Energy, Creativity, and Consciousness
Most dystopian literature depicts a future society in which humanity has ceased to be effectively creative. “Expect poison from the standing water”, as Blake put it in one of his Proverbs of Hell in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Another one of Blake’s very wise Proverbs of Hell, related to this, is especially poignant today: “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind”. Indeed, “reptiles of the mind” is pretty much an accurate description of contemporary man’s state of mind, as we witness it daily — the irruption of the so-called “Lizard Brain” (which is probably what the alt-right’s adopted mascot “Pepe the Frog” signifies — the Lizard Brain associated with the Shadow). You may take these proverbs about the standing water as even the essential problem of the “point-of-view” consciousness structure now functioning, in Gebser’s terms, in “deficient mode”.
This effectively gives us another way of understanding Gebser’s distinction between the “effective” and “deficient” modes of a consciousness structure or civilisational type. Effective means creative; deficient means destructive. “Effective” means “generative”; deficient means “degenerative” or decadent. The one is associated with “Genesis” and the other with the Nihil, or Ens and Non-Ens.
It is practically the essential definition of “Post-Historic Man” — it certainly is of Nietzsche’s equivalent, “the Last Man” — that this type has ceased to be creative in any authentic sense. “All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man?“. That, for Nietzsche, is the essential nihilism of the Last Man, or “Post-Historic Man”. For Nietzsche, in any event, what we call “evolution” was essentially creativity. For Nietzsche vitality and creativity are virtually identical in meaning, and creativity — the capacity to create — is essential to any true freedom.
Creativity and the sources of creativity remain a mystery to the rationalistic mentality. They were a mystery to earlier types of consciousness, too, but for different reasons. Creativity was divine and of divine origin. It was the “spark” of the divine in man. There is a very close affinity between energy and creativity. In fact, one can say that the Heraclitean flux is a flux precisely because energy is inherently creative, or that creativity is inherently energetic or dynamic.
What has happened to creativity that it has become such a matter of concern to men like Lewis Mumford or Nietzsche or William Blake? In fact, our objections to mere rationalism and to the Mechanical Philosophy is largely owing, not just to its neglect of creativity, but to the drying up of the font of creativity that they represent. Creativity has become almost totally confused with “productivity” and with notions of economic invention, growth, and expansion, purely mechanistic affairs that it is even believed machines can do autonomously. But it’s creativity that, presently, is the fault line between the living and the purely mechanical, and the underlying concern about AI, whether made explicit or not, is that the mechanical will even come to usurp that which was essential to the human — creativity.
That creativity has been collapsed into the meaning of “productivity” and narrowly confined to economic growth and technological expansion, is an example of that definition of nihilism that Nietzsche gave: “all higher values devalue themselves”, and it parallels that essential confusion of the Whole with the mere Totality — fundamentalism in religion and reductionism in philosophy and the sciences, a marriage of convenience between the dispirited and the demented.
Times of high creativity are equally times of high vitality and energy, such as the Renaissance. Creativity is very much implied what Gebser describes as the “intensification” of consciousness, a term which he prefers over notions of “expansion” of consciousness or a “widening” of perspective, largely because he feels these are inappropriate spatialised metaphors for what is a matter of time and history. “Intensification” is what is sometimes called a “quickening of the spirit”, and Gebser wants to highlight and emphasise the time element here rather than resort to spatial metaphors associated with the perspectival or mental-rational consciousness structure. Therefore, he emphasises the qualitative rather than the quantitative by his choice of the term “intensification”, and that largely means, also, a quickening of the latent or dormant creative forces in man.
“I will not reason and compare: my business is to create”, Blake exclaims. No one has understood Nietzsche who hasn’t understood Blake, in that respect. They are very kindred spirits, and the real meaning of what they said and wrote is yet to be revealed fully, and perhaps only after we have survived Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism” — if we survive it — and, having passed through the crucible, can read Blake and Nietzsche with fresh eyes and in light of the experience.
This is not surprising, really. It took two centuries before anyone began to understand William Blake as other than a “lunatic”. It will take just as long before anyone truly understands Nietzsche. We may be “post-Everything” presently, but we are not yet post-Blake or post-Nietzsche, and we won’t be until we understand their teachings on creativity. Even Rosenstock-Huessy’s maxim that “God is the power that makes men speak” is unintelligible until one understands this in terms of creativity, for it arises from that same place that Blake called “divine Imagination” or that Nietzsche called “the Dionysian”, or what Gebser also called “the vital centre” or “ever-present origin”. And it is equally true that what the Phenomenologists call the “intentionality” of consciousness (or what Castaneda describes as “intent” as the fundamental operative force at large in the cosmos) is essentially creativity. Even Heraclitus’s “character is fate” implies the same creativity, ie, “you create the reality you know”.
Nobody has understood freedom at all who doesn’t understand creativity in this sense, and how all this is connected with vitality and consciousness itself. The “truth that sets free” is mainly about how one’s core nature is identical with this creativity or intentionality at large in the universe, including the “time dimenion”. It’s creativity that is behind St. Augustine’s notion that “time is of the soul”. It’s the soul’s creativity that makes for the various “consciousness structures” as Gebser describes them — the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational.
Energy is creativity. Creativity is vitality. Energy “as it flows in the universe” is the whole issue. “Energy is Eternal Delight” (Blake).
We seem to think we know all about creativity. We’re full of bullshit. We’ve merely confused it with productivity, inventiveness, and expansion. That is our undoing. That is Gebser’s “mentality headed for a fall” as “Post-historic man”, the “Death Economy” and Lewis Mumford’s “Megamachine”.
The mystery of creativity is the mystery of how something can come from nothing, or order emerge out of chaos (Ilya Prigogine). Likewise, David Bohm’s “holomovement” — the revival of the Heraclitean flux — is creativity.
Ways and forms of life are either free or unfree in various degrees according to their capacity for creativity, and not otherwise. Deficient or degenerated forms and ways of life are characterised by the exhaustion of their fund of creative energy. What Gebser calls a “plus mutation” of consciousness is creative. What he calls a “minus mutation” of a consciousness structure is an exhaustion of creativity and is destructive.
One shouldn’t be fooled by mere statistical or technocratic measures of economic or technical growth and expansion as indicative of the creativity and vitality or even the degree of freedom of a system. Libertinism has next to nothing to do with creativity or freedom in that sense. This is merely the confusion of creativity with productivity, and so it is that “only a hair separates the false from the true”, and therefore the shadow of the real from the real itself.
When Thatcher declared her TINA principle (There is No Alternative) and Fukuyama seconded that with his “End of History”, they might as well have announced the end of creativity and therefore the terminal decay of the Modern Era. Our apparent inability to even imagine a viable future or alternative to the Megamachine is testimony, too, to the exahustion of the consciousness structure’s fund of real energy and creativity, which is always life-affirming. The demoralised, the dispirited, the demented — these are merely symptoms of the exhaustion of the creative forces. The well or the fountain has dried up. These symptoms are wrongly called “disillusionment” because disillusionment is a very good thing, even if it comes as an apocalypse which, as “revelation”, represents a new upsurge of energy and an intensification of creativity as well. Basically, apocalypse is true “creative destruction”, and not the pathetic mimic and imitation that goes by that name today, which Naomi Klein rightly calls “disaster capitalism” — otherwise known as “the Death Economy”.
If it’s any consolation, it’s also in such circumstances — exhaustion, expiration, nihilism, decadence, death, chaos — that the energies of life are quickened and intensify as well. Chaos and Kosmos, Death and Life, Thanatos and Eros, are like Siamese twins — a true coincidentia oppositorum and hieros gamos, in terms of the Hermetic Philosophy. Life is never more powerful, more potent, more intense, more acute, more creative than when it is facing the Abyss of Nothingness or Chaos, and so much so, in fact, that Life even seems to put itself deliberately “in harm’s way” and in such situations precisely for purposes of its revival and resurrection from decline into flabbiness, sloth, and mere routine existence. That’s what Gebser describes as “the double-movement” of our times — one of disintegration of the old, and a new integration or “mutation” of consciousness.
That’s essentially the meaning of Nietzsche’s remark in Zarathustra: “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: you still have chaos in yourselves. Alas, the time is coming when man will no longer give birth to a star. Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself. Behold, I show you the last man.”
That is our present problem — the problem of “post-historic man” as Nietzsche’s “last man”. Denialism is the obstruction. Too many cling to narrow identities and routine forms of life that have become deficient, empty shells from which the spirit has flown and, in consequence, no longer serve life’s purposes and ends. They are already history’s “Past Men” but they very much resent that, even though it is true. That’s the essence of the current “denialism”, and it is very much connected with the general problem of the denial of death. This denial of death, of time, the denial of impermanence, of the mortality of all processes, is the real problem of “post-historic man”.
Yes, indeed. We are being set up by life for a “correction”, but not in the simply narrow economistic sense of a “correction”. Peter Pogany’s “havoc” or “chaotic transition” in all its aspects is the manner of this correction. And one has to be careful about how one proceeds here with the notion of “resistance”, because it could mean “resistance” to the very things life now urgently requires to overcome and transcend itself. Reactionaries also believe in “resistance”, and to reactionaries any change, however needful and necessary it may be for life to escape death, is an attack on age old identities and ways of life and therefore “evil”. It is practically the definition of “chaotic transition” that what some call evil, others call good, and what some call good, the others call evil. There is value confusion and no agreement about values. Few speak the same language at all. That “Tower of Babel” is also an aspect of the disintegrative dynamic described by Gebser.
We need, then, to focus our remaining energies on what is vital and cease to fritter our remaining energies away on what is trivial and not vital and is even de-vitalised completely. Too many are still indulging in the latter. And underlying most critiques of consumer capitalism and consumer culture is outrage at the continued indulgence in frivolous pursuits of self-interest at the expense of the needs of life as a whole. Nietzsche’s entire question of ethics hinges on one value: “what is its value for life?”; or, what is its value for the Earth considered as a whole, and not just as mankind’s playground for the satisfaction of man’s always insatiable desires.
“Be true to the Earth!” — that means a living Earth, not a dead planet or mere lump of matter. Those who think that Nietzsche is all about ego-aggrandisement have got it all wrong or perverted Nietzsche’s teachings for self-interested ends. To be “true to the Earth” refutes them, for it is the equivalent to one of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell too: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” In Nietzsche’s case, this was the living Earth — life as a whole.
That’s true globalism, not the phoney thing that currently goes by that name and is merely a narrow economistic or technocratic conception. Forget about “good” and “evil”. The only question worth asking is Nietzsche’s — “what is its value for Life?” What is its value for the Earth? That is our only meaningful guide in these sinister days. Let that be your “good” and your “evil”. Reverence for life. Reverence for the living Earth — that is the only sane guide for our thinking and actions in the face of mass extinction events or climate change. The threat of death has a wonderful way of sobering up the mind and freeing it from narcissistic delusions. But it’s not a very effective stimulus to sobriety when we are in denial about it all.