March 1 and 3, 2001M
Topic: Heinlein and Mysticism
Supplemental Reading: Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, and In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky (for breadth. A lot of us may have been exposed to mystical thinking within the framework of conventional major religions; this last book is not recommended for any specific positions of Heinlein's -- but it gives a very good overview of several strains of occult and mystical thinking outside that framework)
Heinlein has often been discussed as the god-emperor of scientists/engineers-turned-sf writers of "hard sf," which puzzled him. Although he did write hard or gadget sf occasionally, he was really much more interested in the soft sciences like sociology and psychometry and medicine. Most of what he wrote, however, he did not consider science fiction at all, and he preferred the term "speculative fiction." So influential was Heinlein within science fiction, however, that the genre definitions expanded to include what he wrote. The readers of 1947-48 thought that the simple-minded stories he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post were not science fiction; and readers in 1961 were sure that Stranger in a Strange Land wasn't science fiction. But to readers in 2001, it's all science fiction. The field grew up around Heinlein. We can see the process at work in Beyond This Horizon (1942), which posits reincarnation as one of the things we might find if we started a scientific investigation of the mind.
He wrote a few outright fantasies -- "Magic, Inc.," for example or "Our Fair City" and "The Man Who Travelled in Elephants," or his shaggy politician story about Mu, "Beyond Doubt." There were also a few stories which were not quite outright fantasies of any usual kind and not quite science fiction, either -- like "Elsewhen" and "Lost Legacy," "They" and "Waldo" and "Project Nightmare." Alexei Panshin in Heinlein in Dimension talks of them as including mysticism in one degree or another, but he is not very clear about what he means. To this short list we could add the 1970 novel I Will Fear No Evil, in which Heinlein takes the improbable cliche of a brain transplant as his basis and then deals with two personalities inhabiting the same body. Rationalization becomes quite rubbery at this point - and it get stretched all out of shape when a third person, who had nothing to do with either brain or body, joins the two. Some of these stories are "mystical" only in Panshin's imagination. We can eliminate the outright fantasies because they were written for, we presume, the usual reasons outright fantasies are written for. We can also eliminate from candidates for "mysticism" stories that deal with ideas that were, in Heinlein's estimation,"exotic facts." For example, Heinlein thought the space-time physics of J.W. Dunne, allowing for sideways time travel was a perfectly good scientific theory, though not the theory most commmonly held -- so "Elsewhen" isn't mystical at all. And, by extension, The Number of the Beast and the rest of the World As Myth Books are as stfnal as anything else Heinlein wrote. In the 1960's Dunne's time theories got a quantum-mechanics polish with Wheeler's "many worlds" hypothesis, so the alternate time tracks thesis has gotten written into the fringes of ordinary science.
As Heinlein was at pains to point out, science fiction must not contradict known facts, but it may play around with theories within very broad limits. Telepathy and certain types of psychic "powers" Heinlein does not seem to have regarded as fantastic, but as simply factual. As late as Expanded Universe (1980) he talks of anyone who rejects telepathy out of hand as simply "pigheaded" or "ignorant." Mark Twain had written two accounts (the "Mental Telegraphy" essays) of what are called "anecdotal evidence" of telepathy, and Upton Sinclair had followed them up in 1930 with Mental Radio accounts of telepathy and clairvoyance experiments he had performed. The late 1950's reprint of this book had an introduction by Albert Einstein. And in the meantime, psychologist J.B. Rhine had been conducting scientific experiments with telepathy and clairvoyance out of Duke University since 1927. Rhine had made good progress initially, though the project had hit a glass wall by the late 1940's. Telepathy, levitation, and clairvoyance were to Heinlein, simply exotic facts that were grist for the spec-fic mill. So "Project Nightmare," for example, is a speculation on what use might be made of these exotic facts once they had been domesticated
Even when we eliminate these, there are other ideas that might be mystical. There are some stories that contain hybrids -- some factual material extended by speculation and connected up with material that is frankly religious in nature. "Lost Legacy," for instance, starts out with a brain operation that affects a gambler's clairvoyance and leads to telepathy, levitation, and a host of other powers of mind that might (or might not) fall into the category of exotic facts, not well understood, but still factual in nature. But it also connects to a mystical brotherhood that has access to the Akashic records of the Theosophists. Theosophy is a religion. Most of Mike's Martian "powers" correspond rather closely with Yogic demonstrations. Yoga is a branch of Hinduism, but the yogic demonstrations, or siddhes, are things anybody can theoretically learn to do if they follow the yogic disciplines -- slowing of the heart rate and respiration, suppression of bleeding, even a kind of levitation that is really a bizarre form of hopping. People independently discover some of these methods occasionally. Harry Houdini is thought to have discovered some of the yogic breathing disciplines on his own, and he used them in his escapes. So the Mike's yogic demonstrations are halfway between the exotic facts that don't constitute mysticism and the religious aspects that do. Very fittingly, Mike cannot tell the difference we make between science and religion -- they are all teachings.
Mysticism does have something to do with religious ideas, though the exact relationship isn't clear. Heinlein doesn't seem very interested in exploring Christian theology, the way Walter Miller or C.S. Lewis were.
Karen Armstrong in A History of God suggests that there is a dialectical relationship in the God religions -- Judaism, Islam, and Christianity -- between dogmatics and mystics. Leaving aside the dogmatics, the mystics are defined as those that are concerned with the direct experience of the divine. This seems to connect up to Rudolph Otto's definition in 1915: All religion begins with the experience of the noumenal. The noumenal experience cannot really be talked about; it can only be experienced. A lot of people have flashes of contact with it -- the most common ways of talking about it are the "white light experience," where everything in the entire universe and all your consciousness dissolves into a blinding white glare, or the disappearance of the self into the universe, what the Buddhists call the "pouring out" of the self. Or the emotional experience that everything is unified, connected, together. Mystics seek that experience and they try ways of bringing that "inner light" into their everyday experience. Given this understanding, can Heinlein be said to be interested in mysticism in any significant way?
I think he was at least interested in the mystical experience, even if he didn't practice any of the mystical methods. Certainly the unity of the entire universe shows up over and over again in his fiction, and for his theory he seems to have drawn principally on Ralph Waldo Emerson's (religious) doctrine of The Over-Soul. All humans, everything that exists in time, Emerson says, are bits -- tendrils -- of the single reality that is the Over-Soul. The Over-Soul is God: it stands outside time, but we are bits of the Over-Soul that have intruded into time, and our separateness is an illusion. This figure appears over and over and accounts for many of the instances people call "solipsism" in Heinlein. "The universe is just a game we whipped up among ourselves and agreed to forget the gag." "Don't be silly -- I'm your other end." "All that groks is God." Emerson even goes so far as to say "a single blood rushes through every vein."
In "They," the nameless protagonist has his moments of noumenal clarity in dreams of communion with his kind whom he cannot find in this here-and-now of consensus reality. Here there is opposition and conflict -- insane conflict -- masterminded by a motivationless antagonist whose main task is to prevent him from recognizing his true nature.
"Lost Legacy" is a story of the removal of a block to human spiritual evolution. The three humans who come together join with the Shasta Lodge, experience, wisdom, drive, and purify the world by spiritual education. It is a celebration of the human dimension of that spiritual experience: after the story ends, the evolution away from the merely human can take place and humanity can attain its destiny
And in Stranger, the Over-Soul is almost explicitly stated. The single God of the God religions is assumed to be somewhere, though His presence is never directly known. Instead the message is Thou art God - All that Groks is God. The gospel is an awakening to humanity's true nature as aspects of the single reality.
When you remove the mundane, the fantastical and the merely exotic, there remains in Heinlein a moving strain of ideas that are frankly religious, frankly mystical. They don't have much to do with the church politics and little homiletics that passes for Sunday morning (or Friday evening) religion, but they definitely have something to do with the ecstatic experience, and with each individual's central place in the meaning of reality.
Heinlein thought well of science fiction's capacity to carry important ideas, and he certainly proved his point