Der Abgesandte: Some Thoughts on “the Emissary”

I wanted, this morning, to register some thoughts on Iain McGilchrist’s use of the term “Emissary” — in his book The Master and His Emissary — and the implications of this term for what we would otherwise call “the ego consciousness”.

McGilchrist states that he took the metaphor for the divided brain from a passage in Nietzsche about the master and his emissary. Some students of Nietzsche have, however, disputed that Nietzsche ever wrote such a parable. I certainly don’t recall it from Nietzsche, but that’s a small matter since, as I’ve noted in past postings, the chapter called “The Despisers of the Body” from his Zarathustra is pretty much consistent with the master-emissary metaphor. So, I can well imagine that Nietzsche may have employed the parable of the Master and his Emissary someplace.

The word “emissary” (or “envoy”) means “sent forth”, and the English word is quite equivalent in that respect to the German term — der Abgesandte. The emissary is, in that sense, “emitted” — sent forth or sent out. This is consistent with Nietzsche’s account of the relation between the “Self” and the “Ego” in which the ego-consciousness is depicted as a sort of plaything — or even slave — of the hidden or background “Self”. That might not be the most astute way of describing the relationship between the Self and the Ego — as slave or plaything — but it does recall, in fact, exactly how the mythical consciousness conceived of itself and its relationship to the gods, and how the ego consciousness felt itself as being like a dry leaf blown and driven about by powerful winds or forces external to itself — a resigned attitude we otherwise call “fatalism” or “determinism”.

It’s in that regard that Nietzsche’s formula for self-overcoming — “Become what you are!” — is connected with his ideal of the “free spirit”. The authentic self — which isn’t much different at all from Jung’s “Self” — is the “Master”, and the “Master” is what “does I am” rather than that which merely “says I am“. That which “does I am” is fully equivalent, in fact, to Blake’s “Divine Imagination”, which might be said to be “the seat of the soul”. For Nietzsche, though, this “Self” or “soul” is fully identical with the body and the knowing of the body organism. The wisdom of the body is the soul.

This formulation differs from that of William Blake, for whom the body is image of the soul, or “garment” or even a “cloud”. The body is, in effect, an emanation of the soul. And what that means is, that for Blake, the whole body is the Emissary or Envoy order Abgesandte“. So, in that sense, Blake would probably have considered Nietzsche both right and wrong at the same time. The body is the image of the soul as it conceives itself under physical conditions, and therefore “the garment not the man” in Blake’s words, and so something akin to an “avatar”.

For Nietzsche the life of the body was the soul, and he seemed to stop right there, and didn’t probe as deeply as Blake into that. Since the body was the mortal self in time, so was the soul. But if we credit Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience and testimony in her “stroke of insight”, Blake was more right than Nietzsche, in this respect, even though Nietzsche’s intuitions or insight into the “will to power” as a general operative principle in the cosmos has an evident affinity with Bolte-Taylor’s “Life Force Power of the Universe”, also sometimes referred to as “All That Is” or “the All in All”.

In consequence, too, of Nietzsche’s mistake here, Nietzsche’s hope and prospect for eternal life took a bizarre turn into his idea of the Eternal Recurrence of Same, which states that since time is infinite, after some imponderably long period of time, everything must recur again in exactly the same way, and the man “Nietzsche” too, and his time and world, must recur again in exactly the same way — atoms included. This strange idea differs only slightly, if at all, from an ancient Egyptian doctrine also called “the Eternal Recurrence”, and which was symbolised by the ouroboros.

The key point here that I hope to make, though, is that the idea of the “Emissary”, however conceived as either ego-consciousness or the body or both, very much contradicts the classical liberal idea (commonly associated with John Locke, who Blake despised) that a human being is born as a “blank slate” or tabula rasa. On the contrary, according to the meaning of “Emissary” or “envoy” (or der Abgesandte) it is that which is “sent forth”, and in those terms a projection or emanation. And, of course, the Parable of the Prodigal Son and his “journey into a faraway land” expresses this same movement or emanation.

Now, this almost completely overturns the classical liberal idea that our identities are formed by and through the impressions that the world makes on our plastic senses. Blake rejected this idea absolutely, and Nietzsche qualified it by his doctrine of “selection”, that the free spirit — that is, the fully self-realised individual — selects the elements of his or her life rather than being merely a product of circumstance. This principle of selection, also described in The Despisers of the Body, underlies his doctrine of amor fati — “it is so because I willed it thus”, which is just another way of saying “you create the reality you know”.

A word of caution is required here because this “it is so because I willed it thus” is precisely the problem with what we call “magical thinking” and is the very thing that Gary Lachman has explored in his book “Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump“, and which underlies matters like “New Thought” or “Chaos Magick”. This “willing” isn’t the arbitrary and fatuous kind of willing or desiring that afflicts the ego-consciousness or “Emissary”. What Nietzsche means by “willing” is made clear in “The Despisers of the Body” as well. We must, in fact, make a distinction between “willing” and “intent” or “intentionality”, which can sometimes — and most often do — function at cross purposes and in contradiction with each other. We know that even by minor examples like the so-called “Freudian slip”. What I will, and what I intend do not often coincide, which is something that is represented in the Christian plea, for example, “not my will but Thine O Lord”. But for Nietzsche, the “Lord” is precisely this inner “Self” — our true self — which is why Nietzsche objected also to our “flowing out into a God”, which he saw as self-alienation. For Nietzsche, in other words, everyone has an implicit “god-nature”, and thus “there are gods but no God”. Nietzsche, it seems, didn’t think that the Universal One, or the Supreme Being, or the unity of Being was even a comprehensible idea, let alone an “Eternal Now”.

The kind of “willing” Nietzsche is talking about is what Phenomenologists refer to as “intent” or “intentionality”, which is also at the heart of Blake’s “divine Imagination”. It’s identical with what some call “the creative forces” and which usually function below, beneath, behind the Emissary’s awareness because, for one thing, the Emissary itself is an intentional object or a “construct”. Intentionality is the shaping-power, and this is one of the stickiest points in Nietzsche interpretation (and fatal misinterpretation) about what Nietzsche means by “the will to power”. You might say that what we call “will” is only the shadow or echo of what is called “intent” or “intentionality”, in much the same way a “Totality” is but the shadow or echo of “the Whole”. In much the same way, the Emissary, as an emanation of the Master, is a shadow or echo of the Master itself.

It’s my opinion, though, that Nietzsche’s insights didn’t penetrate deeply enough into the inner worlds as Blake’s did, or he might have realised that this “Self” is itself an emanation or individuation of a yet “higher” or more comprehensive “Self”, something akin to those Russian matryoshka dolls. I think that Nietzsche just scratched the surface of the spectrum of “probable Selves”, as current thinking now expresses it. Nietzsche’s great antipathy to otherworldliness, while quite understandable, probably served as a self-limiting factor in that respect.

When McGilchrist writes about the Emissary’s “usurpation”, this is another way of saying that the intentionality of the Self and the willfulness of the Emissary function at cross purposes. And the result of that usurpation are the familiar maladies of anomie, alienation, estrangement, and malaise, but also phenomena like “perverse outcome”, “unintended consequence”, “reversal of fortune”, “ironic reversal”, and so on. In fact, one of the main themes in Nietzsche’s “The Despisers of the Body” is the clash between what the Emissary wills and what the Master (or Self) intends. “Become what you are!”, then, is intended to reconcile and harmonise the Emissary’s will with the Master’s intent.

These are interesting times. And one of the interesting things is how the prevailing notion of the “blank slate” or “tabula rasa” is undergoing something of a reversal, even if it isn’t completely explicit as yet — for example, the issue of the “measurement problem” in physics or “collapse of the wave function” and certain ideas about “Oberver Created Reality” or “Consciousness Created Reality”.

But it would also mean that William Blake would finally have the last laugh on John Locke.



5 responses to “Der Abgesandte: Some Thoughts on “the Emissary””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    It is somewhat uncannily coincidental, but recent posts of mine and my current scrutinising of events in Germany have also been paralleled by quite similar briefs appearing on the Aurobindo website. So a few moments ago, this brief appeared on the Aurodindo site, “first Implication of the German Error of Misidentification of the Ego with the True Self”

    It’s not just the German Error.

  2. mikemackd says :

    To quote (with enlargement and amendment) from my book, “Wicked Valuations”:

    {Our identity] construction via emergent regard and other hungers is an internal artefact with which we can address our fitness landscape. From many traditions and religions, their insights can be summed up by the phrase from the Chandogya Upanishad, “tat tvam asi” – “thou art that”—realising that both the manifested process and resultant constructed identity are impermanent processes within the nondual, the ground of each person’s being the ground of all being (Armstrong 1993, pp. 226-227). Hence, the “neti, neti,”—not this, not this … in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is complementary, not contradictory, to “tat tvam asi”. As the Kena Upanishad puts it (translation by Zaehner):
    1. By whom sent forth, [by whom] impelled soars forth the mind?
    By whom enjoined does the breath go forth, the first?
    By whom impelled do men make loud this utterance?
    Eye—ear: what god enjoins them?

    2. Ear of the ear, mind of the mind,
    Voice of the voice, He too is the breath of breath,
    Eye of the eye: transcending [all] the wise,
    Departing from this world, become immortal.

    3. There no eye can penetrate,
    No voice, no mind can penetrate:
    We do not know, we do not understand
    How one should teach it.
    Other it is, for sure, than what is known,
    Beyond [the scope of] the unknown too.
    So have we heard from men of old who instructed us therein.

    4. That which cannot be expressed by speech,
    By which speech [itself] is uttered,
    That is Brahman
    know thou [this]
    Not that which is honored here as such.

    5. That which thinks not by the mind,
    By which, they say, the mind is thought,
    That is Brahman
    know thou [this]
    Not that which is honored here as such.

    6. That which sees not by the eye,
    By which the eyes have sight,
    That is Brahman
    know thou [this]
    Not that which is honored here as such.

    7. That which hears not by the ear,

    By which this ear is heard,
    That is Brahman
    know thou [this]
    Not that which is honored here as such.

    8. That which breathes not by the breath,
    By which breath is drawn in,
    That is Brahman
    know thou [this]
    Not that which is honored here as such.

    Thompson identifies this thinker of the mind, not as a god, but as the pre-personal lived body, the conduit to which is McGilchrist’s Master. “In this way, I think we can remove the Advaita conception of dreamless sleep from its native metaphysical framework and graft it onto a naturalist conception of the embodied mind” (Thompson, E. 2015. Dreamless Sleep, the Embodied Mind, and Consciousness—The Relevance of Classical Indian Debate to Cognitive Science. In: METZINGER, T. and WINDT, J. M. (eds.). Frankfurt am Main: Mind Group. p. 10 of 19).

    Single vision may say, “oh, that means that our identities are nothing but artefacts of our pre-personal lived body”. That quite misses the point that as such, the mind emanates from connections having connections, and so on ad infinitum, including all past existents, such that “it is probably impossible to describe any one thing in the world exhaustively without mentioning everything else as well” (Rucker 1997, p 142). That is, identities are formed by the pre-personal lived body addressing, and being addressed by, the environment, and the environment is inseparable from the universe, by which the mind is thought.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Some time ago, I made the suggestion that climate change could be subtly affecting human behaviour almost as intensely as humans are affecting climate change. Now there’s some research to suggest that this is the case, and that climate change is affecting mental health

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: