The Mental Meltdown as “Return of the Repressed”

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.

But “return of the repressed”, or Gebser’s “irruption”, as supposed cause of the disintegration of the mental-rational itself begs a few questions. “Return of the repressed” is also the preferred explanation of William Blake. “Return of the repressed” has some merit, but the question is a chicken and egg question. Moralism and rationalism (or Blake’s Zoa and false god “Urizen”) acted as an inhibitory influence on the expression of these psychic energies now apparently in revolt and clamouring for release, often in very destructive ways. In Gebser, this is largely the meaning of the “chaotic transition” from an old consciousness structure to a new consciousness structure. But the question here is: is the “irruption” the cause of the disintegration and fracturing of the mental-rational (resulting in all these aforementioned symptoms) or is it the weakening of the mental-rational’s inhibitory function that is resulting in the release, and the “return of the repressed.”

The return of the repressed was already foreshadowed in the late 19th century: Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and in Nietzsche as the eruption of the Dionysian. It was followed by Freud and Jung, amongst others in the depth psychology school. The Kraken Wakes, by John Wyndam, belongs also to this genre of the return of the repressed, or the awakening of the dragon power. There’s no doubt that the World Wars weakened the mental-rational consciousness structure — shook it to its roots, in fact. What we call “post-modernity” or “post-Enlightenment” is a response to the shock of the period 1914-1945 when the utopian dreams of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment were shattered.

The return of the repressed — of “the ancient force”, as Seth calls it — is certainly in evidence in the World Wars. And the ominous premonitions of this in the literature of the late 19th century suggests that the mental-rational structure was simply being overwhelmed by the return of the repressed, and was being structurally weakened by those energies, rather than the slackening of rationalism’s inhibitory functions and excesses. To put it in Blake’s terms, Urizenic Man was coming under joint assault by the other raging Zoas of the suppressed fourfold human, often taking dubious and sometimes perverse forms in the Victorian Era rage for occultism, seance, and spiritualism that also preceded the World Wars.

For Gebser, of course, the return of the repressed is both a highly structured and yet also a choatic process — the “double-movement” as he calls it. The “irruption” of the ancient forces represented in the magical, the mythical, and even the archaic consciousness structures which he calls “presentiation”. (“Presentiation” might be considered equivalent to “return of the repressed”, while “distantiation” — or “progression” — is similar to suppression or repression). Against this return of the repressed, rationalism (or the perspectival, mental-rational consciousness structure, or Urizenic Man) is in a losing battle to preserve command and control. The task as Gebser sees it, is not repression, but to integrate the return of the repressed into a new psychic whole, a new structure — the integral structure of consciousness. This was also Blake’s apocalyptic vision for the “New Age” — Albion is his symbol of the Zoas re-integrated in a psychic whole.

What is needed, Seth says, is an “enlightened ego consciousness” that can organise this return of the repressed (or what he calls “unconscious knowledge” or “ancient force”) into new cultural patterns, or new cultural Gestalts, ie, symbolic forms. This also appears to be the issue with Jeremy Naydler’s The Future of the Ancient World: Essays on the History of Consciousness. I’ve yet to delve into the book, but the title pretty much expresses the theme of “return of the repressed” and the issue of how to arrange and organise this process constructively rather than destructively.



7 responses to “The Mental Meltdown as “Return of the Repressed””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Just read this moments ago after I posted. Captures much of the mood of late modernity quite nicely, I think

  2. mikemackd says :

    Scott, there’s another word being used to describe this: wetiko. For example, see

  3. abdulmonem says :

    When were life is certain to become uncertain now. It seems human perversion know no limlt.

  4. Mark Dotson says :

    We’re definitely seeing this in the American election cycle, and in our society in general. It is very much like a cannibalistic spirit, as the above link mentions, that has bored into the very marrow of America. In some ways, the hidden has been exposed–a good thing, of course. In others, not so good. The nihilism, spoken of by Nietzsche, has most assuredly manifested.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I was once wandering through the UBC Anthropology Museum in Vancouver, and came upon a drawer of unsorted, unclassified aboriginal artifacts. One was an articulated, wooden puppet, and it caught my attention. I immediately recognised it as a windigo. It was emaciated, painted green with its ribs prominently painted in too, long straggly hair, and as wild an expression and hungry look as the carver could give it.

      The windigos are the same as Buddhist “hungry ghosts”.

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