From Poetry to Kulturphilosophie
A Philosophical Biography of Jean Gebser with Critical Translations


Aaron Cheak, PhD


Is he native to this realm? No,
His wide nature grew out of both worlds.
They more adeptly bend the willow’s branches
who have experience of the willow’s roots.
— R I L K E — [ 1 ]

P O E T ,   P H E N O M E N O L O G I S T ,   P H I L O S O P H E R — and yet something more —Gebser’s key insight was that as consciousness mutates toward its innate integrality, it drastically restructures human ontology and with it civilisation as a whole. Five hundred years before Christ, the fundamental mode of reality-perception mutated from mythos to logos through the agency of figures such as Socrates, Siddharta, and Lao Tzu. For Gebser, we are on the cusp of a new mutation, presaged by figures such as Rainer Maria Rilke, who in Gebser’s view passed through “things” into the integral, transparent lucidity “behind” things, thus breaking through to a new, aperspectival perception of reality. Not only do we stand amidst the final death-throes of the deficient, declining mental-rational ontology, which atomises culture and consciousness day by day, we also stand on the threshold of a new consciousness that is capable of crystallising human ontology into a concrete, spiritual integrum.

The purpose of the present study is to provide a detailed survey of Gebsers life and work as a whole. Although a few studies of Gebsers life and work exist in English, very few of them draw on the full breadth of his collected oeuvre (nine volumes in German) in a systematic manner. This study will present the development of Gebsers life as integrated with the development of his work and thought, making consistent reference to the German sources. (Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own). For the convenience of the reader, all titles and specialised terms will be provided in English as well as German. It is intended that the bio-bibliographical study presented here will fill the paucity of knowledge in Anglophone Gebser studies not only about the details of Gebsers life, but also the deeper extent of his work. 


Born in Prussia in 1905 to an old Franconian family, Gebser abandoned his native land and tongue as a young adult in a spirit of primordial trust. In the winter of 1931/1932, he found himself in the ancient Phoenician city of Malaga, in southern Spain, where he had what he later described as a lightning-like inspiration for the work he would spend the next twenty years elaborating and articulating. Before the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, forcing him once more to abandon everything, Gebser was exposed to the new Spanish poetry of his friend, Frederico García Lorca, in whose work he saw deep, pre-rational ontologies incarnated. This was evidence for Gebser of the continued presence of the past: of the ancient, nocturnal-feminine, matriarchal structure of consciousness. Later, he would deepen and develop this perception with respect to the patriarchal”  structures of consciousness: the twilight world of the soul (mythos) and the diurnal world of the mind (logos). Entering France, Gebser soon gravitated towards the circle of Picasso, Malraux, Eluard and Aragon, whose works would prove pivotal to his articulation of the aperspectival consciousness in poetry, literature and art. As war encroached once again, he left Paris in 1939 for Switzerland, where he eventually became a citizen. In Ascona, Switzerland, he entered the Eranos circle surrounding Carl Jung, where he developed close friendships with biologist Adolf Portmann and classicist Karl Kerenyi, among others. In Ascona and later Bern, he began to publish his first major works, which encompassed a study of Rilke (Rilke and Spain, 1936/1940); a survey of contemporary physics, biology and psychology (Transformation of the West, 1943); a work on the philosophy of language and poetics (The Grammatical Mirror, 1944); and a memoir of Lorca (Lorca or the Realm of the Mothers, 1949). These works all fed and informed his magisterial phenomenology of the becoming of consciousness, which in two volumes articulated the foundations and manifestations of the new, aperspectival consciousness (The Ever Present Origin, 1949/1952). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Gebser travelled extensively throughout Switzerland, France and Germany, tirelessly elaborating the core themes of his key work. Via numerous conferences, lectures, papers, radio broadcasts and books, Gebser underscored the critical pertinence of the new consciousness mutation to the fragmented and fragmenting human predicament (Standing the Test, 1962). An impressive diversity of figures converged to support Gebsers project, from nuclear physicists to Buddhist philosophers. Among others, Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Weizsäcker, Lama Anagarika Govinda, Deisetsu Teitaro Suzuki and Karl Graf Dürckheim participated with Gebser in the conferences and books that he organised around the theme of the new, integral worldview.

In the 1960s, Gebser undertook extensive travels in the east as well as the west. During this period he visited Zen scholar, Deisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, Lama Anagarika Govinda and the Dalai Lama; he also made contact with Sri Aurobindos ashram at Pondicherri, which independently confirmed his perception and articulation of the integral consciousness. In India, whilst visiting the site of the Buddhas first dialogues at Sarnath, Gebser experienced a profound transcendence of the rational consciousness. It was characterised not by ecstasy or intoxication but by a sober, arational lucidity, a state that Suzuki later identified as Satori. These travels and encounters informed a revealing work on the complementary nature of eastern and western consciousness, expressing Gebsers insights into the easts contribution to the emergence of the integral consciousness (Asia Smiles Differently, 1962/1968). Towards the end of his life, he was awarded a number of literary awards in Germany and Switzerland and an honorary professorship in comparative civilizations by the University of Salzburg, Austria. His last work appeared posthumously in 1974 (Disintegration and Participation). In 1973, Jean Gebser died smiling.

From Poetry to Kulturphilosophie

Although Gebser would consecrate his life and work to the ‘phenomenology of the becoming of consciousness’ (Bewußtwerdungsphänomenologie), he was first and foremost a poet. His first works were works of poetry. He translated works of poetry. His first study focused on the renowned Bohemian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. It is thus no surprise that his perceptions of the process of consciousness mutation came about first and foremost through reflections on the shifts in the structure of poetic language, first perceived in his own time directly through his engagement with contemporary poets and poetry. Such reflections sparked a study on the significance of Rilkes work (Rilke and Spain) and the philosophy of language (The Grammatical Mirror). That all of this was not a mere phase of his youth, but a consistent current in his life, is attested to by the fact that the period leading up to the publication of The Ever-Present Origin was marked by a series of his most mature and revealing poems: The Ariadne Poem (Das Ariadnegedicht), The Winter Poem (Das Wintergedicht), The Death Poem (Das Totengedicht), The Rose Poem  (Das Rosengedicht) and The Island Poem (Das Inselgedicht).

Philosophy is the picking apart of a rose.

Poetry for Gebser was an expression of the creative presence of origin. Origin was not bound to a linear perception of time; it was therefore not in the past. Rather, origin was ever-present. An invisible, creative, spiritual reality that could be rendered perceptually present through an equally transparent, creative and spiritual consciousness. The chief means of engaging and expressing this reality for Gebser personally, was poetry. However, in order to formally articulate the nature of this reality, and the great shifts in consciousness that it unfolds, he required recourse to philosophy, but not philosophy as ordinarily conceived.

Philosophy, for Gebser, is the picking apart of a rose. [2] Philosophy was precisely an expression of what he called the mental-rational ontology, the structure of consciousness that has dominated the west for the past two and a half millennia, and which, for the past five hundred years, has been sinking deep into its deficient phase: the fragmented and fragmenting consciousness of our (post-) modern era. For Gebser, the entire spectrum of human civilisation as a whole—poetry, mythology, literature, philosophy, art, science, technology, architecture, psychology, economics, jurisprudence, as well as everyday life—became the data upon which he based his thought. Through this, Gebser attempted to provide a philosophy of human civilisation (Kultur) and accordingly called his approach a ‘philosophy of civilisation’ (Kulturphilosophie). This philosophy must be distinguished from what is currently known in the academy as cultural studies. It must also be distinguished from the more socio-historical attempts at a philosophy of civilisation (from Burckhardt and Toynbee to Spengler), which operated predominantly on the plane of the social sciences. Instead, Gebser put forward a genuinely inter-disciplinary approach, which situated itself between the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften). His method partook of a phenomenological, comparative but also a coordinating aspect.

Crucial to Gebsers perception is the fact that what he called the ‘process of the becoming of consciousness’ (Bewußtwerdungsprozess) was not seen as linear progress (per positivist interpretations of Hegel), nor as decline (per Spengler and the esoteric Traditionalists); rather he saw each phase of the awakening process as a radical effectuation (Nachvollzug) of latencies hidden within the primordial ontology, which rendered itself present through discontinuous leaps or mutations (Sprünge) of origin (Ur-Sprung, origin, literally means primordial leap). This process brought about both vast gains and tragic losses as it restructured the human perception of reality (often with violent consequences, insofar as the civilisations based upon a given reality-perception were drastically uprooted as a consequence). Each shift thoroughly transforms the fundamental perception of time and space, manifesting across all spheres of culture: the dynamics of language, the use of technology, the purpose of art, and the spiritual praxis. Each ontological mutation, which accordingly coincided with the great shifts in culture and civilisation (and their means of production, per Marx) was inaugurated by an enormously destructive (yet potentially creative) tension born from the deficiency of the prevailing consciousness.

The Sleeping Years


Posen (Poznan)

Hans Karl Rudolf Hermann Gebser was born on 20 August 1905 on the shifting borderland between Prussia and Poland. In time, he would abandon his four unwieldy Germanic names, taking instead the Romantic name, Jean. In part, this was due to the years he would spend travelling in Italy, France and Spain, which had a catalytic effect on his character. Indeed, it was the Mediterranean temperament, more than the Germanic, that Gebser would ultimately come to identify with.

Gebser was born in Posen (Poznań), an originally Polish town which, at the time, had been under German rule for four generations. In his extant biographical writings, Gebser questions the very meaning of this birthplace. He felt distinctly disconnected from it. It was not the home of his family. The Gebsers were Franconian in origin, tracing back via a south-Thuringian lineage to a small central German town called Gebesee. Posen, by contrast, was an unusually insecure homeland’. Why was he born here, he asks. In his view, ‘the home that we aren’t connected to is no home at all. [3] ‘Chance it cannot be’, he concludes. According to Gebser, the lack of a distinct this-worldly” homeland impressed his entire life with a particular tonality and colouring. But it was not his ancestral home in Thuringia that he longed for. An inveterate traveller, he was not drawn to secure a homeland in the visible world at all. Rather, it was the landscape of the invisible that Gebser sought as his home (Heimat): the realm “behind” things that he first sensed most distinctly through the poetry of Rilke (also an inveterate traveler). In many respects, the entire life and work of Jean Gebser may be recognised as a quest to secure his origin not in the visible but in the invisible. In the deepest sense, this was his return home.

Gebser came from a long line of jurists and politicians. His father, Friedrich-Wilhelm Gebser (who was significantly influenced by Franz Liszt during his upbringing) was the legal counselor of the royal Prussian consistory, where he published a number of works on ecclesiastic law. [4] He instilled in Gebser a love of language, particularly the elegance of the spoken word. Gebsers uncle, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was the chancellor of the German Reich during World War One. The connection between the Gebsers and Bethmann-Hollweg goes back to 1814, when the Chancellors grandfather, Moritz August von Bethmann-Hollweg (a prominent law scholar, president of the Friedrich William University in Berlin, and Prussian State Minister) married Gebsers great aunt, Auguste Gebser (1794-1882). [5]

In 1922, when Gebser was just seventeen, his father died of injuries sustained from a suicide attempt. In one text he appears to suggest that his mothers constant demands may have pushed his father beyond his limit. [6] Gebsers mother, Margaritha Gebser ( Grundmann), was a distant descendant of Luthers collaborator, Philipp Melanchthon. She was, by more than one account, very beautiful. [7] Years later, a friend and colleague of Gebsers father once said to him: your father was not merely intelligent and cultivated, he was the epitome of decency; but he was like wax in the hands of your mother. [8] 

Death always seemed close for Gebser. When he was around two, his beloved sister Ilse, who was a year older than him, died. At the age of six, he disappeared one day whilst hunting for Easter eggs. He was found later that evening sitting at his sisters grave, speaking very earnestly with the dead. [9] Gebser recalls that while his sister was here for only a short time, during that time she was never entirely here. Like him, she was from someplace else. There was an otherworldliness (Unhiesigkeit) about her. [10] This Unhiesigkeit I have in common with her, Gebser remarks. In any event, I remained in life; but always, as it were, with only one foot. [11] Gebser intimates that his sister’s death brought about an awareness of the ever-presence of the dead within the integral structure of life. That is to say, Ilses death lead Gebser beyond the pervasive dualistic structures of western cosmology in which the dead and the living are fundamentally disconnected presences. Rather, for Gebser, not only do the dead always accompany us, we are intimately connected to them; they can help or harm us just as we can help or harm them. In a touching account of his sister’s death, he likens the phenomenon to the reciprocal vitality and decline of ‘wine in Spring’ and the ‘berry-stains in Autumn’: ‘May we not compare these to our participation in the realm of the dead?’ [12]

In Spring, when the heidelberry preserve is accidentally spilt on the tablecloth, the cleaning lady has to go to a lot of trouble to wash the stains out. And at least some remain. In Autumn, however, six months later, when the berries on the branches dry out and begin to die, the stains wash out of the cloth without any effort. 

If the grape harvest was in Autumn, then the grapevines begin to bloom six months later. They have a very short flourishing period, but an uncommonly fine and delicate scent. At the same time, the wine in the cellar begins to ferment and it will only settle again in the barrels and bottles when the flourishing [of the vines] has died away.

The fact that something changes its state or its form from what it once was does not mean that it has disappeared from the world; it is perhaps, as one says, dead; but you see yourself how little this actually means. For everything that hasn’t been born yet or that hasn’t happened yetthus everything that one in an almost despairing way calls the futuremust also be dead. [13] 

The Gebser family rarely stayed still. In 1910 they moved from Posen to Breslau (Wroclaw); in 1915, after the outbreak of the world war, they moved to Königsberg (Kaliningrad). In 1917 Gebsers father left the state service to set up a private practice in Berlin. Gebser was sent to Roßleben on the Unstrut, a renowned Cloister school in the Kyffhäuserkreis district of Thuringia (central Germany). [14] This was something of a family tradition: Hans (Jean) was the thirteenth Gebser to have attended this school and one of his most formative experiencesthe crystallisation of his attitude of primordial trust (Urvertrauen)occurred here. [15] 

Beneficial Hazards, Primordial Trust

In his unfinished biographical writings, Gebser emphasises three interrelated experiences that form the basis of what he called Urvertrauen or primordial trust. Three experiences involving water proved deeply formative. They crystallised in him a profound sense of trust in uncertainty (Vertrauen im Ungewissen). In the first year of his life he almost drowned in the bath due to the carelessness of his mother. He later described the experience as one of the most beneficial obstacles (förderlichsten Hindernisse) of his life: that the shock that I endured there, that the maternal and life-bearing element was to a certain extent also able to be life-hindering, indeed deadly. [16] Later, as a child, while walking through the countryside of Posen, he almost stumbled into an abysmal drop into a river. Years later, as part of his schooling, he was forced to encounter his fear of water once and for all.

The crucial moment came at Roßleben. Gebser was thirteen or fourteen. Learning to swim was prescribed by matter of course. It involved a crucial testthe so-called ‘free swimming’ (Freischwimmen). This entailed diving off a board into the middle of the river where the student was then required to swim freely and unaided for ten or fifteen minutes. In Germany, this was an ordinary part of ones upbringing. Yet Gebsers early childhood encounters with water were still palpable for him. When he stepped out onto the diving board over the flowing waters of the river, he was facing not only the view into the abyss but also the fear of drowning. Although he fully expected to die, he dove in anyway. After ‘a dark infinity, he surfaced. He was completely surprised to be alive; until that moment he believed that to dive under was to die. [17] Years later he identified this moment as one of his most deeply formative experiences:

Since that Freischwimm day something remained with me that would become conscious only decades later: that I, at that time, lost the fear of the unknown and that a trust (Vertrauen) began to ripen within me that would later have a defining effect upon my entire attitude to life: a trust in (and unrestricted access to) the power-sources of existence (Kräftequellen des Daseins); an inner security that, in all likelihood, can only come to complete effect when it succeeds in making us realise that what we do has nothing at all to do with what we ourselves want. But it required years, if not decades, in order to learn this. [18]

Gebser came to realise that something more integral in us acts in spite of what our egocentric consciousness thinks it wants. By this remark, he alludes to the perception that the will of the ego is merely the limited, visible and perspectival aspect of a deeper volition, which is grounded in the invisible—the spiritual origin. In effect, Gebser came to perceive that there is a will that cannot be willed.’ [19] This basic trust in uncertainty, this leap into the unknown, would be recapitulated as an adult. The significance of this primordial leap would colour his entire life and philosophy. 

In 1921 his parents withdrew him from Roßleben for financial reasons; he continued his education at the high school (Gymnasium) in Berlin. It was the fifth change of school in ten years. Although Gebser did not settle in and was frequently left alone, he diligently applied himself to his schoolwork and on one occasion succeeded in composing a homework piece in almost faultless hexameters. This feat impressed not only his father but also the schools headmaster. By this point, Gebser had already entrusted his father with a certain secret: that he wrote poetry. For his next birthday his father gave him a blank, leather-bound notebook and suggested he write his poems in it. This period proved formative for his developing identity as a poet. 

Family life was increasingly tumultuous. Evening after evening, his mother bombarded his father with senseless reproaches, accusations and insults, which invariably boiled down to money. There were no uplifting dinnertimes, he remarks. [20] The episodes sometimes reached such proportions that Gebser and his other sister, Charlotte, would begin to cry. One day Gebsers father announced to him that he and his mother were splitting up; Gebser would stay with his father, Charlotte with her mother. Less than a year later, however, Gebsers father was hospitalised after attempting to commit suicide and in 1922 he died. This affected Gebser deeply and contributed to a melancholic, spiritual restlessness. 

His mother’s behaviour during this period irreparably damaged her and her sons already conflicted relations. As a consequence, Gebser spends a good deal of time in his extant biographical writings dealing with the issue of his parents, of the difficulty in bringing the image of his mother to light after having submerged it for so long. For Gebser, whether we make our mother an illuminated Madonna or a black Madonna, the task of rendering her present to truth, whether by bringing her down to earth or by raising her up from the depths of the underworld, is a difficult but necessary process.

Gebser held the uncommon view that we are responsible for what happens to us. In coming to terms with the influence of his parents, he was actually attempting to integrate the feminine and masculine polarities of his consciousness. This need for a balancing of “left” (matriarchy, the feminine) and “right” (patriarchy, the masculine) is important not only because of the political and gender-related significations of the two “orientations”, but also because it calls for the integration rather than dichotomisation of the ontologies that they presuppose: 

Only when the one-sided will to displace one part of humanity and the (magically accentuated) demand for equal rights are abandoned in favour of an integration will the human be able to emerge. Just as matriarchy was once displaced by the patriarchy still in force today (in which negative residues of matriarchy are still dominant because of patriarchal-rational man’s lapse into mater-ialism), so too can this patriarchy be dissolved in turn by the Integrum where neither mater- (mother) nor pater- (father) but the human being in both will prevail: a human being integrated by man and woman who will then have acceptance and worth. [21]

First Works, Wanderjahre

In March 1923, Gebsers mother forced him to quit school in order to earn money. Although he wanted to work in a bookshop, his mother made him take up an apprenticeship position in a Berlin bank. Not surprisingly, he found this hopelessly boring. You see, it began to rain ashes, he remarks. The days were monotonous, life was monotonous. [22] By the end of the year, however, he began attending night classes at the Humboldt University. Here he took in lectures by the highly influential Catholic theologian and philosopher, Romano Guardini, whose work ‘lead with nothing but the most desirable clarity to the conclusion that the mental-rational age, whose last flourishing became the so-called “modern-age”, is depleted once and for all and that we stand before a fundamentally new orientation’. [23]

In 1925 he resigned from the bank once his apprenticeship came to an end. Moving out of home, he embarked upon his first literary endeavour with a friend from the bank, V. O. (Vauo) Stomps, an idealistic rebel who played the role of enfant terrible so well that he actually became an enfant terrible. [24] Together they set up a publishing house in Berlin [25] and founded the Ravens Press (Rabenpresse), which put out a monthly periodical called The [Fishermans] Catch: Monthly Paper for the Promotion of Emergent Literature (Fischzug: Monatsblätter zur Föderung werdender Literatur). [26] The first issue appeared in 1926.

 Gebser published his first poems in The Fisherman’s Catch as well as in other contemporary literary journals such as The Column (Die Kolonne). [27] The following year, Gebser quit the publishing venture with Stomps and spent the summer of 1927 in the Engadine region of Switzerland—a region beloved by figures such as Paracelsus, Nietzsche and Schwaller de Lubicz. By the winter of 1927-1928 he had reached an extreme low. The brief remarks he sketched in a notebook reveal the emergence of a profound melancholy: Extremely critical time. Strong depression. Loss of life energy. Almost suicidal’. [28]

Following this period, there was a great restlessness in his spirit. From July through September (1928), he was seized with wanderlust and undertook a long journey through the mountains. [29] With the onset of winter he joined the Goethe bookshop as a volunteer, but by the Autumn of the following year (1929) he had broken away to Italy. Here he completed an apprenticeship in a large antiquarian bookstore, but his attempts to settle down never lasted long. The wanderlust masked a deeper lust for life and this came to a head through a disconcerting realisation that challenged his predominant intellectual habits:

It was in Florence. I was working there in a second-hand academic bookstore. I knew no one. In the evenings I wrote poems, some of which would later be published. Above all I read profusely throughout the night and I remember very clearly the green sky as dawn broke over the Val d’Arno [the valley of the River Arno]. In one of these moments, in the hue of an unforgettable morning hour, I asked myself: Why do you actually read? The answer was: Because I want to know how one should live. And then came the disconcerting realisation: it seemed to me that none of the numerous books had taught me [how] to live. This or that form had awakened my interest, this or that poem had captivated me, this or that idea had struck me—, but life itself I did not encounter, or so it seemed to me; only reflections, echoes and afterthoughts. [30]

By 1929, around the age of twenty-four, Gebser had returned to Germany. He found himself in Munich working with the publisher Kurth Wolff, helping to liquidate his vast personal library. [31] The political climate was becoming increasingly volatile—it was several years after the failed Munich Putsch and Hitler was reasserting his power in Bavaria). For Gebser, however, it was the restlessness in his spirit more than anything external that moved him to leave his home country definitively. Gebser links this act directly to the leap into the unknown that crystallised his sense of Urvertrauen at Roßleben:

One further consequence of the leap into the unknown will be mentioned because it was in all likelihood life-determining. A decade later, at the beginning of 1929, I left Germany: I had witnessed the first Brownshirts in Munich. Without means and without fear I went into the uncertainty of a foreign world whose language I did not speak. It was Spain. This departure, which was tantamount to yet another great leap into the unknown, was not compelled by anybody or anything. And with it I began to swim freely abroad in the foreign world. This went so far as the painful relinquishing of my own language, which at the time I believed would be permanent. To renounce ones mother-tongue, however, especially for an author, who is necessarily bound to it, is not exactly easy. But it was this temporary relinquishing which brought to me the enriching knowledge of the Latin temperament (romanischen Art)to think, to act, to liveand this opened me up to the Mediterranean clarity and showed me not only where the hidden possibilities of my own language lay, but also its intricacies and complexities. Furthermore, this relinquishing supported, on one hand, a release of the limitedness of my native cultural circle, and on the other, an understanding of the living breadth of European diversity. It was liberating and it secured for me freedom. For that purpose I have risked again many a leap into the unknown. [32]

The Spanish Interlude


Malaga, Spain

There is scarcely a Spanish philosophy, at least, not what we have been brought up to understand as philosophy.
— [33] —

In the foreword to Rilke and Spain, Gebser wrote: Spain signifies a turning point in the life of Rilke.’ [34] The same could be said for Gebser. Having left Germany definitively, Gebser continued his Wanderjahre. From Paris he travelled to the South of FranceAvignon, Aix-en-Provence, St-Jean-de-Gardentering Spain in September of 1929. Continuing southward along the Mediterranean coast, he made his way through Andorra, Barcelona, Valencia, Murcia, and Almería, reaching Málaga, near the Straits of Gibraltar, in December. It was here, during the winter of 193233, at the age of twenty-seven, that Gebser received what he later described as a lightning-like inspiration (blitzartigen Eingebung) for the work that he would devote the rest of his life to expressing and elaborating. 

Málaga, it should be noted, is one of the most ancient, continuously inhabited cities in the world. Founded by the Phoenicians almost three millennia ago, it has seen successive rule by Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic and Spanish civilisations. As a consequence, the old-town is a veritable “open museum“ of this rich and deep past and it is highly significant that Gebsers inspiration for the ever-presence of origin occurred in a city so visibly open to the presence of the past.

As to the lightning-like inspiration that Gebser received that winter in Málaga, if we look to the texts from this period, which are primarily in the form of poems and notebook entries, we discern a notable emphasis on the transparent nature of the sky (Himmel). ‘That crystalline air, that ground of snowflakes, the new, shining grey—these are the indicators’, he writes; ‘Everything else disappears in face of it’. [35] Twenty years later, in 1949 (right before he published The Ever-Present Origin), Gebser would write at length on the brilliant transparency intimated by the white of the winter sky. This was his Winter Poem (Wintergedicht), in which he would write:

The shining winter sky
is close enough to touch;
and you too are this sky.
No reason to distinguish.
For all the stars flow through your veins.
No reason to hearken after
the echo of ancient myths,
for the angel is on its way
to nest again into the heart,
until the human crown is covered with hair:
for the dream of moon and earth has melted away,
since it knew heaven;
knew it once and for all. [36]

Closer to his Spanish experience, however, are the revealing words he wrote at the end of his study of Rilke, which must be seen as applying equally to Gebser himself: 

I return now to the earlier cited words of Rilke, that Spain had been a great, indeed decisive, influence on the [Duino] Elegies. That correspondence of things that he [Rilke] perceived in Spain (whose superior light had an isolating effect on things, very much in contrast to that uncannily binding light of Paris), is found once again in the Elegies: the correlation between things, like those that rule between individual stars.

The predominance of the sky in the Spanish landscape, in particular in Castille, the purity, the extraordinary transparency of the light and the atmosphere, which encompasses and emphasises things, the appearance of human silhouettes before this sky, which disclose themselves differently, like nowhere else in the world, and assert themselves in a gripping manner (an assertive attitude almost like the language and style of a Cervantes), but again let us return to this sky, which rises out of the shimmering, vibrating emptiness of the plateau: these are experiences only given to those who visit Spain. [37]

In many respects Gebser was inspired by the same muse as Rilke. Here we discern that his quest to discover this muse is first crystallised in the experience of the transparent winter sky, which lends the perception of reality a diaphanous character that transforms the way “things” disclose themselves.

Frederico Garcia Lorca (1898–1936) 

During this period, Gebser resumed publishing under the auspices of the Rabenpresse. A small collection of poems appeared in 1932 under the title, Ten Poems (Zehn Gedichte); three years later seven of his poems appeared in the Poetic Notebook 1935 (Poetisches Taschenbuch 1935). [38] In Spain, Gebser gravitated towards Torremolinos, near Malaga, and later Madrid, where he became a member of the Spanish Republics Ministry of Education. It was in Madrid that he became friends with the celebrated Spanish dramatist, Frederico García Lorca, along with other Spanish poets of the Generación del 27, including Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre, Manuel Altolaguirre, Juan Gil-Albert, Jorge Guillén, Emilio Prados and Pedro Salinas, whose works he translated into German in 1935. The translations appeared the following year (1936) in a collection entitled New Spanish Poetry (Neue spanische Dichtung); they were the only authorised translations of these poets. [39]

In Madrid, Gebser began work on his first book, Rilke and Spain (Rilke und Spanien), completing it that same year in San Sebastian. The text was originally written in Spanish and was scheduled to be published in the Autumn of 1936 through Cruz y Raya. [40] However, due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it was not published until many years later, in Switzerland. On the eve of the Spanish Civil War, Gebser also wrote a series of poems in Spanish called Afternoon Poems (Poesias de la Tarde, 1936). Eight years would pass before he returned to them, where, at the end of another war, he translated them into German (Nachmittagsgedichte, 1944). [41]

Before the Spanish Civil War rent things asunder, Gebser was working with Lorca on a Spanish translation of Wedekinds scandalous Spring’s Awakening (Frühlingserwachen), which was going into production under Lorcas direction for Madrids Teatro Español. They were also preparing a German translation of Lorcas comic tale, The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife (La zapatera prodigiosa). [42] Lorca was also planning to write a play with only female characters; Gebser recounts the dramatic presentation that Lorca evoked before him late one afternoon in 1936:

And then he read to me with a dark, full voice the tragedy of the nocturnal world: an invocation of the realm of the mothers, where death is life and life death, where the as yet unseparated threatens to tear itself into dream, sleep and twilight, where the inexpressible is at once gentle and raging: where the consciousness of chaos has not yet departed, regardless of the discovery that would have the opposites raised into conscious correspondence. He read completely absorbed as the shadows overtook his olive-coloured face. And as he finished, darkness fell. [43]

Here we begin to see how Lorca embodies the maternal, nocturnal, magical consciousness that would form a major component of Gebsers understanding of the pre-rational ontologies. As will be seen, Gebser would elaborate on this theme in the book that he consecrated to Lorca, which he published right before he began work on The Ever-Present Origin.

In October 1936, Gebser sketched the following quick notes: Departure from Madrid; arrested by anarchists in Valencia and put in jail (half a day); saved from being shot by the intervention of Spanish friends. Soon after, crossed the border into France. [44] Under the auspices of a delegate for the Mexican Education Ministry for Europe, Gebser made his way to France. Before he departed, Frederico García Lorca was murdered and Gebsers apartment was destroyed. In the Autumn of 1936, my Madrid apartment having been bombed twelve hours earlier, I made my way once again on the path of uncertainty’. [45]

Rilke and Spain 

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)

Gebser’s first book is a short monograph on the celebrated Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 -1929). The work is characterised by Gebser’s deep, scholarly rigour, his sensitivity to the finest, most detailed textures and his ability to open these up to their broadest philosophical implications. From his very first work, we see the incipient signs of the overwhelming gravity and intensity that would distinguish his later works, a gravity that has the effect of breaking through to a liberating spiritual lucidity. This lucidity is what he sought in Rilke; it would also come to characterise Gebsers perception of the integral consciousness.

 More specifically, Gebser saw the first two of Rilkes Duino Elegies (Duieser Elegien) as a breakthrough into a new, transformed world: 

[Rilke] had been the beloved of things (Dingen) but he appears to have lost himself [through this]. He then became the lover and with this, the things became a door to a space that scarcely anyone before him had tread. The way through had been very long and dark. But suddenly he stood behind things; and to the degree that he had arrived behind things, he was able to see a side of them that our eyes have never suspected. [46]

El Greco, Immaculate Conception, c. 1607-1613.

Gebser suggests that Rilkes experience in Spain, specifically his encounter with the paintings of the Post-Byzantine iconographer, El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 1541-1614), provided the atmosphere that allowed the Elegies to break through. Housed in San Vicente, Toledo, El Grecos Immaculate Conception was seen by Gebser as a significant catalyst to Rilkes perception of the Elegies terrifying angel. [47] More and more, remarks Gebser, Grecos Angel became for him the inhabitant of that emptiness which first confronted him there, and which threatened to engulf him. For the spiritual landscape of the Elegies is, to be sure, that of the Angel. [48]

Gebser’s quest to find Rilkes muse also lead him to another artist that influenced Rilke. In 1903, Rilke went to Spain to meet the Basque Spanish painter, Don Ignacio Zuloaga (1870 – 1945). It was through Zuloaga, in fact, that Rilke got to know the work of El Greco (Zuloaga owned a number of El Greco’s paintings). [49] In July 1936, Gebser visited Zuloaga at his country estate in Zumaia, northern Spain. Here he learned of the significant influence of Spain on Rilke and obtained access to the correspondence between Rilke and Zuloaga. The letters between the artist and the poet were published by Gebser in the original French, along with a German translation, in the appendix to Rilke and Spain, thus giving the monograph a documentary value in addition to its hermeneutic contexture.  

When reading Rilke and Spain with Gebsers own Spanish experience in mind, one gains the distinct impression that his comments on Rilke closely reflect his own inspiration in Spain. Especially pertinent are Gebsers insights on Rilkes relationship to death, which must be read as applying equally to Gebser. That is to say, Gebsers own attitude to death, which was already crystallised through the death of two family members and his own near-death experience(s), gave him a special insight into Rilkes. Comments Gebser:

The division of existence into a visible part and an invisible part (the earthly world and the heavenly or divine world) creates as a consequence an existential condition in which both are instantly divorced from each other, in Rilke’s view—in those years of despair between 1909 and 1912—of which he gives an account, and in which both the internment in things and their interpretation is useless (for in the end it is nothing but interpreting oneself). At that time, I suggest, he had not only passed through things, he had actually transcended that border: he stood in death. He had the impression of being in empty space, in the emptiness beyond, a situation which not only had validity for him personally, but also more generally for the entire contemporary western world, a situation which had its origin in the spiritual revolution at the end of the last century. In Rilke, however, this general situation crystallised itself in a single person: the angst that this situation evokes takes on an impersonal character from that point in time on, as I have already said. In the following years, from 1912 (the emergence of the first two Elegies) until 1921 (their completion), the consolidation of this new, at first almost unbearable attitude effectuated itself in a positive manner (and we know the almost inhuman torment that this effectuation transpired under): little by little he united the worlds until their borders were extinguished […] The affirmation of life is at the same time an affirmation of death; furthermore: he stands in both realms at the same time, because he has dissolved their borders. [50]

This also gives us something of an insight into the inspiration that Gebser received at Málaga: the transparency of the heavens that allows a simultaneous participation in the invisible as well as the visible, the heavenly as well as the earthly, a participation which he would express in his Winter Poem as the ‘united realm of life and of death’. [51]

Gebser discerned the breakthrough to a new consciousness structure not just in the content of Rilke’s writing, but in its form: that is to say, through the mirror of poetic grammar. This perception would be elaborated in more detail in his third book, The Grammatical Mirror (Der grammatische Spiegel). In Rilke and Spanien, however, the perception is emphasised specifically through the shifts in the use of adjectives in Rilkes poetry. When Rilke wrote: ‘I’d often stand at the window started the day before, stand and stare at you’ (Oft anstaunt ich dich, stand an gestern begonnenem Fenster), Gebser saw a loosening up (Auflockerung) of previously fixed grammatical relationships between words. [52] Significantly for Gebser, Rilkes use of adjectives breaks the consciousness of perspective crystallised in the Renaissance. [53] In this respect, Gebsers first book not only prefigures The Grammatical Mirror, it casts the seeds for both Transformation of the West and The Ever-Present Origin. 

This detail holds a certain significance not only for this poem or for Rilkes work in and of itself, but for contemporary poetry as a whole. The fact that Rilke was taken to use a certain sequence of words only after he had experienced Greco in Toledo is not only interesting, it throws a clear light on the reality of the inner relationship that could be strengthened and brought to completion through these expressions. The aforementioned poem begins as follows: ‘I’d often stand at the window started the day before, stand and stare at you’ (Oft anstaunt ich dich, stand an gestern begonnenem Fenster). The detail I wish to draw attention to is the use that Rilke makes of the adjective. Here Rilke gives the adjective a thoroughly new value. [54]

From a grammatical detail in Rilkes poetry, Gebser intuits an entire shift in western ontology. Importantly, this “method“ of opening the most delicate of details up to their broadest philosophical implications would come to characterise Gebsers later work. Similar grammatical examples are adduced from contemporary Spanish, French and German poetry: e.g. Jorge Guillén, Paul Valéry, Franz Kafka and Georg Trakl. [55] In all these instances, Gebser sees the breaking of perspective through the use of the adjective. This is contrasted against traditional usage (e.g., for Homer, for whom the adjective is a purely ornamental epithet, which scarcely influences the precisely limited value of the substantive’). [56] ‘What happens here is that the adjective now accentuates the relationship between the objects and actively emerges as if it was oriented in all directions’. [57]

One of the first to lend this new attitude artistic expression is Rilke, which he provides in the cited word sequence. [ ] What happens in this formulation and also in the other cited examples is that the adjective loses its determining, fixing and perspectival value and finds no more use as an additional or ornamental word; instead it obtains a completely new colouring by more readily becoming a connecting word, because it no longer applies to the substantive in a one-sided manner (as a purely grammatical assistant), but also to the subject in relation to the object. [58]

Paris, Picasso, Switzerland

Gebser spent a short time in Switzerland and then settled for a few years in Paris. It was during the so-called hunger-years. War was fermenting and his affinity drew him once again to literary and artistic circles. At the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés (probably at Café Flore, a famous centre for philosophers, poets and artists), Gebser entered the literary circle of Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon and André Malraux. Second only to Rilke, the work of these poets would be adduced to support Gebsers perception of the new consciousness in poetry. To this same circle, Pablo Picasso also belonged and Picassos work in particular would prove pivotal to Gebsers exposition of the emergence of the aperspectival consciousness in contemporary art. In this respect it is imperative to emphasise that many of Gebsers ideas were cultivated not merely through books but through living contact with actual poets, writers, artists, scholars, scientists and mystics. His personal engagement with specific works of poetry, art and literature was thus very intimate. In his approach to such matters, the presence of the Mediterannean temperament that he acquired in Spain is unmistakable.

Just as Gebser had to leave Spain due to war, so too France. On 30 August 1939, on the very brink of the Second World War, Gebser reached the French border and crossed into Switzerland a mere two hours before the border was sealed. He settled at first in Geneva and Lausanne and then later in Saanen (west Switzerland).  

Switzerland and the Ever-Present Origin 


Ascona, Switzerland

As soon as he had settled in Switzerland, Gebser set about publishing Rilke and Spain, which appeared in 1940 (not in the original Spanish but in German). He took a small apartment in the Locarno district of Ticino, the southern-most canton of Switzerland. Here he wrote Transformation of the West (Abendländische Wandlung). During this period he met Gentiane Hélène Schoch, whom he married on the summer solstice of 1942. They settled in Ascona, also in the Locarno district, where they would remain for the next seven years. 

It was in Ascona that Gebser entered the Eranos circle, the group of scholars surrounding Carl Gustav Jung, who met each year amidst the spectacular alpine surrounds of Lake Maggiore to attend the infamous conferences organised by Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn, the founder of Eranos. Here, leading phenomenologists and historians of religion, comparative mythologists, classicists as well as psychologists and scientists, would come together in a spirit of open interdisciplinarity. From the early 1930s through to the 1950s in particular, luminaries such as Mircea Eliade, Henry Corbin, Gershom Scholem, Adolf Portmann, Karl Kerenyi, D. T. Suzuki and of course Carl Jung, would present some of their most significant works here. Of the Eranos circle, Gebser developed particularly close friendships with biologist Adolph Portmann and classical philologist Karl Kerenyi. While it would be interesting to know whether any mutual influence occurred between Gebser and other Eranos figures, such as Henry Corbin and Mircea Eliade, his mutual relationship with Portmann and Kerenyi is distinct. Gebser repeatedly references Portmanns work to support the emergence of aperspectival consciousness in the life sciences, while Portmann himself, who presented his morphological approach to biology for many years at Eranos, also participated in the conferences that Gebser organised in the 1950s around the theme of The Integral Worldview (Das integrale Weltsicht). Alongside figures such as Lama Govinda, Werner Heisenberg and Karl Graf Dürckheim, Portmann would also contribute to Gebsers Festschrift (a typically Germanic celebratory volume usually reserved for long-standing, tenured academics). 

Transformation of the West 

In 1942, Gebser published a series of sixteen instalments in the journal The Rise (Der Aufstieg) under the title A New Worldview Paves its Way (Ein neues Weltbild bricht sich Bahn). [59] This series formed the basis of Transformation of the West, which was published the following year through the publisher Oprecht. [60] It would prove one of his most successful books. [61]

Transformation of the West is the first work in which Gebser focuses on the transformations of western culture and civilisation effectuated by the emergent aperspectival worldview. Although he touches briefly on this motif in Rilke and Spain, The Transformation of the West is the first work in which he explores the shift directly and systematically. In the introductory section, he highlights the inception of western science in Greek antiquity (‘the year 500 bc’), the crystallisation of perspective in the Renaissance sciences (‘the year 1500’), and the irruption of the aperspectival consciousness in the sciences of the twentieth century (‘the year 1900’). [62] The lion’s share of the work, however, is predominantly contemporary, as accentuated in its full title: Transformation of the West: A Breakdown of the Results of Modern Research in Physics, Biology and Psychology [and] their Significance for the Present and Future (Abendländiche Wandlung: Abriß der Ergebnisse moderne Forschung in Physik, Biologie und Psychologie; Ihre Bedeutung für Gegenwart und Zukunft).  

Herein, Gebsers purview is at once highly macrohistorical and finely nuanced with careful attention to detail. The work, which is strongly supported by rich documentation in several languages, also signals the truly interdisciplinary nature of Gebsers project insofar as he now begins to straddle the sciences as effortlessly as he does the arts and humanities. This approach would come to characterise Gebsers formal methodology, distinguishing his conception of Kulturphilosophie from the merely historical and sociological macrohistories of Burckhardt, Toynbee and Spengler. A firm engagement with the natural sciences whilst retaining a deep philosophical and macrohistorical consciousness is thus one of the notable features of the book.

In attempting to articulate the broad worldview shift, Gebser systematically examines contemporary theories in physics, biology and psychology. Together, these disciplines are seen to ask the core questions of existence. If the foundational question of physics asks: what is matter, and if biology asks: what is life, then psychology asks: what is the soul?’ [63] In physics, Gebser examines Einstein and the theory of relativity, Planck and quantum theory, de Broglie and wave mechanics, Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle, Bohr and the structure of the atom/solar system, de Sitter and cosmology, Rutherford and the splitting of the atom, Heß/Millikan and the cosmic radiations; and beyond the domain of “orthodox“ physics, the anthroposophical work of Kolisko on planetary influences and the work of Rhine and Carrel on telepathy. In biology, Gebser delves into de Vries and the mutation theory, Bose and the work on plant-writing (Pflanzenschrift), vitalism and Haldanes overcoming of vitalism, as well as Friedmann and the Gestalt theory. In psychology, he first distinguishes the two broad directions of the discipline (behaviourism and depth psychology) and, focusing on the latter, explores the work of Freud, Adler and Jung. 

From Physics to Poetry

In 1944, Gebser wrote The Grammatical Mirror: New Forms of Thought in Linguistic Expression (Der grammatische Spiegel: neue Denkformen im sprachlichen Ausdruck). Whereas his previous book attempted to explicate the transformation of the occident through its reflexes in contemporary science, with The Grammatical Mirror, Gebser returns to his innate sensitivity for language in order to articulate the reflection of the new consciousness in contemporary poetry. As such, The Grammatical Mirror is an expanded discussion of the idea that he first broached in Rilke and Spain. As we learnt from the Rilke work, Gebser first grasped the process of consciousness mutation through the register of human language. [64] Similarly, in The Grammatical Mirror, he would write: ‘In the structure of sentences, a part of the structure of the soul of man is reflected’. [65] Although it had nothing of the success of Transformation of the West, it must be recognised as reflecting (or developing) an aspect of Gebser’s initial inspiration at Malaga and thus his first perception of the new consciousness mutation.

In tandem with the shift in poetic grammar, Gebser also developed a deep historical-linguistic sensitivity for words. This would result in five fascinating remarks on etymology placed in the commentary section at the end of The Ever-Present Origin. [66] Through a delicate equipoise between the sonoric, imagistic and conceptual dimensions of specific root lexemesthe primordial phonemes of the Indo-European treeGebser began to perceive language as an integral reality whose transformations over time both concealed and revealed the mystery of the unfolding of consciousness. The three basic dimensions of a given wordthe sound, the image and the conceptmirrored for Gebser the three particular modalities of emphasis assumed by human consciousness as it unfolded from its archaic latency to its integral fulfilment. Consciousness, like language, has archaic roots that are shrouded in darkness; it has a biological, physical aspect (voice, sound), a psychological aspect (imagination and imagery), as well as an intellectual aspect (mentally demarcated definitions and concepts); and yet, beyond these three modalities (yet inclusive of them) Gebser sensed an elusive, integral whole which could only be perceived when the biological, psychological and intellectual dimensions of the phenomenon were embracedbut at the same time prevented from dominating consciousness with their particular, one-sided mode of emphasis. Throughout all his work Gebser exemplifies a profound sensitivity to this delicate perceptual balance, exerting a sense of sophrosyne or moderation so necessary to the phenomenology of what Gebser termed the integral consciousness. Through this essentially perceptual effort, Gebser sought to render the invisible nature of origin visibly present to conscious perception.

Language, like any cultural artefact, expresses something of the nature of consciousness, and at the base of these sonoric, imagistic and intelligible aspects of the word lay the more fundamental structures of reality perception. In effect, the genius of Jean Gebser was to articulate the process of human awakening in terms of an ascending organ emphasis, moving through the viscera, the cardiac centre, and the cerebral cortex to define the three major shifts of human consciousness between the poles of its primordial origin and its emerging integrum. The cultural upheavals responsible for civilisations based on hunting, agriculture and industryto put it in terms familiar to economic reductionismare for Gebser evidence of a far deeper process of consciousness mutation, of which all facets of human Kultur—from poetry to physicsbecome revealing indices.

 Towards the end of the same year, Gebser wrote the Winter Poem (Wintergedicht, 1944). As Hämmerli notes, The Winter Poem, which he set down on 14 November 1944 in three-quarters of an hour without making a single correction, was for him the poetic expression (Fassung) of The Ever-Present Origin’; moreover, poetic language works through all of Gebser’s philosophical writings and is the guarantee (Gewähr) by which the reader can concretely experience what is not able to be fixed or grasped conceptually’. [67]

Carl Gustav Jung

Jung and the World of the Psyche

Through Eranos, Gebser came to know Jung and the Jungians personally. In 1947 he became a lecturer at the Institute for Applied Psychology (Institutes für angewandte Psychologie) in Zurich, where from May through July he would deliver a series of seminars on ‘the history of soul and spirit (Zur Geschichte von Seele und Geist). [68] This material would feed and inform the discussion of the mythic consciousness structure undertaken in volume one of The Ever-Present Origin. Although Gebser spent some time exploring and integrating the Jungian approach to psychology, it must be emphasised that the Jungian approach to depth psychology merely articulates one ontology within Gebsers broader phenomenology of the becoming of consciousness (Bewußtwerdungsphänomenologie). Specifically, Jungian psychology corresponds to the mythic, polar-complementary, cyclic structure of consciousness, the ‘coincidence of opposites’ (coincidentia oppositorum) that Gebser correctly associated with the life of the soul. Through Jung, Gebser understood the twilight nature of the cardiocentric seat of consciousness, the mythic world of the dream and more importantly its characteristically polar-complementary dynamic, along with the cyclical structure it imparted to time. The difference between Gebser and Jungs thought, however, may be surmised from a conversation between the two that Gebser recounts in Disintegration and Participation: 

I may perhaps report here one small episode: it occurred about twenty five years ago at an Eranos conference. It was one of the last that C. G. Jung took part in and it was shortly after his recovery from a difficult heart condition. After one of the morning lectures we left the lecture hall together. As we walked along the terrace, he stopped to look at the beautiful summer landscape of Lago-Maggiore and in that moment stood spellbound and said to me: ‘My God, isn’t the world is beautiful.’ And then, very reluctantly and almost resentfully, half to me, half to himself: ‘I must not allow myself to find beauty anymore, I must have no desire to come back’. As we went through the garden towards the house of Mrs. Fröbe-Kapteyn (the founder of the Eranos Conferences), we spoke about his illness; he suddenly stopped walking and turned to me and said, very seriously: ‘You know, Gebser, this cardiac problem has been very interesting: I had angst, but it was not psychological, it was a pure, organically caused angst; yes, that’s it. Not everything is psychological’. And then he smiled. [69] 

Lorca and the Realm of the Mothers

In 1947, in Ascona-Moscia, Gebser returned to the world of his late Spanish friend, Frederico García Lorca. Here he wrote Lorca or the Realm of the Mothers: Memories of Frederico García Lorca with Thirteen Illustrations by the Poet (Lorca oder das Reich der Mütter: Erinnerungen an Frederico García Lora mit dreizehn Zeichnungen des Dichters), which appeared in 1949. In this work, Gebser first articulates the motif of the dark, vital, matriarchal consciousness that (at least according to the mental-rational chronology) precedes the mythic soul-consciousness that was the concern of the contemporary depth psychologists. In Lorca, Gebser sensed a deeper, darker, nocturnal-feminine consciousness that he would later articulate in terms of the vital-magical structure of consciousness. Here, human consciousness is still entwined with nature and, as such, the power of nature is accentuated, along with the first attempt to establish power over nature.

 In the book on Lorca, one of the first things one notices is the poetic depth of Gebsers interpretation. From the very start, his account is rendered with same hermeneutic profundity that would soon characterise his masterwork. Here, a year before he begins setting down The Ever-Present Origin, his style has reached full poetic and philosophical maturity. And it is above all the poetic sensitivity that distinguishes Gebsers work from contemporary systematic philosophers. Gebsers insights are at once effortless and profound; they go beyond strictly rational logic to offer a deeper sense of meaning through a poetic insight into reality.

 A feeling for the symmetry of existence is especially present in his analyses of the sketches Lorca made before his death: ‘In the last sketches, which were without a doubt composed in the last nine months of his life, there is an expression of what for him is release and redemption: the death that he felt ahead of time, that he drew to himself, that was already in him. For just as life is already effective in us nine months before our birth, so too is death already effective in us nine months before we die’. [70] Gebser also emphasises the predominance of the feminine versus the masculine in Lorca’s upbringing, and interprets his death in terms of the visceral clash between the masculine, patriarchal “right” versus the matriarchal, feminine “left”.

 Of Lorcas poems and drawings, Gebser observes: Both incline to the nightside of existence. [71] This is of particular importance to the development of Gebsers thought, as what he later articulated as the ‘magical structure of consciousness’ is first explored here as the nocturnal and maternal presence in Lorcas work. One thing that comes out very clearly in the Lorca monograph but which is not quite so distinct in The Ever-Present Origin is the above all underworldly emphasis given to the maternal principle. The nightside of existence is, for Gebser, rooted in the netherworld and replete with its symbols (just as Lorcas poetry is painted with ‘nocturnal colours’). The connection of the magical structure of consciousness to the underworld is actually much more evocative than the largely anthropological emphasis given to this ontology in The Ever-Present Origin. When placed in an underworldly context, one is in a much better position to appreciate the deep connections to western initiatic traditions of katabasis (descent) into the chthonic roots of existence, where the whole point is to engage origin not through light but through darkness. For here, darkness is regarded as the origin, indeed matrix (mother) of light. [72] 

The Ever-Present Origin

 Having first perceived the emergence of the aperspectival consciousness from the rational through the shift in poetic grammar (Rilke), and having studied the nature of mythic consciousness through the dynamics of the psyche (Jung), Gebser penetrated deeper still into the feminine matrix of consciousness through the nocturnal, matriarchal world of Lorca. With such foundations in place, Gebser began working on The Ever-Present Origin in 1947-8. In January of 1948, he moved from Tessin (Ascona) to Bergdorf (near Bern), where he would become naturalised as a Swiss citizen in 1952. 

The Ever-Present Origin was originally written under the working title of The Aperspectival World (Die aperspektivische Welt), emphasising freedom from perspectival consciousness. On 19 August 1946, on the night before his forty-first birthday, Gebser had a dream that compelled him to complete this particular work at this particular life-juncture. He realised that in a year’s time he would be forty-two: in the biological theory of seven-year cycles, the middle of life. In the dream, Gebser found himself at a train station about to embark on a journey; he bought a grapefruit, and as he held it in his hand, he missed the train. ‘The dream also warned me to take into account, while composing the Aperspectival World, of what I myself have said again and again in recent times: that the achievement of the new, fifth structure [of consciousness] in the general development should not be confused with my own aim of achieving a new level of consciousness: thus no projection of my own consciousness-mutation should be carried into the general process’. [73] More essentially, Gebser knew that his own engagement with the question of consciousness had begun in earnest. Moved both by this conviction and the approaching life-juncture, the work asserted itself; on 7 January 1949, the final manuscript of volume one, still under the original working title of The Aperspectival World, was sent to the publisher. Six months later, on Whitsunday (commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples) [74], Gebser changed the title to The Ever-Present Origin (Ursprung und Gegenwart). On 15 October 1949, the completed volume appeared.

 Whereas Transformation of the West situates the emergence of the new consciousness against the background of the prevailing rational ontology (the genesis of science and the development of perspective), The Ever-Present Origin encompasses the full spectrum of consciousness mutation from its archaic unity through to its emergent integral transparency. In particular, the magical and mythical ontologies, independently explored through his personal contact with Lorca and Jung, are now able to receive a full exposition alongside the rational and integral, thus completing the fundaments of the aperspectival world.

The Primordial Leap

Part one of The Ever Present Origin appeared with the subtitle The Foundations of the Aperspectival World: A Contribution to a History of the Becoming of Consciousness (Die Fundamente der aperspektivischen Welt: Beitrag zu einer Geschichte der Bewußtwerdung). But the title itself, Ursprung und Gegenwart, is revealing enough. Ursprung means origin but, as Gebser emphasises, it literally signifies a primordial leap (Ur, primordial + Sprung, leap, spring). Gebsers entire thesis is a precise elaboration of the first sentence that appears in the foreword to this work: Origin is ever-present’ (Der Ursprung ist immer Gegenwärtig). [75] Gebser sought to describe the unfoldings of human consciousness precisely in terms of such leaps of the primordial consciousness, which for Gebser was not a phenomenon limited to the remote crevices of prehistory, but is rather an ever-present reality (Gegenwart, present). Ursprung und Gegenwart is thus concerned with how the primordial leaps or unfoldings of consciousness continually undergird our present consciousness; it is concerned with how structures considered long outmoded continue to act through us; it is concerned with how consciousness is in fact still emerging, still unfolding, still leaping from its primordial substratum to generate a way of being and perceiving which Gebser characterised as integral, transparent, and aperspectival.

 Importantly, this consciousness is seen to emerge not by evolution, nor by expansion, but via qualitative mutations. The process is not continuous but discontinuous, mutational’ (sprung-haftig). It occurs in leaps and bounds, and therefore in discrete quanta rather than continuous gradations. It is precisely these discontinuous intensifications of consciousness that effect the radical restructurations (Nachvollzüge) of ontology, hence the perception of reality underpinning the great shifts in civilisation that Gebsers work so carefully sought to articulate. [76]

Contra Hegel, Gebser holds that origin, and the earlier ontological structures, are continually present and effective in us, as is the incipient (so-called future) structure. Through the various shifts in consciousness and culture, Gebser saw one process manifesting its integrality. Unlike Hegel, however, the process is not temporally bound. It is certainly not linear or future-oriented; it is merely perceived within the confines of temporal and linear structure. [77]

In many respects, much of the genius of Gebsers work lies in how he situates cultural-historical phenomena upon the deeper workings of the mutational process. Culture and history become in effect the empirical expressions through which a deeper phenomenology is evidenta phenomenology of the structures of human consciousnessa phenomenology of structures which, in and of themselves, are not purely amenable to the one-sided, materialistic, linear and time-bound nature of the historical (or cultural-historical) enterprise. Gebser was painfully aware that the tendency to see these structures as unfolding chronologically was itself a perception of the mental, perspectival structure of consciousness, where the very experience of time is refracted through and hence limited by a progressive and quantifiable perception of reality. Thus, the question of how Gebsers thought relates to the historical processi.e., how the structures of consciousness are seen to unfold through timecannot be divorced from the ontological processi.e., how these structures are seen to continually act through us as ever-present realities.

Lectures and Conferences on The Ever-Present Origin 

From 1950-1952, Gebser worked on volume two of The Ever-Present Origin and from the early 1950s through to the mid-1960s, he continuously promoted the message of his work, often at the expense of his health. By means of specialised conferences, lecture tours, publications, and also radio presentations, Gebser tirelessly accentuated the core themes of his masterpiece. Lending voice to this, an astounding diversity of representatives from the fine arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences converged to investigate and support Gebser’s thesis from the vantage of their respective disciplines.

 In 1951, between the publication of part one and part two of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser organised a conference at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Here, together with nuclear physicists, cosmologists, philosophers of science, artists, art historians, social psychologists, biologists and cultural historians, Gebser presented a lecture series under the title The New Worldview: International Expressions of the Irruption of a New, Aperspectival Epoch (Die neue Weltschau: Internationale Aussprache über den Anbruch eines neuen aperspektivischen Zeitalters). Contributors included C. F. Weizsäcker, Max Bense, Max Brod, Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, Alexander Mitscherlich, Adolf Portmann and Walther Tritsch. Most of the lectures were also broadcast via radio, while the series itself appeared in book form under the same title. This effort to actually bring high-standing representatives of the humanities and the sciences together directly informed the text of part two of The Ever-Present Origin, which adduces the work of the contributors to this conference to demonstrate the irruptions of the aperspectival world across all spheres of contemporary culture. As Jean Keckeis observes, ‘A surprising unanimity of basic conception emerged from these lectures: an openness toward questions dealing with transcendence; a scepticism about a self-satisfied rationalism; and a courageous humility vis-à-vis insights into man’s limitations of knowledge and perception—all of these being duly noted in the press accounts. It is such interpretation and sustenance of the life-affirming energies of our epoch that form the substance of the second part of The Ever-Present Origin’. [78]

Towards the end of 1952, after completing the manuscript for part two of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser returned to Spain to spend two months in Torremolinos. In 1953, part two of The Ever-Present Origin appeared with the subtitle: Manifestations of the Aperspectival World; An Attempt at a Concretion of the Spiritual (Die Manifestationen der aperspektivischen Welt; Versuch einer Konkretion des Geistigen). Whereas the first volume articulated the foundations of the integral consciousness, to include its efficient and deficient manifestations, the second volume sought to demonstrate the actual irruptions of the integral consciousness in all spheres of life, from art history to jurisprudence. Importantly, Gebser carefully distinguished these genuine irruptions from resurgences of (or regressions into) the “previous”, one-sided manifestations of consciousness. This is significant because it is only through deep familiarity with the dynamics of the vital, psychological and rational structures of consciousness that one can actually integrate them; through this, one is in a position not only to distinguish but also to actualise a genuinely “new” expression of the ever-present origin.

The second volume of The Ever-Present Origin was followed by a second international conference at St. Gallen on the same theme, which also appeared as a book. [79] The same year, Gebser took part in the ‘First International Congress for Parapsychology’ in the Netherlands (Utrecht), and presented the first of many radio broadcasts with Professor H. Bender of Radio Bern, which would cover a variety of themes. [80]

In 1955, Gebser and his wife separated, and by April he had moved from Burgdorff to Bern, taking up residence in the old-town at Kramgrasse no. 52. This separation must have affected him more than the external facts belie, for by the end of August he required a hernia operation. This health breakdown would not be the last, and it was doubtless contributed to by the constant strain of the long lecture tours he was making, not only throughout Switzerland but also Germany, in order to secure his living. Something of this paid off, for the following year (the year his divorce was finalised) he became a recipient of the German Schiller-Award (Deutschen Schiller-Preis), which was presented to him by the German president, Theodor Heuss, in Bonn.

As a kind of “culmination” of the dozens of lectures delivered by Gebser during this period, a selection of papers were gathered together and published under the title, Standing the Test: Ten Indicators of the New Consciousness (In der Bewährung: Zehn Hinweise auf das neue Bewußtsein). The work underscores Gebser’s insistence that the present epoch is pivotal in the human awakening process. ‘To say that we live in a critical epoch is almost a banality’ remarks Gebser. ‘Nevertheless, it must be said. For we live not only in a critical epoch, but in an extremely critical epoch, one whose vehemence is very rarely seen in human history’. [81] For Gebser, the “test” or “task” that faces us at this critical juncture is no less than the achievement of the Achronon: the liberation of human consciousness from time. Only through this will we be able to “stand the test” represented by deficient, dangerous, atavistic or atomising manifestations of consciousness.

In the final essay from Standing the Test, Gebser likens the contemporary epoch to the near-death experience in which life as a whole is said to “flash before one’s eyes”. Just as one’s whole life is grasped in a split second when one is on the brink of death, so too is human consciousness and civilisation at a similar juncture: ‘Humanity finds itself today on hair’s breadth, the border between life and death’. [82] As a consequence, the raising to consciousness of humankind’s “childhood” (archaeology, palaeontology, ethnology), along with the discovery of its unconscious drives and archetypes (depth psychology) are indicators for Gebser that human civilisation as a whole is at an intensification point—a death-like ontological rupture in which the limitations of the perspectival world are crumbling away to reveal the glittering Diaphainon: the transfiguring lucidity “behind” perspectival “things”, which renders both “light” and “darkness” present. The cultural death is thus an ontological metamorphosis: a katabasis that initiates human consciousness into a deeper, more integral structure of reality. 

Awards and Professional Recognition 

After the German Schiller-Award in 1956, Gebser received a number of formal recognitions of his lifes work. In 1964 and 1965 he received three literary awards from Germany and Switzerland: the German Literature Award of the Artists Guild of Esslingen (1964) and the Koggel Literature Award of the City of Minden (1964) and the Literature Award of the City of Bern (1965). In 1965, he received a Festschrift for his sixtieth birthday. It was entitled Transparent World (Transparente Welt). The contributors to this volume once again cut across the familiar disciplinary boundaries, from quantum physics to eastern philosophy: Werner Heisenberg, Adolf Portmann, Lama Anagarika Govinda and Karlfried Graf von Dürckheim, among others; names which remain emblematic of the genuinely transdisciplinary character of Gebser’s work. Despite active participation in the academic world for some twenty years, it was only towards the end of his life that Gebser was granted an actual academic position. In 1967, six years before his death, he received an honorary professorship from the University of Salzburg, Austria. The title of his position, which he was unable to take up due to his health, was Honorary Professor of Comparative Cultural [Civilisational] Theory (Honorar-Professor für Vergleichende Kulturlehre).  


Oriental Moons, Occidental Days


When we are born we scream and cry,
when we die, we should smile.
— [ 92 ] —

As Gebser approached his mid-fifties, he was seized once again by wanderlust. In the following years he would make frequent trips to France to spend time in Provence and Paris; he spent two months in Greece and later travelled to North and South America. His most ambitious travels, however, took place in 1961, when he spent five months travelling throughout Asia. The journey lead him through India, Nepal, Pakistan, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and China. [83]

Gebser’s journey through the east coincided with a book on oriental consciousness called A Guide to Asia (Asienfibel, 1962), which, although loosely cast as a cultural primer for western travellers to the east, was more importantly an attempt at establishing grounds for mutual understanding between east and west towards the establishment of a global consciousness. A revised and expanded version of the book appeared in 1968 under the title Asia Smiles Differently: A Contribution to the Understanding of the Eastern Way of Being (Asien lächelt anders: Ein Beitrag zum Verständnis östlicher Wesenart). Herein, Gebser guards against the tendency to regard the east as the opposite of the west and instead puts forward the idea that Asia is the completion (Ergänzung) of Europe. [84] While possessing more than a sound knowledge of oriental literature, Gebser chiefly draws his insights from the specific aspects of daily life that he personally encountered on his travels. The dexterity with which Gebser weaves eastern and western cultural perspectives is impressive and his mode of interpretation is frequently insightful. For instance, some fifteen years before physicist Fritjof Capra published his bestselling exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism (The Tao of Physics), [85] Gebser wrote on the complementarity of eastern and western technology, discussing the doctrines of Chuang Tsu and Chi Gung in the same breath as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. [86] Citing Bohr’s Complementarity Principle, Gebser indicates that, beyond the Aristotelian “either-or” structure of mental-rational thought lies the “both-and” structure common to both quantum physics and Taoist philosophy. However, the “inner” emphasis of the east has largely been lost in the west, whose “outer” emphasis (e.g. technological and scientific development) is regarded by Gebser as a compensation for this loss. In these and other ways, Gebser approaches the elusive point where eastern and western consciousness converges, the point where the extremity of yin becomes yang and vice versa.

 In addition to exploring the complementary differences between east and west, Gebser also highlights the specific contributions made by eastern thought to the emergence of the integral consciousness. Although Gebser visited several ashrams while India, the one that made the strongest impression on him was that of Sri Aurobindo at Pondicherry, on the gulf of Bengal. [87] Indeed, it was in Aurobindo’s work that Gebser found the most striking equivalent to his own articulation of the human awakening process, so much so that he was moved to spell out the independent conception of his own work vis-à-vis Aurobindo’s:

For the record: my concept of the development of a new consciousness, which came to my awareness in the winter of 1932/33 in a lightning-like flash of inspiration, and which I began to present since 1939, has extensive similarities to the world-design of Sri Aurobindo, however, documentation of this was not known to me at that time. [88]

Apart from a deep “morphic resonance” between Gebser’s and Aurobindo’s vision of consciousness, Gebser’s most important breakthrough during his eastern wanderings was his direct experience of diaphanous consciousness itself, an experience which clarified for him the relationship between integral consciousness and eastern categories of mystical experience. This was crystallised for him by a personal experience of Satori at Sarnath, India: the historical site of the Buddha’s first teachings. Gebser’s experience at Sarnath confirmed for him the important distinction between the intoxicating nature of religious ecstasy and the irruption of arational consciousness, which is not at all “Dionysian” (though not necessarily Apollonian either, certainly not in Nietzsche’s sense). Rather it is sober, lucid and transparent. It was characterised by the overcoming of mental-rational wakefulness through transparency:   

One cannot make this transparency visible, one cannot see it, indeed one is only able to become aware of it (wahr-nehmbar werden) (in the precise sense of the word “aware” [ge-wahr-t]), through effortless super wakefulness (Überwachheit). It is more than clarity (Klarheit) or illumination (Leuchten), more than transfiguration or glorification (Verklärung), more than radiance (Strahlung). One could possibly speak of it as the flashing-forth or sudden shining-through of the whole (Durchglänztsein des Ganzen). Who participates in this is more or less purified (gleichsam geläutert), as if melted and remoulded, liberated from the scoria of the soul, from the narrow limitations of mentation, without in the slightest manner being lost to the world through intoxication or ecstatic rapture (rauschhaft entrückt); rather, who participates in this finds themselves well in order, with the deepest trust, and with the sacred lucidity of origin’s ever-presence pulsating through them (durchpulst von nüchtern-heiliger Ursprungsgegenwärtigkeit). [89]

Gebser further recounts a conversation with Daisetzu Teitaro Suzuki that he had in Kitakamakura, Japan, in 1961. Here the aged Zen-master emphatically agreed with him that the awakening to Satori must in no way be confused with the Indic experience of Samadhi. [90] 

When I was in Kamakura a few years ago, which lies on the Pacific, seventy five kilometres west of Tokyo, I received a confirmation for what has been said here regarding the character of rapture (Entrückung) and with it also the often trance-bound form of the Indic samadhi. There, in the Tokyo-Temple-District, I visited the Zen-master Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. In the course of our discussions, which had the character of a Chinese or Japanese calligraphic painting—thanks to Suzuki’s words and sentences, which were placed so precisely, suggestively and economically, like dots and strokes—I had told him of an experience that I had been witness to a few weeks earlier in Sarnath. There had been no rapture to observe, I was not swept away into the irrational, there was no loss of consciousness of the world; rather, there was the overcoming of the mental-rational: there was arational transparency and with it that intensity of consciousness that had integrated both the irrational and the rational in such a manner that both were respectively available, without the possibility of being overwhelmed by them, for their bearers, the vital and the psychic, submit to the spiritual. The Zen-master listened attentively with his head bowed and his eyes almost closed. He then looked up and said with a smile of agreement: ‘Not irrational, but arational; that’s it. This experience that you had, it was not Samadhi; it was Satori’. [91]

Last Works and Death

In 1966, the second edition of The Ever-Present Origin appeared and in the course of the lecture tours in Germany that he was undertaking to promote the book, his health broke down. Gebser was hospitalised for an emergency operation due to a rupture in his stomach. Five weeks later he required a double operation on his abdominal membrane and his appendix. The operations were risky and his survival was regarded by the doctor as a miracle. However, he was severely weakened and his health never completely recovered. 

Despite his health he was still very active. In 1970, a short monograph called The Invisible Origin (Der unsichtbare Ursprung) appeared and in December of the same year he married Jo Körner. In his last years he continued to visit and receive friends and colleagues whose interests lay close to his life’s work, such as quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, Lama Anagarika Govinda (author of Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism), and Pandit Gopi Krishna (author or Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man). Late in 1972, several months before he died, he presented the keynote lecture at a medical conference in Bad Boll (southern Germany) entitled ‘Primordial Angst and Primordial Trust’ (Urangst und Urvertrauen). This important essay spoke directly about the fundamental attitude of trust that enabled a conscious participation in the invisible (i.e. the spiritual)—the conditio sine qua non of integral consciousness. The necessity of primordial trust in overcoming dualistic consciousness was deeply tinctured by Gebser’s formative experiences of near-death by drowning, which instilled in him the essential comportment by which he was able to place a visceral trust not in what is rationally certifiable but in complete and utter uncertainty. Moreover, as I have shown elsewhere, the principle of Urvertrauen as articulated in Gebser’s mature work relates directly to Heisenberg’s famous ‘uncertainty principle’ (Unbestimmtheitsprinzip): a manifestation at the quantum level of this self-same need to integrate uncertainty as an integral constituent of reality. [93]

In works such as The Invisible Origin (which would appear again in Disintegration  and Participation), we begin to glimpse Gebser’s mature thoughts on what can be called ”integral teleology, a concept which views all evolution as an a posteriori effectuation (Nachvollzug) of the invisible origin. Integral teleology entails the perception of evolution itself as a process of ‘crystallisation’ (Auskristallisierung), i.e. a ‘crystallising’ of the visible ‘out of’ the invisible (a formulation which bears a close resemblance to David Bohm’s concept of the implicate and explicate orders). [94] Like thinkers such as Aurobindo,  Teillard de Chardin and Bohm, Gebser’s late works begin to show a concerted effort to overcome the false dichotomy of “free-will” versus “predestination”, and this is one of the more important legacies of Gebser’s later works. [95]

Gebser’s last work was a collection of essays called Disintegration and Participation (Verfall und Teilhabe), which was completed before his death but appeared posthumously. The preface for the book was one of the last things that he wrote. It begins with the words : ‘In the end, everything is simple’. The same words are found in one of his last notebook entries: 

In the end everything is simple, as simple as a leaf that one holds in one’s hand, as simple as the laughter of a child. [96]

It is noteworthy that when we turn from Gebser’s last notebook entries to the very first pages of his first book, we find him focusing directly on the problem of death. It is fitting to cite a passage from these pages not only to conclude the present survey of Gebser’s life, but also to illustrate the attitude of primordial trust that enabled him to die smiling:

When we enquire into death, we only ask because we also enquire into ourselves. For death, or better, dying, is the final realisation and fulfillment of our self. And the angst and fear that we feel before death is nothing but the confession that we have not lived a life that was truly our own. [97]

Gebser died on 14 March 1973 in Wabern, near Bern. He died smiling. His deathmask, located in Bern, preserves this final gesture as a testament to his capacity not merely to conceptualise, but to embody, his philosophy.



1.     R. M. Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus I, 6, in Edward Snow, ed. trans. The Poetry of Rilke (New York: North Point press, 2009), 360/361: ‘Ist er ein Hiesiger? Nein aus beiden/ Reichen erwuchs sein weiter Natur./ Kundiger böge die zweige der Weiden,/ wer die Wurzeln der Weiden erfuhr’.

2.     Aussagen: Ein Merk- und Spiegelbuch des Hintergrundes; Notizen und Tagebuchaufzeichnungen 1922-1973; GVII, 299: Philosophie ist das Zerpflückung einer Rose’.

3.     Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 334.

4.     Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 347-8.

5.     See Adolf Wach, Bethmann-Hollweg, Moritz August von, Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 12 (1880): 762-773, p. 764; Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 356-7.

6.     Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 386.

7.     Gebsers mother, by his own account, was very beautiful: golden-blonde haired, voluptuous and supple (schmiegsam), she radiated charm (Reiz) and was the subject of two portraits that hung in the Solacz-Park gallery in Posen; she was also very impatient, often temperamental and uncontrolled (Sie war sehr ungeduldig, oft launisch und unbeherrscht). See Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 346.

8.     Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 351.

9.     Die schlafenden Jahre, § 6; G VII, 342: Er saß am schwesterlichen Grab, glücklich, und sprach sehr angelegentlich mit der Toten’.

10. Hiesig means local, of this place or country. Un-hiesig thus means not of this place or country; not from around here. I have translated Unhiesigkeit it as otherworldly to preserve the more figurative connotations.

11.   Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 342: ‘Jedenfalls blieb ich im Leben. Aber immer nur giwissermaßen mit einem Fuß’.

12.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 342.

13.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 341.

14.  Roßleben is situated on the river Unstrut, about twenty-two kilometres southeast of Sangerhausen.

15.  Gebser in fact lists five formative experiences here, but the experience of the Freischwimm remains the most definitive.

16.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 363: ‘Damals wußte ich es nicht, daß jener Badezuber eines der föderlichsten Hindernisse für mein Leben gewesen ist: jener mir dort widerfahrene Schock, daß das gewissermaßen mütterliche und das Leben gebärende Element auch lebenshindernd, ja tödlich zu sein vermag.’

17.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 362: Als ich das Brett betrat, glaubte ich nicht, daß ich den Sprung wagen würde; als ich das langsam auf das Ende des Brettes zuging, war unendlich tief und mit etwas Gischt der Fluß unter mirdas jenseitige Ufer lag schon dunkel im Nachmittagsschattenda hätte ich am liebsten geweint und wäre umgekehrt. Doch es waren die anderen in meinem Rücken am Ufer, weil jedes Freischwimmen ein Ereignis war, das genau verfolgt wurde; dann stand ich am Ende des brettes, es schien mir das Ende schlechthin; und dann schloß ich die Augen und sprang hinunter und kam nach einer finsteren Unendlichkeit und um Atem ringend sehr verwundert an die Oberfläche zurück. Daß das andern geschehen konnte, das hatte mich nie gewundert. Für mich hatte ich es nicht erwartet. Untertauchen hieß Sterben’. (As I stood at the end of the board it seemed like the end of everything for me; I closed my eyes and jumped in, andafter a dark infinity, after gasping for airI came back to the surface very surprised. I had not expected to surface. I expected just the opposite. To dive under was to die).

18.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 363: Damals wußte ich es nicht, daß jener Badezuber eines der föderlichsten Hindernisse für mein Leben gewesen ist: jener mir dort widerfahrene Schock, daß das gewissermaßen mütterliche und das Leben gebärende Element auch lebenshindernd, ja tödlich zu sein vermag. Seit jenem Freischwimm-Tage ist mir eines geblieben, das mir erst Jahrzehnte später bewußt wurde: daß ich damals die Furcht vor dem Ungewissen verlor, und daß in mir selbst ein Vertrauen zu reifen begann, welches sich später bestimmend auf meine ganze Lebenshaltung auswirken sollte: das Vertrauen in die Kräftequellen des Daseins, der unverstellte Zugang zu ihnen, jene innere Sicherheit, die wahrscheinlich nur dann ganz zur Wirkung kommen kann, wenn es uns gelingt, das, was wir tun, nicht um unserer selbst willen zu tun. Aber um dies zu erlernen, braucht es Jahre, wenn nicht Jahrzehnte’.

19.  I have explored this theme in a 2009 paper given at the 39th Annual International Jean Gebser Society Conference, under the rubric ‘The Will that Cannot be Willed: Primordial Trust, Alchemical Salt and the Dynamics of Integral Volition’ (Hofstra University, New York, School of Communication). Herein I explored the relationship between this “deeper” will and its “surface” counterpart in order to flesh out the dynamics of an “integral volition”.

20.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 375-6.

21.  Ursprung und Gegenwart; G II, 362-3: ‘erst wenn nicht mehr einseitig das Wollen zu einem Platzeinnehmen, noch der Anspruch auf eine magisch betonte Gleichberechtigung herrschen, sondern wen eine Integration stattfindet, wird es den Menschen geben; denn so wie das einstige Matriarchat vom heute noch vorherrschenden Patriarchat (in dem hindergründig-negativ noch immer matriarchale Komponenten herrschen: der patriarchal-rationale Mann ist dem Mater-ialismus verfallen!) abgelöst wurde, so wird das Patriarchat seinerseits vom Integrat abgelöst werden, wo dann weder die Mater (Mutter) noch der Pater (Vater) überwiegen werden, sondern der Mensch in beiden: wo der durch Frau und Mann integrierte Mensch zur Geltung kommen wird’ (trans. Barstad and Mickunas, EPO, 262).

22. Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 392-3.

23.  G V/I, 202: Guardini ‘führt mit aller nur wünschenswerten Deutlichkeit den Nachweis dafür, daß das mental-rationale Zeitalter, dessen letzte Blüte die sogenannte ‚Neuzeit’ gewesen ist, ein für allemal und endgültig erschöpft ist und wir vor einer grundlegenden Neuorientierung stehen’. Gebser also attended lectures by Werner Sombart (sociology and economics), Hahn (ethnology) and Holtsch (European history).

24.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 395.

25.  The Stomps & Gebser Buch- und Kunstdruckerei-Verlagsanstalt (Stomps and Gebser Book and Art Publishing House) was established at 30 Stallschreiberstrasse, Berlin. Among other things, Stomps/Gebser published Der Sturm (The Storm), an avant-garde magazine put out by the muti-disciplined German Expressionist, Herwarth Walden. Although Der Sturm ran from 1910-1932, Stomps/Gebser would only have published it from 1925 and probably only for a year or two.

26.  Fischzug literally means the haul (zug) of fish, i.e. the catch or yield drawn in by the fisherman.

27.  Hans Gebser, Zwei Gedichte, Fischzug, 1 Jahr, Heft 1 (Berlin, März, 1926), 4-5.

28. Hämmerli, ‘Chronologie’, G VII, 438.

29.  Hämmerli, ‘Chronologie’, G VII, 438.

30.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 345.

31.  Hämmerli, Chronologie’, G VII, 438.

32. Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 363: Eine Folge des Sprunges ins Ungewisse sei noch erwähnt, weil sie wahrscheinlich lebensentscheindend war. Ein Jahrzehnt später, Anfang 1929, verließ ich Deutschland: ich hatte die erste braunen Horden in München erlebt. Ohne Mittel und ohne Furcht ging ich in die Ungewißheit einer fremden Welt, deren Sprache ich nicht sprach. Es war Spanien. Zu diesem Weggehen, das einem noch grösseren Sprung ins Ungewisse gleichkam, wurde ich durch nichts und durch niemanden gezwungen. Und damit begann ich mich in der Fremde und in der fremden Welt freizuschwimmen. Das ging bis zum schmerzlichen Verzicht auf die eigene Sprache, von dem ich damals glaubte, er würde zu einem dauernden werden. Die Muttersprache zu entsagen ist jedoch für jemanden, der als Schriftsteller an sie gebunden ist, nicht gerade leicht. Aber es war dieser vorübergehende Verzicht, der mir die bereichernde Kenntnis der romanischen Art, zu denken, zu handeln und zu leben, eintrug, der mir die Mittelmeerische Klarheit erschloß und mir zeigte, wo der verborgene Möglichkeiten, aber auch die Umständlichkeiten der einege Sprache lagen. Zudem förderte dieser Verzicht einerseits die Herauslösung aus der Begrenztheit des heimatlichen Kulturkreises, andererseits das lebendige Verständnis für die Spannweite der europäischen Vielfalt. Er war befreiend und er erhielt mir die Freiheit. Um ihretwillen habe ich noch manchen Sprung ins Ungewisse gewagt’.

33.  Aussagen; G VII, 263.

34.  Rilke und Spanien; G I, 12: Spanien bedeutet im Leben Rilkes einen Wendepunkt’.

35.  G VII, 261: ‘Jene kristallene Luft, jene Grund von Eisblumen, das neue, strahlende Grau— dieses sind die Merkmale. Alles andere verschwindet dem gegenüber’.

36.  Wintergedicht § 4; G VII, 129: ‘Der helle Winterhimmel / ist greifbar nah; / und du bist dieser Himmel auch. / Kein Grund, zu unterscheiden. / Es fließen alle Sterne auch durch deine Adern. / Kein Grund, dem Nachklang alter Mythen / nachzulauschen, / da Engel sich auf ihre Art/ einstmals ins Herz einnisteten, / bis daß sie später dann / das Haar dem Menschen aus der Stirne strichen: / da zerrann der Traum von Mond und Erde ihm, / da wußte er den Himmel; / und wußte ihn für ein und alle Male’.

37.  Rilke und Spanien; G I, 49: ‘… die besondere Durchsichtigkeit des Lichtes und der Atmosphäre, welche die Dinge umgibt und unterstreicht, die Erscheinung des menschlichen Umrisses vor diesem Himmel, die nirgendwo anders in sich geschlossen und auf einer Ergreifende Art aufrecht ist (von so aufrechter Haltung wie etwa die Sprache und der Stil eines Cervantes), bis wieder zu diesem Himmel, der aus der vibrierenden Leere der Hochebene aufsteigt: dies sind die Erfahrungen, welche nur demjenigen gegeben sind, der Spanien besucht’.

38. Hans Gebser, Zehn Gedichte (Berlin: Die Rabenpresse, 1932), 1-15; Poetisches Taschenbuch 1935 (Berlin: Die Rabenpresse, 1935), 32-8; See Bibliographische Anmerkungen zu den Gedichten compiled by Robert Alder in G VII, 243-5.

39.  Rabenpresse, 1936.

40. Vorwort zu Rilke und Spanien; G I, 12.

41.  See G VII, 69-81. I made an annotated translation of these poems in 2010, which was presented on my behalf by John Dotson and Sabrina Dalla Valle at the 40th Annual International Jean Gebser Society Conference (Brigham Young University, Aspen Grove, Utah, October 2010).

42. At the time of writing Lorca oder der Reich der Mutter, Gebser still possessed this in typescript.

43.  Lorca oder das Reich der Mütter; G I, 91-2: Und dan las er mit dunkeler, voller Stimme die Tragödie der nächtigen Welt: eine Beschwörung des Reiches der Mütter, wo Tod Leben ist und Leben Tod, wo sich das noch Ungetrennte selber zu zerreißen droht in Traum, Schlaf und Dämmer, wo das Unausgesprochene milde ist und zugleich rasend: wo das Bewußtsein das Chaos noch nicht geschieden hat, geschweige denn, daß die Erkenntnis die bewußtgewordenen Gegensätze in der Entsprechung wieder aufgehoben hätte. Er las ganz hingegeben, während die Schatten auf seinem olivfarbenen Gesicht zunahmen. Als er endete, dunkelte es’.  

44.  Hämmerli, ‘Chronologie’; G VII, 439.

45.  Hämmerli, ‘Chronologie’, G VII, 439.

46.  Rilke; G I, 15.

47.  While it is already recognised that Rilkes Himmelfahrt Mariae was inspired by this painting, Gebser suggests the influence runs deeper, directly into the Duineser Elegien.

48.  Rilke; G I, 47.

49.  See Rilke; G I, 19.

50. Rilke; G I, 45-46.

51.  G VII, 133: ‘dem geeinigten Bereich/ von Leben und von Tod’.

52. These are the opening lines of Rilke’s poem Die grosse Nacht (The Great Night), written in Paris in January 1914 (R. M. Rilke, Sämtliche Werke vol. 2, Weisbaden: Insel, 1957, 74). The English translation cited here is J. B. Leishman’s as quoted by Gebser himself in Der grammatische Spiegel (G I, 157); On the meaning of these lines, Leishman remarks: it is ‘as though the window, or, rather the view from the window, were an easel-picture on which he had been working’. See R. M. Rilke, Later Poems, Translated from the German with an Introduction and Commentary by J. B. Leishman (London: Hogarth, 1938), 109/110, 254/257.

53. Cf. Rilke; G I, 40: ‘Wir befinden uns dem hemisphärischen, begrenzten Weltbild gegenüber, innerhalb dessen das Unterfangen, ein Objekt zu stark zu belasten, den Gleichgewichtsverlust und den Zusammenbruch mit sich führen würde, ganz abgesehen davon, daß ein solches Vorgehen niemals in den Rahmen des euklidischen bzw. ptolomäischen Weltbildes paßt’. (We find ourselves faced with the circumscribed, hemispherical picture of the world, in which the attempt to bear an object that is too heavy to carry leads to disequilibrium and collapse, all the while completely ignoring the fact that such an action never fits within the framework of the Euclidean or Ptolemaic world image).    

54.  Rilke; G I, 40: ‘Dieses Detail ist von einer gewissen Bedeutung nicht nur für dieses Gedicht oder das Werk Rilkes allein, sondern für die zeitgenössische Dichtung ¸berhaupt. Die Tatsache, daß es Rilke gegeben war, sich einer gewissen Wortfolge zu bedienen, erst nachdem er Greco in Toledo erlebt hatte, ist nicht nur interessant, sondern wirft ein erhellendes Licht auf diese innere Beziehung, deren Wichtigkeit diese Ausführungen erhärten möchten. Das genannte Gedicht beginnt « Oft anstaunt ich dich, stand an gestern begonnenem Fenster ». Das Detail, auf welches ich mich beziehe, ist der Gebrauch, den Rilke von dem Adjectiv macht. Rilke gibt hier dem Adjectiv einen durchaus neuen Wert’.

55.  Rilke; G I, 40.

56.  Rilke; G I, 40: ‘ein reines Epitheton ornans […]das kaum den sehr genau begrenzten Wert des Substantivs beeinflußt’.

57.  Rilke; G I, 41-2.

58.  Rilke; G I, 41: ‘Einer der ersten, dieser neuen Haltung künstlerischen Ausdruck verlieht, ist Rilke, da er sich der zitierten Wortfolge bedient. [ ] Was hier in dieser seine Formulierung und auch in den anderen zitierten Beispielen geschieht, ist, daß das Adjectiv seinen determinierenden, fixierenden und perspektivischen Wert verliert und nicht mehr als ein hinzugefügtes Wort Verwendung findet, sondern eine ganzeneue Färbung erhält und eher zu einem verbindenen Wort wird, weil es sich nicht mehr einseitig auf das Substantiv bezieht, dem es rein grammatikalisch beigeordnet ist, sondern auch auf das Subjekt bzw. das Objekt’.

59.  23. Jg., Nr. 5 bis Nr. 20; 6 March - 19 June 1942.

60. Zurich/New York, 1943.

61.  An expanded, illustrated edition appeared two years later, followed by a complete edition in 1950; translations into Dutch, Swedish and Italian appeared (1946, 1947, 1952 respectively) and in the wake of The Ever-Present Origin, a revised edition was published by Europa (Zurich/Frankfurt am Main, Ullstein, 1956), who kept it in continuous print for the next twelve years (reprints: 1960, 1963, 1965, 1968). 

62. Abendländische Wandlungen; G I, 173-85.

63. Abendländische Wandlungen; G I, 277: ‘Wenn die Grundfrage der Physik lautet: Was ist Materie?, wenn die Biologie heit: Was ist Leben?, so stellt die Psychologie die Frage: was ist die Seele?’

64.  Der grammatische Spiegel; G I, 147: In der Struktur des Satzes spiegelt sich ein Teil der seelischen Struktur des Menschen’.

65.  Der grammatische Spiegel; G I 147.

66.  Kommentarband; G IV, 213-36.

67.  Hämmerli, ‘Nachwort des Herausgebers, G VII, 424: ‘Die dichterische Sprache durchwirkt alle philosophische Schriften Jean Gebsers und ist die Gewähr dafür, daß dem Leser konkret erfahrbar wird, was sich begrifflich nicht fixieren und festhälten läßt’.

68. ‘Zur Geschichte der Vorstellungen von Seele und Geist: Zehn Vorlesungen’ (Vorlesungen am Institut für angewandte Psychologie, Zürich, vom 7. Mai bis 26. Juli 1947); G V/1, 7-100.

69.  G V/2, 137.

70.  Lorca; G VII, 100: ‘Und in den letzten Zeichnungen, die ohne Zweifel in den letzten neun Monaten seines Lebens entstanden, spricht sich aus, was ihm Erlösung ist: der Tod, den er vorausfühlt, den er anzieht, der shon in ihm ist. Denn, wie das Leben shon in uns wirksam ist neun Monate vor unserer Geburt, so ist der Tod shon wirksam in uns neun Monate vor unserem Sterben’.

71.  Lorca; G VII, 100: ‘Beide neigen zur Nachseite des Daseins’.

72. On traditions of katabasis, see the important work of Peter Kingsley along with our own study, Waters Animating and Annihilating: Apotheosis by Drowning in the Greek Magical Papyri, in D. Z. Lycourinos, ed., Occult Traditions (Melbourne: Numen, 2012).

73.  Das Traumbuch; G VII, 413: ‘Der Traum warnt mich auch, bei der Abfassung der «Aperspektivischen Welt» das zu berüchtsichtigen, was ich mir in den letzten Zeit oft und oft gesagt habe: die Giwinnung der neuen fünften Ebene in der Allgemein-Entwicklung nicht mit der von mir für mich angestrebten Gewinnung einer neuen Ebene zu verwechseln: also keine Projizierung eigene Bewußtseins-Mutationen in den allgemeinen Ablauf derselben hineinzutragen’.

74.  Whitsunday (‘White Sunday’, also known as Pentecost), commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples. It is celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. In Judaism it commemorates the giving of the Law of Sinai, while in the pagan calendar it marks the onset of summer.

75.  G II, 15. The translation of the title as Ever-Present Origin is Gebsers; cf. Noel Barstads Translators preface to The Ever-Present Origin, xvi, citing a letter from Gebser to Emily Sellon (August 20, 1971).

76.  Cf. Der unsichtbare Ursprung: Evolution als Nachvollzug (Olten, Freiburg i. Br.: Walter, 1970), 9-14; Verfall und Teilhabe: Über Polarität, Dualität, Identität und den Ursprung (Salzburg: O. Müller, 1974), 72-6; G V/II.

77.  On Gebser contra Hegel, see G II, 81-2: immer im Gegensatz zu Hegel und Comte, von der fortdauernden Wirksamkeit der »früheren« Strukturen in uns überzeugt, und darüber hinaus auch von der beginnenden, also schon gegenwärtigen Wirksamkeit der sogennanten »zukünftigen« Struktur in uns. Die Wirksamkeit der sogennanten Vergangenheit, die für Hegel und Comte ein bloßer Leichnam ist, anerkennen wir …’; = EPO, 43: in constant opposition to Hegel and Comte, we are convinced of the continuous effectuality of the earlier structures in us and the incipient, i.e. present effectuality of the so-called future structure. We acknowledge the effectivity of the so-called pastwhich for Hegel and Comte is a mere corpse’.

78.  Jean Keckeis, ‘In Memoriam Jean Gebser’, in The Ever-Present Origin, xx.

79.  The volume bore contributions by quantum physicists, composers, philosophers, sociologists, art historians, poets, literary scholars, phenomenologists, psychologists and medical historians. Contributors included Werner Heisenberg, Luigi Dallapiccola, Arnold Gehlen, Hans-Friedrich Geist, Hans Egon Holthusen, Eugène Minkowski and Henry Sigerist, among others.

80.  The issue of parapsychology appears to have interested Gebser at this time. In January of 1954, alongside philosopher Karl Jaspers and biologist Adolf Portmann, Gebser gave a statement on the topic for Radio Basel as part of a lecture cycle run by Gebhard Frei on the theme Probleme der Parapsychologie (Problems in Parapsychology). This appears to be a recapitulation of the paper he gave to the Parapsychology Congress, which previously appeared in the Parisian Revue Métaphysique 29-30 (Mai-Août, 1954) under the title ‘Conscience et inconscient: Un dilemme trompeur’ (Conscious and Unconscious: A Misleading Dilemma). See G V/2, 181-3; G IV, 158-62. Herein he argues that the distinction in psychology between consciousness and the unconscious, so inherited by parapsychology, is misleading because the simplistic dichotomy overlooks the deeper structures of consciousness articulated by Gebser. In April of the same year, he participated in another parapsychology congress, this time in St-Paul-de-Vence. In general, Gebser made active use of radio as a communication medium. Among the broadcasts with Professor Bender are: Der sinnvolle Zufall (The Meaningful Coincidence, 1953), Über das Unheimliche (On the Uncanny, 20 February 1954), Strukturen mitmenschlicher Kontakte (Structures of Interpersonal Communication, 17 July, 1955). In 1957 and 1958, a two-part lecture series was held for Gebser by the Freunden der Residenz (Friends of the Residenz, the former royal palace located in the heart of Munich) concerning A New Vision of the World (Die Welt in neuer Sicht). Like the St. Gallen lectures, the Residenz talks subsequently appeared in book form. In April and May of 1960, another lecture series was held, this time at the New Helvetica Society (Neuen Helvetischen Gesellschaft) in Bern. The theme was: Ways to the New Reality (Wege zur neuen Wirklichkeit); once again the papers were published under the same title. Contributors included nuclear physicist Friedrich Georg Houtermans, historian Herbert Lüthy, constitutional law scholar, Hans Marti and biologist Adolf Portmann.

81.  ‘Der Verwandlung unserer Wirklichkeit’, G V/I, 161.

82.  Welt ohne Gegenüber’, G V/I, 267.

83.  Asien lächelt anders, G VI, 15-16.

84.  Asien lächelt anders, G VI, 21: ‘Asien ist die Ergänzung Europas, nicht sein Gegensatz’.

85.  The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, (Berkeley, California: Shambhala, 1975).

86.  Cf. Fritjof Capra’s remarks: ‘I had several discussions with Heisenberg. I lived in England then [circa 1972], and I visited him several times in Munich and showed him the whole manuscript chapter by chapter. He was very interested and very open, and he told me something that I think is not known publicly because he never published it. He said that he was well aware of these parallels. While he was working on quantum theory he went to India to lecture and was a guest of Tagore. He talked a lot with Tagore about Indian philosophy. Heisenberg told me that these talks had helped him a lot with his work in physics, because they showed him that all these new ideas in quantum physics were in fact not all that crazy. He realized there was, in fact, a whole culture that subscribed to very similar ideas. Heisenberg said that this was a great help for him. Niels Bohr had a similar experience when he went to China’. (Interviewed by Renée Weber in The Holographic Paradigm, 217–218).

87.  Asien lächelt anders; G VI, 91 ff., 97 ff. Gebser visited the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi (1879-1950) in Tamil Nadu, located at the foot of Arunachala (the red mountain of Arun, regarded by tradition as the embodiment of Shiva).

88. Verfall und Teilhabe; G V/II: Es sei festgehalten: mein Konzept von der Herausbildung eines neuen Bewußtseins, das mir im Winter 1932/33 in einer blitzartigen Eingebung bewußt wurde und das ich seit 1939 darzustellen begann, ähnelt weitgehend dem mir damals dokumentarisch nicht bekannten Weltentwurf Sri Aurobindos’. Cf. also Gebsers clarification in EPO, 102 n. 4.

89.  Asien lächelt anders, G VI, 157.

90.  See G IV 159, 164, 318 (n. 84); II, 318; EPO, 243.     

91.  Asien lächelt anders, G VI, 164. Cf. V/II 88, 102; VI 159, 164; II 318; IV 318 (n. 84).

92.  Die schlafenden Jahre; G VII, 376: ‘Wenn wir geboren werden, schreien und weinen wir, wenn wir sterben, sollten wir lacheln’.

93.  See my 2008 paper, ‘Trust in Mad Strife: Primordial Trust (Urvertrauen) in the Power-sources of Existence (Kräftequellen des Daseins) in the Life and Work of Jean Gebser’ (38th Annual International Jean Gebser Society Conference; Latrobe University, Melbourne, Victoria). 

94.  See especially G V/II, 71.

95.  I treated this theme in my 2009 paper: ‘The Will that Cannot be Willed: Primordial Trust, Alchemical Salt and the Dynamics of Integral Volition’ (39th Annual International Jean Gebser Society Conference; Hofstra University, New York, School of Communication).

96.  Aussagen; G VII, 328.

97.  Rilke; G I, 13.