"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

The Creation, the Unconscious, and such

with 2 comments

The Muse, Picasso

The Muse, Picasso

I’ve just started poking around in one of the autobiographies of Lou Andreas-Salomé, an exceedingly interesting Russian woman of prodigious charm and intellectual gifts. Three of the men who fell under her spell were Friedrich Nietzsche (who sought her hand in marriage), Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sigmund Freud. Any individual who knew all three men is worth our attention, but the fact that she dazzled all three is intriguing indeed. I’ve read many accounts of her life and decided it’s time to go straight to the source, to see if her magic comes across in her writing.

She begins her autobiography in a grandly literary, Freudian style, ruminating on the primordial infancy from which we call come forth, and reflecting on the irony that the bounds which define our earliest memories are a shadowy territory which fluctuate in recollection between awareness and non-awareness, identity and non-identity.

This immediately struck me, as I’ve also been reading Erich Neumann’s Origins of Consciousness, which examines the history of mythology as a projection, or externalization, of the psychological stages of development of the individual ego through a process which Carl Jung termed “individuation.” In Neumann’s theory, insofar as the consciousness of the individual has a collective component, which is expressed in the symbolic language of dreams and mythology, we can study the way personal consciousness evolved over time by studying the developmental history of mythology. As he puts it, from the perspective of consciousness, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, which is to say, the development of the individual duplicates in microcosm the historical evolution of the species.

Neumann begins with cosmogony, or myths of world-creation, which in his view are an externalized account of how individual consciousness comes into being out of an early state of incoherence. In many isolated traditions around the globe, we find parallel accounts of world-creation out of a primordial chaos or darkness, with the act of creation itself a configuration of the originary matrix into an intelligible, orderly arrangement.

One thinks immediately of the first verses of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Sleeping Muse, Brâncuși

Sleeping Muse, Brâncuși

Consciousness emerges out of the unconscious as light emerges out darkness: dividing, making distinctions, applying designations and value judgments. One finds this structure in creation accounts throughout the world, such as the Memphite Theology of Egypt, the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, the Hindu Vedas, in the Norse accounts of the creation of the world from the bones of the frost giant Ymir, and in an interiorized form in the Bardo Thodol, or so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead, to name some prominent examples.

Jung, of course, wrote an important psychological commentary on the Bardo Thodol, in which he highlights the implicit cosmogonic myth in this Tibetan description of how consciousness comes out of the indeterminate “between” state after death, and reincarnates into the world again, once more taking up the eternal round. The circle or sphere is thus identified by Neumann as the mythological symbol of the primoridial pre-conscious state par excellence; he terms it the ouroboros. It was only by reading Neumann that it became apparent to me just how much of Buddhist doctrine can be accounted for as parallels to mythological descriptions of individuals in relationship to the unconscious – I now see the Buddhist doctrine of tathāgatagarbha as simply another version of the primordial goddess – but that is a story for another day.

What interest me here is that Neumann and Andreas-Salomé arrived at the same emphasis on the originary primordium in parallel. Both, of course, were in educated in the same milieu, and it is the milieu which here interests me. Their convergence in focus on the undifferentiated pre-conscious state provides some evidence for a thesis I’ve long held: that Jungian psychology is, on the whole, a re-articulation of the basic post-Kantian German idealist position in empirical-rational form. The basic problem of this worldview is the relationship of individual consciousness to the indescribable reality that serves as its basis, and which is in fact its original essence in a deep sense.

A final thought before I close this reflection – we are living in an intensely secular age, which, by and large, can only dumbly affirm religious and mythological symbols as literally true or literally false, and is therefore blind to its symbolic character. We are thus consigned to live in a period which lacks the spiritual sophistication enjoyed, say, by any educated Irish monk in the eighth century, or any student in a Paris university in the thirteenth. Part of the reason for this is, of course, the great success of science, but part, I increasingly believe, is because the two great Western European traditions which were in the process of bringing mythological thought forward into the modern age in terms which we could value and accept were both destroyed by the Nazis: the secular Jewish intellectual tradition of Europe, and the German post-idealist tradition.


Written by Mesocosm

September 13, 2015 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. “I now see the Buddhist doctrine of tathāgatagarbha as simply another version of the primordial goddess.” Interesting. Maybe you can help me clear up a little personal confusion. We Buddhists do have the concept of the primordial Buddha (often referred to as “Samantabahdra “). And Luminosity, which (if I understand it correctly) seems to be a euphemism for mind in general, with General Luminosity (mind like space) and Personal Luminosity (ordinary mind without obscuration). I grew up (willi-nilli) as a Christian. The more I study and meditate, the more the eternal primordial Buddha sounds like GOD, with the personal luminosity as the eternal Personal (or local) deity, (Dharmakaya which is us, which becomes evident when we purify all our obscurations, I think). I think Christians believe (assuming I understood Christianity at all) that God is not in any way localized. He’s all “out there”, never here. (and I may be totally wrong with that assumption).

    So, as I understand Buddhism, a primoridal goddess (or female Buddha might be the preferred term) is perfectly allowable. Indeed, in Kontrul’s “Myriad Worlds”, he writes that there is (something like a primordial) Buddha, in which our universe/realm is on a petal of a 25-petal lotus blossom that is part of a 25-level lotus blossom that is part of the right thumb of that Buddha. (Probably lots of mistakes there, but you get the point.) So, hard not to consider that guy as essentially God-like, even though a primordial buddha. The distinction between the two begins to fade, but the basics are still quite different (karma, interdependent origination, etc.)

    Then again, General Luminosity is still space-like and even perhaps beyond the primordial buddha above. Or not? Still sounds like God, to me. At some point, I doubt the usefulness of this logic as helpful for my meditation practice, but I am still curious.

    I think I have confused myself. (IANAPhilospher, as is evident probably from the above. Ha!) (If the above is too silly or confusing to answer, that’s fine, too.) Thanks for your blog and time,


    Paul S.

    September 13, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    • Hi Paul, thanks for sharing your thoughts, and I’m glad to have provoked a few of them.

      Clearly, even within Tibetan Buddhism, there are different ways of thinking about these issues – many Tibetans, such as the Geluk and Sakyas, have a strong preference for using negative language when characterizing ultimate truth, and tend to remain close to Nagarjuna, even when dealing with Tantra. Other currents within Tibetan Buddhism such as the Kagyu, some Nyingma, and pretty much everyone in the non-sectarian Rime movement like to emphasize the positive attributes of ultimate truth, as you’ve reviewed.

      My personal view is that the ultimate is beyond being and non-being and that both characterizations are partial and misleading. I think it’s best not to get too hung up on which style to use, and some Tibetan authors of course get very excited about these distinctions. (shrug)

      I admit that some interpreters go too far for my tastes – I incline toward the Gelukpa Madhyamaka position myself, and I start to get extremely uncomfortable when I read about the emptiness-of-other doctrine associated with the Jonangpa teachers Tarantha and Dolpopa, but that’s primarily because I personally think they misread Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti on precisely this point.

      Personally, I also believe that if you take a strong line that the ultimate is beyond being and non-being and can be characterized in both ways, as I do, you can easily find important parallels with the mainstream of Christian mysticism. As far as I can see, pretty much every Christian mystic (in western Europe at least) traces back through Pseudo-Dionysius, who made very much of this aspect of divinity, and is famed for having taught that the mind can access God through negation of concepts in a way that is very congenial with Madhyamaka. I think this is not a coincidence, because Pseudo-Dionysius himself is essentially Neoplatonist in this position, and I believe we have every reason to believe that the Neoplatonists and Shramana traditions in India exchanged ideas.

      So personally, yes, I believe we have strong reason to draw the kinds of associations you’re describing, both by reason of analogy and reason of homology. The more strongly you identify with either Christianity or Buddhism as a closed, fixed tradition, I think, the less likely you would be to accept this, and I’ve heard Geshes, for example, flat out say that emptiness has nothing to do with God. I think this is plainly false, from my comparativist framework, but hey, that’s just like, my opinion man.

      I guess I focus more on these impersonal symbols of ultimate truth than Buddhas by habit, but I think the points I’ve made can be extended without modification to any concept of Adi-Buddha you like.

      What do you make of all this? If you have a response I’d be very glad to hear it.


      September 13, 2015 at 1:41 pm

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