The Shock of the Real
I’m not sure who should be credited with the phrase “the shock of the real” (but it is, apparently, the American environmentalist Edward Abbey from his book Desert Solitaire). It’s a very good phrase. It’s basically the meaning of the word “apocalypse” and has been borrowed extensively by others too to describe the bursting of bubbles of all kinds. “Shock” has become something of a theme of Late Modernity or the post-modern condition — Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, or, indeed, “Shock and Awe”. Shock might even be said to be the essence of “the New Normal”.
The phrase “shock of the real” brings to mind the Tarot card called “The Fool”.
This Dandy called “the Fool” is about to experience “the shock of the real” as he strides over the edge and into the abyss. The yappy dog (like Echo in the myth of Narcissus and Echo) attempts to warn him, but he is lost in narcissistic self-absorption (of the kind that Emmanuel Kant once also described as his own “dogmatic slumber”). This Tarot card of The Fool contains all the elements of the same myth of Narcissus and Echo, and even of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
“The shock of the real” is an interesting phrase to contemplate in relation to The Fool. It brings to mind one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”, which is also applies to the Prodigal Son parable. But The Fool also brings to mind Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” or Seidenberg’s (and Lewis Mumford’s) “post-historic man” who is also, in some ways, “post-conscious”. The yappy dog is the prophetic voice that the fool disregards as he is about to experience “the shock of the real”.
Above all, perhaps, is what the Tarot card of The Fool says about hubris and Nemesis and the disregard of limit. It also brings to mind Nietzsche’s own “stare into the abyss”. In that respect also, the card depicts all those ironic processes we refer to as “unintended consequence”, “perverse outcome”, “reversal of fortune”, “revenge effect”, “blowback” and so on, which are just optional ways of describing the workings of the karmic law of action and reaction, and of the connection between the action and the reaction which is process called “enantiodromia” — or reversal, or mutation, of a dynamic at the extremity. There is, actually, a lot of Nietzsche’s own philosophy — the mood that drove him — compressed into the image of The Fool, for The Fool is the ego-consciousness of man, and is what Blake calls “Single Vision”.
(The karmic law of action and reaction, like the Taoist yin and yang forces, describes the polarity of all energy in terms of action and reaction, and is why the Gorgon (or Medusa) is the alter ego of Athena (or Minerva) and why Hades is the alter ego of Dionysus.)
A more contemporary representation of the same theme of the Tarot’s “Fool” is Simon Pemberton’s illustration of contemporary man at the edge of the abyss that illustrated an article on the subject of the dubious fate of democracy in The Guardian.
So, The Fool is a particularly appropriate representation of the times, and, of course, different people will read into it different meanings according to their own predilections or ethos, in keeping with the principle that “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”. Everybody now talks about the need for an “awakening” including so-called “alt-right” and neo-fascist reactionaries. But the mere excitation of the nervous system is not an “awakening” in any real sense, anymore than switching on a computer “wakes up” the computer from sleep mode. This is how mechanical and machine-like the human ego-consciousness has become, that the mere excitation or stimulation of the nervous system (also called “sensationalism”) can be so easily confused with “awakening” or “enlightenment”. This is that awful state of the Kali Yuga (or “Dark Age”) called “spiritual materialism” which, for all practical purposes, corresponds to the meaning of “Anti-Christ”.
(Hence the meaning that “only a hair separates the false from the true” or the meaning of the saying that “Satan is but the ape of God”. What Blake calls “Ulro” — his word for Hell — is the Kali Yuga, and is synonymous with “spiritual materialism”).
The “shock of the real” is connected equally with what Jean Gebser calls an “irruption” of a new consciousness structure. But many people will confuse this with a mere excitation of the nervous system, which is otherwise called “psychic inflation”, which is false enlightenment or false awakening.
Different people will have different responses to “the shock of the real” (including denialism, or rationalisation, or psychic inflation). Today’s interview with Naomi Klein in The Guardian discusses a few of those responses, including what will prove to be deficient and futile attempts (but probably intensely destructive) to reconstruct the cocoon or bubble of perception. You’ll be seeing a lot of that (and I even recently read the prayer of a Wall St. trader, “Please God, just one more bubble”).
In its fullest sense, “the shock of the real” is the same as Gebser’s “transparency of the world”, and both are apocalyptic in the sense of the lifting of “the veil of Maya” or “the camouflage universe” (as Seth calls what Blake also meant by “Ulro”). The phrases “shock of the real” and “transparency of the world” always brings to mind Carlos Castaneda’s experience of suddenly seeing, directly, “energy as it flows in the universe” as the reality behind the appearances and realising that some part of him always saw it this way. Jill Bolte-Taylor’s own experience of “the shock of the real” was not different from Castaneda’s.
We see from this that “the shock of the real” is actually connected with the awakening to the “true self” — that in us (which Gebser calls “the Itself”) — to which the “camouflage universe” is already and always transparent or “diaphanous”.
I often wonder about the meaning of The Fool, and whether he takes that fatal final step. Perhaps the Fool is fated to take that step into the abyss as a precondition for transforming a fall into a leap? Those of you who have read Castaneda’s writings will recall his own “leap into the abyss” as the culminating act of his apprenticeship to don Juan. Castaneda, too, had to marshal all his inner resources to transform that fatal fall from the cliff into a leap by “unfolding the wings of perception”. That same kind of “leap” (perhaps less dramatic than Castaneda’s) was formative in Gebser’s own experience in his youth.
And that’s the question for us, too, isn’t it? Can we marshal our own spiritual resources sufficiently to transform a fall into a leap by unfolding our own “wings of perception”?