Reflections on Giegerich’s "End of Meaning"

Reflections on Wolfgang Giegerich’s “The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man”

by Dolores Brien

In 2004 the C.G. Jung Institute of New York published in its Journal of Jungian Theory and Practice, an essay by Wolfgang Giegerich, “The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man: an Essay about the State Reached in the History of Consciousness and an Analysis of C.G. Jung’s Psychology Project.” (V. 6, No. 1 2004). According to its editor Stanton Marlan, the essay was entirely devoted to the essay, “precisely because of its controversial and provocative nature. It has stirred deep and passionate responses from many who have read it.” Included in this edition were responses to Giegerich’s essay by John Beebe, David Miller, Greg Mogenson and Terry Pulver. 

I can attest to the deep and passionate responses the essay surely evoked. I read “The End of Meaning” when it was first posted on the CGJungPage. What follows is from my weblog, “Words into Stillness” ( These passages were my attempt, in an admittedly random fashion, to understand from my personal perspective, what Giegerich meant with his “end of meaning.”  The essay continues to resonate with me and I return to it often, because there is still much in it to ponder and to grapple with.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Grown up and On Our Own

Some seventy years ago, C.G. Jung announced the emergence of "modern man as an entirely new phenomenon. " What distinguishes the truly modern man from the rest is his highly evolved consciousness. Unlike the mass of men (which includes those "up to­-date," but false "moderns") Jung's modern man has separated himself from the collective unconscious. "Indeed, he is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before the Nothing out of which All may grow." His situation, however, has created a problem which is also new in the history of consciousness. Where now is psyche to be found? Psyche is no longer available to him in the culture as a whole, not even in the forms such as religion once provided. "That age lies as far behind as childhood itself." As a result modern man realizes he has nowhere else to go but has been "thrown back upon himself." Psyche can only be found within.

To my mind Jungian philosopher-psychologist Wolfgang Giegerich is one such modern man. There are few who are more awake to the reality of this world in which we now live or who have done more to shake us free from the stale habits of thought and assumptions which keep us ignorant of this reality, (however much we think of ourselves as "up to date," "contemporary.") Once again he demonstrates this extraordinary ability in his "The End of Meaning and the Birth of Man.”  As we have come to expect from Giegerich (also, writing as he does, seventy years later), he makes us re-think this phenomenon (no longer so new after all), taking us further and deeper than we may want to go, but where we must go if we are to be fully conscious of what it is to be human today in this twentyfirst century.

The essay is demanding, but Giegerich employs clarifying examples, often from myths and metaphors that are often as satisfyingly simple to understand as "fish in water" and "sugar in your coffee." There are ten parts to the essay. Part 1 brings into question a theme identified with Jungian psychology--that modern man suffers from a loss of meaning. It could be, Giegerich proposes, that this constant search for meaning is itself symptomatic of that illness. Parts 2 and 3: Pre-modern man did not suffer from meaninglessness. He was immersed in meaning which were articulated for him in myth, religion and in metaphysics. Through the development of science, technology, industrialization, and exploration, modern man has become conscious that he is no longer embedded in a worldview which provides him with "meaning." The center of the universe is now the individual, who has no ready-made meaning to depend on but is responsible for himself. In Part 4 Giegerich discusses the possible responses to this situation: either by holding on to the truth of the past in denial of the new situation; or owning up to the situation and re-thinking it. Part 5: Jung on the death of symbols (such as "meaning"). Part 6 and 7:The heart of the essay in which Giegerich claims that man remains "unborn" until he is fully adult, mature, no longer dependent on parents, but on his own. No more God as Father, or Church as Mother, or Nature as Mother. He is truly born for the first time when his consciousness is capable of integrating the contents of the past as historical and not as present reality or "mystery." In parts 8 and 9 the fate of God or Gods is discussed as is the feeling of loss and need and whether this feeling is even appropriate. A final Part 10, a lengthy critique of Jungian and Hillmanian psychology.

In the following postings, I want to sum up, if I can, my understanding of this essay as it unfolds part by part. But I also want to connect it with my own experience. So many of Giegerich's essays have had a deep influence on my thinking, but this one speaks to me with exceptional power because I recognize in it the course of my life's trajectory. Not that I am making any claim to being a "modern woman" or having achieved a fully developed consciousness. But there is something consoling, even inspiriting, about the possibility that our individual lives can reflect evolving human consciousness in however dim a mirror.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The Meaning of Meaning

In "The End of Meaning" Giegerich is not writing a philosophic treatise on the meaning of "meaning." You won't find in it a discussion about whether or not life is worthwhile or not, or has purpose and a goal. He is interested in the question of meaning and its loss in the context (as he specifies in the essay's title) "a state reached in the history of consciousness."

The commonplace response to the question "What does meaning mean?" is that it has to do with value or worth, or purpose or goal which makes life worth living. For many, perhaps the majority, religious belief endows life with meaning. For some it will be a noble cause to live and die for. It may be the love of another human being, the love between parents and children, the love of one's country. In truth, most of us don't ask this question except perhaps in times of suffering, disillusionment, or bereavement. We go through life taking for granted that somehow life must mean something.

First, Giegerich tells us what meaning is not. It is not something that can be possessed. One cannot have it. Nor is it a "content," an "entity," nor "a creed, a doctrine, a world view, also not something like “the fairy tale treasure hard to attain." Secondly, he tells us what it is. Meaning is "an implicit fact of existence, it's a priori." As such it cannot be the answer to a question. Indeed, it is an "unquestioned and unquestionable certainty." "It is the groundedness of existence, a sense of embeddedness in life, of containment in the world--perhaps we could even say of in-ness as the logic of existence as such." Meaning is as "self-evident as the in-ness in water is for fish." This was the condition of the pre-modern human being who could not have questioned the meaning of his life anymore than the fish could have.

Others, of course, have described this pre-modern condition. Anthropologist Levy-Brühl described the identification of the pre-modern with his world as a participation mystique. Jung drew on this concept in developing his own theory of the collective unconscious. Owen Barfield refers to an original participation in which the consciousness of the pre-modern makes no distinction between his own mind and nature, between his inner world and the outer world of his environment (physical and cultural). More recently, Morris Berman writes of the participating consciousness of the pre-modern which, with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, evolves into a non-participating consciousness.

Owen Barfield makes a necessary distinction between the evolution of consciousness and its history. Evolution of consciousness is a natural, biological process in which man as animal is included. But unlike all the rest of nature, man is also "a doer" and "a knower," which of necessity implies a conscious process. As consciousness evolved historically, humankind could no longer be considered "simply a part of nature" but is, in fact, positioned" over against nature. The world in which the pre-modern was "contained", Giegerich tells us, was interpreted for him by the religion, myths or metaphysics of his society. (Like Giegerich, Barfield thought that the metaphysics of pre-modern people "is implicit in what they take for granted about the world. ") In sum, the pre-moderns were unable, even if they had wanted it, to live outside the box of given truths, or universals and of the laws of nature which made up their world. The moderns, on the contrary, climbed out of the box with consequences which would be regretted as well as acclaimed.

For the modern man a permanent separation occurred between himself and his world so that he could only, as Giegerich puts it, take a position towards that world (or as Barfield expressed it "over and against" it). How or why this occurred Giegerich has little to say, except to observe that "Man must have stepped out of his previous absolute containment in life, so that he now was both enabled and forced to view life as if from outside. . . .Man now for the first time had a position to the world per se." By the nineteenth modern man recognizes that a great price had been paid for achieving a more highly developed consciousness. He is no longer certain about the meaning of life which he had once taken for granted and must find or create that meaning for himself.

Giegerich does not discuss this explicitly, but there has always been and to this day there still is an overlap between pre-modern and modern consciousness, which accounts for much of the feeling of loss especially of old traditional values within an increasingly debased culture. The spread of religious fundamentalism is only one of the more prominent examples. Many moderns, Berman, for example, are nostalgic about the box. Mourning the demise of our earlier, participating consciousness, he calls for a new participating consciousness which would reunite us with nature and restore the "enchantment" of that lost world. But for Giegerich, the modern man cannot reverse the course of evolutionary consciousness, even if he wanted to and should he think he has succeeded in doing so, he would eventually find the box unbearable.

The intellectual, religious and scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century are most frequently cited as the crucible from which modern consciousness fully emerged. I believe, however,  the achievement of the modern had logically to be preceded by the historical development of the notion of the self. Its origins, it is true, cannot be dated, but probably go back further into our deep past that we might suppose. Erich Auerbach tells of one such critical shift which happened as far back as the twelfth century. In the early part of that century, heroes of the medieval epic (Chanson de Roland) functioned with a communal purpose--to serve the interests of their family, religion or country. Only fifty years later the heroes of the medieval romance (the Knights of the Grail) had no such purpose in mind, but set out on their adventures motivated by a purely personal quest for self-realization. The history of consciousness is also the history of the human quest for individuality. Without it the inventions, discoveries, and other achievements of the modern era would be unthinkable.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Afterthought 1

I have a problem with such broad categories as "pre-modern" and "modern," although they are unavoidable. If I try to determine to which category I belong, I find that although I incline more to the modern, there is still much of me that is pre-modern. And that goes for our Western culture as a whole, which is profoundly conflicted about which direction to take. Can we go on living in the secure pre-modern container provided by traditional culture? Or to be fully modern, as Giegerich sees it, must we acknowledge our adulthood without Father (God), Mother (Nature or Church) to provide for us with the in-ness of our previous condition? Or can we have it both ways as Morris Berman advises, creating a new way of containment which will give us the advantages of the modern without surrendering the values of the pre­modern?

As for myself I have moved towards the modern as Giegerich interprets it, but carry with me the baggage of the pre-modern. I have not been able to leave it behind, because I am not sure I want to, at least not all of it. Admittedly, nostalgia accounts for some of this. When I attend the quasi-secular, quasi-religious memorial services for the dead (I've been going to quite a few of them lately) or when I find myself resisting the "Christmas spirit" which is mostly commercial, but is also sincere and heart-felt for those among whom I live, unbidden nostalgia sets in. Although I left it behind me long ago, I yearn at these times for the Catholic liturgy. A few years ago I went to a friend's funeral held in an Episcopalian Church. The Mass was as far as I could tell, nearly identical with a Catholic Mass. I do not know how to express it adequately, but there was a certain aesthetic, emotional and yes, spiritual appropriateness to it in the face of the mystery of a life and a death. I confess to having had a feeling of in-ness. All of us, relatives and friends were gathered there as if contained in an invisible vessel which not only supported us but lifted us upwards towards something greater than ourselves. That apparent need for the transcendent is far from obsolete, even among the moderns, as David Noble, Robert Romanyshyn and Eric Davis among others have pointed out. Is nostalgia merely sentimental or does it tell us that we are not wrong in mourning such loss?

Not wrong, but there is wise advice in the Jewish saying that we must grieve deeply for the dead, but that the deepest grieving must also come to an end. Of course, for many the liturgical tradition, to give it only as one example, is far from being dead. But then there are those of us who are neither here nor there, not entirely pre-modern and not entirely modern, left somewhere in the uncomfortable, uncertain and confused middle. But I have gotten ahead of Giegerich's story and so back to "The End of Meaning."

Monday, January 05, 2004

Afterthought: 2

In describing the pre-modern condition Giegerich turns to ancient myths which tell of the cosmos and man's place in it in terms of a surrounding stream, serpent, wide girdle or band (the Greek Okeanos, the Germanic Midgard Serpent, the World Encircler of the Egyptians or Bitter River of the Babylonians). Human existence is enclosed within that space, from which there is no exit. Myths, such as the Germanic World Tree, which relate the separation of the conjoined world parents, do not change the situation. Human existence remains "sandwiched in between" the parents Mother Earth and Father Heaven. Bound to the earth below man's worshipful gaze turns upward to the heavens.

The enclosed cosmos is represented not only in myth, but also pictorially, from the Middle Ages at least, right up to the modern era. Leaf through Alexander Roob's fascinating Alchemy & Mysticism and you will find numerous, stunning examples of an orderly universe with God and man, heaven and earth, good and evil, the natural and the supernatural assigned their proper place within the cosmic wheel. Although most of the images are from the sixteenth and seventeenth century, there are a few examples from the twelfth and thirteenth, with a splendid one by the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. According to the descriptive commentary, "The divine love of the son appears to her as a red, cosmic figure in the sky, dwarfed only by the goodness of the Father. In his breast appeared the Wheel of the World with the bright fire of light and the black fire of justice as the outermost bounds of the universe. The twelve animals' heads represent winds and virtues, which together produce the system of reference in which man can exist as the crown of creation."

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the human figure, limbs outstretched towards the circumference of the heavens, is seen more frequently occupying the entire space. A presentiment, perhaps, of the gradual transfer of attention from the heavens at the edge of the cosmos to the individual within. With alchemical images, however, something even more radical occurs. The circle or wheel is replaced by the alchemical vessel or retort which although round at the base, is open at the top, suggesting that, at last, the circle has been broken through. The alchemist's attitude towards nature, as Giegerich observes (in his book The Soul's Logical Life), was not submissive. On the contrary, experimenting with mercury and other material substances, he actively intervenes in nature in an attempt to transform it for his own purposes--a thoroughly modern ambition. Although he properly belongs to the pre-modern era, the alchemist is a bridge to the modern.

In our own time we will not find images of the cosmos and man's place in it, comparable to the contemplative, ordering image of the pre-modern. Films, television, advertising, and the arts swamp us with violent images of fragmentation and chaos. Although we still look to the heavens in awe, we know the gods have no place there, nor is it the dwelling of Our Father in Heaven. Instead we know them to be unimaginable forces of matter and energy, which confound our common sense understanding of time and space. The spectacle of the heavens that we see with our super-telescopes is astonishingly beautiful but utterly impersonal and indifferent. We humans exist isolated and alone in a terrifying cosmos without a center or without a circumference to give an ordering shape to our lives.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004
Afterthought  3

Jung's idea of the death of symbols

Years ago, I stopped going to Mass. It was a deliberate decision. I had been uneasy about the Mass for quite some time, finding it no longer held much meaning for me. I also wondered whether in fact it ever had, a troublesome thought, considering that the Mass had been the center, for many years, of my communal, spiritual life. But I ceased going to Mass without debating with myself whether I should or shouldn't. Nor did I experience any guilt about doing so. My tenuous link with this holiest of rituals had broken and I was not about to try to fix it. Jung called this experience "the death of a symbol." He himself used the Mass as an example of what happens to a symbol when it ceases to be a living one:

Doubt has killed it, has devoured it. So you cannot go back. I cannot go back to the Catholic Church, I cannot experience the miracle of the Mass, I know too much about it. I know it is the truth, but it is the truth in a form in which I cannot accept it any more. I cannot say, “This is the Sacrifice of Christ,”and seem him any more. I cannot. It is no more true to me; it does not express my psychological condition. My psychological condition wants something else. I must have a situation in which that thing becomes true once more. I need a new form. (CW 18, para. 632)

Jung goes on to describe how the death of a symbol may leave the individual with a sense of being cast outside the Church, extra ecclesiam. If there is no salvation outside the Church, there is no longer the "All-compassionate Mother" to save you from hell. The result is a loneliness which cannot be quenched.

You can be a member of a society with a thousand members, and you are still alone. The thing in you which should live is alone; nobody touches it, nobody knows it, you yourself don't know it; but it keeps on stirring, it disturbs you, it makes you restless, and it gives you no peace. CW 18, para. 632.

From my own experience I can vouch that this is psychologically true, although I don't think it drove me into any sort of neurosis (which was what Jung was talking about--­people losing their faith and becoming neurotic). There is an aspect of this experience which may prevent a neurotic reaction: a sense of liberation from the burden of passive conformity to an ideal which you now recognize as being inauthentic. By inauthentic I don't mean living a lie, but rather suppressing one's own thought and feelings for the benefit of a higher good, for example, the community to which you belong.

It is interesting to me, although I do not understand it fully, that Jung claims that there is truth to a once-living symbol ( for example, the Mass). The task is to find that situation "in which that thing becomes true once more." It requires a "new form." The possibility that you might have given yourself to beliefs and practices which were fundamentally untrue is far worse than finding yourself alone outside the ecclesiam. I have not given much thought, I admit, to the truth of the Mass much less to what form its truth might have now. But intuitively I believe this to be true, just as I believe it to be true that the pre-modern vision of the cosmic order also had its truth. Not now, but in its time, circumstance and place. For Jung, as Giegerich points out, the symbol is embryonic or unfinished meaning. Once there is a "better way of expressing its truth, that symbol dies." So the symbol (the cosmic circle, the Mass) does not die because it is untrue, but because its truth has found a better articulated form. Today that better form is not given to man externally from above, nor in the great narratives of myth and religion or from ritual. It will be found only within his own evolving consciousness.

The big question of course remains: what is the truth of these now purely "historical symbols" which have been as Giegerich says "demythologized" and "desacralized" to become the "ordinary content of consciousness? But this is a question which cannot be answered here and I am getting too far a field here as it is.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The End of Meaning

Meaning, according to Giegerich, is that in which the pre-modern was embedded. Articulated in myth, religion, and philosophy, it was above all a fact of every day life. Ethical and intellectual thought, for example, was inherited from the past. Individual identity was subsumed under the laws and customs of clan, the tribe, the family, the nation. Life depended not only on the mercy of nature but on unpredictable rulers and on the impenetrable ways of God or gods. Given circumstances such as these, it is not surprising that the private and public lives of the pre-modern centered in myth and religion which proclaimed that there was something more powerful than human existence and transcendent to it, demanding total devotion and submission.

This sense of in-ness is not just going, says Geigerich, it's gone. If this is the case, what are we to think of the rise of religious fundamentalism, not only in the Islamic world, but in large American populations as well? Nothing arouses resistance more than perceived attacks values, beliefs, and traditions not only cherished for themselves, but because they represent the only possible and acceptable reality. It can be argued, however, that this apparent strength of fundamentalism is a desperate, last-gasp struggle against the inevitable.

As only one example, Giegerich points to the profound change in sexual and other societal relationships. We are no longer certain of what it is to be a "man" or "a woman." If homosexuals are marrying, what is so sacrosanct about the heterosexual marriage? Woman's place is as much in the work place as it is in the home, but there isn't much of a home left anyway. More people are choosing not to marry, or marrying later with no intent to produce children. Almost as many people divorce as marry. New technologies have made possible, as Giegerich puts it, "sex without children and children without sex." The fact that the Bush administration, prodded by fundamentalists, wants to promote the sanctity of marriage and is considering supporting a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriages reveals how far marriage as a religious and a social institution has eroded, perhaps irreversibly.

True, as I have said in earlier postings, there is an overlap, but the outcome favors the modern over against the pre-modern. As the pre-modern retreats, the modern takes over with a rapidity and dynamic unknown to us historically. That does not mean, as I read the situation, that everything one values in the pre-modern mentality will be overthrown. What it does mean is that it has to be re-thought, and this time, as consciously as possible and without exempting those principles or ideals held to be certain and absolute. This is a hard and perhaps impossible task, for we hang on to our desire for in-ness despite evidence or reason or feeling to the contrary.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

History's alchemical vessel

To further explain the second option, Giegerich adopts a metaphor from ancient alchemy. The purpose of the opus magnum of the alchemists was the transformation of raw materials into a pure form, such as gold or, on a more mystical level, the "philosopher's stone." This involved a "retort" or vessel in which this base material was broken down and otherwise changed, through a series of procedures such as calcification (intense heat), dissolution, fermentation, distillation, vaporization, solidification, putrefaction and finally mortification (death). Out of this chaotic mess, it was believed that a new, transcendent substance would emerge.

Jung wrote extensively about the alchemical process as a symbol of the psychological metamorphosis which the individual psyche must undergo in order to achieve wholeness of personality. As is evident in this essay (and in much of his other writings) Giegerich also adopts alchemy as a symbol but he is not interested in it from the individual standpoint, but as a metaphor for what is happening in the world. It is not the individual but " . . . we collectively [who] are the prime matter in this hermetically sealed retort and are transported through one phase of history's alchemical opus after the other, each time finding ourselves in an entirely new world situation."

Personally I find the alchemical metaphor a satisfying one, imaginally and aesthetically. To me it conveys the turmoil, the agitation, the uncertainties, the unpredictability, the risks, in a word, the chaotic confusion of this time. It also suggests to me, as Giegerich intended it to do I am sure, what our response might be. We are now in a situation which is not of our own making, into a process, however, which as he says we have to learn how to think about, how to interpret--for ourselves--for there is no Meaning to guide us.

What position do we take?

Giegerich defines Meaning "with a capital M; it is myth, the symbolic life, the imaginal, religion, the grand narratives--not this myth or religion or grand narrative nor this meaning, but myth or religion pure and simple, Meaning altogether." We have reached the stage in the evolution of human consciousness in which Meaning has lost its power and authority. Its truth is now merely historical truth. This is a claim so drastic that it arouses a certain repugnance mixed with fear.

The question is "What is my response?" It floats as a kind of mental marker in my consciousness and then in the distraction of the moment is lost again. Once aware of it, however, this unwanted, unlooked for claim will not let go, but demands a personal response. But what response? There are only two possibilities says Giegerich. You can defend and commit yourself to the past or you can admit that we are now in a new situation and allow yourself "to be taught by it about how to think." Either way the position taken is dialectic.

Giegerich begins with the second option in which the old "in-ness" is rejected as the condition both of the child submissive to its parents and to the control of nature. Following this rejection, however (if I understand this correctly), we gain a new, real "in-ness." But this in-ness is precisely and paradoxically one of "meaninglessness." This in-ness is history as an "the soul's alchemical retort" in which we are the "prime matter. . . transported through one phase of history's alchemical opus after the other, each time finding ourselves in an entirely new situation." In this new situation we remain in a state of in-ness, but which is now the opposite of our old state. Deprived now of the security of all-encompassing Meaning, we are psychologically thrust extra ecclesiam et naturam. We no longer "belong," we are on our own. He quotes Jung: "The soul has become lonely. . . and in a state of no salvation."

If, as in the case of the first option, one chooses to justify and remain faithful to the old state of in-ness, one loses that which one wanted above all, that is, to be contained by in-ness. To reject this new in-ness is a loss "of in-ness as an actual reality." In either case there is a sense of loss. But as Giegerich discusses at some length, for those who choose the second option, the loss is only apparent. Is this not rather a gain, he asks, "To have moved out of the father's house and become an adult, standing on one's own feet?

Monday, February 16, 2004

Once again-- The Death of the Symbol

Those who choose the first option in favor of the past, Giegerich argues, do so chiefly because of fear of the void and arrogance. If the old traditions and values disappear the only alternative, it is supposed, is the abyss of nihilism. What makes it even more terrible is that it is our own fault. We blame ourselves for letting this happen. We are guilty, as Jung believed, for having "squandered" our spiritual heritage. This self-blame is just another indication of the hubris of this position, of wanting to be greater than we really are. We cling to our myths and religions because they endow us with a star role in the eternal "divine drama." Without them, we are convinced, life is not worth living. This position, however, will not work. "We have to turn to the second option, "says Giegerich, "to let ourselves be placed by the soul's process into the situation that is. It must teach us how to interpret the situation. "[My italics]

In a posting on Tuesday, January 6, I wrote from a personal perspective about Jung's “death of the symbol" but Giegerich offers it more broadly as a model of how we might interpret our new situation. Symbols (and by extension myths and religion) live, wrote Jung, so long as their meaning is as yet in "embryo" form, that is, is "pregnant with meaning." But once the meaning "has been born out of it," these symbols have only "historical" meaning. Therefore, this death of the symbol is in reality a transformation. True, there is loss in this death, but there is also gain, just as there is in a pregnancy  which ends in a birth. The loss is that it loses its former mystique. "It has become demythologized and desacralized and now it is merely an ordinary content of consciousness.

The death of the symbol, or religion, myth and philosophy is in actuality a transformation of consciousness. We no longer view them from "without," as mysteries or powers closed to us or only partially revealed (or in embryo), but from "within" our own heightened consciousness. This is what I believe Jung meant when he said he could no longer believe in the Sacrifice of the Mass. "It is no more true to me; it does not express my psychological condition. My psychological condition wants something else. I must have a situation in which that thing becomes true once more. I need a new form." [Italics mine].

While for some this evolution or change in human consciousness may seem unbearably radical, it is an old story by now. In The Life of the Mind,  Hannah Arendt quotes Hegel who, she says, was the first to claim that "the sentiment underlying religion in the modern age [is]the sentiment: "God is dead." And long before Hegel there were doubts and disputes among theologians about the truth of theology and metaphysicians about metaphysics. This does not mean, she says, that the questions raised were meaningless. It was rather how they were formulated and answered which "lost plausibility."

The "death" of God, Arendt notes, as well as of philosophy and metaphysics, are of such importance that they must not be the concern of an intellectual elite only, but the concern of everybody. We can't go on clinging to those older ideas that died long ago. Our historical consciousness has been so greatly expanded that the teachings and thought of the past are no longer convincing or even credible to us. Like Giegerich, she sees gain in this new situation. First of all, it would make it possible for us to look in a fresh and open way at the past (which she says whatever its fallacies was never arbitrary or nonsensical), "unburdened and unguided" by traditions. This would free us to turn our attention to what she calls "the tremendous wealth of raw experiences" without being obliged to follow "any prescriptions as to how to deal with these treasures."

Secondly, it would (or should) bring to an end the monopoly on thinking by the "professional thinkers." If our ethical judgments depend on our ability to think, as she believes, we should all be capable of doing it. Whatever our state in life, and however much we feel we have lost with the passing of traditional values we still have the ability to think. We are, after all, thinking beings.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Why this interest?

The challenge of Giegerich's essay is in grappling with thought which, at first reading, come across as dogmatic or with such authorial certitude so as to scare off doubt or argument. It also means dealing with ideas which are, if not always novel, are often expressed in novel ways. This is not entirely a bad thing, for it compels me to look more closely at what Giegerich is getting at, than if it had been articulated in a more conventional way. Reading Giegerich always gives me just enough of a mental shock to stimulate my own thinking. The truth is that I take pleasure reading Giegerich for reasons James Hillman stated so well. "Viable ideas, he said, contrary to what many may think, "have their own innate heat and their own vitality. They are living things too. But first they have to move your furniture, else it is the same old you, with your same old habits, trying to apply a new idea in the same old way."

Having said that, it is also true that once in awhile I wonder if in reading Giegerich I may be losing my grounding in the everyday "factual" world which does not seem, at least on the face of it, to have much to do with what I am reading. Not to worry, of course, for the factual world can always be counted on to intervene and correct whatever imbalance there might be. Nonetheless, I do ask myself every so often, What am I doing in reading about such a highly questionable idea as "the end of Meaning?" We have had so many "Ends of. . ." in recent years, but still the world goes merrily on its way as it always has, or so it seems.

This essay compels my interest because I recognized in it a correspondence with my own far less articulated and less assured thought which was, admittedly, quite personal, and yet which I hoped, was not entirely so. As I have written elsewhere, it has been important to me to understand my own individual history within a larger, impersonal context, which is nothing less, I believe, than this historical moment (a "moment" extending of course into the past and into the future.)This does not take anything away from the worth of the personal especially as it is experienced in relationships with others. In fact, this need to place myself in a historical context has its source not only in myself, but equally in the existence of others, of human beings both known and unknown to me, living or dead, here in the place where I live, or anywhere else in the world, to whom I consider myself related in a profound, even primordial sense.

The essay speaks to me in a second way as well. I have gone through my own transformation of consciousness in which the urge to become my own person, to become, finally, an adult in the world led to my leaving the Catholic Church into which I had been and which I believed to be the only way to truth and life. I had come to the end of my Meaning. I do not expect, however, that at some point during my lifetime, history's alchemical vessel will spew out a new and utterly transcendent "Meaning." Meanwhile, an alchemist stewing in her own and history's juices, I have a work to do, in discovering if I can and as part of it, the meaning (small "m") in meaninglessness.

So thanks to Giegerich not only for making this essay available, but for offering with it with an idiosyncratic vocabulary ("in-ness!"), apt metaphors and yes, "myths" which illuminate the ideas. Wolfgang Giegerich does not exclusively, and perhaps not even primarily, deal in abstractions. He is, above all, an imaginal thinker.

From inside the whole world

Although Giegerich offers us a model in Jung's notion of the death of a symbol, he has no specific prescriptions for the approach we might take to the second option. Twice, however, he proposes: first, that we first acknowledge that we are historically in a new situation and secondly, to let ourselves by "taught by it about how to think." We have "to let ourselves be placed by the soul's process into the situation that is. It must teach us how to interpret our situation." As I understand this, we cannot take a position from outside what is happening, but from within, from our participation and involvement in this transformation of consciousness.

First must come an all-out effort to understand what is happening without making judgments which have their source in assumptions drawn from the past, that is from the outside. It demands a way of thinking suggested by Hannah Arendt, to try to look at this new situation "unburdened and unguided by traditions." But how do we do this, partially embedded as we still are in those traditions? Is it the case that we must begin over and not draw from them what still seems valid and plausible to us? Arendt doesn't seem to think so. Even if we find the old values and ideas no longer credible, they were, as she reminds us, never arbitrary or senseless. Rather, we can learn even from their errors.

But this still leaves us with the problem of how to get ourselves to think from within our present historical consciousness. There are no directions on how to do this. But perhaps this is the point: we will have to learn how to do it ourselves as thinking human beings. We have to learn how to think and to live without recourse to a superior power or authority to tell us how. No longer can we look outside of, or above and beyond our human condition, but within it, within the crucible of history. This is not, however, a matter of just our own personal, subjective concern as Owen Barfield makes clear in the following passage:

When we study consciousness, historically, contrasting perhaps what men perceive and think now with what they perceived and thought at some period in the past, when we study long-term changes in consciousness, we are studying changes in the world itself, and not simply changes in the human brain. We are not studying some so-called "inner" world, divided off, by a skin or a skull, from a so-called "outer" world; we are trying to study the world itself from its inner aspect. Consciousness is not a tiny bit of the world stuck on to the rest of it. It is the inside of the whole world.

(From The History of Ideas: Evolution of Consciousness)

Friday, February 20, 2004

Man the Unborn

In "Man the Unborn" (section 6 ) Giegerich distinguishes the birth of an animal from that of a human being. As soon as the animal is thrust into the world, protection and nurturing from its own kind, including its mother, is minimal and of short-duration. In order to survive it draws immediately on its instincts and begins to act on its own. (Think of the new born calf or colt struggling to get on to its feet minutes after its birth.) The animal is born into the world as an adult, by Giegerich's definition, that is, into a state in which it must now look after itself. To be fully adult, writes Giegerich, is to be "fully mature: neither dependent on parents, but all on one's own, nor shielded from the environment by any intermediary, but nakedly exposed to it. When this state is reached, then and only then has birth been concluded."

Human beings, on the other hand, when we come into the world are not yet "fully born." Instead, we come into the world and remain as children, dependent and protected, not yet ready to take on the status of adulthood. (Giegerich cautions from time to time that he is not referring to specific human beings or individuals, but of "Man," of humanity as such.)

Human beings take much longer than animals do to develop into adulthood. What a young calf will do in a few minutes, takes a human baby some twelve months before it even attempts to stand on its own legs. How long it takes human beings to come to maturity also may also be relative according to the culture and customs of a given society. In this country, at this time, a young man or woman may be in their middle and late twenties before they become independent of their parents, living on their own and earning their own money. In any case, the prolongation of human childhood gives time enough and more for the culture of a society--its values, myths, religions, concepts, images--to imprint itself on the collective psyche of that society.

A human being, Giegerich notes, is "born first of all into and contained in myths, meanings, ideas, images, words, creeds, theories, traditions. They stand irrevocably between him and external reality. . . ." So even if one is considered to be an adult practically speaking (earning money, having a family, participating in public life, etc.), psychologically and metaphysically that adult retains the status of a child--still "looking upward to parents," "to the gods, his world parents, or to God, his Father, and contained in the fold of Mother Nature, Mother Church. . . ." The cult of ancestor worship is all about maintaining that status. Even initiation rites which presumably transfer a youth into the adult status of his society is really an initiation into what he calls "metaphysical childhood." When man was born he exchanged the maternal womb, for a metaphysical womb, the womb of Meaning."

Giegerich, however, does not refer to the developmental differences between humans and other animals. Instead, he gives us an imaginal scenario, the gist of which is that man surrendered his natural instincts and his own knowledge by allowing them to be "enwrapped in mythical garments." "Tools, weapons, things and events in nature, regardless of whether big or small, the activities of daily life: everything has its story about its primordial divine origin and cosmic significance, and thus its mythical or metaphysical reality is its primary reality." In effect, man exchanged what was real, empirical, certain, and his own, for the uncertain and virtual world of concepts which belonged to humanity itself. In doing so he remained in the virtual womb of Meaning. Nonetheless, there was a reward in this, for another "incredible" birth took place. Man is "born into his being mind and soul, that is, into the "realm of consciousness." In effect, humans exchanged reliance on their own innate abilities for the gift of consciousness.

But this attempt at a capsule summary does not do justice to what Giegerich is explaining and in fact may be misleading. It requires his own words to be puzzled over and grappled with.  But modern man has finally emerged from the womb, from "the ocean of Meaning." Giegerich again emphasizes that it is not the individual man or woman he is referring to humankind itself.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Coming of Age

Modern man, according to Giegerich, has become an adult. Through a radical and irreversible evolution of consciousness, he no longer has the status of a child looking upward to an authority, to a mystery, or myth, or religion, or Nature, or to parents both natural and divine. Man is on his own. He exists in and for himself. (Again, he is referring not to individual men and women, but to humankind, or to put it in his words: " man as human”)

His explanation of how this transformation happened is, as he says, metaphysical rather than biological. Biological evolutionary theory, he believes, affirms his approach: "that consciousness has fundamentally comes of the in-ness in the waters. . . . Turning to metaphors of the alchemical vessel, of the fish now become Aquarius, of the astronaut in his space suit looking down upon earth, of the embryo floating in amniotic fluid, of mans's knowledge (his know-how, his technology) clothed in mythical garments, of The Dream, the Sand play, of the Orphic Egg and finally, language itself, Giegerich's metaphysics is highly imaginal. His thought-process goads the imagination as much as the mind, but is elusive, often frustratingly so. His conclusion is not; it is emphatic. Humankind has come of age, like it or not.

Not that the contents of Meaning, such as religion and myths gave us, have been rejected, but they now exist as memories, as history, even as a source of inspiration, but without their old numinosity. We can't even talk of God being dead, because that presumes that something or someone else would take its place. That won't happen, says Giegerich, because now there is no God position to be filled. Fear that man with his technological and scientific power will replace God are "ungrounded" because it suggests that we humans are "still looking upward" endowing ourselves with the same numinosity and sacred mystery once applied to God. On the contrary, whatever individual attitudes may be, man's consciousness of his technological power will be experienced as "an un-heard of responsibility," "a burden that inevitably weighs him down in his soul, rather than leading to a sense of grandiosity or to hybris [,'ic]." It can even be depressing! But, would you really prefer to go on living as a child?

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Adulthood: Without God or Nature

The pre-modern's containment in Nature was evident in the condition of his practical, everyday life. He was subject to its implacable rule, to its harshness and unpredictability as well as its beneficence in providing food and shelter. Resigned to his fate, the pre-modern's only recourse was ritual and sacrifice to appease wrath or to give thanks.

Modern man has overcome the power of Nature. True, he still must endure natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and volcanic eruptions, but even the effects of these are being mitigated by the increasing ability of science to predict them, if not to prevent them. Now, however, we are engaged not in supplicating but in"saving" Nature, or what is left of it. As Giegerich reminds us, a Nature which needs to be protected and preserved has lost its dominion over us. "Man, nobody else, is now the one who is in charge and holds the responsibility for the existence or non-existence of the world, the continuity of life on earth, the protection of the environment. (By the "world" I assume he is speaking of this planet, for man is still helpless when it comes to the impersonal forces of the cosmos of which we are an infinitesimal part.) The power which was once Nature's has been transferred to technology, by which we utilize and manipulate the resources of Nature for our own purposes. Like Nature, technology can be beneficent but also dangerous and destructive.

In the coming of modern man into adulthood, religion which bound us as "upward looking creatures" to the gods, and to "God the Father" had also to be abandoned. Whether this will be as thorough or as permanent an abandonment, as in the case of Mother Nature, still remains to be seen. But logically, according to Giegerich, it has happened. It is not that the truth of religion disappears, but that it attains a new form. What was once projected outward onto the heavens, onto the gods, is now absorbed by man's own consciousness. The truth of religion "has come home to consciousness itself" as "sugar dissolves in coffee." Referring to Jung's idea of the death of symbol [see postings for January 6 and February 16], he writes: "The 'meaning' that it once was pregnant with has been born out of it, the 'better expression' has been found. Religion does not disappear altogether but remains as a memory, as history, but without its numinosity and authority.

I have an intuition of what Giegerich means, but again, the fuller meaning and the implications elude me. The intuition is based on personal experience which however significant and consequential it was for me, does not necessarily lead to a wider, universal application. My religion which was "out there" in the community of believers, in its liturgy, its sacraments and its dogmas, is to be assimilated into my own consciousness in its content, but without its form. I am not sure this is even possible because, in Catholicism at least, form may be inseparably one with content. If the form is abandoned so too is participation in the community of the faithful. There is loss there to be sure in being extra ecclesiam, but what has been gained? What is this "better expression" which replaces the dead symbol?

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

What is lost?

Giegerich disagrees with Jung that the loss of Meaning is a real loss. Can it be considered a loss if one leaves childhood behind in order to become an adult? To talk of "loss" is a misinterpretation of what is in fact "a birth" into adulthood. Then he asks, "Is it really so terrible to live without a higher meaning?"

Surprisingly for him, Geigerich becomes rather lyrical (and here he is least convincing) as he answers the question for us. Think of all the great thinkers, poets, artists, musicians the world has known. "Are they not enough, more than enough?" What about the ordinary things we experience daily, he asks: "What about the smile of the person who passed me this morning on the street; the rays of sunlight falling through the leaves of a forest; the happy events of a true meeting of minds, the friendship of a friend, the love of one's spouse, are they all void, banal 'all maya' compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful,' as Jung wants us to believe?" We might well respond: Sure, we all have had, what the artist John Berger called, these "human consolations," these unexpected, "instantaneous flashes of illumination." But are these quite enough to satisfy in us that longing for Meaning which Jung says is characteristic of modern man? "Is that all there is, my friends?"sang Peggy Lee.

But what have we really lost when life has lost meaning? Our need, thinks Giegerich, for something more, something greater than the stuff of everyday life is really self-inflation. Our self importance reveals itself in our need to identify with what appears to be transcendent to ordinary life. What is lost, therefore, in coming into adulthood is only our pretension to being more than we really are. What is lost to us in Western Christian tradition is its "numinous aura," which we considered to be our possession. But the content and substance of that tradition is still there. "We have only become conscious of it. . . .", able to think about it, to understand it for what it is, without reference to its once ineffable attributes.

Jung thought that modern man's loss of meaning was an illness because it prevented "fullness of life." But Geigerich asserts that to experience loss of meaning or more precisely to feel there should be a "higher meaning" is itself an illness. He quotes at length from Jung who tells of the many men and women he met who continually were "Just traveling, traveling; seeking, seeking." He describes such a woman who seemed driven by devils in her search for meaning because her life seemed to her so empty, so banal. But if she could say, "I am the Daughter of the Moon. Every night I must help the Moon, my Mother, over the horizon"--ah, that is something else! Then she lives, then her life makes sense, and makes sense in all continuity, and for the whole of humanity. That gives peace, when people feel that they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal and you can dismiss it. A career, producing children, are all maya, compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful.

Earlier Jung had given the example of the Pueblo Indians whose task to help their Father the Sun to rise every morning was their life's fulfillment. The Catholic Church, to this day provides its faithful with such a meaningful life. "If you take part in the Sacrifice of the Mass, and receive the Eucharist, you are repeating Christ's sacrifice." To those who truly believe, this means more than anything else in the world. "It expresses the desire of the soul; it expresses the actual facts of our unconscious life."

To say, as Jung does, that sacred persons or events such as the Mass arise from the unconscious is to say that they manifest instinctual drives in humankind, both personal and collective. These instincts cannot be judged as being right or wrong. They simply exist, revealing what was latent in us, and have, therefore, their own validity and truth. But when consciousness enters into it, the situation is changed. Doubt and uncertainty surface, driven by another powerful instinct: to know. For Jung this results in the "the death of a symbol" and gave the Sacrifice of the Mass as an example. The "truth" of it cannot be accepted any more in that form. It requires a new situation or form in which it can become, once again, true.

Jung mourned the death of the symbol, blaming it on our having "squandered" the wealth of our Western Christian tradition. For Giegerich, however, nothing has been truly lost, only transformed, but irrevocably so. Where is the new form then and how do we interpret its truth? He does not tell us. All he will say is that we must learn from the new situation itself how to understand and interpret it. As a matter of fact, he points out, ". . .Most people living in the modern world show one can live quite well without meaning, just as the normal adult can live quite well without parents."

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Humility or Hubris?

I would like to dwell a little longer on Giegerich's critique on the quest for Meaning. He criticizes Jung for blaming the loss of meaning on our having wasted the riches our own Christian tradition. For his part, Giegerich places blame on our high-mindedness, our unwillingness to accept our human condition for what it is and instead, arrogantly clamoring after, identifying ourselves with--call it what we will--the absolute, the ideal, perfection, utopia, or best of all, being one with the divine.

Is this quest for a greater good, by whatever name, a recent phenomenon or has it been characteristic of human beings from the beginning? If it arises from the instinctual or if one prefers, the unconscious, then is it sufficient to blame it on a kind of hubris? Not necessarily. This drive to exceed one's immediate limitations may have had biological origins, in the need for survival. And if this was the case, couldn't it have generated in time the impulse to seek something better which was always just a little beyond reach? Having shown one could survive to struggle still another day, why not go for it? Also, the propensity for mythmaking: was it not an acceptance of humankind's vulnerability before Nature and of the mystery of existence itself? It is hard to understand why what evolved instinctually should be treated as an act of pride. The Meaning provided by myth-making and ritual must have been just as necessary as shaping a more efficient tool. Isn't there also something inherent in us which drives us forward, to seek and to search for that something which at the time appears to be greater than ourselves?

But Giegerich, to be fair, is more concerned with hubris which occurs when we identify with or take our identity from that which is above us, which we look up to, refusing to accept our humanity, this thinking "clod of earth" that we are. On the other hand, Giegerich is not worried about the possibility of hubris in modern man's rejection of Meaning. He sees no reason to fear that having renounced the gods, we will assume the mantle of godlike power through our science and technology with its power both to create and to destroy. It is this very power, he claims, which will induce humility and motivate us to "become more humane."

Kevin Kelly, an editor of Wired, and an influential writer on technology, believes we are gods and "might as well be good at it." He points out, however, that humility is not enough:

I'm interested in becoming a good god, stepping up to the challenge and responsibility of godhood, without denying or trying to wiggle out of the fact that we are as gods. If we would acknowledge our god-like powers-­making somethings out of nothings, birthing things that surprise us, creating forces that will create themselves--and not back away from these talents, then I think we could learn to be responsible for them. If we pretend we are mere modest humans, our unacknowledged powers will undermine us.

That is the big question, of course. Without the gods or God to keep us in line, what are we going to do with this power of ours? Without facing up to power (our form of hubris)--how we love it, lust after it, misuse it, we will fail utterly not only to achieve full adult consciousness but the possibility of becoming more truly human.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Entertaining Giegerich

I quoted James Hillman as a way of explaining why I read Giegerich with such intense interest. (See Posting for February 17, 2004). Here is another one from Hillman which expresses so well how Geiegerich's thinking has to be approached:

That word "entertain" means to hold in between. What you do with an idea is hold it between--between your two hands. On the other hand, acting or applying it in the world and on the other hand, forgetting it, judging it, ignoring it, etc. So when these crazy things come in on you unannounced the best you can do for them is think them, holding them, turning them over, wondering awhile. Not rushing into practice. Not rushing into associations. This reminds of that: this is just like that. Off we go, away from the strange ideas to things we already know. Not judging. Rather than judging them as good and bad, true or false, we might first spend a little time with them.

In one respect I have not followed Hillman's advice. I have rushed into making associations. Off I went making a connection between Giegerich's ideas to what I "already knew." It kept me reading because I seemed to see in what I took to be the main thrust of his essay a verification of what I had first experienced on my own. I have now to do a little more entertaining of his ideas, jostling them from one hand to the next, articulating doubts, asking questions, attempting to come up with a more coherent view of his thinking than I have now.

copyright Dolores Brien. All rights reserved.

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