The Critical Moment and the Nostos
I have often commented on the parable of the Prodigal Son as contained the whole meaning and purpose of what we call “religion” as “return to the source”, and everything we associate with the meaning of religion is usually only a footnote to the parable. It’s all very, very simple in essence.
Those of you who have familiarised yourselves with Iain McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics, The Master and his Emissary, will probably recognise the “Prodigal Son” as this same “Emissary”. It is the human ego-consciousness, and is that which we usually mean when we speak of “Man” in the abstract or of “human” or “human nature” and so on. Henceforth, though, I will call that “the Emissary” after McGilchrist’s usage where it is understood that this is synonymous with “Prodigal Son”.
Now, to recap the story of the Emissary or Prodigal Son (whose journeys are also those of Ulysses, for Ulysses — or Odysseus — is also the representative of man as this same Emissary or Prodigal Son), the parable relates how the Prodigal Son is originally a prince, who journeys from his home into a faraway land or country, where he squanders his talents and inheritance until he ends up in extremis as a swine living amongst swine. Here he finally comes to remembrance of himself and his home, and rising from the muck, begins the return journey — the Nostos — to his home. This moment of “re-collection” or “re-membrance” is the crucial or critical moment because it the moment when overcoming the state of dis-memberment begins — the disintegrate or dissolute state he finds himself in living as a swine amongst the swine. This state of dissolute condition, before the critical moment, is called the Kali Yuga, which is the “demon age”.
(And the Yugas are four, as Blake’s “Zoas” are four, as are the Greek “four ages of man”. The significance of that will be addressed later).
Now, at the crucial or critical moment of the remembrance (and likewise, Odysseus’s men are turned into swine by Circe in the Odyssey) the Prodigal Son is “two souls”, as it were. The swine symbolises the animal nature — the appetitive nature — and yet he recalls his princely origins. The word “critical” or “crucial” meaning a “cross” or “crossroads” (but also “crucible”) he becomes of conflicted and dual nature — a paradox to himself. The crucial moment or decisive moment is the choice then to continue to live as a swine amongst swine or to “enter the stream” (as the Buddhists say) which is the return journey to his home, which is called “vital centre” or “ever-present origin” by Gebser or just “the source”. The return journey is called the Nostos, which means the homeward turn.
This same critical moment of the Prodigal Son or Emissary is acknowledged in Goethe’s Faust, as his “two souls”,
“Two souls, alas, reside within my breast,and each from the other would be parted. The one in sturdy lust for love with clutching organs clinging to the world, the other strongly rises from the gloom to lofty fields of ancient heritage”
You will, undoubtedly, recognise Goethe’s “two souls” as corresponding to McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” modes of perception. Moreover, these are called “nagual” and “tonal” respectively in Castaneda’s books, or as the first and second attentions. The tonal, in other words, is the same “Emissary” and the same “Prodigal Son”.
The point at which the Prodigal Son is described as living as a swine amongst swine is the maximal point of what we today call “self-alienation”. This condition is also described in W.B Yeats’ great poem “The Second Coming”, where the falcon and the falconer correspond to the Emissary and Master, or the Prodigal Son and his homeland called “vital centre”. Yet it is at this extremity of self-alienation or dissociation as the critical or crucial moment where there occurs the conjunction or coincidence of the opposites and the paradoxical in this sense — a “cognitive dissonance”. Until this dissonance becomes conscious, as remembrance, there is no “crisis”. A sense of crisis or the critical only occurs to those who are in the process of waking up, and who are coming to remembrance of themselves. It is both blessing and curse simultaneously.
This point of maximal self-alienation is called by Gebser “distantiation” of the ego consciousness from its roots in the vital centre. “Presentiation” is the reverse of that, and corresponds to the Nostos or return. In McGilchrist’s terms, this would correspond to the shift of the attention from the left hemisphere of the brain (associated with the “Emissary”) to the right hemisphere of the brain (associated with “the Master” and the holistic). Basically, what McGilchrist calls “the usurpation” of the Emissary corresponds to what Gebser means by “distantiation” into a condition of maximal alienation.
Now, this condition of maximal self-alienation or distantiation, which is the condition of the Prodigal Son at the extremity, is very dangerous indeed, for it corresponds to that nihilism described by Walter Benjamin in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“,
“Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, is now one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art”
This state of maximal self-alienation is called by Nietzsche “self-loathing”, which Nietzsche actually sees as potentially positive, but it also presents the danger of what Blake calls “non-Ens” — dissolution into complete obliviousness, exactly as described by Benjamin. The zombie, the automaton, is the image of that. The zombie or the automaton is the symbol of the Prodigal Son or Emissary whose connection with the life force or vital centre is finally and definitively severed.
This is the crisis. This is what is being called “post-rational” or “post-truth society”. Crisis, being a paradox itself, “post truth” may be either a restructuration of truth or a complete denial of it, because what Gebser calls “the vital centre” is synonymous also with what is called “ultimate truth”. And we may say equally, that when the “truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter” become divergent and even self-contradictory, then the Emissary has reached the literal “end of its tether” in maximum self-alienation and that the last connection to the vital centre is finally severed.
So there’s the paradox of the times, and why the “times are out of joint”. There are those who have awakened to the fact that there’s a discrepancy and dissonance between truth and fact (corresponding to the Master and Emissary or the holistic and the non-holistic — and so in terms of the Whole and the Totality) and those who are not. Those who understand that they are “living a lie” are awakening, and perhaps suffering even the self-contradiction that comes with that awakening. But there are those also who do not understand that they are living the lie, are in “denial”, as we say, and this is far worse. The former are in the Nostos, while the latter continue into a condition of non-Ens. This is the nature of Gebser’s “double-movement” of the times.
Now, the Nostos, or homeward journey of the Prodigal Son or Emissary to its origins or “vital centre” is itself a paradoxical thing, for the “vital centre” is not actually anyplace or anywhere. The vital centre or ever-present origin corresponds to what was described as “God” in the expression: God is a circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose centre is everywhere, which is an attempt to describe what we refer to as “the infinite” or “the eternal” or the spaceless and timeless. This is also what William Blake means in speaking of “Heaven in a Wild Flower” or of “Eternity in the hour”. (Some people describe this as “panentheism” or as the All-in-all). And if you have viewed and can appreciate Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk on her own “stroke of insight” you’ll have no problem also appreciating that.
Now, the Master and Emissary, or Goethe’s “two souls” (which aren’t two actually) are paralleled in his other parable of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which I’m sure you are all familiar with. The Sorcerer in the parable is the Master and the Apprentice is the Emissary, and for this reason we must make a distinction, too, between mastery and having command of powers. When Carl Jung states, for example, that we have grown “rich in knowledge but poor in wisdom”, it is owing again to the alienation or distantiation of the Emissary from the Master (or what is also called “soul”. The Emissary is often sometimes called also “the false self”) and the disjunction between knowledge and wisdom, and correspondingly the confusion of Totality and the Whole. Fortunately, many of us are awakening to that these days and are aware, at least, that we are living a kind of double-life. And that is already the beginning of wisdom, even if it feels like a crucifixion.
In his preface to the 25th anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan, Castaneda described what really constitutes the Nostos or return journey: “the real struggle of man is not the strife with his fellowmen but with infinity, and this is not even a struggle; it is, in essence, an acquiescence. We must voluntarily acquiesce to infinity. In the description of sorcerers, our lives originate in infinity, and they end up wherever they originated: infinity.” In other words, mastery comes from giving up control, and you can actually learn a very great deal about the relationship between the Master and the Emissary from Castaneda’s books, where the same appears as the “Nagual” and the “Tonal” and which also correspond to the meanings “infinite” and “finite”. The Tonal is the Emissary, and the Emissary is the Prodigal Son, or “mortal self in time”. The Master, on the other hand, is often called “the You of you” or Oversoul or “the Aristocrat”, and so on.
All very simple. The tough bit is the “letting go” or “acquiescence” or the “dying to oneself daily” bit, which is associated with the denial of death, and this denial of death is very much associated with “post-truth” society as well. There is some truth that the extreme right is also associated with the denial of death. That in itself seems quite paradoxical given the usual morbidity of the ultra right, its fascination with death cult and nihilistic violence and human sacrifice. But then, it’s precisely to deny death its due that others are sacrificed to fulfill the “law of the earth”. The Aztec Empire also thought it could avert the “end of the world” by a frenzy of human sacrifice to satiate the law of the earth and the blood demands of the Dark Mother. Death was projected onto others and then they were forced to die. That’s the deficient or dark side of the magical consciousness.