speculation about the relation of contemplation to the nature of the heavens, is also central. It is equally well-known that speculation about the nature of space and time has been at the basis of Western scientific thinking since the pre-Socratics, whose dating to the 7th and 6th centuries BC also takes on new significance in Velikovsky's scheme. From this point of view, it is only logical that the movement of thought which produced Relativity Theory's new account of the continuity of space and time soon thereafter flowered in the Indeterminacy Principle's new account of the limits of scientific intelligibility. What is thrown into a new light by considering these movements of thought together is simply the mutuality of spiritual and scientific speculation. By affirming that there can be no exact limit for what we can know about things existing in space and time, science effectively destroys the barrier that formerly separated it from spiritual knowledge. In classical terms, physics has robbed metaphysics of the firm point at which the latter is clearly separated from the former and can begin to be itself.
If, then, man's attitude towards the development of the categories of space and time within himself has a history, and if that history is determined by his experiences of cosmic catastrophe, then the chief task at hand now is to write that history anew. At the same time, we will be forced to re-examine at each point along the way the relation between what has been affirmed of the mythically knowable, what has been affirmed of the scientifically knowable, and how authority for action has been deduced from between the two. We should not be deterred in this task by the possibility that terror in the psychological sense lay at the basis of the compulsion to meaning in ancient times, any more than by the knowledge that terror in the political sense has become inextricable from the affirmation of meaning in some phases of the present. In the end, it may be that though Velikovsky's work says nothing to the Western discourse on meaning directly, it will prove to have fundamentally called into question the relation between myth and science by which meaning in any authoritative sense may be declared. Calling for prolegomena may have fallen out of fashion, but that is what this man's act of thought seems to necessitate.