Darkness and Scattered Light, by William Irwin Thompson, New York: Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1978, 189pp., $3.95 (paper).
Unlike many books about the future, I had trouble picking up this book once I had set it down. Why? It is an intellectual morass of mysticism and illogical writing that did not give me any reasoned insight into the future or the current factors shaping the future. The author, in company with many current intellectuals, wishes to abandon logic and reason and go backwards in history, but back is for emergencies only or for intellectual cowards fearful of the unknown and inadaptable to change.
William Irwin Thompson gained his Ph.D. from Cornell and styles himself as a "cultural historian." The difference between a "cultural historian" and an anthropologist is difficult to understand; cultural historian seems little more than a modem academic buzzword. I was exceeding surprised and even disappointed that Thompson's book shows very little evidence that he knows of or understands any terrestrial cultures other than the Euro-American culture in which he happens to live—even though he writes in the style of an oriental mystic.
Thompson tries to write about the future and succeeds in so doing only in such disconnected and cerebral concepts that he gives himself away as one who is being pretentious and covering it with verbiage. In common with many modern intellectuals who neither understand science and technology nor grasp the implications of this recently learned application of reasoned thought to human problems, Thompson foresees the usual Intellectual's Doomsday: gloom and doom, death and destruction, famine and pestilence, and the march and countermarch of corporate armies looting and raping the worldwide marketplace for monetary profit.
Thompson makes an incredible statement. He believes we must shift our emphasis from machines to mysticism. True, there is much we don't know about the universe, including about ourselves. But must we now abandon 250 years of development of the most successful, rational, logical problem-solving methodology of human history and return to the demi-methodology of mysticism that had 25,000 years in which to prove itself and did not?
History is ripe with examples of handling our world with both mysticism and with reason. While it may be unfortunate that military technology is always the leading edge of the state of the art, and while application of military force may in some ways be irrational, it does provide us with explicit examples of the mystical and the rational methods of utilizing technology. A cannon is a very specialized machine. It must be kept clean. The shot must be polished regularly. Powder kegs must be kept dry and turned end-for-end on a regular schedule. And the crew that operates the cannon under considerable pressure during battle must be disciplined and drilled thoroughly and regularly. Until only recently when technology permitted the great simplification of the assault rifle and the SAM missile, a soldier had to have the rational procedures of operating his devices drilled into him. Some cultures never succeeded in doing this. Most European peoples did succeed. The ones that didn't, seem comical to us. For example, at Selaugor in Malay in 1871, the soldiers of Raja Mahdie's artillery corps would load a cannon, lash it down with rattan, and then gather round it to pray for a successful result.
Mysticism and technology do not mix. Technology requires reason to develop and reason to use wisely. We shall not solve our current problems by any other means than applying thought to these problems and developing the technology to solve these problems.
The factor that made Thompson's book so devilishly difficult to read is its disconnected, rambling style. There were several times when I felt that Thompson was perhaps leading me to some new insight, only to have him change direction in mid-paragraph or bog down in a swamp of erudition. His writing is disjointed and disconnected with no thread of logic running through it. Normally, a reviewer can read the first and last chapters of any nonfiction book and get 99 percent of its meat. The intervening chapters merely justify, flesh out, and support the contentions set forth in the first chapter, while the final chapter offers a wrap-up. It was impossible for me to read Thompson's book this way. It began with the mystical statement that we should replace machines with mysticism; it was mystical throughout; and it never did justify its initial contention.
Thompson has no clear concept of the future. He foresees semi-doomsday of a new Dark Ages followed by some sort of mystical renaissance. Hence, his title. However, we had better not be heading into a Dark Age, because people have their fingers on nuclear triggers this time.…
I, for one, am getting weary of overeducated intellectuals crying "wolf' and continuing to forecast doomsday. Rather than Thompson's future of "darkness and scattered light," I would place my money, my reputation, and my life on a future of "brightness and scattered darkness" in which, using our cerebrums instead of our cerebellums, we slowly improve things for the entire world with the exception of highly localized Malthusian crises—which is precisely what we are engaged in right now.
Thompson does not stack up to such people as Dr. Carleton S. Coon, C. Northcote Parkinson, or Jacob Bronowski. In spite of the philosophy expounded in quasi-intellectual books such as Thompson's, Homo sapiens will indeed justify the name he has given to his own species.
G. Harry Stine is the author of The Third Industrial Revolution.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Darkness and Scattered Light".