The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Today I want to return to a theme I raised some time back in The Chrysalis regarding the difference between command and mastery, for at the root of many concerns expressed about technology, and technology and society — concerns such as those expressed by Jacques Ellul in his many writings, or in Richard Stivers’ Technology as Magic: The Triumph of the Irrational — lie the same kinds of concerns as those expressed in Goethe’s famous poem and parable about “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice“, which is about as profound a parable about the mental-rational structure of consciousness as it gets. The same theme that informs Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice also informs his play Faust, and the notion of “Faustian Man” as the modern type. The basic concern about Faustian Man is that Faustian Man, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, has command of powers but no true mastery of those powers. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Faustian Man has confused command with mastery.

This is the real issue that lies at the heart of almost all critiques of Late Modern society, in the expressed concern about “magical thinking”, or expressed in Carl Jung’s observation that “we have grown rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom”. Having command is one thing; but mastery is another.

The same basic idea of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is reflected in Shakespeare as well:

Glendower:  I can summon demons from the vasty deep.
Hotspur:  Well so can I; and so can any man.  But do they come when you do call them?

Indeed, the “demons from the vasty deep” do come, according to precise mathematical or chemical forumlas and precision techniques, and are recalled in technologies working either for human benefit or to man’s harm, and also in terms of the noted placebo and nocebo effects. The demon machine, and demonic machinery, is also the issue of William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”. It is also the issue of Jean Gebser’s concern with magic and the “demonic”, or as expressed in Algis Mikunas’s essay on “Magic and Technological Culture” discussed earlier. To understand Gebser’s concerns with magic and the demonic, expressed as the conflation of the magical structure of consciousness with the mental-rational structure in the form of “instrumental rationality and will”, it’s necessary to interpret properly the meaning of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and “Faustian Man” and the differential between command and mastery (for which reason I encourage you to become familiar with Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice“).

It is not often well-articulated in the numerous critiques of power and the organisation of power in Late Modern society, but it is the root of them all, even if only as an uneasy intuition, that there is an enormous gap between having command of powers and no true mastery of those powers. This is sometimes expressed as the disjunction of “know-how” from “know-why”, or as a contraction between “knowledge” and “wisdom”, respectively. These is the basic theme of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and by extension with “technocratic shamanism” (or technocratic Hermeticism). Nothing riles up techno-science more than the charge that it plays the Sorcerer’s Apprentice — that it has command of powers but no mastery of those powers. But it is true, because they confuse command with mastery, and in so doing they confuse knowledge with wisdom as a result. This is demonstrably so, in, for example, Stephen Hawking’s judgement that philosophy is passé.

The critical issue to note in advance of the discussion here is that magic is real. It is not error, and not “childish”. Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin has sufficiently demonstrated the reality and efficacy of the magical structure of consciousness, and denial of the reality of magic has made people vulnerable to its more demonic manifestations. The universe itself is fundamentally a magical construct. This fundamental truth is beginning to dawn on a number of physicists. But it is precisely the failure to recognise this that leads to the discrepancy between command and mastery of power in the form of technology. The fundamental truth of magic is this: consciousness creates form. It is for this reason that magic is associated with issues of will and of power. And the ultimate in will and power — or will to power, as it were and therefore magic  — is the ability to create “something from nothing”, as formerly ascribed to the being we call “God”. This formative principle, implicit in all consciousness, is called “intent” or “intentionality“, and is called “Imagination” by William Blake. “Consciousness creates form” is pretty much fundamental to the proper understanding of Jean Gebser’s taxonomy of civilisations as “structures of consciousness” too. The life-worlds or “milieus” associated with the archaic, the magical, the mythical, or the mental-rational (and the integral) are intentional structures. This means, in effect, that cosmos and consciousness, or nature and consciousness, are what we might call “co-evolutionary” (this is fundamental to understand also Sri Aurobindo’s anticipation of emergent “supramental consciousness”, which is the same as Gebser’s “integral consciousness”).

“Integral consciousness” would be meaningless unless it implied that the magical and the mythical were real aspects of consciousness, however latent (but still unconsciously effectual) they may be presently. These “irrational” or “occult” aspects of the psyche are re-emergent in our time, and we must learn to consciously integrate them with the mental consciousness rather than deny their effective reality or suppress them once again. If it were not so, we would not be so concerned today about “irruptions” of the irrational, which appears to us presently as “chaotic” or “anarchic” powers.

Buddhism, which prefers to speak of “skillful” or “unskillful” handling of such issues, rather than “good” or “evil” as such, puts the issue of mastery versus command front and centre. And for Gebser, this approach in terms of skillful or unskillful handling of psychic energy is formulated in terms of “knowing when to make happen and when to let happen”. This formula, therefore, bears on the meaning of the master and his apprentice, or indeed similarly on Iain McGilchrist’s equivalent notion of “The Master and His Emissary” regarding the different modes of perception of the “divided brain”.

In other words, McGilchrist’s “Emissary” is the same as Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, and both are references to the left-hemisphere mode of attention of the brain, or the seat of Intellect or the ego-consciousness, ie, Gebser’s mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in “deficient mode” — the mode described effectively by Goethe, McGilchrist, and Nietzsche. Ergo, the differential between wisdom and knowledge, between mastery and command, or between the Nietzschean “self” and the ego-nature, is reflected in the issue of the divided brain and its two apparently contradictory modes of perception and modes of being in terms of “the whole” and the “totality” respectively (or holistic and merely aggregative or cumulative). This was beautifully represented, as mentioned earlier, in neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s wonderful TED talk on her own experience while suffering a rare stroke (i.e, “My Stroke of Insight“).

Gebser’s “progression” of ego consciousness from the condition of archaic “wholeness”, to magical unity, to mythic polarity, to mental-rational dualism is represented, also, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, in Nietzsche’s existentialist concerns about egoism and the abstract Apollonian consciousness, in Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and in McGilchrist’s usurping “Emissary”, all of which are concerned with the overspecialisation of the ego-consciousness function in the psyche, now succumbing to myopia and tunnel vision, or in terms of what Gebser refers to as “deficient perspectivisation” of reality — the mental-rational consciousness being largely identical with narrowing of awareness into “perspective” or “point-of-view” consciousness. This is the problem of the Emissary, and also the problem of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and ultimately the problem of lack of lack of mastery of power.

Now, McGilchrist borrowed from Nietzsche the parable of The Master and his Emissary (as he recounts in his Introduction to the book). I don’t recall it from Nietzsche, but it would make sense that it would be Nietzsche because it fits his description of the “master” and “emissary” in his chapter “The Despisers of the Body” from Zarathustra. And it’s a safe bet that Nietzsche got the idea for his parable of the Master and Emissary from Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Nietzsche having apparently considered Goethe an exemplar of his anticipated “overman” or “transhuman”). So Nietzsche would appear to be the link between Goethe’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and McGilchrist’s “Emissary” as willful usurper in the psychic household, who no longer responds adequately to the directions of “the Master”. So Goethe’s parable about the master and his apprentice is also about the divided nature of man’s consciousness, in terms of the “overview” of the master, and the mere “point-of-view” of the apprentice. And as long as the Apprentice, or the Emissary, is dissociated from the overview of the Master, it cannot help but distort the intents, directives, and promptings of the Master, leading to the typical symptoms of such dissociation or dissonance — perverse outcome, unintended consequence, ironic reversal, “blowback”, revenge effect, and so on.

This problem of “ironic reversal” is the issue of command without mastery. It is, in effect, the karmic law of action and reaction. Knowledge of the law is the domain of the master, not the emissary or apprentice. It is always, in the parables, the master who must return and set things aright again, or the emissary that must return to the Master, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the ego consciousness that grows progressively estranged from its roots until it ends in the Kali Yuga — as swine living amongst swine and scarcely any longer resembling a human being.

This issue of command without mastery is the issue of the Emissary and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s know-how without a corresponding know-why. Therefore, knowledge without a guiding wisdom for the use of that knowledge, with rather predictable consequences. Self-mastery is always an issue of returning to the source, the Master, who is called “the You of you”, and who Meister Eckhart called “The Aristocrat” or Emerson “The Oversoul“.  And without that, Gebser’s anticipated “global catastrophe” and Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism” will be our fate — as it seems now to be almost a certainty, since we missed the opportunity and the window to evade and avoid that outcome. McGilchrist’s “Emissary” and Goethe’s “Apprentice” are just images of the unenlightened ego-consciousness trapped in a narrowing “point-of-view” we call “narcissism” — deficient perspectivism of a merely three-dimensional consciousness structure.



8 responses to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Here’s a very interesting example of branding and magic that I just read moments ago in The Guardian,

    It really does raise some interesting ethical questions pertaining to the uses of “magic” for branding purposes and the justifications for this in “marketing 3.0” or “spiritual marketing” (in this case, what we call “faith healing”). Theoretically, because of the placebo (and nocebo) effects, the pain sufferer could be taught to isolate and neutralise the pain using the intentionality of consciousness without having to buy the advertised product at expensive prices. Part of the justification for marketing 3.0, though, is that the “brand” functions as a placebo that really does result in the consumer’s “self-actualisation”.

    Well, it does. But at the same time they are exploiting this to create a dependency called “brand loyalty”. So the self-actualisation claim is a bit of a ruse in that regard — very much akin to what Mikunas calls ‘technocratic shamanism” because its intent is to create branded behaviours, and not self-realisation.

    So we are in this perplexing area where magic and rationality intersect and become mutually entangled. You can’t really sort out suggestion from auto-suggestion.

  2. donsalmon says :

    When i started reading the first name the popped up in my mind was McGilchrist. I was thinking about what to say and then voila, you beautifully wove it in! Great post.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    While on the subject of natural magic, some of you may be familiar with the book The Secret Life of Plants that was published a few decades ago. It simply affirmed what many an avid gardner had always suspected or believed that plants are highly sentient and have a degree of intelligence: they respond to attention and to human speech (or rather, to tone and mood).

    So, it’s something of a tardy “discovery” when science, decades later, confirms it, as this article appearing today in the NYT attests

    More evidence indeed, if more evidence was indeed needed, that don Juan’s world was not nearly as wacky as some hold forth, or that “primitive” peoples are superstitious when they apologise to plants, or trees, for forests whenever they need to take them.

    There is, in fact, other evidence gleaned in recent years that plants have “kinship” relations, and are aware of which plants they are related to and those they are not related to, even if they belong to the same species. That already implies a rather more complex form of awareness than plants have ever been credited with before. In a study I read a few years ago, biologists noted that a plant that was under attack from an insect would issue of a distress signal that was responded to by its immediate “family”, but when a similar plant not part of the family was also attacked by an insect, and likewise issued a distress signal, those not of its “family” didn’t react to the signal at all.

    I’ll try to locate that study and post it.

  4. mikemackd says :

    Apropos your theme, I have just rediscovered a two-volume work (1967 and 1970) by Lewis Mumford called “The Myth of the Machine”, wherein he wrote “The beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, ‘trivial accessory to the machine.’ Technical surveillance and limitless data-collection—’an all-seeing eye’ (Panopticon)—would monitor every ‘individual on the planet. Ultimately, the totalitarian technocracy, centralizing and augmenting its ‘power-complex,’ ignoring the real needs and values of human life, might produce a world ‘fit only for machines to live in'”.

    That Lazaroff essay I cited and you read addressed the interior aspects of this when it said, “The subject-function in communication and language is in no way natural: on the contrary, it has to be constructed and imposed. According to Deleuze and Guattari, the subject is neither a precondition of language nor is it the cause of a statement. Deleuze argues that we as subjects are not what generate the statements in each of us; they are produced by something entirely different, by “multiplicities, masses and packs, peoples and tribes: all collective arrangements which are within us and for which we are vehicles, without knowing precisely what those arrangements are.” These are what make us speak, and they are the true drivers of our statements. There is no subject, only collective arrangements of enunciation which produce statements. “The statement is always collective, even when it appears to be expressed by a unique, solitary individual such as the artist.”[2]
    From these collective arrangements, from the multiplicity of roles which constitute us and for which we are vehicles, the televisual machine extracts a subject which apprehends and indeed feels itself to be the absolute and individual cause and origin of its expressions, its words and its affects. Television functions through the use of a small number of established, codified statements, statements of the dominant reality; it also uses a series of prefabricated modes of expression. It then claims to transform these statements and expressions into the statements and expressions of individual subjects themselves. How does it go about doing this?

    Mumford’s advice was just to back off, slip away. With the Gorgonic gaze now of global span, that option may no longer be available.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The “Gorgonic gaze”. Dang! that’s good. I wish I had come up with that one. There are also echoes of Lazarrato’s essay in Stivers’ Technology as Magic.

      • mikemackd says :

        Feel free to use it. 🙂 After I coined the phrase, I realised that most of us remember that Perseus killed Medusa and fastened our Gorgonic gazes on that, quite ignoring the fact that the myth also said that Medusa had two sisters who are immortal. Mumford, Stivers, Lazarroto et al.. can be seen as tracking their progress,

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