A Brief History of Our Disintegration
Around the end of the 19th century (called the fin de siecle period), something uncanny began to emerge in the functioning of the modern mind, also called the “perspectival” or “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” (Jean Gebser). As usual, it first became evident in the arts — a portent of things to come, but most especially as a disintegration of the personality and character structure of Modern Man and mental-rational consciousness. Let’s review the course this disintegration has taken since.
In retrospect, the omens of an impending crisis and disintegration of the individual were rather obvious. The mood of the fin de siecle may have been well captured by Charles Dickens in his Tale of Two Cities, with its now famous opening lines,
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
That which was only much later (in 1957) was to be described by Leon Festinger as The Theory of Cognitive Dissonance was already evident in the fin de siecle. In addition to Dickens Tale of Two Cities, we find also Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which has come down to us as a kind of contemporary myth of our now schizophrenic state. In addition, Nietzsche was writing about a growing tension and digression between our Dionysian and the Apollonian natures. Thomas Harding similarly bore witness to this in his novel The Return of the Native.
In previous posts, we have thus identified this fin de siecle mood with the first stirrings of that we have called “the return of the repressed”, also coincident with Nietzsche’s announcement of “the death of God” and his critique of moralism. In consequence of the death of God, Nietzsche forecast “two centuries of nihilism”, so that, in effect, “the return of the repressed” and this “two centuries of nihilism” are two sides of one process.
Following upon this, we find the emergence of the psychoanalytic school of Freud and Jung, et alia, who reveal that, indeed, the individual is actually divided, and quite often divided against himself or herself — split between consciousness and something called “the unconscious” or “the Id”, and most especially in Freud’s investigation of “the psychopathology of everyday life” (the book by that title being published in 1901). Thereafter, especially, the concept (and metaphor) of the “individual” as an indivisible whole entered into its crisis, and underwent a series of severe and traumatic shocks culminating in the splitting of the atom, which was for Jean Gebser and a few others at the time, of utmost significance in that respect.
That is because “individuum” was, originally, a term for the atom which had become, in the liberalism of the Enlightenment, applied to the picture of man in society. This was the view of human and social life that seemed to follow quite naturally from picture developed by the Newtonian-Cartesian cosmos. It still largely informed Margaret Thatcher’s view of things when she infamously declared “there is no such thing as society” — that she saw only individuals and families, that is to say, atoms and molecules. This has been largely, too, the viewpoint of neo-liberalism in general.
This dissonance between liberal individualism and the emerging contradictory picture of the human divisible did not go unnoticed by Gebser in the thirties, either, only he calls it “compartmentalisation” in his book The Ever-Present Origin. The phrase “cognitive dissonance” wasn’t to enter the lexicon until Festinger coined the phrase in 1957. But even so, “the crisis of the individual” had become a major theme that, shortly after the Second World War and the shock of the atom bomb, Commentary Magazine in the United States ran a 12 part series of articles on this very subject — Waldo Frank’s article on “The Central Problem of Modern Man” being – as I’ve mentioned before — one of the more notable contributions to the series. Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy had already, in 1939, penned an essay entitled “Modern Man’s Disintegration and the Egytian Ka” (which is Chapter III of his book I Am An Impure Thinker, available online).
So, what we face today as “the crisis of identity” and the cognitive dissonance of “the New Normal” is not something really new — it’s an intensification of that disintegrative process that has been underway for over four generations now. It has now become acute. This is the paradox. The idea of the “individual” has become an unsustainable metaphor and moral ideal when the actual reality is “21st century schizoid man” — a being who, far from being individual, is falling to pieces and riven with self-contradiction, duplicity, and cognitive dissonance, as reflects life in “the New Normal” of double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind.
Not a pretty picture at all.
But, this is the picture of only one side of this “double-movement” of disintegration and reintegration. As we can see, the disintegrative dynamic has been underway for some time, and is now intensifying and becoming acute — which we might call “the crazies”. So, the so-called “End of the Master Narrative” was in preparation, and could have been anticipated, long before it was officially declared by post-modernism. Shooting the messenger certainly isn’t going to help, nor is nostalgia for “the good ole days” that never actually existed. Neither is denialism, which is the usual reactionary tendency of human beings to double-down into dogmatic attitudes when faced with a crisis. As one contemporary title also puts it, we seem stuck presently “between the monster and the saint”.
Quite obviously, our picture of the human being as an indivisible unit or monad of existence was quite wrong-headed, and is not adequate for the generation and re-generation of whole human beings. Our self-portrait or sel- understanding of “human nature” was deficient and serves now only to produce and reproduce human caricatures. Many of us now understand that the authentic process of individuation hasn’t much in common at all with individualism and the supremacy of the self-interest. Individuation and integration, or making whole, become one and the same process.
So, there is something of a rebellion, now, against specialisation of role or function as also part of the current quest for a new basis for wholeness or integrity — since matters like incoherence, duplicity, hypocrisy, lack of integrity, corruption, perfidy, and so on — those aspects of the New Normal which evince the disintegration of the modern personality and character structure — have become intolerable. That is one reason why guys like Ken Wilber are popular, although I do think much of Wilber’s thinking doesn’t provide a sound basis for an effective social philosophy in contrast to, say, that of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy.
The fundamental issue is really quite simple — if a human being is a multiformity of mind, body, soul, and spirit, you don’t achieve wholeness or fulfillment by amputating or suppressing one or more of these aspects, but only by an effective integration of the four aspects. The Modern Mind thought it could get away without three of these aspects — body, soul, spirit — but that has proven to be a bust. It’s quite understandable, then, that some tend to throw themselves contrariwise too far into one of the other facets, which is just as much an error and an amputation. But a harmonious development of the whole happens quite effortlessly and naturally when one learns to live from “the vital centre”, and it certainly helps if our mental picture and attitude is also aligned with this vital centre. It is certainly not now so aligned.
If we just take the Holling Adaptive Cycle as an example (there are others but we’ll restrict ourselves to that for the moment) the vital centre is where the loops of the cycle intersect. That is the centre of the fourfold structure. If you are anywhere on circumference of the loop or cycle, it’s a real roller-coaster ride, isn’t it?
Where the loops intersect is, you may note, the same centre as in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” or the centre of the indigenous Sacred Hoop. Just so, when you are at the centre of the Adaptive Cycle, then all the powers of reorganisation, exploitation, conservation, and release become available to you. You aren’t being swept along on the roller coaster ride but actually in that “place” they call “the Now” or “Eternal Now”. In effect, to be at the centre of this structure is to have that “universal way of looking at things” that Gebser also relates to “time-freedom”. It’s quite true that “the Spice must flow”, as they say in Frank Herbert’s Dune. But the best way to assure that the spice flows is from functioning at the vital centre. This is also coincident with what Gebser calls “the diaphainon“, which is the heart or core of the integral consciousness, and could be said to be the authentically indivisible, or what is called ‘the True Self’. And there is reason to think that the four aspects of Holling’s Adaptive Cycle also have an affinity with the terms “mind, body, soul, and spirit”.
To put this another way, the vital centre here corresponds to McGilchrist’s “Master”, while the Emissary is that aspect of us dispatched for the purpose of effectuating this cycle — functioning to re-organise or exploit, or to conserve or to release (or “binding and loosening”, as the New Testament puts it). And this way of thinking about the Holling Adaptive Cycle should also give you further insight into what Rosenstock-Huessy intends also to be understood by his “cross of reality” and his grammatical method. Because it is in and through speech that human beings effectuate also this cycle.
And it is for this reason that my indigenous friends also call the centre of their Sacred Hoop symbol “the centre of the Voice”.