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Cosmos and Inscape

‘Kosmos und Innenwelt’ from Am Fluss des Heralklit: Neue kosmologische Perspektiven. Insel Verlsag, 1993

Cosmology is generally considered to be the scientific study of the universe, a branch of physics and astronomy concerned with answering questions about the structure of matter and energy at the largest scale, and the nature of its ultimate origin. Within this century the goals of cosmology and of fundamental physics have coincided in that they both attempt to discover the deepest laws and to probe the most basic levels of matter; their ultimate aim being to unify the many descriptions into a single all-embracing theory.

According to some thinkers, physics has never been closer to achieving this unification, for the study of matter at extremely high energies and short time intervals not only deals in terms of elementary entities such as quarks and superstrings but at the same time casts light upon the possible Big Bang origin of the universe. The conditions under which these supposedly most elementary entities of matter are produced, appear identical to those that must have existed during the first vanishingly short time intervals during the formation of the universe.

Thus the cosmos is envisioned as emerging in a burst of space-time and energy out of a single quantum fluctuation, and the unfolding of matter and energy out of these primordial quantum processes as taking place according to a single all-embracing law; a law moreover which had, in a certain sense existence indeed prior to the cosmos itself.

The cosmology of the twentieth century therefore becomes an attempt to explain all that is by means of a single, unified intellectual scheme. But can such a goal ever be achieved, indeed, is such a cosmology truly all-embracing? After all, for most of us cosmology has a more immediate sense, for it is concerned with the existential fact of our being in the universe. It is about the tension between the immediacy of our experience and our need to contain, metabolize and symbolize it.

Cosmology has its origin in the very fact of our being alive. Our universe is ourselves, our history and memories, our relationships, needs, desires, values and emotions. Our universe lies in the immanence of matter and in the numinous power that we are sometimes privileged to touch. It is that same power of mystery or spirit that has always been present in art, music, drama, literature, religious ceremonies and the insights of individual scientists.

A true cosmology must therefore involve an integration of the inner and outer, objective and subjective, matter and spirit, art and science, individual and society into a single manner of being. This, I believe may long ago have been the case in our culture at a time when society as a whole provided contexts and values that made our connection with nature and the numinous was more immediate.

I sense a similar integration, a cosmology of heart and head, within the world view of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Over the past few years I have been privileged to explore some of these questions with friends from the Blackfoot,  Mi’kmaq, Iroquoian and Cree peoples. In every case I have been struck by their direct sense of relatedness to the universe.

For a traditional person matter and spirit, the immediate and transcendent, are equally present in the world that surrounds them. Indeed, their science and their spirituality remains intensely practical. They have no need to fragment and divide knowledge and experience, or to create an art that is somehow different from religion, a science that is separated from the sacred. No, the essence of their worldview, it seems to me, lies in acknowledging direct relationship with all living things, and with the recognition that all things are possessed of animation and spirit—and this includes not only the insects, birds, fish, animals and plants, but also the rocks and trees, winds and stars. Indeed, within such a universe, matter and spirit, mind and body have never become categorized or separated by thought.

But this sense of acknowledgement of the energies or spirits of the cosmos, of what is at one and the same time both transcendent yet immanent in matter, also brings with it the obligation to celebrate and renew the relationship between The People and these powers. The Sundance of the Blackfoot, and other Plains Indians, for example, is both an act of sacrifice and a ceremony that renews their relationship to the whole order of creation. Likewise, the Waltersgame of theMi’kmaq —which to casual eyes appears to be an elaborate gambling game—is, in essence, a reconnection to the alliances that were once made between the ancestors of The People and the Keepers of the Animals and the other powers of nature. And, because in the Native American worldview time is always returning into itself, it is always possible to make a direct connection to the primal moment of relationship and creation.

I have dwelt upon the cosmology of the Indigenous peoples of North America because I believe that it can both illuminate and connect us to something that is felt to missing within our modern Western way of life. Our lack of connection arises, I believe, from the way we have distanced ourselves from the cosmos and through the tendency of our thought, and our Indo-European languages, to objectivity the world around us. Within the Algonquin family of languages, spoken by theMi’kmaq, Cree and Blackfoot, their strongly verbal base supports a vision of nature involving process and animation; our own noun-oriented languages, however, suggest a world of objects that can be analyzed through the processes of conceptualization and categorization.

Yet there are always moments when our sense of separation is transcended, when our inner and outer worlds cohere. The Irish writer, James Joyce understood these as Epiphanies, the moments of sudden insight and illumination in which the events and memories of a person’s life integrate together. Such moments were expressed in several of his short stories, notably ‘The Dead’ from his collection Dubliners.

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli and the psychologist Carl Jung also explored the idea of a transcendent connection. Pauli for his part used the image of the speculum, or mirror, that while reflecting the objective into the subjective, and vice versa, belongs to neither. Jung explored the psychoid that bridges the order between mind and matter and, with Pauli, those meaningful patterns called synchronicities that transcend our temporary divisions of consciousness and matter.

For my part, I suggest that in our deepest moments we experience the world as inscape, rather than as an objectified, externalized, landscape. The word, inscape, itself comes from the English poet and priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins whose poetry probed the inner-dwellingness of nature. To engage the world as inscape therefore brings us close to what I mean by cosmology in its widest sense—in the sense of the existential immediacy of the cosmos as it presents itself to us, and our participation within it.

To see the world as inscape is to acknowledge that each of our experiences is limitless, authentic and unconditioned. To come into contact with nature, enter into a relationship, read a poem, watch a play, or contemplate a work of art is to open ourselves into an unlimited world of experience and a multiplicity of levels of meaning. Inscape calls upon us to seek and to respond to the authentic voice that lies within all things. It asks us to realize that all attempts at description, and all levels of existence are, of their very nature, provisional and contingent.

It is important to emphasize that the purpose of this discussion is not simply to propose a new way of speaking about subjective experience, rather it possesses a corresponding objective correlate. Indeed, as Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli proposed, subjectivity and objectivity are complementary aspects of something that is far more embracing. Carl Jung, for his part explored the objective nature of subjectivity—what he called the collective or objective unconscious—and so too the physicist Pauli suggested that there is a subjective component within the objective world of matter.

The objective and subjective become united within the inscape of the world and, thus, within our perceptions and relationships for in them we partake of the boundless cosmos—the realm beyond the limits of objectivity and subjectivity. This vibrancy, this animation of all that is, this inner illumination that we sense within all things, lies at the heart of our experience and our creative response to existence—it is our science, our art, our religion and our drama.

It is for this reason, I believe, that physics has no end, other than its integration into some other, more holistic process of knowing and being. It is for this reason that cosmology can never be reduced to a single law or built upon a most fundamental material level. For every law is provisional and context-dependent, and every material level is contingent upon something that lies beyond it.

Another way in which we can explore the fact of our engagement within the cosmos is through the nature of time. Physics, from the time of Newton on, has externalized time, picturing it as a flowing stream that moves, inexorably and quite independently of us, from past into present and on into the future. On the other hand, our personal experience of time is profoundly different, exhibiting a multiplicity of levels and appearances.

I would like to suggest that time also possesses the aspect of inscape. Just as Newton drew attention to the external, landscape of time; the flowing movement in which an infinitesimal present separates a future that does not exist from a past that has vanished forever, I would like to focus in this essay upon time’s inscape.

To understand the inscape of time is to enter into the boundless immediacy of the present. It is to suggest that time is immanent within all things and directly accessible to our experience. Thus, rather than time being a movement external to us that stretches beyond our immediate perception into the distant past and the far future, what could be called the dynamics of time become accessible from within the present. By this I mean that the present moment is a door that opens onto the many levels, perceptions and experiences of time.

It was Marcel Proust who, in A la recherche du temps perdu explored this fullness of time. ‘Une heure n’est pas qu’une heure, c’est une vase rempli de parfums, de sons, de projects et de climats.… Ce que nous appelons la réalité, est un certain rapport entre ces sensations et ces souvenirs qui nous entourent simultanément. [An hour is not just an hour, it is a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, projects and climates. What we call reality is a certain relationship between these sensations and these memories which simultaneously surround us.] There are a variety of instances within Proust where the boundless excavations of time, memory and experience begin with the immediacy of a particular sensation or memory.

To perceive time as inscape is to understand that reality, and the fact of our being, exists always within the present. The past is created by us, and to revisit the past is to engage in this act of creation. Indeed, when we speak of transformation and personal growth it is not so much that we seek to free oneself from the past as to engage in the full, free and dynamic movements of the present. In this way it is not we who are freed from the past but we ourselves who act to free that past into its continuous unfolding present.

And again I want to stress that I am not simply speaking at the subjective level or proposing a particular perception of the movement of time. No, I am suggesting that, at the purely material level, the dynamics of time are to be discovered within the present; that time and matter are inexorably tied together, complementary aspects of the one reality, rather than matter being immersed in a flowing river of times.

Rather than the cosmos stretching beyond us and external to us, it is immanent within everything we touch, enter into, and dream about. Each moment is a door into an unfolding, boundless infinity. In short, at every instant of our lives we have the opportunity to touch the numinous. The tension of our existence lies, therefore, not is our imagined distance from the transcendent qualities of the cosmos but in our need to contain them within our daily lives.

Western science represents one attempt to contain this transcendent nature of reality though reason, mathematics and a search for truth, beauty and unity. And, as can be clearly seen when reading about the lives of every great scientist, their individual guiding impulses are indistinguishable from those found in art and religion. The artist is also concerned with the challenge of containing and symbolizing the numinous. I feel, for example, that my thesis is far better expressed in a single apple painted by Cézanne—for one sees within the very brush strokes that continuous movement of engagement with the vibrant reality of the apple, with its inscape if you like. Yet it is an inscape that spills over and unifies itself into the inscape of the artist himself, the canvas and the perceptions of the viewer.

Thus for Cézanne, and for we who stand before his work, cosmology is contained within an apple. For in this image lies all the immanence of the material world and the numinous potential of spirit. To contemplate Cézanne’s apple is to enter into a well of time, a moment of awareness that links us in our own immediate present to that of the painter, it is to partake in the an act of unfoldment that takes us to the very meaning and origin of matter, to the Big Bang itself, and forward into the distant future.