The Human Condition and the Human Prospect
I have read three books recently which more or less adequately account for the present deplorable state of the human condition in Late Modernity. They are Pitrim Sorokin’s The Crisis of Our Age, Rene Guenon’s The Reign of Quantity, and Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. Taken together, rather than separately, they provide an adequate diagnosis of our malaise at “the end of history” which they do not fully accomplish separately.
If you were suffering from a potentially terminal illness, you would probably seek out more than one medical diagnosis about your condition, the remedy or corrective to be taken, and the prognosis for recovery or convalescence. The Modern Era is, in fact, suffering a terminal illness. The three authors mentioned are strong on the diagnosis, but fairly weak on the correctives, the prognosis, and the prospects for recuperation.
There are other observers and authors who are strong on diagnosis and analysis also, and their views should be taken into account as well. But the three aforementioned should suffice for a fairly comprehensive diagnosis. The only thing is, you might be tempted by their infectious mood of pessimism to throw yourself off a bridge or under a bus or a tram after reading them.
So you need a shield to protect yourself from their “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” You need a hopeful prognosis, some promising outlook on the human prospect, you need faith, which is why I recommend that, first, you consider Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin.
All these authors — Sorokin, Guenon, Marcel, Gebser — were composing their thoughts and observations within the historical context of the period 1914 – 1945 while witnessing the most unprecedented mass violence and organised destruction in human history. To them, therefore, it must have seemed like the end of the world and that the Apocalypse had arrived. And in a way it was. Looking back, we might be tempted to breath a sigh of relief that, well, we survived world war, economic collapse, fascism and reactionary nationalisms, and then, subsequently, Cold War, the anxieties of possible nuclear war, world revolution, etc, etc. We have lurched from crisis to crisis and yet we seem to have followed a steady, if rough and bumpy, trajectory nonetheless. Or so it seems to us.
Of all these authors mentioned above, though, only Jean Gebser saw the period 1914 – 1945 as “an essential restructuration”, while the others were heavy on the sense of an ending rather than on beginnings. For Gebser, the nihilism of 1914 – 1945 was the form of a new “mutation,” a birth labour, or essential transformation, and in the chaos and darkness of the time he discerned the incipience or “irruption”, as he called it, of a new heaven and a new earth in the form of “the integral consciousness.”
Others, to be sure, also saw in the events of 1914 – 1945 a transfiguration of the world, or, in Sorokin’s phrase, a “double movement” of both Nihilism and Genesis. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and William Faulkner, for example. Much of Rosenstock-Huessy’s writings bear favourable comparison with those of Jean Gebser and augment what Gebser leaves unsaid (which in 614 pages of the English translation and of very small print isn’t much). But Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Christian Future; or, the modern mind outrun is also an attempt to transcend the declining Modern Era and sensate mentality. The key word here is “outrun“, and the book (profitable reading for both Christian and non-Christian alike) attempts to discern amidst the gloom likewise the “new heaven and new earth” that Gebser also discerned and which Gebser hoped we would all come to recognise in due course.
The “stare into the abyss,” like Nietzsche’s, was Rosenstock-Huessy’s real spiritual experience of the First World War. For him, it was the coincidentia oppositorum of the Void or Great Nothingness and a new dawn or Genesis. Transcending the Modern Era became, for him, an urgent necessity and a matter of human survival. All of his scientific, historical and philosophical works, like those of Gebser, aim at this one desideratum of “outrunning” the nihilism, disintegration, and decay of Late Modernity — of the possibilities of Modernity’s self-overcoming or self-transcendence. And much like Gebser, the movement of his mind is from the threefold or three-dimensional to the fourfold or four-dimensional character of existence.
It is in this “fourfoldness” — as it was for Blake’s vision — that the possibilities of the new integration are to be discovered — the movement from the third to the fourth “dimension” by the addition of time necessitates an urgent restructuration of our consciousness and perception. Four is the new cosmic number as the number of wholeness. This is what is also being called “the quantum shift”, and it is a real “spiritual” struggle of self-realisation, self-overcoming, and self-transcendence. How much of a struggle it was to make the shift from the third to the fourth is portrayed in the great book Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung, by the great science historian Arthur I. Miller. In more essential terms, Miller’s book is a portrait of the struggle of the transcendental impulse towards self-realisation, in either clear or distorted form, that now drives much of human activity at the incipience of the Global Era. And it is true alchemy.
This transcendental impulse is now felt by almost everyone as an urgent imperative, in whichever way they may experience it. The passion of the revolutionary is mirrored, inversely, in the nostalgia of the reactionary. That which appears so contrary in the passion of the revolutionary or in the nostalgia of the reactionary, and finds antagonistic expression as “culture war,” actually arises from one singular root — the transcendental impulse, which is the true significance of Gebser’s “irruption” if it were recognised as such. But because it remains largely unconscious, it emerges in often perverse and distorted expression, even violently.
This is what is essentially missing in the diagnosis of our age in the other three authors mentioned — Sorokin, Marcel, and Guenon.
If the social stresses and individual anxieties and tensions of the Late Modern Era were actually recognised for what they are, the swelling undercurrent of a new transcendental impulse striving inwardly to achieve its expression and fulfillment, the transition to the new integration and consciousness could be successfully accomplished without a catastrophic “irruption”, provided we recognised the transcendental impulse for what it is.
But, we don’t. Therefore, the fates anticipated by Sorokin, Marcel, Guenon and earlier by Nietzsche have become inexorable fates.