“One must have chaos within oneself to give birth to a dancing star…” Nietzsche“If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again” — William Blake, “There is NO Natural Religion“
“Hades and Dionysus are one and the same….” – Heraclitus
The mythical imagination (or Gebser’s mythical structure of consciousness) still abides within us and has its way with us. In a vague sort of way we even acknowledge its meaningfulness in naming powerful technologies after the gods of antiquity. And the same may be said for the magical structure of consciousness, which occasionally irrupts in what we call mass “magical thinking” or what Algis Mikunas describes as “technocratic shamanism”.
Heraclitus has pointed out that Dionysus (god of life) and Hades (god of death) are conjoined. Understanding why Hades and Dionysus are “one and the same” is pretty much the key to understanding Heraclitus and his paradoxes more generally, and to understanding Nietzsche and Dionysus too. It may also be the key to understanding our present “chaotic transition”.
I keep trying to come up with new ways of describing Jean Gebser’s insights into consciousness structures as civilisational types — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational, the prospective integral — and why this matters. Some people do, I think, have difficulty with the idea of consciousness having a “structure” — which we might also call a “grammar” or an “architecture” or a “matrix” or a “logic”. Or, you might describe it in terms of a distinctive way of focussing consciousness as perception in relation to physical reality. In those terms, Gebser describes that focus in terms of “unperspectival”, “pre-perspectival”, “perspectival” and “aperspectival”.
Since I am, professionally, involved in the agriculture industry (and also farmed myself for a few years), it seems appropriate to correlate such consciousness structures with the history of agricultural practices. This is something that, I don’t think, I’ve attempted before, but it can be quite revealing.
“New Renaissance” (Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna) and an “Age of Diminishing Expectations” (Paul Krugman, Christopher Lasch) are contending and somewhat divergent narratives about the nature of our times. Charles Taylor’s thoughts on “the malaise of modernity” also align with this sense of diminishing expectations, and the sense of diminishing expectations (or sense of contraction) is also connected with post-modernity and “the end of the Master Narrative”.
These contending and seemingly divergent narratives, at least incipiently, reflect Jean Gebser’s paradoxical “double-movement”, which he described in terms of an integration with an attendant disintegration. And the best way presently to reflect on that paradoxical dynamic is through these contending narratives of “new Renaissance” and “Age of Diminishing Expectations” or “modern malaise”.
The will to a system is a lack of integrity — Friedrich Nietzsche
In his Ever-Present Origin (Ursprung und Gegenwart in the original German edition) Jean Gebser spends some time untangling the meanings of the words “whole” and “total”, arguing that they are, in fact, contraries and not synonyms for one another. “Whole”, he points out, has the meaning of health or wellness or integrality, while “total” is connected with words signifying death (German tot or Tod). And it is that distinction that is reflected in Nietzsche’s comment about integrity and systems. Whole and totality are quite different values, and I would say, too, that in the collapse of the meaning of the one into the other there is a perfect example of Nietzsche’s understanding of nihilism, or of how “all higher values devalue themselves”.
And I would also say that what Gebser describes as chaotic transition and the “double-movement” of our times is also connected with the “irruption” of the holistic into mere systems and totalities, resulting in a disaggregation or decoherence of those systems and totalities (connected with what Jacob Bronowski calls “the crisis of paradox” in his wonderful little book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination). It’s in that sense, too, that I want today to draw a distinction between what is called “individuation” process and “individualism” as also being contraries parallel to the distinction between wholes and totalities. This is equally demonstrated in Iain McGilchrist’s fabulous (must-read) book The Master and His Emissary about the divided brain (and its two modes of perception) as well as in neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience described in her “My Stroke of Insight” TED talk.
In the past, I’ve written about the pyramid symbol that adorns the Great Seal of the United States as mapping the shape of modern consciousness — a visible representation and manifestation of what Jean Gebser describes as the structure of the “mental-rational” or perspectival consciousness, or what we call dialectical rationality, ie, the symbol of the European Enlightenment which the young United States of that era made the basis and foundation of its founding and constitution. It is the perspectival eye of Leonardo da Vinci.
We will review that meaning again, but I also what to speak to the pyramid image as the myth and symbol of “the Sacred Mountain” and the idea of aspiration or ascension. For the idea of the United States as “the city on the hill” is also connected with the image on the Great Seal, and with the archetype of the Sacred Mountain. And this did, in some ways, constitute the very distinction between what was called “Old World” and “New World” — terms which have, only recently and revealingly, passed out of meaning.
Dwig, a couple of posts back, issued something of a challenge for me to unfold the meaning of the shamanic consciousness, or what Jean Gebser calls “the magical structure of consciousness”. This I will attempt to do today, although my first impulse was to comment on an article that appeared in The Atlantic on the limits to scientific understanding. I can work some of that into today’s post also. It is often the case that the limits to scientific understanding are also the beginnings of the mythical or the magical and shamanic one.
You may recall the Hermetic principle of epistemology — empathetic epistemics: “to know the thing, you must become the thing you want to know”. This, naturally, requires great fluidity and flexibility of consciousness and identity and a readiness to forego the mere “point-of-view” and “line-of-thought” approach associated with what is called “the objective attitude”. This is sometimes represented as “the descent into the Underworld”. This is possible for any one of us, as Gebser, Jung, and Blake also demonstrate. Since these “structures of consciousness” or modes of perception are latent within us still, we can access them. In fact, we frequently do without really being conscious of doing so. The boundaries between the consciousness structures/modes of perception are rather porous and permeable.