I had to drive to the city yesterday for my bimonthly medical review of the lab work related to my kidney condition (which I’m pleased to report remains stable). The attending nurse there, who hails from the Caribbean, described me as “rootsy”. “Rootsy” seems to be Caribbean slang for someone rooted, anchored, grounded, down to earth, centred as contrasted with flighty, fanciful, or given to “putting on airs”, as we say.
“Rootsy”, I thought, was a very engaging word, because it corresponds to the meaning “rad” or “radical” in its original sense (Latin radix meaning “root”, hence “radish”), and so to a sense of, and attunement towards, origin. And since Steve Lavendusky had mentioned in a recent comment that he was reading Simone Weil, and Simone Weil is the author of the notable book The Need for Roots, I thought it was all quite serendipitous because my thinking lately has been focussed on how best to represent Jean Gebser’s notion of Origin as “ever-present”.
In a world awash today in nihilistic intent, it is worth turning to Nietzsche — the philosopher of nihilism nonpariel. He was that above all else, really. He knew nihilism intimately from his own “stare into the abyss”, and he knew nihilism as the worthiest of all worthy opponents. The struggle with nihilism honed the human spirit, and compelled it to transcend itself. Anything truly worthwhile and everlasting — the treasures of darkness — were won from the struggle with nihilism. Probably, this is one of the chief lessons Jean Gebser took away from his study of Nietzsche. The fruit of Nietzsche’s own struggle with nihilism is summed up pithily in one memorable saying: “what does not kill me makes me stronger.”
There is a copy of Stephen McKenna’s translation of Plotinus’s The Enneads available online, and in includes his student Porphyry’s “Life of Plotinus”, which in itself is a fascinating read because of its depiction of intellectual life and the intellectual outlook in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Greco-Roman world. And in the life of Plotinus, and the meaning “philosophy” for the ancients, we see something of the grandeur of the mental structure of consciousness, of authentic Reason as it was understood by the ancients, and of philosophy as an heroic quest for emancipation. Proud Reason, proudly reasoning.
The earth seems to be in the grips of a wave and contagion of madness, presently, perversely meeting Nietzsche’s prophecy for it of “two centuries of nihilism”. Social scientists and philosophers — at least, those who haven’t been themselves drawn into the maelstrom and contribute to the wave of nihilism themselves — have busied themselves attempting to find a cause and a rationale for it — alienation, anomie, malaise of modernity, massification of society, culture of narcissism, crisis of confidence, propaganda, materialism, technological culture, ennui, identity crisis, Angst, the stresses and strains of neoliberal globalisation, death of God, end of the Grand Narrative, disenchantment of the world, death of Nature, and also “return of the repressed”.
It’s quite a list of ostensible causes, isn’t it? Great cause for confusion, also. And there’s a degree of merit to each, although most of them are describing the symptoms rather than root causes. Even what passes today as sanity and as rational is only a “mask of sanity“, Hervey Cleckley insists. It’s not entirely clear, even from Jean Gebser, what has brought about the fracture and disintegration of the mental-rational structure of consciousness. But it’s quite evident that “return of the repressed” plays a big role in it in Gebser’s view.
There is a customary blessing in some aboriginal cultures, perhaps the highest blessing, that runs: “May you walk in beauty”, and which probably is the meaning of “the Good Red Road”. And I want to speak to this in regards to a comment with which I left off yesterday’s post — that the “milieu” of the integral consciousness is the milieu of beauty. And this is, I think, what Daniel Kealey is finally leading towards in his quest for a valid ecological ethos in his Revisioning Environmental Ethics. I will also argue that walking in beauty was exactly what Nietzsche was aiming to express as living “beyond good and evil”.
In the present circumstances of the long emergency (which is certainly an ambiguous term for an ambiguous situation), knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge which does not initiate us into a radically new understanding of, and relationship with, “life, the universe, and everything” is simply frivolous. We need to put to ourselves the question that Nietzsche put: “what is its value for life?”, and not just for the human life.
We are facing the prospect of planet death. In the face of this abysmal prospect, what we urgently require is not knowledge, but vital knowledge or crucial knowledge — the kind of knowledge that is snatched from the jaws of death and the abyss, for what is touched by death acquires power — mana. This kind of vital or crucial knowledge (Rosenstock-Huessy calls it “survival knowledge”) is what has traditionally been called “wisdom”, and wisdom comes to no one who has not had, like Nietzsche, their own “stare into the abyss” or who lives, like Nietzsche did, with one foot in life and one in death, and who does not, in those terms, “die to oneself daily” as Jesus put it. I know of no genuine rites of passage or initiation or transition that does not summon death as a witness. Death is ever-present also, and that is the real meaning of the Buddhist principle of “impermanence”.
If you are familiar now with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary on the nature of the divided brain, you’ll know that the central idea expressed in the book is this: the “mode of attention” which you bring to reality determines, or conditions, your “mode of being” in reality — your mode of existence.
This is but another way of expressing the Phenomenological idea of the intentionality of consciousness, or a way of saying that the act of perception is inherently a creative act. It intends its world, and structures its experience of reality in the very act of perception. Consciousness creates form. And it’s this very principle, however poorly understood, that nonetheless gives rise to psychological and social technologies of psychological warfare, propaganda, perception management, and branding.