After an absolute, mystical experience of the end, or an NDE, one’s existence may then, probably, be focused on the fact that one has witnessed the indescribable as such, the non-separation of the whole, an imminence of actual death, and yet the survival of consciousness, and the possibility of its super-life. The miracle of which one has been the dumbfounded and almost impotent witness, destroys forever the face value of ideas, forms, sensations, human realities, which all have become too ‘provincial’.
The mystical experience has no essence. For some it represents the destruction of the individual, of the self. For others it prefigures a change of paradigm. For still others, there is nothing to say, nothing to prove, everything is beyond imagination, and expression.
It is quite inexplicable that one’s unassuming self can somewhat unexpectedly absorb and sustain the entire mystical experience, though it effectively destroys any idea of the Divine, of the Cosmos, and even the Self.
It is equally incomprehensible that the (human) self remains capable of resisting the ecstatic impact of the (divine) Self. Face to Face. Panim.
How can it be that the human self suddenly gets out of itself and ecstatically merges with the divine Self, disappears into it, remains conscious and aware of this assimilation, this disintegration, throughout the cancellation of itself?
The individual, the self, is to be swallowed up in the Whole, the Godhead. The paradox is that this small self, swallowed up by the divine ocean, never loses its consciousness of still being this particular self, a small but effective point of consciousness tossed about in an unheard-of ecstatic storm, a wind of infinite strength. This weak self remains irresistibly invincible, unbreakable, it does not dissolve, ever, whatever infinitely powerful is the Self that invades and overcomes it…
Mysticism and tragedy have this in common that they transform into close neighbors, death and life, the nothing and the whole, the freedom and the dissolution of the self. The mystic experience melts, allows oneself to be absorbed, in and by these superior powers ; the tragic experience confronts the self with them and shatters it. In the first case, the self escapes any personal interpretation of what led it there, free to rush without restraint in an indescribable ecstasy. In the second case, the tragic self loses its individuality at the very moment when it makes the supreme choice, the one that is supposed to confirm it in the purity of the Self, the one in which it discovers the proper power of exaltation. Who can say then what is alive and what is dead, in the mystical self and in the tragic self, so much death now seems a super-life, and life a kind of mild death.
Heraclitus famously said: “The immortals are mortal and the mortals, immortal; the life of some is the death of others, the death of some is the life of others.”i
Super-life, or its miracle, is not something you see every day, admittedly. There are some people who laugh about any sort of miracle. The passage of the Red Sea, the pillars of fire and the clouds, the resurrection of Lazarus, the multiplication of the loaves, they just laugh about it. And how old-fashioned it all seems to them, how useless, how forever devoid of any (modern) meaning!
But for the witnesses who see with their own eyes, there is no doubt, only the miracle is real, really real, resplendent with surreality. But this glitter and splash is also a door to death. The miracle in reality announces an after-world, a meta-reality, for which nothing prepares us, except what the miracle precisely lets us glimpse.
Death then, for those who accept to learn the lesson, is only an obligatory passage, like the Red Sea once was, towards a desert traversed by columns and clouds, towards some putative Promised Land, or some resurrection, in another universe where one will be satiated with ‘super-essential’ bread (in Greek epiousion, – as in τὸν ἄρτον τὸν ἐπιούσιον).
When death approaches with its velvet steps the eyes open. The soul becomes more conscious of itself, not of its victories or defeats, which then matter little, but of its irresistible inner drive for life. Life wants to live. But the border is there, tangible, the soul approaches it, is it a wall, a door, a bottomless abyss?
Until the last moment the enigma remains. Only a few souls have seen in advance what was beyond the experience. By what miracle? They see what awaits them behind death, something like a thousand suns, or rather a zillion suns, as words fail them. And they see their very self melting away, a drop of pure fire in the infinite ocean.
No, no, that is just illusion, assert the skeptics, simple chemistry of the brain during its initial necrosis, derisory neurochemical whirlwind, panic of asphyxiated synapses.
What does the polemic matter at this hour? One moment more and one will be fixed for ever, in a direction or another. One cannot, by the sole force of reasoning, exclude one or the other way, the one leading to nothingness and the one opening on the ocean of possibilities. After all, was not birth, if one remembers, like a red and very narrow passage, leaving a first world behind?
It is in the last moments, oh paradox, that life takes on all its meaning, takes on all its weight, fills itself with all the emotions, regrets, hopes, laughter and happiness. All this melts into a single point, hyper-dense, heavy with all the experience, an over-concentrated center, and which is, however, no more than a light baggage, a meager bundle, suddenly, for the eternal migrant that the living being discovers to be in the vicinity of death.
The essence of the man lies in this unique point, made of a nebula of myriads of moments, this total sum of existence and oblivion. This is another way of solving the hackneyed question of essence and existence. Neither one nor the other precedes. It is this single dense point, gravitating from a whole life, which is only real, miraculously real, and which allows to add a little to the oceanic immensity.
The surreal ocean that aggregates, and agrees, all that has lived, and will live.
There are many kinds of beings, divine, human, natural, artificial, material, without forgetting the beings of reason and language, the ideal, symbolic and modal beings, etc.. From this multiplicity of types of beings, one can conjecture the existence of a rich assortment of possible ontologies. In the crowd of all these beings, man may have a special role. He does not know who he really is, and he knows that he does not; he also knows that he is not only what he knows he is. So there is still a lot of room for research. He becomes more what he is in particular when the question of being in general within him is revealed. He begins to understand his own nature when he understands that it is entirely within this questioning, that of its origin and that of its end.
How does he know all this? Considering the opaque mystery from which he emerges, and the even darker abyss into which death projects him, he draws inductions, builds hypotheses, formulates theories.
This is why it is said that man is a metaphysical animal, more apt than the sea urchin, the fly, the monkey or the angel, to ask himself the question of his specific being, and thus to attack without respite the question of being in general, the ontological question.
It was no small intuition to come to think of the passage from the particular to the general, that is to say, to conceive the abstraction of being, as emanating from the innumerable cohorts of concrete beings.
This intuition establishes a community of essence between all that « is », without setting aside a radical variation between the « levels of being » of the various beings. Some of them bathe in the super-luminous consciousness of their Self, others grope in twilight limbo, and still others crawl endlessly in the night of dead dreams.
Man is a being placed in a world that is also a being, and in the midst of other, different kinds of beings. These different kinds of beings manifest themselves in one way or another, but without ever revealing themselves completely. It is difficult, if not impossible, for man to penetrate the mystery of being in others beings than himself, since he already fails to penetrate this mystery in himself.
His consciousness manifests itself to him, too, and never ceases to reveal itself, always again, without ever being exhausted, by his questioning, except, of course, in death. And there, can we presume that the questions that the consciousness asks finally find an answer, final, complete, terminal? Doesn’t death lead either to a nothingness with no room for questions or answers, or is it only a passage towards a state where the Self continues, in other forms, to ask itself still other questions?
There is in the being of man a mixture of infinity (in potency) and finitude (in act). Forwards, backwards, upwards, downwards, and on all other sides, man is objectively surrounded by the finite, he is ‘confined’. His perspectives are quickly crushed. His ‘self’ is only a point, without dimension, and the unlimited that surrounds it in theory is only a conjecture, a phantasm, a representation without explicit content.
This point, this limit point, is a self without dictable content, but it is the basis of all metaphysics, the most laconic or the most talkative. Without this point, this raft of the being, everything dissolves quickly into a dreamless nothingness. But with it, we can begin to found, paradoxically, an ontology of unveiling. On this point, this single point, can we build worlds, chasms, firmaments, empyreas? We don’t really know, it is the human spirit that works, that weaves on its loom canvases and veils.
Why is the mind inclined to always weave? Because the point of consciousness is essentially naked. It needs linen, wool and words to dress its nudity, which is also solitude.
When man thinks that he is finished, that he is alone, he also thinks that he might not be, in theory.
When he believes in reality, dense and low, he also believes in mirages, ethereal, elevated, which the crowd and its time propagate.
Man is an infinitely finite and ultimately infinite being.
Penetrated by a finitude and solitude that surrounds him on all sides, man turns towards transcendence as a way out. But this does not give him any guarantee, any certainty. It is necessary to continue without assurance the search, a source of anguish, a fountain of worry. Afflictions of not knowing where one is going.
Anxiety is perhaps too strong a word, too dramatic. Faced with nothingness, the strong soul is not moved: if the great hole is an empty place, what does she have to fear, the soul that finds without a blow the blackness and the unconscious in which she has slept in non-existence, before appearing briefly on the scene of a world without meaning.
The alternative is much more stimulating naturally. This is why for thousands and thousands of generations man has continued to ask himself the metaphysical question without worrying about the laziness of the materialists, the sneers of the strong minds.
Anxiety is also called transcendental curiosity.
What can be the nature of a world whose meaning is neither given nor said?
It is the act of looking nothingness in the face that is the first victory of the mind. It is laid bare by its very question. And if he does not hasten to dress his metaphysical nakedness with some hasty veil, if he does not hurry to put an end to this skinning, then he can seize himself as such, naked, skinned, raw, between life and death, without knowing what will prevail.
This non-knowledge, this ignorance, this suffering, one may want to put an end to it. Religions such as Vedic, Buddhist, but also Jewish and Christian, theorize in their own way how to escape from it.
Religions don’t do metaphysics. They propose coded answers, forged over millennia. But every man is newly born: in a completely new way, he in turn asks himself very old questions.
He may adopt the lesson of the ancient masters, but he may also notice their metaphysical vanity, noting that their answers are based on unfounded assertions.
All things considered, a well-born man is worthy of a prophet or a sage of old, if he has intuitions of comparable strength or even visions superior to this or that ancient one.
For all these past geniuses also had to walk a narrow path. They all had to feel the precariousness, the fragility of their certainties.
Their faith has always been in a state of wavering.
Doubt founds man and gives him his irrefutable nobility.
It is this doubt that gives man’s time its eternal varnish. Because its truth is not in what it shows, but in what it hides. Behind the veil of time probably lies the great mystery of all times, – but perhaps there is nothing but the sneers of the disheveled matter.
Ontology of the doubt, ontology of the bet, ontology of the die and the Rubicon, royal and prophetic, which the well-born soul adopts as its only homeland, its only religion, its only metaphysics.
If time is the only real wealth, eminently limited, why do we spend our time wasting it, in nothingness?
It is only if it is not the only wealth, the only reality, that it is reasonable to waste time thinking about it, this time that veils the future, and everything that is above it, or after it.
It is there, in thought, that the well-born man, and reborn, pierces the wall of the presence to oneself. The horizon of time, so low, so blurred, so close, he rolls it up like a canvas, and sets out on his way to the stars.
For the being (of man) is not made of time. Once the tent is taken down, he migrates out of time. He opens, and discovers what is no longer time, what is above and outside of time, a timeless, a meta-time.
There is no more time. Does everything stop then?
No, the flow continues. Other dimensions are emerging. The world with three dimensions of space and one of time is replaced by a world with 17 or 256 dimensions of space and as much time.
The time is no longer temporal, but… gustatory or tactile.
Time is a strong and hollow intuition. It is constantly occupying the mind, and it is an empty form.
And man seeks the full, not the empty.
He has the intuition that only emptiness can come out of emptiness. There is no future in sight in the void. The man full of himself cannot imagine living his own emptiness. He continues to search for more fullness, which fills all the emptiness he experiences.
But does man have a full intuition? One can think so. Fetuses and lovers experience a relative fullness, which leaves unforgettable marks, working tirelessly in the unconscious, and giving hope for other plenitudes to come, less relative, more absolute perhaps.
Reason is of little use in the face of this mystery; it is incapable of discerning any path. It is too embarrassed by its weight of rules and logic.
Intuition here is more flexible, to guess the future and the potency not yet revealed. Less formal, but more founded, – in a sense.
Where does intuition come from? If it has the slightest validity, even if it is only that of a mustard seed, intuition comes from elsewhere, from the beyond and the unthinkable. It is a kind of antenna sensitive to all the noises, all the rumors that reason does not hear.
Of two things one.
Either intuition is actually in contact, in some unspeakable way, with the after-world, the beyond, the universe of the possible, the spheres of the unthinkable, and then the precious drops of meta-temporal elixir that it captures and exudes are more valuable than all the riches of the world.
Either intuition is not in contact with any of this, and then what is it worth? Not even the fabric from which dreams are made, aborted before they fly. And then, decidedly, man is a beast seized with torpor.
We must imagine a world where thought takes the form of pure intuition. Their immediacy, their sharpness is unparalleled. Time is suddenly abolished before the force of these intuitions. A fountain of understanding flows in great waves, it drowns the dazed mind, covers it with revelations, opens new paths, unveils worlds. Far behind intuition, the spirit takes flight, heavily but surely.
The mind is heavy, clayey. Intuition is burning, cherubic. Its light warms the distant ones, that thought, for its part, cools and freezes.
Not that thinking is not useful. It has its utility, at the back, in support, with the train. But not in the front, looking forward.
Above all, intuition has this generous, gushing, crackling character. Source or flare. Each drop, each spark, is the promise of an infinity to come, of which they are the humble and brilliant messengers.
It is a strange phenomenon that intuition, from the moment we see it, is not only for what it suggests, but what it implies. Its « beyond » signs the end of the narrow. It reveals doors opening onto myriads. It unveils worlds where the thin is loaded with thickness. The pollen announces the forest, the smell makes the forgotten Orients shimmer, the grain promises the premises.
Intuition is not a phenomenon. On the contrary, it is more real than the real.
Human knowledge comes from two sources: the ability to receive impressions, and the ability to represent forms. It is by associating these impressions (coming from the world) and these forms (coming from the mind) that the faculty of ‘knowing’ can blossom.
What are these forms that come from the mind, these concepts pre-positioned to interpret impressions?
They do not result from the activity of thought, but from the fullness of intuition. Intuition already inhabits the gaze of the newborn child, and sows its virgin brain.
Intuition reigns supreme in the most crucial, sublime, transcendental moments.
Intuition reveals in a tenuous and tenacious way what we are not yet conscious of being.
By a sparkle of intuition, man, being finite, surrounded on all sides, without vision, without perspective, suddendly discovers that he is infinitely more than he had ever imagined.
Victor, thoughtful, once stood near the dolmen of Rozel. A dark and talkative ghost appeared to him. From his mouth of night flowed a powerful, agitated stream, mixing raw and chosen words, where dead trunks and black silt layed. The nyctalope poet was even more loquacious, and his verses sprang, in hurried theories, out of their grassy, wordy bushes.
The images added up, like glasses at the bar:
The immense can be heard. Everything speaks. Everything has consciousness. The tombs are dressed in grass and night. The abyss prays. All lives. The depth is imperfect. Evil is in the universe. Everything goes to the worst, always, without ceasing. The soul chooses. The tree is religious. The pebble is vile, blind, hideous. Matter is evil, – fatal fruit. The incontinent poet rhymes ‘ombre‘ (shadow) with ‘sombre‘ (dark) several times without any shame. And, to compensate, ‘vivant‘ (alive) with ‘en avant‘ (forward).
He had a sad forehead, this great man, this exile with sad sweats, funeral impulses. He bent, this poet, from the weight of the infinite, nothing less, and from the silly light of the gloomy suns.
God is here. Are we so sure? Of course we are! He is not out of anything, by the way. The azure, and the rays, hide His wingspan.
Interpelled in vain, the Spirit continues his way, without wanting to hear Man alone, despising his ‘vile flesh’. The word ‘vile’ returns like an antiphon. The enormous life always continues, it enters the invisible, it ascends to the heavens, it travels ‘millions of leagues’, it reaches even to the ‘radiant toe’ of the ‘archangel sun’ and vanishes in God. Yes ‘in God’! That is, in the depths! Jacob and Cato have already passed through these ladders, with their future of duty, mourning, and exile. They have passed through these precipices and abysses, where the larvae and the mysteries, the vapors and the hydrants, are hurried.
Following them, the seers and angels plunged, towards the winged souls.
But for the banished who remain stuck in the nadir, shipwreck is promised, and the ‘rimless abyss’, full of ‘rain’, opens up.
« Of all that lived rains unceasingly the ashes;
And one sees everything at the bottom, when the eye dares to go down there,
Beyond the life, and the breath and the noise, An ugly black sun from which the night radiates! »i
The Spirit thunders and threatens. As a prophet, he says: the top goes down, the ideal goes to matter, the spirit falls to the animal, the great crashes into the small, the fire announces the ashes, blindness is born of the seer, and darkness of the flamboyant.
But the rhymes save! ‘Azure’ goes with ‘pure’.
Above is joy, below is filth and evil.
It’s perfectly binary. Structurally binary.
In the infinite, one goes up, – or one falls.
Every being is in balance, and weighs its own weight. For elevation, or fall.
Let man contemplate, then, the cesspool or the temple!
Underneath even the worst of the rough ones, there are still the plants without eyelids, and under the stones, there is chaos.
But, always, the soul must continue to descend, towards the dungeon, the punishment and the scaffold.
Ah! Victor! How your hard and funny verses judge worlds and History!
With a light gesture, you cut down your cleaver, soaked with unbelievable alexandrines!
« Once, without understanding it and with a dazed eye
India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis. »ii
‘India has almost glimpsed this metempsychosis’. Seriously ???
You Victor, you saw! You Clarified Poet, young Genius of Jersey! You, Seer, you knew, much better than her, this old India, that the bramble becomes a claw, and the cat’s tongue becomes a rose leaf, – to drink the blood of the mouse, in the shadows and the shouts !
Ah, Victor, seeing from your higher heaven, you contemplate the unheard-of spectacle of the lower regions, and you listen to the immense cry of misfortune, the sighs of the pebbles and the desperate.
You see ‘everywhere, everywhere, everywhere’, angels ‘with dead wings’, gloomy larvae, and ragged forests. Punishment seeks darkness, and Babel, when it is overthrown, always flees into the depths of the night. The man for you, O Victor, full of victories, glory and knowledge, is never but a brute drunk with nothingness, who empties the drunken glass of his sleeps, night after night.
But there is a but. When you think twice, man is in prison but his soul remains free. The magi thought that legions of unknown and enslaved souls were constantly trampled underfoot by men who denied them. The ashes in the hearth, or the sepulchre, also claim that a heap of evil sleeps in them.
Man says: No! He prostitutes his mouth to nothingness, while even his dog lying in the night (that sinister constellation) sees God. This is because man is nothing, even if the starry beast is little. He denies, he doubts, in the shadow, the dark and gloomy, the vile and hideous, and he rushes into this abyss, this universal sewer.
Ah! Victor! Why didn’t you crush, with a heavy foot, that immortal worm that was gnawing at your overripe soul?
Alas! Alas! Alas! All is alive! Everything thinks!
Triple complaint, quintuple exclamation. One must cry over all the hideous ugliness of the world.
The spider is filthy, the slug is wet, the aphid is vile, the crab is hideous, the bark beetle is awful (like the sun!), the toad is scary.
But there is still hope at the end!
The underworld will refer to itself as eden. It will be the real day. Beauty will flood the night. The pariah universe will stutter in praise. Mass graves will sing. The mud will palpitate.
The pains will end, – as this poem ends: with the ‘Beginning’!
To Victor, however, I would like to address a short message from beyond time, a brief word from beyond the age, a distant sign from India, who ‘glimpsed’ something that Hugo neither saw nor suspected:
Before the very Beginning, there was neither being nor non-being, and ‘all darkness was enveloped in darkness.’ iii
Wise men commented: the spirit (in Sanskrit: manas) is the one and only thing that can be both existing and non-existent. The spirit exists, they said, only in things, but things, if they have no spirit, then they are non-existentiv.
The seers have long sought wise views on these difficult questions.
They thought, for example, that there was a hidden, deep, obscure link between Being and Non-Being. And they asked themselves: What link? And who could really know anything about it?
They replied ironically: « He certainly knows it – or maybe He Himself doesn’t even know it ! »v
i Victor Hugo. Contemplations. XXVI , « What the Mouth of Shadow Says ».
For at least a million years, man has been using the spoken word more or less skillfully. Since ancient times, its uses and modes of expression have been infinite, from the most futile to the most elevated. The stammering child, the fluent poet, the sure sage, the inspired prophet, all tried and continue trying their own ways and speaking their voices.
With the same breath of expelled air, they generate gutturals from the glottis, fricatives from the pharynx, hissing on the tongue, whistling labials through the lips.
From these incessant sounds, what sense does exhale?
Heraclitus, master in obscure matters, great lord of meaning, once made this sharp judgment:
« The man is held as a little boy by the divinity, like the child by the man. »i
This both pessimistic and optimistic fragment proposes a ratio of proportion: what the child is to man, man is to the divinity. The observation of man’s impotence in relation to the divine is not dissociated from the natural and expected perspective of a passage from childhood to adulthood.
In his translation of this fragment, Marcel Conche curiously emphasizes speech, although the word logos isclearly absent from the Heraclitus text:
« A ‘marmot’ (a toddler) who cannot speak! Man is thus called by the divine being (δαίμων), just as a child is called by man. « ii
The periphrase ‘A marmot who cannot speak’ is the choice (bold and talkative) made by Marcel Conche to render the meaning of the simple Greek word νήπιος, affixed by Heraclitus to the word ‘man’ (ἀνὴρ).
Homer also uses the word νήπιος in various senses: ‘who is in infancy’, ‘young child’, but also ‘naive’, ‘foolish’, ‘devoid of reason’.
Conche evokes these various meanings, and justifies his own translation, which is periphrastic and therefore not very faithful, in the following way:
« Translating as ‘child without reason’ sounds right, but not precise enough: if νήπιος applies to the ‘infant’ child, one must think of the very young child, who does not yet speak. Hence the translation [in French] by ‘marmot’, which probably comes from ‘marmotter’, which originates from an onomatopoeia expressing murmuring, the absence of distinct speech. « iii
This is followed by a comment on the supposed meaning of the fragment:
« It is about becoming another being, who judges by reason, and not as habit and tradition would have it. This transformation of the being is translated by the ability to speak a new language: no longer a particular language – the language of desire and tradition – but a discourse that develops reasons referring to other reasons (…) Now, from this logical or philosophical discourse, from this logos, men do not have the intelligence, and, in relation to the demonic being – the philosopher – who speaks it, they are like little brats without speech (…) To speak as they speak is to speak as if they were devoid of reason (of the power to speak the truth). »iv
Although this fragment of Heraclitus does not contain any allusion to logos, the main lesson that Conche learns from it is : « Man is incapable of logos for the demonic being ».
In a second departure from the commonly received meaning for this fragment, Marcel Conche considers that the divinity or demonic being (δαίμων) evoked by Heraclitus is in reality the ‘philosopher’. For Conche, it is the philosopher who is the demonic being par excellence, and it is precisely he who is able to determine for this reason that « man is incapable of logos ».
However Heraclitus certainly did not say: « Man is incapable of logos.»
Man may mumble. But he also talks. And he even has, in him, the logos.
Indeed, if the word logos is absent from fragment D.K. 79, it is found on the other hand in ten other fragments of Heraclitus, with various meanings : ‘word’, ‘speech’, ‘discourse’, ‘measure’, ‘reason’…
Among these ten fragments, there are five that use the word logos in such an original, hardly translatable way that the common solution is just not to translate it at all, and to keep it in its original form : Logos…
Here are these five fragments:
« The Logos, which is, always men are incapable of understanding him, both before hearing him and after hearing him for the first time, for although all things are born and die according to this Logos, men are inexperienced when they try their hand at words or deeds. »v
« If it is not I, but the Logos, that you have listened to, it is wise to agree that it is the One-all. »vi
« In Prayer lived Bias, son of Teutames, who was more endowed with Logos than the others. « vii
In these three fragments, the Logos seems to be endowed with an autonomous essence, a power to grow, and an ability to say birth, life, death, Being, the One and the Whole.
In the next two fragments, the Logos is intimately associated with the substance of the soul itself.
« It belongs to the soul a Logos that increases itself. « viii
« You cannot find the limits of the soul by continuing on your way, no matter how long the road, so deep is the Logos it contains. « ix
As a reminder, here is the original text of this last fragment :
Strangely enough, Conche, who added the idea of speech in a fragment that did not include the word logos, avoids using the word logos here, in his translation, though the fragment does contain it explicitly: « You wouldn’t find the limits of the soul, even if you walked all the roads, because it has such a deep discourse.»x
Is it relevant to translate here the word logos by discourse?
If not, how to translate it?
None of the following meanings seems satisfactory: cause, reason, essence, basis, meaning, measure, report. The least bad of the possible meanings remains ‘speech, discourse’xiaccording to Conche, who opts for this last word, as we have seen.
But Heraclitus uses a strange expression here: ‘a deep logos‘, – a logos so ‘deep’ that it doesn’t reach its ‘limit’.
What is a logos thatnever reaches its own depth, what is a limitless logos?
For her part, Clémence Ramnoux decided not to translate in this fragment the word logos. She even suggested to put it in brackets, considering it as an interpolation, a late addition:
« You wouldn’t find a limit to the soul, even when you travel on all roads, (it has such a deep logos). « xii
She comments on her reluctance in this way:
« The phrase in parentheses may have been added over. If it was added, it was added by someone who knew the expression logos of the psyche. But it would not provide a testimony for its formation in the age of Heraclitus. « xiii
In a note, she presents the state of scholarly discussion on this topic:
» ‘So deep is her logos’. Is this added by the hand of Diogenes Laërtius (IX,7)?
Argument for: text of Hippolytus probably referring to this one (V,7): the soul is hard to find and difficult to understand. Difficult to find because it has no boundaries. In the mind of Hippolytus it is not spatial. Difficult to understand because its logos istoo deep.
Argument against: a text of Tertullian seems to translate this one: « terminos anime nequaquam invenies omnem vitam ingrediens » (De Anima 2). It does not include the sentence with the logos.
Among the moderns, Bywater deleted it – Kranz retained it – Fränkel retained it and interpreted it with fragment 3. »xiv
For his part, Marcel Conche, who, as we have seen, has opted for the translation of logos by ‘discourse’, justifies himself in this way: « We think, with Diano, that logos must be translated, here as elsewhere, by ‘discourse’. The soul is limited because it is mortal. The peirata are the ‘limits to which the soul goes,’ Zeller rightly says. But he adds: ‘the limits of her being’. « xv
The soul would thus be limited in her being? Rather than limited in her journey, or in her discourse? Or in her Logos?
Conche develops: « If there are no such limits, it is because the soul is ‘that infinite part of the human being’. »
And he adds: « Snell understands βαθὺς [bathus] as the Grenzenlosigkeit, the infinity of the soul. It will be objected that what is ‘deep’ is not the soul but the logos (βαθὺν λόγον). (…) In what sense is the soul ‘infinite’? Her power is limitless. It is the power of knowledge. The power of knowledge of the ψυχὴ [psyche] is limitless in so far as she is capable of logos, oftrue speech. Why this? The logos can only tell reality in a partial way, as if there was somewhere a reality that is outside the truth. Its object is necessarily reality as a whole, the Whole of reality. But the Whole is without limits, being all the real, and the real cannot be limited by the unreal. By knowledge, the soul is equal to the Whole, that is to say to the world. « xvi
According to this interpretation, reality is entirely offered to the power of reason, to the power of the soul. Reality has no ‘background’ that remains potentially obscure to the soul.
« The ‘depth’ of the logos is the vastness, the capacity, by which it equals the world and establishes in law the depth (immensity) of reality. Βαθὺς : the discourse extends so deeply upwards or downwards that it can accommodate everything within it, like an abyss in which all reality can find its place. No matter which way the soul goes on the path of knowledge, inward or outward, upward or downward, she encounters no limit to her capacity to make light. All is clear in law. Heraclitus’ rationalism is absolute rationalism. « xvii
Above all what is absolute, here, is the inability to understand the logos inits infinite depth, in its deepest infinity.
We’re starting to understand that for Heraclitus, the Logos cannot be just reason, measure or speech.
The soul (psyche) has no ‘limits’, because she has a ‘deep logos‘ (βαθὺν λόγον).
The soul is unlimited, she is infinite, because she is so vast, so deep, so wide and so high that the Logos himself can dwell in her always, without ever finding his own end in her, – no matter how many journeys or speeches he may make…
No wonder the (word) Logos is ‘untranslatable’. In theory, and in good logic, to ‘translate’ it, one would need an infinitely deep periphrase comprising an infinite number of words, made of infinite letters…
iFragment D.K. 79. Trad. Jean-Paul Dumont. Les Présocratiques. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Gallimard 1988, p. 164
iiD.K. 79. Translation by Marcel Conche, in Héraclite PUF, 1986, p.77.
In a previous article, The Dreamers’ Paradise, we invited you to meditate on the double nature of the plant, which is rooted below, or in the stomach, for the materialists, or on the contrary above, in the philosophy of the Veda. In both cases, the plant and its roots sum up their respective visions of the world.
Hylozoismi, which is not very Vedic but intrinsically modern, sees life as « springing » from matter itself, which is still a metaphor. The « source » can be seen to be, in a way, analogous to the « root ». In everything, always and everywhere, life supposes the immanent presence of the same internal and autonomous principle of generation, source or root, which animates all things.
No less modern, and rather more so, materialism, is by definition eminently immanent. It denies a priori any idea of soul in life, and it kills (in the bud) any idea of spirit within matter. Its aim is to assimilate, to digest in the material stomach any idea of the spirit, or of its essence, which amounts to the same thing.
Kant, on the other hand, is not at all modern. He asserts that an immaterial world exists. This immensely vast world includes all created intelligences, reasonable beings, but also the sentient consciousnesses (of all animals), and finally all the principles of life, whatever they may be, and which are found everywhere in nature, for example in plants.
Among the « created intelligences » some are related to matter. We know this, because we experience it in ourselves, and it is they who, through this special alliance, form « persons ».
Other « created intelligences » are not bound to matter. They may remain isolated, or they may be linked to other spirits, or they may be more or less closely associated with other entities, having an intermediate status between matter and spirit.
All these immaterial natures (the intelligences, the consciousnesses, the principles) exert their (immaterial) influence in the corporeal world, according to ways and means which remain incomprehensible.
Among them, there are all the so-called « reasonable » beings, whether they are present on earth or lying, presumably, elsewhere in the universe. Because of the use of their reason, whose end it is, they are not destined to remain separate (from matter). Reason is another name for an immanent, ordering and regulating principle, which reasonable beings (i.e. beings in which reason is immanent) use to animate the (irrational) fabric of matter, and constitute it as a « living » entity.
We can suppose that the so-called reasonable beings maintain with the other created intelligences various exchanges or communications, in accordance with their respective natures.
These communications are then not limited by bodies, nor by the usual constraints of material life. They transcend them. Nor do they weaken with distance in space or time, nor do they disappear when death occurs.
According to these general views, the human soul, which is a particular case of these immaterial and reasonable natures, should therefore be regarded as already linked, in the present life, to both worlds, the immaterial and the corporeal.
The singular soul is bound to a particular body, which makes it an absolutely unique person. It clearly perceives the material influence of the corporeal world. As it is also part of the spirit world, it also feels the influences of the immaterial natures, and can perceive, in certain cases, their immaterial effluvia.
At death, as soon as the bodily connection has ceased, the soul continues to be in impalpable community with the spiritual natures.
Undoubtedly, it should then, being at last separated from the body, be better able to form a clearer intuition of its own nature, and to reveal it, in an appropriate manner, to its inner consciousness.ii
On the other hand, it is probable that the other spiritual natures, those which are not « incarnate », cannot be immediately conscious of any sensible impression of the bodily world, because they are not bound in any way to matter.
Not having a body of their own, they cannot be conscious of the material universe or perceive it, lacking the necessary organs. But they can exert a subtle influence on the souls of men, because they have a nature similar to their own.
The two can even maintain a reciprocal and real trade, capable of progress and enrichment.
However, the images and representations formed by spirits that still depend on the corporeal world cannot be communicated to beings that are purely spiritual.
Conversely, the conceptions and notions of the latter, which are intuitive representations corresponding to the immaterial universe, cannot pass as such into the clear consciousness of man.
Let us add that the ideas and representations of purely spiritual beings and of human spirits are undoubtedly not of the same kind, and are therefore very difficult to transmit and to share as such, without having been digested first.iii
Among the ideas or representations which can set the human mind radically in motion, stimulate in it an acute desire for metamorphosis, and begin its transformation into a « new man », the most powerful ones can appear to it quite unheard of, inexplicable, perfectly capable even of « submerging » or « drowning » it.
Where do they come from?
From an immaterial world, that of the Muses, these inspirers reputed to come to the rescue of creators and disarmed spirits?
As phenomena, they also seem to be able to emerge spontaneously from the deepest interior of man himself.
The most elevated of them have a priori no connection with the personal utility or with the immediate, practical, individual needs of the men who receive them.
But perhaps they have some use for distant, theoretical, universal needs, which concern the whole universe?
They are moreover capable of transporting themselves again, leaving the sphere of consciousness assigned to a particular person, by a kind of contagion, of contamination, extending outwards, far beyond what one can imagine.
They go far, touching in the passage of their noumenal and numinous power other reasonable beings that they affect in their turn.
There are thus two types of spiritual forces, some centripetal, where self-interest absolutely dominates, and others, centrifugal, which reveal themselves when the soul is somehow pushed out of itself and attracted to others.iv
The lines of force and influence that our minds are capable of receiving or conceiving do not, therefore, simply converge in each of us, to be confined to them.
There are also forces that can move powerfully outside of us, outside of our own intimate space, and sometimes in spite of us, – to reach other people, other minds.
And even caress the confines.
From this, we deduce that irresistible impulses can carry the strong man away from self-interest, even to the ultimate sacrifice.
The strong law of justice, and the somewhat less imperious law of generosity and benevolence, which do not fail to show themselves universally in human nature, can carry one or the other, according to the circumstances, and according to the specific tessitura of such or such spirits, conditioned by their deep aspirations, suddenly revealed.
It is thus that in the apparently most intimate motives, we find ourselves depending in fact on universal laws, of which we are not even a little conscious.
But the result is also, in the world of all thinking natures, the possibility of a general unity and communion obeying all spiritual laws, and by this effect, preparing new degrees of metamorphosis.
Newton called ‘gravitation’ the tendency of all material bodies to come together. He treated this gravitation as a real effect of a universal activity of matter, to which he gave the name of « attraction ».
In a similar way, one could imagine the phenomenon of thoughts and ideas getting into thinking natures, then revealing themselves to be sharable, communicable, as the consequence of a universal force, a form of « attraction » by which spiritual natures influence each other.
We could name this power, the « law of the universal attraction of the consciousnesses ».
Pushing the metaphor, the force of moral feeling could well be then only the dependence felt by the individual will towards the general will, and the consequence of the exchanges of universal actions and reactions, which the immaterial world uses to tend in its way to unity.v
The human soul, in this life, occupies its full place among the spiritual substances of the universe, just as, according to the laws of universal attraction, matter spread over the immensity of space never ceases to be bound by bonds of mutual attraction, and the elementary particles themselves, far from remaining confined to a narrow granularity, fill the whole universe with their quantum potentials of field.
When the links between the soul and the corporeal world are broken by death, it can be assumed that another life in another (spiritual) world would be the natural consequence of the countless links already maintained in this life.
The present and the future would thus be formed as of one piece, and would compose a continuous whole, both in the order of nature and in the order of the spirit.vi
If this is the case with the spiritual world and the role that our spirit plays in it, it is no longer surprising that the universal communion of spirits is an ordinary phenomenon, and far more widespread than is generally admitted.
The extraordinary, in fact, lies much more in the absolute singularity of psychic phenomena affecting such and such a singular, individual person, than in their very existence, which seems to be widespread throughout the universe.
i Philosophical doctrine which maintains that matter is endowed with life by itself.
iiCf. Kant. Dreams of a man who sees spirits, – explained by dreams of metaphysics. (1766). Translated by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.21
Le Grand Cairn de Barnenez domine la baie de Morlaix, dans le Finistère.
Composé de moellons de dolérite et de dalles de granite, il a été construit entre 4500 et 3900 ans avant J.-C., soit bien avant les premières Pyramides d’Égypte.
Il mesure 75m de long et 28m de large. C’est le plus grand mausolée d’Europe.
En son sein, onze chambres funéraires.
Certaines de leurs dalles sont gravées.
Des zigzags. Un signe en U. Un ‘arc’. Des triangles isocèles.
Et une figure rectangulaire, — dite ‘à la chevelure rayonnante’.
Cette métaphore, employée par les guides, et qui se veut accrocheuse, est-elle pertinente? Non, presque certainement pas.
Que signifiait donc ce symbole unique, gravé il y a plus de six millénaires?
Ces courbes arquées, dressées vers un ailleurs, les unes d’un côté, au nombre de huit, les autres d’un autre côté, au nombre de six, sortent en souple gerbe de l’arête d’un cadre vide.
Ce ne sont à l’évidence pas des cils, des poils, des cheveux, — ni des blés ou des branches.
Elles ont une beauté simplissime et archétypale, qui évoque pour moi le plein jaillissement de l’esprit, saisi par les puissances chamaniques.
Ce sont les lignes d’un champ d’énergie, neuro-magnétique, ou plutôt neuropsychique. Elles figurent quatorze lianes qui relient, comme par une éruption de sève, un flux de suc, le rectangle désormais vide du corps abandonné par la conscience, et l’infini mystère qui emplit le cairn et l’univers.
Multitudinous angels, created for this purpose, stubbornly remain with the times and beings that already are no more. From the brushing of their wings, sharp like judgments, they make them live, yet in another way. They separate them from what they were not, and from what they could not be. Thus they keep them in their essence, animated by the gentle breath of their wings. By their quiet effervescence, they watch over their infinite sleep, – like the eagle circling above the nest to inspire its eaglets, – like the winds once palpitated in the face of the origins. They are the guardians of the past in agony, warning, for as long as it takes, the fatal coma.
Other angels roam the dark alleys of the future. They spread immense wings like ecstasy, they glide silently over the empty plains of the non-existent. Their powerful flight awakens the black waters, and all that is not yet. Against all odds, from far and wide, crack the shells of unborn times.
With their burning lips they give the beak to the fledglings of the possible.
We must finally evoke the angels of the present. They link (like quantum loops, and subliminal bursts of precognition) the distant past and the improbable future, the countless déjà-vu and the unlimited forthcoming, the immanent causes (dormant like dead saints) and the transcendent potency (radiant like seraphim). They fly and come, as in Jacob’s dream, between the uncertain and the unimaginable…
From these vast landscapes of various angels, which are like myriads of divine synapses, a vesperial mist is exhaled.
It announces in advance the rain to come, penetrating, fertile, and in the rainbow of the sky finally bent, it draps the first rays of dawn, gorged with soul plasma and liquid light.
Consciousness is capable of grasping immaterial ideas (e.g. the principle of non-contradiction or the idea of universal attraction). Is this enough to infer that she is herself immaterial?
If consciousness is not immaterial, is she only a material emanation of a body that is material?
But then how to explain that material entities are capable of conceiving supreme abstractions, pure essences, without any link with the material world?
And how do consciousness relate or interact with the various beings that make up the world, and that surround her?
What is the nature of her connections with these various beings?
In particular, how do consciousness interact with other consciousnesses, other spirits? Is it conceivable that consciousness can link with yet other kinds of ‘intelligible’ beings existing in act or in potency throughout the world ?
These delicate issues were addressed by Kant in a short, wittybook, Dreams of a Man Who Sees Spirits.ii
Kant affirmed that consciousness (he called her ‘the soul’) is immaterial, – just as what he called the ‘intelligible world’ (mundus intelligibilis), the world of ideas and thoughts, immaterial.
This ‘intelligible world’ is the proper ‘place’ of the thinking self, because consciousness can go there at will, detaching herself from the material, sensitive world.
Kant also affirmed that consciousness, although immaterial, is necessary linked to a body, the body of the self, a body from which she receives impressions and material sensations from the organs that compose it.
Consciousness thus participates in two worlds, the material and sensitive world and the immaterial and intelligible world, – the world of the visible, and the world of the invisible.
The representation that consciousness has of herself, by an immaterial intuition, when she considers herself in her relations with other consciousnesses, or beings of the same nature as herself, is quite different from that which takes place when she represents herself as being attached to a body.
In both cases, it is undoubtedly the same subject who belongs at the same time to the sensitive world and the intelligible world; but it is not the same person, because the representations of the sensible world have nothing in common with the representations of the intelligible world.
What I think of myself, as a living human, has nothing to do with the representation of myself as a (pure) consciousness.
Moreover, the representations that I may have of the intelligible world, however clear and intuitive they may be for me, are not at all indicative of the representation I have of myself as a consciousness.
On the other hand, the representation of myself as a consciousness may be somewhat acquired through reasoning or induction, but it is not a naturally intuitive notioniii.
Consciousness belongs indeed to a « subject », and as such is both participating to the « sensitive world » and to the « intelligible world », but she is not the same when she represents herself as a pure consciousness or when she represents herself as attached to a human body.
Not being the same implies an inherent and profound duality of consciousness.
It is Kant who first introduced the expression « duality of the person » (or « duality of the soul in relation to the body »), in a small note supplementing Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits.iv
This duality was induced from the following observation.
Many philosophers often refer to the state of deep sleep when they want to prove the reality of obscure representations, although nothing can be affirmed in this respect, except that on waking we do not clearly remember any of those ‘obscure representations’ we may have had in the deepest sleep.
We can only observe that they are not clearly represented on waking, but not that they were really ‘obscure’ when we were asleep.
For instance, one could readily assume that these representations were much clearer and more extensive than even the clearest ones in the waking state, – because ‘clarity’ is what can be expected from consciousness, in the perfect rest of the outer senses.
Hannah Arendt abruptly qualified these remarks from Kant as « bizarre »v without making her judgment explicit.
Why « bizarre »?
Several conjectures are possible.
Perhaps she thought that it was « bizarre » to present the soul as thinking more clearly and extensively in deep sleep, and as revealing more of herself in this state than in the waking state?
Or did it seem « bizarre » to Arendt that Kant presented the soul not as ‘one’ but as ‘dual’, this duality implying a contradiction with Arendt’s own idea of her nature?
On the one hand, the soul may feel the intrinsic unity she possesses as a ‘subject’, and on the other hand, she may feel herself as a ‘person’, endowed with a double perspective. It might then seem « bizarre » that the soul thinks of herself as both one and dual, – ‘one’ (as a subject) and ‘dual’ (as a person).
This intrinsic duality introduces a distance of the soul to herself, an inner gap in the consciousness herself, – a gap between the state of ‘waking’ (where her duality is somehow revealed) and the state of ‘deep sleep’ (where the feeling of duality evaporates, revealing then (perhaps) the true nature of the soul (or the consciousness)?
Hannah Arendt made only a brief paraphrase of Kant’s note:
« Kant compares the state of the thinking self to a deep sleep where the senses are at complete rest. It seems to him that during sleep the ideas ‘may have been clearer and more extensive than in the waking state’, precisely because ‘the sensation of the human body has not been included’. And when we wake up, we have none of these ideas left. » vi
What seems « bizarre » then, one may conjecture, is that after being exposed to « clear and extended » ideas, none of this remains, and the awakening erases all traces of the activity of the soul in the deep sleep of the body.
But if there is nothing left, at least there remains the memory of an immaterial activity, which, unlike activities in the material world, does not encounter any resistance, any inertia. There also remains the obscure memory of what were then clear and intense ideas… There remains the memory of having experienced a feeling of total freedom of thought, freed from all contingencies.
All this cannot be forgotten, even if the ideas themselves seem to escape us.
It is also possible that the accumulation of these kinds of memories, these kinds of experiences, may end up reinforcing the very idea of the existence of an independent soul (a consciousness independent from the body). By extension, and by analogy, all this constitutes an experience of ‘pure consciousness’ as such, and reinforces the idea of a world of spirits, an ‘intelligible’ world, separate from the material world.
The soul (the consciousness) that becomes aware of her power to think ‘clearly’ (during the deep sleep of the body) begins to think at a distance fromthe world around her, and from the matter that constitutes it.
This power to think ‘clearly’ at a distance does not however allow her to go out of this world, nor to transcend it (since always the awakening occurs, – and with it the forgetting of what were then ‘clear’ thoughts).
What then does this distance from the world bring to the consciousness ?
The consciousness sees that reality is woven of appearances (woven of ‘illusions’). However, in spite of the profusion of these ‘illusions’, reality remains stable, it is unceasingly prolonged, it lasts in any case long enough for us to be led to recognize it not just as an illusion, but as an object, the object par excellence, offered to our gaze, and consideration, as long as we are conscious subjects.
If one does not feel able to consider reality as an object, one can at least be inclined to consider it as a state, lasting, imposing its obviousness, unlike the other world, the ‘intelligible world’, – whose existence always raises doubts, and suspicions of improbability (since its kingdom is only reached in the night of deep sleep).
And, as subjects, we demand real objects in front of us, not chimeras, or conjectures, – hence the great advantage given to the sensitive world.
Phenomenology, in fact, also teaches that the existence of a subject necessarily implies that of an object. The two are linked. The object is what embodies the subject’s intention, will and consciousness.
The object (of the intention) nourishes the consciousness, more than the consciousness alone can nourish herself, – the object constitutes in the end the very subjectivity of the consciousness, presenting itself to her attention, and instituting itself as her intention.
If there is no consciousness, then there can be no project and no object. If there is no object, then there can be no consciousness.
All subjects (i.e. all beings with a consciousness) carry intentions that are fixed on objects; similarly, objects (or ‘phenomena’) that appear in the world reveal the existence of subjects with intentions, by and for which the objects make sense.
From this we may draw a profound consequence.
We are subjects, and we ‘appear’, from the beginning of our lives, in a world of phenomena. Some of these phenomena also happen to be subjects. We learn to distinguish between phenomena that are only phenomena (i.e. requiring subjects to appear), and phenomena that end up revealing themselves to us as being not only phenomena, of which we would be the spectators, but as other subjects, other consciousnesses.
The reality of the world of phenomena is thus linked to the subjectivity of multiple subjects, and countless forms of consciousness, which are both at once phenomena and subjects.
The total world is itself a ‘phenomenon’, whose existence requires at least one Subject, which is not a phenomenon, but a pure Consciousness.
To put it another way, – if, as a thought experience, one could suppose the absolute absence of any consciousness, the inexistence of any subject, for instance during originary states of the world, should one then necessarily conclude, in such circumstances, to the inexistence of the ‘phenomenal’ world in those early times?
The ‘phenomenal’ world would not then exist as a phenomenon, since no subject would be able to observe it, no consciousness would be conscious of it.
But another hypothesis would still be possible.
Perhaps might there exist subjects who are part of another world, a world that is not phenomenal, but ‘noumenal’, a.k.a. the « intelligible world » evoked by Kant?
Since there can be no doubt that the world and reality began to exist long before any human subject appeared on earth, one must conclude that other kinds of consciousness, other kinds of ‘subjects’ really existed then, for whom the world in the state of an inchoate phenomenon already already constituted an ‘object’ and an ‘intention’.
Then, we may infer that the world, at all time, has always been an object of ‘subjectivity’, of ‘intentionality’, of ‘desire’, for some sorts of consciousness.
It cannot be otherwise. We just have to try to figure out for which subjects, for which consciousnesses, this then nascent world could have been revealed as an object, as a phenomenon.
One can hypothesize that a primal subjectivity, intentionality, desire, pre-existed the appearance of the world of phenomena, in the form of a potential ‘aptitude to want, to desire, to think’.
« For the philosopher, who expresses himself on the experience of the thinking self, man is, quite naturally, not only the verb, but the thought made flesh; the always mysterious, never fully elucidated incarnation of the ability to think.»vii
Why ‘always mysterious’?
Because no one knows where thought comes from, and even less may guess the extent of all the forms that thought has taken in this universe, – from the ancient days of its beginning, to date, — and may still take. in the future.
Since we have no other guide in all this research than our own consciousness, we must get back to her again.
Every thought is singular, because with each she recreates (in her own symbolic way) the conditions of the original freedom of the spirit, even before ‘thought was made flesh’.
« While a man lets himself go to simply think, to think about anything, he lives totally in the singular, that is to say in complete solitude, as if the Earth was populated by one Man and not by men. »viii
The lone thinker recreates the absolute solitude of the first Thinker.
Who was this first Thinker? The mythical Adam? A Spirit who originally thought, and by this very fact, created the object of His thought?
Among the ‘first thinkers’ of whom we still have a trace, Parmenides and Plato evoked and pinned to the pinnacle the small number of those who live ‘the life of intelligence and wisdom’.
« The life of intelligence and wisdom » is the life of the spirit (noos), the life of thought herself, in her highest freedom, in her infinite potency. Like Intelligence, she was from the outset the « queen of heaven and earth »ix.
i Di, quibus imperium est animarum, umbraeque silentes
and Chaos and Phlegethon, loca nocte tacentia late,
Sit mihi fas audita loqui, sit numine vestro,
pandere res alta terra and caligine mersas.
Aeneid VI, 264-7
iiKant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863
iiiCf. Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.27
ivCf. Kant. Dreams of a Man who sees Spirits, – Explained by Dreams of Metaphysics. (1766). Translated from German by J. Tissot. Ed. Ladrange, Paris, 1863, p.27
v H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translation by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.68-69
vi H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.68-69
vii H. Arendt. The Life of the Spirit. The Thought. The Will. Translated by Lucienne Lotringer. PUF, 1981, p.72
Pour Stanislas Dehaene le cerveau est un « administrateur central », un acteur de haut niveau décisionnel, mais il n’est composé que de mécanismes élémentaires. Il n’est pas un deus ex machina. Il n’est qu’une machina…
Le cerveau peut-être, mais la conscience ?
« Le schéma simpliste d’un traitement réflexe, entrée-sortie, doit donc être bouleversé au profit d’un modèle où s’exerce un fort contrôle descendant : notre cerveau est un organe intentionnel, qui se fixe des buts et recherche activement les informations et les actions qui mènent à ces buts. Il y a en chacun de nous un administrateur central (comme au Collège de France !), dont le rôle est de contrôler les tâches, de gérer les conflits ou les erreurs ; mais cet opérateur mental, trop longtemps resté un homunculusou un deus ex machinade la psychologie, doit lui-même s’analyser en mécanismes élémentaires. »i
Suivant la pente micro-analytique de la modernité matérialiste, positiviste, déterministe, S. Dehaene voit seulement à l’œuvre, dans les plus hauts mouvements de l’esprit et de la conscience, une série de « mécanismes élémentaires » appartenant à une « machine étonnamment lente », et de plus contrainte par un « goulot d’étranglement central» par lequel passent toutes les prises de décision :
« Même s’il est constitué de multiples processeurs parallèles, au plus haut niveau cognitif, le cerveau humain se comporte comme une machine étonnamment lente et sérielle, qui ne peut faire qu’une opération à la fois. (…) Ni la perception des stimuli, ni l’exécution de la réponse motrice, ne sont différées pendant l’accomplissement simultané de deux tâches. Seule une étape dite ‘centrale’ semble subir un goulot d’étranglement où les opérations mentales s’exécutent en série et non en parallèle. (…) Seule la prise de décision stochastique semble responsable du goulot d’étranglement central. Nous pouvons reconnaître plusieurs objets ou effectuer plusieurs réponses en parallèle, mais pas prendre plusieurs décisions simultanément.»ii
Ce « goulot d’étranglement » ralentit les prises de décisions et il révèle ainsi l’existence d’une « supervision centrale » qui prend en quelque sorte son temps avant de trancher dans l’incertain et le probable, et qui peut être parfois dépassé par des conflits de priorité.
Le contrôle cognitif, dans les cerveaux de l’espèce humaine, est divisé en de multiples processus : orientation de l’attention, détection d’erreurs, branchement tactique vers d’autres opérations, mise en place d’une stratégie…
Parmi ces processus la perception subliminale joue un rôle important. Par définition elle est activée en l’absence de conscience.
Inversement, les opérations exigeant un contrôle cognitif poussé semblent ne pas pouvoir s’exécuter sans que nous en soyons conscients.
Il y a des perceptions subliminales, mais il n’y a pas de connaissance inconsciente.
Tout ce qui relève de l’inconscient échappe donc à la ‘connaissance’, du moins si l’on donne à ce mot le sens d’une cognition ‘claire’, et non le sens plus large d’intuitions plus ou moins obscures, telles qu’étudiées par la psychologie des profondeurs.
Pour la psychologie cognitive, la division hiérarchique de la cognition s’organise principalement suivant la distinction faite entre opérations conscientes et inconscientes, – ou plutôt non-conscientes, puisque l’inconscient n’est plus très à la mode chez les psychologues cognitifs.iii
Un stimulus non-conscient peut traverser une série d’étapes perceptives, conceptuelles et motrices, qui doivent être préparées puis intégrées au niveau d’une instance centrale, laquelle joue un rôle essentiel dans la prise de conscience.
D’où ce résultat, que Stanislas Dehaene présente comme un acquit nouveau: « La conscience apparaît associée à un système cérébral sériel, à capacité limitée, responsable du contrôle des autres opérations mentales. »iv
La conscience est ici réduite à ne pouvoir traiter qu’un objet de pensée à la fois, du fait de la contrainte imposée par la sérialité centrale. La conscience du monde extérieur est étroitement bornée. Dans les cas de « collision mentale » entre des stimuli divergents ou contradictoires, on peut montrer expérimentalement qu’un stimulus en conflit avec d’autres stimuli peut être « littéralement effacé de la conscience ».
C’est le phénomène de « clignement attentionnel » : le fait de prendre conscience d’une première information ferme temporairement l’accès à une autre information.
Prenant en compte toutes les observations sur ces effets de masquage, de clignement attentionnel, de cécité au changement, Dehaene en vient à reposer la question clé : « Qu’est ce que la conscience ? »
Sans y répondre, il remarque que l’on peut créer des conditions expérimentales dans lesquelles tous les sujets s’accordent sur le fait et sur la nature de leur expérience consciente. Ceci laisse supposer que l’on peut déterminer certaines bases cérébrales objectives de la conscience subjective.
Quelle que soit la complexité objective d’une expérience, le sujet la conçoit synthétiquement comme un unique état indivisible de sa propre conscience. Dehaene note qu’en 1921, le neurologue Leonardo Bianchi parlait des « champs des synthèses mentales », associés au lobe frontal. Plus tard, d’autres théoriciens (Bernard Baars, 1989) employèrent la métaphore de la scène de théâtre, où l’information consciente est rassemblée sur le devant de la scène pour être ensuite diffusée à une variété de processus mentaux, à l’arrière-plan ou dans les coulisses.
Or la neuro-anatomie et l’imagerie cérébrale donnent aujourd’hui une certaine consistance objective à ce qui n’était hier que des métaphores. Elles montrent que les aires préfrontales sont reliées à un réseau associatif distribué, dont l’entrée en activité est objectivement observable (par imagerie) lors de chaque accès d’une information à la conscience.
Dehaene emploie de nouveau la métaphore de la réverbération, à laquelle il tient particulièrementv, pour définir le phénomène-clé qu’il associe à la conscience :
« Les travaux de physiologistes tels que Victor Lamme ou Christoph Koch, et de psychologues tels que Vincent Di Lollo, convergent pour souligner le rôle essentiel de l’amplification neuronale à longue distance. Selon eux, l’information représentée par la décharge d’une population de neurones spécialisés accède à la conscience dès lors qu’elle entre en réverbération avec d’autres neurones distants, associés à des processus attentionnels, mnésiques ou exécutifs, et distribués dans les cortex temporaux, pariétaux et préfrontaux. »vi
Deux types d’activités, les unes correspondant à des opérations subliminales et les autres aux opérations conscientes, sont nettement observables. Elles sont séparées par un « seuil de conscience bien marqué », dont l’imagerie cérébrale rend compte.
Ces résultats épars permettent à S. Dehaene d’affirmer que l’on peut désormais « entrevoir un début de définition théorique de la conscience », grâce à la neuro-imagerie cognitive.
Les images, en effet, montrent que l’on peut observer une corrélation entre certains états d’activité du cerveau et le fait que certaines informations accèdent à la conscience.
Ainsi s’établit un lien causal (et visualisable par imagerie) entre l’attention, l’intégration centrale et la perception consciente.
Cependant S. Dehaene ne donne toujours pas de « définition théorique de la conscience », il ne fait qu’en « entrevoir » la possibilité, et il prône la prudence.
Le « problème difficile » de la conscience est loin d’être résolu…
« Reste ouvert ce que les philosophes Tom Nagel et Ned Block appellent un ‘gouffre explicatif’ entre le niveau matériel et celui du psychisme, qui a conduit certains philosophes, psychologues, et même physiologistes comme John Eccles, à l’impasse du dualisme. À l’avenir, la démonstration d’une relation de causalité, et in fine d’identité, entre états neuronaux et états mentaux conscients passera par l’utilisation de techniques d’interférence avec l’activité cérébrale. »vii
D’un côté, il y a un ‘gouffre explicatif’ entre le niveau matériel et le niveau psychique.
De l’autre, il y a l’affirmation (faite par Dehaene) que le dualisme est une ‘impasse’.
Il me semble que le ‘gouffre explicatif’ explique au moins la tentation du dualisme.
Et il me semble aussi que la thèse forte du matérialisme (dans sa vision en quelque sorte ‘moniste’ d’une intégration de tous les niveaux observés) rencontre un obstacle de taille avec ce ‘gouffre explicatif’ que rien ne vient combler, et qui ne cesse de béer.
Il y a encore un autre obstacle à l’établissement d’une théorie de la conscience.
« La conscience, nous dit William James, est un flux ininterrompu, un train permanent de pensées, le vol d’un oiseau qui sans cesse s’envole ou se pose. »viii
Cela invite à considérer que le cerveau fonctionne sur un mode anticipatoire, toujours actif, « ressassant le passé pour mieux anticiper le futur. »
Avec une réelle honnêteté intellectuelle, Dehaene critique ici les errements de son propre domaine de compétence: « La psychologie cognitive néglige souvent cet état interne du sujet conscient, se contentant de le bombarder de stimuli et de recueillir ses réponses. »ix
Or c’est dans l’observation et la compréhension profonde de cet état interne que sans doute se trouve la clé, si jamais on doit la trouver.
On peut considérer, comme le fait Dehaene, que l’activité « spontanée » et « distribuée » du cerveau est ce qui caractérise l’état de veille consciente. En effet on observe que celle-ci disparaît sous anesthésie, dans le sommeil profond, ou encore lors des états comateux ou végétatifs, mais qu’elle réapparaît dès que les sujets recouvrent leur conscience.
Conclusion, selon Dehaene : l’activité spontanée et distribuée du cerveau constitue bel et bien « un solide corrélat neuronal de l’état de vigilance consciente »x.
Mais n’est-ce pas là, une fois encore, une assertion tautologique ?
Loin de donner une définition de la conscience, capable de saisir son essence, Dehaene ne fait que constater des corrélations entre divers phénomènes qui prennent effectivement part à la conscience, mais qui ne la définissent pas dans son essence profonde.
Que nous apporte de poser que l’activité spontanée et distribuée du cerveau est le « corrélat neuronal » de l’état de vigilance consciente ?
Rien, sinon une reformulation quelque peu pléonastique…
De simples « constats », appuyés sur des imageries, mais aux allures de pléonasmes, ne nous font pas accéder à une compréhension de l’essence même de la conscience, et ne nous éclairent aucunement sur son origine, et encore moins sur sa fin.
Dehaene prend acte implicitement de cet échec et il conclut sa Leçon sur un constat mitigé, et critique :
« L’activité mentale autonome, trop souvent négligée, doit donc redevenir un objet d’étude pour la psychologie cognitive. Nos expériences brident souvent les participants dans des tâches cognitives très étroites. Si l’on espère comprendre le flux spontané de la conscience, de nouvelles méthodes expérimentales, qui laisseraient une bien plus grande liberté au sujet, devront être imaginées. »xi
La liberté du sujet ! En pleine époque matérialiste et déterministe !
Quelle hommage implicite à des millénaires de recherche philosophique et métaphysique, qui se voient ainsi à nouveau reconnus et admis dans le temple positiviste et scientiste qu’est devenu le Collège de France !
La pertinence de la notion de sujet et la reconnaissance de la liberté du moi sont à nouveau proclamées. Cependant, elles sont toujours fortement corsetées, et placées sous la férule de l’imagerie, – qui traque des données essentiellement subjectives (pour le sujet), les transforme en traces objectives (pour l’observateur), lesquelles sont ensuite modélisées sous la forme de conjectures sur l’architecture cérébrale (par le psychologue cognitif).
« Dans la psychologie d’aujourd’hui, les données subjectives de la conscience sont des objets d’étude légitimes, que la modélisation et l’imagerie mettent en relation directe avec les données objectives de l’architecture cérébrale. »xii
Dans sa péroraison finale, enthousiaste, Dehaene déborde d’une confiance éclatante, et veut dynamiser les troupes (les chercheurs qui trouvent) et le public (qui cherche à s’y retrouver).
« L’explication ultime des objets mentaux que sont les perceptions, les illusions, les décisions ou les émotions, doit se formuler en termes de lois dynamiques de transition dans les réseaux neuronaux. Nous devrons donc concevoir de nouvelles théories pour, comme le disait le physicien Jean Perrin, ‘substituer au visible compliqué de l’invisible simple’. Je mesure pleinement l’immense chance que nous avons de vivre un temps où les avancées conjointes de la psychologie et de la neuro-imagerie cognitives laissent entrevoir de rendre enfin visible, comme à crâne ouvert, l’invisible de la pensée. »
Cette dernière phrase, concluant la Leçon inaugurale du Professeur Dehaene, mérite de s’y attarder. Chaque mot compte.
« Les imageries cognitives laissent entrevoir de rendre enfin visible, comme à crâne ouvert, l’invisible de la pensée. »
Surprenant effet de mise en abyme, révélant un inconscient désir de pornographie cérébrale…
Ce qui est surtout rendu visible, c’est la pulsion dévoilée, mise à nu, du positivisme matérialiste.
Les essences ne sont plus désormais que des clichés, et les concepts seront compressés dans des fichiers JPEG.
Montaigne voulait des têtes bien faites, plutôt que bien pleines.
Dehaene veut des crânes bien ouverts pour les vider de toute essence.
iS. Dehaene. Vers une science de la vie mentale. Leçon inaugurale au Collège de France
iiiCf. Les Neurosciences face à la Conscience, I. | Metaxu. Le blog de Philippe Quéau. Dans son cours intitulé:L’inconscient cognitif et la profondeur des opérations subliminales,Stanislas Dehaene a commencé par régler un vieux compte avec Freud: « Le concept d’inconscient ne date pas de Freud et ses contemporains (Gauchet, 1992). De plus, de nombreux aspects de la théorie freudienne de l’inconscient ne trouvent pas d’échos dans la recherche contemporaine. Tel est le cas, par exemple, de l’hypothèse d’un inconscient pourvu d’intentions et de désirs qui lui sont propres, souvent d’origine infantile, et structuré par des mécanismes de refoulement et de censure. Pour éviter toute confusion avec les constructions théoriques freudiennes, la psychologie cognitive préfère donc souvent au terme d’inconscient les termes plus neutres de non-conscient ou d’inconscient cognitif. »
ivS. Dehaene. Vers une science de la vie mentale. Leçon inaugurale au Collège de France.
Born in 1886 into an assimilated Jewish family, Franz Rosenzweig decided to convert to Christianity in the 1910s, after numerous discussions with his cousins, Hans and Rudolf Ehrenberg, who had already converted, and with his friend Eugen Rosenstock, also a converted Jew. But he renounced the conversion after attending the Yom Kippur service in a Berlin synagogue in 1913.
Shortly afterwards, he wrote in the trenches of the First World War his masterpiece, The Star of Redemption, which offers a kind of parallelism between Judaism and Christianity.
Parallels that do not meet, except perhaps at the end of Time.
I find Rosenzweig’s essay truly significant for a double distance, for a constitutive split, the outcome of which is difficult to see, unless there is a total change of paradigm – which would perhaps be the real issue, in some future.
Rosenzweig asserts that Christianity faces three « dangers » that it « will never overcome ». These « dangers » are essentially of a conceptual nature: « the spiritualization of the concept of God, the apotheosis granted to the concept of man, the panthetization of the concept of the world ». i
The Christian concept of God, the Christian concept of man, the Christian concept of the world, are wrong and dangerous, according to Rosenzweig, because they imply an attack on the absolute transcendence of God, to which, by contrast, Judaism is supposed to be fundamentally attached.
« Let the Spirit be the guide in all things, and not God; let the Son of Man, and not God, be the Truth; let God one day be in all things, and not above all; these are the dangers. »ii
Rosenzweig cannot accept that the absolutely transcendent God of Judaism can be represented by His « Spirit », even though this Spirit is « holy ».
Why not? Is God not His own Spirit?
No. God’s transcendence is probably so absolute that the use of the word « spirit » is still too anthropomorphic in this context. From the point of view of Judaism, as interpreted by Rosenzweig, to use the word « spirit » as an hypostasis of God is an attack on its absolute transcendence.
But, is not God called in the Torah the « God of spirits » (Num 16:22), because He is the Creator? Could the spirit, as created by God, then be a « substance » which God and man would then have in common? No. This is not acceptable. The very principle of the absolute transcendence of God excludes any idea of a community of substance between the divine and the human, even that of the « spirit ».
Nor can Rosenzweig accept that the absolutely transcendent God of Judaism could be represented here below by a « Son », or horresco referens, could lower Himself to humiliation by consenting to a human « incarnation », to whom He would further delegate, ipso facto, the care and privilege of revealing His Truth to men.
Finally, and a fortiori, Rosenzweig obviously cannot accept that the absolutely transcendent God can condescend to any immanence whatsoever, and in particular by coming into the « world » to dwell « in all ».
Judaism will not compromise.
The absolute transcendence of God, of His revelation, and of Redemption, are infinitely beyond the spirit, infinitely beyond the human, infinitely beyond the world.
Rosenzweig’s attack on Christianity focuses on its supposed « concepts ».
Concepts are positive attempts by the human mind to capture the essence of something.
The dogma of the absolute transcendence of God excludes from the outset any attempt whatsoever to « conceptualize » it, whether through names, attributes or manifestations.
The only acceptable conceptualization is the concept of the impossibility of any conceptualization. The only possible theology is an absolutely negative theology, rigorously and infinitely apophatic.
But then what about the revelation of His Name, made to Moses by God Himself?
What about the theophanies found in the Torah?
What about God’s dialogues with the Prophets?
Or in another vein, what about the granting of a Covenant between God and his People?
What about thewandering of the Shekhina in this world, and her « suffering »?
Or, on yet another level, how to understand the idea that heaven and earth are a « creation » of God, with all that this entails in terms of responsibility for the content of their future and the implications of their inherent potentialities?
Are these not notable exceptions, through word or spirit, to thevery idea of God’s absolute, radicaltranscendence? Are they not in fact so many links, so many consensual interactions between God Himself and all that is so infinitely below Him, – all that is so infinitely nothing?
These questions are not dealt with by Rosenzweig. What is important to him is to reproach Christianity for « exteriorizing itself in the Whole, » for « dispersing its rays » in the march through time, with the spiritualization [of the concept of God], the divinization [of the concept of man] and the mondanization [of transcendence].
But Rosenzweig’s reproaches do not stop there. For good measure, he also criticizes the « dangers » peculiar to Judaism.
Where Christianity sins by « dispersing », by « externalizing » the idea of God, Judaism sins on the contrary by « shrinking », by confinement in « the narrow », by refuge in « a narrow home »iii. To sum up: « The Creator has shrunk to the creator of the Jewish world, Revelation has only taken place in the Jewish heart.» iv
Franz Rosenzweig analyzes the « Jewish dangers » in this manner :
« Thus, in the depths of this Jewish feeling, any split, anything that encompasses Jewish life, has become very narrow and simple. Too simple and too narrow, that is what should be said, and in this narrowness, as many dangers should be fanned as in Christian dilatation. Here it is the concept of God that was in danger: in our midst, it is His World and His Man who seem to be in danger (…) Judaism, which is consumed within, runs the risk of gathering its heat in its own bosom, far from the pagan reality of the world. In Christianity, the dangers were named: spiritualization of God, humanization of God, mondanization of God; here [in Judaism] they are called denial of the world, contempt for the world, suffocation of the world.
Denial of the world, when the Jew, in the proximity of his God, anticipated the Redemption for his own benefit, forgetting that God was Creator and Redeemer, that, as Creator, He conserved the whole world and that in the Revelation He ultimately turned His face to mankind at large.
Contempt for the world, when the Jew felt himself to be a remnant, and thus to be the true man, originally created in the image of God and living in the expectation of the end within this original purity, thus withdrawing from man: yet it was precisely with his hardness, forgetting God, that the Revelation of God’s love had come about, and it was this man who now had to exercise this love in the unlimited work of Redemption.
Choking of the world, finally, when the Jew, in possession of the Law revealed to him and becoming flesh and blood in his spirit, now had the nerve to regulate the being there at every renewed moment and the silent growth of things, even to pretend to judge them.
These three dangers are all necessary consequences of the interiority that turned away from the world, just as the dangers of Christianity were due to the exteriorization of the self turned towards the world. » v
Not being able to resolve to elect a single champion, Rosenzweig concludes that Jews and Christians are in fact working at the same task, and that God cannot deprive Himself of either of them: « He has bound them together in the closest reciprocity. To us [Jews] He has given eternal life by lighting in our hearts the fire of the Star of His truth. He has placed Christians on the eternal path by making them follow the rays of the Star of His truth throughout the centuries to the eternal end.»vi
The life, the truth, the way. The Anointed One from Nazareth, the Christian Messiah, had already designated himself by these three words, identifying them with his own Person.
Shrinkage, narrowness, suffocation.
Dispersion, expansion, paganization.
Let the millennia flow, let the eons bloom.
What will the world be like in three hundred billion years? Will it be Jewish? Christian? Buddhist? Nihilist? Gnostic? Or will the world be All Other?
Will we one day see the birth of a non-Galilean Messiah or a non-Anointed Anointed One, far away in galaxies at the unimagined borders of the known universes, revealing in clear language a meta-Law as luminous as a thousand billion nebulae assembled in one single point?
Or is it the very message of the Scriptures that, by some miracle, will be repeated, word for word, letter for letter, breath for breath, in all the multiverse, crossing without damage the attraction and translation of multiple black holes and vertiginous wormholes?
The path before us is infinitely, obviously, open.
We only know that at the very end there will be life – not death.
What kind of life? We don’t know.
We know that with life, there will also be truth.
Truth and life are indissolubly linked, as are transcendence and immanence.
« What is truth? » asked Pilatus once, famously.
One could also ask : « What is life? »
Since transcendence is so infinitely above the human mind, how can one dare to ask even these kinds of questions?
That’s exactly the point.
Daring to ask these questions is already, in a way, beginning to answer them.
I have no doubt that in six hundred million years, or thirty-three billion years, some truth will still be there to be grasp, – if there are still, of course, eyes to see, or ears to hear.
iFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.474.
iiFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.474.
iiiFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.478.
ivFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.476.
vFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil , 1882, p.479-480.
viFranz Rosenzweig. The Star of Redemption. Alexandre Derczanski and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Seuil, 1882, p. 490.
For more than two centuries, the West has produced a small but highly committed phalanx of Indianists, Sanskritists and Veda specialists. Their translations, commentaries, reviews, and scholarly theses are generally of good quality and show a high level of scholarship. The specialized departments of some Western universities have been able to promote, year after year, excellent contributions to the knowledge of the enormous mass of documents and texts, Vedic and post-Vedic, belonging to a tradition whose origins go back more than four thousand years.
One is quickly struck, however, by the dazzling diversity of the points of view expressed by these specialists on the deep meaning and the very nature of the Veda. One is surprised by the remarkable differences in the interpretations provided, and in the end, in spite of a smooth harmony of facade, by their incompatibility and their irreconcilable cacophony.
To give a quick idea of the spectrum of opinions, I would like to briefly quote some of the best experts on Vedic India.
Of course, if one wanted to be complete, one would have to make a systematic review of all the research in indology since the beginning of the 19th century, to determine the structural biases, the interpretative flaws, the blindness and the cultural deafness…
I will limit myself to just touching on the issue by evoking a few significant works by well-known specialists: Émile Burnouf, Sylvain Lévi, Henri Hubert, Marcel Mauss, Louis Renou, Frits Staal, Charles Malamoud, Raimon Panikkar.
The following ideas will be found there in a jumble, – surprisingly eclectic and contradictory:
– Vāk is the Logos. Or: The Vedic Word (Vāk) is equivalent to the Greek Logos and the Johannine Word.
-The Veda (a.k.a. the « Aryan Bible ») is « coarse » and comes from « semi-savage » people.
-God’s sacrifice is only a « social fact ».
-The Veda got lost in India quite early on.
-The rites (and especially Vedic rites) have no meaning.
-The sacrifice represents the union of the Male and Female.
Active in the second half of the 19th century, Émile Burnouf asserted that the Vedic Aryâs had a very clear awareness of the value of their cult, and of their role in this respect. « Vedic poets state that they themselves created the gods: ‘The ancestors shaped the forms of the gods, as the worker shapes iron’ (Vāmadéva II,108), and that without the Hymn, the deities of heaven and earth would not be. » ii
The Vedic Hymn « increases the power of the gods, enlarges their domain and makes them reign. » iii
But the Hymn is also, par excellence, the Word (Vāk).
In the Ṛg-Veda, a famous hymniv is called « Word ».
Here are some excerpts, translated by Burnouf :
« I am wise; I am the first of those honoured by the Sacrifice.
The one I love, I make him terrible, pious, wise, enlightened.
I give birth to the Father. My dwelling is on his very head, in the midst of the waves (…)
I exist in all the worlds and I extend to the heaven.
Like the wind, I breathe in all worlds. My greatness rises above this earth, above the very heaven. »
Emile Burnouf comments and concludes:
« This is not yet the theory of the Logos, but this hymn and those that resemble it can be considered as the starting point of the theory of the Logos. » v
From Vāk to Logos! From the Veda to the Word of theGospel of John!
Remember that Vāk appeared at least one thousand years before the Platonic Logos and at least one thousand five hundred years before John the Evangelist used the Logos as a metaphor for the Divine Word.
Does Burnouf force the line beyond all measure?
Is this not an anachronism, or worse, a fundamental bias of an ideological nature, unduly bringing religious traditions closer together without any connection between them?
Or is it not rather a great intuition on his part?
Curious figure that that of Sylvain Lévi, famous indologist, pupil of the Indianist Abel Bergaigne. On the one hand, he seems cheerfully to despise the Brāhmaṇas, which were nevertheless the object of his long, learned and thorough studies. On the other hand, he acknowledges a certain relative value with his lips.
« Morality has found no place in this system [of Brāhmaṇas]: the sacrifice that regulates man’s relationship with the deities is a mechanical operation that acts through its intimate energy; hidden within nature, it is only released from it through the magical action of the priest. The worried and malevolent gods are forced to surrender, defeated and subdued by the very force that gave them greatness. In spite of them, the sacrificer rises to the heavenly world and ensures himself a definitive place in it for the future: man becomes superhuman. » vii
We could ask ourselves why eminent specialists like Sylvain Lévi spend so much time and energy on a subject they denigrate, deep down inside?
Sylvain Lévi’s analysis is indeed surprising by the vigor of the attack, the vitriol of certain epithets (« coarse religion », « people of half savages »), mixed, it is true, with some more positive views:
« Sacrifice is a magical operation; the regenerating initiation is a faithful reproduction of conception, gestation and childbirth; faith is only confidence in the virtue of the rites; the passage to heaven is a step-by-step ascent; the good is ritual accuracy. Such a coarse religion supposes a people of half-wild people; but the sorcerers, the wizards or the shamans of these tribes knew how to analyze their system, to dismantle its parts, to fix its laws; they are the true fathers of the Hindu philosophy. » viii
The contempt for the « half-wild ones » is coupled with a kind of more targeted disdain for what Levi calls, with some sharp irony, the « Aryan Bible » of the Vedic religion (reminder: Levi’s text dates from 1898):
« The defenders of the Aryan Bible, who have the happy privilege of tasting the freshness and naivety of the hymns, are free to imagine a long and profound decadence of religious feeling among the poets and doctors of the Vedic religion; others will refuse to admit such a surprising evolution of beliefs and doctrines, which makes a stage of gross barbarity follow a period of exquisite delicacy. In fact it is difficult to conceive of anything more brutal and material than the theology of Brāhmaṇas; the notions that usage has slowly refined and taken on a moral aspect, surprise by their wild realism. » ix
Sylvain Levi condescends, however, to give a more positive assessment when he points out that Vedic priests also seem to recognize the existence of a « unique » divinity:
« Speculations about sacrifice not only led the Hindu genius to recognize as a fundamental dogma the existence of a unique being; they may have initiated him into the idea of transmigrations ». x
Curious word that that of transmigration, clearly anachronistic in a Vedic context… Everything happens as if the Veda (which never uses this very Buddhist word of transmigration…) had in the eyes of Levi for only true interest, for lack of intrinsic value, the fact of carrying in him the scattered germs of a Buddhism which still remained to come, more than one millennium later….
« The Brāhmaṇas ignore the multiplicity of man’s successive existences; the idea of repeated death only appears there to form a contrast with the infinite life of the inhabitants of the heaven. But the eternity of the Sacrifice is divided into infinitely numerous periods; whoever offers it kills him and each death resurrects him. The supreme Male, the Man par excellence (a.k.a. Puruṣa) dies and is reborn again and again (…) The destiny of the Male was to easily end up being the ideal type of human existence. The sacrifice made man in his own image. The « seer » who discovers by the sole force of his intelligence, without the help of the gods and often against their will, the rite or formula that ensures success, is the immediate precursor of the Buddhas and Jinas who discover, by direct intuition and spontaneous illumination, the way to salvation. » xi
The Veda, one sees it, would be hardly that one way towards the Buddha, according to Levi.
Henri Hubert and Marcel Maussxii: The divine sacrifice is only a « social fact ».
In their famous Essay on the Nature and Function of Sacrifice (1899), Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss undertook the ambitious and perilous task of comparing various forms of sacrifice, as revealed by historical, religious, anthropological and sociological studies, affecting the whole of humanity.
Convinced that they had succeeded in formulating a « general explanation, » they thought they could affirm the « unity of the sacrificial system » across all cultures and all eras.
« It is that, in the end, under the diversity of the forms that it takes, [the sacrifice] is always made by the same process that can be used for the most different purposes. This process consists in establishing communication between the sacred and profane worlds through a victim, that is, something destroyed in the course of the ceremony. » xiii
The unity of the « sacrificial system » is revealed mainly as a « social fact », through the « sacralization of the victim » which becomes a « social thing »: « Religious notions, because they are believed, are; they exist objectively, as social facts. Sacred things, in relation to which the sacrifice functions, are social things, and that is enough to explain the sacrifice. » xiv
The study by Hubert and Mauss is based in particular on the comparative analysis of Vedic sacrifices and sacrifices among the ancient Hebrews.
These authors attempt to determine a common principle, unifying extremely diverse types of sacrifice. « In the course of religious evolution, the notion of sacrifice has joined the notions concerning the immortality of the soul. We have nothing to add on this point to the theories of Rohde, Jevons and Nutt on the Greek mysteries, whose facts quoted by M. S. Levi, borrowed from the doctrines of the Brahmanasxv and those that Bergaigne and Darmesteter had already extracted from vedicxvi and avesticxvii texts, must be compared. Let us also mention the relationship that unites Christian communion to eternal salvationxviii. (…) The characteristic feature of objective sacrifices is that the main effect of the rite is, by definition, on an object other than the sacrificer. Indeed, the sacrifice does not return to its point of departure; the things it is intended to modify are outside the sacrificer. The effect produced on the latter is thus secondary. It is the central phase, the sacrifice, which tends to take up the most space. It is above all a question of creating spirit. » xix
This principle of unity takes all its resonance with the sacrifice of the god.
« The types of sacrifice of the god that we have just reviewed are realized in concreto and gathered together in one and the same Hindu rite: the sacrifice of soma. We can see first of all what a true sacrifice of the god is in the ritual. We cannot expose here how Soma god is confused with the soma plant, how he is really present there, nor can we describe the ceremonies in the middle of which he is brought and received at the place of the sacrifice. One carries him on a bulwark, worships him, then presses him and kills him. » xx
The « sacrifice of the god », whatever its possible metaphysical scope, which is absolutely out of the question here, is never really a « social fact » …
Louis Renouxxi: The Veda was lost in India early on.
Louis Renou emphasizes in his Vedic Studies what he considers to be a « striking paradox » about the Veda.
« On the one hand, we revere him, we recognize in him an omniscient, infallible, eternal principle – something like God in the form of « Knowledge », a God made Book (Bible), an Indian Logos – one refers to him as the very source of Dharma, theauthority from which all Brahmanic disciplines are derived. And on the other hand, the traditions, let us say philological traditions, relating to the Veda, the very substance of the texts that compose it, all this has been weakened early on, if not altered or lost. » xxii
In fact, Renou shows that the sharpest enemies of the Veda proliferated very early on in India itself. For example, he lists the « anti-Vedic attitudes » of the Jainas, the Ājīvika and the Buddhists, the « semi-Vedic tendencies » of the Viṣṇuïtes and the Śivaïtes, or the « a-Vedic » positions of the Śākta and the Tāntrika. Renou reminds us that Rāmakrisna has taught: « Truth is not in the Vedas; one must act according to the Tantras, not according to the Vedas; the latter are impure by the very fact that they are pronounced, etc…. « xxiiiand that Tukārām said: « Pride is born from the repetition of the syllables of the Vedaxxiv.
It was with the appearance of the Tantras that the Vedic period came to an end, » explains Renou. It accelerated with a general reaction of Indian society against the ancient Vedic culture, and with the development of popular religiosity that had been bullied by the Vedic cults, as well as with the appearance of Viṣṇuïsme and Śivaïsme and the development of anti-ritualistic and ascetic practices.
The end of the Veda seems to be explained by root causes. From time immemorial it was entrusted to the oral memory of Brahmins, apparently more expert at memorizing its pronunciation and rhythm of cantillation as faithfully as possible than at knowing its meaning or perfecting its interpretations.
Hence this final judgment, in the form of a condemnation: « The Vedic representations ceased early on to be a ferment of Indian religiosity, it no longer recognized itself there where it remained faithful to them. » xxv
From then on, the Vedic world is nothing more than a « distant object, delivered to the vagaries of an adoration deprived of its textual substance. »
And Renou concludes with a touch of fatalism:
« This is a fairly common fate for the great sacred texts that are the foundations of religions. » xxvi
Frits Staal has a simple and devastating theory: the rite makes no sense. It is meaningless.
What is important in the ritual is what one does, – not what one thinks, believes or says. Ritual has no intrinsic meaning, purpose or finality. It is its own purpose. « In ritual activity, the rules count, but not the result. In ordinary activity, it is the opposite. » xxviii
Staal gives the example of the Jewish ritual of the « red cow »xxix, which surprised Solomon himself, and which was considered the classic example of a divine commandment for which no rational explanation could be given.
Animals also have ‘rituals’, such as ‘aspersion’, and yet they don’t have a language, » explains Staal.
The rites, however, are charged with a language of their own, but it is a language that does not strictly speaking convey any meaning, it is only a « structure » allowing the ritual actions to be memorized and linked together.
The existence of rituals goes back to the dawn of time, long before the creation of structured languages, syntax and grammar. Hence the idea that the very existence of syntax could come from ritual.
The absence of meaning of the rite sees its corollary in the absence of meaning (or the radical contingency) of the syntax.
Frits Staal applies this general intuition to the rites of the Veda. He notes the extreme ritualization of Yajurveda and Samaveda. In the chants of Samaveda, there is a great variety of seemingly meaningless sounds, extended series of O’s, sometimes ending in M’s, which evoke the mantra OM.
Staal then opens up another avenue for reflection. He notes that the effect of certain psychoactive powers, such as those associated with the ritual consumption of soma, is somewhat analogous to the effects of singing, recitation and psalmody, which involve rigorous breath control. This type of effect that can rightly be called psychosomatic even extends to silent meditation, as recommended by Upaniṣad and Buddhism.
For example, controlled inhalation and exhalation practices in highly ritualized breathing exercises can help explain how the ingestion of a psychoactive substance can also become a ritual.
In a previous article I mentioned the fact that many animals enjoy consuming psychoactive plants. Similarly, it can be noted that in many animal species we find some kind of ritualized practices.
There would thus be a possible link to underline between these animal practices, which apparently have no « meaning », and highly ritualized human practices such as those observed in the great sacrificial rites of the Veda.
Hence this hypothesis, which I will try to explore in a future article : the ingestion of certain plants, the obsessive observation of rites and the penetration of religious beliefs have a common point, that of being able to generate psychoactive effects.
However, animals are also capable of experiencing some similar effects.
There is here an avenue for a more fundamental reflection on the very structure of the universe, its intimate harmony and its capacity to produce resonances, especially with the living world. The existence of these resonances is particularly salient in the animal world.
Without doubt, it is also these resonances that are at theorigin of the phenomenon (certainly not reserved to Man) of « consciousness ».
Apparently « meaningless » rites have at least this immense advantage that they are able to generate more « consciousness » .
I would like to add that this line of research opens up unimaginable perspectives, by the amplitude and universality of its implications, at various levels of « life », and from cosmology to anthropology…
Charles Malamoudxxx : Sacrifice is the union of Male and Female.
By a marked and even radical contrast with the already exposed positions of Sylvain Lévi, Charles Malamoud places the Veda at the pinnacle. The Veda is no longer a « grossly barbaric » or « half-wild » paganism, it is in his eyes a « monotheism », not only « authentic », but the « most authentic » monotheism that is, far above Judaism or Christianity !
« The Veda is not polytheism, or even ‘henotheism’, as Max Müller thought. It is the most authentic of monotheisms. And it is infinitely older than the monotheisms taught by the religions of the Book. » xxxi
Once this overall compliment has been made, Charles Malamoud in turn tackles the crux of the matter, the question of Vedic sacrifice, its meaning and nature.
On the one hand, « the rite is routine, and repetition, and it is perhaps a prison for the mind »xxxii. On the other hand, « the rite is to itself its own transcendence »xxxiii. This is tantamount to saying that it is the rite alone that really matters, despite appearances, and not the belief or mythology it is supposed to embody….
« The rites become gods, the mythological god is threatened to be erased and only remains if he manages to be recreated by the rite. Rites can do without gods, gods are nothing without rites. » xxxiv
This position corresponds indeed to the fundamental (and founding) thesis of the Veda, according to which the Sacrifice is the supreme God himself (Prajāpati), and conversely, God is the Sacrifice.
But Charles Malamoud is not primarily interested in the profound metaphysical implications of this double identification of Prajāpati with the Sacrifice.
The question that interests him, more prosaically, is of a completely different nature: « What is the sex of the Sacrifice? » xxxv, he asks …
And the answer comes, perfectly clear:
« The Vedic sacrifice, when assimilated to a body, is unquestionably and superlatively a male. » xxxvi
This is evidenced by the fact, according to Malamoud, that the sequences of the « accompanying offerings », which are in a way « appendages » of the main offering, called anuyajā, are compared to penises (śiśna). The texts even glorify the fact that the Sacrifice has three penises, while the man has only one. xxxvii
Of the « male » body of the sacrifice, the « female » partner is the Word.
Malamoud cites a significant passage from Brāhmaṇas.
« The Sacrifice was taken from desire for the Word. He thought, ‘Ah, how I would like to make love with her! and he joined with her. Indra thought, ‘Surely a prodigious being will be born from this union between the Sacrifice and the Word, and that being will be stronger than I am! Indra became an embryo and slipped into the embrace of the Sacrifice and the Word (…) He grasped the womb of the Word, squeezed it tightly, tore it up and placed it on the head of the Sacrifice. » xxxviii
Malamoud qualifies this very strange scene as « anticipated incest » on the part of Indra, apparently wishing to make the Sacrifice and the Word her surrogate parents…
For us » westerners « , we seem to be confronted here with a real « primitive scene », in the manner of Freud… All that is missing is the murder…
And yet, murder is not far away.
Crushing soma stems with stones is explicitly considered in Vedic texts as « murder, » Malamoud insists.
« Killing » soma stems may seem like an elaborate metaphor.
It is however the Vedic metaphor par excellence, that of the « sacrifice of God », in this case the sacrifice of the God Soma. The divinized Soma is seen as a victim who is immolated, who is put to death by crushing with stones, which implies a « fragmentation » of his « body », and the flow of his substance, then collected to form the essential basis of the oblation?
This idea of sacrificial « murder » is not limited to soma. It also applies to the sacrifice itself, taken as a whole.
Sacrifice is seen as a « body », subject to fragmentation, dilaceration, dismemberment?
« The Vedic texts say that one kills the sacrifice itself as soon as one deploys it. That is to say, when we move from the sacrificial project, which as a project forms a whole, to its enactment, we fragment it into distinct temporal sequences and kill it. The pebbles praised in this hymn Ṛg-Veda X 94 are the instruments of this murder. » xxxix
If the Word makes a couple with the Sacrifice, it can also make a couple with the Silence, as Malamoud explains: « there is an affinity between silence and sperm: the emission of sperm (netasaḥ siktiḥ) is done silently. » xl
A lesson is drawn from this observation for the manner of performing the rite, – with a mixture of words, murmurs and silences :
« Such a soma extraction must be performed with inaudible recitation of the formula, because it symbolizes the sperm that spreads in a womb »xli.
The metaphor is explicit: it is a question of « pouring the Breath-Sperm into the Word-Matrix ». Malamoud specifies: « In practice, to fecundate the Word by the Breath-Sperm-Silence, this means dividing the same rite into two successive phases: one involving recitation of texts aloud, the other inaudible recitation. » xlii
All this is generalizable. The metaphor of the male/female distinction applies to the gods themselves.
« Agni himself is feminine, he is properly a womb when, at the time of the sacrifice, one pours into the oblatory fire, this sperm to which the soma liquor is assimilated. » xliii
Permanence and universality of the metaphor of copulation, in the Veda… according to Malamoud.
Raimon Panikkarxliv : Sacrifice is the navel of the universe
Panikkar says that only one word expresses the quintessence of Vedic revelation: yajña, sacrifice.
Sacrifice is the primordial act, the Act which makes beings be, and which is therefore responsible for their becoming, without the need to invoke the hypothesis of a previous Being from which they would come. In the beginning, « was » the Sacrifice. The beginning, therefore, was neither the Being nor the Non-Being, neither the Full nor the Empty.
The Sacrifice not only gives its Being to the world, but also sustains it. The Sacrifice is what sustains the universe in its Being, what gives life and hope to life. « Sacrifice is the internal dynamism of the Universe.» xlv
From this idea another, even more fundamental, follows: that the Creator God depends in reality on his own Creation.
« The supreme being is not God by himself, but by creatures. In reality he is never alone. He is a relation and belongs to reality. »xlvi
« The Gods do not exist autonomously; they exist in, with, above, and also through men. Their supreme sacrifice is man, the primordial man. (…) Man is the priest but also the sacrificed; the Gods, in their role as primary agents of sacrifice, offer their oblation with man. Man is not only the cosmic priest; he is also the cosmic victim. »xlvii
The Veda describes Creation as resulting from the Sacrifice of God (devayajña), and the self-immolation of the Creator. It is only because Prajāpati totally sacrifices itself that it can give Creation its own Self.
In doing so, the Divine Sacrifice becomes the central paradigm (or « navel ») of the universe:
« This sacred enclosure is the beginning of the earth; this sacrifice is the center of the world. This soma isthe seed of the fertile horse. This priest is the first patron of the word. » xlviii
The commentator writes:
« Everything that exists, whatever it is, is made to participate in the sacrifice. » xlix
« Truly, both Gods and men and Fathers drink together, and this is their banquet. Once they drank openly, but now they drink hidden.»
The competence of the Indian and Sanskritist scholars cited here is not in question.
The display of their divergences, far from diminishing them, increases in my eyes especially the high idea I have of their analytical and interpretative capacities.
But no doubt the reader will not have escaped the kind of dull irony I have tried to instil through the choice of accumulated quotations.
It seemed to me that the West still has a long way to go to begin to « understand » the East (– here the Vedic Orient).
It so happens that sometimes, in reading some Vedic texts (for example the hymns of the 10th Mandala of Ṛg Veda, and some Upaniṣad), I feel some sort of deep resonances with thinkers and poets who lived several thousands of years ago.
iEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863.
iiEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.113
iiiEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.112
vEmile Burnouf. Essay on the Veda. Ed. Dezobry, Tandou et Cie, Paris, 1863. p.115
viSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.
viiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 9
viiiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 10
ixSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898.p. 9
xSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898. p.10-11
xiSylvain Lévi. The doctrine of sacrifice in the Brāhmanas. Ed. Ernest Leroux.1898. p.11
xiiHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Mixed history of religions. From some results of religious sociology; Sacrifice; The origin of magical powers; The representation of time. Collection: Works of the Sociological Year. Paris: Librairie Félix Alcan, 1929, 2nd edition, 236 pages.
xiiiHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.76
xivHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.78
xvDoctr, pp. 93-95. We absolutely agree with the rapprochement proposed by M. L., between the Brahmanic theory of escape from death by sacrifice and the Buddhist theory of moksà, of deliverance. Cf. Oldenberg, The Buddha, p. 40.
xviVoir Bergaigne, Rel. Véd., sur l’amrtam « essence immortelle » que confère le scma (I, p. 254 suiv., etc.). Mais là, comme dans le livre de M. Hillebr. Ved. Myth., I, p. 289 et sqq. passim, les interprétations de mythologie pure ont un peu envahi les explications des textes. V. Kuhn, Herabkunft des Feuers und des Göttertranks. Cf. Roscher, Nektar und Ambrosia.
xviiCf. Darmesteter, Haurvetât et Amretât, p. 16, p. 41.
xviiiBoth in dogma (e.g. Irenaeus Ad Haer. IV, 4, 8, 5) and in the most well-known rites; thus the consecration of the host is done by a formula in which the effect of the sacrifice on salvation is mentioned, V. Magani l’Antica Liturgia Romana II, p. 268, etc., etc. – One could also relate to these facts the Talmudic Aggada according to which the tribes who have disappeared in the desert and who have not sacrificed will not have a share in eternal life (Gem. to Sanhedrin, X, 4, 5 and 6 in. Talm. J.), nor the people of a city which has become forbidden for having indulged in idolatry, nor Cora the ungodly. This talmudic passage is based on the verse Ps. L, 5: « Bring me together my righteous who have made a covenant with me by sacrifice. »
xixHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.55-56.
xxHenri Hubert and Marcel Mauss. Essay on the nature and function of sacrifice. Article published in the review Année sociologique, tome II, 1899, p.72-73
xxiLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960
xxiiLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p.1
xxiiiThe teaching of Ramakrisna. p. 467, cited in Louis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Tome 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p4.
xxivTrad. of the Pilgrim’s Psalms by G.-A. Deleury p.17
xxvLouis Renou. The fate of the Veda in India. Vedic and Paninean studies. Volume 6. Ed. de Boccard. Paris. 1960, p.77
Marcel Conche writes somewhere, with a kind of cheerful irony: « I like medlar very much. There is nothing to eat. It is the most metaphysical fruit. For metaphysics comes down to the fact that, in any case, we know nothing about anything. » i
For my part I prefer peach, as a fruit. It is very juicy, with tender and tasty flesh. Some have smooth skin, others are fluffy, but all of them have an inviting slit, and a hard core, mobile or adherent. It is, in my humble opinion, a much more metaphysical fruit than the medlar: at the end of the endings, we know that we are going to take some more without getting tired of it, so much the flavor is not forgotten, and so much the mystery of this closed slit and this hard core can only mystify the spirits less able to grasp the immanent transcendence of the peach tree, from its flower to its fruit…
It really is a great mystery that human brains, at least some of them, can open up to metaphysics, that of medlar, or that that flies over the worlds, and reflects on what was before nothing was …
One of the oldest myths in the world dates back at least six thousand years, four thousand years before our era, and three thousand years before Moses. It is the Vedic myth of Prajāpati, a name that means « Father, or Lord of creatures ». Prajāpati was then thought as the supreme God, the One who created the world. But, unlike the biblical God, the creation of the Universe and all creatures, according to the Veda, could only be done through the sacrifice of Prajāpati.
In the beginning, having nothing from which to create the world, since everything was nothingness, Prajāpati had to resort to Himself, dismembering, offering Himself as a sacrifice, and dividing Himself so that from Him could flow the Universe and Life.
The Veda explains the creation of the universe as the Creator’s self-immolation, and designates this sacrifice as « the navel of the Universeii.
« Now the Lord of creatures, after having begotten the living creatures, felt as if He had been emptied. The creatures departed from Him; they did not stay with Him for His joy and sustenance. « iii
The supreme God gives Himself completely, and He suffers the torments of death: « After He begat all that exists, He felt emptied and was afraid of death. » iv
Why this Sacrifice of the Supreme God?
Perhaps because a « greater good » can be expected from it?
Does God (Theos) sacrifice Himself to make possible not only the existence of the Cosmos and Anthropos but also their future « divinization »?
TheTheos sacrifices Himself to extend modes of divinization to other beings than Himself. Thus one sees that the essence of the Sacrifice is entirely in the general becoming. The God sacrifices Himself so that the future can come to be. The God sacrifices Himself entirely, He takes this supreme risk, so that the « Future » and the « Other » can also be?
But then, does that mean that God is not eternal?
He sacrifices His solitary eternity so that He can become a shared, common « becoming ». To eternity, of which He was the sole custodian, He adds Time, the Future, the Process… and therefore Freedom.
He transforms His stable, immobile essence from a being a « First Engine » into a risky, unstable, uncertain process. He voluntarily gives a freedom proper to the Cosmos, as well as to the Anthropos.
God creates the universe with great precision (cf. the incredible finesse with which the « constants » of the Universe have been shaped). However, the universe is not a deterministic mechanics. There is « chance » in it. Let us simply say that there is « freedom ». God threw, whether Einstein likes it or not, an anthropo-cosmic die…
Hence this special mystery, unique to the human brain: how can we presume to know what Prajāpati has concocted before the dawn of time? How do we know that He sacrificed Himself, that He felt emptied, that He was afraid of death? How could the brains of the Veda visionaries conceive of this divine sacrifice and appreciate all its consequences?
There are two possible answers.
Either the Theos allowed this mystery to be « revealed » directly to the souls of certain representatives of Anthropos (such as biblical prophets).
Either there is, more immanently, and more anthropologically, a congruence, a sympathy, an obviousness, which seems to imbue the human brain.
The brains of the Vedic prophets felt internally, intuitively, through a kind of analogy and anagogy, the divine drama at stake. This intuition was undoubtedly based on the observation of phenomena that appeared in the human environment, and which are among the noblest, most striking, most counter-intuitive that can be conceived: sacrifice for love, the gift of one’s life for the survival of those one loves…
In any case, let us conclude that the human brain, through its antennas, its pistils, its « oospheres », is capable of navigating freely in the eternal « noosphere », and that it is given, sometimes, to penetrate its essence…
Is the sea conscious of her shores? Does she feel that, stung with sunlight, clouds are born from her womb?
Does she now that her waves travel a long way, but always break and end up as light foam ?
Seas, waves, clouds, foam form a whole, of which the spirit of man sometimes becomes aware. But is man also aware that his own consciousness is at the same time like foam and like a cloud? Consciousness depends entirely on the evaporation and distillation of the ocean’s amplitude, before spreading out in beneficial or destructive rains, and its foam is the proof of the final fold of its inner waves.
Clouds, waves, foam are good metaphors of consciousness confronted with what is infinitely larger than itself, the ocean, the earth and the sky.
Consciousness only feels « consciousness » at the borders, at the interfaces.
The roll of the wave feels the sand under the blade, and at the end it comes to lick the heat of the sun, offered by the slow sand, which it penetrates by the bubbling foam.
The immemorial meeting of sea, land and sky is done on the beach or the rock. It is a three-phase place, where water, sand and bubble briefly unite. Mythical place! From here emerged long ago forms of marine life that had decided to try the land adventure! Metaphor still of our soul, charged with sleepy consciousness, and waking up abruptly in contact with the hard (the rock, or the shore) so that the impalpable (the air and the bubbles) emerges…
Man too is a sea shore. Man too is multi-phase. He represents the meeting point of several worlds, that of life (bios), that of the word (logos) and that of the spirit (noos). The metaphor of these three phases can be explained as follows. The immense sea, the deep sea, is Life. The tumultuous wave that faces the rock, or flows languidly on the shore, is the Logos, the word striking the world, splashing it with foam. As for the cloud bathing in its vapors, it proves that molecules previously buried in the darkness of the sea chasms were allowed to ‘ascend to heaven’, sucked up by heat of which they had no idea, before realizing that they were indeed ascending to inconceivable altitudes and crossing infinite horizons for a long, seemingly endless journey. These molecules chosen for the great journey most of them will go to irrigate the mountains and the plains, and some of them will moisten thirsty gullets and will inhabit for a time bodies made of water first, and of some other molecules too, and will come to feed human brains… Metaphors! Where are you taking us?
To a new metaphor, that of panspermia.
The brain, I wrote in a previous post, is a kind of antenna. But we could also use a more floral image, that of the pistil, for example.
The pistil, from the Latin pistillum, pestle, is the female organ of flower reproduction. It stands up like a small antenna waiting for flying pollen.
The brain-pistil is in multiple communication with the world, and it receives clouds of pollen at all times, invisible or visible, unconscious or, on the contrary, destined to impose itself on the consciousness. The brain is bathed in this ocean of pollen waves, which can be described as panspermic. There are sperm of life and sperm of consciousness. There are sperm of knowledge and sperm of revelation. All pistils are not equal. Some prefer to be content with transmitting life, others do better and fertilize new oospheres. i
Let us move here, through the miracle of metaphor, from the oosphere to the noosphere.
The panspermia whose « world » is saturated continually reaches our numb brains, and titillates our pistils. Many things result from this global titillation. Not all flowers are given the joy of true, pure, limitless enjoyment.
For those among the human flowers that lend themselves and open themselves entirely to these « visitations », the panspermic waves come to fertilize in their interior the birth of new noospheric embryos..
iThe oosphere is the name given to the female gamete in plants and algae. It is the homologue of the ovum in animals.
At what point in evolution did consciousness emerge? Does the special form of consciousness that humans enjoy represent a singular, unique leap, or is it only one step in a long evolutionary series? Must we admit that other animals, plants, and, why not, minerals themselves have specific forms of consciousness that could, if we were able to observe them effectively, allow us to better understand the nature of our own consciousness, its particular advantages, and its as yet unrevealed potentialities?
One thing is sure : today, the neurosciences are still unable to explain consciousness itself, its nature and its essence.
There is also the question of reason (which unfolds quite differently in everyday life, and in other fields, such as philosophy, or mathematics). Human reason seems capable of constructing specifically « human » worlds, based on its own imagined rules. But,very surprisingly, reason seems capable of formulating fundamental laws of nature based on completely abstract reasoning. There lies a mystery, in this strange adequacy of formal reason with the very structures of nature, as testified from its successes ranging from microphysics to cosmology.
We must also consider that there is the mystery of revelation, and of visions apparently reserved for prophets, mystics or poets, but whose very universal potentiality cannot be put easily under a bushel.
The multitude ignores it or does not care, especially in the present period, but it is an undeniable fact that the prophecies of Moses, Buddha, Jesus or Muhammad have proved capable of penetrating the consciousness of countless generations. They continue to animate, long after the disappearance of the living men who originally bore them, the consciousness of immense masses and singular personalities. The mystics have left burning traces of their visions in their testimonies, which are not without analogy with those of the shamans, who have practiced the art of ecstasy and communion with higher powers for tens of thousands of years, and in all regions of the globe.
Consciousness, reason, revelation represent three very specific modes of interaction of the human brain with the world : a neurobiological mode, a mental mode and a spiritual mode. In these three cases, the mystery is that there are effective correspondences, to varying degrees, between the human brain and, respectively, the entire cosmos, the hidden laws that seem to govern it, and the yonderworld, or some other meta-worlds, that hide even further away from what one can experience in everyday life.
The very existence of reason, and above all its effectiveness in relation to the understanding nature, raises innumerable questions, which the greatest philosophers have failed to resolve (e.g. Kant’s admission of failure of understanding the ultimate essence of pure reason).
Why is it that perfectly « abstract » mathematics, developed for its formal beauty alone or for the rigorous exploration of the internal logic of certain systems of axioms, is also capable, in a completely unexpected way, of elegantly and powerfully solving complex problems of quantum physics or cosmology?
The modern worldvision seems to be universally materialistic, agnostic, atheist. But in reality, the penetrating power of the great world religions is constantly asserting itself. How could we understand the state of the world without taking into account the influence of monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Buddhism or Hinduism?
Perhaps more surprisingly, within the camp of the most rigorous rationality, many scientists of the highest rank (Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Pauli, Eddington,…) have resorted to various forms of mysticism to try to answer the ultimate questions that the (ultimately insufficient) results of their very scientific approach always ended up confronting them.
From the parallels between consciousness, reason and revelation, we can draw by induction that the human brain is somehow capable of correlating with the universe, in various modalities.
The subtle intertwining of DNA and protein molecules apparently explains the development of life on earth, but it is very difficult to imagine why this intertwining, pushed to a certain level of complexity, leads to a phenomenon that transcends biological life alone, namely the irruption of consciousness at the heart of neurobiology. Consciousness represents, in relation to life, a leap at least as great as that of life in relation to organic chemistry alone.
But this mystery only prepares the way for an even deeper question, the one that the human brain embodies when it is able, by its own forces alone, to invent (or « discover »?) mental models that prove to be able to « explain » some of the most complex structures in the universe.
Finally, the phenomenon of «vision» is certainly not the least mysterious in truth, if we accept, for the sake of our reasoning, to consider what so many witnesses have been telling us for so many millennia: namely the « revelation » of a possible communication between men and a « spiritual » yonderworld.
It is possible to deduce from these observations some hypotheses on the deep structure of the human brain. Consciousness, reason and vision cannot be explained by a mechanistic/materialist neurobiology alone.
The human brain is obviously capable of correlating (effectively) with the « world »i, and this through multiple modalities, including neurological, mental, spiritual ones … There are undoubtedly other modes of brain-world correlation of which we are not necessarily aware, – starting precisely with the powers of the unconscious (whether individual or collective), or those of dreaming or premonition.
In any case, the important thing is that these multiple forms of correlation imply a set of more or less integrated links between the brain and the « world ». We can deduce from this that the brain cannot be reduced to a solipsistic organ, splendidly isolated, reigning as absolute master in the midst of Cartesian certainties, such as « I think therefore I am ».
The brain is naturally in flux, in tension, in permanent interaction with multiple aspects of an eminently complex, rich, and ultimately elusive reality.
In our modern world where quasi-instantaneous electronic communication has become ubiquitous, it may be easier to propose here the metaphor of the « antenna ». The brain can indeed be seen as a kind of multi-band, multi-frequency antenna, able to receive and process sensory information (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), but also to « discover » (as opposed to « invent ») other abstract mental spaces (such as those that mathematics abstractly gives us to « see »).
These other spaces of meaning seem at first to belong only to the human sphere, but they also reveal themselves, unexpectedly, surprisingly and mysteriously, capable of helping us to « grasp » in a specific way structural aspects of the « world » and the « cosmos ». These aspects would have remained « hidden », if the mathematical structures that the brain is capable of generating had not come at the right time to allow it to « understand » them in some way, that is, to allow it to determine forms of effective adequacy between the brain’s intellection capacities and the intelligible potentialities of the « world ».
The newborn child slowly but surely develops a multi-sensory map of the world, through touch, taste and smell, sounds and lights, but he is first immersed in a small amniotic world, from which he emerges with some difficulty to be immediately plunged into another « world », the emotional, loving, warm world that his parents offer him at birth. This first (and double) experience, of immersion « in » a limited, inexplicable, constraining world (due to the narrowness of the uterus and the impossibility of deploying apparently cumbersome, useless, superfluous limbs), and of emergence, of passage « towards » another world, where millions of completely different stimuli suddenly reveal themselves, is a founding experience, which must remain forever engraved in the newly born brain.
It is a founding experience, but also a formative one. It secretly prepares us to face other mysteries to come, because the world reserves for us throughout life many other (metaphorical) experiences of « births » and « passages » of a symbolic or cognitive nature. This experience is so well engraved and « engrammed » into the brain that the prospect of death, in many spiritual traditions, seems to be itself only a new « birth », a new « passage ».
The metaphor of the brain-antenna was already proposed at the end of the 19th century by William James in a famous textii . It is a stricking image because it suggests the possibility of a complex continuum between the brain and the world (taken in its broadest possible sense). But it also lends itself to a powerful generalization, along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere, if one understands that each « antenna » can be put in communication with the billions of other brains currently living on this planet, and, why not, with the billions of billions of « brains » probably sailing in other galaxies, and other nebulae.
Until now, we have used the word « brain », without really trying to define what we mean by this word. The neurosciences have recently made significant progress in the analysis of this essential organ, but have undoubtedly failed to explain its very essence, i.e. the nature of « consciousness ». In today’s materialistic and scientific world, research trends aim at demonstrating (without notable success so far) that consciousness is merely a property emerging « naturally » from the « complexity » of neuronal entanglement, and resulting from some neuro-biological « auto-poiesis ». This explanation undoubtedly proposes elements necessary for understanding, but these are far from being sufficient.
They don’t really help to give an account of the most extraordinary things mankind has been able to generate (symbolized, to be short, by names such as Mozart and Vinci, Newton and Einstein, Plato and Pascal…).
The brain-antenna metaphor, on the other hand, far from focusing on the neurochemical soup and neuro-synaptic entanglement, aims to establish the existence of reproductive, organic and subtle links between brains of all kinds and of all conditions and the rest of the « world ».
The perspectives of reflection then change radically.
The « normal » brain of a human being should therefore be considered simply as a minimal platform from which extraordinary potentialities can develop, under certain conditions (epigenetic, social, circumstantial, …).
The immense world of mathematics, with its incredible insights and perspectives, can be described not just as the result of brilliant « inventions » by particularly gifted personalities, but rather as the subject of true « discoveries ».
So, too, can the even greater world of « visions », « revelations » and spiritual, mystical, poetic « intuitions » be described not as a world « invented » by unique personalities like Moses, Buddha or Jesus, but as a world « discovered », of which we only glimpse the infinite virtualities.
The brain can therefore be understood as an organ that constantly emerges beyond its initial limits (those posed by its neuro-biological materiality). It does not stop growing outside its own confines. It generates itself by opening itself to the world, and to all worlds. It is in constant interaction with the world as the senses give us to see it, but also with entire universes, woven of thoughts, intuitions, visions, revelations, of which only the « best among us » are capable of perceiving the emanations, the efflorescences, the correspondences…
Consciousness emerges in the newborn brain, not only because the neuro-synaptic equipment allows it, but also and especially because consciousness pre-exists in the world in myriad forms.
Consciousness pre-exists in the universe because the universe itself is endowed with a kind of consciousness. It is futile to try to explain the appearance of consciousness in the human brain only by a specially efficient molecular or synaptic arrangement.
It is easier to conceive that individual consciousness emerges because it draws its youthful power from the fountain of universal consciousness, which communicates with each of us through our « antennas ».
What has just been said about consciousness could be repeated about the emergence of reason in each one of us, but also about the gift of vision (apparently reserved to some « chosen few »).
i The « world » is all that the brain can effectively correlate with. It goes without saying that the limits of this definition of « world » also point to all those aspects of the « world » that remain decidedly impenetrable to the human brain, until further informed…
ii William James. Human Immortality. 1898. Ed. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, The Riverside Press, Cambridge.
La compréhension de la réalité telle qu’elle nous est donnée ne peut s’accomplir sans une compréhension au moins égale de la conscience. Autrement dit, la compréhension de la réalité et celle de la conscience semblent indissolublement liées. Ceci nous amène à subodorer que la réalité et la conscience elles-mêmes sont liées, ou intriquées, à un certain niveau de profondeur. Les hypothèses les plus avancées des théoriciens de la physique quantique cherchent à cerner la nature de cette intrication.
Le « tout » que forment, en un sens, la réalité du monde et la conscience humaine n’est pas statique ou accompli, mais toujours en mouvement, sans cesse en transformation, en métamorphose, en déploiement.
La conscience observe la réalité, et par là même agit sur elle, et prépare les voies de sa propre transformation vers un état « plus conscient ». Plus conscient de quoi? Plus conscient, non seulement de la réalité en tant que telle, mais aussi de la réalité en tant qu’elle se modifie sous le regard de la conscience, et plus conscient également de la nature profonde de la conscience, qui semble pouvoir aller toujours plus loin ou plus haut, ou plus profondément, dans l’exploration sans fin de sa propre nature.
La conscience, telle qu’elle s’exprime en des pensées naturellement en mouvement, ou telle qu’elle s’imprime toujours à nouveau dans son dépassement permanent, est d’une manière ou une autre confrontée à sa propre vie interne, sa propre métamorphose. Sa figure (impermanente) est à chercher dans sa transfiguration (permanente). Son image est sans cesse cinétique. Sa forme est épigénétique.
Cette épigenèse, cette cinétique, cette transfiguration ne sont pas solipsistes, mais font elles aussi partie de la réalité totale, et font sans doute partie de ses ferments actifs, de ses enzymes catalyseurs, de ses agents effecteurs.
La pensée, loin d’être simplement un outil de découverte du moi pensant, façon Descartes, ou de description analytique du monde, et de modélisation abstraite, est donc pourvue, par le biais de la conscience qui la subsume, d’un pouvoir de « compréhension » (au sens propre : « prendre ensemble ») de la réalité, en tant qu’elle est effectivement intriquée avec la conscience.
A quoi mène cette intrication ? Quel en est le sens profond?
Tout d’abord elle mène à la conscience plus claire d’une nouvelle sorte de totalité, qui englobe la totalité « classique » de la réalité avec la totalité « virtuelle », mais non moins réellei, de l’ensemble des états de conscience (– et donc aussi des états d’inconscience, si l’on admet que l’inconscient est une forme très profonde, très ancienne et très secrète de « conscience »).
Il faut évidemment renoncer à se contenter de la vision cartésienne du moi qui ‘doute’ et qui ‘pense’ pour en déduire avec satisfaction qu’il ‘est’. Il faut adopter une vision plus intégrée. Le moi qui doute, qui pense et qui est conscient de ce doute et de cette pensée, crée par là-même une nouveauté radicale, qui vient s’ajouter comme un élément vivant, impérissable, actif, à la totalité existante.
Au grand peuple universel des étants (toutes les étoiles, les pierres, les fleurs, les abeilles, les hommes, etc.) vient s’ajouter sans cesse le peuple plus universel encore des états (de conscience).
Il ne peut y avoir en conséquence de séparation nette entre le moi de la conscience et le soi du monde. Soi et moi sont indissolublement liés, impliqués, intriqués.
D’un côté, cette intuition ne manque pas de références historiques et philosophiques, notamment du côté des sources orientales (taoïsme, bouddhisme). De l’autre, elle semble contraire à une autre intuition (souvent présentée dans les philosophies occidentales), celle de la fragmentation irrémédiable des consciences, des individus, des nations, des cultures et des religions.
L’idée de fragmentation peut être aisément généralisée, du moins en principe, à l’ensemble de la réalité. Tout serait donc, a priori, divisé, déconnecté, pulvérisé en autant de petites parcelles que possibles, elles-mêmes à nouveau divisibles, brisables, pulvérisables.
Et, in fine, les plus petites parties ou particules auxquelles ce processus de division et de fragmentation conduit, doivent être considérées comme « indépendantes », existant par elles-mêmes, ultimes « constituantes » de la réalité.
Par contraste, tout autre est l’idée d’une totalité englobant la réalité et la conscience dans un « tout » dynamique, métamorphique, auto-génératif, sans cesse en épigenèse.
Certains objecteront : on voit bien que partout se multiplient les guerres, les divisions, les déchirements, les séparations, les antagonismes, les oppositions. Le rêve d’un grand « tout » fait de communion pacifiée est une utopie orientale, bonne seulement pour des moines extatiques.
On peut répondre à cela en prenant encore plus de recul (zoom arrière) ou de hauteur (zoom avant) ou de profondeur (zoom macro).
On répondra qu’on peut inclure les divisions, les séparations, les oppositions dans la totalité puisqu’elles en font déjà objectivement partie.
D’ailleurs il est possible de montrer (philosophiquement) qu’elles sont des éléments actifs, virulents même, d’un « tout » en genèse, auquel elles contribuent par leur fièvre propre. De Héraclite à Hegel, de Marx à C.G. Jung, nombreux sont les penseurs de la contradiction et du rôle actif des contraires.
Si l’on adopte un point de vue strictement scientifique, il est facile de voir que les derniers résultats de la science moderne (théories de la relativité, théories quantiques) exigent la prise en considération de notions impliquant la totalité indivisible de l’univers.
Les crises aiguës qui frappent aujourd’hui notre monde (climat, pandémies, guerres, inégalités, injustices) exigent que l’humanité se donne à elle-même une vision holistique du monde. Seule cette vision et cette compréhension holistiques sont à même de nous mettre sur la voie de solutions intégrées, prenant en compte les multiples interdépendances en cause, et notamment l’interdépendance des consciences et de la réalité.
Nous sommes à l’évidence confrontés, à l’échelle planétaire, à de multiples divisions, séparations, fragmentations, qui ne font que renforcer la confusion générale, elle-même source d’inaction.
Pour agir, nous avons besoin de plus de clarté, de plus de compréhension en profondeur des interdépendances à l’œuvre, des complexités multi-dimensionnelles, inaccessibles aux spécialistes d’une seule discipline (ou d’une seule culture).
L’idée de « totalité » n’est pas totalement nouvelle, bien entendu.
Mais ce qui est nouveau, me semble-t-il, est la prise de conscience que la « totalité » n’est pas fermée, mais ouverte. La « totalité » est même « totalement » ouverte.
Autrement dit, il existe plusieurs niveaux de totalités. Toute vision « holistique » du monde n’est au fond qu’un premier état de conscience d’un holisme provisoire qui ne demande qu’à se complexifier.
Il n’y a pas d’« entièretés » qui soient totalement et définitivement « entières », c’est-à-dire complétées, fermées.
Pour faire image, Dieu Lui-même, oserons-nous avancer, n’est pas « complet ». Il n’est pas « entier ». Il est en devenir. C’est d’ailleurs la raison profonde pour laquelle Il a créé une Création (dont Il aurait peut-être pu se passer, s’Il avait été « complet »). Il a créé cette Création comme un moyen d’élargir et d’enrichir Sa propre « entièreté » initiale, celle qui était avant le « Commencement ». Cette « entièreté » n’était sans doute pas assez « complète » à Ses yeux. Et dans Sa grande sagesse, Il a vu qu’un nouveau niveau de complexité pouvait émerger, par le biais d’une extériorité à Sa propre essence, par le moyen d’une différence entre Lui et d’autres consciences…
Le nouveau complexe ainsi créé (Theos + Cosmos + Anthropos) est l’invention divine, inouïe mais nécessaire, pour développer de nouveaux niveaux de « réalité », de nouveaux niveaux de « totalité », de nouveaux niveaux de « conscience ».
Dans un très beau livre, David Bohm a résumé ses idées révolutionnaires sur la totalité et « l’ordre impliqué »ii.
En liaison avec sa théorie des « variables cachées » qui expliqueraient (en dernière analyse?) le comportement des ondes/particules guidées par leurs « informations actives », Bohm oppose l’ordre « expliqué » ou « déplié » (« explicate or unfolded order ») du monde cartésien de la physique classique et l’ordre « impliqué » ou « replié » (« implicate or enfolded order ») du monde quantique. Les notions ordinaires de temps et d’espace n’ont plus cours dans cet ordre « impliqué ».
Il me vient à l’idée que l’ordre « expliqué » que Bohm veut remplacer par un ordre « impliqué », est peut-être en soi un passage obligé, une première « explication » que la raison se propose, en réponse à laquelle une implication plus profonde de l’ordre du monde devient alors nécessaire.
Il s’en déduirait une dialectique permanente « explication-implication », conduisant d’étapes en étapes à des implications (et donc à des explications) toujours plus profondes.
En tout point de l’univers, que mille plis se déplient ! Afin qu’en leur sein, dix mille se replient et s’intriquent !
Explication, implication et intrication sont les conditions pour la lente émergence d’une méta-conscience.
iPour une réflexion plus approfondie sur la notion de « virtuel », considéré comme non pas s’opposant au réel, mais comme permettant de l’accomplir, on se rapportera à mon livre : Le Virtuel, Vertus et Vertiges, Editions INA/ ChampVallon. 1993
iiDavid Bohm. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. Routledge, 1980.
In a famous passage from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul recounts his rapture in paradise in a strangely indirect way:
« I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – was it in his body? I don’t know; was it outside his body? I don’t know; God knows – … that man was taken up to the third heaven. And that man – was it in his body? Was it without his body? I don’t know; God knows; I know that he was taken up to heaven and heard words that cannot be spoken, that a man is not allowed to say again.»i
Augustine commented specifically on the « third heaven », where Paul was delighted.
According to him, there are indeed three « heavens » corresponding to three different levels of « vision ». There are the heaven of the body, the heaven of the mind and the heaven of the soul.
In the third heaven, at the third level of vision, one can « see the divine substance ».
Augustine exercises in passing his critical mind about the « rapture » of which Paul was apparently the beneficiary. Quite acid is his comment:
« Finally, even though the Apostle who was taken away from the bodily senses and then was taken up to the third heaven and into paradise, he certainly lacked one thing to have this full and perfect knowledge, such as is found in the angels: not knowing whether he was with or without his body. »ii
The body seems to be a hindrance to the full consciousness of the delighted soul. If one can access through ecstasy or rapture to the contemplation of divine things by the soul, what is the use of the body in these exceptional circumstances?
« Perhaps the objection will be made: what need is there for the spirits of the dead to recover their bodies at the resurrection, if, even without their bodies, they can enjoy this sovereign bliss? The question is undoubtedly too difficult to be perfectly dealt with in this book. There is no doubt, however, that the intellectual soul of man, both when rapture takes it away from the use of the carnal senses and when after death it abandons the remains of the flesh and even transcends the similarities of the bodies, cannot see the substance of God as the holy angels see it. This inferiority is due either to some mysterious cause or to the fact that there is a natural appetite in the soul to rule the body. This appetite somehow delays it and prevents it from reaching for that supreme heaven with all its might, as long as the body is not under its influence. »iii
The delighted soul, therefore, sees the substance of God, but in an incomplete way, in any case less than that which the angels enjoy. The body corrupts and burdens the soul, and binds it.
These limitations come from the special relationship (« the natural appetite ») that in men, is established between the soul and the body.
We can deduce that death brings deliverance and gives the soul a power of transformed vision.
But then, if this is the case, why desire the resurrection? Won’t finding one’s body bind the soul again?
Augustine answers that « mysterious » transformations of the glorious body will change its relationship with the soul after the resurrection. The soul will no longer be hindered, but on the contrary energized, and perhaps even capable of contemplating the divine substance in a more active or perfect way, surpassing then that of the angels. iv
In an epistle to the Corinthians, Paul gives his own explanation.
« Other the brightness of the sun, other the brightness of the moon, other the brightness of the stars. A star itself differs in brightness from another star. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: one is sown in corruption, one resurrects in incorruptibility; one is sown in ignominy, one resurrects in glory; one is sown in weakness, one resurrects in strength; one is sown in the psychic body, one resurrects the spiritual body.
If there is a psychic body, there is also a spiritual body. This is how it is written: The first man, Adam, was made a living soul; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that appears first; it is the psychic, then the spiritual. The first man, who came from the ground, is earthly; the second comes from heaven. Such was the earthly, such will also be the earthly; such will also be the celestial, such will also be the celestial. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly, so shall we also bear the image of the heavenly. »v
The first Adam is made a living soul. The last Adam is made a life-giving spirit, for Paul.
For Augustine, the vision of the « spirit » reaches the second heaven, and the vision of the « intellectual soul » reaches the third heaven.
Strangely enough, everything happens as if Paul and Augustine had switched their respective uses of the words « soul » and « spirit ».
Perhaps a return to Biblical Hebrew, which distinguishes neshma, ruah, and nephesh, (breath, spirit, soul), will be helpful?
In Gen. 2:7 we read precisely two different expressions:
The French Rabbinate offers a French translation, of which I propose this translation in English:
« The Eternal-God fashioned man from dust detached from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and man became a living soul. »
The Jerusalem Bible gives :
« Then YHVH God molded man with the clay of the ground, breathed into his nostrils a breath of life and man became a living being. »
Rachi comments on this verse as follows:
« HE FASHIONED (the word is written וַיִּיצֶר with two יּ). Two formations, one for this world, one for the resurrection of the dead. But for the beasts that will not appear on Judgment Day, the same word has only one י (verse 19).
DUST FROM THE GROUND. God has gathered dust from all the earth at the four cardinal corners. In every place where man dies, the earth agrees to be his grave. Another explanation: it was dust taken from the place where it says, « You will make me an altar OF THE EARTH » (Ex. 20:24). God said, « May it be an atonement for him, and he will be able to remain ».
AND HE BREATHED INTO HIS NOSTRILS. He formed it from elements from below and elements from above. The body from below; the soul from above.
For on the first day the heavens and the earth were created. On the second day He said, « Let the earth appear beneath. On the fourth day He created the lights above. On the fifth day He said, « Let the waters swarm and so forth, below. On the sixth day, He had to finish with the world above and the world below. Otherwise there would have been jealousy in the work of creation.
A LIVING SOUL. Pets and field animals are also called living souls. But man’s soul is the most living soul, because it also has knowledge and speech. »
We can see that what matters for Rashi is not so much the distinction between nephesh and neshma, but the life of the soul, which is « more alive » in the case of man.
It is not enough to be alive. It is important that life be « as alive » as possible.
And there is a connection between this « more alive » life and God’s vision.
In a note by P. Agaësse and A. Solignac – « Third Heaven and Paradise » – added to their translation of Augustine’s Genesis in the literal sense, there is a more complete analysis which I summarize in the following paragraphs.
If the third heaven that St. Paul saw corresponds to the third kind of vision, it may have been given to Paul’s soul to see the glory of God, face to face, and to know His very essence. This is Augustine’s interpretation.
But if we make the third heaven one of the celestial spheresvi, among many others, we can in this hypothesis, admit a hierarchy of spiritual and intellectual visions with numerous degrees. Augustine, rather dubious, admits that he himself does not see how to arrive on this subject at a knowledge worthy of being taught.
If most modern exegetes adopt Augustine’s interpretation, the history of ideas is rich in other points of view.
Ambrose affirms that man « goes from the first heaven to the second, from the second to the third, and thus successively to the seventh, and those who deserve it to go to the top and to the vault of the heavens ». vii
He admits the existence of more than three heavens. And he criticizes the idea that Paul only ascended to the « third heaven », which would be only that of the « moon ».
Origen also evokes Paul’s vision to show that man can know heavenly things. But, he says, it is not man by himself who accesses this knowledge, it is the Spirit of God who illuminates man.viii
Origen also says that the friends of God « know him in His essence and not by riddles or by the naked wisdom of voices, speeches and symbols, rising to the nature of intelligible things and the beauty of truth. » ix
Origen also believes that it is reasonable to admit that the Prophets, through their hegemonikon (which is another Greek name for the noos, the spirit), were able to « see wonders, hear the words of the Lord, see the heavens opened »x, and he gives the rapture of Paul as an example of those who saw the heavens open.
From all this we can infer that there is some confusion about the nature of the « heavenly visions », their hierarchy, and their actual ability to « know » the divine essence.
This confusion is somehow symbolized by the fact that Augustine calls spiritual and intellectual what other authors call psychic and spiritual.
Paul himself distinguishes, as we have seen, the living soul of the « first Adam » and the life-giving spirit of the « last Adam » .
Are these only battles of words? No, they bear underlying witness to a fundamental question: what is the nature of the bond between soul and body?
This is a very old question, but also a hyper-modern one, as it highlights the powerlessness of neuroscience to deal with this kind of subject.
The three kinds of visions proposed by Augustine shed light on the nature of the « place » that the soul reaches after death. This place, in which the soul finds rewards, or punishments, is essentially spiritual. There is therefore a corporeal Paradise or Hell, such as the Jewish Gehenna, one of whose entrances is in Jerusalem, and Eden, whose entrance is in Damascus or Palestine, according to the Talmud?
The separated soul no longer has a body, but it keeps a mysterious link with the body in which it lived, as a « living soul », and retains a certain similarity with it.
The body is a cocoon, and the soul separates from it to continue its progression.
« It is a whole theory of knowledge that Augustine develops (with the three kinds of visions), in all its dimensions, sensitive, imaginative and intellectual, normal and pathological, profane and mystical, intramural and celestial.
The three kinds of visions mark the stages of the soul’s journey from the corporeal to the intelligible, reveal the structure of its essence in its triple relationship to the world, to itself, to God, and develop the dialectic of transcendence that fulfills its destiny. »xi
Let’s give Paul the benefit of the last word. The first Adam was made a « living soul ». His destiny, which sums up Man, is to metamorphose, through life, death, and resurrection, into the last Adam, who is « life-giving spirit ».
The destiny of the soul, therefore, is to metamorphose not into a merely « living » spirit, but into a spirit that « invigorates », a spirit that gives life and « makes live ».
iiS. Augustine. Genesis in the literal sense. Book XII, 36, 69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.455.Augustine concedes, however: « But this knowledge will no longer fail him when, once the bodies are recovered at the resurrection of the dead, this corruptible body will be clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal body clothed with immortality (1 Cor. 15:53). For all things will be evident and, without falsity or ignorance, will be distributed according to their order – both bodily and spiritual and intellectual – in a nature that will have recovered its integrity and will be in perfect bliss. »
iv« Afterwards, when this body is no longer an animal body, but when the coming transformation has made it a spiritual body, the soul, equal to the angels, will acquire the mode of perfection proper to its nature, obedient and commanding, invigorated and invigorating, with such ineffable ease that what was a burden to it will become for it an added glory. Even then, these three kinds of vision will subsist ; but no falsehood will make us take one thing for another, neither in bodily nor in spiritual visions, much less in intellectual visions. These will be so present and clear to us that in comparison the bodily forms which we reach today are much less obvious to us, they which we perceive with the help of our bodily senses and to which many men are so enslaved that they think that there are no others and figure that, all that is not such, does not exist at all. Quite different is the attitude of the sages in the face of these bodily visions: although these things appear more present, they are nevertheless more certain of what they grasp is worth to them by intelligence beyond the bodily forms and similarities of bodily things, although they cannot contemplate the intelligible with the intellectual soul as they see the sensible with the bodily sense. « » S. Augustine. Book XII, 35-36, 68-69. Desclée de Brouwer. 1972, p.451
Etymology goes back further to the dawn of thought, much further than archaeology or paleography.
The root of the oldest words is all that remains of time that no memory can imagine. These roots are the minute, ineffaceable traces of what was once pure intuition, radiant knowledge, sudden revelation, for singular men and moving crowds.
The ancient roots, still alive, like verbal souls, speak to us of a vanished world.
Among the most powerful roots are those that inform the names of the Gods.
In the Veda, Agni is said to be « Fire ».
But the truly original, etymological meaning of the word « agni » is not « fire », it is « alive », and « agile ».
The idea of « fire » is only a derivation from this primeval sense. The oldest intuitions associated with the word « agni » then are « life » and « movement », as opposed to « rest » and « death ».
The divine Agni, had indeed many other names, to tell of his other qualities: Atithi, Anala, Dahana, Vasu, Bharata, Mātariśvā, Vaiśvānara, Śoṣaṇa, Havyavah, Hutabhuk…
Agni’s names all have a distinct, specific meaning. Atithi is « Host », Anala is « Longevity », Dahana is « Burning », Tanūnapāt : « Self-Generated », Apāṃnapāt : « from the waters ».
So many attributes for such a hidden God!
« Two mothers of a different color and walking quickly, each giving birth to an infant. From the breast of one is born Hari [yet another name of Agni], honored by libations; from the breast of the other is born Soucra (the Sun), with a bright flame ». i
Agni is indeed « visible », He was born as a child, – but very clever, very wise is whoever can really « see » Him !
« Which of you has seen Him, when He is hiding? As an infant just now, there He is who, by the virtue of sacrifice, now gives birth to His own mothers. Thus Agni, great and wise, honored by our libations, generates the rain of the cloud, and is reborn in the bosom of deeds.» ii
Agni is everywhere. Agni is not only « alive », « agile », He is not only « Fire », not only « God ».
He is also the flickering glow, the sparkling lightning, the blazing forest, the fatal lightning, the evening sun, the pink dawn, the inflexible flint, the warmth of the body, the embers of love…
To understand the Veda, it helps to be a poet, to expand one´s mind to the universe, and even farther away.
La façon la plus ramassée dont les Modernes ont traduit l´antique idée selon laquelle « tout est plein de dieux » est d’affirmer l´intrication quantique de toutes les particules de l´univers, — depuis le Big Bang. Le constat, originellement fait par Thalès, philosophe, astronome et géomètre, « πάντα πλήρη θεῶν εἶναι », implique logiquement que les multitudes divines sont toutes unies, ou « intriquées », pour reprendre le jargon quantique.
Toutes ces myriades de dieux, d’anges ou d’ondes, sont liées, enlacées, embrassées, enchevêtrées. Un nœud numineux noue leur être en l´Un.
Mais à la différence des particules quantiques, les dieux infiniment innombrables restent subtilement « séparés » des choses et des corps, dont ils accompagnent pourtant, sans cesse, l´émergence.
La nappe des « dieux », finement tissée, sans couture, enveloppe une souple base de matière et d´énergie.
Elle s´immisce dans ses interstices et ses vides.
Deux ordres de réalité se voisinent, sans se confondre, mais parfois s’intersectent, comme des plis, des angles, ou des croix.
Où trouve-t-on ces lieux de rencontre? Dans les hasards, les augures, les pythies, les temples et les invocations ? Peut-être.
Plus sûrement dans les cœurs, battants et clos.
Et sans doute aussi dans l’indicible silence, blotti entre les mots, caché dans l’absence.
Ou encore celés sous les symboles qui ne montrent, — signes cois.
Ou parfois dans le grand fond, l’abysse abaissé. Ou dans les nues lisses, hautes et fines.
Ou simplement dans une âme, mue d’épigenèse, embryon d’elle-même, sans sol ni ciel.
Âme capable d’approcher toute chose. De la connaître. Et de s’en détacher, légère.
Ce n’est pas l’éveil, mais le sommeil, qui lui révèle les rares mystères, dont elle est douée.
Pauvre en esprit, elle cache sa nature dans l’opulence des désirs. Éveillée, elle la couvre de conscience comme d’un voile.
En son sommeil, elle est exil, allée en des rêves indociles, elliptiques.
Abeille, elle butine, cherchant des sucs neufs, loin de la ruche connaisseuse.
Miel à son retour, vers la reine endormie, la connaissance assoupie.
Qui dira son vol nocturne ? La conscience est collée à l’aire et n’a pas d’ailes.
Double vie, double face de l’âme. L’une de lumière et de soleil, l’autre de lune et d’ombre.
Mais c’est la nuit qui est grosse, non le jour qui s’ignore.
C’est dans la nuit des sens, dans cette ténèbre du sens, qu’elle monte le plus haut, loin des steppes plates, des chotts et des ergs.
Alors elle explore, non une évidence, une révélation, mais l’exode.
Elle quête les passages, les chenaux, les détroits, les « trous de ver » (noirs ou blancs). Tout ce qui ouvre la fuite et l’impensé, l’angoisse de l’angustai…
Toutes les nuits, elle voyage comme une colombe noachique, loin de l’arche immobile, échouée sur quelques hauts fonds, attendant la décrue. Rares alors les retours fructueux, mais non impossibles. Telle branche, telle olive en disent la trace.
C’est dans ces envols nocturnes, loin des rêves de glu, qu’elle s’approche des terres supérieures et des dieux occupés.
C’est alors qu’elle grappille des parcelles de génie, qu’elle découvre la gravité et la danse,
qu’elle sait la symphonie immense, qu’elle sent la puissance des sèmes,
qu’elle suce le sein nébuleux, le lait cosmique, la sève galactique.
Elle voit soudain l’idée, nue comme un buisson qui brûle, une sylve d’odeurs et d’épines…
Elle vole aux dieux mêmes leur vol et leur envol.
Cinglant larcin, à la Prométhée, payé du foie.
Rapt utile, pourtant, au retour célébré de caresses méritées.
Nimbée d’aura, constellée de cieux, l’âme à la fin retourne à la glèbe, fait verdir la boue, exhausse le lotus.
L’âme est double, et ce double s’enlace en elle, comme deux amants doux, deux courbes magnétiques.
Mais quand elle se dédouble, se désenlace, quand cesse l’union avec les lointains, elle se réalise, pénétrée de connaissance, gorgée de possession, se sachant libre.
Se sachant aussi possédée, absolument possédée, et pourtant à cet instant, plus libre que jamais, d’aller toujours plus haut.
Comme en la forge le fer en feu bout, fusionne, coule et s’évapore, sublimé, — atomes par atomes, fer encore, quoique quantique.
L’âme de fer fut un instant centre de l’âtre ultime.
Il lui faudra des jours et des ans pour guérir sa brûlure, penser sa plaie, combler de cicatrices sa conscience sauve et balafrée.
Ce n’est pas la pensée qui s’est mue, dans cette mouvance ignée.
Ce n’est pas d’un vol extatique, d’un vain délire, que l’âme a franchi les mondes.
Son calme est froid comme un lac. Maintenant, elle entre dans le cratère, elle plonge dans la lave, comme une goutte d’eau nue.
Pourtant ne se vaporise. L’eau est lourde, comme une bombe.
Œil et boson, iris irradié. Entière entéléchie. Théophanie non-humaine.
Man is an « intermediary being » between the mortal and the immortal, says Plato. This enigmatic phrase, rather inaudible to modern people, can be understood in several senses,.
One of these is the following. « Intermediary » means that man is in constant motion. He goes up and down, in the same breath. He ascends towards ideas that he does not really understand, and he descends towards matter that he does not understand at all. Inhaling, exhaling. Systole of the spirit, diastole of the soul.
Ancient words still testify to these outward movements of the soul. « Ecstasy », from the Greek ἒκστασις (ekstasis), means firstly « coming out of oneself ». The spirit comes out of the body, and then it is caught up in a movement that takes it beyond the world.
Ekstasis is the opposite of stasis, ‘contemplation’, — which is immobile, stable, and which Aristotle called θεωρία (theoria). The meaning of θεωρία as ‘contemplation, consideration’ is rather late, since it only appears with Plato and Aristotle. Later, in Hellenistic Greek, this word took on the meaning of ‘theory, speculation’ as opposed to ‘practice’.
But originally, θεωρία meant ‘sending delegates to a religious festival, religious embassy, being a theorist’. The ‘theorist’ was the person going on a trip to consult the oracle, or to attend a religious festival. A ‘theory’ was a religious delegation going to a holy place.
The words ekstasis and theoria have something in common, a certain movement towards the divine. Ekstasis is an exit from the body. Theoria is a journey out of the homeland, to visit the oracle of Delphi.
These are images of the free movement of the soul, in the vertical or horizontal direction. Unlike the theoria, which is a journey in the true sense of the word, ekstasis takes the form of a thought in movement outside the body, crossed by lightning and dazzle, always aware of its weakness, its powerlessness, in an experience which goes far beyond its capacities, and which it knows it has little chance of really grasping, few means of fixing it and sharing it on its return.
The word ekstasis seems to keep the trace of a kind of experience that is difficult to understand for those who have not lived it. When the soul moves to higher lands, generally inaccessible, it encounters phenomena quite different from those of the usual life, life on earth. Above all, it runs an infinitely fast race, in pursuit of something that is constantly ahead of it, that draws it ever further away, to an ever-changing elsewhere, which probably stands at an infinite distance.
Human life cannot know the end of this race. The soul, at least the one that is given the experience of ekstasis, can nevertheless intuitively grasp the possibility of a perpetual search, a striking race towards an elusive reality.
In his commentaries on the experience of ecstasyi, Philo considers that Moses, despite what his famous visionii, reported in the Bible, did not actually have access to a complete understanding of the divine powers.
But Jeremiah, on the other hand, would testify to a much greater penetration of these powers, according to Philo. However, despite all his talent, Philo has difficulty in consolidating this delicate thesis. The texts are difficult and resistant to interpretation.
Philo cautiously suggests extrapolating certain lines from Jeremiah’s text to make it an indication of what may have been an ecstasy. « This is how the word of God was addressed to Jeremiah”iii. This is rather thin, admittedly. But another line allows us to guess God’s hold, God’s domination over Jeremiah: « Dominated by your power, I have lived in isolation »iv.
Other prophets have also declared to have lived in ecstasy, using other metaphors. Ezekiel, for example, says that « the hand of God came »v upon him, or that the spirit « prevailed »vi.
When the ecstasy is at its height, the hand of God weighs more than usual: « And the spirit lifted me up and carried me away, and I went away sad, in the exaltation of my spirit, and the hand of the Lord weighed heavily on me.”vii
In a cynical, materialistic and disillusioned time, like our time, one cannot be content with just words, even prophetic ones, to interest the reader. Facts, experiments, science, rationality are needed.
Let’s start with a ‘technical’ definition of ecstasy according to the CNRTL :
« A particular state in which a person, finding herself as if transported out of herself, is removed from the modalities of the sensible world by discovering through a kind of illumination certain revelations of the intelligible world, or by participating in the experience of an identification, of a union with a transcendent, essential reality. »
This definition evokes enlightenment, identification or union with transcendental realities. This vocabulary is hardly less obscure than the biblical expressions ‘dominion by power’, or ‘hand of God’.
Moreover, this definition cautiously employs what appears to be a series of euphemisms: ‘to be as if transported’, ‘to be removed from the sensitive world’, ‘to discover a kind of enlightenment’, ‘to participate in an experience’.
If we return to the memories of ecstasy bequeathed to us by the prophets, the true ‘experience’ of ecstasy seems infinitely more dynamic, more overwhelming, ‘dominated’ by the immediate, irrefutable intuition of an infinite, transcendent ‘power’.
Bergson, a true modernist, if ever there was one, and philosopher of movement, paradoxically gives a rather static image of ecstasy: « The soul ceases to turn on itself (…). It stops, as if it were listening to a voice calling out to it. (…) Then comes an immensity of joy, an ecstasy in which it is absorbed or a rapture it experiences: God is there, and it is in him. No more mystery. Problems fade away, obscurities dissipate; it is an illumination.”viii
Can ecstasy only be associated with a moment when the soul ‘stops’, when it ‘stops spinning’? Is it not rather carried away without recourse by a fiery power, which suddenly sweeps away all certainty, all security? Bergson certainly falls far short of any essential understanding of ecstasy, perhaps because he has never experienced one.
Who will report today in audible words, in palpable images, the infinite and gentle violence of ecstasy? Who will say in raw terms the light that invades the intelligence, as in love the whole body? Who will explain the narrow bank from which the pulse of death is measured? Who will tell us how to kiss the lips of infinity? Who will grasp in one stroke the face of which time is but a slice, and the world, but a shadow?
Under Tiberius, in the year 16, soothsayers, astrologers and magi were expelled from Italy. Divination had become a capital crime that one would pay with one’s life. A new millennium had begun, but no one suspected it. Times were changing faster than people’s minds. And the Roman religion had to defend itself foot to foot against barbaric ideas from elsewhere.
Long gone was then the time of Moses, who saw in the light what thought could not embrace. Long gone, the time of the prophets, who received dreams and visions, images and words.
Long gone also, was the time of the Chaldean magi and the Avestic and Vedic priests. Possessed of a divine madness, they could, it is said, predict the future by their power of enthusiasm, their capacity for ecstasy.
The words ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘ecstasy’ translate by means of Greek words and roots experiences of a probably universal nature. But do these words adequately reflect the variety of ‘visions’ and the diversity of ‘seers’ throughout the world and throughout history? How can this be ascertained? How can we organize the timeless archaeology of enthusiasm, launch the worldwide excavations of the ecstatic states?
When the divine penetrates the human, it overturns all that is known, all that is acquired, all that can be expressed, all that can be dictated. Everything is overturned, but it also seems that the mind receives, if we believe the testimonies, a capacity for understanding, comprehension and conviction, without any possible comparison. The prophet ‘hears’ or ‘sees’ in an instant thoughts which he considers ‘divine’ but which he makes his own, and to a certain extent he can communicate them to others and find attentive ears. This is where the true prophet is revealed.
After God breathed thoughts and laws into Moses’ mind, Moses in turn repeated them to Aaron. This double operation (first through divine breath, then through human speech) can be understood as an allegory. Moses is above all God’s interpreter. Firstly, he represents His Intelligence, then His Word. The Intelligence first grasps Moses entirely. What can be said of this? The texts are opaque, difficult to interpret. As for the Word that Moses repeated to Aaron, it represented the prophetic act itself, the decisive leap out of the sanctuary of ecstasy into freedom.
Free, the prophet is also bound, from above and below, – bound to heaven by Intelligence, bound to earth by the Word. Philo sums up: « The soul has an earthly base, but it has its summit in pure Intelligence.”i
For my part, I would add that the most important thing is not in fact to be found in Intelligence, which assails the soul entirely and subjugates it, nor in the Word, whose task is to give meaning to the unspeakable and then bring the worlds together.
What is really important, for the rest of the ages, and for its truly unspeakable implications, is the absolute freedom of the soul (here the soul of Moses) which has been able to free itself from ecstasy, then to transcend the innumerable constraints of the human word, and finally to launch a bridge over unfathomable chasms.
Paul Klee’s Angelus novus has an undeniably catchy title. « The new angel », – two simple words that sum up an entire programme. But does the painting live up to the expectation created by its title? A certain ‘angel’, with a figure like no other, seems to float graphically in the air of mystery, but what is he? What does he say? It is said that there are billions of angels on the head of a single pin. Each boson, each prion, has its angel, one might think, and each man too, say the scholastics. How, under these conditions, can we distinguish between new and old angels? Aren’t they all in service, in mission, mobilised for the duration of time? And if there are « old angels », are they not nevertheless, and above all, eternal, timeless, always new in some way?
Walter Benjamin has commented on this painting by Klee, which undoubtedly ensured its paper celebrity more than anything else.
« There is a painting by Klee entitled Angelus novus. It depicts an angel who seems to have the intention of moving away from what his gaze seems to be riveted to. His eyes are wide open, his mouth open, his wings spread. Such is the aspect that the angel must necessarily have of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where a sequence of events appears before us, he sees only one and only one catastrophe, which keeps piling up ruins upon ruins and throwing them at his feet. He would like to linger, awaken the dead and gather the defeated. But a storm is blowing from paradise, so strong that the angel can no longer close its wings. This storm is constantly pushing him towards the future, to which he turns his back, while ruins are piling up all the way to heaven before him. This storm is what we call progress.”i
Striking is the distance between Benjamin’s dithyrambic commentary and Klee’s flatter, drier work. Klee’s angel actually appears static, even motionless. No sensation of movement emanates from him, either backwards or forwards. No wind seems to be blowing. His ‘wings’ are raised as if for an invocation, not for a flight. And if he were to take off, it would be upwards rather than forwards. Its « fingers », or « feathers », are pointed upwards, like isosceles triangles. His eyes look sideways, fleeing the gaze of the painter and the spectator. His hair looks like pages of manuscripts, rolled by time. No wind disturbs them. The angel has a vaguely leonine face, a strong, sensual, U-shaped jaw, accompanied by a double chin, also U-shaped. His nose seems like another face, whose eyes would be his nostrils. His teeth are wide apart, sharp, almost sickly. It even seems that several of them are missing. Do angels’ teeth decay?
Klee’s angel is sickly, stunted, and has only three fingers on his feet. He points them down, like a chicken hanging in a butcher’s shop.
Reading Benjamin, one might think he’s talking about another figure, probably dreamt of. Benjamin has completely re-invented Klee’s painting. No accumulated progress, no past catastrophe, seems to accompany this angelus novus, this young angel.
But let us move on to the question of substance. Why should history have only one ‘angel’? And why should this angel be ‘new’?
Angelology is a notoriously imperfect science. Doctors rarely seem to agree.
In Isaiah (33:7) we read: « The angels of peace will weep bitterly. » Do their renewed tears testify to their powerlessness?
In Daniel (10:13) it is said that an archangel appeared and said to Daniel: « The Prince of the Persians resisted me twenty-one days ». This archangel was Gabriel, it is said of him, and the Prince of Persia was the name of the angel in charge of the Persian kingdom.
So the two angels were fighting against each other?
It was not a fight like Jacob’s fight with the angel, but a metaphysical fight. S. Jerome explains that this angel, the Prince of the Persian kingdom, opposed the liberation of the Israelite people, for whom Daniel prayed, while the archangel Gabriel presented his prayers to God.
S. Thomas Aquinas also commented on this passage: « This resistance was possible because a prince of the demons wanted to drag the Jews who had been brought to Persia into sin, which was an obstacle to Daniel’s prayer interceding for this people.”ii
From all this we can learn that there are many angels and even demons in history, and that they are brought to fight each other, for the good of their respective causes.
According to several sources (Maimonides, the Kabbalah, the Zohar, the Soda Raza, the Maseketh Atziluth) angels are divided into various orders and classes, such as Principalities (hence the name « Prince » which we have just met for some of them), Powers, Virtues, Dominations. Perhaps the best known are also the highest in the hierarchy: the Cherubim and the Seraphim. Isaiah says in chapter 6 that he saw several Seraphim with six wings « shouting to one another ». Ezekiel (10:15) speaks of Cherubim.
The Kabbalists propose ten classes of angels in the Zohar: the Erelim, the Ishim, the Beni Elohim, the Malakim, the Hashmalim, the Tarshishim, the Shinanim, the Cherubim, the Ophanim and the Seraphim.
Maimonides also proposes ten classes of angels, arranged in a different order, but which he groups into two large groups, the « permanent » and the « perishable ».
Judah ha-Levi (1085-1140), a 12th century Jewish theologian, distinguishes between « eternal » angels and angels created at a given time, for a certain duration.
Among the myriads of possible angels, where should we place Klee’s Angelus novus, the new angel whom Benjamin called the « angel of history » with authority? Subsidiary question: is a « new angel » fundamentally permanent or eminently perishable?
In other words: is History of an eternal essence or is it made up of a series of moments with no sequel?
Benjamin thinks, as we have seen, that History is represented, at every moment, at every turning point, by a « new Angel ». History exists only as a succession of phases, it is a wireless and random necklace of moments, without a sequel.
Anything is always possible, at any moment, anything can happen, such seems to be the lesson learned, in an age of absolute anguish, or in a serene sky.
But one can also, and without any real contradiction, think that History is one, that it builds its own meaning, that it is a human fabrication, and that the divine Himself must take into account this fundamental freedom, always new, always renewed, and yet so ancient, established since the origin of its foundation.
iWalter Benjamin, Thèses sur la philosophie de l’histoire. Œuvres III, Paris, Gallimard, 2000, p. 434
Are we essentially alone in the face of the porous mysteries of the unconscious? Are we always alone in front of what could suddenly be discovered or revealed there, after long and slow maturation? Are we alone in front of the flagrant repression of what will remain buried there forever?
Many wander in sorrow in the deserts of their own minds, they wander lonely in the ergs of understanding. Fleeing the austerity of the silent void, they flee to the hubbub.
Others think alone, against the norm, against opinion, against the crowd. « I cross the philosophical space in absolute solitude. As a result, it no longer has any limits, no walls, it doesn’t hold me back. This is my only chance.”i
But if it is difficult to think alone, it is even more difficult to think with others.
The common brings us closer and warms us up. It doesn’t encourage people to try to reach cold peaks. The community compensates for isolation, and offers fusion in the mass. But something resists. It is the haunting, extreme, demanding feeling that the ‘self’ is not the ‘us’. The ideological, collective, social ‘us’ does not intersect with the inner, personal, singular ‘self’…
Cultures, religions and civilizations are ‘us’, fleeting in essence.
They fictitiously envelop billions of solitary ‘selves’, in essence. All these ‘us’ become lifeless shells, skinless drums, after a few millennia.
The mystery is that only the ‘self’ will survive them.
A deeper mystery yet: how to survive our Self?
iCatherine Malabou, Changer de différence, – cit. in Frédéric Neyrat , Atopies.
Claude Lévi-Strauss is a good representative of contemporary thought. He displays its salient characteristics: despair of thought, insignificance of being, erection of non-knowledge as the ultimate « knowledge », universal doubt (doubt of meaning and doubt of doubt itself), all this in a sardonic and cheerful tone. « Let humanity disappear and the earth disappear, nothing will be changed in the march of the cosmos. Hence a final paradox: we are not even sure that this knowledge that reveals our insignificance has any validity. We know that we are nothing or not much, and, knowing this, we no longer even know if this knowledge is one. To think of the universe as immeasurable to thought forces us to question thought itself. We don’t get out of it.”i
What will be the thought of the universe in a thousand or two thousand years from now, who can claim to know it today? And who can think in the languages of the day what will be thought here and there, in the universe, in eight hundred thousand years or in a hundred million centuries? These ages seem distant only because of a lack of imagination.
We are really tired of the old marquis who are tired of dreaming. Post-modern doubt is a paper origami. We yearn for fresh and lively intuitions, for other universes, for horizons with naked orients, for stars without north, and the worn-out metaphors of extra-galactic confines or exo-biological chimeras already bore us with their brash roundness and frank blandness.
To think far away, however, little is enough. We need to change the signs, to swap the senses, and to dream of hurricanes. Everything quickly becomes different then. The thoughts of the day seem like slow caterpillars, far from the butterfly that is sensed, and very unworthy of the pensive eagle, high in the cloud.
It is tempting to believe that thought is immeasurable to the universe, and, diagonally agonistic, line of fire, that it transcends it easily. The humblest thought goes further than the white dwarves stars, and it pierces the fabric of the world with a hole blacker than the whole dark matter.
Any thought that is a little audacious obliges us to question the universe itself, its meaning and its essence. Every thought then cries out: « We are getting out of it immediately », – and not: « we are not getting out of it ».
The whole universe is in itself « insignificant ». By contrast, thought “means”, it has “meaning”, and it gives “meaning”.
If the entire universe ever receives one day some meaning, that meaning will not come from cosmic background noise, the shape of nebulae, or the sanctification of the boson (the so-called « God’s particle »).
If a demiurge created the world, the cosmos has no meaning of its own. Its meaning is obviously to be found elsewhere than in it.
And if the world created itself, by some kind of automatism, how could it give itself its own meaning, suck its own blood? Does the baby child at the breast suck herself?
The cognitive and ontological pessimism of post-modernism is equivalent to its opposite, from the point of view of the free play of radical hypotheses. The pessimism of insignificance has no logical weight of its own.
The existence of human consciousness, the irrefutable manifestation of being, must be placed far above the imperfect dreams of putative multiverse.
Universe, multiverse, it doesn’t matter what they are or how many they are, because in reality « you can’t get out of it ».
Consciousness, in essence, its deepest mystery, is that the deeper you get into it, the more you « come out », — as from an eternal Egypt.
iClaude Lévi-Strauss, De près et de loin. Ed. O. Jacob, Paris, 1988
It is important to know whether the world is one or not. On this difficult matter Henri Michaux is quite assertive: « There are four worlds (apart from the natural world and the alienated world). Only one appears at a time. These worlds categorically exclude the normal world, and exclude each other. Each of them has a clear, unique correspondence with a place in your body, which is taken to another level of energy, and receives instantaneous nourishment, rejuvenation and warmth.”i
Why only four worlds then, and not many more ?
The human body possesses, in several precise points within the spinal cord, energy nodes, moose nests, areas of illumination, seats of pleasure, sacred vertebrae, unfolded plexuses, where perhaps some special and subtle gateways, wirelessly connected to other worlds, are initiated. In India, these points are known as chakras.
The spinal column is not alone, moreover, in concealing mysteries (in this case medullary ones). The human brain welcomes other secrets, lodged between the medulla oblongata and the thalamus. But there is not enough room to describe them here, and the words are too worn and connoted.
Misunderstood, Michaux the poet is too much elsewhere, dilated, honest. He is really elsewhere than in an Orient or an Occident of paper. He pays with his person, takes risks, puts himself in danger.
Michaux has taken drugs like a taxi. How can one go higher than the stars when the meter is running, when time is running out, when the arteries are congested?
How to describe what has never been put into words, the unstoppable?
There are undoubtedly other ways than spinal or synaptic, freer, less congested.
Michaux knew this, in a sense. He kept a cool head when the force rose. He went very far, very high, and came back. He wandered for a long time in the tangled infinity, slipped into the sealed space. Others would have perished, got lost. He drew some maps of it. He thickened his blood, he marked his trace, accumulated reminiscence, then came back to lay down his nights on paper.
« There are still two other ‘beyond’, equally exclusive, closed, where one only enters thanks to a kind of cyclone, and to arrive at a world that is itself a cyclone, but the center of a cyclone, where it is liveable and where even it is Life par excellence. You get there by transport, by trance.”ii
One transport for two ‘beyond’. What a masterstroke.
The « cyclone » is a meteorological phenomenon whose characteristic feature is the whirlwind.
« Life » is a biological phenomenon whose image is the spiral, such as that of DNA, or the kundalini.
« Trance » is a psychological phenomenon whose trajectory can take the form of a parable, hyperbola or ellipse, among others. These mathematical figures are also figures of speech. This leads to a more difficult question: what is the trance itself the figure of?
Trance is a ‘transport’, Michaux asserts.
Every expanse requires a means of transport. Trance meets this need. It is a means of transport, a figure of tension towards transcendence. « If the expanse is one of the characters of the divine, much more so is the tension.”iii
It’s a desire to see the truth, to see the whole of nothingness. « The insignificance of the constructions of the mind appears. Contemplation without mixing. We no longer think about affiliations, designations, determinations, we can do without them; the wind has passed over them, a psychic wind that undoes them before determinations, categories are born. “iv
A finding of sarcastic impotence. The spirit means nothing by itself. It is free like a whip antenna.
A « wind » passes far above the human brain, undoing everything that is not born, everything that is content with the static. In exchange, without mixing, what Michaux calls « contemplation ». Undoing rather than doing, the lot of the poet on the hunt.
« Every man is a « yes » with « no ». After the unheard of and somehow unnatural acceptances, one must expect returns of « no », while something continues to act, which cannot be erased, nor can it go back, living in the shadows of the Unforgettable. Ongoing evolution… »v
Man is a « yes », with « no », and perhaps with « maybe », and no doubt with doubts. But surely there is something else again, that neither « yes » nor « no » can say, and « perhaps » even less so, and doubt, not at all.
Man is also, without knowing it, that « something » living in secret.
This living « something » separated from the unforgettable.
That unforgettable, which we have never seen, and which we have forgotten, and which is alive.
In close order, on the white sheet of paper, many small pieces of black diamonds. Badly cut, they vibrate in obtrusive variations, they play with accents and margins. This is all that remains of « mescaline speed »:
« Drugs, let us remember, are more revealing than creative.”vi
The poet dreams alone, but we can think, being many.
Let’s go back for a moment: « I would like to unveil the ‘normal’, the unknown, the unsuspected, the incredible, the enormous normal. The abnormal has made it known to me (…) I would like to unveil the complex mechanisms that make man above all an operator.”vii
« Normal »… « Operator »… « Mechanisms »…
How do these standard, normal words fit in with the mescaline experience?
« It was always about going beyond, superhumanizing, transmuting, transubstantiating everything, sometimes opening up to the sacred, the sacred is a mode, the one according to which we receive.”viii
The poet is a mystery to himself and to others. He opens doors and worlds, takes away their veils from the heavens, strips the spirit from his herds, fills the books with black and ochre battalions, and sets up his fame as an ascetic. And yet nothing, really nothing of what really matters, shows through the tidy fog of the pages.
Man, poet or not, still has a long way to go, before reaching parallel universes, which are far beyond « icy skies »ix, and which no language has ever touched.
iHenri Michaux Les Grandes Épreuves de l’Esprit. Œuvres complètes, tome III .Gallimard, 2004. p.418
ii« Il existe encore deux autres « au-delà », tout aussi exclusifs, fermés, où l’on n’entre que grâce à une sorte de cyclone, et pour arriver à un monde qui est lui-même un cyclone, mais centre de cyclone, là où c’est vivable et où même c’est par excellence la Vie. On y accède par transport, par transe. » Henri Michaux Les Grandes Épreuves de l’Esprit, et les innombrables petites. Œuvres complètes, III .Gallimard, 2004. p.422
Not only prophets have visions. Poets also are « seers ». Thus, Henri Michaux. He has gone up to the « silent theater of the heights (…) towards the beyond that appears, disappears and reappears.”i
But what did Michaux really « see »?
The afterlife is not within everyone’s reach. One needs calm eyes, gentle nerves. Rare are the direct witnesses, those who have seen the beyond of the world, the infinite, acute, nascent, initial abyss, rising straight up beyond the heavens, effortlessly eluding all known peaks.
The effort is above all in coming back. The memory is overwhelmed. Intelligence wavers in its doubt. Faith is blind. Returning, whoever has seen it recognizes it here and there, in obscure verses, heard silences, allusive sentences.
In the middle of a page, a word, an echo perhaps, an infinitesimal resonance.
« Perhaps the heavens are opening up.”ii This is not a hypothesis, it is an observation. « An Auguste Presence came to the destitute.” The following question is not formal:
Michaux, who knows the weight of words, finally gives up and multiplies the « suspension points », as many points as it takes to equal the last line.
Perhaps they are more suitable than ‘unzipping’?
The poet takes the risk of words. He tries to say what he may not have seen, what he may have sensed. He embarks on a narrow path, in the Paris of the avenues, the city of lights. He calls for his help, the skilful writer, words in capital letters:
Capital letters, again, this is a serious matter. Michaux found his mistress in vision, without mescaline, — and he asks questions:
« To whom does the supernatural appear?
Commonly to children, not at all brilliant, far from the cities, from the walls. Not very enviable, one would not distinguish them, neither too studious, nor very pious, without any special quality, from a modest environment, knowing especially the discomfort, in a small lost village. They are not liars.”viii
But the appearance does not stop there. The vision is only a step. There is the rest. The healing, which strikes the crowds, and even the devious clergymen:
« And who heals? In whom does the supernatural healing take place? »
We are no longer in the realm of convention. Already in their afterlife.
« In a multi-religious country, while many pious people pray in vain near the tomb of a Catholic monk, as they themselves are, a Shiite woman who knows nothing about the Christian religion is healed in the moment (but does not convert). She had confidence and a faith as one should have it, overwhelming, a rare, exceptional treasure.”ix
Michaux wonders: « In whom exactly did she have faith? Secret.”x
Can « modern » people help to see things clearly?
« What about scientists?
One day perhaps, taking the embarrassing problem from another angle, science will find in the brain, thanks to a more precise location of a point in the organism that controls a self-healing function (under the effect of intense emotion), and will in turn approach the miracle with its own means and will even want to produce it coldly, in some cases replacing in its own way the exaltation of faith. Spoiling here, improving there in the unexpected, opening the door to new mysteries.”xi
Miracle, exaltation, unexpected, mystery: all the words point to still other questions. There is never an end to it. It’s better this way. The victories (in this case putative) of science would be, in this matter, pyrrhic. Or a miracle point nested at the bottom of the pineal gland. What if it is? Why does this point activate? Under the effect of an « intense emotion »? But where does this emotion come from? What creates it, what gives it its energy? The body is not an island. The soul is linked to the body, a little, and to the beyond, even more so, if we believe the « daughter of the mountain ».
Not that she said anything later. She discouraged questions. She avoided declarations of faith. Her silence still speaks.
There are cultures that value prose, argument, dialectics and rhetoric in the search for clear truths. Others prefer hymns, psalms, symbols, enigma, and seek first of all to praise and honor mystery.
Some peoples have pushed reason, wisdom and philosophy as far as possible – as maieutic powers.
Other peoples have preferred revelation, prophecy and mystery, subordinating the work of the spirit to transcendence, to its criticism and interpretation.
The paths of truth are multiple.
Perhaps one day one will describe how favorable climates, comfortable summers, open landscapes may help change worldviews. Scattered archipelagos, alluvial plains, secret deserts, wide and ample valleys, have respective affinities for different ways of thinking. Do the plains of the Indus have the same light than the islands of Greece? Does the Nile valley compare with the Jordan valley?
The tribes of Noah, Shem, Cham or Japhet each had their own way of seeing the sea and the stars, the sun, the mountains, the cow, the lamb and the night, fire, milk and sacrifice. These are only facts and images for some, but metaphors, intuitions, for others. The arid desert fits in with a mineral religion. The linear, naked horizon leads geometrically to monotheism. The smiling myriads of sea waves and the profusion of scattered islands probably may evoke more easily polytheistic thoughts – the solar unit diffracts into billions of labile splinters, and the earth crumbles into the sea.
The idea of a single God does not belong to the mind alone; the climate also exudes it, the landscape shapes it, and a suitable language is needed to exalt it.
The Semitic religions did not recognize the divine essence of variety; they did not admire the plurality of the divine within them. The names El, Eloh, YHVH, Adonai, Baal, Elion, El Shaddai, or Allah concentrate all the intuition, all the meaning, in the One.
But the multiple names of the One proclaim it, they repeat it in all tones: their number bears witness to this: – all these names of the One are not themselves one.
All these names of the One are as many multiple veils.
The Elohim, a plural noun of the One – proclaimed this in the language itself.
Of pure and clear monotheism, one can undoubtedly say that it requires, to put it bluntly, intransigence. One, only one, not two, three, twelve, a thousand or billions. How could one be the two? Or the three? Or infinity?
But is God only One? Isn’t He also Infinite? If He is One and Infinite, then He is also Two, at least conceptually-wise. And One, and Two and Infinite make Three. Etc.
The world is wider than flat deserts, deeper than open seas. Over there, towards the Indus, or near the banks of the Oxus, people have for millennia seen the divine wherever they looked, wherever the spirit set its wing.
The complexity of grammar, the richness of words, the spirit of research, the freedom of thought, the critical capacity, were not an obstacle, but other wings still, making the divine glimmer through many other prisms.
Finesse is not useless in these matters. The mind must become tolerant when one becomes aware of human destiny, of its variegated unity.
Only the north makes the south possible. East and west stand together at both ends of the day. The one and the multiple find their complement, their inner duality in each other.
The infinity of possibilities is said to be found in the unity of being.
If God is really One, why is humanity not yet One? For what reason? For what purpose?
Renan said in his provoking style: “Who will dare to say that by revealing the divine unity and definitively suppressing local religions, the Semitic race has not laid the fundamental stone for the unity and progress of humanity?”i
In the Semitic system, God, in essence, is far from mankind, immensely far. But God chose a Nabi, a prophet, an anointed one, and revealed Himself to him, and through the Nabi to mankind. The Semites see in the world, always, everywhere, only the fulfillment of this unique revelation, the revealed will of a unique Being infinitely transcendent to those multiple beings to whom the revelation of unity is made.
The One revealed the “Oneness”.
And yet, by essence, the multiple, the diverse, the far, the near, are not « one ». They are here and now, or there and far. And the here and there are essentially multiple. Only the One is not “multiple”.
Fundamental contrast. One must then recognize a double state of being, the multiple here or there, and the One elsewhere.
Mankind in the future will no doubt try again to « unify » by some transcendental intuition, this double state of being, the One and the Multiple, the far and the near, transcendence and immanence.
The earth and the stars, the desert and the seas, the mountain and the plain – are all multiple metaphors of this unique intuition, – the universe is also a multi-verse, i.e. it hides its essence.
By analogy, we may infer that a unique and diverse humanity is bound to be, in essence, trans-human.
iErnest Renan. Histoire générale et système comparé des langues sémitiques. (1863)
In a short, strange, visionary book, « Bible of Mankind », Jules Michelet wrote in 1864 about the future of religions, considered as a whole. His angle? The comparison, in this respect, between East and West.
« My book is born in the sunlight among the sons of light, the Aryas, Indians, Persians and Greeks”, says Michelet.
Goodbye fogs, goodbye dark clouds. The light! The light!
It’s all about returning to the dawn of the world, which is perhaps best celebrated in the Vedas. It is about evoking a « Bible of light », not a Bible of words.
For Michelet, who was stuck in a colonialist and imperialist century, it was above all a question of escaping as far as possible from the conceptual prison of stifling ideas, of escaping from too many conventional clichés.
« Everything is narrow in the West. Greece is small: I’m suffocating. Judea is dry: I am panting. Let me look a little at the side of high Asia, towards the deep East.”
He was, though, a man who had a lot of breath. But no more. His ode to light came from an asthma of the soul.
One hundred and fifty years after Michelet, his naive cry is still moving. His panting signals a deep shortness of breath, for our entire era.
One hundred and fifty years after Michelet, we too are panting. We too are suffocating.
We would like to breathe. To fill our retinas with light.
But where are the sea winds? Where are the promised dawns?
The West is today, much more than yesterday, in crisis. But the East is probably not much better off. We are more or less persuaded of the absence of an enlightened horizon west of Eden. But one does not believe either in the supposed depths of Asia.
One may only be sure of the thinness of the earth’s crust, under which a sun of lava roars.
Everything is narrow in this world. The planet is too small. And we are all suffocating. The West? The East? Eurasia? Old-fashioned clichés. Simple and false slogans.
Where are the thinkers ? Where are the prophets?
We are suffocating. The breathing of the people is wheezy, hoarse, corseted… Everything is dry, cracked, dusty.
Water is lacking, air is scarce.
No depths in the crowded pools, where the crocodiles kindly bite themselves, while the fry wriggle.
« Already long before 1933, something like a scorching smell was in the air », recalled Carl Gustav Jung shortly after the Second World War, when a collection of his texts from the 1920s, 30s and 40s was republishedi.
A scorched smell? What a euphemism!
In the trenches of the Great War, smells hovered over the dead and the living, but to smell the air then was to die.
Human memory is short and long. Short, in its race to the immediate, its fascination for the event of the moment. Long by its roots in the humus of cultures, in the unconscious of peoples, it even penetrates the memorable, un-forgetting DNA.
All the horrors in History, all the massacres, all the wars, all the infamies committed in the world, leave deep, mnemonic traces in the soul of the species and in the DNA of each man.
Jung attests to this: « An ugly thing generates something vile in our soul. We become indignant, we cry out for the punishment of the murderer, all the more vividly, passionately and hatefully, as the sparks of evil bawl more furiously within us.
It is an undeniable fact that the evil committed by others has quickly become our own vileness, precisely by virtue of the formidable power it has to ignite or fan the evil that lies dormant in our souls.
In part, the murder was committed on the person of each one of us, and in part, each one of us perpetrated it. Seduced by the irresistible fascination of evil, we have helped to make possible this moral attack on the collective soul […].
Are we morally outraged? Our indignation is all the more venomous and vengeful as the flame lit by evil burns more strongly within us.
No one can escape it, for everyone is so steeped in the human condition and so drowned in the human community, that any crime secretly causes a flash of the most intimate satisfaction to shine in some fold of our soul, with her innumerable facets… and – if the moral constitution is favorable – triggers also a contrary reaction in the surrounding compartments.”ii
When hundreds of thousands of dead, in the recent wars, begin to haunt the unconscious consciousness, the terrible soil of horror slowly prepares future germination.
When, day after day, migrants, chased away by wars waged elsewhere, drown in the blue waters of the Mediterranean or in any other of the Seven Seas, in deaf and blind indifference, a deleterious mutation operates its silent and deep chemistry in the stuffed souls of the weighed down peoples.
Yet the world migrants will arrive, whatever happens, and they will camp forever in the collective memory, – and no Styx will be wall, or barbed wire for them.
A wave of impotent pessimism has been sweeping the Western world since the beginning of the century. There is nothing to be done. TINA. « There Is No Alternative”, they say. The fall of confidence, the corruption of minds, the betrayal of politicians, the pursuit of lucre, the absence of meaning, are killing people’s souls, ill-informed, lost in complexity, deprived of light.
There is no national solution to global problems. But nationalist populism proliferates. The planet is too small, and they want to make it even smaller, to strangle it with partitions, with narrow stacks.
During the last centuries of the Roman Empire, paganism began to decline, along with virtues. A strange ideology, coming from the East, occupied people’s minds. The Gnostics preached the end of the ancient world. They proclaimed themselves « a chosen foreign people », they claimed « foreign knowledge » and wanted to live in a « foreign », « new » land.
The Epistle to Diognetus evokes the « strangeness » in a world that is coming to an end: « They reside each in their own country, but as foreigners in their own land, and every foreign land is a homeland to them, and every homeland is a foreign land.”
O prophetic words! And Rome was on the move, soon to succumb.
There is no more Rome now, nor virtues to destroy. Only smells, deadly, putrefied.
And the whole world is plugging its nose, thinking that it will pass.
i C.G. Jung. Aspects du drame contemporain (1947).
A French, self-styled “philosopher”, Michel Onfray, affirmed recently that « the Judeo-Christian civilisation is in a terminal phase.”i
His statement is ruthless, definitive, without appeal: « Judeo-Christianity has reigned for almost two millennia. An honourable length of time for a civilisation. The civilization that will replace it will also be replaced. A question of time. The ship is sinking: we still have to sink with elegance »ii.
Onfray uses the metaphor of « sinking ». The ship “sinks”. This is not, I think, a good image to depict « decadence ». The sinking is sudden, rapid, terminal. Decadence is long, soft, indecisive, and sometimes it even generates rebirths.
It is precisely the possible rebirth of our civilization that deserves reflection. History is teeming with « decadent » periods. Rebirths are rarer, but possible, and merit attention.
A century ago, Oswald Spengler famously glossed over The Decline of the West, a two-volume book published in 1918 and 1922.
In the previous century, Nietzsche had powerfully erupted against the « decadence » of Western culture. He had a piercing vision, and according to him, Euripides was the first to detect the premises of this, with the « decadence of the Greek tragedy », which was a sign of what was to follow.
The metaphor of decadence, as we can see, easily flourishes under the pen of « thinkers ».
But what seems more interesting to me, assuming that decadence is effective, is what may happen afterwards. After the darkening of the misleading suns, is a new dawn conceivable? After the general collapse, what renewal is possible? Where to find the forces, the energy, the resources, the ideas, to invent another world?
Onfray, a convinced atheist, and aggressively anti-Christian, thinks on this subject that Islam has a role to play. « Islam is strong with a planetary army made up of countless believers ready to die for their religion, for God and his Prophet.”iii
Alongside this strength, what Jesus represents is only « a fable for children », says Onfray.
In Moscow, when I lived there, on assignment for UNESCO, I sometimes met real tough Russians, of the kind FSB or ex-KGB, who spoke directly : » You Westerners, you are like children.”
Is Russia herself decadent? I don’t know. What is certain is that Russians are proud of their history and geography. They stopped the Mongol invasions, beat Napoleon, resisted at Stalingrad, and hunted Hitler down in his bunker. And their country covers eleven time zones, giving meaning to the political and philosophical utopia of a « Eurasia » of which Russia would be the soul.
The West, condemned by Mr. Onfray to its impending demise, also has some occasions for pride. It has a number of inventions, several masterpieces, and social and political institutions, which are apparently healthier and more « democratic » than elsewhere. And yet, decadence is on the horizon, says Mr. Onfray.
That may be possible. There are some worrying signs. But the world is changing fast, and it is shrinking rapidly, as we all know. The metaphor of decadence, because it is a metaphor, is not very original. What is most lacking today is not to shed crocodile tears over the past, but to propose new ideas, a new breath of fresh air, not for the benefit of the « West », but on a whole human scale. The world needs a « great narrative », a global vision, and a credible utopia, for urgent global issues, such as that of a world union of governments, and finances fair taxation, on a global scale. “Childish dreams” as would say FSB guys?
Planet Earth is overpopulated, in a state of accelerated compression. Massive urbanization, climate change, and the phenomenal impoverishment of the world’s fauna and flora deserve a reflection of planetary scope.
The challenges are also economic and social. The 4th industrial revolution has begun. Massive unemployment due to the ubiquitous applications of artificial intelligence, to large-scale robotization, to deficient or misguided policies based without shame on misinformation or systematic lies, to sidereal inequalities: all the components of a global civil war are there, in potency.
Unless an astounding, superior, unheard of idea emerges, bearing a common vision for Humankind as a whole.
Yesterday, socialism, communism, the idea of equality, fraternity or solidarity could make the « masses » dream for a few decades. On the other hand, conservatism, individualism, capitalism, entrepreneurial freedom, have played their cards in the world liar’s poker.
What does the future hold? More and more conservatism, capitalism and individualism? Or openly fascist forms of social control? We know today more than yesterday the limits, the deviations, the diversions and excesses of the old ideals.
Threats are rising on all sides. The old ideologies have failed. What can be done?
Humanity must become aware of its nature and its strength. It must become aware of its destiny. Humanity has a vocation for ultra-humanity, surpassing itself in a new synthesis, a new emergence, a mutation of world civilization.
General unemployment, for example, could be excellent news: it signals the assured end of the current model, the establishment of a universal income, and the end of predatory capitalism. Billions of unemployed and increasingly educated people cannot be ignored. They will not let themselves starve at the doors of banks and ultra-rich ghettos. There is bound to be a reaction.
The immense and global massa damnata, created by a lawless capitalism, will necessarily regain « common » control over the world’s wealth, which is immense but now monopolized by the 0.01%, and will find a way to distribute it equitably in order to provide a human income for all.
The enormous amounts of time freed up by the « end of work » will then be able to be mobilized to do everything that machines, algorithms and capital cannot do: better educate, care for people, freely invent, really create, humanely socialize, sustainably develop, obviously love.
The promiscuity of religions, races and peoples will impose – by force – a new ultra-human, meta-philosophical, meta-religious civilization.
Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, will have to move together to a higher level of understanding of their respective doctrines, to reach their essential and already common core, the unique core of what still stands as the “mystery” of the universe.
All this will happen in the coming decades. Let there be no doubt about it. Not that men will become wiser. But the osmotic pressure of necessity will make the eyes open, make the scales fall off, will circumcise the minds.
iMichel Onfray.Décadence. De Jésus au 11 septembre, vie et mort de l’Occident. Flammarion. 2017