McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, III

As I once noted some time ago in The Chrysalis, the word “consciousness” is of relatively recent vintage. It didn’t exist before the 16th century. And once again, it was the artists, not the scientists, who led the way in this just as it was the artists (Giotto, Brunelleschi, Alberti, da Vinci) that led the way in the imaginative reconceptualisation of space before Copernicus and Galileo by way of perspectivism. What is called “Galilean Space” or “Ideal Space” — that is, the imagination of space in three dimensions — was not Galileo’s innovation, but that of the perspective artists. In fact, even before Galileo took up his scientific studies, he had applied unsuccessfully to teach perspective at the Florentine Academy. And in his book on Copernicus, the noted historian of science, Thomas Kuhn, remarked that Copernicus must have had to possess some knowledge of perspective in order to conceive of his heliocentric theory of the cosmos, the seminal event of the “Scientific Revolution”.

With the intellectual mastery of perspective space followed also a number of innovations. Not only did we begin to speak of a “point-of-view” or “framing” and so on, the gridwork became an important intellectual tool for the segmentation, sectoralisation and organisation of spaces not only making precise blueprints possible (and thus aiding the growth of technology), but also the layout of our modern cities. Descartes also relied on the grid metaphor for his innovation of coordinative geometry. But the gridwork was an invention of the perspective artists, most notably Albrecht Dürer who developed the orginal framework or gridwork to train the eye to see perspectivally,

Albrecht Durer the Grid

One of the consequences of perspective perception and the intellectual mastery of space in three dimensions was not only “Age of Discovery” but also an intensification of the ego-consciousness or self-consciousness in the “point of view” — a re-organisation of consciousness itself. It is one of the great merits of Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy in The Ever-Present Origin to have explored the meaning of perspectivism for this restructuration of consciousness and its intensification of the self-consciousness as a kind of blowback effect culminating in Descartes “cogito, ergo sum” which made the thinking ego — the res cogitans — central to existence.

A straight line seems to run from the “point of view” of the visual artists to the poetic innovation of “consciousness”. And simultaneous with the discovery (or invention) of “consciousness” also arose a novel term “the occult”, which was later to become “the unconscious”. Consciousness was associated with the eye, and so formed the basic symbol of the Enlightenment or of the “Illuminati” as the all-seeing eye, which became, in turn the surveillance eye — the panopticon of Jeremy Bentham (but mostly made notorious by George Orwell)

Logo of the DARPA "Total Information Awareness" Programme

Logo of the DARPA “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) Project

This necessarily brief summary of the history of perspectivism (which Gebser insists now has entered into “deficiency” — the deficiency of mental-rational consciousness) is powerfully suggestive evidence for McGilchrist’s reinterpretation of brain asymmetry and the divided brain. Once originated in the imagination (the province of the right-hemisphere of the brain) it gradually passed over to the left-hemisphere, where it became instrumentalised and systematised. And it had the additional consequence of reinforcing the influence and hegemony of the left-hemisphere’s mode of attention (which is really perspectival or “rational” as a ratio of spaces conceived in three dimensions as illustrated by the pyramid form). From the imagination it passes over into image, and simultaneously with this is the discovery of “consciousness” — the intensification of the “point of view” and the self-image in, for example, the conceit of the “self-made man”.

And with the discovery of “consciousness” what passes out of usage is the word and meaning of “soul”, which now is exiled into that nothingness or abyss that lies outside the parameters of the pyramid of consciousness. It gets bundled into that realm called “the occult” — the invisible. This loss of soul is the lament of the English poet John Donne in his “An Anatomy of the World” until, finally, this loss of soul ends as the “death of God” (Nietzsche) and the “disintegration of modern man” and his consciousness structure (Rosenstock-Huessy, Jean Gebser). For the “soul” was ever only the promise of an as yet unrealised unification and integration of the whole human being as a “living soul” — a unified being.

The passing of “soul” from usage and its association with “the occult” corresponds to what McGilchrist identifies as an increasing “deficit” of right-hemispheric function and the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain. What McGilchrist refers to as the “deficit” of right-hemispheric function corresponds to Gebser’s diagnosis of the “mental-rational structure of consciousness now functioning in deficient mode”. Nietzsche, too, was distraught by this “loss of soul” and had to reintroduce the soul as the Nietzschean “self”, most explicitly (as aforementioned) in his “The Despisers of the Body” in his Zarathustra. In fact, generally, the “devaluation of values” that Nietzsche identified with nihilism — the debasement of all “higher values” or “noble” values can very easily be understood as corresponding to McGilchrist’s deficit of right-hemispheric function (the intuitive); or, rather, the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere’s mode of attention (the rationalistic).

In those terms, fundamentalism, reductionism, cynicism, dogmatism (also fanaticism and bigotry) are symptoms of the hyperactivity of left-hemispheric function at the expense of the “master” — the right-hemisphere. Therewith, also, the debasement and degradation of those “higher values” associated with the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere: the whole into a mere aggregation (a sum total), imagination into fantasy, reason into calculating rationality, the integral into the merely assimilatory, faith into mere belief, unity into uniformity, intelligence into cunning, and so on. This debasement of the noble values into the ignoble ones (the transmuation of gold into lead, as it were) is the meaning of Blake’s Ulro — the shadowland and fallen world, which is also the allegory of Plato’s Cave. The soul is also what Meister Eckhart called “The Aristocrat”, or what Ralph Waldo Emerson called (in an essay that was probably familiar to Nietzsche) “The Oversoul“.

The mere fact that we speak of the “oversoul” or the “Aristocrat” in such terms is a confession of the left-hemisphere of the brain — the seat of the self-consciousness — that it is not the supreme function in the psychic economy, but is, in effect, the “emissary”, the “servant” of the parables, and the “Prodigal Son”, even though it would seem to want to also consider itself as the cause of itself — the “self-made man”. But when you come to think of yourself as the cause of yourself, that leaves absolutely no room for any sense of personal responsibility for one’s thoughts and acts and in consequence of that also, liberty becomes confused and debased as libertinism. And without any sense of responsibility, the mind enters into self-referentiality, or what we call “the house of mirrors”. And that is Blake’s “Ulro”. And when, recently, paleontologists concluded that we had entered the “Anthropocene”, my first though was — Oh! Oh! The Ulro! The bubble of perception.

It’s also surprising that the personal testimony of a neuro-scientist, Jill Bolte-Taylor, barely comes in for a mention in McGilchrist’s book, as it would appear to be powerful corroboration of McGilchrist’s fundamental thesis about the divided brain and the “power struggle” between the hemispheres.

When H.G. Wells penned his “Mind at the End of Its Tether” (1945) — the disillusionment of the intelligentsia — it was probably an intuition that the left-hemisphere of the brain had taken its project about as far as it could go, and even beyond into hubris, and was now about to undergo a reversal, one of those switch-backs or swings of the pendulum described by McGilchrist. The left-hemisphere’s mode of attention would, in its depletion and exhaustion, have to revert to the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere (the “master”) for new life and new inspiration, even a new form of being. That process of reversal at the extremity of functioning is what is called “enantiodromia“, and which is characterised by paradox and the ironic. That process of reversal would appear to be underway once more inasmuch as the “coincidence of opposites” (the paradox, the predicament, the identity of the contradictions of thesis and the antithesis) is being made evident in terms of “ironic reversal” — unintended consequence, blowback, revenge effect, perverse outcome, “havoc” and “chaotic transition”. These are all symptoms of enantiodromia. It is also called “Nemesis”.

And with that also, there is a resurgence of interest in the Renaissance Hermetic Philosophy — and its chief art, alchemy — probably for the same reasons: an age in transition in which the paradoxical or coincidence of opposites, was quite pronounced. It was in preserving the paradox and its polarity that, like the poles of a battery, resulted in the creative dynamics of the period. The chief paradox that comes down to us being the description of God as “a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” for in that paradox is the attempt to harmonise not only faith and reason, but the discovery of the infinite with the finite that the perspective artists consciously promoted as a visual metaphor for the religious concern with the relationship of eternity to time. For the coincidence of the infinite with the finite was the meaning of perspective art — the representation of infinite depth (the vanishing point) on a flat, two-dimensional surface. Infinity, or the formless, is the province of the right-hemisphere while the finite or de-finite is the province of the left hemisphere. And this coincidence of opposites or the contraries is still preserved in Blake’s “marriage of heaven and hell” or in his famous lines about “the universe in a grain of sand”, “heaven in a wild flower and eternity in the hour”, and Blake’s firm conviction (because he saw it) that the “otherworld” was already implicit or latent in “this world”. And in that sense, I really do think that it is William Blake who deserves to be known as the first “post-metaphysical” artist, and who anticipates Nietzsche in that respect.

These do, I think, bear witness to a fundamental veracity of McGilchrist’s conception of the divided brain as being two different modes of attention, two different sets of values, or “two personalities” as Jill Bolte-Taylor put it. The recognition and acknowledgement of the paradoxical in the form of “hieros gamos“, “coincidentia oppositorum” or “coniunctio oppositorum” seems to signal what Gebser anticipated as a new integration, which in McGilchrist’s terms would be a harmonisation or new equilibrium between the different modes of attention of the brain. The hieros gamos (or “sacred marriage”) is the fundamental theme and principle of the Hermetic Philosophy, and this is, in Blake’s rendering, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell“.



4 responses to “McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, III”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I should just like to add by way of a postscript that the conventional history of the Renaissance and the reasons given for its creative dynamic — that it was the rediscovery of the “Greek Mind” or “Greco-Roman Models” — is wrong. The “Greek Mind” wasn’t the cause of the Renaissance. It was the attempt to reconcile faith and reason, the paradoxical relationship of faith and reason, or, to put it another way, the infinite with the finite and the eternal with time — this very coincidence of the contraries — that was the engine of the Renaissance.

    For that is what the paradox of God as a “sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere” means — the attempt to reconcile the geometrical with the anti-geometry of the infinite and the eternal. The geometrical and the anti-geometrical are made to coincide. This is the creative tension, and we might say, in following McGilchrist, that it corresponds to the activity of both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, and which act in these terms like the poles of a battery (purely a metaphor here).

    As the “Greek Mind” became more dominant, the original inspirations of the Renaissance (which were “mystical” one might say) decayed into cliche, formula, ritual, commonplace, all symptoms of the fact that the spirit had flown and had left only these zombies as legacy of its passing. For cliche, formula, rote, commonplace, or “words, words, words” are really the corpses and exhausted forms of what were once vital truths, inspirations, and values but that no longer speak or say much of anything.

  2. Dwig says :

    This seems to be a good place to introduce another voice in the growing chorus; a nice bit of synchronicity:

    I’d long been aware of Alfred North Whitehead as a philosopher; only recently, though, I heard of his work in “process philosophy”, which intrigued me, based on my growing interest in what I’ve been thinking of as a “Heraclitean” view of reaility. So, last night I read the Wikipedia article on Whitehead, with a long section on his philosopny. In particular, the section on God:

    Whitehead saw God as having two related natures: the primordial and the consequential. Here’s a quote from the description of the primordial:

    “The primordial nature he described as “the unlimited conceptual realization of the absolute wealth of potentiality,”[136] i.e., the unlimited possibility of the universe. This primordial nature is eternal and unchanging, providing entities in the universe with possibilities for realization. Whitehead also calls this primordial aspect “the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire,”[139] pulling the entities in the universe toward as-yet unrealized possibilities.”

    Do I hear an echo of the ever-present origin?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Do I hear an echo of the ever-present origin?

      Yes you do. Get a bunch of Gebserians together and Whitehead inevitably comes up too. I’ve yet to become acquainted with the man myself, apart from having read “The Adventure of Ideas” as a student (and as I recall, it was a very good book). I have a couple of other things by Whitehead around here, which I hope to get to in the near future. I think abdulmonem is a fan of Whitehead’s.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Yes, I am a fan of Whitehead, in actuality I am the fan of the primordial divine source of everything in particular knowledge as the only portal that connect me to him and make me heed his call to read in his never-ending words, knowing that he imbued me with both forces that of good and evil,to be aware not to fall in the abyss of evil and bear witness to his primordiality. Thank you Scott in highlighting his signs over and over again. I think you have put your fingers on the source of the malady when you said that once a human comes to think that he himself is the cause of himself he has entered into dysfunctional mode, that is the house of Ulro. It seems that the process of reversal is built in the construct of the human, that is once he reaches the lower he turns moving to the higher, it is the story of the prodigal son over the ages. Once one realizes that god is the source of knowledge and every thing and that there is away to draw down that divine knowledge, a new path is opened in activating the process of the intentional and attentive perception through emptying the chattering brain supported by concentration, contemplation and meditation. No wonder the internet is filled with channelers good and false, the two brain phenomena.

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