The Ever-Present Origin: Swiss Poet, Philosopher, and Linguist Jean Gebser’s Prescient 1949 Vision for the Evolution of Consciousness

“Origin is ever-present. It is not a beginning, since all beginning is linked with time… not just the ‘now’… or a unit of time. It is ever-originating, an achievement of full integration and continuous renewal.”

The Ever-Present Origin: Swiss Poet, Philosopher, and Linguist Jean Gebser’s Prescient 1949 Vision for the Evolution of Consciousness

“Time is being and being time, it is all one thing, the shining, the seeing, the dark abounding,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her splendid “Hymn to Time” shortly before she returned her borrowed being to eternity.

Le Guin had just begun her existence in 1932. At a time when the world was still recovering from its first war global and was tense with new forces, Le Guin became a Swiss poet, philosopher and linguist. Jean Gebser (August 20, 1905–May 14, 1973) saw, in what he later described as a “lightning-like flash of inspiration,” the elemental disruption of the human spirit pulsating beneath the savage tumults of the surface: our altered relationship with time — a transformation catalyzed by the Galilean dawn of timekeeping in the sixteenth century, accelerated by the invention of motion photography in the nineteenth, and exploded by the birth of relativity in the twentieth.

Jean Gebser

Gebser, who swam in Jung’s circles and drank at Rilke’s fount, realized that for us creatures of time, creatures whose very consciousness is woven of temporality, an altered relationship with time is an altered relationship with ourselves — inner upheaval so profound on the scale of the individual, and so total on the scale of the species, that every major upheaval in the outer world can be traced to it when followed back closely and lucidly enough. Gebser stated that to be more harmonious with oneself and the other requires a re-evaluation of our relationship towards time.

For seventeen years, through the next World War and its aftermath, he turned these ideas over in his mind, turned them into poetry and turned them into prose, eventually distilling them in the 1949 masterwork The Ever-Present Origin (public library) — an effort “to render transparent our own origin, our entire human past, as well as the present, which already contains the future.”

Discus chronologicus — a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, included in Cartographies of Time. Available as a printed clock and as an indoor wall clock.

Gebser wrote:

The origin is always present. Since all beginnings are linked to time, it isn’t a beginning. And the present is not just the “now,” today, the moment or a unit of time. It is ever-originating. This means that it can be achieved in continuous integration. Anyone able to “concretize,” i.e., to realize and effect the reality of origin and the present in their entirety, supersedes “beginning” and “end” and the mere here and now.

Gebser began writing for his generation but found that as time passed into decades, the topic was both timeless and rediscovered by each generation with increasing urgency. He observes, in a remarkable passage that resonates for our time:

The crisis we are experiencing today is not just… a crisis of morals, economics, ideologies, politics or religion. This crisis isn’t just in America and Europe, but also in Russia and Far East. It is a crisis of the world and mankind such as has occurred previously only during pivotal junctures — junctures of decisive finality for life on earth and for the humanity subjected to them. The crisis of our times and our world is in a process — at the moment autonomously — of complete transformation, and appears headed toward an event which… can only be described as a “global catastrophe.” … We must soberly face the fact that only a few decades separate us from that event. This span of time is determined by an increase in technological feasibility inversely proportional to man’s sense of responsibility — that is, unless a new factor were to emerge which would effectively overcome this menacing correlation.

To ward off the menace, Gebser cautions, we need to find this “new factor,” to seize it for all it is worth and wrest from it the transformation — which he calls a “mutation” of consciousness — necessary for ensuring our continuance as a planetary species.

In a sentiment evocative of the Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön’s insight that “only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us,” he writes:

If we do not overcome the crisis it will overcome us; and only someone who has overcome himself is truly able to overcome… Either time is fulfilled in us — and that would mean the end and death for our present earth and (its) mankind — or we succeed in fulfilling time: and this means integrality and the present, the realization and the reality of origin and presence.

The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings. This print is also available as a stationery card, a mask, or as a printed copy.

Gebser anchors all of his arguments in the foundation fact of time. Out of this comes the poetic truth about the present.

Like the source before all times is all that is left, the present is all of what is temporal or time-bound. It includes all of yesterday, today, tomorrow and all of pre-temporal, timeless, and all of eternity.

With an eye to how the Renaissance discovery of perspective in art and architecture radicalized our relationship to space, thus revolutionizing our consciousness itself, Gebser argues that a similar transformation needs to take place in our relationship to time — a shift from the “unperspectival” past to a properly perspectival present that opens the portal to an “aperspectival” future, something beyond perspective, implying a fully integrated and interconnected consciousness indivisible into separate perspectives — the ultimate way of achieving perspective,” we might say. In a sentiment of staggering prescience nearly a century later — which is also a touching testament to our being a perennial work in progress that continually mistakes itself for near-complete — he writes:

The condition of today’s world cannot be transformed by technocratic rationality, since both technocracy and rationality are apparently nearing their apex; nor can it be transcended by preaching or admonishing a return to ethics and morality, or in fact, by any form of return to the past.

There is only one way to look at the signs of age. We must dig deep enough into them so that they do not corrupt and destroy us. It is important to not only focus on these events, but also the humus beneath them, where there are immeasurable seedlings that will emerge. Because our understanding of the forces pushing towards development assists their unfolding, we must make seedlings and incipient beginnings visible.

Coffee plant and bean from French artist Étienne Denisse’s luscious 19th-century natural history drawings of some of Earth’s most otherworldly fruit and flowers. This print is available as a cut-board, a paper, or stationery card, with a donation to the New York Botanical Garden.

A new consciousness and a new reality, Gebser cautions, can only arise from a more intimate and examined knowledge of the past and its pitfalls — “a consciousness of the whole, an integral consciousness encompassing all time and embracing both man’s* distant past and his approaching future as a living present,” which is not an intellectual but a spiritual orientation to time. In a lovely antidote to the diffusion of responsibility that marks our social species — and that, in its most urgent present manifestation, has landed us in our climate catastrophe — he roots us back into the tiny, infinite locus of our personal potentiality:

If our consciousness, that is, the individual person’s awareness, vigilance, and clarity of vision, cannot master the new reality and make possible its realization, then the prophets of doom will have been correct. Alternatives are illusions. Therefore, we have great expectations and must fulfill our responsibilities.

Gebser argues that it is only by rendering transparent “the concealed and latent aspects” of our dawning future, in those vital periods of transition, that we come to fully “clarify our own experiencing of the present.” Affirming humanistic contemporary Erich Fromm’s insistence on the need to move beyond the simplistic divide of optimism and pessimism, Gebser calls for “overcoming the mere antithesis of affirmation and negation” as essential to this evolution in consciousness by which we can attain the new reality — “a reality functioning and effectual integrally, in which intensity and action, the effective and the effect co-exist; one where origin… blossoms forth anew; and one in which the present is all-encompassing and entire.”

He also adds an important disclaimer that is consistent with the basic ethos MarginalianIt resonates with why I spend my nights and days with visionaries such as Gebser.

The old must be known before the new can be discerned.

The Temple of Time: A GuideEmma Willard, a visionary information designer and cartographer of the 19th century. Available as a printed version.

Looking back on the history of ideas — which is the history of our resistance to change, strewn with what David Byrne called “sleeping beauties”: creative and intellectual breakthroughs that lay dormant for centuries and millennia, rejected by their contemporaries, only to be affirmed and accepted epochs later — Gebser considers Democritus’s atomic theory, two millennia ahead of particle physics, and Zeno’s anticipation of relativity, worlds ahead of Einstein, and writes:

This was all inceptions. These were anticipations.

In a sentiment Bertrand Russell would echo two years later in the seventh of his ten commandments of critical thinking for a more possible future — “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.” — Gebser adds:

Acceptance and elucidation of the “new” always meets with strong opposition, since it requires us to overcome our traditional, our acquired and secure ways and possessions. It means suffering, pain, struggle, unpredictability, and other similar emotions that everyone tries to avoid.

In the remainder of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser goes on to explore the three consciousness structures that have marked the history of our species — the magic, the mystical, and the mental: all springing from origin, but each successive one increasing the intensity of consciousness. He dismantles the Western thinking’s limiting dualisms along his way to present a clear, glowing vision of a new way of being. It is freer, more present and more complete.

Giuliano cucco, art for Before I Grew Up. John Miller.

Gebser’s postscript, written in 1950 amid two World Wars, and now petrified by the terror of Cold War terror, calls for the most heroic and courageous of us. This is the part that has been even more attacked by the mass cowardice and cynicism of our time. It all happens in this transitional world Gebser predicted:

At a time when mankind is suffering… from scepticism and suspicion or… from ideological anxiety, anyone audacious enough to recall some basic values that run counter to the superficial course of events and seem to lack any immediate “efficiency” in a world given over to quantification is all too readily dismissed as being, in the familiar clichés, “unrealistic” and “idealistic.” These are perhaps the most innocuous of the terms used by those who confuse realism with material utility and thus fall prey to a dualistic fallacy even where it has nothing to do with idealism. They lack the ability to perceive those power of which idealism and realism are only concepts and classification aspects. There is also the resistance to change that persists, even when it becomes obvious it cannot solve a problem. The emerging transformation will be impossible for anyone who considers the present to be more than a moment in time, even at their best hours. Only the people who can make the present a source of infinite plenitude, life and spirit that is never interrupted and from which all other crucial constellations and formations will be completed are likely to succeed.

Plate taken from an original theory or new hypothesis of the universe by Thomas Wright (1750). Available as both a printed copy and stationery card.

A short verse from “Das Wintergedicht” — the long 1944 “Winter Poem” through which Gebser first gave shape to the ideas that became The Ever-Present Origin, composed in a single forty-five-minute burst of creative force — captures the heart of his timeless and atemporal insight into the urgency of being:

Who can speak of the future but you?
Who is counted?
It goes like this:
“It shall be”?
Take a look outward
And you can look within.
You can.

Complement with physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic meditation on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety, then revisit the nineteenth-century psychiatrist and mountaineer Maurice Bucke’s pioneering theory of cosmic consciousness, formulated half a century before Gebser, and cosmologist Stephon Alexander, writing a century after him, on dreams, consciousness, and the nature of the universe.

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands every month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. Every dollar counts.


MarginalianReceive a weekly free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Related Posts