Age of Anxiety
The reason I’m being a bit wordy today is because it’s rainy and wet, so no harvesting — messis interruptus, as it were. I have too much on my plate.
(And I’ve often puzzled about that Latin word for “harvest” — messis — because of its apparent similarity to the word “Messiah”. Usually that’s translated as “Anointed”, but that seems to be a secondary interpretation, since it seems to mean “harvester” or “reaper”. Jesus often uses harvest metaphors and parables, too — as “fisher of men” for example, or of harvesting grain or fruits. Odd, don’t you think?)
Here, I just wanted to complete a thought that I left dangling somewhat at the end of the last post — the endgame of perspectivising or “point-of-view” consciousness in the problem of modern Angst and nihilism. Gebser did address that and rather ingeniously, I think. He noted that the word “Angst” (or anguish or anxiety) is related to the word “angle”, and that to the meaning of “narrowing”, or what we might call “being boxed into a corner”. Nietzsche also once spoke of that as the “nook-and-corner perspective” of things, or the angular.
And there’s your Medusa in the midst of Minerva, in effect. Let’s take a look once more at Descartes’ illustration of the thinking process or ratiocination as a perspectivisation.
Now, it’s necessary in fully appreciating what Descartes’ has illustrated here, to bear in mind the paradox of Heraclitus that “the road up and the road down are the same”, or that Dionysus, the verdant god, is also Hades, the Lord of Death, who we might call the Shadow of Dionysus. And just so the Gorgon (or Medusa) is the shadow of Athena (or Minerva). This is the meaning equally of Nietzsche’s remark that “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss also stares back into you”. Coincidence of opposites. For this exactly what Descartes is doing here with his “wondrous strange method”.
You can see that for Descartes, reason and ratio is connected to the eye, and the eye forms the apex of a pyramid that expands into the depths of space — the third dimension. The abyss of space is being ruled and regulated and rationalised into discrete units, which we might call “the geometry of thinking”. In effect, consciousness is associated with the eye, and is depicted as being like a beam of light cast into the newly discovered darkness and depths of space.
However, there is also a reciprocal movement of the abyss of space along the same pathway, which we call “feedback” — a contraction simultaneous with an expansion. The “beam” not only functions as a broadening searchlight in one direction, outwards, but like a funnel in the other direction, inwards. It’s not all one-way, and as you probably can surmise, anything that acts as a “narrowing” for a force creates pressure and a stress, multiplying its force. And not only was this double-movement the issue of Heraclitus’s paradox and of Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss”, but it was the experience of Blaise Pascal who fled from science into a particularly austere form of religion because “the Silence of the Infinite Void terrifies me”, as he put it. Pascal’s anxiety about the abyss or Infinite Void is the same issue of the abyss staring back into Pascal — the Gorgon’s stare, as it were. Pascal fled from the Nihil, das Nichts, le Néant. Nietzsche was incinerated by it, as he says in his Zarathustra, and carried his own ashes up the mountain for his ten years sojourn in a cave in the wilderness. He had to re-collect himself.
The “point of view” consciousness is a very small and fragile thing, especially in the infinity and immensity of space. As T.S. Eliot also once put it, “man cannot bear too much reality”. Feeling besieged by the immensity, the ego-consciousness retreated into its cave: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” (William Blake).
That is the image of Angst or anxiety, and Gebser was so concerned about it that he wrote a separate book Keine Angst vor der Angst, which is a little difficult to translate directly, but it more or less means “there is nothing to fear but fear itself”, or fear and anxiety as the first enemy of the man of knowledge, in Castaneda’s terms.
I once read a man who declared his own terror of “the infinitisation of consciousness”, as he put it. But, in fact, he got it all wrong, and precisely backwards. “The Stars are so big. The Earth is so small. Stay as you are”. Man’s anxiety before the infinite is a reflection of the simultaneous and reciprocal contraction, if not paralysis, of his consciousness into the trap of the point-of-view.
Point-of-view consciousness has become a problem for the Modern-type of human being at his or her “end of history” and in “the new normal”, which is why our bookstores are seemingly overflowing with so-called “Self-Help” books. And I think Nietzsche and Gebser (and Rosenstock-Huessy also) give us a pretty good understanding of why that is — the strange double-movement that Gebser noted in our time is the same issue as Nietzsche’s stare into the abyss in which the abyss also stares back.
And it is in that sense, that Gebser recognised that the Gorgon was the shadow of Athena, or Medusa the shadow of Minerva. Nietzsche certainly experienced that himself, and saw it as a fate for modern civilisation more generally — his “two centuries of nihilism”, or Gebser’s anticipated “global catastrophe”, which appears to be already upon us. Certainly Rosenstock-Huessy believed it was already upon us, and busied himself trying to find a way to outrun it and turned his attention to surviving it. He actually called his method “survival knowledge”.
Most people, I would think, sense the building tension and stress even if they get the reasons wrong and consequently their responses wrong, too. Not too surprising really. As previously noted, Jared Diamond observed that about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire too — they made all the “rational” decisions to avoid collapse, but those rational decisions only worked collectively to promote and accelerate the breakdown and collapse. That’s simply a reflection of the implicit self-contradicting and self-negating element and principle within the mental-rational consciousness and its “common sense” itself.
It’s the karmic law, in effect: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and that’s even more true of thinking. Gebser called the reaction “the Consequential” — in capital letters, and that is everything we’ve been calling “unintended consequence”, “perverse outcome”, “blowback”, “revenge effect” or “ironic reversal”. This things testify to a consciousness structure that has become deficient, and is no longer capable of mastering its circumstances.