What is Art For? Part 10.2

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 6: The Axial Age continued

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of  blog posts on the many functions of art.

Left: The Ecumenical Council, a large canvas painted by Salvador Dali, said to represent the convergence of all creation in Teilhard de Chardin’s “Omega Point”. 299.7×254cm (9ft 10in×8ft 4in), 1960.  Centre: L’offrande de la Terre ou Hommage à Teilhard de Chardin by Alfred Manessier, 1962.  Right: The Divine Milieu: Homage to Teilhard de Chardin by Frederick Hart: transparent resin sculpture within a transparent resin block, 2001.

The Passion of the Western Mind

For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being

Richard Tarnas (1991)

Karl Jaspers’ book, The Origin and Goal of History, expresses a view that few scientists would accept – the belief that history has a grand purpose, even though the vast majority of human actors – the people who create history – are not aware of that goal. This is an example of a teleological view (explaining things in terms of purpose rather than cause), and Jaspers is not alone – there are philosophers and even scientists who have concluded that history, the evolution of life, and even the evolution of the cosmos, are teleological. 

The idea gets support from the Anthropic Principle (AP). In its “weak” form the AP is a fact which no scientist can deny. It holds that all the constants and laws of nature are not arbitrary, but are precisely constrained by the requirement that everything should have evolved exactly as it has. This may sound like a truism, but it cannot be dismissed so easily when we consider the enormous number of “coincidences” involved. The AP is like tossing a coin a hundred times, and each time the coin lands on its edge. To a teleologist, this looks like the universe conforms to a Grand Design, presumably planned by a Grand Designer. To a physicist, this looks like something he would rather shoot his grandmother than accept. So much so that Stephen Hawking (with co-author Leonard Mlodinow) wrote his last book, The Grand Design, largely to avoid the implications of the AP. Claiming that M-theory is “the only candidate Theory of Everything”, he notes that this theory “allows for” 10500 different universes, each with its own laws. So we should not be surprised to find that we live in the one that just happens to have all the right laws. In this way the AP is reduced to the core dogma of modern science – everything is meaningless coincidence, and humanity is an insignificant accident on an obscure planet in a vast dead universe. 

Hawking’s neat-sounding argument does not stand up to closer inspection. M-Theory is not in fact a single coherent theory, but a bunch of unproven hypotheses, each of which works part of the time and none of which works all of the time. So the theory explains “Everything” in a rather piecemeal fashion. In this light, the claim that M-theory “allows for” multiple universes may not strike everyone as sufficient justification for violating Occam’s razor 10500 times.

The most famous teleologist is probably the French Jesuit priest, scientist, archaeologist, and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His approach to evolution was essentially Darwinian, rejecting any literal reading of Genesis. Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been seen as a threat to any faith in a divine creator. But Teilhard was determined to reconcile science, not just with religion, but with Roman Catholicism. Throughout most of his life his views were far too radical for the Church, and at various times he was banned from teaching, banned from publishing, and effectively exiled to China (where he took part in the discovery of Peking Man). His most comprehensive works, published after his death, were The Divine Milieu, completed around 1929 and published in 1957, and The Phenomenon of Man, written in the 1930s and published in the year of his death, 1955.

Teilhard saw evolution from primordial particles onwards as a process of increasing complexity and consciousness, all under the benevolent eye of a loving and all-forgiving God. Our world began as a geosphere consisting of minerals, water, and gas, but then robed itself in a biosphere of living organisms, and finally a noosphere of conscious human interaction – all but predicting the rise of the internet. He called the ultimate goal of this process the “Omega Point”, when all creation would be united in the body of Christ, in a maximum state of complexity and consciousness. This, Teilhard believed, is what is meant by the second coming of Christ. The Omega Point is like a white (as opposed to a black) hole, whose gravitational force is “pulling” all creation towards itself. Teilhard writes: “Omega point is the furthest point of the whole cosmic process: a final point where the law of universal love will have reached its climax and its crown – Christ.” 

On first publication, Teilhard’s books drew scathing condemnation from scientists, and disapproval from Church authorities, though they did not go so far as to condemn them to the Index of Forbidden Books (if any of us non-clergy were to read one of those books, according to the Church, we would be damned to burn in hell for all eternity). Subsequently two Popes – Benedict XVI and Francis – and other eminent figures of the Church have made positive comments on his work, and the Vatican has softened its attitude to his ideas. 

Teilhard, however, seemed to be unaware of the significance of the axial age – particularly Jaspers’ rejection of a purely Christian interpretation of history. Just less than a third of the world population is nominally Christian. Islam accepts the belief in the second coming of Christ, but denies his divinity – in the Qur’an Christ is just a human messenger and a good Muslim prophet. Many societies have evolved to high levels of sophistication without any guidance from Christianity. So the “pull” of the Omega Point seems somewhat limited in power.

One teleologist who has been influenced by Jaspers, and possibly by Teilhard, is Richard Tarnas. His first book, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view, was ten years in the making, and published in 1991. As academic books go, Passion of the Western Mind became a best seller, selling over 200,000 copies by 2006, attracting international acclaim, and becoming set reading in many American university departments.

Three teleological thinkers: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955);  Karl Jaspers (1883-1969); and Richard Tarnas (1950-)

The main take-home message of Tarnas’s book is the one I quoted at the head of this section: “For the deepest passion of the Western mind has been to reunite with the ground of its being.” This might seem to contradict the quote I used earlier, from the American feminist Camille Paglia: “Everything great in western civilization comes from struggle against our origins”. In fact both these authors agree that “our origins” (Paglia) and “the ground of our being” (Tarnas) lie in a primordially matriarchal society. Both also see the development of western culture as driven by patriarchy. And both see resulting problems that need to be resolved. There is no necessary contradiction between struggling against the imposition of matriarchy (Paglia) and yearning to return to its healing embrace (Tarnas).

Paglia, who has been described as an “anti-feminist feminist” because she hates most other feminists, believes that western civilization became great by a patriarchal revolt against ancient mother-cults, as evidenced in the first book of the Jewish and Christian Bibles – Genesis. Her view of matriarchy is rather more negative in tone than that of Tarnas: “by reconciling man to nature, [matriarchy] entraps him in matter”. 

That implies that men were formerly not “reconciled to nature” and so the presumed “mother-cults” cannot be “our origins”. Since we share a common ancestry with chimpanzees, “our origins” were clearly ape-like, and to get from an ape-like ordering of society to matriarchy requires a revolutionary inversion of an alpha-male dominance hierarchy. Paglia is repeating the old chestnut of culture versus nature where men equate with “culture” and women equate with “nature” – not a very feminist view. As I have explained before, it should be self-evident that women were more instrumental than men in the creation of human culture, because women bear the heaviest burdens of pregnancy and child care. It is clear that culture, in its most common and primordial forms, serves to curb the philandering impulses of men, and to oblige each man to invest in one woman and her children. It is only since the patriarchal counter-revolution (see Part 6) that privileged men have been able to free themselves from such cultural constraints – having multiple wives, concubines, harems, etc. So Paglia is right to assume a patriarchal revolt, but wrong to assume that matriarchy is “natural” or “original”.

Tarnas, on the other hand, has been influenced by Karl Jaspers’ theory of the Axial Age (he is not aware of Stuart-Glennie). Like Jaspers, Tarnas sees everything before the Axial Age as a relatively homogenous expanse of time. But where Jaspers assumes “a magical religion destitute of philosophical enlightenment.”, Tarnas holds that those early people lived in a state of participation mystique – a state in which individual selves are not yet differentiated from the “world soul”. Like Paglia, he also seems to think that this matriarchal state of immersion in a “world soul” is the primordial state of human consciousness. He writes: “For the evolution of the Western mind has been driven by a heroic impulse to forge an autonomous rational human self by separating it from the primordial unity with nature.” This “unity with nature” equates with Paglia’s “entrapped in matter”, and both see it as an undifferentiated state from which men felt a need to escape – to become free, autonomous, individuals.

There is an impossible contradiction here. If our “primordial” ancestors were so lacking in ego boundaries, that would imply that they had not yet evolved the means by which ego boundaries are forged – that is, the spontaneous behaviours of human infancy and childhood, notably communication, exploration, play, song and dance, art, and role-play (as explained previously, especially in Part 3). Lacking such abilities, our ancestors could not have performed the first ritual that accomplished the “human revolution” – overthrowing the alpha-male hierarchy and establishing matriarchy, with resulting fragmentation of consciousness and ruptured ego boundaries. Going even further back in time, I cannot imagine any ape being unable to distinguish itself from its environment, still less getting tangled up in a “world soul”. “Entrapped in matter” (Paglia) and “unity with nature” (Tarnas) cannot be primordial – they are the result of a revolutionary shift in human consciousness – a shift that was not entirely positive.

Tarnas has borrowed the concept of participation mystique from Carl Jung, who in turn adopted the idea from the French anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, first published in How Natives Think, in 1910. Most anthropologists today have rejected, or lost interest in, Lévy-Bruhl’s idea – I think unfairly. Participation mystique is not unlike Stuart-Glennie’s panzoonism, plus the idea that the self is experienced as being continuous with, or mystically involved within, a living and conscious cosmos. This is not in conflict with ethnographic evidence; there are people in the world – for example around the Arctic rim and in North America – who do seem to have this kind of deep spirituality. It is not unreasonable to call this a “world soul”, but it is a cultural product, or – if you are an idealist – a cultural discovery. I use the word “idealist” in a specific sense, viz:

People involved in consciousness studies can mostly be divided into two camps – the idealists and the physicalists. Idealists regard consciousness as the basis and source of physical phenomena – which might rightly be called “the ground of our being”. Physicalists, on the other hand, are convinced that consciousness “arises” from “physical” processes in the brain, and face the intractable problem of how you derive consciousness from essentially “dead” matter.

Note that physics and physicalism are not the same thing. Physics is the study of the movement of bodies in space. Physicalists, on the other hand, assume that this means the movement of dead bodies, propelled by meaningless forces. This assumption is sometimes called “scientism”, implying that it pretends to be scientific when in fact it is ideological. As explained earlier, ideology is always political. Physicalism arose from a conflict of interests between two groups of dominant men during the European Enlightenment – scientists and the clergy. Scientists – many of them aristocrats with enough leisure time to conduct research – despite often being devout Christians, needed to claim space for their discoveries from the Church, which previously held a monopoly of the truth market. The clergy, for their part, felt threatened by this loss of authority. Hence the apparent conflict between science and religion. Today, physicalism is a powerful political force. Scientists who do hold spiritual or paranormal beliefs are deterred from admitting it, for fear of losing tenure or research funding.

The Passion of the Western Mind is a very ambitious book. It explores the development of consciousness from the Axial Age to modern and postmodern times, and describes it as a dialectical unfolding of a collective mind. Like Teilhard de Chardin, Tarnas views this unfolding of human consciousness as the way the cosmos becomes conscious of itself. Both Stuart-Glennie and Tarnas recognise that there were more than one axial turning-points in history. The belief in gods means that the mundane world loses much of its divinity which is now projected onto the gods – in the sky, under the sea, under the earth, on Olympus, in the fairy mounds, or wherever. Polytheistic religions managed to keep the natural world populated with lively beings like satyrs, fauns, nymphs, and the like. Similar beliefs – in pixies, little people, dwarves, and so on – persisted in the West well into Christian times. With monotheism, however, the natural world began to lose all of its magic. “Nature” became increasingly secular – something that could be studied, understood, and manipulated, preparing the way for the scientific revolution.

Left: Heliocentric universe of Copernicus (1543) in “Description de L’Universe” by Alain Manesson Mallet, 1683.  Right: Woodcut showing a late stage of dissection from De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Vesalius, 1543.

Tarnas is unique in giving a precise date for what he sees as the major turning point in the Western world view – the publication of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the revolutions of the celestial spheres) by Nicolaus Copernicus, 25 May 1543. Copernicus showed that the orbits of the planets could be explained much more simply if the Sun, and not the Earth, were the centre around which the celestial spheres revolved. The Copernican revolution meant that “man” could no longer see himself as the centre of all creation. Tarnas adds, “when [Copernicus] recognized that the movement of the heavens could be explained in terms of the movement of the observer, he brought forth what was perhaps the pivotal insight of the modern mind.” Since then science has taken human alienation much further – our Sun is a rather ordinary star on the edge of the Milky Way galaxy, which contains 100-400 billion stars, in a cosmos containing some 200 billion galaxies. Such indigestible numbers seem to reduce humanity to almost vanishing insignificance. As D.H. Lawrence observed, however vast the universe becomes according to science, it remains a prison for the imagination.

Tarnas does not mention that only seven days after Copernicus published his revolutionary work, Andreas Vesalius published De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the fabric of the human body) – on 1 June 1543. Just as Copernicus’s heliocentric model deposed Ptolemy’s geocentric model, accepted since the 2nd century AD, so Vesalius’s first-hand studies of human anatomy – superbly illustrated by students of Titian – disproved theories of Galen, which had dominated medicine throughout the Middle Ages. Although Vesalius did not specifically reject mediaeval views such as four humours theory or the location of the spiritual soul in the heart, he certainly proved that first-hand investigation was more reliable than tradition, so establishing for the first time a remarkably accurate knowledge of human anatomy and an “objective” field of study (Tarnas denies than anything is exclusively “objective” or “subjective”).

That these two pillars of the scientific revolution should have independently published their work almost simultaneously and in ignorance of each other, is a remarkable example of synchronicity – that is, a meaningful coincidence with no causal connection. It was as if the macrocosm (Copernicus) and microcosm (Vesalius) had to be robbed of their magic at the same time. The Axial Age itself is an example of synchronicity – parallel developments in Asia, India, and the West, despite the lack of mutual influence. Note that synchronicity does not necessarily mean that related events are simultaneous – only that they are meaningfully related without any causal connection. The concept of synchronicity originated with Carl Jung; Tarnas is a Jungian and synchronicity is fundamental to his beliefs, as I will explain later.

Tarnas traces the consequences of the Copernican revolution through a number of thinkers, notably Descartes and Kant. In search of a solid basis for philosophy, Descartes concluded that the only knowledge we can be absolutely sure of is cogito ergo sum – “I think therefore I am”. From this ontological limitation, Kant developed an epistemological problem – we can never know what things are “in themselves”. All we can ever know is our own mental constructions of reality.

The great success of science and technology gradually undermined belief in a transcendent God. Both the universe and its human occupants came to be seen as blind mechanisms. The great irony here, as Rupert Sheldrake has pointed out, is that this modern attitude, just as it has supposedly stripped all anthropocentrism from our worldview, has committed the ultimate anthropocentric error: we have projected the idea of a machine – something exclusively made by humans and found nowhere in nature – onto the universe and everything in it.

This modern view, originating with Newton and other mechanistic thinkers of the Enlightenment, has provoked a reaction known as “postmodernism” – the belief that all beliefs are relative, or even that there is no such thing as “Truth”. Everything that we think we know is a human invention, projected onto a meaningless and unknowable universe, and the differing worldviews of different cultures are all equally valid. Many postmodernists follow Karl Marx who argued that the ideology of any society is always the ideology of the ruling classes, so that all truth claims are ultimately motivated by power politics and not to be trusted. 

Postmodern art includes anything and everything.  Left: Comedian, Maurizio Cattelan.  Right:   Installation, Damien Hirst (mistakenly thrown out as rubbish by cleaners).

Left: Equivalent VIII, Carl Andre, 1966. Purchased by Tate for £2,297, now valued at $2,000,000.  Right: Work No 227: Lights going on and off, Martin Creed: won the Turner prize in 2001, valued at £110,000. The beliefs of postmodern artists often seem cynical: for example, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” according to Andy Warhol, and  “Art is anything you put in an art gallery,” Damien Hirst.

Tarnas summarises: “the modern condition begins as a Promethean movement toward human freedom, toward autonomy from the encompassing matrix of nature, toward individuation from the collective, yet gradually and ineluctably the Cartesian-Kantian condition evolves into a Kafka-Beckett-like state of existential isolation and absurdity – an intolerable double bind leading to a kind of deconstructive frenzy.” This Tarnas sees as the central problem  of our age, and it has dangerous consequences, including global warming and environmental destruction. 

The solution to our problems is what Tarnas calls a “participatory framework”, which is not a simple regression to participation mystique, but a new worldview in which neither mind nor matter is exclusively subjective or objective, but rather the universe realises itself through a dialectical collaboration with mind. Meaning is not to be found in the cosmos waiting for humans to discover it, as in the modern view. Nor is it created in the mind and then projected onto a meaningless cosmos, as in the postmodern view. He explains:

“In this view, the essential reality of nature is not separate, self-contained, and complete in itself, so that the human mind can examine it ‘objectively’ and register it from without. Rather, nature’s unfolding truth emerges only with the active participation of the human mind. Nature’s reality is not merely phenomenal, nor is it independent and objective; rather, it is something that comes into being through the very act of human cognition. Nature becomes intelligible to itself through the human mind.”

Left: Goethe studied prismatic refraction by placing white cards at different distances from the prism, showing that colours emerge at the boundaries between white light and darkness. Newton’s spectrum only appears at a distance from the prism.  Right: He also demonstrated that when a boundary between a black and a white area is viewed through a prism, the colour fringes depend on the orientation of the boundary. 

Tarnas rightly points out that this is not a new idea – it has been developing in Western thought for hundreds of years. It was first proposed by the poet and scientist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), widely regarded as the greatest German literary figure of the modern era. Goethe was a pioneer of the Counter-Enlightenment, which led to Romanticism in the arts and even influenced science and philosophy. The Counter-Enlightenment was a reaction against Enlightenment reductionism which threatened to reduce humans to zombie-like robots with no conceivable role for consciousness or free-will. This is the fundamental error of physicalism.

Goethe (wrongly) believed that his extensive experiments with colour disproved Sir Isaac Newton’s colour theory. He inferred that colours are not components of white light (as demonstrated by Newton), but are created by the interaction of light and shadow. He wrote: “yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness, blue is a darkness weakened by the light.” He further claimed that “Newton’s error was trusting math over the sensations of his eye.” 

Left: The “seven primary colours” of Newton’s asymmetrical colour circle are of unequal size, being based on the intervals of a Dorian musical scale, beginning with D for Red. 1704.  Right: Goethe’s more physiological colour wheel has complementary colours based on afterimages, and is also a diagram of the “powers of the soul”. The outer circle has four divisions, clockwise from red/orange: Reason, Understanding, Sensuality, and Imagination. The inner has six, clockwise from red: Beautiful, Noble, Good, Useful, Common, and Superfluous. This makes “imagination” both “superfluous” and “beautiful”. 1810.

Though Goethe’s theory has been abandoned by science, in fact his research was the first systematic study of the physiological and psychological effects of colour (1810). Whereas Newton adopted the modern physicalist assumption of an objective world “outside” the human mind, Goethe approached colour within what Tarnas calls a “participatory framework”: colour is an experience resulting from the co-action of light and the human retina and psyche.

Because Newton was an alchemist, he divided his spectrum into seven colours, reflecting alchemical equations between seven planets, seven temperaments, seven metals, seven notes in a musical scale, etc. This is quite arbitrary – a true spectrum grades across a virtually infinite range of colours, as Goethe recognised. Further, the colour divisions of Newton’s wheel are unequal, being based on the intervals of a Dorian musical scale. As a result, Newton’s colour wheel is asymmetrical.

Goethe’s physiological approach led him to study the afterimages that remain in the eye after staring at different colours. He devised a symmetrical wheel with six colours, though he believed only two were primaries – yellow and blue. Each of the six colours matched the after-image created after viewing the complementary colour on the opposite side of the wheel – so anticipating Ewald Hering’s opponent colour theory (1872). Goethe also identified “purpur” – probably magenta, which is not a spectrum colour but necessary for the development of four-colour printing inks – cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Goethe was equally interested in the effects of colour on mood and emotion. He even sought equations between human temperaments, occupations, and “powers of the soul” (see caption above).

Curiously, three years before his death, Goethe stated: “In all the things I have written as a poet I find no cause for pride. But to have been the only person of my century to see clearly into this difficult science of colours, of that I am very proud indeed, and believe myself to be superior to many scientists.” Goethe’s analysis of colour, rejected by science, nevertheless influenced many artists including the English master of landscape, J.M. William Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky. To a scientist, Goethe’s ideas may seem crazy. But to an artist, sometimes “crazy” means “good”. However wrong his reasoning, his rejection of mechanistic science was welcomed warmly by many artists and others – by anyone who believes that life is meaningful.

Joseph Mallord William Turner refers to Goethe’s theory in his second “deluge” painting. The two were exhibited together at the Royal Academy in 1843. Though Turner was critical of Goethe, he agreed that colour has emotional effects and sensory polarities like light and dark or warm and cold.  Left: Shade and Darkness – The Evening of the Deluge.    Right: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis

Goethe’s theory did not just influence romantic art, but modern art also, most notably through the Bauhaus (1919 to 1933) – the name being German for “Building House” – a school of art and design which exerted a major influence on modern art, The Bauhaus was also influenced by William Morris of the British Arts and Crafts movement, who argued that art should serve the needs of society and there should be no distinction between form and function. The Arts and Crafts movement endeavoured to promote individual handiwork against the spread of cheap industrial goods. The Bauhaus adopted the opposite strategy – the aim was to combine artistic excellence with cheap mass production and develop art forms better suited to the industrial age. It also aimed to dissolve the “arrogant” distinction between fine art and craft.

Wassily Kandinsky, already a renowned artist, came to teach at the Bauhaus in 1922, where his colour theory became the basis for an entrance test for admission to the school. Applicants were asked to match three primary colours – yellow, blue, and red – to three basic shapes – square, circle, and triangle. If you think the circle reminds you of the sun, and so should be yellow, you would fail the test. Kandinsky eschewed symbolic or any kind of verbal content in visual art. He valued something much more primitive and basic – the sensations evoked by shapes and colours. In this he was influenced by Goethe’s work on the psychological qualities of colour.

So there is only one correct answer to Kandinsky’s test. If you look at a square of yellow on a white ground, it has a kind of lively excitement and spiky restlessness. The edges flicker and prickle the eye, and the colour seems to rise towards the viewer. Therefore it corresponds to the shape with the sharpest angles – the triangle. Blue has the opposite effect – it is soothing and restful, has depth, and seems to recede into the surface. It corresponds to the most soothing and least angular shape – the circle. Red falls between those two extremes – absolutely stable, it remains firmly on the surface without movement either way. Therefore it belongs to the most solid and stable of shapes – the square. In his paintings, however, Kandinsky did not hesitate to include yellow circles or red triangles.

The Bauhaus cradle, designed by Peter Keler in 1922, following Wassily Kandinsky’s colour theory – yellow triangles, blue circles, and red rectangles.

Kandinsky first decided to become an artist after attending a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin. He experienced the rich sounds of the music as colours and shapes in his mind. It seems that Kandinsky had a neurological condition called synaesthesia, which connects together sensory channels that are not normally linked. People with synaesthesia may see numbers or days of the week as colours, names as smells, or shapes as tastes. Synaesthesia is often related to enhanced memory or creativity.

Synaesthesia helps to explain Kandinsky’s colour theory, but it does not explain his success as an artist or his influence on other artists. His work must have resonated with something that many people in the west experienced as a felt need. Earlier postimpressionists – like Van Gogh or the German expressionists – aimed to express emotions and not just appearances. Although emotion was of concern to Goethe in his colour theory, Kandinsky wanted to portray something even more primitive – sensations – something we share with all sentient animals.

Kandinsky is often regarded as the first truly non-figurative visual artist. He wanted to create art that was as formal as pure music – that engages us without the use of anything representational, literary, narrative, or symbolic. I think this gives us a clue to what many modern artists have tried to do. It is as though there has been a drive to undo the entire history of western art, in an attempt to get to the absolute root of art or aesthetics (which I would call mark-making behaviour). Postmodern artists have gone even further – they seem to be deconstructing the very idea of art, as if to deny that any such thing ever existed, even though they continue to think of themselves as “artists” and enjoy the absurd profits created by the art market – a bubble that is surely destined to burst. 

Several Bauhaus artists were influenced by Goethe’s colour theory.  Left: Wassily Kandinsky: Bunter Mitklang, (Colourful Resonance), oil on cardboard, 1928.  Right: Paul Klee: Red-Green and Violet-Yellow Rhythms 1920.

So it is clear that Goethe, as with other thinkers Tarnas credits with the development of his participatory framework approach, contributed little or nothing to mainstream science, but in rejecting mechanistic reductionism they struck a chord with artists and many others. There is little doubt that most normal human beings have a deep aversion to accepting a dead and meaningless universe – physicalists like Richard Dawkins excepted.

Curiously, most of the “participatory” thinkers cited by Tarnas are not so much “Western” as Germanic. He mentions seven figures in particular: Goethe and Schiller who, although hostile to Romanticism, were leading lights in the German Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) movement, featuring extreme emotions in the arts; Schelling and Hegel were quintessential German Idealists; Coleridge was an English Romantic who introduced German Idealism to Britain; Emerson an American Romantic with transcendentalist views; and Steiner the Austrian founder of Anthroposophy, based on German Idealism, the science of Goethe, and Theosophy. “Each of these thinkers,” Tarnas writes, “gave his own distinct emphasis to the developing perspective, but common to all was a fundamental conviction that the relation of the human mind to the world was ultimately not dualistic but participatory.”

Tarnas could have sought support from physicists. For example, according to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the past and present states of a quantum entity are not fixed until an observation is made, and some believe that human consciousness is necessary to make the entity “real”. The renowned American cosmologist John Wheeler stated things thus: “A phenomenon is not a phenomenon until it is observed.” From this he proposed his “Participatory Anthropic Principle” (PAP), according to which the AP (the fact that the universe has all the precise properties necessary for the evolution of us) can be explained if all the properties of the cosmos are retroactively determined by the observers it contains. Sensitive to the way the PAP could be abused by New Agers, he emphasizes that his Principle does not imply anything to do with consciousness. For him, “observers” are not necessarily sentient – a trace left by a cosmic ray, or the click of a Geiger counter, count as “observations”. However, since humans have evolved, the PAP implies that human observers, who are of course conscious, have influenced the origins and evolution of the cosmos.

Tarnas ostensibly is examining the evolution of culture from the Axial Age to the present and beyond, and many of his transitions do reflect cultural change. However he is not an anthropologist and what he has written is primarily a history of western intellectualism. In part, his book reads like a who’s who of famous intellectuals – philosophers, scientists, and theologians – as though cultural change is accomplished through thinking alone. I am reminded of comments made by D.H. Lawrence in Apocalypse: “For it is not words that beget new things, it is feeling”; and: “The real truth lies in the things we do, not in the things we say or believe.”

The argument from ideas works to an extent but there is far more to culture – Tarnas pays relatively scant attention to art, music, sport, entertainment, economic conditions, and politics. I think he overestimates the importance of individual thinkers, who are themselves influenced by the societies that sustain them. Whole communities are involved in social change. Hollywood has probably done more to shape the American mindset than any number of American intellectuals, whilst superhero comics shape the games children play, and so the adults that they grow into. A little injection of Marxian thinking would not go amiss here – the forces and relations of production have played no small role in social change and associated shifts in consciousness and worldview. Climate change has also been important, most notably the end of the Ice Age which unravelled all the cultural systems of the Upper Palaeolithic.

Further, being classically educated, Tarnas takes a rather narrow view of western history. He sees western culture as taking its “patriarchal religion from Judaism, its rationalist philosophy from Greece, its objectivist science from modern Europe.” This is far too thin. 

For one thing, “objectivist science” is not primarily a European achievement. Western science and mathematics would never have emerged but for influences from the Arabic empire, which absorbed alchemy from China via Persia, and “Arabic numerals” – including the revolutionary concept of zero – from India. The whole idea of “objectivist” research came from the alchemists, who were the first to conceive and build research laboratories, and made many chemical discoveries. Astronomy, as an observational science, has even earlier roots in Babylon.

Left: Ancestor of the Western dragon: the Ram Headed Serpent linked to the god Cernunnos, on a Celtic helmet from Agris, France (4th c. BC).  Right: The Broighter Collar, from County Derry, Ireland (1st c. BC).

Plastic Metamorphosis style:  Left: La Têne bronze head, Bulgaria (4th-2nd c. BC).  Right: Bronze open-work mount from a wooden pitcher, from Brno-Malomerice, Czech Republic (3rd c. BC).

Plastic Metamorphosis style:  Left: Bronze bird of prey heads (with traces of red enamel) from the linchpins of a Celtic chariot , Manching, Germany (2nd c. BC).  Right: Bronze head decorating an iron linchpin from a Celtic chariot burial at Orval, Normandy ( 300-250 BC).

Secondly, Tarnas’s classical training blinds him to influences coming from Celtic and Germanic societies – in fact the bulk of Europe north of the Alps. Iron Age European art combines fine craftsmanship with a haunting bestiary of fantastic creatures. It has an aesthetic of swirling serpentine patterns and surreal imagery. Although Iron Age Celts were influenced by Greece and Rome much of their art remained stubbornly non-classical and persisted even during Roman occupation. I think the dynamism and individualism of Europe came more from these “barbarians” than the relatively regimented Romans or philosophical Greeks. Even a cursory look at medieval art shows a declining influence of Greece and Rome and an increasing affinity with Celtic art, and what German art historian Wilhelm Worringer called the search for “the vertiginous sensation” which reached its apogee in the soaring Gothic cathedrals with their dizzying rib vaults and stone tracery, grotesque gargoyles, and seditious and pagan vignettes often hidden under misericords and choir stalls.

In fact the Celtic influence may be even older than the Iron Age. The triple spirals, lozenges, and concentric circles of the Irish megalithic tombs (c.3200 BC: see Part 7) have distinct parallels with the ornamentation in early Irish Christian illuminated manuscripts (written 4,000 years later), suggesting an unbroken tradition of Celtic art. Ireland in the early middle ages became a centre of Christian learning, and Irish missionaries spread the new faith to many parts of Europe. Illuminated manuscripts were used as tools of conversion by missionaries and, being of great monetary value, became highly esteemed diplomatic gifts to kings and other centres of Christian devotion.

Worringer’s “search for the vertiginous sensation” might be seen in these early Christian manuscripts just as surely as in the German Expressionists he examined. Worringer claims that the function of the vertiginous sensation was to escape from “the agonizing quality of the cube” – which I would interpret as a fear of the biological body. The complexities of Celtic Christian art, though rich and beautiful, are in many ways ambivalent. They certainly have a positive spiritual quality, but at the same time their complexities seem to be distracting from some deeper current of anxiety that, in the middle ages, could be projected onto the Devil. Expressionist art, on the other hand, portrays the anxiety directly.

Chi Rho monogram and opening page of the Gospel of John from the Book of Kells. ca. 800 AD. Triskeles and other geometric features reflect a Celtic tradition over five thousand years old.

Tarnas claims that “20th century man” (sic) tended to find spirituality in modern psychology rather than in traditional religion. But by “psychology” he means the analytical kind pioneered by Freud and Jung and elaborated by his mentor, Stanislav Grof, with whom he worked at Esalen in California. Tarnas was programme director there for ten years. Grof claims to have rediscovered Jung’s archetypes in thousands of psychoanalysis sessions using psychedelic drugs and – when these became illegal in America – “holistic breathwork”. Esalen played a major pioneering role in the human potentiality movement, describing itself on its website as “a not-for-profit holistic educational center offering wild comfort and space for emergent transformation and internal exploration since 1962.” Tarnas credits Grof with “the discovery of the universal archetypes in all their power and rich complexity as the fundamental determining structures of human experience.”

Tarnas seems not to be aware that Freud and Jung are far from mainstream in modern psychology, which is now dominated by the cognitive paradigm, and still influenced by the computer metaphor for mind and brain. Cognitive scientists still tend to regard the brain as an organ for transforming input into output, neglecting its spontaneous functions which are output-first. Cognitive science is very much part of the alienating physicalism that Tarnas so dislikes.

Both Esalen and Stanislav Grof provoke highly polarised opinions. On the one hand, there is gushing enthusiasm from devotees; on the other, extreme scepticism from mainstream science. Grof is the only person to twice receive the anti-prize for pseudoscience, the “Erratic Boulder Award” from the Czech Skeptics’ Club Sisyphus (“Erratic Boulder” refers to the myth of Sisyphus, who was fated to repeatedly roll a huge stone up a steep hill, only to see it roll back down to the bottom each time).

Regarding Esalen, The Economist wrote, “For many others in America and around the world, Esalen stands more vaguely for that metaphorical point where ‘East meets West’ and is transformed into something uniquely and mystically American or New Agey. And for a great many others yet, Esalen is simply that notorious bagno-bordello where people had sex and got high throughout the 1960s and 1970s before coming home talking psychobabble and dangling crystals.” More succinctly, in 1990, a graffiti artist spray-painted on the entrance to Esalen: “Jive shit for rich white folk”.

In fact people seek spiritual experience in many ways other than in psychology. When I first studied art in the early 60s my fellow students and I, and those we visited at other schools, had an intensely idealised enthusiasm for art that was essentially spiritual in character. Modern art movements like Die Brücke (1906), Futurism (1909), and Surrealism (1924) issued manifestos revealing that members saw themselves as revolutionaries who would change the world, just like the prophets of old and revitalization movements in religion. Kandinsky’s treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910) outlined the principles of Die Blaue Reiter. In its early years, the Bauhaus itself was virtually a religious institution, shaped by the views of its influential teacher, Johannes Itten – a devotee of Mazdaznan, a fire cult derived from Zoroastrianism. Even the school refectory served a Zoroastrian diet, and some of Itten’s ideas on teaching and aesthetics continue to influence art schools to this day. Many artists would affirm that art has always served a spiritual function.

German expressionist woodcuts. Left: Die Brücke manifesto. 1906.  Right:  Die Blau Reiter almanac. Ca. 1912.

In fact, a whole swathe of cultural phenomena has emerged within western populations, apparently to relieve spiritual starvation. Neo-shamanism, neo-paganism, Wicca, New Age, Rave culture, entheogenic drug use, and the human potential movement are a few examples. Whole TV channels are devoted to ghost hunting, the paranormal, UFOs, and crop circles. Even the success of Harry Potter could be ascribed to a spiritual need. Such potentially transformative forces often come from the people, not the intellectuals. Western societies seem to be groping after something which has not yet been adequately specified.

I think part of the success of Tarmas’s book is due to that word “passion” in the title. Modern people seem to want to think of themselves as “passionate”. I am not particularly comfortable with this word, especially for an account of what is essentially an intellectual history of the West. To me, the roar of the crowd at a football match is “passionate”, or the enthusiasm of an audience for an idealised musician – not the kind of thing that Tarnas pays much attention to. Nazism and ISIL are “passionate”. “Passion” is an ambivalent expression, and no more important than many other dimensions of experience such as dispassionate love, compassion, or sensuality.

But so far I have not mentioned what I find most interesting about Tarnas’s book, which I will turn to in my next blog.

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