Ego Consciousness and “the Mind-Forg’d Manacles”
“Since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X” — Nietzsche
I want to continue to “hover” over the first part of the Seth quote we have been exploring, unfolding its layer after layer of significance, which is probably inexhaustible — the question of the ego consciousness and its relation to “unconscious” knowledge, the challenge of ego restructuration or “self-overcoming” as the only path through the deep dark forest of the current crisis, and how this plays out sociologically or culturally, which is my chief interest. Seth is direct and blunt about this: the ego consciousness will change, it is only a question of how, and if it does not change, the human race will perish and probably, like Hitler’s own Götterdämmerung, take the rest of the planet down with it in a fit of nihilism.
Let’s recapitulate the essential problem once more as Seth gives it,
“Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else. You are in a position where your private experience of yourself does not correlate with what you are told by your societies, churches, sciences, archaeologies, or other disciplines. Man’s “unconscious” knowledge is becoming more and more consciously apparent. This will be done under and with the direction of an enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness, that can organize the hereto neglected knowledge–or it will be done at the expense of the reasoning intellect, leading to a rebirth of superstition, chaos, and the unnecessary war between reason and intuitive knowledge.”
“Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else.” This loss of roots or “vital centre” (they are the same, as per Nietzsche’s quote above about “X”) is the problem of narcissism and of what is presently called “the culture of narcissism”. It is a continuously recurring problem of the human condition, and is probably the inevitable challenge of any creature that attains to self-consciousness. What is called “narcissism” presently is what was called “idolatry” in an older, religious idiom. It is the same psychology — the displacement of identity and vitality into externals, into objects and images, which then acquire power, authority, dominion over the ego consciousness. It is a narrowing and limiting of identity and the possibilities of perception. This is “slave mentality”, for it is also a condition of unfreedom. William Blake calls it “the mind-forg’d manacles” from his poem “London”
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear
(Blake’s “London”, by the way, is not the city of London. It is a symbol of the City of Man — the spiritual condition of humanity as contrasted to, say, Augustine’s “City of God”. However, not “City of God” but his “Golgonooza” — City of the Imagination — is Blake’s contrast to this “London”, which is the City of Ego. “Golgonooza” (or “New Jerusalem” also) stands, therefore, for the “roots” or intuitive knowledge which Seth is referring to — the richness of “unconscious” knowledge).
There are plenty of books around these days highlighting the problem of narcissism, and I’ve probably read most of them. Apart from A.H. Almaas’s brilliant and exceptional book The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization, they are all uniformly in error about the meaning of narcissism because they fail to see that the psycho-dynamics of narcissism are identical to those of idolatry and is the loss of self in objectifications or the projections, or what Seth elsewhere called our psychic entanglement with the “camouflage universe”.
What fascinates about Seth’s warnings is that Seth’s voice is the same prophetic voice of the iconoclastic prophets of old, calling a forgetful people back to remembrance of the true source of their lives. It is, to me, most uncanny how the myth of Narcissus and Echo plays against the parable of the Prodigal Son. The solution to the puzzle and riddle of what is called “religion” is revealed in the parable and the myth. One can unravel the entire meaning of “religion” through insight into just these two stories. The word “religion” — re-ligare — means to re-connect or return to the source. The reflexive prefix “re-” signals return or turning back, not in the sense of “backwards” in time, but as coming to remembrance of oneself, of one’s roots or origin in an abiding presence that has been neglected or forgotten — those roots lie in the here and now which Jean Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”.
The error and distortion of almost all institutional religion and belief systems is to have confused “origin” with “beginning”. To “come to remembrance of oneself” — in this, Narcissus fails where the Prodigal Son succeeds. Narcissus does not awaken from his dream of time, and so perishes from his dream of time. The Prodigal Son could easily have shared Narcissus’ fate, too, as he also was trapped in the dream of time — the dream of Samsara — the suffering world of beginnings and endings, of births and deaths. But unlike Narcissus, he awakened to remembrance of himself and his origin — his roots. He broke the spell — the fascinum — of time and samsara. This kind of “remembrance” is not memory, but awakening, for in this context “remembrance” and “awakening” have the same meaning. This kind of “re-collection” is not memory but a re-collection or re-integration of oneself from a condition of dis-memberment. True “re-membrance” is not memory but re-membership or re-collection of the whole of oneself, an overcoming of a condition of dis-memberment or dis-integration, which is the ego consciousness estranged or alienated from its roots — a “stranger in a strange land”.
Once you know this, you have the golden key to understanding William Blake, (as well as Jean Gebser). “Eternity in the hour”, “Heaven in a Wild Flower” or “the universe in a grain of sand”. The “origin” does not lie in time, in terms of beginnings and endings, birth and death, and so is not finite or bounded in that sense. It is the eternal-infinite present, and it has no bookends. The ancient “World Tree”, the axis of the world, is not a structure with its roots in a remote past or “beginning” and its crown in a distant future, ending, or “final destiny”. This is what Jean Gebser means by “ever-present origin” — “It is the whole that is present in origin and originative in the present”. All “past” and all “future” are co-present, as either latent or manifest probability. The “Fall of Man” is a dis-memberment, a fall of the ego consciousness from knowledge of origin into the dream of time and forgetfulness, into the bookend dualisms of birth and death, beginnings and endings, past and future.
The origin of religion is the return to origin, not beginnings. Return is awakening from the dream of time, which is the narcissistic condition of the ego consciousness that has forgotten its roots. Awakening is re-membrance, and re-membrance is overcoming the condition of dis-memberment, which is loss of the whole. “Time” is intimately connected with the psycho-dynamics of “ego consciousness” and the “unconscious”, which is why Augustine wrote “time is of the soul”.
To understand what “religion” originally was, it is necessary to understand what is meant by “the kingdom of heaven is within you” and “the body is the temple of the living God”, and how these relate to the problem of narcissism, and then to the awakening of the Prodigal Son from narcissism as his dream of time and samsara, which is the “far country” of the parable into which he traveled — ego consciousness grown remote from origin or roots or “the vital centre” or home. This “vital centre” is the symbolism of the World Tree as axis.
All this, and far more besides, is implicit in the first sentence of Seth’s quote: “Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else.” In psycho-dynamic terms, the ego-consciousness, having become “progressively” remote from consciousness of its roots, sources, “vital centre”, it has become a “dungeon in the air”, a dungeon of the “mind-forg’d manacles”, in Blake’s terms,
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Compare that quote from Blake with Nietzsche,
“Woe to the portentous curiosity that could manage to look out of and down from the chamber of consciousness through a slit and that now began to realize that man rests on the heartless, the greedy, the insatiable, and the murderous in the indifference of his ignorance, hanging in dreams, as it were, on the back of a tiger. In this constellation, where in the world does the urge for truth originate?”
The similarity of imagery is interesting, although Nietzsche has probably over-exaggerated the darker elements of the Dionysian, although the ferocity of the primordial energies (or what Seth calls “the ancient force”) is undeniable. Even Blake’s world of the Zoas is a Dionysian realm of ferocious energies, which is probably why man locked himself up behind within his “castle in the air” (become dungeon) in the first place. The ferocious nature of the Dionysian realm is equivalently the dragon of Rumi’s great poem “The Snake-Catcher’s Tale“. We’ll return to this subject in the context of discussing what Seth means by “the ancient force” and the positive and creative handling of the Dionysian energies. Suffice it to mention for now, that “Moses” in Rumi’s poem is the Apollonian principle we encounter in Nietzsche, and which corresponds to the “enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness” which Seth states must be a precondition for handling the unconscious energies currently being aroused. Do not doubt, however, that this “dragon” power is stirring. The whole of the last century proves the point. Nietzsche was, in some sense, the herald of its arising.
“Man’s “unconscious” knowledge is becoming more and more consciously apparent.” And that will now be the subject of the next few posts. It is the process that Jean Gebser has called “diaphaneity” or translucency — “to render transparent our own origin”. But it is also the “unconscious” now becoming “consciously apparent” to which we need to turn our attention.
It might be asked, justifiably, if the Dionysian energies of this “ancient force” are so frightful, dreadful, terrifying, why on earth would we want to become familiar with our roots? The answer is, we now have no choice. We are in the thick of it now, and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. There is a prevailing sense that we are all in the grips of a semi-autonomous force that is sweeping us along before it, irresistibly driving us along like dry leaves in a strong wind. Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and others poked it with a stick. The minute they shone the light of ego consciousness into its depths they aroused it. Precisely here, the old saying that “fools go where angels fear to tread” is probably most appropriate. But, the sleeping beauty is the other side of the sleeping dragon, just as the goddess of reason, bright Athena, has her alter ego in the Gorgon’s head, just as Dionysus is a morph or transform of Hades.
This is what Seth is saying — the energies of the ancient force or “unconscious” are bestirring themselves and we’ll have to deal with them. How the ego consciousness responds to this bestirring of the ancient force becomes the decisive question whether the human race will survive or not. Those familiar with the fascist period, particularly the Nazi period — with its strange ancient symbols, mystical doctrines, magical rituals, and the rule of unreason — will recognise the signs of this “ancient force” and its potential to overwhelm the ego consciousness completely and take it captive. And I’m not speaking metaphorically. We are somewhat in the position of the apprentice in Goethe’s profound tale of “the Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, which has been trivialised as being a children’s fairy tale. It isn’t a fairy tale. Goethe was a master, and he knew what he was doing. The “sorcerer’s apprentice” is the ego consciousness which is not experienced or enlightened sufficiently to handle the powers it has summoned or unleashed.
The ego consciousness is sometimes portrayed, in relation to the “unconscious”, as being like a small cork bobbing on a vast ocean of energy, carried along by its currents and waves. Sounds like fun, until you reflect on what is actually in the ocean. As an old scuba diver, I’ve seen both great beauty, and great terrors beneath the waves, as well as the enormous power which it is. It makes sense to say, in one way, that the ego consciousness must “expand” as it engages with the “unconscious knowledge” just in order to become too big a mouthful to be swallowed up by the whale. There is good reason why don Juan insisted that the art of the warrior, the hunter after knowledge, is to balance the terrors of existence with the wonders of existence. The “ocean” is Nietzsche’s Dionysian, and it exists “beyond good and evil”. When don Juan talks of the importance of preserving the “personal awareness” in the face of the infinite, this “personal awareness” is quite evidently Seth’s “ego consciousness”.
But, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here. We need to take the next step, however, in unfolding the deeper layers of Seth’s words, “ You are in a position where your private experience of yourself does not correlate with what you are told by your societies, churches, sciences, archaeologies, or other disciplines. Man’s “unconscious” knowledge is becoming more and more consciously apparent. ”
The discrepancy between “private experience” and our public institutions (and particularly political institutions, generation gaps, etc) is the next subject.