A recent piece on the range of historical meanings associated with the Greek word thumos, “rage, wrath”, inspired me to revisit Gebser’s discussion of Homer’s Iliad. In works such as Transformations of the West and The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser puts forth the idea that the first line—indeed the first word—of the Iliad encapsulates the entire thrust of the mental-rational consciousness that would emerge from Greek civilisation. Mental consciousness, for Gebser, was directed, straight, and focused on an object, an impulse that burst the cyclic seams of the prevailing mythological consciousness, which was, by contrast, circular rather than straight, polar rather than dualistic, and complimentary rather than mutually exclusive.
For Gebser, the irruption of the mental structure of consciousness was distilled in the word menis. It’s leitmotif—wrath:
Wrath or anger is the force which bursts the confines of community and clan, to the extent that it manifests the “hero” in the individual and spurs him on toward further individuation, self-assertion, and consequently ego-emergence. We noted earlier the decisive role of the concurrent emergence of wrath in both the Bhagavad Gita and the Iliad; the Iliad begins with the words: Menin aeide, thea, Peleiadeo Achileos (“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles”), words in which we can recognise a summons to consciousness.
Gebser draws out the nuances of meaning that surround the word menin both in Greek and in its Indo-European cognates to suggest that it is “the first intimation of the emergence of directed or discursive thought”, signalling a break from the cyclic complementarity of the mythical world. Menin and its cognates encompass meanings such as wrath, courage, resolve, anger, power, intent, thinking, thought, and deliberation, according to Gebser, who draws heavily on a solid body of Indo-European philology.
This aggressive shift towards directed thought was “literally earth-shaking”. It “bursts man’s protective psychic circle” and ruptures his congruity with the “psychic-naturalistic-cosmic-temporal world of polarity and enclosure”. “The ring is broken”, remarks Gebser, “and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking”.
The idea of rupture in relation to the emergence of metal consciousness is emphasised in a further layer of meaning that Gebser ascribes to the myth of the birth of Athena, whose “imagery and allusions” are “unmistakable”:
Zeus has wedded Metis, the personification of reason and intelligence, who, being one of the daughters of Oceanus (“the river encircling the world”) had the power of transforming herself. Fearing the birth of a son more powerful than he, Zeus devours Metis, who is already pregnant with a daughter, thereby transporting her [the daughter], into his own body. When Hephaestus (or Prometheus, or Hermes) splits Zeus’ head with an axe, this daughter, Athena, is born. Pindar has described this birth brought about by the blow of an axe as having taken place accompanied by a terrible tumult throughout nature, as well as by the astonishment of the entire pantheon. The sea (the all-encompassing soul) surges forth, and Olympus and earth—until that moment in a polar relationship—tremble and shake; the carefully preserved balance is destroyed; even Helios interrupts his course. The circle is indeed interrupted, and, from the breach, the wound, a new possibility of the world emerges.
The idea that the breach, rupture, or wound is the very means by which the new world and consciousness will emerge is significant for a number of reasons. Not only does it signal the principle of creation arising from destruction, it suggests that the wound itself is actually the hidden key to the emergence of consciousness. For emergency yields emergence. Dissolution is the solution. The poison is a Gift (to play on a dual-language pun).
Within the broader purview of Gebser’s work, it becomes self-evident that it is precisely the mis-directed wrath of the (deficient) mental-rational consciousness that is destroying our contemporary world. Given Gebser’s insights into of the very birth of rationality from wrath and rupture, we can begin to look deeper into our contemporary wounds for answers to our present predicaments. To what extent are the symptoms of fragmentation potential openings into a womb—lattices in a matrix in which a more integral world is gestating? In other words, to what extent are the wounds of civilisation also the wombs of consciousness?