Nietzsche, Nihilism, Nemesis
Just because I like the alliteration….
Kevin’s comments always plunge me into probing the deeper connections between things (even if he didn’t intend that and might even prefer I not go there). But the comment he made in the previous posting comes on the heels of a private email sent to me by Steve drawing my attention to a lengthy (and involved) article by Charles Laughlin called “Mandalas, Nixies, Goddesses, and Succubi: A Neuroanthropologist looks at the Anima,” which explores the anima/animus archetype in Carl Jung’s psychology. There was one particular quote from Jung in Laughlin’s piece, though, that caught my attention. It is cited from Jung’s 1959 Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self,
“The relative autonomy of the anima- and animus-figures expresses itself in these qualities. In order of affective rank they stand to the shadow very much as the shadow stands in relation to ego-consciousness. The main affective emphasis seems to lie on the latter; at any rate it [the ego] is able, by means of a considerable expenditure of energy, to repress the shadow, at least temporarily. But if for any reason the unconscious gains the upper hand, then the valency of the shadow and of the other figures increases proportionately, so the scale of values is reversed.”
The key concept here is reversal, and the core passage is the meaning of the phrase “the scale of values is reversed” whenever the ego-consciousness is invaded and eclipsed by the unconscious or psychic contents, most notably the shadow. We know “the shadow” in literature as Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Mr. Hyde,” amongst other characters in legend and literature. This notion of reversal as an inversion of the scale of values we have also encountered in Nietzsche’s succinct definition of nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves.”
What Jung has provided in the above quote is a explanation, in terms of psychic dynamics, for how this reversal occurs, even if the reasons aren’t made completely clear. The “valency of the shadow,” which means the psychic-affect or energy associated with the shadow, grows more dominant, eclipsing the ego-consciousness we know as “Dr. Jekyll.” Right here is a key to understanding that pandemic of hypocrisy we have discussed that is the plague of Late Modern society.
That passage sent me diving back into Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin, looking for something that this quote from Jung recalled to mind. After about an half-an-hour’s search I found it,
“In every extreme rationalization there is not just a violation of the psyche by the ratio, that is, a negatively magic element, but also the graver danger, graver because of its avenging and incalculable nature: the violation of the ratio by the psyche, where both become deficient. The authentic relation to the psyche, the mental, is perverted into its opposite, to the disadvantage of the ego that has become blind through isolation. In such an instance, man has become isolated and his basic ties have been cut; the moderating, measuring bond of menis and menos is severed. Cut, severed: what was again the meaning of the root da-? It is this ‘cut off, severed, divided,” the ‘demonic’. The gates to the ‘demonic forces’ have been opened; nothing exists out of itself, everything follows upon something else, everything has become a consequence. We may well ask: a consequence leading to what?” (p. 97).
These passages from Carl Jung and from Jean Gebser are equivalent in meaning, although Gebser adds more detail (which requires some missing context which I’m unable to provide here in the spirit of brevity). In any case, the key passage in the excerpt from Gebser is “the violation of the ratio by the psyche,” which is quite clearly the same dynamic described by Jung above by which “the unconscious gains the upper hand” in consequence of which “the scale of values is reversed.” This dynamic reversal is what we have been calling “perverse outcome,” “unintended consequence,” or “revenge effect,” etc. This is clearly also Gebser’s meaning in the penultimate sentence from the passage quoted: “everything follows upon something else, everything has become a consequence,” and which he terminates with the ominous question, “a consequence leading to what?”
Well, it’s a rhetorical question because Gebser has already anticipated this consequential “what” in the Preface to The Ever-Present Origin. He called it “global catastrophe”. And much of his book is also an attempt to describe in just what way we are on the brink of this catastrophe. As it turns out, it is the same sense as Nietzsche’s terse definition of nihilism — a dynamic in which “all higher values devalue themselves”. And this is what Gebser refers to as its “avenging” nature, for that “avenging,” which is reversal and is the meaning of Nemesis, is one of the attributes of the shadow in Jung’s psychology, which arises from what Nietzsche called “resentment”.
“Reason, reversing itself metabolistically to an exaggerated rationalism, becomes a kind of inferior plaything of the psyche, neither noticing nor even suspecting the connection. Although the convinced rationalist will be unwilling to admit it, there is after all the rational distorted image of the speculatio animae: the speculatio rationis, a kind of shadow-boxing before a mirror whose reflection occurs against the blind surface. This negative link to the psyche, usurping the place of the genuine mental relation, destroys the very thing achieved by the authentic relation: the ability to gain insight into the psyche” (p. 97).
This passage might seem perplexing or obscure, but its interpretation hinges on the meaning of the Latin speculatio which is not just speculation, but is the word for “mirror” or “reflection.” Speculatio animae means the mirror of the soul, or the reflection of the soul in the appearances (the phenomena or forms); speculatio rationis only reflects the deficient or merely instrumentalising rationality in its cognitive dissonance, which is also technology unilluminated by consciousness and lacking in “anima“. In other words, Gebser is speaking of what is called “projection” in terms of a “shadow-boxing before a mirror whose reflection occurs against the blind surface,” which is the opaqueness of the phenomenal world of appearances and images which has lost its transparency (signifying meaning) to the extent that the mental-rational attitude and mentality is unable “to gain insight into the psyche” (opaqueness) which is materialism, and which manifests externally as all that reflected in the apparent meaninglessness of events and objects.
And here is the meaning, then, of that passage: “we do not see things as they are, but as we are.”
And finally (although we could go on at considerable length here) we are returned to that most significant passage from David Ehrenfeld’s notable essay “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“, and the succinct, but perfect, description of the narcissism of our time which he gave there which connects all the above citations from Nietzsche, Jung, and Gebser about this opaqueness (which is experienced as meaninglessness and purposelessness),
“One of the most serious challenges to our prevailing system is our catastrophic loss of ability to use self-criticism and feedback to correct our actions when they place us in danger or give bad results. We seem unable to look objectively at our own failures and to adjust the behavior that caused them.”
That is, I will repeat, the best description of the actual problem of what Christopher Lasch called “the culture of narcissism” that I have read anywhere, and it connects all the other quotes I’ve provided above.
If I haven’t succeeded in scaring the Bejeezuz out of you about our present situation, then I haven’t been entirely clear in making my case here. But if I have succeeded in making my case, then you will also see why I continue to insist that there can be no real change in the world without a self-overcoming and through a thorough taking-stock of ourselves in terms of who and what we truly are and not merely who and what we merely think we are, for this “thinking” is to engage in that very same “deficient rationality” that Gebser, Nietzsche, and Jung consider our chiefest present defect, which has made us opaque to ourselves, because by thinking in terms of this deficient rationality, we merely continue to spin entangling and perplexing cobwebs around ourselves, which is called “veil of Maya” and “cloud of unknowing”. It begins with ourselves then.
This is why I also hold out high hopes for Percival’s book Thinking and Destiny, to which I want to return shortly.