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417. Keeping still (IX)

In an interview, Norman Mailer described how the artist needs both discipline and spontaneity—a paradoxical position. He then observed that the same principle applies to soldiers: the soldier must be trained in a rigid way, yet their actual combat must have a spontaneous element. In fact, what Mailer spoke about could be applied to almost any human activity; it could as well apply to science, since science requires regularity and yet certain breakthroughs often come about through spontaneous visions or brainwaves. The principle is very old; it is wisdom, it is fundamental to philosophy: it is what Heraclitus, the earliest Western philosopher, alluded to when he said, “Couples are wholes and not wholes, what agrees disagrees, the concordat is discordant.”

This paradoxical interrelation of opposites, dubbed enantiodromia by CG Jung, seems have been discovered and forgotten many times. It is integral to the German mystical tradition; the medieval tradition founded by Eckhart, Böhme, and Hildegard of Bingen—a tradition that developed autonomously apart from Christian theology at the time, Germany then being a relative backwater with little access to theology. This school held that we know God when we understand the interrelation of opposites; in turn, this suggests that God is probably consciousness itself—and for consciousness to know itself it must separate from itself to look at itself.

The view is Hermetic: we exist so that God can come to know Himself—a self-reflexive universe. It is not that God is self-sufficient and could choose to create or not create the world, a position that renders existence absurd—nor is it that everything is God, pantheistically. Rather, we are an essential outgrowth from God by which he comes to know Himself; and in that statement you have Hegel’s philosophy of History.

This German mystical tradition—Heraclitus and the Taoists rediscovered—informed later German philosophy; not least Hegel’s dialectics, with its master-slave relationship whereby one comes to recognise oneself through a relation with the other. Leibniz’s monads—points of light that project the world—seem very akin to Hildegard of Bingen’s notion that we live in a mirror-world, with each person a mirror for the divine; hence Böhme saw all creation in light reflected in a glass of water, then fell silent for twelve years—he saw all creation in a natural mirror. In psychology, this German mystical idea is central to Jung’s thought, enantiodromia: the Yin and the Yang, male and female united by contention in one.

A similar insight is found in the old parable about the Zen artist who paints the same picture each day for sixty years. The various iterations are praised and criticised; his first effort is perfect but each subsequent version is more variable. Finally, on the last day of his life, he takes up the brush and paints the same picture as always; except this time it is done with the complete naïve spontaneity found in his first picture, although now supported by sixty years at the easel. As in all Hermetic thought, to know the divine is to return: the master is back where he started, back with a naïvety that is both the same and higher than the first effort—naïve and sophisticated at the same time. Just as consciousness fires out “waves” and “listens” to the echoes and is in turn changed by these received echoes, only to fire new echoes out again, so to know the divine is to complete the circle.

The sentiment is also in the Eliot poem Little Gidding: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” So there seems to be a tendency in humans to rediscover this underlying principle again and again: the Taoists knew it with Yin and Yang; Heraclitus knew it but thought men had already forgotten; Eckhart and Böhme rediscovered it; Jung psychologised it; and cybernetics—with its circles—instantiates it in technology.

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