Reality and Desire

The word “desire” has a peculiar origin and etymology. It means, quite literally, “from the stars” or “down from the stars” — de sidere. It comes from a time, evidently — a time that was, a time that is, a time that will be — when there was no separation of the “in here” from the “out there”. The still weak human ego consciousness experienced its own desires and passions as being outside or external to itself. To be in the grip of strong passions and desires was to be possessed by a god.

This is still registered in related meanings of words like “influence” (in-flowing) or “enthusiasm” (en-theos, or “a god within”). This is quite characteristic of both the magical and mythical structures of consciousness, and it is returning again with the disintegration of the ego consciousness, or breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness and “the return of the repressed”. So, it’s something that needs to be understood, especially for understanding Jean Gebser’s concerns expressed in The Ever-Present Origin.

If you read someone like Homer, for instance, you soon realise that what we today think of as the inner or subjective world of dream, passion, desire, imagination is not “inner” at all, but is a completely autonomous and “objective” reality. This is what we have been referring to as “the field” and is somewhat akin to what Levy-Bruhl described as “participation mystique“. This way of looking at things seems very very strange to moderns or to the mental-rational/perspectival consciousness.

There is, of course, no conscious awareness of the mythical field of passion, desire, dream as that in which the ego lives, moves, and has its being, since it simply doesn’t know any other reality. The analogy would be the fish in the sea. It is one with its environment and so simply doesn’t notice it (unless you drag it out of its environment). The mythical and magical consciousness structures are like that, immersed in a sea of dream, desire, passion, emotion, feeling, imagination that appears to it as a completely autonomous reality. They have not yet gained “perspective” on their reality, which is to say psychological distance or “the objective attitude”, so you do not find distinctions or differentations of matters like “culture” and “Nature” or “Soul” and “World”, let alone “Ego” and “It”.

In fact, as Rosenstock-Huessy pointed out in his book The Origin of Speech, you could not say in classical antiquity “It rains” or “It is raining” at all, only statements like “Zeus rains”. And this seems also to be true of many contemporary indigenous languages.

As Castaneda’s don Juan once said to him, “reality is a feeling we have for it”. That expresses quite well the meaning of the magical and mythical consciousness structures, but without that kind of self-consciousness about it that don Juan’s statement expresses. The mythical consciousness was not self-aware in that sense and that’s what is expressed in the ambiguous myth of Narcissus and Echo. Narcissus is unable to distinguish between himself and his image in the reflecting pool. And yet, the paradox of this myth is, that it couldn’t even be conceived as such unless the mythical consciousness was beginning also to distinguish itself from the domain of the mythical, and, as Gebser notes, beginning to wake up to its own subjectivity or “discovery of the soul”.

Now, it’s quite apparent, as well, that the mythical consciousness could deploy and dispose over the intellect or the rational faculty, although it was not considered “normal”. We are still in awe of some of the engineering and architectural accomplishments of early civilisations. But the point is, it was subordinate to the mythical consciousness and not vice versa, ie, “in service to the gods” (ie, devotion). Cain, in the Book of Genesis, represents that, being both a criminal and yet also “the founder of cities”, who bears the mark on his forehead but also has the blessing and protection of God.

Gebser talks about the “effective” and “deficient” modes of a consciousness structure. A “deficient mode” would be characterised by superstition. This distinction between effective and deficient modes of the mythical is precisely what is described by William Blake too:

“The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects
with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and
adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers,
mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their
enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each
city & country. placing it under its mental deity.
Till a system was formed, which some took ad-
vantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to
realize or abstract the mental deities from their
objects; thus began Priesthood.
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronouncd that the Gods
had orderd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside
in the human breast.” — The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Now, we see in today’s events the return of these older modes of myth and magic, albeit chaotically, which is what lies behind terms like “post-rational”, or “post-truth” or “collapse of reality” and so on, and particularly in the breakdown of distinctions between the fictive and the factual, or between the subjective and the objective, and in matters like Neal Gabler’s book on the “conquest of reality by entertainment” or William Davies’ forthcoming book Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World. And we see it, too, in Jeremy Naydler’s The Future of the Ancient World or in Gary Lachman’s Dark Star Rising. All this, of course, was anticipated by Jean Gebser decades ago and recorded in his book The Ever-Present Origin, and by Carl Jung as well. Even earlier by William Blake and Friedrich Nietzsche. And all tried, in their own way, to provide us with a coherent framework or narrative for the positive handling and construction re-integration of this “return of the repressed”.

The return of myth and magic (or “the re-enchantment of the world”) might seem enchanting, but it also comes with its own terrible and terrifying darkness as well — what Gebser describes as “deficient mode” of functioning. Desire, feeling, passion, dream and nightmare unleashed from any and all constraints or structured expression generates havoc, mayhem, chaos, and the spectre of total derangement or, in Jung’s terms, the spectre of “the Shadow”, which has also become a theme of contemporary literature as well — Paul Levy’s “Wetiko” or Carolyn Baker’s “Dark Gold” for example, but also Davies’ forthcoming Nervous States. We also see the symbols and signs of the Shadow increasingly displayed in public discourse — increasing psychic inflation through Shadow possession which recalls the originally meaning of the word “enthusiasm” as “possessed by a god” which signals that one is not master in one’s own household, for these gods rampage in the psyche like poltergeists or what Gebser calls “chaotic emotion”.

Or, as the Buddha once put it: “the house is burning”. Siddhartha lived in equally turbulent times and his answer to the turbulence and malaise of his age was to quench desire — not, indeed, by suppressing or repressing it, but by examining it to its roots and the causes of its arising through cultivating an attitude of non-attachment, or what we today refer to as “mindfulness”. Of course, that means the transcending of the mythical consciousness itself which, itself, becomes an object of investigation and contemplation. It’s one of the reasons that Buddhism belongs to what Karl Jaspers has called “the Axial Age”, which was also an age of transformation, actually an age of transition from the mythical to the mental, which was also characteristic of fifth century BC Greece, in which you see clearly the “discovery of the soul”, meaning that the mythical consciousness was becoming aware of itself, but not yet fully detached from it. But this new faculty of “reason” is still felt as divinely aroused and inspired — by the new goddess Athena.

Mythical consciousness had pretty much reached a dead-end by the time the Axial Age irrupted on the scene — had become maximally “deficient” — the same symptoms of deficiency now afflict the mental-rational or perspectival consciousness which has reached near paralysis as regards the plethora of crises it presently faces, and which are arousing much anxiety about the future, not to leave unmentioned the conundrums and paradoxes of quantum reality. The motto “shut up and calculate!” is an expression of that paralysis, which very much brings to mind the old medeival maps where no-go zones were inscribed with the words “here be monsters” — strange creatures, paradoxical hybrids of human and animal (mermaids, for example) ready to lure sailors to their deaths by drowning. Many of those monsters and strange creatures of the medieval imagination have reappeared in things like “aliens from outer space” or in the Harry Potter series, too.

One notable difference, though, exists between the mythical imagination and the medieval Christian one. The old mythical imagination lived with their monsters, demons, sprites, gods, nymphs, etc as everyday realities. In the Christian era, these have been consigned to the outer limits of the known world, save for pockets of the old paganism that persisted for a while in Europe. The de-mythologisation of Nature by Christian consciousness prepared the way for the disinterested contemplation of “the Book of Nature” without trembling in fear and terror before the everyday demons, sprites, gods, monsters that had to be avoided or placated in some way or controlled by magical means. In Gebser’s terms, this is what distinguishes the “unperspectival” and the “pre-perspectival”. You see quite clearly, here, that “pre-perspectival” reality is quite different from “unperspectival” reality, and it also attests, most importantly, to a growing sense of responsibility for one’s own inner or subjective states, desires, moods, but also therewith a tendency to suppress and repress “immoral” moods, sentiments, desires which are now consigned to the outer darkness beyond the maps of the known — “here be monsters”. The old medieval maps are also exact maps of the pre-perspectival consciousness or “soul” and an increasing division between “conscious” and “unconscious”. There was a known world illuminated by consciousness and yet an unknown world or reality on its boundaries inhabited by creatures strange or even monstrous and dangerous – -the energies of the Shadow.

Christianity, nonetheless, generated a “safe space” where it was possible to live without the fears and terrors of the pagan world — the realm presided over by God. But one of the implications, too, of “the death of God” is the collapse of that safe space, and among other things, the “return of the repressed” also means that re-invasion of that safe space by all those things formerly consigned or exiled to “the outer darkness”. And one of the implications of the “collapse of reality” and the breakdown of the boundaries between subject and object, between fantasy and reality, is the potential reconquest of the safe space by “the creatures from the lost lagoon”, as it were or “alien invasions”, and so on.

Paranoia, anxiety, hysteria, conspiracy — we’ve actually seen this before, with the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire and the “collapse of reality” in that age. The monsters and demons re-invaded the safe space, and the result was Inquisition, witch-hunt, crusade and other forms of mass derangement such as the St. Vitus Dance. The turn to a new consciousness became a pressing necessity of survival in the face of this “collapse of reality”, even when it came with war, revolution, bloodshed. The Renaissance — the development of perspective consciousness — saved Europe from a descent into superstition and universal madness. But it’s breakdown, now, places us in a very similar state, and again, the urgency of a new consciousness in order to avoid catastrophe has certainly not been overlooked today either.

The new perspectivist consciousness didn’t emerge from the wreckage overnight. One can follow its struggle to emancipate itself from the corruptions and superstitions of the older one. This took generations. I have nothing but great admiration for the pioneers of perspective consciousness even when I recognise the errors and confusions that have been their legacy down to this day, and which have become the basis of our own affliction of cultishness and superstition. One of the problems there is that they took the most aberrant, deficient, and degenerate manifestations of the magical and mythical as being the very meaning of the magical and mythical, and in vigorously seeking to suppress them, generated their own realm of monsters and demons called “the occult”. The “occult” (or the “mystical”, too) is that very same zone that the medievals inscribed with the words “here be monsters”. One notes with some interest that the very words “occult” and “consciousness” came into usage at generally the same time — the 16th century.

With the “discovery of the unconscious” (and one should note the pattern here: “discovery of the soul”, “discovery of the mind”, “discovery of the unconscious”), Freud had expressed his fears and reservations once to Jung about “the black tide of mud of the occult” — that this black tide of mud would corrupt, overwhelm or swallow the mental-rational or ego consciousness. And while Jung recognised the dangers here, he couldn’t agree that the unconscious was a no-go zone for scientific exploration. Freud’s fears, nonetheless, were not unreasonable in that respect. Jung just sought for an orderly process of re-integrating the “return of the repressed”, and the pattern he found lay in Hermeticism/alchemy. Jung believed that the Hermetic Philosophy provided the appropriate framework and narrative structure for avoiding or surviving the “black tide of mud of the occult”. So did Blake. So did Gebser.

In consequence, too, we see a contemporary resurgence of interest in Hermeticism or Hermetic doctrines including, in all places, quantum physics. Newer science has, in many respects, become unavoidably “Hermetic”. The neurologist Iain McGilchrist is also a Blake scholar, as was the physicist Jacob Bronowski. Bohmian physics is also Hermetic, and Stephon Alexander, in his book The Jazz of Physics, recounts that the Dean of Physics at Oxford encouraged his students to read Carl Jung. The quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli also collaborated with Jung.

So, if there is indeed a “new Renaissance” in the offing, it seems to be intimately connected with the revival and resuscetation of Hermeticism, too.



10 responses to “Reality and Desire”

  1. Sue says :

    Such a strange time we live in. I feel sucked into other more mundane forms of mud these days, and so I keep having these strange weird moods where I feel I’ve lost everything (and I have lost a great deal as my health has worsened.) I feel like I reach out and touch familiar things that are now wraiths and everything, everything is dead.

    Reading this was like a mini reorientation. I feel an overwhelming urge to pick up and finish Mr Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy today. Feels like a life raft 🙂

    What a bizarre and trippy thing Life is. That it’s been far too unpleasant lately to appreciate doesn’t change that.

    Thank you for this blog and space. It’s another life raft 🙂

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      “May you live in interesse-ting ‘times,'” indeed.

      There’s a rather interesting treatise about that…somewhere around here. I may actually look for it one day. 🙂

  2. Scott Preston says :

    I’ve been following events in the EU pretty carefully these last couple of weeks, particularly lately, the EU’s threat to withdraw voting rights for Poland and, recently, Hungary because of corruption among other matters. Particularly interesting because in this controversy I see much of what lies at the root of today’s widespread chaos and corruption — bad faith.

    Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a particularly good example of this, which has been accused of some 28 or so violations of the EU Treaty. Orban hasn’t actually addressed those charges, but has deflected, detoured, diverted around them. But the issue is actually quite simple. When Hungary acceded to the EU, as any other country, it made agreement to abide by the values of the EU. It now appears that it did so in bad faith insofar as it wanted all the rights and advantages of membership, but none of the responsibilities and obligations.

    And that strikes me as being the general atmosphere of the times — bad faith.

    Corruption and “Irruption” go together like two sides of a coin. The “rupture” in both is the breaking or breakdown. But the chief symptom of that is corruption, not just in the sense of venality, nepotism, cronyism, etc but more broadly considered “bad faith” — symptoms of which are insincerity, inauthenticity, dissembling, pretense, perfidy, hypocrisy, duplicity, and so on.

    so, then we are faced with the question: what does it mean to “act in bad faith” or, contrariwise, to “keep faith”. About the meaning of “faith” we seem to be very confused, apparently having confused this kind of “faith” with “beliefs”.

    Now, two things about faith spring to mind. One is a saying of my indigenous friends that “comfort is a feeling of strength within”. That’s just another way of saying “faith”, actually. The other is Rosenstock-Huessy’s insistence that faith and belief are actually contraries, and that faith is an inner strength, resource or resilence of life that helps us reach the future when all our beliefs fail us — such as Nietzsche’s survival of his “stare into the abyss”.

    In other words, belief draws us backwards, while faith draws us forwards. And if we consider it in those terms, then “bad faith” or “loss of faith” is almost synonymous with decadence — ie, an inability to reach the future.

    Corruption and decadence go hand in hand, of course. But I’m not sure we’ve really understood clearly the way in which they do, as being both symptoms of bad faith. That brings to mind that movie “The Road”, and the father’s injunction to his son to “carry the fire” or keep the fire, even when he himself cannot. “Carry the fire” and “keep the faith” are equivalent.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The other thing about Orban’s response to the charges of bad faith, and why he has dodged, deflected, diverted from those charges, is that he instead has pulled out the victim card — also quite dishonest and disingenuous and in bad faith since it is Orban that has been doing most of the victimising, which is why he was dragged before the EU Parlament in the first place.

      Orban’s Hungary, then, is an interesting case of the loss of integrity and coherence of the mental-rational And yet few people, it seems, even see Orban’s dishonesty and corruption as issues of bad faith simply because they don’t even know what “bad faith” looks like.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The EU also finds itself in a bit of a double-bind and a conundrum as regards the defence of the EU Treaty. To suspend the membership of a state in violation of the terms of the Treaty requires unanimous consent of all member states. Hungary and Poland have colluded with one another to prevent that unanimity. That consensus seems to have become the EUs Achilles Heel.

      Orban has argued that his “illiberal democracy” is conceived to save the “christian” character of Europe. Perhaps he even really believes that, even though he’s violating every one of its tenets. Double-Think in other words, or what I’ve earlier described as the “self-devouring, self-negating logic” of Late Modernity, which is what lends it its “Orwellian” character, as some people are describing it.

      It’s quite gruesome to watch this self-cannibalisation.

      • Dwig says :

        And/or have forgotten what good faith looks and feels like. One good place to see this at work is at the website, where you can see many stories about the bad faith exhibited by the mayor and the city council members

      • Dwig says :

        “Violating every one of it’s tenets” reminds me of Wendell Berry’s comment that industrial civilization has broken every one of the ten commandments and committed every one of the seven deadly sins.

    • Scott Preston says :

      One of the ways people rationalise and justify to themselves and others their acting in bad faith has been, you might have noticed, their claim that they do so in the service of a “higher truth” which, of course, only they and God are privy too it seems and which can’t be explained to mere mortals.

      The bizarre thing, though, is how vaguely similar this “higher truth” is to Buddhism’s “Ultimate Truth” or Jesus’s “Truth that sets free”, although I doubt that they are the least conscious really of what this “higher truth” is. Trump has also used this canard to justify his own dissembling and bad faith.

      That “higher truth” which cannot be revealed is bullshit, of course… bullshit mysitification.

  3. Ron Williams says :

    Realization of our whole mind
    grows with awareness of
    quantum nature.

    Science shows us the
    interconnectedness of
    the entire universe.

    The totality of reality dissolves
    the great mystery as we
    become quantum conscious.

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