IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE: Making Worlds of Myth and Science

IMAGINARY LANDSCAPE: Making Worlds of Myth and Science

by William Irwin Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1989; hardcover.

“To construct an imaginary lost cosmology from a mere six pages of Grimm…”

Every now and then there is a book that witnesses to the sheer joy of journeying in the real of mythic imagination. In Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science, William Irwin Thompson provides as a point of departure, a brilliant reconstruction of Grimm’s Rapunzel. We are taken on an analytic journey deep into the imagery of this Marchen and discover it describes the experience of our psycho/social transformation of human evolution through historic time. We are invited to travel along on this Bateson-inspired quest to find “the pattern that connects.” Perhaps in the journeying, we might just be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a future born of observations and imaginings as bravely new and all-encompassing as the once novel notion of a round Earth. In Thompson’s words, the tale holds the very

…setting up of an order that is not simply familial or societal, but planetary; that in fact, the story is one of the setting up of a new world system with its relationships between the sexes, its new societal organizations, and it’s new arrangements of the planets in the solar system.

In touring Rapunzel’s mythic landscape, Thompson articulates for us a cultural history shaped of the stunning empirical correspondences in our myths, and the hidden mythic images in the very stuff of our sciences. We are led through Rapunzel only to find that our fairy tales

…have their roots in prehistoric darkness, and the hidden geometry that survives in them is not simply the obvious stuff of phallic symbols and devouring maws, but a lost cosmology of correspondences that connect the flowers to the stars. It requires an act of the imagination to bring it forth, much in the same way it required an act of the imagination to look in a new war at the dripping of a faucet.

Literally, Thompson asks for a revisioning of the very geography of what we view in out mind’s eye. It is no less than an excursion to the most compelling of new paradigm horizons.

As companions on this journey, lest we be unconvinced of the potential vistas, Thompson invites four friends to join us- Ralph Abraham, Jim Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, and Francisco Varela. All are pioneers in their respective fields, and witness by their work to radically different modes of looking. Through personal anecdote and empirical explication, Thompson provides passage to the very center of the correspondences between these independent thinkers.

Thompson constructs an opportunity to view through their eyes a reality literally laid down in the shaping.” We are provided an intriguing glimpse of a possible perspective, a Thompsonian cosmology that has the carrying capacity worthy of these thinkers’ paradigm-challenging research. In a vital and imaginal conversation between cognitive biology and geo-physiology, as well as non-linear Gaian and chaos dynamics, we are treated to an intimate viewing of the fullness of possibilities that outdistance the individual horizons of each of the disciplines. The most spectacular view is at the composite vista point.

Thompson divides his synthesis of this possible view into five great cosmological emergences, providing an analysis of each according to its prevailing mode of consciousness and technology, its constellated cultural identity, the concomitant cultural complex, and the resultant societal victim. He considers these evolutional realities as polities, that is, five different mental landscapes that externalize themselves in these five great emergences.

Scanning the period from the remotest Paleolithic to the present time indicated as the period of Planetization, Thompson concludes that our present emergence has as its prevailing mode of consciousness the press for participation or “attunement.” To arrive at this point, Thompson leans upon the empirical historical evidence of our contemporary experiences. To help us envisage the future, he draws upon the cosmological implication sin the research of his four friends, demonstrating that it is possible for the multi-dimensionality and “inter-relatedness of all sentient beings” to inhabit the new imaginal landscapes shaped of transformed and transforming participation.

Dealing as it does with the future, Imaginary Landscape is perhaps the most personally revealing and intimate of Thompson’s books. Here he reveals his own passions, exuberances, and cautions for the razor-edged path participatively emerging before us. This is for Thompson the “middle way of the Mind” that

…lies between the angelic height of the macrocosm and the Gaian atmosphere and the elemental depths of the microcosm of the material earth.

Here imagination is the passport, and in tribute, Thompson concludes the book with four poems, one dedicated to each of his four traveling companions. As epilogue to the text, they provide a proper container for the late-night conversations and encouragements among friends. They serve to inspire, for in the end what matters is that we, too, must cultivate together the imaginal possibilities for our brave new land.


Spring 1991