Gebser and McGilchrist
A brief remark on some striking similarities between Jean Gebser’s history of consciousness structures and Iain McGilchrist’s neurological discoveries.
In the opening chapter entitled “Fundamental Considerations” to his great book The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser provides a succinct description of what he means for a consciousness structure to decay into its “deficient mode” of functioning — (deficient means running a deficit, digging yourself into a deeper hole, and so on — the contrary dynamic being the “effective mode” of functioning. “Fundamental Considerations” is available online and is well worth reading).
“When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the centre or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving centre finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation, while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation, indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.” (p. 3)
Now, this remark of Gebser’s echoes Nietzsche’s own view that “since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X” and is the issue of his parable of the “madman in the marketplace” from The Gay Science (modeled on the Greek philosopher Diogenes)
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
In effect, what both Gebser and Nietzsche are saying is that the human ego consciousness has become unhinged from its sun, which is the truth of its origin and its being and the source of its own vitality. Uncorrected, it results in dissolution and fragmentation of the ego consciousness at the periphery or outer limits — the consequence that the ancient Greeks referred to as “Nemesis”. (A.H. Almaas, who developed the “Diamond Mind” approach, much like Gebser’s ever-present origin, describes the core vitality as simply “Being” or “primordial awareness”, which Gebser also calls “the Itself”).
Now, this is exactly the situation that McGilchrist is describing in his two books on neurology — The Master and His Emissary and the recently published The Matter With Things. What Jean Gebser calls the “deficient mode” of the mental-rational (or “perspectival”) consciousness structure (or modern mind, it you will) is what McGilchrist refers to as the “hypertrophy” or “hyperactivity” of the mode of attention associated with the left-hemisphere of the brain. This is the condition we describe as “ego-centric” or “egoism” or “narcissism”.
This danger of dissolution and disintegration of the ego consciousness at the outer periphery or limit is, of course, the theme of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
This is what McGilchrist refers to as “the Unmaking of the World” in the subtitle to The Matter With Things. So we are warned by Nietzsche, by Blake, by Yeats, by Seth, by McGilchrist, by Bohm, by Gebser that unless this unhinged situation of the ego consciousness is corrected, the outcome will be dire indeed, as it was for Narcissus in the myth of Narcissus and Echo.
The first few chapters of The Matter With Things is an eye-popping catalogue of the kinds of pathologies that can arise from the left-hemisphere’s denial, repression, or inhibition of the influence and insights of the brain’s right-hemisphere mode of attention, which has been effectively suppressed to become “the unconscious”, but which McGilchrist sees as being more truthful, more realistic, more honest, more holistic than the unhinged left-hemisphere which, without the guiding inputs of the “intuitive” influence of the mode of attention associated with the right hemisphere, becomes false and tricksy, given to confabulation and bullshit, delusions and self-deception. To quote just one passage in that respect
The left hemisphere is more likely to act on its theory as though it represented reality. A very important aspect of the real world is that in it nothing happens in isolation. Everything exists only in relation to an indescribably rich and complex nexus of other things, some of which modify whatever happens to be the ‘target’ of our attention by their very presence. Equally they will be changed by our intervention and, in turn, will change the nature and direction of the intervention itself. In other words there is never a truth without a context with which it interacts: there is a context for everything in the real world. In the theory that gets left out.
Part of the problem is the left hemisphere’s reluctance to confess when it is nonplussed. Its self-belief is a problem: it believes its own propaganda. It often does the ‘smart’ thing – which is, in actuality, not as smart as it looks. As we know it hates uncertainty; and according to Gazzaniga’s research team, ‘the left hemisphere tends to create inferences and explanations to resolve uncertainty’. Meanwhile, as they put it, ‘unlike the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere, in our view, places a premium on the truth.’
What Gebser calls “waring” is McGilchrist’s “mode of attention”. And what Gebser calls “verition” — the perception of the world as truth by virtue of “diaphaneity” or “transparency” — is what McGilchrist identifies with the mode of attention of the right hemisphere of the brain, and for this reason calls it the “Master” mode. Gebser’s phenomenology of consciousness, as presented in The Ever-Present Origin, is powerfully corroborated by McGilchrist’s neuroscientific discoveries.
And that, for me, is the great value of studying McGilchrist — the insights he provides also into Gebser’s history of consciousness — that makes the time and effort quite worthwhile. Gebser’s own distinction between the Whole and the Totality also reflects McGilcrhist’s findings of how the two modes attention of the divided brain approach reality. The right hemisphere perceives reality whole, while the left-hemisphere sees it as an assemblage of parts or things in aggregation — “The 10,000 Things”, as th Taoists call it, which they contrast with the Oneness of the Tao.
So, how do we correct for this very dangerous condition of the hypertrophy, indeed despotism, of the mode of attention deployed by the left-hemisphere? McGilchrist seems rather pessimistic about our chances of stepping back from the brink, much as Gebser also anticipated a “global catastrophe”, although McGilchrist does seem at least a little encouraged by things like meditation and “mindfulness” practice, and there are certainly signs of a spontaneous corrective emerging to this hypertrophy of the ego consciousness. As Heinrich Heine well put it, “where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving power also”.
A good thing to keep in mind.
But it you do have the sense that “the world is going to hell in a handcart”, well, at least you know why now — call it what you will: narcissism, ego-centrism, the hypertrophy/hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain, or its “usurpation” of the entire psychic ecology, as it were that denies, inhibits or represses any moderating influence, insight, or even truth that may emerge from the right-hemisphere mode of attention.
One of the most revealing issues in that regard is the problem of “symbolic belief”, where the left-hemisphere (ego consciousness) clings and cleaves stubbornly to beliefs that are otherwise known to be untrue in its “heart of hearts” (another way of speaking of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention). An impressive example of this problem of “symbolic belief” was once published in The Guardian — impressive evidence for McGilchrist’s thesis.