The Sign and the Symbolique: Participative Epistemologies from Bergson to Schwaller de Lubicz
“In the case of those things which they, in their wisdom, wanted to designate, the Egyptian sages did not use written characters, literally representing arguments and premises and imitating meaningful sounds and utterances of axioms. Rather, they wrote in pictures, and engraved on their temples one picture corresponding to each reality … Thus, each picture is a knowledge, wisdom … perceived all at once, and not discursive thought nor deliberation.”
– Plotinus, Ennead, V 8, 6, 1-9
The dawn of the 20th century arrived with a utopian confidence that scientific materialism and social progress were nearing their completion. The increasing computational power of quantitative metrics, mathematical signs, and cognitive operations seemed to deterministically explain the world in increasingly precise units of particles and representations. Yet as the ordered Newtonian worldview was approaching a seemingly inevitable triumph, the quantitative-spatialized nature of mathematical equations increasingly broke down as it reached the blurred distinctions between matter-energy in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the potentiality-actuality within the sub-atomic units of Quantum physics. The abstracted foam of signs and representations were no longer cartographically capable of mapping the terra incognita of the New Physics. Parallel to these paradigmatic shifts in science, there was a European wide revolt against scientific positivism and bourgeois civilization amongst fin-de-siecle occult movements like Theosophy, Spiritualism, and Anthroposophy. These mystical and anti-rationalist worldviews enjoyed widespread currency in the French Third Republic and were popularized to the general public by philosophers like Henri Bergson who attempted to provide the metaphysical picture of a dynamic and creative flow of reality which could make sense of these contemporaneous epistemic leaps and ontological mutations. In order to remain faithful to this energetic vortex that had been unleashed from this arational overturn of the Newtonian-Euclidean clockwork universe, Bergson jettisoned the traditional task of speculative thought to pigeonhole reality into abstracted symbols.
Yet another contemporaneous figure, the French Hermeticist and Egyptologist René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz developed an evolutionary epistemology of consciousness which sought to rehabilitate the Symbolic, or the symbolique, from this Bergsonian critique. Far from being an impediment to grasping the underlying metaphysical reality, the Symbolic was configured as a perception of the concrete-universal in a knowing act of ‘functional consciousness’ due to our innate evolutionary kinship as alchemical manifestations of consciousness.
The Bergsonian Basics
Although comparatively marginalized in the present-day academic philosophy, Bergson was perhaps the most famous philosopher of his day, and his thought had a profound influence shaping the reception of Modernism within artistic and intellectual circles. Rebelling against the purely quantitative and homogeneous understandings of temporality, Bergson argued that our sense of time and the ultimate nature of reality itself is marked by unique moments that form a melodic pattern which he called duration or durée. It was our Intuition that had access to this durationally flowing movement of the rhythmic throbbing due to its ability to sympathetically attune “into the interior of the object in order to coincide with what is unique and consequently inexpressible” (Bergson, 162). Only from this inward seeing can we grasp the deeper dimension of reality in duration from its innermost perceptive. Bergson compared this to a reader trying to understand the perspective of the author or a character in a poem or novel instead of just accurately reading the words and letters of the printed text.
It is our everyday rational consciousness which Bergson designated as the Intellect which he found guilty of only reading the individualistic letters and words instead of the holistic paragraphs and chapters. The Intellect is understood here as the neuro-cerebral mechanism of the organism which has evolved for the pragmatic purposes of survival; it breaks reality into granular spatial units which can be analyzed and manipulated as parts. In this spatialized form of consciousness, the mind assigns these granular metric units concepts and symbols which generalizes at the same time it abstracts” (Bergson, 167). Due to this specialized task, the Intellect recognizes the purely quantitative nature of representation but not its quality. The reliance on user-friendly logical categories, mathematical notations, and languages to represent reality seeks to understand an object from the outside rather inwardly and thus only relatively.
A good example of the limits of quantitative spatial intellect and its symbolic manipulations is the famous paradox of Zeno’s Arrow. The ancient Eleatic philosopher Zeno imagined an arrow moving across space from its starting point x to its destination y. As the arrow is moving, we can divide its trajectory into a series of discrete points en route to its goal. Yet as you continue to divide the temporal-spatial units that it traverses in its journey (x1, x2, x3 …) you ultimately divide space infinitely into evermore microscopic fractional quantities, so that you reach the seemingly absurd conclusion that your arrow actually doesn’t reach its end destination because there is some infinitesimal unit that has not been extended through. Zeno uses this and other logical arguments to make the philosophical case against plurality and motion as it runs up against these antinomies. Duration must be understood as simultaneously containing multiplicity and unity; only then can the fruitless logical debates of the different schools and their viewpoints be resolved.
Bergson’s philosophical project is best understood as a reaction to the limits of philosophical inquiry set by Immanuel Kant’s ‘Copernican Turn’ in metaphysics. His Critique of Pure Reason aimed to show the transcendental conditions of subjectivity and the limits of discursive reason ending in similar antinomies whether it be the existence of God, the spatio-temporal limits of the universe or the immortality of the human soul. With the advance of the natural sciences, Kant believed that there had been no progress on the battlefield of metaphysical debates. Instead of trying to align under the banner of a particular school, he sought to resolve such conflicts by harmonizing the different cognitive faculties to both advance our understanding and legislate our normative behavior. Bergson similarly sought to balance the different modes of thought, but unlike Kant, he inverted the traditional valorization of the Intellect in favor of the Intuitive. “To philosophize means to reverse the normal directions of the workings of thought” (90) as he put it, or to work from the intuitions downward rather than the intellectual concepts upward as others had done.
While the Metaphysics are informed by the holistic intuitions, the study of the physical world concerns the work of quantitative analysis. Yet these approaches can exist in different but occasionally overlapping territories; the Intellect has evolved for the pragmatic purposes of navigating, investigating and controlling our environment while Intuition has direct contact with the ultimate reality of durational flux, and while this gets us to the truth behind appearances, it doesn’t necessarily help us live easier. Only by recognizing the mutual limitations and dependencies can there be a harmony between these two faculties and a restoration of the continuity between natural sciences and metaphysics. The Intellect’s proper role would be the instrumental control and manipulation of the physical world while the Intuitions are in contact with the mobile and mutable reality ‘overflow’ of our mind, and they generate abstract concepts like Unity and Multiplicity which are in turn translated to the Intellect’s pragmatic operations and mental manipulations.
Bergson considered the traditional metaphysical systems of the Ancients and Medievals to be single-minded tunnel visions where each system rested on a singular first principle (atoms, substance, mind, forms) derived from the Intuition which reduced the uncontrollable mystery of durational flux to a closed and deterministic system of causes which in turn created a narrow perspective which limited the exploration or colonization of the terrains of reality. The Bergsonian vision of philosophy is that of a generator of abstractions and habits of thought to help us grasp reality more fully and give our reason more workable abstractions in the carving out of our existence. The squabblings between different schools of speculative thought are those of different explorers who, in their vanity, are unable to recognize the complementary nature of their own discoveries and the overall collaborative cartographical task of graphing out the complex terrain of the Heraclitan flux.
Drawing the theories and parapsychological research of his friend, the American Pragmatist William James, into his own system of Intuition and durée, Bergson came to adopt a filter theory of human subjectivity where “the brain did not have thinking as its function but that of hindering the thought from becoming lost in the dream” or where the nervous system does not create consciousness, but rather limits it. Our own self-consciousness is a carving out of the overwhelming rush of heterogeneous experience within this durational flow of consciousness into relevant information for the actualities of organic life, similar to how a radio only tunes into one wavelength to access a particular channel.
Intuition, and other analogous experiences like mystic rapture, artistic inspiration or chemically induced altered states, can bypass this ‘resist functioning’ filter and allow the full breadth of reality to expand the ordinary states of consciousness. Such infusions of this processual flow into individual carved niches have the potential to creatively exceed the finalities of the actual world in a phenomenon he called élan vital. Each moment constitutes a unique vibrational note in the durational symphony of life. This philosophy has been given the label ‘vitalism’ – the celebration and purification of all expressions of energy (color, life, consciousness) from any fixed formalities and determined trajectories of the Intellect’s categories and representations.
Due to his emphasis on the virtual possibilities of vitalism, Bergson had a deep anti-intellectualist strain in his thinking which made him reject the possibility that the durational quality of life could ever be reduced or explained by the abstractions of symbolic representations. “Metaphysics is therefore the science which claims to dispense with symbols” (Bergson, 162). Symbols for Bergson are manifestations of spatial intelligence: dead and lifeless signs for realities in motion that we manipulate in signs and equations. While Bergson partially tears down the Kantian bifracuation between phenomenal consciousness and the noumenal reality by rehabilitating intuition, he erects a new one by turning the spiritual into a symbolless reality.
The Schwallerian Symbolique
As a young bohemian and spiritual seeker in Paris at the dawn of the 20th century, the esoteric thinker and alchemist Schwaller de Lubicz found himself studying at Henri Matisse’s informal academy to better understand the nature of color as a metaphysical force. It is here where he likely first encountered the thoughts of Henri Bergson which were being pollinated in Matisse’s atelier by fellow students who attended Bergson’s contemporaneous lectures at Sorbonne University. Schwaller de Lubicz adopted similar critiques of one-sided rationalism in the development of his esoteric philosophy which was developed and informed from his alchemical studies of the stained glass of the Chartres Cathedral, his qualitative hierarchicalism in his short-lived detour into post-WWI French politics, and his explorative model of correspondences between number, color and musical octaves which he developed at an occult scientific research station in Suhalia Switzerland.
After years of investigation and ventures, Schwaller de Lubicz, his wife Isha, and stepdaughter Lucy Lamy traveled to Egypt in the late 1930s. Pharaonic Egypt was long considered the source of ancient wisdom since the Ancient Greeks and subsequent esoteric adherents like de Lubicz – himself a discipline of the Hermetic-Pythagorean tradition – were likely drawn to Egypt to trace the stream of esoteric wisdom back to their source in the Nile Valley.
Thanks to his decades of study, de Lubicz had developed an esoteric hermeneutic that allowed him to ‘read’ the corpus of archeological discoveries and texts to understand that Egypt, far from a technically accomplished but primitive culture of death fearing animal-worshipers, was a possessor of a Sacred Science which acted as the animating matrix of the entire civilization which organically unfolded its goal of harmonically developing and immortalizing consciousness. He spent the next twelve years in Egypt developing his thesis that the Egyptian symbolic art, hieroglyphical writings, and hieratic architecture, especially that of the Luxor Temple, contained the embodied and encoded articulations of the divine functional principles (or neteru).
In de Lubicz’s Symbolist approach to Egyptology and scientific knowledge in general, the Cerebral Intelligence and the Intelligence-of-the-Heart roughly corresponds with Intellect and Intuition in Bergsonian parlance. Both thinkers conveyed the limits of rational thought’s ability to grasp the metaphysical principles beyond the physical veil and the need for an intuitively participatory form of cognition to achieve true gnosis rather than fragmentary discursive collages of knowledge-images. Yet while influenced by Bergson, a crucial difference with Schwaller de Lubicz’s oeuvre is the rehabilitation of the Symbol from the Bergsonian critique that it obscures our access to metaphysical realities. These symbols, according to him, are due to our shared origins as spirit coagulated into matter and attempting to return to the Unitary Source. Key to this understanding was his unique notion of the Symbolic, or the symbolique.1placeholder
In the quantitatively nominalistic regime of modernity, any letter, sign or image that replaces or stands in for an abstract idea is called a symbol. The initials of words to designate a group or a trademark (YMCA, BBC), a single conventional letter in a mathematical or physical equation ( π as a constant of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, M for mass and c for the speed of light in E=mc²) or other images of personages, objects, colors and shapes conventionally representing abstract concepts (Uncle Sam as the anthropomorphic embodiment of the United States, the hammer and sickle as emblems of Communism); all of these typical examples of symbol as a conventional and usually arbitrary synthesis between an Idea and a representative token. Reasoning behind the choice of representation is not evident in the image itself. In particular, none of the notational letters in the scientific formulas representing abstract physical functions have any relationship with the phenomena, law or principle they claim to invoke. Removed from the concrete participation in the phenomena that is being studied, we lose the ability of intimate perception of the principles and essential forms. In contrast, the symbolique mode of thinking which underpinned and conveyed the teachings of religious and esoteric traditions is almost completely removed from our understanding of what a symbol even means. In conversations with his disciple Andre Vandenbrook which was later recorded in the latter’s memoir Al-Kemi, Schwaller argued:
“as soon as functions stop being identified through their bodily existence, they cease being subject to immediate perception; they become logical subjects in an act of reason, and we can tie them down with a name … Form, on the other hand, as I’ve said many times, form must never be burdened with a conventional name in our process of perception, a perception which in this case is immediate, because we inevitability contract to a particular object. The ‘name’ must appear as part of the form, not as part of a man-made language, unless it remains useless for determining any functions beyond the most mechanical ones” (Vanderbrook, 95).
Conventional man-made languages try to represent the functions but threaten to reduce the cosmos to a mechanical system of logical predicates rather than depict the functional and qualitative whole from which it arises. The perceptions of these functions can never be written on the page or reduced to spatialized snapshots, but only revealed and transmitted in the living moment under the proper conditions.
Even the 20th century revival of study of the symbolic in dreams and mythologies by the psychoanalytic schools of Freud and Jung ultimately considered the symbol as reducible to the sexual drives, repressions, fantasies, personal complexes and individualizations of the subjective psyche rather than the transpersonal noetic. While the inner depths of human subjectivity can act as a counterforce to the deadening grasp of scientific materialism, it can remain stuck within psychological consciousness and thus fall easily into solipsism.
While the scientific nominalist usually claims that our linguistic designations are ultimately all arbitrary but useful categorizations on the blank and mute canvas of reality, a student of the symbolique carefully studies how both natural facts and aesthetic form can gesture toward us and point beyond themselves in a mode of understanding alien to our spatializing and deadening Cerebral intelligence.
In his short text Symbol and the Symbolic: Ancient Egypt, Science and the Evolution of Consciousness, Schwaller de Lubicz gives his clearest exposition of both his understanding of the Symbolique and its relationship with the evolution of consciousness. As we have seen, the difficulty with the Symbol, as identified by Bergson, is that a static image that represents a universal and timeless constant fails to do justice to the abstract functions in a dynamic temporal flux of our immediate intuitions. While this critique certainly applies to conventional symbolic images which only capture in a spatialized moment like a single slide in a reel of film, the symbolique doesn’t have such difficulty because it both captures an image whilst transparently revealing its essential function and principle.
Schwaller de Lubicz gives the common image of a bird in flight as an example. On the surface or exoteric level, the image is fixated within Space and Time and invokes our sensory memory of empirically observed birds flying. The image of a bird in flight is the symbol of the flight of a winged animal, but appearance is but a static and fixated moment (arrested in Space-Time) not of the function of flying. “This symbol arouses in us not only what we have registered in our memory concerning the flight of birds, but also our innate knowledge of flight, our sensation of flight, and we embody this knowledge in the image-symbol, which thus becomes a synthesis of our knowledge of the flight of the bird.” (62) While we can study the motions of a bird’s flight frame by frame or dissect their wings to understand the precise mechanism, none of these cerebral forms of knowing will ever be able to evoke the quality of levity that we recognize as a priori even before our discursive concepts ‘translate’ this concept into our rational awareness.
Our perception of the bird image is still located and ‘fixed’ in Space-Time, but far from being a mummified signifier enframed in the amber of spatial arrest, the intuitive mode of consciousness works with a vital logic to see the eternal divine principle within the dynamic activity of the phenomena which is conveyed in a natural or fabricated sign-synthesis. The truly symbolique form embraces the tension between the actuality and abstraction in our phenomenological experience in “its static and concrete nature—the functional and qualitative whole from which it arises; that is, it evokes its nonlocatable definition.” (68, De Lubicz). In other words, the tangible and visible things, rather a barrier to the metaphysical understanding, act as a “concrete support, which, by its nature, must be the synthesis (located in Time and Space) of the form to be given to the Spirit so that it may have available the body necessary for experience” (50, De Lubicz). This diaphanous revelation summons us to perceive transparently that intelligible and invisible world of the spiritual without losing sight of the fixed transient form. The symbolique has a quality of simultaneity; of being Both/And rather than the binary Aristotelian logic of Either/Or categorizations of that cerebral mind has habitually crystallized.
In Egypt, the symbolique was conveyed in a vast palette board of hieratic representations. Every animal, plant, stone, gesture, narrative, and sign was chosen as an evocative symbol not for superficial reasons, but because the Pharaonic Sages deeply studied the attributes and functions of each phenomenal representation to best convey a certain concept or teaching. An illustration of a such a living abstract-concrete synthesis is the scarab hieroglyph for the verb kheper (𓆣) which has the meanings ‘to become’, ‘develop’, ‘transformation’ in Egyptian language and iconography. The scarab image represents the dung beetle species Scarabaeus sacer known for rolling a ball of dung with its hind legs (fig 1). The species habit of rolling a sphere of feces during the day and bearing it at sunset was linked to the solar journey and was linked to the bettleheaded sun god Khepri, but a closer study of the insects reveals the deeper reasoning for this choice as a symbol for the concept of transformation. The scarab beetle lays and fertilizes their eggs in the dung they’ve worked, and when the larvae hatch, they ferment the fecal matter for nuritiment and become pupate into cocoons which strikingly look like a mummy in a coffin before hatching out of the dung as fully formed scarabs. Here we have a perfect dramatic process of the dying-rebirth of the sun, the transmutation of the grossest matter into vital food and the chrysalis of a beautiful living form emerging from a cocoon: dynamic function of ‘metamorphosis’ is revealed in the habits of an extremely common insect.
Whether it is the scavenging of flesh by desert hounds representing digestion or the gyrating flights of falcons across the sky and back to their handlers representing the spiralitic ascension, none of the meanings of these symbols and their functional abstractions like transformation, digestion, spatial contraction or accession are apprehended by the intuitive intelligence-of-the-heart in absence of the activity of the particular organism or thing.
Schwaller de Lubicz in his late work called this act of participative grasping of noetic intuition ‘Functional Consciousness’ and he gives in his orcular Nature Word a lyrical description of this knowing where the awakened subject enlives and objectivizes with the divine rhythms and patterns of the universe:
“Be conscious of innate functions and become Functional Consciousness,
Tumble with the rock which falls from the mountain,
Seek light and rejoice with the rosebud about to open:
Be restless with the dog that parks in the night;
Labor with the parsimonious ant;
Gather honey with the bee;
Expand in space with the ripening fruit;
Run with a greyhound.
Be fluid in the barrel, in the bottle, in the vase and see if your happy or constrained,
Suffer with the sick in order to cure him,
and leave behind all objective considerations.
Be function with the Power, the Neter” (De Lubicz, 135).
While some may worry that this sort of hymn of pantheistic unity betrays a narcissistic identification of a woolly Romantic, Schwaller de Lubicz saw the cause and purpose of this identity relationship of the perceiving subject and the divinely animated cosmos as kenotic or emptying. Our psychological consciousness is a filtered selection of a wider universe of awareness and rather than the discursive intellect which is subservient to the egoic persona, “it is Intelligence-of-the-heart, which establishes the relationship between innate consciousness and observation of fact, is identification” ( De Lubicz, 17). When the esoteric symbol is used correctly, it creates an abstract vital response, of ek-stasis (‘standing outside’) of functional consciousness into the living symbol and a subsequent awakening of innate understanding which moves beyond the mental universe of our individual lifespan in traditional epistemological considerations to the inheriative layers of existence that stretch back to the reaches of geological time and into eternity itself.
In the same way a nostalgic landscape or a smell of childhood dish might conjure up memories or reveries from our subjective life experience, the reaction to the symbolique or the esoteric symbol elicits an objective reaction within the perceiving subject to recollect the soul’s innate knowledge of its own coming to be and the morphogenic forces the shaped it in an act of evolutionary anamnesis or recollection. Ultimately, the mechanism of how the symbolique works upon this deeper innate layer cannot be removed from the larger cosmic drama of the evolution of consciousness where our ability to grasp reality beyond the buffered self filtered by the cerebral intelligence is inseparable from the historicity of our inherited geological, biological and spiritual transformation.
Similar to Bergson, Schwaller de Lubicz can be considered to be an evolutionary thinker in that they situated consciousness within the temporal dynamics of a larger evolutionary landscape, yet both depart from purely materialistic Darwinian natural selection by introducing the spiritual dimension. For de Lubicz, the entire phenomenal cosmos is a product of consciousness in different manifestation phases of mineral, vegetative and animal forms in its evolutionary, or rather involutionary, journey back into the Primordial Unity which it sprung from. “The Universe is nothing but consciousness and through its appearances presents nothing but an evolution of consciousness, from its origin to its end, the end being a return to its cause,” as he puts it (de Lubicz, 31). Just as the eye is formed from light it sees with or lungs are formed from air they breathe, the structures of organisms are determined by their functions of the expressions of consciousness.
“An organ is the incarnation of consciousness of a cosmic function which has received corporeal life. A museum accordingly classifying ‘The Evolution of Consciousness’ or ‘The Becoming of Life’ as natural history would be more authentic than our displays of dead specimens” (De Lubicz, 13).
De Lubicz’s Bergsonism is on full display with his Filter theory of consciousness where the mechanism of functional consciousness’s intuitive insight is from the recapitulation of memory of its previous carnations. Yet there are two important modifications to Bergson’s vitalism which make Schwaller’s occult evolutionary theory unique. First, while Bergson often appears to fall back into a dualism which privileges the living over the nonliving, De Lubicz’s view of esoteric evolution is radically panpsychist where even the smallest unit of inorganic matter possesses some form of (proto)-consciousness. Secondly, while Bergson rejects a foundation of metaphysics on First Principles because they inhibit our contact with the heterogeneous flow, De Lubicz sees the carved out functions that arise from flowing spiritual energies to be the words of the divine verb and which returns us to questions of First Principles and their onto-archetonic structure. A principle referred to as neter in Egyptian theology which has been traditionally translated as ‘Gods’ by Egyptologists, is understood by De Lubicz as the cosmic principles or laws of genesis and harmony in nature similar to the role of the Platonic Ideas which act as the intelligible and paradigmatic cause of all the physical products of consciousness. Like all other coagulations of consciousness into extentiallity, the human body is a physical expression of these metaphysical principles and our inherited forms which themselves act as organs of a larger act of divine articulation and ultimately self-knowledge.
Noting the similarities between the hieroglyph for neter and the hand cubit, Schwaller conceptualizes the neters as the limbs and joints of a cosmotheistic spirit whose unfolding are revealed in the arrested forms of Space-Time which are themselves emergent gestations from the dynamics of consciousness. “This spatial becoming is our consciousness of the continuous and specified genesis (esoteric) is our consciousness of the discontinuous (exoteric) through the ‘placing’ of historic stages or phases” (81). De Lubicz often gave the image of a spherical spiral – similar to M.C Escher’s famous 1958 Sphere Spiral – where the helix moves like an Archimedean Screw, being in constant motion while retaining its global shape. It is the primal image which allows the vision of eternity without the deadness of the cerebro-intellective image and life of motion not by embracing the irrational but rather the arational origin of things in incommensurable unity.
The evolution of consciousness moves from the bodily carnations where each body of matter from electron to the elephant are but “a stage in the universal gestation the goal of which, for us, is Man: Homo sapiens” (61). This culminated telos is what de Lubicz called the doctrine of the Anthrocomos or the Cosmic Man where the divine principles which animate the macroscopic universe – the very symbolique text in which Nature is inscribed – are self-recognized within the microscopic analogue of a realized humanity. His monumental study of the Luxor Temple in The Temple of Man sought to demonstrate that the New Kingdom Temple was designed as a schematic representation of the human body and the Pharaoh as the Cosmic Man. The Egyptian Temples were considered to be architectural stone documents conveying an encyclopedic amount of knowledge in metaphysical cosmology and psycho-spiritual transformation both in the inscriptional content and in the very medium of the physical construction and structural layout of the Temple which was designed to resonate the rhythmic frequency of a particular neter. It is within the Luxor Temple dedicated to the doctrine of the Anthrocosmos which he considered the culmination of the Egyptian worldview of humanity as the summative embodiment of divinity and all of its neter-functions and their past forms within Nature. Serving as the representative of qualitative exultation, the Pharaoh is the royal exemplar of this metamorphosis of consciousness in its ripest culmination.
While this animating nucleus of Pharaonic civilization slowly withered with the foreign occupations of the Late Period by the Persians, Greeks Romans, and the final snuffing out by Christianity, the doctrine of the temples survived through the transmission of its philosophy to culturally palatable forms like the Hellensitic-era Hermeticism, Gnosticism, and Neoplatonism and their attendant hieratic arts like theurgy, astrology, and alchemy whose genealogical lineage formed an indirect but living tradition and connection to Schwaller de Lubicz’s own personal practice of operational laboratory alchemy.
The contemporary esoteric scholar Aaron Cheak observes that beyond the importance of the symbolique in his Egyptological studies, this conceptual framework was equally born out of de Lubicz’s own personal alchemical practices. The obscure Medieval and Renaissance alchemical texts were wrapped in archetypal images and allegories which described laboratory procedures to spiritually perfect metals, but the use of this cryptic imagery runs deeper still: behind the instructions of operative processes and the physical manipulations like calcination or fermentation, these texts required a mentality and perceptual attitude of the adept to read the hieroglyphic symbolic language of the book of nature herself. “Schwaller’s concept of symbolique entails a metaphysics of perception in which not only the phenomenal cosmos as a whole, but also the parts and processes that unfold within it, are able to be grasped non dually as living symbols—indeed alchemical marriages—of transcendence and concretion” (Cheak, 328).
It is hopefully clear now why Bergson’s critique of the quantitative intellect and how it colonized the scientific method was so important for de Lubicz’s development. Yet, Bergson’s elevation of the energetic durée left no room for the stability of traditional mathematical signs or symbolic representation in general as they threatened to reduce the flux of reality to an immobile and granulated image. In contrast, the de Lubiczian symbolique phenomenology rehabilitates the Symbol as a vital and dynamic revelation of universal principles within the limitations of Space-Time and sees the goal of the turn from our discursive ‘dianoesis’ to intuitive noesis to be a non-dual perception of the abstract-concrete transcendental structure in a fixed but transitory evolutionary form.
The balancing act between animated flow and mathematical stillness has long plagued the phenomenological realities of presentation and re-presentation in a variety of fields. The German art historian Wilhelm Worringer argued in his Abstraction and Empathy that historical trends of artistic representation oscillate within the polarity of untethered abstraction of form and mimetic realism of figuration. Starting in the Renaissance, the valorization of naturalistic representations with the spatial confines of linear perspective put human consciousness in a prison by making the possibilities of transparent theophanies and ecstatic vertical contact with higher realities increasingly inaccessible, which in turn made mankind increasingly doubt their existence.
While the mutations of consciousness since the early 20th century have come to reject the unreality of naturalism, it is still removed from the vocabulary of symbols, drawn from an environmental and cultural milieu, in which spiritual realities can express themselves. With the new physic’s breakdown of spatialized quantification that characterized modernity, vast reservoirs of energy and spiritual inspiration opened up. Such emancipatory vistas into reality are seen in Modernist art at the time, like Kandinsky’s non-representational paintings of Thought-Forms and Cubist multi-perspectival attempts to capture reality.
Therein lies the importance of Bergson’s philosophical revolution for esoteric anti-materialist philosophers and avant-garde artists, but this energetic vitalism remained developmentally stunted because its distrust of the obsolete concepts and representations made it unable to realize the necessity of a symbolic language. The Humpty-Dumpty of the spatial-rationalistic mentality has broken apart and remains unsalvageable, yet no medium or style has yet satisfactorily come to fully articulate the Spirit.
The late John Anthony West, who did much to popularize Schwaller de Lubicz’s work in the anglophone world, argued that studying Egypt from a Symbolist perspective showed the difference between Civilization and what we moderns call Progress. Egypt was such a civilization that put in the intention and coordination of working toward the immortality of soul by assimilation into the divine (homoiosis theoi). While such previous cultures saw our existence as a crucible for the expansion and harmonic development of consciousness, such a view has been replaced by the doctrines of the materialistic ‘Church of Progress’ where humanity is reduced to the aggregation of hedonic atoms which are resigned to the belief that we are born from nothing, live for nothing and die into nothing.
In this transitional intermediary of trying to find our own symbolique palette board to control the increasing instability of our progressively dissective culture, we can look to the example of Egypt. Attempting to completely revive its unique historico-cultural conditions and its individualized articulation of a synoptic cosmovision is a fool’s errand, yet while its cosmo-historical epoch is removed from our own, the mentality that was able to successfully harmonize discursive and intuitive forms of knowledge has never been more crucial. The symbolique languages of different cultures and their intiatic mystery traditions have provided a vocabulary of theophanic manifestations of universal spiritual realities within the soils of their particular cultural and ecological milieus. This correct balance between the analytical and intuitive modes of knowing is what the occult historian Gary Lachman calls the ‘Goldilocks Condition’ of human consciousness where it is at its most spiritually and creatively ripened condition. As we increasingly come to deal with the ramifications of the dual Meaning Crisis and Ecological Crisis whose origin springs from Modernity’s scientific materialism and that are the handmaidens of cerebral intelligence, the return to a mode of understanding with the reach of Functional Consciousness becomes evermore important.
Andrews, Carol (1994). Amulets of Ancient Egypt. Texas: University of Texas Press.
Bergson, H. (1971). The Creative Mind. Greenwood Press.
Cheak, Aaron. (n.d.). The juncture of transcendence and Concretion: SYMBOLIQUE IN rené SCHWALLER de Lubicz. Lux in Tenebris. https://www.academia.edu/34124831/The_Juncture_of_Transcendence_and_Concretion_Symbolique_in_Ren%C3%A9_Schwaller_de_Lubicz.
Cheak, Aaron (n.d.). The Call of Fire-the Hermetic quest of rené SCHWALLER de Lubicz. http://www.aaroncheak.com/call-of-fire.
Schwaller de Lubicz , R. A. (1990). Nature word. Inner Traditions International.
Schwaller de Lubicz , R.A (1981). Symbol and the Symbolic: Ancient Egypt, Science and the Evolution of Consciousness. Inner Traditions International.
Schwaller de Lubicz, R. A. . (1988). Sacred Science: The King of Pharaonic Theocracy. Inner Traditions International.
Vanderbroeck, A. (1989). Al-Kemi: Hermetic, Occult, Political and Private Aspects of R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz. Lindisfarne Steiner Books.
To avoid confusion or conflation with Bergson’s understanding symbols, the Schwallerian use of the French symbolique will be used henceforward to differentiate this idea of symbolic representation from the usages that are affected by our modern conventionalist understandings of the ‘Symbolic’.