Soul-Making with Iain McGilchrist

Iain McGilchrist is the author of several books, most recently The Master and His Emissary.

What if we are not born with fully formed eternal souls, but must each grow our own in time? What if psyche, like physis, is a relational process, and not an independent substance?

McGilchrist quotes James Hillman: “The soul is not an object, but a way of knowing objects.”

McGilchrist wants to resurrect Plato’s theory of vision, where physical light comes into the eyes while spiritual light goes out of it.

Soul-Making vs the Blind Brain Theory

Steven Craig Hickman recently posted a fascinating commentary on the fantasy writer R. Scott Bakker’s “Blind Brain Theory.”  I’ve offered several of my own commentaries in the past (see HERE). My general sense of unease seems to be shared by Hickman, who ponders towards the end of his post whether Bakker’s BBT might be more of a prediction of our post-human future than a description of what remains of human being in the present. This is unnerving to me because I worry that mistaking a prediction for a description only serves to contribute to the realization of what I find to be a nightmarish future. Bakker argues that his thesis–“that what we call ‘consciousness’ does not exist at all, that we ‘just are’ an integrative informatic process of a certain kind, possessing none of the characteristics we intuitively attribute to ourselves”–is so disturbing that it remains unbelievable, even to him. Of course, there’s more than a bit of irony in his claim not to believe BBT himself: his whole point is that “beliefs” and the “selves” we think hold them are just sophisticated shams.

While for obvious reasons it is difficult if not impossible to actually experience oneself as a blind brain, the common sense theoretical account offered by most educated people nowadays is some variety of mind-to-brain reductionism. Nowadays we are all more or less materialists (as Obama’s recent “Brain Initiative” press conference brought home for me). Or we are unacknowledged dualists: we say the universe is just purposeless material in motion, while by some cosmic accident the moving matter of our nervous systems gained the capacity for self-reflection. While I admit that is some irony in some of his statements, I’d have to classify Bakker as an unacknowledged dualist. He is offering a “theory,” after all. How is theorization even possible if we are really just blind brains? Isn’t theorization just an illusion like everything else that takes place in consciousness? If consciousness can’t be trusted, why should we trust any theory, much less one that tells us our capacity for theorization is an utter fraud?

As I’ve come to understand it, consciousness is a perfectly real factor in the universe. It makes a difference in what happens next, at least for human beings and some other animals. I don’t conceive of it as a substance or a “thing” that exists separate from the body, driving it around like a go cart (i.e., it is not a res cogitans). It is, rather, a very special, high grade achievement of the more generic energetic activity making up the whole cosmos. I follow Whitehead the panexperientialist here (who Hickman also references in his post) by arguing that the most fundamental activity of the universe is already experiential, already in some sense “there” for itself. Consciousness, in other words, is a very sophisticated form of experience made possible by the organizational complexity of animal nervous systems. While all consciousness is experiential, not all experience is conscious. The less complexly organized (or “informationally integrated”) a system is, the less intense its experience. Another way to think about experience here is to put it in temporal terms. More complex organisms are capable of deeper experiential realizations because their nervous systems grant them access to thicker slices of time. For example, the temporal reach of human beings into the actual past or potential future is in principle nearly unlimited: it cannot be known in advance how far into the past (e.g., cosmologists have already reached to the edge of space-time 13.8 billion light years away) or future (e.g., think of the most imaginative sci-fi writers) the human mind can reach. On the other hand, the temporal reach of a hydrogen atom is rather narrow: it inherits its past and is launched into its future almost instantaneously, with very little opportunity for creative variation. Still, though, this opportunity to vary is there from the beginning. There are no instants in nature. Duration goes all the way down. Even hydrogen hesitates. There is a crack in causal transmission at the most fundamental levels of physical reality, an experiential gap that must be leapt. Nothing is absolutely determined or fixed in advance. The universe is radically creative and open ended. It’s for this reason (which follows from 20th century quantum and complexity theories) that Whitehead chose to aestheticize causality, to insert experience into every nook and cranny of the cosmos.

Whitehead’s experiential universe, as radically creative, is radically evolutionary. Every seemingly stable form of organizational achievement is subject to further change, either for the better or for the worse. In Whitehead’s aesthetic ethics (or aesethics), “better” would mean more beautiful, where beauty is defined as the harmonization of contrasting particulars into an organic whole, such that both the parts and the whole are enhanced in the process. My worry, again, is that believing in the blind brain theory can actually do damage to our human potential as consciously creative beings. We are all too ready nowadays to resign ourselves to the mechanical way of life demanded by techno-capitalist society. The only way to fight back against the reduction of human life to the blind machinations of the marketplace is to empower imagination. As Robert Richardson, Jr. says in his biography of Emerson, “It is not imagination that commonly masks reality; it is routine.” If the human soul is in fact a processual achievement and not, as was long thought, an eternal substance, then it must be made, and, once it has, can be unmade. Soul-making is a sort of theurgy; its what humans have done for hundreds of thousands of years; it is the very basis of culture. When we stop ritually enacting our souls, we lose them. We become blind brains.

Maybe this all sounds very conservative to some of my readers. Maybe it is. I’ll grant that their are conceptions of human consciousness that are overblown (e.g., the medieval notion of an eternal substance, the Enlightenment notion of an autonomous free agent, etc.): our agency is restricted, our memory faulty, our grasp of the massive emotional backdrop encompassing conscious attention is severely limited. But unless we take the admittedly wavering power of our consciousness seriously enough to continue ritually invoking it, extending it, experimenting with it, then the evolutionary achievement it represents (13.8 billion years in the making), along with the adventure of civilization, will come to an abrupt end. Yes, I know, the end is inevitable in any case: the Sun will eventually explode and swallow us all. But again, from a Whiteheadian aesethical perspective, it isn’t a question of if it will all end some day, but of how it will end. My own aesthetic tastes and moral proclivities lead me away from the post-human machinic future imagined by Bakker. Its not that I see such a future as impossible; its rather that I don’t see it as a necessary or desirable future. The way we talk and theorize about ourselves has a big role to play in what we in fact become. BBT is itself a form of ritual technology. It changes us as we begin to think it, as its logic infects us. If it is true, as Isabelle Stengers’ writes in her study of Whitehead, that “no thinker thinks twice,” then we must think more carefully, lest we become other than we want to be.

…Morality does not indicate what you are to do in mythological abstractions. It does concern the general ideal which should be the justification for any particular objective. The destruction of a man, or of an insect, or of a tree, or of the Parthenon, may be moral or immoral… Whether we destroy or whether we preserve, our action is moral if we have thereby safeguarded the importance of experience so far as it depends on that concrete instance in the world’s history.”

-Whitehead (Modes of Thought)

“Spark” – A Documentary about Burning Man

Spark, a new documentary on Burning Man, premires in Austin, Texas on March 10.

Some psychonautical friends and I from CIIS will be traveling to Black Rock City this August to (re)create our archetypal-astrological theme camp called Cosmicopia (maybe you visited us in 2011?).

 

Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging

The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.

Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.

All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide

an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).

A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.

Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).

“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).

Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.

Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on

the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).

Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby

the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).

Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).

“To the artist,” writes Wilde,

expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).

Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.

Critchley continues:

Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).

A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.

I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.

*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:

My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.

Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).

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Responses to Archive Fire and Immanent Transcendence: Egos, Ideas, and Eternal Events

Jason/Immanent Transcendence and Michael/Archive Fire have been continuing the discussion that began almost two weeks ago HERE and HERE. In his latest response to me, Michael writes:

Matt wants to think the Absolute (unity), with an eye towards cultivating the existential implications which flow from an acquaintance therein, while I want to think the Possible (multiplicity), with a wonky fish eye towards negation and the positive mutations that come from reigning in our animal speculations.

Michael goes on to defend “speculative pragmatism” and “creaturely thinking.” He wants us to remain attentive to the raw contingencies unraveling the seams of the seemingly unified perceptual horizon of conscious awareness. This all sounds right-minded to me. I am all for relativizing the rational ego’s claims to mastery of an “external” world. [See, for example, my recent essay on the metaphysical implications of psychedelics.] Whatever “mind” we may be said to possess–or perhaps to be possessed by–it must be fundamentally continuous with its physical, biological, cultural, and cosmological habitats. “Inner” experience, soul, is not something given to us at birth, not a spiritual substance, but something we are tasked with making. Soul-making means not only learning to share flesh with others, but learning to share a language.

Whitehead, somewhere in Adventures of Ideas, writes:

“The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other. If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: He gave them speech, and they became souls.”

The ego is not as free as it tends to think, nor “external” nature as determined. Both “ego” and “external nature” are artifacts of a particular species of Cartesian-Kantian language game. But I would distinguish all particular languages from Logos. Logos is the language of the universe.

If we are haunted by a spirit, it is the spirit of the universe itself. Logos is the potency of energy that thinks in me, the pregnancy of matter that makes my world. Whatever else the human imagination is, it is also fully animal, fully incarnated. Ideas arise and travel with the warm, damp breath of speaking animals and not apart from it.

In his latest contribution to the conversation, Jason writes:

Matt is using most of that “eternal form” talk.  He takes a religious-spiritual perspective on the ontological, whereas I’m willing to be a quietist.  I also accept a Jamesian “will to believe” on this point, and Matt could argue from that as well.

Jason is right, I could and in fact have argued from a Jamesian perspective before. He goes on to say that, while forms do not exist in their own right, they effect reality as tendencies and future possibilities for actualization. To ask “where” forms are is to falsely spatialize time, as though the future threw itself ahead and is now waiting “out there” for us “in here” to catch up with it. The definite possibilities of the future do not ex-ist, and yet they have perfectly real effects on present actualities. That this is so may be testable by experimentation at the quantum level, and is even easier to prove at the level of conscious animality (“It will be spring soon, I better sow these seeds”). The future doesn’t exist yet. This not yet should not, Jason reminds us, be reified into a divine designer’s giant mould that descends from the sky to shape earthly occasions from beyond. Forms cannot be so simply located “outside” or “inside” actual occasions. They happen only where they are not, since they are eternal events and not finite occasions.

More Reflections on James Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology

Building on what was said here last week:

 

View of Mont Ventoux from Mirabel-aux-Baronnies.

Mont Ventoux

James Hillman’s psychology, above all else, aims to remind the modern Western psyche of its roots in the Renaissance. To illustrate his methods, he dwells upon the lives of Renaissance figures like Petrarch, “the first modern man…perhaps…the first psychological man.”1 Most cultural historians focus on Petrarch’s ascent of Mt. Ventoux in 1336 as the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance resulting from his discovery of the spirit of “Man.” Jean Gebser, for example, marks the moment as the dawning of humanity’s conscious mastery of extended, perspectival space as over and against an increasingly interiorized soul life.2 Hillman, who has little patience for often inflated “peak experiences” championed by the humanistic psychologist Abe Maslow, draws attention instead to the significance of Petrarch’s descent. It is not a result of “highs,” but rather the survival of depressive “lows” that determines the true worth of a person.3

Upon reaching the summit, Petrarch opens Augustine’s Confessions randomly and reads the lines:

“And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains…the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by…”4

Stunned by the synchronicity, Petrarch realizes his calling in life is to look inward so as to “know thyself,” as Thales put it many centuries before Augustine. Most historians here refer to the decisive shift to the study of “Man,” to the beginning of the humanities as a distinct discipline separate from theology or natural philosophy. Hillman’s psychological project, on the other hand, is founded upon the dehumanization of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that Petrarch uses the Latin animus when recounting his experience on Mt. Ventoux,5 Hillman insists that it was essentially a deepening into soul. He points to an earlier sentence in the same section of the Confessions which discusses the infinite depths of memory, “the soul’s imaginative faculty,” and argues that

“The revelation on Mont Ventoux opened Petrarch’s eyes to the complexity and mystery of the man-psyche relationship and moved him to write of the marvel of the soul, not the marvel of man.”6

In light of the diverse array of scholarly interpretations of Petrarch’s transformative experience atop Mt. Ventoux, it seems all that can be said for certain is that it generated within him an irresolvable, yet creative, tension between spiritual transcendence and soulful immanence. He felt, perhaps more powerfully than anyone alive around him or before him, the smallness of his ego in relation to the depths of psyche and of cosmos.

English: Illustration of Petrarch's Triumph of...

Petrarch's triumph of death

There is a certain tragedy in Petrarch’s discovery, a certain dis-ease, since after the mutation in consciousness he initiated, the soul became vulnerable to a whole new set of pathologies. No longer swallowed whole by the earth and sky, the human soul began to feel utterly unlike the world around it. More than anything else, Renaissance philosophers like Petrarch, and later, Ficino, contemplated death.

“Yet the more occupied with death, the more these humanists thought, built, wrote, painted, sang.”7

Death became their muse, and in this way Renaissance philosophers hearkened back to Socrates and Plato, who rather than empiricizing or biologizing the soul like Aristotle, sought to dwell upon the shadows cast by the living body, to descend into the underworld in search of metempsychotic transformation. The soul was identified with the death principle instead of the life principle, and in that way “the first metaphor of human existence” was seen through: “that we are not real.”8 The “skin encapsulated ego” (as Alan Watts put it) is a fantasy of soul.

“No longer is it a question of whether I believe in soul, but whether soul believes in me, grants me the capacity to have faith in it, in psychic reality.”9

If Hillman were a metaphysician, he’d have to say that the final real things are images, fantasies of soul. Not facts, but fictions are the stuff out of which reality is woven. Or at least, if facts be our focus, they must be psychologized into acts, the poetic creations of soul. Like Teilhard de Chardin in the preface to The Human Phenomenon (itself a profound metaphysical work), Hillman dubiously claims early in Re-Visioning Psychology that he is not a metaphysician. In fairness, perhaps it would be truer to his intentions to call him a “meta-psychologist” always in search of an ensouled cosmology. After all, his skepticism regarding metaphysics as it has been articulated in the modern West is well-founded. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth leads to the repression of the ambiguities and paradoxes of soul-making in the valleys of the world.

His emphases upon death and depth are not simply a matter of coming down to earth from the heights of the sky, however, since for Hillman the planets are gods “by means of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.”10 His turn away from the methods of the modern metaphysician to the therapy of the ancient “Doctors of Soul” is not a retreat from the cosmos, but the longing for the renewal of “relations with archetypal principles personified by the planets of the pagan pantheon.”11 Like Plato, Hillman longed to relate to the universe as a living creature, a being ensouled. His dwelling upon individual death is meant to remind the living soul of its embeddedness in and dependence upon the anima mundi, the soul of the world.

“If we could reoriginate psychology at its Western source in Florence, a way might open again toward a meta-psychology that is a cosmology, a poetic vision of the cosmos which fulfills the soul’s need for placing itself in the vast scheme of things.”12

The problem for the disenchanted metaphysician is not that Truth is “merely” fiction–that the real is forever beyond the mind’s conceptual grasp–but that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! The literalistic mind’s attempt to explain the real can never be completed. It is for this reason that the metaphysician has so often failed the polyphonic psyche by repressing its desire for soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men…who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem.’”13

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia.14 Existence then becomes, not a problem to be solved, but a pathos to be deepened into in search of insight.

Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions by paying attention to the power of archetypes to recursively shape both the creation of theories and the discovery of facts: an archetype is both a way of seeing and a thing seen. True to the etymological meaning of “fact” (from the Latin facere: “to do”), Hillman implores us to ask: What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?”

The metaphysician must situate himself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is story; theory is a special kind of myth. Where literalisms (whether of the metaphysically scientific or religious sort) would replace–or paste over–the given with their favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics (or meta-psychology) drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown.’”15

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. In making his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit as well a poetic basis of the universe.16 He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos.”17 He then asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence, concluding that we have lost the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world and world to soul. We lack the requisite organ of perception: the “imaginational heart.”18

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived.”19

The heart is no mere pump. Neither is the heart the organ of personal sentiment or subjective feeling. For Hillman, the heart is the seat of the imagination, the microcosmic Sun around which all the world’s meaning revolves.20 It is through the heart that the individual finds their point of entry into the anima mundi. To perceive with the heart is to “[hear] the confession of the anima mundi in the speaking of things.”21 This is a form of aesthesis, of “breathing in” the world, that un-Lockes perception from the chains of prosaic empiricism and places the soul’s horses22 before Descartes’ rationalistic reductionism.

1 Re-Visioning Psychology, 195

2 The Ever-Present Origin, 12-15

3 Re-Visioning Psychology, 66

4 X,8

5 Richard Tarnas, personal correspondence, 12/29/2011

6 Re-Visioning Psychology, 196

7 Re-Visioning Psychology, 206

8 Re-Visioning Psychology, 209

9 Re-Visioning Psychology, 50

10 Archetypal Process, 220

11 Re-Visioning Psychology, 202

12 Anima Mundi, 110

13 Archetypal Process, 218

14 (ibid.)

15 Archetypal Process, 220

16 Archetypal Process, 221

17 Archetypal Process, 225

18 The Thought of the Heart, 7

19 Archetypal Process, 225

20 The Thought of the Heart, 28

21 The Thought of the Heart, 48

22 See Plato’s Chariot Allegory in Phaedrus

James Hillman on Metaphysics and Cosmology

Back in 1983, Claremont Graduate School invited Whiteheadian philosophers and Jungian psychoanalysts to a dialogue concerning possible cross-fertilizations between process metaphysics and archetypal psychology (published as Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman in 1989). James Hillman gave the keynote, wherein he admitted that “something further [was] needed” than his typical psychologizing via negativa. His endless criticism, perspectivalism, and “seeing through” came to seem like “merely another strand of Western skepticism and nihilism” (216). He reports that it was in 1979, during a lecture by David Bohm at a conference in Córdoba, Spain, that he first recognized “the terrible need for metaphysics”:

“Bohm admitted frankly and sadly that physics had released the world into its perishing, and that physicists had neither learning nor ability to think the world out of its peril…we saw that our plight was way beyond the discipline of the men who had advanced this plight…The physical threat of the end of the world results from a metaphysical catastrophe” (215).

Hillman’s skepticism regarding traditional Western metaphysics is well-founded, of course. The Cartesian ego’s paranoid search for absolute certainty and formulaic Truth neglects the ambiguity of our world-in-process. The problem for the metaphysician, it seems to me, is not that Truth is “merely” a fiction–that the real world is forever beyond our grasp–but that that the world’s meaning is immense, immeasurable. There is too much meaning! It is for this reason that metaphysics has so often failed the polyphonic psyche and short-circuited its soul-making. The philosopher’s search for system, for some Grand Synthesis or Theory of Everything, is all too easily psychologized:

“Western metaphysics, with its inherently world-denying, abstractive tendencies has been thought mostly by men–from Plotinus through all the Catholic Schoolmen, through Hobbes, Newton, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche to Wittgenstein and Santayana–men, furthermore, who did not wed, who did not spawn, who touched the world with mind in such a way that its existence became a ‘problem’” (218).

Hillman, then, seeks to return metaphysics to the world, to think the Real in service of soul-making. He is after a “metaphysical praxis,” a “psychological metaphysics” closely bound up with the practice of therapeia. Like the Jamesian pragmatism that Whitehead’s cosmology emerged out of, Hillman demands that we stay close to the practical effects of our abstractions. What do ideas do to soul, to world? Sticking close to the effects of metaphysical pronouncements means asking of their Truths, “True for who?” Metaphysics must situate itself in the mythic context of psychic life, where everything is personified and speaks through the masks of image and symbol. Truth is not “mere” fiction if the deeper structure of the universe is semiotic: The Truth is a story. Where literalisms (scientific, religious, or otherwise) would replace–or paste over–the given with its favored abstractions, a psychological metaphysics drops the bottom out of the given by forestalling the paranoid rush to formulaic certainty. Metaphysical knowledge is here checked by–not the limits of–but the infinity of metaphor.

“We practice an alchemical metaphysics: ‘account for the unknown in terms of the more unknown’” (220).

Hillman has always defended the poetic basis of mind. When called to make his imaginative psychology cosmological, he is forced to posit a poetic basis of the universe. He affirms the inherent intelligibility of things: “The cosmos has a logos” (225); but he asks why this intelligibility has become obscured to the modern mode of intelligence. Modernity has de-souled and disenchanted the world, as the story goes. We no longer have the perceptual capacity to connect soul to world, or world to soul.

“A living sense of world requires a corresponding living organ of soul by means of which a living world can be perceived” (225).

Hillman blames the empiricist tradition dating back to Locke for the death of such a living organ. He wishes Whitehead

“were still around to take down structuralism and the deconstruction that follows it, because they continue this indifference to the actual occasions of the phenomenal world” (225).

The seemingly outdated dichotomy between primary (“real”) and secondary (“illusory”) qualities continues to hold sway over the popular imagination, beholden as it is to the priesthood of physical scientists. At the cutting edge of continental philosophy, thinkers like Badiou and Meillassoux are even calling for an explicit return to such thinking, though now in an even more radical form where anything not reducible to mathematical notation is unreal. All of this is overcome by Whitehead’s illuminating analysis of the empiricists, Locke and Hume, in terms of their mistaken reversal of the two basic modes of perception (causal efficacy and presentational immediacy). I’ve explored his constructive critiques elsewhere.

For further links between OOO/SR and Hillman, see this conversation between Adam Robbert and I last year, as well as Graham Harman’s response.

Imagining the Future with Owen Barfield: Towards a Participatory Turn

English: Photo of Owen Barfield

Barfield

I’ve been reading Owen Barfield‘s recently republished philosophical novella Unancestral Voice (1967, 2010). Like many of his books, its aim is to make the esotericism of Rudolf Steiner more digestible to a contemporary, or at least late 20th century, audience. Barfield begins by setting the late industrial scene ~1967, situating us within the toxic detritus of a decaying civilization we have by 2012 come to know all too well. Society is crumbling, tearing apart at the seams that once used to bind the generations together in pursuit of a common thread. The young no longer trust the old, and so they rebel against every established authority to secure the as yet empty freedom of mere negation. “Generally speaking,” says Steiner, “people are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future.” It is easy, in other words, to either affirm or reject the dominant world-picture, but rather difficult to bring forth an entirely new one out of the smoldering ashes of the old. What the world needs now are poets more than voters; citizen-participants at play in an emerging planetary imagination more than wage-slaves at work in the Satanic mills of global capitalism. The #Occupy movement is a hopeful sign that the young no longer seek freedom from authority, but freedom to be authors themselves.

What Steiner, and Barfield after him, sought to communicate to the world was not simply the need for self-expression. The creation of a new world is not meant to be the total rejection of the past in favor of the whims of the passing moment. There is a power higher than the fancy of the private ego that must be tapped to renew our civilization. The universe, in both its historical and natural guises, is at its roots a process of perpetual transformation. Old structures die and are reborn anew; and yet, if the natural history of the universe suggests a true transformation, then something, some agent, must be weaving together the entire process from the inside out. Otherwise, we are not dealing with transformation, but with mere substitution. This agent, capable of passing through the threshold of death again and again to bring forth “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (as Darwin puts it in the surprisingly theological closing lines of his On the Origin of Species), is the common source of both cosmos and consciousness, of both nature and culture: it is the Logos, the Christ.

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Keats Fall of Hyperion are both examples of the the Logos at work within the soul, there shaping the organs of spirit necessary to perceive the new earth and in so doing redeem humanity. Poetry, after the Romantics, became Bildung, a process of self-formation and spiritual education brought about by the secret power of Imagination. Keats called this process soul-making, while Blake called the Imagination “the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever [...] He is the only God…And so am I and so are you.”

“The transforming agent in nature,” writes Barfield, “is also the ultimate energy that stirs in the dark depths of [our] own will” (p. 151). As Wordsworth put it in book 6 of The Prelude:

Imagination–here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say–
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.

…………………..

In the final chapters of Unancestral Voice, Barfield discusses the doctrine of Filioque emerging out of the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). The doctrine effectively denied the human soul “any participation in the creative spirit that informed the world of nature” (p. 198). Barfield places much blame upon this doctrine, established in a time when authority still weighed heavily on the hearts of Christians, for the social and ecological alienation that would later befall humanity. Humanity–”severed from the start from every link with the world around it, except the link through sense-perception, set apart from and outside of the inner being of the world that it was struggling to know”–could do nothing but build abstract models of a mechanistic universe (ibid.). With the Quantum Revolution of the early 20th century, a physical science long based on model building met its limits. Quantum events, which had been successfully described mathematically, were impossible to model physically, since they seemed to disobey the classical laws holding true of spatiotemporal happenings in the sensory world. The electron, for example, is paradoxically conceived of both as a mathematical point occupying no space at all and as a wave-function occupying the whole of space at once. The supersensible power of Imagination had been tapped into by the introverted Romantic poets more than a century before quantum physics, but now it seems this power needs to be extended beyond the self and into nature. The old doctrine that alienated the human soul from its body, itself part of a supposedly soullness nature, must be overcome if post-quantum science is to continue to generate knowledge as easily as it has continued to generate technology. What has physics to learn from the likes of William Blake?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Following the physicist David Bohm, Barfield suggests that science must move past the admittedly useful but deceptively abstract Cartesian coordinate plane, since it has come to distort our natural perception of space-time, not as a mere neutral extension, but as a living topological scheme where inside and outside, above and below, before and after, etc., are each qualitatively distinct.

“Our habit of beginning, as it were, with space and time, as if they were existents, and then planting a number of objects in them, may be traceable to the Cartesian innovation. Whereas it would perhaps be possible to begin with the process itself–in this case the structural process–and look at the order of events, as it were, from their own point of view. We should then perhaps find that the relation between structure and space is reciprocal and that it is not the inevitable nature of our minds, but the Cartesian abstraction, that makes us find the notion of space without structure less absurd than the notion of structure without space” (p. 178).

Space without structure, the neutral and soulless vacuum of classical physics, must be replaced by what can be called for now the “negative” space of Imagination. The inner organizing power responsible for threading the endless forms of cosmogenesis together is “inner” as mind is interior to matter, not as the flesh of an orange is interior to its rind. Barfield sums up this new doctrine thusly: “interior is anterior.” Quantum phenomena are the very edge of the physical domain; classical physics can penetrate no further. But an imaginative science can find in the limit of the physical world the doorway to a spiritual world. What could the source of the “complex interacting rhythms of energy of which we now find that the physical universe consists” be other than “a system of non-spatial relationships between hierarchies of energetic beings?”

This would imply, Barfield continues, that we not think of these beings, but begin, instead, to think their activity itself. “Perhaps it will involve so thinking that their energy, transformed, becomes our thought” (p. 194).
………………………
This sort of transformation of our thinking is precisely what the participatory paradigm aims to secure. I’m taking a course with the editors of The Participatory Turn (2008), Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, this semester, and so the ideas explored above will continue to develop in the coming months. Stay tuned….

Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Activity: Socrates, Jesus, and the Wisdom of Love

I’ve been asked to think about thinking, and to write about it. I’ve gotten myself tangled up in the middle of this kind of mess before, and so I’ll admit right off the bat that I cannot be sure which comes first, the thinking or the writing. Maybe my writing is just the trace of an ever-advancing spirit; or maybe my spirit–that in me which thinks–is just a character in a story, a name, given me by the people and the language into whose care I was thrown at birth. Heidegger spoke of being thrown, of waking up in the midst of the world in wonder of its historical depth, and of one’s own impending death. When and if my spirit advances, it does so thinking of such things.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, is learning to die. Not the loving metempsychosis of the Phaedrus, nor even the eros of the Symposium or the grand design of the Timaeus contains the secret of the Platonic teaching. The secret is in the Apology, where Socrates is sentenced to be executed and Plato first falls in love with Wisdom (and so begins to philosophize). The polis, it seems, will never understand the philosopher; to the extent that the people of the city do understand, they tend to take offense. Thinking is not taken kindly by ignorant people awash in gossip and stories. They cannot bear to look at what thinking reflects. It is a mirror too bright with the light of the Good. It blinds their sense-bound egos. They prefer the flat shadows of the cave wall to the eternal depths of the spirit. Socrates willingly accepted the verdict of the polis that he should die, and in so doing raised thinking forever above popular opinion regarding the meaning of ego death.

Death is always my own. I die alone, just as I think alone; though of course I leave loved ones behind after I die, and my thoughts, especially if spoken or written, become events in the world contributing to the new stories that spread in my wake. We can only tell stories, after all, even if we are thinkers, philosophers. Stories are the blood shared between souls, the sea that gives our spirit buoyancy during its passage through this life between birth and death. Though Socrates died to the stories of the city to be born a philosopher, he still believed Wisdom had a chance to enlighten the citizens of some future Athens. He did not give up on humankind. He became a teacher, a caretaker of souls awaiting the death of their bodies on earth and the birth of their spirits in heaven.

Socrates taught thinking, which is no easy task, since thinking is always one’s own. It cannot be taught like multiplication tables or proper spelling. To learn to think, I must remember how to do it for myself, to draw its power up out of my own soul-life. All that a teacher can offer are likely stories which might inspire a student to draw up wisdom from the as yet still waters at the bottom of their own soul. “Know thyself,” says Socrates. Look for the mirror within yourself, see the face beneath your persona reflected back at you: at first, it appears as the face of death, but in truth it is the Image of God.

There was another lover and teacher of Wisdom who walked the earth a few centuries after Socrates. His name was Jesus. He was born into the stories of Jerusalem instead of Athens, a Jew and not a Greek, but his teachings reach beyond any city. Jesus stood before a woman and asked for water out of the well (John 4):

Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? “You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” [...] The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.

Jesus the Christ offered the drink of eternal water, the truth of the spirit, a Wisdom not bound by the laws of any city on earth. He offered the woman the gift and grace of God’s Love. I cannot think how such a gift should be possible with the sense-bound intellect. The reality of the Christ Event (as Rudolf Steiner called it) remains indecipherable to the abstract reflection of my ego. It requires faith, some say. But perhaps there is yet a way to know?

Steiner’s Anthroposophy is an attempt to bring the spiritual in the human to meet the spiritual in the universe. It is Christian in religious orientation, but also teaches a science of the spirit. It is not a gnostic path, per say, but it nonetheless seeks to overcome the limits imposed upon human cognition by the philosophy of Kant. Anthroposophy seeks knowledge of the spiritual world through direct experience in that world. The philosopher-poet S. T. Coleridge made much of the difference between “the Understanding” and “the Reason,” a distinction he said he learned from Kant. Steiner expands upon this difference, noting that the Understanding, and the abstract concepts through which it relates to the world, is supported also by another relation, the Reason, that:

“…does not, in its immediate specificity, reach into ordinary consciousness. But [this relation to Reason] does subsist as a living continuity between the human mind and the sensuously observed object. The vitality that subsists in the mind by virtue of this continuity is by the systematic understanding subdued, or benumbed, to a ‘concept.’ An abstract idea is a reality defunct, to enable its representation in ordinary consciousness, a reality in which the human being does in fact live in the process of sense-perception, but which does not became a conscious part of his life. The abstractness of ideas is brought about by an inner necessity of the soul. Reality furnishes man with a living content. Of this living content he puts to death that part which invades his ordinary consciousness. He does so because he could not achieve self-consciousness as against the outer world if he were compelled to experience, in all its vital flux, his continuity with that world. Without the paralyzing of this vital flow, the human being could only know himself as a scion comprised within a unity extending beyond the limits of his humanity; he would be an organ of a larger organism.” (from p. 55 of The Case for Anthroposophy (2010), ed. and transl. by Owen Barfield)

Those trapped in the benumbed world of abstract concepts cannot grasp the meaning of Socrates’ or of Jesus’ teachings. They lose all moral imagination and become utilitarian nominalists who drink only from the well of the senses. But as Steiner makes clear, it is only after we’ve become self-conscious by divorcing ourselves from the chaotic womb of cosmogenesis that we can hope to re-marry the life of the whole willingly. Without first securing an ego, we cannot crucify it to be resurrected in Christ. The only way to God is through me (and out the other side). Steiner teaches that the soul has another side, not opposite but dimensionally internal to the outward facing senses. To perceive the world of the spirit that lies hidden beneath the world of the senses, the soul must cultivate the proper organ. We are born with physical eyes, but must birth within ourselves the I of the spirit.

The stories of modern cities are materialistic. Stale and deadening. We are taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. He calls it the etheric, or body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a door to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become the Word.

The Spirit of Integral Poetry: “Waring” the Symbolism of Organism

The Spirit of Integral Poetry:

“Waring” the Symbolism of Organism

Introduction

In the preface of his magisterial account of the evolution of consciousness, The Ever-Present Origin (1985), Jean Gebser warns of a crisis “of decisive finality for life on earth and for humanity,” a spiritual crisis heralding the end of the deficient mentality of the present age and the coming of an entirely transformed constellation of consciousness.1 Although his research points to manifestations of this new integral constellation of consciousness in a variety of disciplines–including mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology, economics, music, architecture, and painting–Gebser highlights poetry in particular as necessarily at the forefront of his inquiry. An inquiry into the nature of poetry, past and present, “is the most instructive means for disclosing the respective consciousness structure.”2 Gebser quotes Alfred North Whitehead in support of such an inquiry, who suggests that “the most concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression” in poetry, and that it is to poetry that we must look “if we hope to discover the inward thoughts of a generation.”3

Poetry is the linguistically shaped and structured statement, by the human spirit, of a power rooted in the “primal depths of the universe.”4 Poetic statement, according to Gebser, is today under a new obligation to render origin perceptible to human awareness. Integral poetry, unlike its mythic and mental forerunners, cannot merely order the soul by contemplating the Muses, it must now raise humanity to the “order of the spirit.”5 Spirit, according to Valéry (whose poetry is cited by Gebser as an inception of the integral constellation) is not a “metaphysical entity,” but a “power of transformation.”6 The creative power of spirit, which is humanity’s consciousness of origin, cannot be captured by the dead prose of reflective thought. Spirit is alive and effective only in the transparency of poetic statements.

Though Gebser draws on Ernst Cassirer’s research into mythic consciousness several times in The Ever-Present Origin, he ultimately finds his thinking one-sided, “indirectly [affording] more insight into rational…than into…mythical thinking.”7 Keeping Gebser’s criticism in mind, Cassirer’s perspective on the symbolic form of language is nonetheless instructive. Summarizing the Romantic philosophies of Herder, Schelling, and W. von Humboldt, Cassirer writes:

“…the essence of language never resides in those elements isolated by abstraction and analysis, but solely in the spirit’s eternally repeated endeavor to make the articulated sound an expression of thought.”8

This conception of language as a holistic activity or process, rather than an isolable sequence of elements amenable to reflective analysis, is essential to Romantic philosophy. In the context of Gebser’s structural scheme, “philosophy” may not be the best term to describe what the Romantics were up to. Friedrich Schlegel, for example, sought to transform philosophy into “transcendental poetry,” a form of thought that is no longer the expression of an individual artist or thinker, but becomes “the universe itself, the one work of art which is forever perfecting itself.”9 Novalis similarly suggested that poetry is the measure of a work’s truth and reality.10

The perspectival basis of philosophy, according to Gebser, ties it to the ego and its dualistic forms of ontological, phenomenological, or existential representation: “The age of systematic philosophy of an individual stamp is over.”11 What is needed are not more philosophemes, but eteologemes. Eteon is a Greek word meaning both “true” and “real.” Eteology is a form of statement that is more than magically evocative, mythically contemplative, or mentally explanatory; it is “being-in-truth,” allowing origin to shine through all the structures, making them transparent in the present by sustaining the verity of the whole.12 The Romantics, in seeking to transform philosophy into poetry, were after precisely such a systatic mode of thinking. “When lovers–and the poets–[are realized to be] far more learned than the scholars are,” writes Novalis, “and tales and poetry provide to real world-history the guide,” then “world to free life can return.”13 This, for Gebser, is a description of the aperspectival world.

In turning to the Romantics’ poetic eteology, I hope to build upon the irruptions of integral consciousness that their work exemplifies. Gebser does not dwell upon the Romantics as especially evident of the mutation into aperspectivity, but nor does he deny it. In what follows, I will draw upon Romantic eteology as it evolved through the 19th and into the 20th century. I will begin by briefly unpacking the founding principle of Romantic thought: organism. I will then end by pointing to Gebser and Rilke’s Christopoietic vision as perhaps the most effective means of spiritual transformation.

Organic Linguistics

Cassirer marks the linguistic philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder, an early Romantic and major influence on the development of Goethe, as

“the transition from the older rationalistic concept of ‘reflective form,’ which dominated the philosophy of the Enlightenment, to the Romantic concept of ‘organic form.’”14

Language, for the Romantics, is an organism. This is not a metaphor and is to be understood quite literally, as for Herder, “language is never made, but grows in a necessary process from within.”15 Organism is here to be understood not as a specific kind of phenomenon or singular fact of nature, but rather as a “universal speculative principle,” a “medius terminus” integrating the mental-rational dualisms of such seeming opposites as temporal process v. eternal idea, and “the unconscious growth of nature” v. “the conscious creation of spirit.”16 In Kant’s last critique, the dualism between nature and freedom running throughout his system similarly approaches resolution in the idea of organism.17 Unlike merely mechanical nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without applying formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts. Kant, of course, was in the end unable to overcome the dualism implicit in his system, since he applied organism as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to assert it as constitutive of nature itself. He felt this would require genius of a scientific sort, something he believed was only achievable by artists. An artist intuitively creates her object, while a scientist must empirically and deductively discover his. The reflective mind of the scientist, according to Kant, is cut off from the creative workings of the natural world and so can only uncover them piecemeal as dead mechanisms. Schelling followed the spirit, if not the letter, of Kant by arguing that the symbolically sensitive scientist could know organism to be constitutive of nature. According to Schelling, it was the creative imagination which, long ago, invented the symbolism

“that we need only interpret in order to discover that the less merely reflective thought we give nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”18

The scientist, like the artist, can imaginatively participate in the creative processes at the root of organic nature, there uncovering, in a flash of insight, the holistic patterns that, afterward, can be conceptually analyzed into mathematical laws. Schelling overcomes Kant’s dualism by integrating mind and nature systatically as organism.

“Here for the first time,” writes Schelling,

“there emerged from [the symbolic imagination’s] sacred obscurity that ideal being in which the mind supposes concept and deed, design and execution, to be one…So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”19

Schelling’s integration of concept/deed and design/execution is another way of expressing Gebser’s warning to avoid collapsing the integrated process/effect of systasis into something merely effected, “for if we do we reduce it to a causal system.”20 Further, Schelling’s eteology of organism, and his participatory approach to knowledge, are clear exemplifications of what Gebser refers to as synairetic thought-perception. Synairesis is a mode of thought-perception that integrates and makes systatically present the respective modes of each structure of consciousness: mental system, mythic symbol, and magic symbiosis all become transparent to one another.

These examples should make it clear that the integral structure of consciousness, along with its characteristic form of systatic statement, was attempting to break through in the Romantic’s organic philosophy, or rather eteology. Organism heals the conceptual dualism responsible for the fragmentation hampering the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Through the symbolism of a properly living–that is, poetic, rather than prosaic–language, origin can be brought to consciousness.

Symbolic Transcendence

Cassirer, belying the rationalistic bias attributed him by Gebser, argues that “we cannot conceive of any real thing except under the conditions of space and time.”21 If this were true, an awareness of origin would be impossible, as would true creativity, which for Gebser “is not bound to space and time.”22 From Cassirer’s mental-rational perspective, experience can only be measured, and so understood, within the bounds of space and time. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for Kantian rationalists like Cassirer is accepting the arationality of genuine creativity. Creativity “reveals the limitations of understanding,” since its effects on the evolution of consciousness are largely “spontaneous, acausal, and discontinuous,” and cannot be grasped systematically.23

Despite Gebser’s criticism of Cassirer, he nonetheless goes a long way toward developing the mode of thought-perception characteristic of the integral structure of consciousness, as I will attempt to show below.

Gebser notes that creativity has a largely psychic emphasis, and warns that this makes all statements about it partial.24 Because of its basis in the psyche, exploring the mythic consciousness of the symbolic imagination is perhaps the best angle of approach available to us if we hope to better integrate its energies.

Symbolism is at the very center of Cassirer’s philosophy of culture. He argues that it is precisely symbolic imagination and intelligence that distinguish the human being from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“The principle of symbolism, with its universality, validity, and general applicability, is the magic word, the Open Sesame! giving access to the specifically human world, to the world of human culture.”25

In a way at least approaching the Romantic’s expansive application of organism beyond particular cases to encompass the whole of the universe, Cassirer employs symbolism to account for the entirety of the cultural world. He again draws upon Herder to claim that even the reflective mode of thinking characteristic of the mental-rational structure of consciousness is entirely dependent upon its symbolic roots.26 To the extent that Cassirer is open to the Romantic’s synairesis of language as a living organism (thereby overcoming the dualisms of deficient mentality) his thinking is on the way to aperspectivity.

“The true concept of reality,” he writes,

“cannot be squeezed into the form of mere abstract being; it opens out into the diversity of the forms of spiritual life…In this sense, each new ‘symbolic form’…constitutes, as Goethe said, a revelation sent outward from within, a ‘synthesis of world and spirit,’ which truly assures us that the two are originally one.”27

Cassirer’s use of the term “synthesis” is a red flag for Gebsarians, but his firm grasp of the original integrality of spirit and world suggests that, though he may have lacked the systatic terminology to express it, he did not lack an intuition of its meaning. In a discussion surrounding the Kantian dualism between mind and nature, Cassirer goes on to offer a startlingly integral formulation of the evolution of consciousness. I quote him at length due to the importance of this statement:

“From the standpoint of [Kant’s] antithesis it would seem to follow that the richer the symbolic content of [a] cultural form becomes, the more its essential content must diminish. All the many images do not designate, but cloak and conceal the imageless One, which stands behind them and towards which they strive in vain. Only the negation of all finite figuration, only a return to the ‘pure nothingness’ of the mystics can lead us back to the true primal source of being. Seen in a different light, this antithesis takes the form of a constant tension between ‘culture’ and ‘life.’ For it is the necessary destiny of culture that everything which it creates in its constant process of configuration and education removes us more and more from the originality of life. The more richly and energetically the human spirit engages in its formative activity, the farther this very activity seems to remove it from the primal source of its own being.”28

In the early pages of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser repeatedly reminds his readers that the evolution of consciousness is not a continuous progression: “Progress is..a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, origin.”29 Clearly, Cassirer’s understanding of the evolution of symbolic forms is congruent with Gebser’s. However, by suggesting that only a “return” to the “pure nothingness” of the mystics allow us to break through veil of culture, Cassirer remains tied to the absolutist tendencies of the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Instead of avoiding regression into mysticism by overdetermining philosophy through eteology, thereby allowing origin to break through into consciousness, Cassirer restricts himself to the role of the rationalistic philosopher, forgoing the spiritual possibility because forgetting the physical actuality of his own “being-in-truth”/“a-waring/”verition” “of” origin.30 The longing of his soul to find perfection in the concretion of “his” spirit is tragically blocked, as he pretends to “[find] fulfillment only in the sharpness of the concept and in the clarity of ‘discursive’ thought.”31

Cassirer’s thought ultimately remains anthropocentric because it rests upon an unbridgeable ontological chasm between nature and culture. Such a chasm can, in the end, only produce a disintegrated cosmology and an alienating politics. His allegiance to scientific naturalism as the “clearest” and so most “useful” symbolic form prevents Cassirer not only from understanding, but from ethically “becoming-with” the organism/s of the world. “Becoming-with” is a term invented by contemporary Whiteheadian Donna Haraway to signal the need for a strong dose of “animal phenomenology” to correct for the anthropocentrism of deficient mental techno-science. Her work is a call to an intensified consciousness of the “lively knottings that tie together the world.”32 Though Cassier remained consistently fascinated by an intuition of organism as the symbol of symbols, he was met and blocked by the guardians of the physical sphere, namely space and time. He could not grasp and turn the magic key that poetically opens humanity to the presence of origin and the possibility of a truly integral civilization.

Cassirer’s understanding of symbolism leads him to posit an external “nature” as the material “given” to culture for spiritualization. His discussion of alchemy in the last chapter of An Essay on Man displays a lack of acquaintance with the transmutational modes of consciousness instigating the living words of the Romantic symphilosophers/sympoets.33

Cassirer admires the calculative power of mental-rational science as an advance over the “half-mythical language..full of obscure and ill-defined terms” he says makes up the alchemical-magical (and, we might add, astrological) corpus.34 Gebser warns about the eventual cosmopolitical cost of the quantifying mode of knowledge production, pointing to the distressing unconscious power of the deficient concepts of mass and measure over our conscious lives.35 The mytho-magical language of pre-Enlightenment consciousness is rejected by Cassirer in favor of the rationality and instrumental value of numerical systems. He writes of the gradual mathematization of chemistry that, by the time of the periodic table of elements, had “learned to speak a quantitative language.” The qualitative phenomenology of each element was thought to be entirely deducible from a knowledge of its atomic number.36 The work of Ilya Prigogine on the irreversibility of chemical organization has since made the spontaneous, non-deducible qualitative character of elemental processes more than apparent.37 Like alchemy, Prigogine’s is a chemistry sensitive to the creativity of time, while Cassirer’s 19th century conception is frozen in the spatial fixities of the deficient mental structure of consciousness.

Unlike Cassirer, Gebser recognizes the extreme danger of psychic atomization resulting from an obsession with quantity by drawing our attention again to the poetic statements of Novalis:

“When number and numeral cease to be

a power o’er the creaturely…

where light and shade conjoin once more

to the true clarity of lore…

then can one cryptic word commence

to drive the topsy-turvy hence.”38

The spiritual realization of the symbolism of organism (cryptically alluding to both the life and death-poles of the soul39) allows for participation in the becoming of the whole cosmos, in both its spatio-temporal and time-free aspects, beginning with the local planetary ecology of which we are a living member. In order to make transparent Cassirer’s categorically-bound philosophy, where the world is manufactured by the concepts and systems of our deficient industrial understanding, we must become conscious of the congruence between cosmogenesis and anthropoiesis. The new obligation of poetry is to raise the human soul above all 9 Muses40 by transfiguring their unconscious cosmogenic energies into consciousness of the spiritual history of the world.

“Poetry as history is the account of events…effected by creativity,”41 creativity as the common origin of the structure of both psyche and cosmos. Integral consciousness is imaginatively aware of the planetary bodies as the acategorial organs of the world-soul governing the life of the whole. This cosmic psyche is clothed as the sky witnessed from earth, and as such is intimately interwoven with the collective histories and personal stories of humanity. It is not only culture that is mutating with the integral constellation of consciousness, in other words, but the cosmos, as well:

“[The earth] is a star among stars, just as humans are only humans among other human beings. On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s.”42

In the mythopoetic language of archetypal cosmology,43 Cassirer’s individual soul, though it has grasped the truth, beauty, and goodness of Mercury, Venus, and the Sun, has yet to integrate and so make transparent the psychic symbolism of the other planets, most significantly Jupiter (space) and Saturn (clock-time). Integral consciousness bursts the limits of space and time through the transformative power of the creative imagination, ruled by the trans-egoic planets Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune, respectively.

The transformative, orgiastic power of Pluto is anxiety-producing for the time- and space-bound ego of mental-rational consciousness, as yet uninitiated into death by the 7 planetary gates written of by Dante.44 Pluto is the Dionysian “original chaos of human nature”45 that Cassirer sought to restrain by the ordering influence of Apollo.46 Order is not to be given up in favor of chaos, nor intuition in favor of instinct, but to the extent that the psyche remains anxiously bound to the measure and mass of calculative thinking, it fails to pass through the death-rebirth mystery initiated by Pluto and so remains deficient in mentality. All organisms are born and die. The mental-rational human organism is conscious of its own mortality, but not yet conscious of its connection to origin. The anxiety ruling over the ever day life of contemporary humanity is a symptom of the ego’s unwillingness to transform.

“Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to the end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver.”47

In another work of magisterial scope, Religion in Human Evolution (2011),Robert N. Bellah sums up our present predicament by comparing the secular “world of daily life…based on a fundamental anxiety…arising from the knowledge and fear of death”48 to the world of “religious knowing” generated by “the feeling of an infinite Whole.”49 The former is rooted in “standard time and standard space,” while the later is made efficacious by “the capacity for symbolic transcendence,” for going beyond the “dreadful immanence” and “mechanical necessity” of ordinary space and time.50 Bellah, like Cassirer, recognizes the centrality of symbolism, but in recognizing the capacity for the symbolic imagination to transcend the finitude of measurable space-time to participate with spirit in cosmogenesis, Bellah spiritualizes and makes conscious what for Cassirer remains merely the psycho-cultural projection of the collective unconscious.

The Angel of Death and the Coming of Christ

The debilitating anxiety of the mental-rational ego in the face of death prevents it from becoming aware of the ever-presence of origin, effective in both the life- and death-poles of the soul. Catherine Keller, another contemporary Whiteheadian, evinces the psychic demand of the integral structure of consciousness by comparing the finite ego’s relationship to the universe with the book of Job. Job, the archetypal human of the post-fall phase of creation, is called by YHWH to intensify the symbolic “horizon of what our little body-brains can know”:

“The limits of our knowing, like the limits of our lives, trap us within an often tragic finality. Yet here shadows of ignorance begin to suggest the bottomless mystery not only of death but of life.”51

Keller attempts to draw our attention both to the mortal limits of rational knowledge and the immortal reaches of aperspectival faith. She suggests that YHWH “is challenging Job’s readiness to stir the destructive forces of chaos”52 in service of the ongoing transformation from a suffering organism into a living symbol of origin, from flesh into Word. Job’s is the story of the initial emergence of the unconscious spirit buried in the primal depths of the universe into concrete and personal presence.

Indeed, says Keller,

“Job already whirls toward an ecological theology of the Whiteheadian sort, in which human becoming looks cramped and cancerous–unless we collude more wisely with the elements, the plants, the beasts and each other.”

In learning to “become-with” the threads of life the bind the world into a whole, Job redeems his fallen state.

“Where were you,” asks YHWH of Job,

“before I laid the foundation of the world…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? [Did you] enclose the sea with doors when, bursting forth, water went out from the womb; When I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves stop.’?”53

Gebser points to the symbol of Christ as the first answer to YWHW’s call, representing immunity to resubmergence in the tumultous and anxiety-ridden animality of the depths of the soul.54 In Christ, the Creator becomes conscious of the life of its own creation, the poet aware of his craft. YHWH enters into space and time, is crucified as Jesus, and reborn as the living symbol and original organism of creation.

Jesus said: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”55

Gebser marks water as the symbol of the life-pole of the soul, while the “siren-like angels” of Rilke’s poetry are its death-pole.56 Christ integrates the creativity of the former with the “perpetual plenitude” of the later, allowing the poet to both drink the wisdom of the past and “ware” the wisdom of the present.57 Rilke writes of Christ, who for the ego appears indistinguishable from the siren-like angel “deep inside the doors of the dead,” that “he obeys, even as he oversteps the bounds” of space and time.58

I quote Rilke’s poem Sonnets to Orpheus at length, for these words mark a crucial event in the dateless history of spirit’s creativity:

“To praise, that’s it! Called to praise, he came like ore out of the silence of stone. Oh, his heart’s a perishable press of a wine that’s eternal for men…Only one who’s also raised the lyre among shades may return unending praise with warning…Look at the sky…Even the linking of stars is a lie. But for a while now let’s be happy to believe the symbol. That’s enough…Hail to the spirit who can link us: because we live in symbols, really. And with tiny steps the clocks walk beside our primal day…Dare to say what you call apple. This sweetness that condenses first so in the taste that’s so tenderly intense it may become awake, transparent, double meaning, clear, bright, earthly, ours–O knowledge, feeling, joy–immense!…Deep down, the oldest tangled root of all that’s grown, the secret source they’ve never seen…Branch pushing branch, not one of them free…One! oh, climb higher…higher…Yet they still break. But this top one finally bends into a lyre…Do you hear the New, Master, droning and throbbing? Its prophesying promoters are advancing. No hearing’s truly keen in all this noise; still, now each machine part wills its praise. See, the Machine: how it spins and wreaks revenge, deforms and demeans us. Since its power comes from us, let it do its work and serve, serene…Even if the world changes as fast as the shapes of clouds, all perfected things at last fall back to the very old. Over what’s passing and changing, freer and wider, your overture is lasting, god with the lyre. Pain’s beyond our grasp, love hasn’t been learned, and whatever eliminates us in death is still secret. Only the Song above the land blesses and celebrates…But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, you over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds. You still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace! Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners…Breath, you invisible poem! Steady sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being. Counterpoise in which I rhythmically become.”59

Conclusion

While mental philosophy demands explanation (literally, spatialization, or laying out on a plain so as to expose), poetic statement integrates the dimensionality of space and time by making the whole transparently present. Poetry awakens us to origin without the need of argumentation or systematic conception. It “[steadies the] sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being,” as Rilke says. In such verse, the ego-fixed soul find’s its way through the mystery of death and is born again into the eternal life, now not of the waters, but of the spirit. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” 60


Endnotes

1 p. xxvii, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

2 p. 317, ibid.

3 p. 94, Science and the Modern World (1932)

4 p. 316, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

5 p. 327, ibid.

6 p. 326, ibid.

7 p. 246, note 8, ibid.

8 p. 160, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. I: Language (1955)

9 p. 156, An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer (1944)

10 ibid.

11 p. 309, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

12 ibid.

13 quoted on p. 307, ibid.

14 p. 153, An Essay on Man (1944)

15 ibid.

16 p. 154, ibid.

17 See The Critique of Judgment (1790)

18 p. 35, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988)

19 p. 36, ibid.

20 p. 310, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

21 p. 42, An Essay on Man (1944)

22 p. 313, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

23 ibid.

24 ibid.

25 p. 33, An Essay on Man (1944)

26 p. 39-41, ibid.

27 p. 111, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)

28 p. 113, ibid.

29 p. 41, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

30 See p. 352-356, ibid.

31 p. 113, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)

32 p.vii, When Species Meet (2007)

33 For example, Friedrich Schlegel, who sought “a whole new epoch of science and art” based in the alchemy of creative communion with others of similar nature. His historical scholarship “served as [a] newly fashioned key to unlock the secrets of man and nature.” -p. 20, The Romantic Conception of Life by Robert J. Richards

34 p. 215, An Essay on Man (1944)

35 See p. 129-143, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

36 p. 216, An Essay on Man (1944)

37 See The End of Certainty (1997)

38 quoted on p. 306, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

39 See Gebser’s discussion of the polarity of the poetic soul, given life by the Muses and death by the angels on p. 322 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985). This will be discussed more below in connection with Rilke’s poetry.

40 p. 318, ibid.

41 p. 320, ibid.

42 p. 541, ibid.

43 For an example of what poetic philosophy becomes when art, science, and myth are successfully integrated, see Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas. Gebser seems to hint at the need for a renewed astrological orientation on p. 135 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985).

44 p. 320, ibid.

45 Friedrich Schlegel, quoted on p. 161 of An Essay on Man (1944)

46 p. 163, ibid.

47 p. 134, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

48 p. 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)

49 p. 6, ibid.

50 p. 9, ibid.

51 p. 131, Face of the Deep: a theology of becoming (2003)

52 p. 134, ibid.

53 Job 38:4-8

54 p. 89, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

55 Revelation 21:6

56 p. 320, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)

57 ibid.

58 verse 5, series 1, Sonnets to Orpheus (1955)

59 verses 7-26, series 1 and verse 1, series 2, ibid.

60 See John 3:6

Notes on imagination, Poetry as Soul-making

Poetry as soul-making

Strictly speaking, what I want to talk about today does not exist, or at least if it does, remains for the most part unconscious to the rational, waking ego’s daylight gaze. Nonetheless, I’m forced to call this unknown phantasm something, and the name ‘imagination’ seems to suit it fine. Imagination is that matrix of possibility somewhere between the Real and the Ideal. Imagination is the engine of human life, the shaper of our desires and performer of our ideals.  Jung called it the Psyche, Jesus called it Christ, Plato called it the Good. These are ‘large’ words. ‘Heavy’ words. Their meaning is saturated, so much so that it overflows and all but defies comprehension.

Talking about the imagination is a lot like talking about silence, since every time I speak a sentence, I blow out the candle warming the perceptuo-image of my organismic experience with words I learned in school. I turn the reality of the light of the Real into the shadows of my educated mind’s finite ideas.

The Psyche is a philosophical invention. Or at least, whatever I say about her becomes a philosophical invention. I prefer the term imagination as a metaphysical ultimate, much in the sense that Whitehead employs the term creativity. I cannot be sure what I mean when I call it, ‘imagination,’ in the same way I am never quite sure what I mean when I say I.

Jung, The Red Book (Liber Primus, fol iii(r)):

“When you say that the place of the soul is not, then it is not. But if you say that it is, then it is. Notice what the ancients said in images: the word is a creative act. The ancients said: in the beginning was the Word. Consider this and think about it. The words that oscillate between nonsense and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.”

Schelling: “nature is the unconscious poetry of the spirit”

Blake: “The imagination is the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever”

Blake thought every honest person is a prophet. (Poetry not a unique skill, but a universal endowment).

What I want to say cannot be said, but if I am able I will here attempt to display it. I cannot describe for you the myths within which we live and breathe, but I can enact them for you here upon the state. If we are lucky, I will invoke common fields of feeling, and the ideas in each of our private minds will receive a shared sense of being. A concept is a common field of feeling, something which grasps us in an environment and calls us to attention. A conception is not an idea in an individual mind. It is an event in the world. I speak in order to call attention to something that is always already there—always already here. It “is” silence, the absence of speech, of presence, of world, of order, of Logos. The silence is the supreme meaning, the promise of perfect meaning. Derrida spoke of the messianicity of language, the need to be hopeful about the final word that is always to come. Our conversations can never be settled, we must always agree to meet again, or sever.

Jung (Liber Primus, iii(v)):

“The meaning of events is the supreme meaning, that is not in events, and not in the soul, but is the God standing between events and the soul, the mediator of life, the way, the bridge and the going across. My soul is my supreme meaning, my image of God, neither God himself nor the supreme meaning. God becomes apparent in the supreme meaning of the human community.”

The poetic imagination is not a highly prized and rare skill, but an essential aspect of every literate soul’s life-process.

Shakespeare, A midsummer’s night dream:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name. (5.1.7-12).

Plato was not trying to annihilate or deconstruct poetry, as such; he was calling the Homeric psyche into a more intimate relation with itself, into a tighter coiling of consciousness upon itself. Prior to Plato, the Logos had only collective, mythological significance. After Plato, it’s meaning was given to men. Aristotle swallowed the songs of ages, turning the rumors of orality into the rhetorico-physical description (not prediction) of categorical schemes and logical analyses. But St. Paul warns in 2 Corinthians that the letter kills; only the spirit gives life. Aristotle’s impersonal poetics can be inwardized, or personalized, even further. Not philosophical description, but poetic participation becomes the goal of our soul’s incarnation.

John Keats:

[to Benjamin Bailey] “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, – for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite speculation of mine, – that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. But, as I was saying, the simple imaginative mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness – to compare great things with small – have you never by being Surprised with an old Melody – in a delicious place – by a delicious voice, felt over again your very Speculations and Surmises at the time it first operated on your Soul – do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful than it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so – even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high – that the Protrotype must be here after – that delicius face you will see. What a time! I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on Sensation partly on thought – to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic Mind – such an one I consider your’s and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only drink this old Wine of Heaven, which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things.”

“Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder.”

 The Poet

WHERE’S the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him!
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.

[to Shelly on Aug. 16, 1820]

“And is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion, whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards? I am picked up and sorted to a pip. My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk. You must explain my metaphors to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.”

[February 14-May 3, 1819]

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven–what a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul making” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence-There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception –they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God –how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them–so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion — or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation–This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years–These three Materials are the Intelligence–the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming theSoul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and vet I think I perceive it–that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible– I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School–and I will call the Child able to read, the Soulmade from that school and itshornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the mind or intelligence sucks its identity–As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence–This appears to me faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity–I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it–there is one wh[i]ch even now Strikes me–the Salvation of Children–In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without an identity-it having had no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart–or seat of the human Passions…

[May 3, 1818]

… axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same Steps as the Author –I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done-… Until we are sick, we understand not;–in fine, as Byron says, “Knowledge is sorrow,” and I go on to say that “Sorrow is Wisdom”–and further for aught we can know for certainty! “Wisdom is folly”… I compare human life to a large mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me–The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think–We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle –within us–we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere,we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the-head heart and nature of Man–of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression–whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open–but all dark–all leading to dark passages–We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist–We are now in that state–We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote “Tintern Abbey” and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. he is a Genius and superior [to] us…

[February 3, 1818]

My dear Reynolds,

It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth&c should have their due from us. but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist– Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself–Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven,and yet want confidence to put down his half seeing… Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.-How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this.

[February 27, 1818]

My dear Taylor,

… In Poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their center. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance-l” Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all…

Plato on poetry:

Republic X (p. 1211/606e), after suggesting poetry leads us to enjoy the sufferings of others, as in Homer’s tragedy, Socrates says to Glaucon:

“…When you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, an that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason… in view of the nature of poetry, we had reason to banish it from the city earlier, for our argument compelled us to do so. But in case we are charged with a certain harshness and lack of sophistication, let’s also tell poetry that there is an ancient quarrel between it and philosophy, which is evidenced by such expressions as ‘the dog yelping and shrieking at its master,’ ‘great in the empty eloquence of fools,’ ‘the mob of wise men that has mastered Zeus,’ and the ‘subtle thinkers, beggars all.’ Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises. But, be that as it may, to betray what one believes to be the truth is impious… we’ll allow its defenders, who aren’t poets themselves but lovers of poetry, to speak in prose on its behalf and to show that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life. Indeed, we’ll listen to them graciously, for we’d certainly profit if poetry were shown to be not only pleasant but also beneficial… if such a defence isn’t made, we’ll behave like people who have fallen in love with someone but who force themselves to stay away from him, because they realize that their passion isn’t beneficial. In the same way, because the love of this sort of poetry has been implanted in us by the upbringing we have received under our fine constitutions, we are well disposed to any proof that it is the best and truest thing. But if it isn’t able to produce such a defense, then, whenever we listen to it, we’ll repeat the argument we have just now put forward like an incantation so as to preserve ourselves from slipping back into that childish passion for poetry which the majority of people have. And we’ll go on chanting that such poetry is not to be taken seriously or treated as a serious undertaking with some kind of hold on the truth, but that anyone who is anxious about the constitution within him must be careful when he hears it and must continue to believe what we have said about it.”

(Republic ~395):

“Unlike simple narrative, mimesis poses a particular psychic danger, because as the speaker of the narrative one may take on the character of literary persona in question. It is as though the fictionality of the persona is forgotten; in acting out a part one acts the part, and then one begins to act (in “real life”) as the character would act. One does not actually take oneself to bethe fictional character; rather, the “model” or pattern of response or sentiment or thought one has acted out when “imitating” the character becomes enacted. There is no air-tight barrier between throwing yourself (especially habitually) into a certain part, body and soul, and being molded by the part; no firm boundary, in that sense, between what happens on and off the stage. By contrast, Socrates argues, a simple narration preserves distance between narrator and narrated…..He is asserting, though without filling out the psychological mechanisms in the detail for which one would wish, that from childhood up, mimesis shapes our images and our fantasies, our unconscious or semi-conscious pictures and feelings, and thereby shapes our characters, especially that part of our nature prone to what he thinks of as irrational or non-rational.” –Stanford Encyclopedia

“on the one hand, poetry promotes intrapsychic conflict; on the other, it keeps us unconscious of that conflict, for the irrational part of our psyche cannot hear reason’s corrections. That is why poetry, with its throbbing rhythms and beating of breasts, appeals equally to the nondescript mob in the theater and to the best among us. But if poetry goes straight to the lower part of the psyche, that is where it must come from.” -J. Lear, “Inside and outside the Republic,” in his Open Minded (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 240

 

Walt Whitman from Song of Myself:

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and everyone good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of the earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweetheart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.

 

Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus “Endless Trace” (trans. Chris Bamford):

But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, your over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers’. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds, you still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace.  Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners.

The Copernican Odyssey: From Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or from the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

The following is a rough draft of a presentation I will be giving next week as part of a panel discussion on the philosopher Richard Tarnas’   Archetypal Cosmology. Tarnas’ essay entitled Two Suitors: A Parable may aid the reader’s comprehension of what I articulate below.

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The Copernican Odyssey: From Copernican Illumination through Kantian Skepticism to Tarnasian Participation, or the Dawn of Modern Science to the Wisdom of the Midnight Sun

The 20th Century philosopher, Samuel Alexander (a major influence on Whitehead) articulated what could be said to be the basic metaphysical formula underlying archetypal cosmology: “Time is the Mind of Space.”

Time, for Plato, is a “moving image of eternity,” a living copy of God. Like Alexander, Plato often related Time to the World-Soul, that intermediating matrix that allows invisible eternal forms, or archetypes, smooth passage into the visible motions of the animated physical world. When Plato looked to the heavens he perceived in their hidden harmony the very source and destiny of cosmic history. Time, he intuited, must be created and ordered by the movement of the spheres. Even two thousand years later, planetary motions and qualitative time were still seen to be intimately connected: Copernicus only began his reform of astronomy as a result of being asked by the Church to reform the calendar for liturgical purposes. Without an accurate calendrical sense of the rhythms of time, religious rituals could not tap into and participate in the life cycles of the cosmos and so could not keep humanity synced up with the sky.

By the death of Newton(about 200 years later in 1727), cosmic time was well on its way to being reduced to a uniform mathematical magnitude devoid of all texture and qualitative meaning. Newton himself went to a lot of trouble attempting to calculate the exact date of the crucifixion and of end of days, which suggests that the calendar had already lost its deeper cosmic significance by becoming over-literalized (though to be fair, he did still think it had something to do with lunar cycles). When it came down to it, time, for Newton, was just a constant background rate of change against which the rate of all motion could be measured. Time was t, an algebraic function in a differential equation.

Less than a century later, Kant, who today remains so influential that we might simply refer to him as The Philosopher (as the ancients referred to Aristotle) preserved qualitative time from total annihilation, but only by sequestering in within human subjectivity as a form of inner intuition. Plato’s forms, once living cosmic powers, became for Kant fixed concepts within the human mind with no intrinsic relationship to the dead material objects they supposedly represented. Human consciousness was meaningful, qualitatively rich, and intelligent; but the soulless world upon which it gazed-whether it looked vertically to the sky or horizontally around the earth-was thought purely in terms of mechanism.

The picture painted by Kant is not so clear cut, however; he never suggested that the universe actually is a giant machine. He only argued that the human mind is unequipped to grasp it intellectually in any other way. He speculated, especially in the Critique of Judgment, about the possibilities of some supersensible substratum responsible for the organic formation of the visible world (e.g., the World-Soul), but remained in the end unable to defend such a view with the science and logic available in his day.

By the first few decades of the 20th century, things had changed dramatically: relativity and quantum theories destroyed the Newtonian clock-work universe with even more force than Copernicus’ discovery had shattered the static crystalline spheres of the ancient world.

Physicist Sir James Jeans remarked late in his life that

“Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”

The quantum revolution, in this sense, overturned the mechanistic pretensions of Newtonian science and made possible new forms of empirical, experimental, and experiential participation in the cosmos.

The Western mind has thus come full circle, such that the true spiritual meaning of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory now becomes clear. By astronomically de-centering the earth, Copernicus initiated a mutation in consciousness that simultaneously severed humanity from and sutured it to the solar logos—severed by exiling us from the cyclical-seasonal rhythms of the cosmic womb of geocentrically arrayed constellations; and sutured by lifting the earth into heaven in order to perceive its and the other planet’s motions from the perspective of the Sun. Both the light and the shadow of modernity here come into focus: the excellence of our intelligence was finally able to solve the millennia-old problem of the planets; but as a result of this solution, the Sun no longer could be understood to die into the underworld each night and each winter or to be reborn each morning and each spring. The synchronistic stories within which earth was embedded, especially the death and rebirth of the Sun and Moon, were revealed to be a hoax, an illusion of the senses. Instead, the Sun remained a hero undescended and unrisen; an invincible god unburdened by (e)motion of any kind; a distant, objective observer. This provides a telling analogy for the hubris of the newly empowered solar ego whose great flash of insight had lead it to forget or repress its shadow by pushing the death-rebirth mystery into unconsciousness.

This repression is cosmic in extent, and so requires humanity to enter into a form of personal and collective psychoplanetary therapy, which is just another name for archetypal cosmology. We must rediscover the Soul of Time in the archetypal rhythms of the planetary spheres. Unlike the skeptical Kantian consciousness which we are attempting to transform, ideas must no longer be hidden away in the private recesses of the human mind. The ideas, the forms, the archeptypes and ordering patterns of the visible world, are not projected upon that world by our consciousness, but discovered there in the motion of the heavens, in the growth of plants, in the flight of birds, and the songs of poets. But the planets in particular are the most potent communicative organs of the invisible because all-encompassing World-Soul; they distill the meaning of the Archetype, the Idea, most clearly, since they circle overhead providing a universal background for our particular earthly endeavors. They are the closest image humans have of the Transcendent, the Pleroma, Reality.

In order to correct our characteristically modern hubristic over-emphasis on the Sun (an important but not all-determining influence), the archetypal significance of the outer, transpersonal planets is especially important.

Uranus is in one sense is misnamed, reflecting its role as trickster (i.e., Prometheus), but in another sense is aptly named, since only with its discovery did the human soul breakthrough the threshold of personal death (i.e., Saturn) in order to be initiated into the libratory and immortal wisdom of heaven. The discovery of Uranus, the patron saint of astrology, represents the cutting of the 7 strings of the planetary marionette, and the release of the puppet: from that point forward, the human spirit was free to dance, or not, with the song of the spheres.

Neptune reminds the alienated ego that, despite all its frightened and anxious thrashing, it remains embedded in a nurturing cosmic womb of untold proportions.

And Pluto, the furthest planet from the Sun, is no less powerful for its great distance: it communicates the death-rebirth mystery that the heliocentric re-orientation had temporarily hidden from view, thereby correcting the hubris of the conscious ego by bringing it back into touch with its chthonic source.

Earth, too, must not be forgotten, since she is the planet whose destiny it is to reconcile the others, to integrate their powers into one Self. Consider the strange synchronicity expressed by solar eclipses: the Sun and Moon are the same size, but only from the perspective of Earth. Perhaps this is why Plato elevated geometry above all other sciences, since Earth truly is the measure of all things.

In closing, I will leave you with a short excerpt from one of Kepler’s works on astrology:

“There is a much more noble and miraculous unity of the sky and the earth than the material one. This unity is incapable of doing anything material. It is formal. It moves through forms in this world below, and it does not do so simply through the mute forms, as are found in stone and bone, but rather through the spiritual powers, through soul, through reason — indeed through the grasping of the most subtle things that are present in the whole geometry of things. For earthly creatures are so constituted, that they might thus be capable of channeling the celestial realm.”

Archetypally, astrology is the science of the Night, while astronomy is the science of the Day. Geometry, in the Platonic sense, can unite the two by reminding the sun-worshipping astronomer of the meaning of their embodied earthly perspective. Astrology is concerned more with Wisdom than with Knowledge; it involves participation in what could be called the non-ordinary reality of playful spirit. Knowledge, on the other hand, is concerned with the ordinary time and space of the toiling body, where energy (the cause of motion, and so of time) is defined as the ability to do work. From an astrological perspective, energy is not, or at least not only, work, but, as Blake said, is also “eternal delight.” Energy as eternal delight reflects a cosmic process that is ensouled and archetypally alive.

Follow me to the desert, my soul.

Follow me to the desert,

My soul.

 

Sing with me

Until I lose my mind;

Dance with me,

Until my body unwinds,

And my feet no longer touch the ground,

And all that’s left of time

Is the sound of wind shaping sand.

 

Build with me a temple,

My soul.

 

Share with me your sacred,

Shuddering secrets,

And conceive within me

The meaning of the stars above.

 

I can taste the sky

In your smile,

My soul.

 

Will you hold me?

Will you make me whole?

 

Who are you,

My soul?

 

From how high have you come down

To this earth,

And to what heights will we go

when I die?

 

Help me to remember the smell of grace,

The incense of eternity

That guides the faithful home from their fallenness.

 

I have forgotten your name,

My soul.

 

I cannot see the color of your eyes

In the darkness of this sightless night.

Show me your glory

In the warmth of other faces.

Reveal to me the angel of God

In every voice I live to hear.

 

Let me be burnt to dust,

My soul.

 

Let my embers rain down

To rejoin the earth,

And release my spirit

To the heavens.

De Anima Mundi

Some questions have emerged about what the hell (or heaven) I might be talking about in my last essay about death and the soul. These questions provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my own writing in an attempt to more fully articulate the vision behind it. I don’t already have answers to these questions, but now that they have been asked, I will try my best to respond to them.

Most of the questions inquire into the nature of the World-Soul. I’ll answer each in turn.

1) What is the relation between the World-Soul and the individual soul?

The relation is that between a Macrocosm and a Microcosm. The individual soul is the World-Soul in miniature, its holographic or fractal recapitulation on a different scale or level. Logically, there is no way to coherently prove that something infinite and eternal is related to something finite and temporal; it appears to be a blatant contradiction. The best medieval neo-Platonist theologians argued endlessly about how God might be related to man, always trying to avoid describing man as too close in nature to the divine, an obvious heresy (at least if you ignore most of what Jesus is reported to have taught about the relation between the Father and His Children), or placing man too far away from divinity, such that all communication between Creator and creature (even revelation) is made impossible. Even if its nature cannot be precisely formulated by the human tongue, somehow the World-Soul (as Plato describes it in the Timaeus) is able to reconcile or mediate between creature and Creator (or between Difference and Identity, Time and Eternity, the Good and the World). I can only offer a likely story about how and why this is so. Tell the tale in whatever way you’d like, somehow or other the One becomes Many, remaining One despite being in each of the Many. The differentiation of the One is not just an accident, but of its very nature. The One becomes Many. God creates. To say “God” is already to speak God’s Word, which is the creation of worlds. The Creator cannot exist without the creation and the creature.

2) What is the relation between the World-Soul, Wisdom, and the shadows of human history? 

If there were a complete and simple identity between the perfection of the World-Soul and the events of human history, it would seem to be well hidden beneath the violent warfare, economic pettiness, and ecological ignorance of our kings, generals, corporations and  nations. Clearly, there is a clog in the pipelines from heaven. I think opening this portal requires that human beings engage with the universe religiously and spiritually, especially through the sorts of initiatory rites practiced by the world’s Mystery schools, where the death-rebirth experience is ritually reproduced. Initiates into such traditions encounter Wisdom first hand, which is the only way, since Wisdom cannot be taught verbally by others. Hegel wrote about the World-Spirit, which was the particular human community that most fully incarnated the Idea at any given point in history. This is very controversial, raising questions about the ethics of thinking race, culture, and/or gender, since in speaking about the World-Spirit, Hegel implies that the German people of his time were providing Spirit the clearest portal into world history. Hegel also claimed he was not a philosopher, since he no longer loved wisdom but had attained it. I can’t speak for his claim, but even if he had Wisdom then, he doesn’t any longer!

3) Why is the soul normally depicted as feminine? What is the relation between body and soul? 

I depict the Soul as feminine because my consciousness is masculine. It is a bit like a mirror, this psyche of mine, and so whenever I attempt to feel for her I find what ever it is in me that is not doing the feeling. The soul is not a body that can be seen, but my own body deeply felt (which, it turns out, is not other than the whole world). Her beauty is not in appearance only, but it is not despite appearance, either. It is not independent of the body, but nor are the two, body and soul, simply identical. You could say our individual bodies are modes of the World-Soul, but this would bring up all sorts of parallels with Spinoza that I’m not sure are appropriate (or at least that I can’t explore fully at the moment). I think Beauty is not an idea at all, but a relationship. Beauty is that which is produced when soul and body are in resonance with each other, when the one is able to recognize the other as a friend.

4) Is the World-Soul “heavy,” or is it the lightness of being? What is the difference between mass and energy/matter and light? 

If Wisdom is light, the World-Soul is matter. The World-Soul is that which underlies the animate materiality of the world. Matter is everywhere self-organizing, and it does so out of the power of the World-Soul to unify identity and difference, or eternity and time. Individual souls, animate beings, are heavy, because they each inevitably die. They are bodily beings: they are born, they age, and they die. The universal being, cosmic animal, or Living Thing spoken of in Plato’s Timaeus, is supposed by Plato to be eternal. But perhaps this World and its Soul will die, just like us. I tend to think that the physical universe known to contemporary science will indeed die, in some sense, but that this death will only be an opening onto a universe whose dimensions we (consciousness, Spirit) cannot yet fathom while still on this side of the 13.7 billion light year expanse of space surrounding us.  Intuitively, it seems as though there is no outside to this universe, that is has no biggest body that includes all others as organs. Rather, it is an infinitely nested fractal of creative expression dying and being reborn forever and always. A visionary participation in this fractal provides the lightness of Wisdom that counteracts the heaviness of the inevitable death that will remind us again of our source in the World-Soul.