Ruins of Soul’s Empire
As the Pythons would say, “Now for something completely different…”
I was reading an interesting article in The Guardian about the haunting and eerie beauty, and “glory,” of abandoned places. It is a review of a book of photographs of such abandoned spaces (or lost times) by Richard Happer. At the end of the review Happer is quoted
“I don’t want to get too philosophical, but something about decay suggests human endeavour. There’s something about the fallen majesty of human hope that has an eerie beauty. It makes you remember the things that are still around you.”
That haunting feeling of the eeriness of “fallen majesty” in ruins is the soul’s memory of its own loss that becomes a kind of nostalgia. You might feel it when you view a beautiful landscape or scene. You feel also an ache, a pain, a kind of homesickness that comes from a feeling of being apart or separate from it all. You want to merge with that view as much as lover wants to merge with his or her beloved. And you may wonder “where does that come from?”
When you are born, you are formless awareness. You are, as psychology puts it, “oceanic feeling”. And yet, an oceanic feeling that is not conscious of itself as such. Oceanic feeling means you are all feeling, and do not experience yourself as a self apart from experience. The other faculties of consciousness — will, sensation, reason — are still only latent or unmanifest.
Psychologists sometimes call this “infant narcissism” but that’s a misnomer and a confusion, because I’m afraid the shoe is on the other foot. There is as yet no “self-image” or ego-nature to be confused with that which would justify the term “narcissism” except in this one sense that feeling is all, but it is as yet not conscious of itself as such.
This oceanic feeling corresponds to what Jean Gebser calls “archiac structure of consciousness”. It is timeless. There is, as yet, no separation of things like self and other, subject and object, ego and it, or earth and sky. It precedes the acquisition of speech. That is the very meaning of the word “infans” — “without speech”. It is remembered, vaguely, as the lost paradise and lost innocence or primordial oneness. We will call this “Archaic Time” although it is really timelessness precisely because it is formless awareness.
As you mature (which means acquire experience and an ego-nature) you enter into the “wonder years”, corresponding to the magical structure of consciousness. This corresponds to the gradual acquisition of speech and incipient ego, especially the magical word “No!” There is often a peculiar tendency of the child to refer to himself or herself in the third person. “Johnny wants a cookie!” rather than “I want a cookie!”. That is, an identity is beginning to precipitate out of the initial “ground of being” that is formless awareness or oceanic feeling, and it is this formless awareness that is becoming conscious of itself as an identity and which now refers to itself as such — not an “I” but a “he” or “she”. The formless awareness is not yet fully “incarnate”, we might say; not yet fully invested in an ego or a self-referential name. We will call this “Magic Time” because it also has its own sense of time that is not yet the disciplined and structured mechanical time of “the clockwork universe”.
In the course of investing itself in a structured identity — which is the process we call “socialisation” or acculturation or becoming conscious — the incipient ego consciousness is acquiring not just the grammar of its society, but also the society’s narratives about itself. The formless awareness, from day one, is being socialised into the narratives of its milieu — basically it’s myths. Those myths tell the ego-consciousness what it is, and what its world is like (and in economic society these myths are largely encoded in television stories and television advertising). Stories of heroes and heroines which tell the ego-consciousness who is, and who is not, appropriate role models. Comic books, movies, etc are all instructions in the mythical. This is often called the “teen” years, when identity is once again in a state o turmoil and crisis as it transits from the magical to the mythical. We will call this “Myth Time”.
Then comes the “adult” phase, by which time you are now certifiably insane — meaning, that the formless awareness you are is now fully invested in a “point of view”, an ego-consciousness, an identity. In our case, we call this “the mental-rational structure of consciousness”. You have become fully disciplined to the temporal rhythms of the dominant milieu. You have appropriated its narratives and stories as the essence of your own identity (and who knows how much narrowness and narcissism there is in narrative?).
In other words, being now certifiably insane and half-mad, you are now a ruin yourself. You have made your way from “oceanic feeling” to “point-of-view-line-of-thought” and there’s now a painful and aching feeling of loss and lack, and of having lost something important along the way.
The haunting and eerie beauty of ruins remind us of that, and this I am calling “ruins of the soul’s empire”. We’ve passed through all the various stations of Gebser’s historical “structures of consciousness”, but without integrating the former stage with the successor stages. Rather, they are abandoned like old ruins, and making new ruins is what is called “progress” today.
You might recognise this process of transitions from “oceanic feeling” to “point of view” as the principle of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” that is to say, that the “development” of the individual specimen recapitulates, or follows the same pattern or blueprint, as the evolution of the species. This is a principle of biology (however controversial) that has come to be applied in psychology.
It is in those terms that Gebser speaks of the “latency” of the various structures of consciousness within the overall consciousness structure, and that rather than integrate each structure with the succeeding structure, the earlier are abandoned as being “aberrant” (childish, juvenile, adolescent, etc). So, in that sense, “integral consciousness” is the integration of the whole person, and that means different “life-times” as it were: Archaic timelessness, Magical Time, Mythical Time, and Mental-Rational Time. The eeriness or haunting beauty of ruins is a reflection in the soul’s memory of the loss that has come with abandonment of its earlier states of being and modes of awareness.
Oceanic feeling means that the potential infinite possibilities of awareness become narrowed to a very small point on the spectrum of possible experience or perception. That narrowing is, of course, related to the meanings of “narrative” and also of “narcissism”, and also “narcotic”. Oddly enough, German “Narr” means “fool”, while Gebser has traced the nar– prefix to words related to water.
These earlier stages in the process of the individuation of consciousness as the “selfhood” have now become vague memories to the ego-consciousness, an ache, a sense of lost innocence, but also a sense of guiltiness about that and a sense of something betrayed. Nonetheless, all these earlier passages and states are available to the ego-awareness as its inheritance, and integral consciousness is really only about integrating these “lost civilisations” of the soul, as we might call it, into full awareness.
In that sense, every one of us is a bundle of lost civilisations and of empires in ruins, and in that sense it is quite true: “you are the world”.