The Pendulum of History

In the old Dark Age Blog, I was once asked by a commenter what could be done to stop the wild and erratic pendulum of history from swinging to-and-fro. What, he asked, could be done to prevent history from apparently constantly repeating itself? The great Irish writer James Joyce had also asked the same question: “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The metronome of politics and society seemed to be swinging from one extreme to another, from left to right and back again, or from an emphasis on public goods to private values and then back again in a seeming tedious eternal recurrence of same, of vengeance and revengeance that characterised the pagan world conception.

Then, I had no answer. Now I think I do. There is a reason why, as the old song puts it, “England swings like a pendulum do”.

The philosopher George Santayana once famously remarked that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”. History as Pendulum, in other words. For Santayana, the pendulum swung between past and future, conservative or progressive, reversion or conversion, Labour or Capital, or reactionary and revolutionary orientations in time — even if he didn’t quite put it that way.

Unfortunately, Mr. Santayana was probably a better historian than he was a psychologist. History repeats itself pendulum-fashion because the human mind is trapped in that psychic tautology called “narcissism”.  It’s not so much a problem of remembering the past, but, as Nietzsche and the story of the Prodigal Son put it, of remembering who and what we are really.

I was listening to a song by the old Canadian band named “Spirit of the West” this evening. The song was entitled “Two-Headed”, and the lyrics to the song brought to mind not only the question that was put to me a few years ago in TDAB about the pendulum of time and history, but the mystery of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella about the tormented and disintegrate character of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that the song seemed to reflect. In Stevenson’s novella, of course, the pendulum swings not just between two radically opposed aspects of the personality, but is, in effect, a psychic dualism of past and future states. Mr. Hyde is the primitive or Simian aspect of Dr. Jekyll, while Dr. Jekyll represents the “evolved” or future persona of the Simian Mr. Hyde. In Jungian terms, this would be the dualism of light and shadow, for the title “Dr.” represents the idealised enlightened Self of Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum, while Mr. Hyde (whose name is probably a play on the animal “hide”) represents the troglodyte roots become anti-thesis of the urbane, sophisticated, civilised, and refined personality that Dr. Jekyll is so anxious to project.

Mr. Hyde as Simian

What is so interesting about Stevenson’s 1886 novella is that he was writing at the same time as Nietzsche was writing about the strange dissonance of the human soul in Thus Spoke Zarathustra,

“All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is the ape to man? A laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. And man shall be just that for the overman: a laughingstock or a painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape.”

This disintegrate dualism of the personality of Late Modern man reflected in Stevenson and Nietzsche reflects what both saw as being a lack of equanimity in the psychic household, and a lack of equanimity manifests objectively as a lack of equilibrium or an unbalanced condition in society and history. Nietzsche represented this as a reconciliation between the gods Dionysos and Apollo, which is clearly the same Hyde and Jekyll relationship that Stevenson explores. This dualism in the personality that Gebser called “the inner division of modern man” becoming self-destructive between, for example, materialist or idealist, or conservative or progressive, or public and private, is the root of the pendulum motion between the extremities. Lack of equanimity in the soul (which equanimity is called “the peace that surpasseth understanding” in mystical literature) is the root of the unbalanced attitude in life and of the present polarisation and disequilibrium in society — the “pendulum” — presently called “culture war”.

In that sense, Socrates was perhaps more correct than Santayana. “Know thyself” was the more essential act and victory before the doom and nightmare of repetitive history could be transcended and Nietzsche’s “overcoming” of the all-too-human could be accomplished. This equanimity, also taught by The Buddha as “the Middle Way”, is what cultural historian Jean Gebser equally means by “integral consciousness”. Integral consciousness is essentially non-dualistic, but it is not for that reason either monocratic, monological, monopolistic, monochromatic, or monocultural as Fukuyama’s “end of history” proposed and as our contemporary reactionaries strive to effect as against “multiculturalism”.

If you are at all following the trial of the Norwegian right-wing extremist and terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, this bifurcation of the soul and the controversial question of his sanity or lack of sanity is most illuminating about our present confusion concerning what Gebser called the “inner division” of the soul of late modern man. Breivik is only the most extreme example of this bifurcation or dissociation, as this very interesting article by Simon Baron-Cohen attempts to draw out when he makes a distinction between cognitive insanity and affective insanity, for that is, in summary, another version of the struggle to understand the relation between “Dr. Jekyll” and “Mr. Hyde” and the contemporary dissocation of mind and soul that produces a monstrosity like Breivik in the first place. This dissociation of the cognitive and the affective was the primary theme of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde saga, which is mental and psychic dualism — the breakdown of dialectical/dialogical consciousness.

I’ll have more to post about this shortly, because Mr. Breivik is, unfortunately, only an extreme example of an attitude that has become the mainstream “common sense”. That may seem a shocking statement, but it is, alas, true.


10 responses to “The Pendulum of History”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    When I first read don Juan’s account of water as an entity with spirit, it made immediate sense to me even though I had never thought of water to be connected to spirit entity in any shape or form. But then again, and following don Juan’s descriptions, I thought to myself that if water is a necessary component of what sustains a form of multi-dimensional physical reality, then water itself must be alive in the full multi-dimensional sense. It became acceptable to me after that that water is in fact conscious.

    Using the same line of thinking when I read this article, I thought that as beings that go through reincarnational existences (that pendulum that rocks in and out of earthly life) it seems that we’re only bound to create series of events (time) that repeat themselves (the swing of the pendulum).

    “The show,” that is the swing of the pendulum whose engine of gravity is based on the condition of narcissism, it seems to me, “must go on”. Only the series of events that comprise the show (time) are different. Calling the condition a “psychic tautology” is spot on.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Speaking of the pendulum and “psychic tautology” as history repeating itself (even if, as Marx quipped, “first as tragedy, then as farce”) a member of the Gebser Society list sent me this link to a documentary called “The Collapse”. It has many of the same themes as David Ehrenfeld’s essay on the Collapse of the Age of Technology.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    By the way, just finished watching an older flick called “Altered States” starring a very young William Hurt, based on a book by Paddy Chayefsky, that I picked up in a discount bin at the local drug store. It’s a kind of hippyish mixture of Castaneda, Gebser, Buddhism and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde theme that tends to go off the rails at times. There’s one scene in a bar where a drunken Dr. Jessup (Hurt) speaks of his quest for “the unborn soul” or “originary consciousness” and “primal self” that could be taken as an allusion to Gebser’s “ever-present origin”. That was interesting, but for the most part, it was extremely…. extremely…. (looking for the right word here… maybe it’s “speculative” or maybe just “dumb”).

    • Scott Preston says :

      Oh yes… one of the central influences in the making of Altered States was Dr. John Lilly’s early experiments with sensory deprivation. In that sense, Altered States was a kind of mash-up of every possible altered states of consciousness theme from the sixties and seventies — Leary, Lilly, Castaneda, Gebser, Zen, and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde that ended up sort of like what happens to paint when you mix together too many different colours — kind of primal grey goo.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    I was surprised that no mention was made in the documentary “The Collapse” of the role that corporations, especially the transnational corporations, have played in depleting our resources and destroying our environment. So far, corporations have shown a lack of will in changing course. “The bottom line” remains a big factor in the decision making. Profits, profits, profits. The narrator sounded optimistic at the end, saying that the downfall by 2210 isn’t inevitable. Not only I think that the collapse is inevitable, but also I think that the collapse has already begun. And it is “the corporate bottom line” that has done it this time.

    While we hear so much about the economic growth and investment prospects in India and China, what I hear from my Indian and Chinese colleagues and friends who travel to India and China regularly is that the major cities in those countries are becoming super-congested, inhospitable, and rapidly unliveable.

    Just before watching “The Collapse” I watched a program by NBC’s Rachel Maddow about the history of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico:

    Apparently, the offshore oil spill clean up technology hasn’t improved at all in over 30 years, while Apple comes out with a new phone every too often so the shareholders can sleep contently.

    A disconnected boundless waste and mismanagement of our resources has become a normal way of doing business.

    The documentary’s use of the city of Phoenix, AZ as an example of a doomed city of the future was spot on. In my first visit to the town back in the mid 1990s, I still remember the shocking view I saw looking out from the plane window as the pilot announced that we were over the Phoenix sky. Phoenix back then was a gigantic sprawling city. The plane flew over the city for about 4 to 5 minutes before reaching the airport and beginning its descent. During that entire 4 to 5 minutes that we flew over the metropolis, I saw dozens and dozens of lush green golf courses – all of that in the middle of the scorpion-rattle snake-Joshua Tree territory!!!!

    The view was evidence of the total insanity of a community of people who, obviously, had failed to adapt to their particular environment. A colleague of mine who moved out of the Phoenix area about 3 years ago tells me that, despite the sharp collapse of property values, there are still no buyers for their property back in Phoenix. After the economic collapse of 2008, a stream of entire neighborhoods have been leaving the city.

    But if the population of the city has been leaving en masse, where will the tax dollars that will be needed to maintain the vast infrastructure of roads and schools that were built during the growth years come from? From nowhere. The collapse has already begun. The history is repeating itself.

  4. Scott Preston says :

    A colleague of mine who moved out of the Phoenix area about 3 years ago tells me that, despite the sharp collapse of property values, there are still no buyers for their property back in Phoenix.

    There are buyers… Canadian farmers looking for a winter retreat. It’s quite unbelievable how many Canadian farmers have been buying up houses and condos in Phoenix as winter get-aways. I don’t ever want to hear another country song about the poor Canadian dirt farmer. But given all the recent sandstorms that have hit Phoenix, I imagine it may look much like the film depicts sooner rather than later.

    I think you are right that breakdown and collapse is inevitable. Catastrophe theorists (and Gebser also tends to be one) tend to differentiate between these two stages — breakdown followed by collapse. We appear to be in the breakdown stage, and it must certainly be significant in that regard how “crisis management” (not to leave unmentioned “perception management” too) has become an occupation and academic discipline in its own right.

    Speaking of iPhones etc, I was thinking yesterday about how our gadgets are proliferating while biological species are diminishing — a kind of Star Trek “Borg world” in the making. Not much chance it can ultimately succeed in that, since technological mimesis can never fully imitate living Nature and become a substitute. Fantasies about domed cities, completely externalising Nature and environment as threatening, have the flavour of a return to the cave and troglodyte existence. The dome is a kind of tomb, from which life in the fullest sense is excluded — an anti-biotic existence. That’s what the Borg ultimately symbolise — the anti-biotic. Gruesome and ghastly. To my mind, a clear instance of enantiodromia. There was an earlier Sean Connery film much about that called Zardoz which I wish I could find again.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      I had no clue. In my opinion the Canadian farmer looking for a winter retreat is just trading the problem of cold winter and a season of no work with the problem of venomous creatures and angry folks. I will tell my colleague about this cross border trend. I don’t know if she knows about this, but if she doesn’t, it might give her some ideas about selling her house.

      If I could think of a real world example for the Borg, that ultimate “anti-biotic”, it would be these transnational corporations – Apple included. They move into any place anywhere in the world, consume all of its resources with no loyalty or good will toward the local environment, indigeneous people, or even the local government, and once they exhaust the local resources, they pack up and leave to another place and do it all over again. I’ve just begun to read John Gray’s “False Dawn”, which you recommended back in the Guardian days. The book’s first two three pages ring very true about this globalization thing. I can’t wait to finish it.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I’ve read False Dawn. I read it before 2008. I should probably go back and read it again post-2008, as Gray’s was one of the better critiques of neo-liberalism.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    Here’s the rub… as I was following up on an online exchange on the differences between the “collapse-thinkers” (Diamond, Gebser, Ehrenfeld, Homer-Dixon, et alia) and the “wealth-technology-knowledge” optimists who hold that the “collapse-thinkers” are alarmists because, well, “we have the technology”, etc. I wrote the following by way of reply, and I think it’s valid, and which I’ll re-cite verbatim as I sent it….

    “wealth-technology-knowledge-based optimism” model — basically, the Articles of the Faith, largely counter-indicated (or so it seems to me) by Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Ingenuity Gap. If it be true that this triad of “wealth-technology-knowledge” can deliver us from evil (assuming that we collectively want to be delivered… which I think, with Nietzsche, is far from being certain) then we can’t speak as Gebser does of “deficient rationality” or, as Homer-Dixon does, of an “ingenuity gap” (which almost approaches Gebser’s notion of deficient rationality).

    Is this optimism effective (if not justified) or simply a form of willful blindness? The presumption underlying it all is that hybris and Nemesis (or for that matter, the karmic law) are no longer operative rules, have been suspended or overruled by the ingenuity of the mental-rational consciousness. Nothing succeeds like excess. Excess has become the very meaning of success, in fact, demonstrating that the mental-rational structure no longer feels beholden to follow the golden mean.

    “Collapse-thinking” seems to be actually rooted in the presumption that hybris and nemesis remain inescapable operative rules in the universe, and this confidence is very pronounced in Gebser.

    Seems to me that here is the crux of the matter.


    The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that it basically comes down to this. The only real objection to humanism is the presumption that the mental-rational consciousness has definitively, once and for all, overcome the limiting constraints of the mythological consciousness and is no longer constrained by the laws of hybris and nemesis. If you read Gebser, though, these limiting constraints or rules on action remain valid and are not annuled by the clarity or insight of the mental-rational consciousness. Today, “Xtreme” and “No Limit” are all the rage. But for Gebser and most “collapse-thinkers”, this is delusional, for as they see it, the laws of hybris (excess) and Nemesis (retribution for excess) remain valid. In large measure, this marks the difference between the mental-rational and the mythical structures of consciousness. In effect, what Gebser calls “deficient rationality” is based on a conception of hybris and nemesis that he still considers binding on human conduct, while the mental-rational structure with its concept of “freedom” believes it has, by its own ingenuity, overruled the ancient law as a self-imposed limitation on human faculties.

    Thus, the real question: is the rule of hybris and Nemesis still valid for the mental-rational consciousness too?

    • LittleBigMan says :

      I have yet to familiarize myself with the fascinating works of Gebser. In the meantime, the thesis that “hybris and nemesis” is still “binding on human conduct” makes a great deal of sense to me.

      Looking and reflecting inward, though, I’m more inclined to think of these two structures of consciousness (mental-rational and mythical) to be essentially locked in an interactive mode that’s necessary for the development, or the “training,” that Seth talked about as being the main purpose of the reincarnational existences. I tend to think that the relationship between the two has been intended to be a cooperative one. Although, the extent to which mankind is influenced by narcissism may hamper this cooperation, producing outward expressions that match this inner imbalance.

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