How Formative, Dominant and Climactic Cultural Artefacts and Texts Reflect the Evolution of Cultural Ecologies and Civilizational Forms

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For every cultural ecology epoch, Thompson distinguishes:

  • a formative cultural artefact or text, which announces the ecology
  • a dominant text reflecting the full advent of the system
  • a climactic text or artefact reflecting its full flowering, but also indicates it is ready to be replaced (Dante's Divine Comedia, which towers as an achievement of medieval art, thus preparing the Renaissance)

William Irwin Thompson:

"All narratives, whether they are artistic, religious, or scientific, are at their deepest level disguised autobiographies of the human race. At the level of the root idea, the Enuma Elish and the Second Law of Thermodynamics are mythopoeic. And when science tells us who we are, where we come from, and where we are going (as Darwin and Freud tried to do), it is inescapably mythic.

Literature and mathematics are related because they both take their toot ideas from myth, but because literature performs the root idea in a personified way, in which the planets, seas, and rivers are experienced as spirits, it is a democratization of myth. Mathematics is a mystery school for initiates, but literature is open even to children. If we look back over the four cultural ecologies, we can see that for each of these epochs, a particular literary masterpiece sums up the adaptation of consciousness to the ecology of a time and space.

As an adaptation to an ecology, literature behaves ecologically in more ways than one. Like a forest moving through the stages of succession to climax, literature unfolds through three stages of succession: (1) formative, (2) dominant, and (3) climactic. The formative work enters into a new ecological niche of consciousness, the dominant work stabilizes the mentality, and the climactic work finishes it.

The formative work for the Riverine cultural ecology is the Sumerian cycle of poems on the courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi. In this love cycle one can still see the historical horizon of the transition from agricultural village to town, for many of the poems are really work songs that maidens could sing teasingly to men as they would beat the churn up and down to make butter. Other poems are competitions between the shepherd and the farmer for the goddess's favors, but all of the poems are clear celebrations of the new agricultural ways of life that are formative of civilization.

The dominant work of the Riverine is the Akkadian poem "Inanna's Descent into the Nether World," a poem in which civilization is now expressed, not in work songs for the churning of butter or celebrations of the shepherd over the farmer, but in priestcraft. The "Descent" is no' villager's poem, but a highly complex investigation into the cosmological dimensions of the planetary balances between order and chaos, civilization and savagery, earth and the -heavens.

The climactic work for the Riverine Cultural ecology is the great Gilgamesh Epic, Climactic works, like formative ones, are Janus-headed and face in two directions: they sum up and finish a world view and also point prophetically to a world to come. In its meditation on death and the slaying of the spirit of the forest, the Gilgamesh Epic was prophetic in its study of deforestation, the civilized alienation of the ego, and the limits of masculine military power; and all of these themes were to become characteristic of the tragic history of human experience in the succeeding Mediterranean epoch.

The formative works of the Mediterranean cultural ecology are the Homeric epics, The Odyssey quite directly sets up the horizons of the Mediterranean landscape in the voyages of Odysseus, but the epic also establishes the basic theme of the alienation of human consciousness from its source, and the yawning gulf that separates male from female, location from home, The epic forms an archetypal pattern that is to dominate literature for millennia, for contemporary works as different as James Joyce's Ulysses and Nicholas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth are but modern material cut from the ancient pattern.

The Iliad, which seems to me much older and more archaic in tone than the Odyssey, is the primary work that establishes the world view of order and entropy, consciousness and violence, history and vanishing. So formative is this particular work that I feel that the roots of philosophy and science are here in this whole work and not in the more recognized fragments of the Pre-Socratics.

The dominant masterpiece of the Mediterranean is the Oresteia, for it expresses what is to be the enduring structure of Western culture: the displacement of relationship by abstraction. Instructed by a male god of light, Apollo, the son kills the mother, displaces the rule of ancient Mediterranean custom, and moves out of the tribe into the polis in a celebration of patriarchy, law, and rationality. For the geometrizing mentality of the Creeks, the entire world becomes reorganized, not in the kinship systems enumerated by Hesiod, but in the new mentality of abstraction in which the chorus distances itself from the skene at the same time that culture separates itself from nature in the polis.

The climactic work of the Mediterranean, one that completely finishes the mentality in the way that only a great genius can, is Dante's Divine Comedy. The ancient Mediterranean goddess, who had been displaced from the earth, is now set up in the heavens, and Orestes's polis is transformed into Dante's ecclesia. Reason, which had slain the mother of nature through abstraction, is now wed to consciousness through "the love that moves the sun and other stars." The geometrizing mentality, which had initiated a process of distancing from nature, now finds its true ideal realm in heaven. Ratio becomes sublimated into intellectus98, and the souls of alienated humanity gather in the petals of the White Rose. Pattern flowers,

The formative work for the Atlantic cultural ecology, one that shows the shift from medievalism to modernism, is Cervantes's Don Quixote, a work that for quite different reasons both McLuhan and Foucault chose as the exemplar of cultural transformation. Inspired by a fantastic literature, the equivalent of the communications media of our day, the solitary knight of the sad countenance rides forth in pursuit of a lost culture. Precisely when the traditional Culture is about to break up, when the universal ecclesia is about to be replaced by a universal economy, and when the aristocrat on his horse is about to be replaced by the capitalist, the last knight rides forth. But Don Quixote is not so much a man of the past as of the future. The individual alone with his fantasies, fantasies that alter his very perception of reality, is not a man of the medieval Or the classical world. He is the first modern man whose world view has been transformed, not by parents or priests, but by the media. Precisely because modernism is a wrenching away of the solitary individual from the traditional community, madness becomes the concern of the new age of the mind. Whether we are gazing at the paintings of Bosch, or hearing the cry of Lear on the heath, or watching Don Quixote wear a barber's bowl and call it Mambrino's helmet, we are trying to come to terms with the manner in which the mind creates reality for itself.

The rise of the individual with the new definitions of selfhood is quintessentially a modern phenomenon, and such a cultural appearance is marked by the appearance of new literary genres, such as autobiography. At the formative stage of emergence from tradition, the solitary individual might feel the pull Of madness as the way in which the individual could create a personal cultural envelopment, but as the mind begins to grow confident of itself and begins with Leibniz to celebrate reason as sufficient to understand and control nature, being, very capitalistically, begins to sell its soul for knowing. Knowing begins to eliminate being, creating the tragic irony that knowing really doesn't know, and in the attempt to control nature, the mind simply becomes the captive of instinctive appetites. The dominant work, therefore, of the Atlantic cultural ecology is Faust.

But by Faust I do not simply mean the work of Goethe. Levi-Strauss has argued that every variation of a myth is a performance of the myth and that even Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex is a performance of the myth of Oedipus. In much the same way, the works of Marlowe, Goethe, Spengler, Gounod, and Thomas Mann are all chapters of the larger European work that is Faust. Before the West had such creatures as scientists manipulating the genetic code, Renaissance man imagined the alchemist who sold his soul to the devil, and intuited the shape of things to come. In many ways Marlowe's Faust seems to speak to our contemporary situation even more than Coethe's romantic Faust, for Marlowe's man becomes caught up in the banality of power, of fetching tropical fruits in winter or satisfying his lust for control; but the very satisfaction of the desire to control only leads to enslavement. Knowing can never become being; so only the spirit can unmask the covering over with which the mind bewitched itself.

The climactic work of the Atlantic epoch is Finnegans Wake. Coming from a marginal culture at the very edge of Europe, James Joyce very consciously finished Europe. First, lie finished the remains of the Mediterranean vision in his Ulysses, a work that ends in the affirmation of the feminine brought down out of Dante's heaven and put to bed. Then, having finished with the voyages of the solitary individual afloat on a stream of consciousness, Joyce went on to "press the transition from print-isolated humanity in its book-lined study to H.C.E., Here Comes Everybody. At the time when the hardy objects of a once materialistic science disappear into subatomic particles, so characters as egos with discrete identities disappear to become patterns of corso-ricorso, and history becomes the performance of myth. Characterization is replaced by allusion, and as pattern and configuration become more important than persons, Joyce brings us to the end of the age of individualism. But like Moses on Mount Pisgah gazing into a Promised Land he cannot enter, Joyce brings us to the end of modernism, but be himself cannot pass over into the hieroglyphic thought of the Pacific-Aerospace cultural ecology to come.

McLuhan considered Finnegans Wake to be the prophetic work that pointed to the arrival of electronic, civilized humanity, the creature of changing roles who "mythically and in depth." Obviously, we are now only in the early days of the transition from the Atlantic cultural I ecology of the European epoch to the Pacific-Space cultural ecology of the planetary epoch, and so no one knows for certain just where these electronic and aerospace technologies are taking us. But since I grew up in Los Angeles, and not in Dublin or Paris, I have a few hunches.

The emergence of the he new Pacific-Space cultural ecology is related to the historical events of World War II for several reasons. Hiroshima announced the beginnings of the atomic age, and the airplane industries of the West Coast were to be rather quickly transformed into aerospace technologies. With the postwar rise to greatness of Stanford and Berkeley, and with the emergence of Silicon Valley, the Pacific Shift of America from Europe to Japan Was irresistible.

Perhaps in the next generation or two, a great artist from one of the cultures on the Pacific Rim will create the formative work of art for this new culture, to do for the Pacific what Homer did long ago for the Mediterranean world. This imagined masterpiece may not be literary, for it is hard to deny that the rise of film, television, and computer graphics has created a new sensibility that cannot be expressed in exclusively literary form, The Homeric epics were popular art forms, ones meant to be recited at social gatherings, and so we should not fear that new popular art forms mean the death of literary culture. When oral culture encountered writing, literature was created. If literature encounters video cassettes that have computer animation wed to music, literature will simply reincarnate into a new form; it will not die."