The Day the Magic Failed
If you want to understand the implications of Nietzsche’s “death of God” (actually, Nietzsche thought of it as the murder of God) and its consequences in “two centuries of nihilism”, there is already an existing example of that in “the death of the Great Spirit” (“Wakan Tanka” in Lakota Sioux, or “Gitchi Manitou” in the Algonquian languages), the consequent shattering of the Sacred Hoop, and the effects this had on the aboriginal consciousness and society — that is to say, the shamanistic or magical structure of consciousness. “Wakan” can be translated as “great” or “powerful” or “sacred”, while the words for “spirit” (tanka or manitou) can also be translated as “mystery”, so these names can mean, in English, “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery”.
In broader terms, the Wounded Knee massacre (1890) was the last desperate gasp of the magical structure of consciousness represented in the Ghost Shirt Society and the Ghost Dance. It was the day the magic failed, the “death of the Great Spirit” , and the Sacred Hoop was broken. The day the universe changed, as it were.
If you know the book Black Elk Speaks, you’ll see the effects of this — the dispirited and tragic despair of existence; the sense of having been forsaken and denied by, or having failed, all good spirits. And what is that also but Jesus own tragic sense of despair upon the cross? “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
That’s another of the ironies of Nietzsche’s philosophy, for it is also Nietzsche’s “stare into the abyss”, and when Nietzsche in his later dementia signed his letters “the Crucified One”, it was because he too had experienced that same moment of total abandonment that he described as his incinerating “stare into the abyss”.
Jean Gebser could have well used the example of Wounded Knee and the failure of the Ghost Dance as an example of the clash of consciousness structures. Instead, he highlighted the collapse of the Aztec empire after its encounter with the Spaniards, and the failure of the Aztec sorcerers to turn the Spaniards aside. Gebser insists that it wasn’t superior military technology or tactics that allowed a handful of conquistadores to overrun Mesoamerican civilisation, but the lassitude, resignation, fatalism, and despair that resulted from the failure of the magic and the loss of faith, and a sense of having been deserted, abandoned and forsaken by the gods — their own “stare into the abyss”.
There’s a lot of truth in that, if you read Bernal Diaz’s eye-witness account “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain” in which he describes the strange demoralisation, lassitude, resignation, and enervation of the Aztec leadership, which may have well have been owing to the apparent failure of their chief weapon, spell-casting, against the mental-rational consciousness structure. Demoralisation of the magical consciousness structure is largely what allowed the Spaniards to overrun Mesoamerican civilisation.
It’s Gebser’s belief (as well as Nietzsche’s) that the demoralisation of the mental-rational consciousness structure that is attendant upon the “death of God” is also a prelude to its own disintegration and defeat in the face of a new consciousness structure — the aperspectival or integral. One of the principal symptoms of that demoralisation and decadence is cynicism, which Nietzsche equated with nihilism. The “twilight of the gods” or “Doom of the Powers” is devaluation of values.
This sense of having been forsaken by the gods or God is pretty much global now. It is, in fact, the central problem with which existential philosophy grappled — the stare into the abyss. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the question which is, in one way or another, pretty much on everyone’s lips — whether the cynic or the fanatic. An Indian elder once had a vision: the world was in one canoe, headed for a violent rapids. But if the occupants of the canoe didn’t lose their marbles, the canoe would make it through the rapids to calmer waters beyond. That “rapids” is the same stare into the abyss.
And what is that “one canoe” but Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth” too? That canoe is the Sacred Hoop restored, mended, and resurrected, and just so “Spaceship Earth” is the “Cross of Reality”.
Belief is not faith. When belief is shattered and broken, which is called disillusionment and “Dark Night of the Soul”, it is only faith that allows you to survive the stare into the abyss and outrun the Great Nothingness. This is the principal theme of the Christian story — death, the passage through the “dark night of the soul”, and resurrection. “Emptiness is what your soul wants” says Rumi. It’s true. That emptiness of Silence which we call “abyss” or “Great Nothingness” is ever the promise of a new beginning. We call it “wiping the slate clean” or “clearing our agendas”. Some succumb to the stare into the abyss. Some survive it. We also call that “passage through the crucible”. That elder’s vision of the ‘rapids’ is the same crucible.
The splintering and fracturing of the Christian cross symbol into schism and sectarianism, still reflected in our contentious politics and our own disintegration, is also the story of the shattering of the Sacred Hoop. “Mending the Sacred Hoop”, which is the fuller meaning of “Good Medicine”, is the current theme of the First Nations story of suffering and survival, and of outrunning the abyss, of surviving the death of the Great Spirit and of the dark night of the soul. The remnants and wreckage of the broken canoe still wash up on the shores of our cities and on the reservations, too.
The “petty tyrant” in this whole process are those who still stand in the way of the building of a new canoe. That’s the meaning of the word “diabolical” — to throw obstacles in the way. If it wasn’t for Knowledge Keepers who “carried the fire” in keeping faith with the eternal and universal validity of the Sacred Hoop, aboriginal identity would not have survived the cultural and even genocidal onslaught of the European mentality and it’s own fractious, nihilistic, and one-sided attitude.
The building of a new boat in times of crisis, when the old one will no longer support its crew, is the social task of the revolutionary, writes Rosenstock-Huessy, and it may be the work of generations. Revolution is a resurrection. The new Sacred Hoop isn’t identical with the old Sacred Hoop. The old Sacred Hoop was restricted to the geographical area called “Turtle Island” (North America) and the limitations of the magical structure of consciousness were implicit in the meaning of the Sacred Hoop then. The new Sacred Hoop has expanded to encompass the whole world, not just Turtle Island. It’s now the image of One Earth, integral in its multiplicity. Everyone in one canoe. But before that could happen, the Great Spirit had to die and the Hoop had to break just so it could be reborn and resurrected in its new form, befitting the expression “all that is old is made new again”. Transfiguration.
What can we learn from the Sacred Hoop? It’s a lesson in survival. The Sacred Hoop is also the image of a campfire — the arms of the cross are the radiance of its light. “Keeping the fire” meant keeping the light of the Sacred Hoop safe within the heart even as it shattered and broke without. “Strength is a feeling of comfort within”, say some of my aboriginal friends. That’s the testimony of the fire-keepers — that despite all, despite the shattering of belief and conviction and the disillusionment and demoralisation that can bring, and the sense of being forsaken and abandoned by all good powers — the Hoop is eternally and universally valid, even with “globalisation”, waiting patiently for its day of resurrection
Before it was largely only tribal in scope and significance. Now it has had to become universal and global to accommodate the new reality of globalism. In a real sense, the Hoop has had to undergo a mutation itself — from being only a flat image on a turtle’s back, to being a true sphere, from the image of an island to an image of the globe as one canoe.
The Sacred Hoop had to shatter and break in order to become a true integration, just as the Christian cross had to splinter and fragment in order to free consciousness from the superstition and dogmatism for which it had become virtually synonymous. Christianity needed Nietzsche. As the cross of reality has become “post-Christian”, so the Sacred Hoop has become an element of our world heritage, too — universally valid. But it had to break before the greater fullness of its meaning could be revealed in its universality.