Evolution of Consciousness According to Jean Gebser

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

* Article: Evolution of Consciousness According to Jean Gebser. Ulrich J Mohrhoff. AntiMatters, Vol 2 issue 3 2008

URL = https://antimatters2.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/2-3-05-gebser-origin.pdf in AntiMatters Vol 2 issue 3


"This article introduces and summarizes The Ever-Present Origin, the magnum opus of cultural historian and evolutionary philosopher Jean Gebser, largely in his own words. According to Gebser, human consciousness underwent a series of mutations each of which has enriched reality by a new (qualitative) dimension. At present humanity is again undergoing such a mutation: this time from the mental, perspectival structure of consciousness to the integral, aperspectival structure or, using the terminology of Sri Aurobindo, from mind to supermind. The integrality of this consciousness consists in part in its ability to integrate the preceding consciousness structures, rather than suppressing them (as the mental structure does) and hence being adversely affected by them. The article concludes with a brief account of the Mother’s personal experience of this mutation."


The pre-mental structures of consciousness

Ulrich J Mohrhoff:

"Whereas Sri Aurobindo, in his philosophical writings, is chiefly concerned with the large-scale evolution of consciousness, from its initial involution in matter through the emergence of life and mind to the eventual manifestation of the original creative consciousness-force he calls “supermind,” Gebser addresses the evolution of human consciousness on a finer scale, from its initial archaic structure through its magic, mythical, and mental structures to the eventual manifestation of its integral structure.

The archaic structure

The archaic structure is the most remote from the presently dominant consciousness structure and therefore the most difficult for us to envision. It is zero-dimensional in the sense of a total absence of differentiation. There is no subject-object polarity (let alone duality), no differentiation between self and other, between soul and nature, between the individual and the universe. If, in light of our contemporary associations with the word “consciousness,” we were to think of this as pre-consciousness rather than as a structure of consciousness,

Gebser would concur:

the early period is that period when the soul is still dormant, and its sleep or dormancy may have well been so deep that even though it may have existed (perhaps in a spiritual pre-form), it had not yet attained consciousness. (43)

Yet the archaic structure was by no means “primitive” in a derogatory sense. Those belonging to it were revered by their descendants as the “true men of earlier times,” as “holy men” (43), as possessors of wisdom.

The magic structure

The emergence of the magic structure is above all a transition from undifferentiated identity to one-dimensional unity. The magic consciousness is focused on a single “point,” which can be interchanged with other “points” or, as a part, stand for a whole. The man of the magic structure has been released from his harmony or identity with the whole. With that a first process of consciousness began; it was still completely sleep-like: for the first time not only was man in the world, but he began to face the world in its sleep-like outlines. Therewith arose the germ of a need: that of no longer being in the world but of having the world.

The more man released himself from the whole, becoming “conscious” of himself, the more he began to be an individual, a unity not yet able to recognize the world as a whole, but only the details (or “points”) which reach his still sleep-like consciousness and in turn stand for the whole. Hence the magic world is also a world of pars pro toto, in which the part can and does stand for the whole. Magic man’s reality, his system of associations, are these individual objects, deeds, or events separated from one another like points in the over-all unity.

These points can be interchanged at will. It is a world of pure but meaningful accident; a world in which all things and persons are interrelated, but the not-yet centered Ego is dispersed over the world of phenomena. . . . In a sense one may say that in this structure consciousness was not yet in man himself, but still resting in the world. The gradual transfer of this consciousness, which streams towards him and which he must assimilate from his standpoint, and the awakening world, which he gradually learns to confront (and in the confrontation there is something hostile), is something that man must master. Man replies to the forces streaming toward him with his own corresponding forces: he stands up to Nature. He tries to exorcise her, to guide her; he strives to be independent of her; then he begins to be conscious of his own will. Witchcraft and sorcery, totem and taboo, are the natural means by which he seeks to free himself from the transcendent power of nature, by which his soul strives to materialize within him and to become increasingly conscious of itself. . . . Here, in these attempts to free himself from the grip and spell of nature, with which in the beginning he was still fused in unity, magic man begins the struggle for power which has not ceased since; here man becomes the maker.

A hunting scene

In his book Unknown Africa, Leo Frobenius describes the following rite, which he observed in the Congo jungle. [M]embers of the hunting tribe of Pygmies (three men and a woman) drew a picture of an antelope in the sand before they started out at dawn to hunt antelopes. With the first ray of sunlight that fell on the sand, they intended to “kill” the antelope. Their first arrow hit the drawing unerringly in the neck. Then they went out to hunt and returned with a slain antelope. Their death-dealing arrow hit the animal in exactly the same spot where, hours before, the other arrow had hit the drawing. . . . [H]aving fulfilled its magic purpose. . . this arrow was then removed from the drawing with an accompanying ritual designed to ward off any evil consequences of the murder from the hunters. After that was done, the drawing itself was erased. (47)

Several characteristics of the magic structure are illustrated by this scene. The egolessness is expressed first of all in the fact that the responsibility for the murder, committed by the group-ego against a part of nature, is attributed to a power already felt to be “standing outside”: the sun. It is not the pygmies’ arrow that kills, but the first arrow of the sun that falls on the animal, and of which the real arrow is only a symbol. (Nowadays, of course, one would interpret it just the other way around and say: the sun’s ray is a symbol of the arrow.)

In this linking of the responsibility of the hunters’ group-ego (assuming the form of four human beings performing the rite) with the sun — which, because of its brightness, must be considered a symbol of consciousness — it is clear to what extent the capacity for consciousness of these human beings is still on the outside or connected with the outside. With the Pygmies in their egolessness, the moral consciousness that they must bear responsibility, deriving from a clearly conscious Ego, is still attributed to the sun. Their Ego (and with it an essential part of their soul) is still scattered over the world, like the light of the sun.

This leads us directly to the second characteristic: point-like unity. This is expressed in the visible interchangeability of the real and the symbolic causative element: that is, in equating the ray of sunlight and the arrow.

At the basis of this point-like unity lies a natural vital nexus, not a rational causal one. This point-related unity in which each and every thing intertwines and is interchangeable, becomes apparent when the symbolic murder in a rite, performed before a hunt, coincides exactly with the actual one committed by the hunter. In the spaceless and timeless world [of the magic structure], this constitutes a working unity which operates without a causal nexus. (48)

Spacelessness and timelessness are further characteristics of the magic structure. They are the reason why every “point” (a thing, event, or action) can be interchanged with another “point,” independently of time and place. . . and of any rational causal connection. Every point. . . can not only be linked with any other point but is identified with it. One can substitute for the other completely. (48–49)

It is the lack of spatial and temporal separation that allows things, events, or actions to be effectively correlated or to influence each other in a non-causal or pre-causal manner. Gebser attributes the phenomena studied by parapsychology to this spaceless and timeless structure, which, like all previous structures, remains active in us or capable of being activated.

This merging with nature, which in its spacelessness and timelessness also connotes a remarkable boundlessness, explains the well founded powers of magic man — powers which survive today in the form of human mediums. Magic man possessed not only the powers of second sight and divination, he was also highly telepathic. Today telepathy is based on a mass of authenticated data; even the most hard-bitten rationalist can no longer deny its existence. It is explained in part by an elimination of consciousness, which obscures or blacks out the ego and causes it to revert to a spaceless-timeless “unconscious participation” in the group soul. Clairvoyance may be interpreted in the same way. (55)

All magic, even today, occurs in the natural-vital, egoless, spaceless and timeless sphere.

This requires — as far as present-day man is concerned — a sacrifice of consciousness; it occurs in the state of trance, or when the consciousness dissolves as a result of mass reactions, slogans, or “isms.” If we are not aware of this sphere in ourselves, it remains an entry for all kinds of magic influences. . . . In the final analysis, our machines and technology, even our present-day power politics, arise from these magic roots: Nature, the surrounding world, other human beings must be ruled so that man is not ruled by them. This fear that man is compelled to rule the outside world — so as not to be ruled by it — is symptomatic of our times. (49–51)

On the other hand, magic “loses its effectiveness the moment it is stripped of its basic vital connections and relations; the injection of consciousness disturbs and interrupts the ‘unconsciously’ binding vital energies.” (49)

A meeting of two consciousness structures

There is a moving document of this loss of effectiveness in the face of a “superior” consciousness structure. There are surely enough historical instances of the catastrophic downfall of entire peoples and cultures. Such declines were triggered by the collision of deficient and exhausted attitudes that were insufficient for continuance with those more recent, more intense and, in some respects, superior. One such occurrence vividly exemplifies the decisive nature of such crises: the collision of the magical, mythical, and unperspectival culture of the Central American Aztecs with the rational-technological, perspectival attitude of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors. A description of this event can be found in the Aztec chronicle of Frey Bernardino de Sahagun, written eight years after Cortez’ conquest of Mexico on the basis of Aztec accounts.

The following excerpt forms the beginning of the thirteenth chapter of the chronicle which describes the conquest of Mexico City:

The thirteenth chapter, wherein is recounted how the Mexican king Montezuma sends other sorcerers who were to cast a spell on the Spanish and what happened to them on the way. And the second group of messengers — the soothsayers, the magicians, and the high priests — likewise went to receive the Spanish. But it was to no avail; they could not bewitch the people, they could not reach their intent with the Spanish; they simply failed to arrive.

There is hardly another text extant that describes so succinctly and so memorably the collapse of an entire world and a hitherto valid and effectual human attitude. The magicmythical world of the Mexicans could not prevail against the Spaniards; it collapsed the moment it encountered the rational-technological mentality. The materialistic orientation of present-day Europeans will tend to attribute this collapse to the Spaniards’ technological superiority, but in actual fact it was the vigor of the Spanish consciousness visà-vis the weakness of the Mexican that was decisive. It is the basic distinction between the ego-less man, bound to the group and a collective mentality, and the individual securely conscious of his individuality. Authentic spell-casting, a fundamental element of the collective consciousness for the Mexicans, is effective only for the members attuned to the group consciousness. It simply by-passes those who are not bound to, or sympathetic toward, the group. The Spaniards’ superiority, which compelled the Mexicans to surrender almost without a struggle, resulted primarily from their consciousness of individuality, not from their superior weaponry. Had it been possible for the Mexicans to step out of their egoless attitude, the Spanish victory would have been less certain and assuredly more difficult. (5–6)

The mythical structure

Just as the archaic structure was an expression of zero-dimensional identity and original wholeness, and the magic structure an expression of one-dimensional unity and man’s merging with nature, so is the mythical structure the expression of two-dimensional polarity. (66) While, according to Gebser, the liberating struggle against nature in the magic structure brought about a disengagement from nature and an awareness of the external world, the mythical structure leads to the emergent awareness of the internal world of the soul. The mythical structure is also distinct from the magic in that it bears the stamp of the imagination rather than the stress of emotion.

In the magic structure, the vital connections reach awareness and are manifested in emotional forms: in actions dominated by impulse and instinct and subordinate to the demands and ramifications of spontaneous, affective reactions such as sympathy and antipathy. We have already spoken of the pre-perspectival nature of the one-dimensional magic structure; it is spaceless and timeless, and has an emotional and instinctual consciousness responsive to the demands of nature and the earth. The mythical structure, however, whose unperspectival two-dimensionality has a latent predisposition to perspectivity, has an imaginatory consciousness, reflected in the imagistic nature of myth and responsive to the soul and sky of the ancient cosmos.

Although still distant from space, the mythical structure is already on the verge of time. The imaginatory consciousness still alternates between magical timelessness and the dawning awareness of natural cosmic periodicity. The farther myth stands removed from consciousness, the greater its degree of timelessness. . . . By contrast, the closer its proximity to consciousness, the greater its emphasis on time. . . . The great cosmogonical images in the early myths are the soul’s recollection of the world’s origination. In later myths, the soul recalls the genesis of earth and man, reflecting the powers of light and darkness in the images of the gods. Slowly the timeless becomes temporal; there is a gradual transition from remote timelessness to tangible periodicity. (67)

The mental structure

The philosopher Immanuel Kant is justly famous for his insight that space and time, rather than being features of a mind-independent “real” world “out there,” are “pure forms of experience.” What Kant apparently did not realize is that the “pure forms” of our present consciousness are temporally limited; they arose by a mutation of consciousness and they will be superseded by another mutation of consciousness. Scarcely five hundred years ago, during the Renaissance, an unmistakable reorganization of our consciousness occurred: the discovery of perspective which opened up the three-dimensionality of space. This discovery is so closely linked with the entire intellectual attitude of the modern epoch that we have felt obliged to call this age the age of perspectivity and characterize the age immediately preceding it as the “unperspectival” age. These definitions, by recognizing a fundamental characteristic of these eras, lead to the further appropriate definition of the age of the dawning new consciousness as the “a-perspectival” age, a definition supported not only by the results of modern physics, but also by developments in the visual arts and literature, where the incorporation of time as a fourth dimension into previously spatial conceptions has formed the initial basis for manifesting the “new.” (2) Restricting ourselves here primarily to the art of the Christian era, we can distinguish two major self-contained epochs among the many artistic styles, followed today by an incipient third. The first encompasses the era up to the Renaissance, the other, now coming to a close, extends up to the present. The decisive and distinguishing characteristic of these epochs is the respective absence or presence of perspective. . . The achievement of perspective indicates man’s discovery and consequent coming to awareness of space, whereas the unrealized perspective indicates that space is dormant in man and that he is not yet awakened to it. . . .

The illuminated manuscripts and gilt ground of early Romanesque painting depict the unperspectival world that retained the prevailing constitutive elements of Mediterranean antiquity. Not until the Gothic, the forerunner of the Renaissance, was there a shift in emphasis. Before that space is not yet our depth-space, but rather a cavern (and vault), or simply an in-between space; in both instances it is undifferentiated space. This situation bespeaks for us a hardly conceivable enclosure in the world, an intimate bond between outer and inner suggestive of a correspondence — only faintly discernible — between soul and nature. This condition was gradually destroyed by the expansion and growing strength of Christianity, whose teaching of detachment from nature transforms this destruction into an act of liberation. (9–10)

Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux

There is a document extant that unforgettably depicts the struggle of a man caught between two worlds. It is a letter of the thirty-two year old Petrarch written in 1336 to Francesco Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro. In it he describes his ascent of Mount Ventoux, a mountain in Southern France, to the northeast of Avignon, where the Rhône separates the French Alps from the Cevennes and the principal mountain range of Central France. For [Petrarch’s] time, his description is an epochal event and signifies no less than the discovery of landscape: the first dawning of an awareness of space that resulted in a fundamental alteration of European man’s attitude in and toward the world. . . . Petrarch’s letter is in the nature of a confession; it is addressed to the Augustinian professor of theology who had taught him to treasure and emulate Augustine’s Confessions. Now, a person makes a confession or an admission only if he believes he has transgressed against something; and it is this vision of space, as extended before him from the mountain top, this vision of space as a reality, and its overwhelming impression, together with his shock and dismay, his bewilderment at his perception and acceptance of the panorama, that are reflected in his letter. It marks him as the first European to step out of the transcendental gilt ground of the Siena masters, the first to emerge from a space dormant in time and soul, into “real” space where he discovers landscape. . . .

“Yesterday I climbed the highest mountain of our region,” he begins the letter, “motivated solely by the wish to experience its renowned height. For many years this has been in my soul and, as you well know, I have roamed this region since my childhood. The mountain, visible from far and wide, was nearly always present before me; my desire gradually increased until it became so intense that I resolved to yield to it. . . . While still climbing, I urged myself forward by the thought that what I experienced today will surely benefit myself as well as many others who desire the blessed life.” Once Petrarch reaches the summit . . . his narrative becomes unsettled; the shifts of tense indicate his intense agitation even at the mere recollection of his experience at the summit. “Shaken by the unaccustomed wind and the wide, freely shifting vistas, I was immediately awe-struck. I look: the clouds lay beneath my feet. [. . .] I look toward Italy, whither turned my soul even more than my gaze, and sigh at the sight of the Italian sky which appeared more to my spirit than to my eyes, and I was overcome by an inexpressible longing to return home. [. . .] Suddenly a new thought seized me, transporting me from space into time. I said to myself: it has been ten years since you left Bologna. [. . .]” In the lines that follow, recollecting a decade of suffering, and preoccupied by the overpowering desire for his homeland that befell him during the unaccustomed sojourn on the summit, he reveals that his thoughts have turned inward. Still marked by his encounter with what was then a new reality, yet shaken by its effect, he flees “from space into time,” out of the first experience with space back to the goldground of the Siena masters.

Having confessed his anguish and unburdened his soul, he describes further his perception of space: “Then I turn westward; in vain my eye searches for the ridge of the Pyrenees, boundary between France and Spain. [. . .] To my right I see the mountains of Lyon, to the left the Mediterranean surf washes against Marseille before it breaks on AiguesMortes.

Though the distance was considerable, we could see clearly; the Rhône itself lay beneath our gaze.” Once again he turns away and yields to something indicative of his poetic sensibility. Helpless in the face of the expanse before him and groping for some kind of moral support, he opens a copy of Augustine’s Confessions where he chances upon a phrase. It stems from that realm of the soul to which he had turned his gaze after his initial encounter with landscape. “God and my companion are witnesses,” he writes, “that my glance fell upon the passage: ‘And men went forth to behold the high mountains and the mighty surge of the sea, and the broad stretches of the rivers and the inexhaustible ocean, and the paths of the stars, and so doing, lose themselves in wonderment’.”

Once more, he is terrified, only this time less by his encounter with space than by the encounter with his soul of which he is reminded by the chance discovery of Augustine’s words. “I admit I was overcome with wonderment,” he continues; “I begged my brother who also desired to read the passage not to disturb me, and closed the book. I was irritated for having turned my thoughts to mundane matters at such a moment, for even the Pagan philosophers should have long since taught me that there is nothing more wondrous than the soul, and that compared to its greatness nothing is great.” Pausing for a new paragraph, he continues with these surprising words: “My gaze, fully satisfied by contemplating the mountain [i.e., only after a conscious and exhaustive survey of the panorama], my eyes turned inward; and then we fell silent. . . .” Although obscured by psychological reservations and the memory of his physical exertion, the concluding lines of his letter suggest an ultimate affirmation of his ascent and the attendant experience: “So much perspiration and effort just to bring the body a little closer to heaven; the soul, when approaching God, must be similarly terrified.”

The struggle initiated by his internalization of space into his soul — or, if you will, the externalization of space out of his soul — continued in Petrarch from that day on Mount Ventoux until the end of his life. The old world where only the soul is wonderful and worthy of contemplation . . . now begins to collapse. There is a gradual but increasingly evident shift from time to space until the soul wastes away in the materialism of the nineteenth century, a loss obvious to most people today that only the most recent generations have begun to counter in new ways. (12–15)

Birth of matter, ego hypertrophy

The transition mirrored in Petrarch’s letter of six hundred years ago was primarily an unprecedented extension of man’s image of the world. The event that Petrarch describes in almost prophetic terms as “certainly of benefit to himself and many others” inaugurates a new realistic, individualistic, and rational understanding of nature. The freer treatment of space and landscape is already manifest in the work of Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Giotto. . . . With Leonardo the perspectival means and techniques attain their perfection. His Trattato delia Pittura . . . is the first truly scientific and not merely theoretical description of all possible types of perspective. It is the first detailed discussion of light as the visible reality of our eyes and not, as was previously believed, as a symbol of the divine spirit. This emergent illumination dispels any remaining obscurities surrounding perspective, and reveals Leonardo as the courageous discoverer of aerial and color, as opposed to linear, perspective. . . . Above and beyond this Leonardo’s establishment of the laws of perspective is significant in that it made technical drafting feasible and thereby initiated the technological age. (12–19) Space is the insistent concern of this era. In underscoring this assertion, we have relied only on the testimony of its most vivid manifestation, the discovery of perspective. We did, however, mention in passing that at the very moment when Leonardo discovers space and solves the problem of perspective, thereby creating the possibility for spatial objectification in painting, other events occur which parallel his discovery. Copernicus, for example, shatters the limits of the geocentric sky and discovers heliocentric space; Columbus goes beyond the encompassing Oceanos and discovers earth’s space: Vesalius, the first major anatomist, bursts the confines of Galen’s ancient doctrines of the human body and discovers the body’s space; Harvey destroys the precepts of Hippocrates’ humoral medicine and reveals the circulatory system. . . . Galileo penetrates even deeper into space by perfecting the telescope, discovered only shortly before in Holland, and employing it for astronomical studies — preparations for man’s ultimate conquest of air and suboceanic space that came later and realized the designs already conceived and drawn up in advance by Leonardo.

This intense desire evident at the turn of the sixteenth century to conquer space, and to break through the flat ancient cavern wall, is exemplified not only by the transition from sacred fresco painting to that on canvas, but even by the most minute and mundane endeavors. It was around this time that lace was first introduced; and here we see that even the fabric could no longer serve merely as a surface, but had to be broken open, as it were, to reveal the visibility of the background or substratum. Nor is it accidental that in those years of the discovery of space via perspective, the incursions into the various spatial worlds mentioned above brought on with finality a transformation of the world into a spatial, that is, a sectored world. The previous unity breaks apart; not only is the world segmented and fragmented, but the age of colonialism and the other divisions begins: schisms and splits in the church, conquests and power politics, unbounded technology, and all types of emancipations.

The over-emphasis on space and spatiality that increases with every century since 1500 is at once the greatness as well as the weakness of perspectival man. His over-emphasis on the “objectively” external, a consequence of an excessively visual orientation, leads not only to rationalization and haptification but to an unavoidable hypertrophy of the “I,” which is in confrontation with the external world. (21–22)

Perspective locates the observer as well as the observed. It locates the “I” in a tiny part of an ever-widening space. In order for it to be adequate to its expanding world, the “I” must be increasingly emphasized. While unperspectival consciousness inhabits a world of images, perspective consciousness inhabits a world of images that are synthesized into three-dimensional objects, which appear to exist independently both of the “I” and of each other. Their double independence is what makes these objects “material.” At the same time, this increasing materialization of the world occasions a corresponding rigidification of the ego. Thus, on the one hand, the expansion of space brings on the gradual expansion and consequent disintegration of the “I” and, on the other hand, the materialization of the world rigidifies and encapsulates the ”I”.

Although man’s horizons expanded, his world became increasingly narrow as his vision was sectorized by the blinders of the perspectival world view. The gradual movement toward clearer vision was accompanied by a proportionate narrowing of his visual sector. The deeper and farther we extend our view into space, the narrower is the sector of our visual pyramid. As it developed over the centuries, this state of affairs gave rise to the most destructive of the stigmas of our age: the universal intolerance that prevails today and the fanaticism to which it leads. A person who is anxious, or who is fleeing from something, or who is lost either with respect to his own ego or with respect to the world — it holds equally true in both instances — is a person who will always be intolerant, as he feels threatened in his vital interests. He “sees” only a vanishing point lost in the misty distance (the vanishing point of linear perspective of which Leonardo once wrote); and he feels obliged to defend his point fanatically, lest he lose his world entirely.

The European of today, either as an individual or as a member of the collective, can perceive only his own sector. This is true of all spheres, the religious as well as the political, the social as well as the scientific. The rise of Protestantism fragmented religion; the ascendancy of national states divided the Christian Occident into separate individual states; the rise of political parties divided the people (or the former Christian community) into political interest groups. In the sciences, this process of segmentation led to the contemporary state of narrow specialization and the “great achievements” of the man with tunnel vision. . . . As for a simple onward progression and continuity (which has almost taken on the character of a flight), they lead only to further sectors of particularization and, ultimately, to atomization. After that, what remains, like what was left in the crater of Hiroshima, is only an amorphous dust; and it is probable that at least one part of humanity will follow this path, at least in “spirit,” i.e., psychologically. (23)

Mental time

The temporicity of myth differs from the temporality of the mind. The temporistic movement of nature and the cosmos is unaware of the temporal phases of past, present, and future; it knows only the polar self-complementarity of coming and going which completely pervades it at all times. It is devoid of directionality, whereas the past and the future, viewed from the present of any given person, are temporal directions. It is this directional character of “time” which underscores its mental nature and therefore its constitutional difference from natural-cosmic temporistic movement which is mythical in nature. Or, we might say that [mental] time differs from [mythical] temporicity because of its directedness. (173)

As soon as the Now is interposed as an “in between” between past and future, it ceases to be a purely mental modality of time and becomes a spatialized modality. It is no longer merely oriented, but has the additional (and deficient) aspect of spatiality. . . . This setting-fast of time as “in-betweenness” is a perversion of time, since time thereby acquires spatiality. (179)

By being interposed between past and future, the Now becomes as divider. And by thinking of past, present, and future as “parts” of time, it is time itself that gets divided. Pointing to the “lack of time” characteristic of our material, spatially accentuated world, Gebser asks rhetorically: “How is anyone to have time if he tears it apart?” (180) By virtue of the fact that it was itself divided, time became measurable; but it thereby forfeited its original character. (178)

Time as a quality or an intensity was simply not taken into account and was deemed to be only an accidental and inessential phenomenon. Time, however, is a much more complex phenomenon than the mere instrumentality or accidence of chronological time. The fact that we today still think in terms of the spatial, fixed, three-dimensional world of conceptuality is an obstacle to our realization of the more complex significance of the phenomenon. . . . As long as the epoch paid tribute to the three-dimensional world conception, time remained a suppressed force, and as such appeared with a vengeance when it was finally freed (or freed itself). (285–286)

“I have no time” — this million-fold remark by man today is symptomatic. “Time,” even in this still negative form is his overriding preoccupation; but when speaking of time, man today still thinks of clock time. How shocked he would be if he were to realize that he is also saying “I have no soul” and “I have no life”! For perspectival man, time did not yet pose a problem. Only man today who is now awakening or mutating toward the aperspectival consciousness takes note of every hour of his apparent lack of time that drives him to the brink of despair. (288)

[T]he one-sided emphasis on space, which has its extreme expression in materialism and naturalism, gives rise to an ever-greater unconscious feeling of guilt about time, the neglected component of our manifest world. As we approach the decline of the perspectival age, it is our anxiety about time that stands out as the dominant characteristic alongside our ever more absurd obsession with space. It manifests itself in various ways, such as in our addiction to time. Everyone is out to “gain time,” although the time gained is usually the wrong kind: time that is transformed into a visible multiplication of spatially fragmented “activity,” or time that one has “to kill.” Our time anxiety shows up in our haptification of time . . . and is expressed in our attempt to arrest time and hold onto it through its materialization. Many are convinced that “time is money,” although again this is almost invariably falsified time, a time that can be turned into money, but not time valid in its own right. A further expression of man’s current helplessness in the face of time is his compulsion to “fill” time; he regards it as something empty and spatial like a bucket or container, devoid of any qualitative character. But time is in itself fulfilled and not something that has to be “filled up” or “filled out.” Finally, our contemporary anxiety about time is manifest in our flight from it: in our haste and rush, and by our constant reiteration, “I have no time.” It is only too evident that we have space but no time; time has us because we are not yet aware of its entire reality. Contemporary man looks for time, albeit mostly in the wrong place, despite, or indeed because of his lack of time: and this is precisely his tragedy, that he spatializes time and seeks to locate it “somewhere.” This spatial attachment — in its extreme form a spatial fixation — prevents him from finding an escape from spatial captivity. . . . (22–23)

In everyday life, few are aware that the motorization, mechanization, and technologization impose quantitative conditions on man that lead to an immeasurable loss of freedom. Machines, film, press, radio [today we can add to these the electronic time sinks of TV, video-games, and the Internet] lead not only to mediocrity and a dependency relationship, but also to an increasing de-individuation and atomization of the individual. The extent of these dangers is exemplified by present-day sports. What was once play has become a frenzy of record-setting. The attendant devotion of the individual — submerging himself in the mass of spectators — to a worthless phenomenon is a symptom of the contemporary transitional era. The addiction to speed [and, nowadays, doping] reveals the deep anxiety in the face of time; each new record is a further step toward the “killing of time” (and thus of life). The preoccupation with records is a clear sign of the predominant role of time. Even the mass psyche is enslaved by time; it attempts to surpass and free itself from time in a negative way without realizing that each new record brings us closer to the death of time instead of leading to freedom from it. The addiction to overcoming time negatively is everywhere evident. . . . Precisely these exertions, fleeing into quantification, are a temporal flight born of the time-anxiety which dominates our daily lives. (537)

In summary, then, the following picture emerges: there is on the one hand anxiety about time and one’s powerlessness against it, and on the other, a “delight” resulting from the conquest of space and the attendant expansion of power; there is also the isolation of the individual or group or cultural sphere as well as the collectivization of the same individuals in interest groups. This tension between anxiety and delight, isolation and collectivization is the ultimate result of an epoch which has outlived itself. Nevertheless, this epoch could serve as a guarantee that we reach a new “target,” if we could utilize it much as the arrow uses an over-taut bow string. Yet like the arrow, our epoch must detach itself from the extremes that make possible the tension behind its flight toward the target. Like the arrow on the string, our epoch must find the point where the target is already latently present: the equilibrium between anxiety and delight, isolation and collectivization. Only then can it liberate itself from deficient unperspectivity and perspectivity, and achieve what we shall call, also because of its liberating character, the aperspectival world. (22–23)

The danger of regression

We must again approach here . . . a phenomenon that is truly terrifying so long as we remain unenlightened about it. We refer to the incursion of deficient magic phenomena into our world — the regression noticeable everywhere of our rational attitude to one of deficient magic. It is not as if the mythical attitude alone is over-activated today, although the imagistic aspect of the cinema or the inflation of psychic imagery made conscious are clear testimony of a process of unbridled and uncontrolled regression to the deficient mythical structure. Far stronger than this is the regression to the deficient magic structure. The relation of both the magic and the mental structures toward something outside of themselves — that of the magic to nature and of the mental to the world — results in a stronger affinity between them than between either and the mythical. . . .

Let this one example suffice to show the basic point: wherever we encounter a predo- minance of insistent requests (and fanaticism is a request blindly elevated to a demand which not only petitions but compels); wherever we find a prevalence of the idea of unification in whatever form — a doctrine of unity, the establishment of an association, a huge organization, a one-party state and the like; wherever we encounter a stress on the concept of obedience, as in an overemphasis on the military, or of belonging and belongings, as in the property claims of capitalistic trusts or family patriarchies; and in general wherever we meet up with overweening emotionalism as in mass assemblies, propaganda, slogans, and the like, we may conclude that we are dealing mainly with essentially deficient manifestations of magic. . . . Wherever we encounter an immoderate emphasis on the imagistic, the ambivalent, the psychic — on unbridled phantasy, imagination, or power of fancy — we may conclude the presence of a deficient mythical attitude that threatens the whole or integrality. And, too, wherever we are caught up in the labyrinthine network of mere concepts, or meet up with a one-sided emphasis on willful or voluntaristic manifestations or attempts at spasmodic synthesis (trinitary, tripartite, dialectical), isolation, or mass-phenomena, we may assuredly conclude the presence of a deficient mental, that is, extreme rationalistic source. (153–154)

Synthesis: a rational (deficient-mental) process

What the mythical structure treats as poles of an indivisible polarity (indivisible like the north and south poles of a magnet), the mental structure treats as opposites or antitheses of a duality. Duality is the mental splitting and tearing apart of polarity. . . . Whereas there is a totality, even though deficient, which can be recompleted in the form of complementarity within the mythical structure, from duality only a deficient, because unstable, form of unity can be realized as the unification of opposites in a third aspect. . . . This unstable form of unity is expressed by the fact that the antitheses or contraries are only able to beget a third element in a temporary for-better-or-worse union, a tertium which is again separated at the moment of its birth. (86)

Having been separated at the moment of its birth, the tertium becomes one of yet another pair of opposites or antitheses.

[I]t does not represent a new unity but merely a quantity that becomes dependent on its antithesis or opposite, with which it in turn creates once more a momentarily unifying tertium. In this we see a further characteristic of our civilization: quantification — for the unification or synthesis via a third element can never be completed in time, only in the moment. The third element, freeing itself, becomes the procreator and carrier of one of the contraries able to engender a new unification and synthesis. . . . Seen as speculation, we could say that the speculative trinity proceeds from dualism and is expressed in what we shall later call triangular or pyramidal thinking when we discuss forms of thought; and such pyramidal thinking, which is characteristic of Plato, has its most trenchant expression in the Hegelian axiom of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. (86)"

More Information

The book: The Ever-Present Origin

"Ursprung und Gegenwart is the magnum opus of cultural historian and evolutionary philosopher Jean Gebser. Its two parts were first published in 1949 and 1953, respectively. As early as 1951, the Bollingen Foundation  contemplated the feasibility of an English-language version. In his eight-page review, the distinguished philosopher of history and author of studies of the evolution of human consciousness Erich Kahler (Man the Measure, 1943; The Tower and the Abyss, 1957) encouraged publication, calling the book “a very important, indeed in some respects pioneering piece of work,” “vastly, solidly, and subtly documented by a wealth of anthropological, mythological, linguistic, artistic, philosophical, and scientific material which is shown in its multifold and striking interrelationship.” Gebser’s study, he wrote “treads new paths, opens new vistas” and is “brilliantly written, [introducing] many valuable new terms and distinctions [and showing] that scholarly precision and faithfulness to given data are compatible with a broad, imaginative, and spiritual outlook.” Despite this warmly appreciative and incisive estimation, the first complete English translation was undertaken only in 1975, by Professors Noel Barstad (Modern Languages) and Algis Mickunas (Philosophy) at the University of Ohio. In 1977, after discussions with the author’s widow, Professor Barstad undertook a complete retranslation and is responsible for the English version in its present form. The Ever-Present Origin  was eventually published in 1985 by Ohio University Press."