I often wind up having several things come together in my mind. Recently for me, I found myself putting Goethe’s “active seeing” beside the “interiority of matter” and Naydler’s addressing of ancient Egyptian thought and language in his Shamanic Wisdom of the Pyramid Texts. The result is that I have found myself trying to think and speak like ancient Egyptian priests might, or at least to try to imagine my way into doing so.
Ideals and the Physical World
In his The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus, Gary Lachman describes Goethe’s practice of “active seeing” as follows:
Goethe spoke of what he called ‘active seeing’, a way of observing nature that saw it as living, developing, and purposeful, not as the ‘dead’ mechanism of Mersenne and Descartes. In nature Goethe recognized an animated whole that expressed itself in its innumerable creations and their perpetual transformation…‘Active seeing’ is a way of participating with the thing observed, and not, as the new scientific method proposed, of remaining ‘detached’ and ‘objective’ toward it, which meant, in effect, to treat it as if it were ‘dead’, with no reality other than that which could be weighed and measured. As Goethe practised ‘active seeing’, he discovered that he could perceive what he called the Urpflanze, the archetypal plant from which all others derived, a kind of Platonic ‘blueprint’ that, while not immediately ‘visible’ to the untrained eye, can nevertheless be perceived through [focused] attention to a plant throughout all its stages of development. The key here is that the observer’s consciousness enters into a kind of union with the plant or other object of observation. For Goethe it also happened when he viewed Strasbourg Cathedral during its construction; he could, without seeing the plans, tell before it was finished how the completed structure would look. That is, through his imagination, Goethe could, when practising ‘active seeing’, enter into the inner being of whatever he was observing, in the way that the philosopher Bergson argued ‘intuition’ could.
As much as I think many in the west are willing to acknowledge that Platonic ideas exist in some realm of ideas, I think most of us don’t proceed much further beyond that notion. We’ve generally been told that “ultimate” reality is always deferred. I know that, as I think back upon it, that I always had this sense that it was some other, barred off reality we couldn’t access, and the Aristotelian take predominated instead. However, I also wonder how that ideal, that imaginal something becomes a physical something here.
Because I’m an English major, I cannot help coming at a lot of this initially from a linguistic approach. I remember a mentor explaining Derrida and Deconstruction and the jargon. (“Always use the concepts, never the jargon. People will think you’re an asshole if you use the jargon.”) For Derrida, language is always pointing at things—and, indeed, everything is referential, pointing to other things in a long chain of deferred meanings. For example, what you are “actually” seeing here are pixels and light arranged into myriad shapes. By convention and habit, we treat these particular shapes as “letters” in the Roman alphabet and punctuation and, from them, words, clauses, sentences, paragraphs.
But even a word like cat—as a word divorced of most any context—cat just points to cat-ness, and we bring our contexts into play for how we individually interpret cat. All of your cat-related experiences and specific cats and maybe people named Cat and more will be there to help fill cat with potential meaning. We can make sense of cat nigh instantly—or we almost instantly have many potential meanings to bring to bear, and hopefully whatever we’re reading or interpreting gives us a context to get to some specific meanings.
Ultimately, of course, cat-ness is inaccessible. Every cat is an expression of cat-ness and that includes all those textual cats. Derrida would say that the “transcendental signified” (TS) is always deferred: we can never get at that “true” cat-ness, that Platonic cat-ness. All we can accomplish in trying to get at the TS is to throw more and more words and thoughts formed through language that get us nowhere other than, frustratingly, more words.
Notably, he does offer the caveat that we cannot get at the TS rationally. I noted that little caveat as a student. That is, we can get at that idea, at that TS, through irrational means. Especially since the Cartesian divide, those irrational means have been cast aside, so that they practically haven’t even existed. After all, if you can’t get at something rationally, well, does it even exist?
Of course, it exists. It just defies the facile, neat logic the west adopted as alone capable of discovering or creating meaning.
But, I can imagine being Goethe looking at plants and working to see into the plant, into the plant-ness and the plant’s timeline—the imaginal plant and its expressions here in the physical. I can imagine looking at a structure still under development, imagining and finding its timeline, its future, and—sliding a bit sideways—looking at a place and imagining what its history and future may be. And I don’t have to imagine that Goethe did so because, well, he did so.
Goethe is looking right through you. (by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)
I’ve done something like this, not with Goethe’s proficiency, though. Where I live was once ocean; it is now Texas. I am walking on topsoil atop ancient seas now dry, ancient seas who died, only to become living countryside and cities. Ages ago, the seas were buried under dark waters, and the topsoil has come to cover whatever was here even a million years ago. If you want to feel down into the “weight” of a place, knowing something about geology can help just by giving you something to feel, to imagine with.
Substance and Hollowness
Jeremy Naydler describes ancient attitudes about Egyptian language and thought compared to the Greeks. Naydler offers several historical examples of the Greeks recognizing the importance of ancient Egyptian thought and belief in comparison with the opinion of many modern Egyptologists. Those Egyptologists have generally infantilized the Egyptians because, Naydler argues, the translations of their texts have not yielded the kinds of rational, abstract, philosophical ideas that the west finds in classical culture. Honestly, the scholars can’t see beyond the surface of the texts, and all they can see in that surface are a childlike, primitive people who are materialist and practical. However, Naydler points to a classical era Egyptian attitude towards the differences in the Greek and Egyptian languages (and thought):
There is a Hermetic text (dating from around the second century A.D.) that…gives the Egyptian view of their own mental and linguistic capacities in comparison to those of the Greeks. In this text…it is stated that…[Greek translations of such Egyptian knowledge would] “produce in writing the greatest distortion and unclarity…The very quality of the speech and the sound of Egyptian words have in themselves the energy of the objects they speak of.” The text…goes on to contrast the “empty speech” of the Greeks with the spiritually empowered language of ancient Egypt. The Greek language is too feeble, too arrogant, and too superficial to be able to convey the mysteries expressed in the original Egyptian. In this passage we are given a glimpse of how the Egyptians viewed their own tradition and contrasted it with the “abstract terminology” of their successors.
It may be tempting to view this as boasting on the Egyptian’s part, but Naydler reminds us about Plato’s account of Solon meeting with Egyptian priests in Timaeus, who in exasperation declare the “Greeks are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among [them].”
I sat with these ideas, and with Goethe’s “active seeing” and the interiority of matter. The Egyptian language was not “hollow” or (perhaps) facile like the Greek language was considered. The Egyptian language and thought was substantive where the Greek tended towards abstraction. As a culture far more directly descended from the Greek, we seem to lean towards similarly facile language and thinking. The Egyptologists cannot see beyond the surface of the ancient texts, and because they cannot do so, they see only pictures and stories of gods and animal-headed beings and Nile inundations and, as Naydler argues against in his book, “funerary practices” as being the only significance of these texts.
I tried to think about these things, tried myself to imagine such substantive things and ideas while looking out the window at work at sky and trees. Naydler argues that the Egyptians relied on “mystical,” “experiential” knowledge: they would go experience some state or reality and thus would know it in ways that the Greeks (and too often us) can only access abstractly.
I tried to imagine such a way of being in the world, and as Goethe and the Egyptians demonstrate, the imagination can accomplish much. I felt like I was glancing against something deeper than me, or maybe I was trying to think hyperthickly. I gazed out at clouds and sky and trees and buildings—mostly sky—and the words and wordy thoughts I could immediately bring to bear were these rambling, childish, simplistic little things that buzzed about—like flies trying to describe titans.
I found myself tending to two responses. The first was to stop wording at it, to let my mind be “silent” in that regard while trying to just expand closer or go into whatever ideas about this stuff I’d glanced against. This got me thinking about this spell from the Book of the Dead:
I gather magic from every place
And from everyone who has it,
Swift as a greyhound, quick as light…
Which comes from the womb of the Mother [Nuit];
Which comes from out of the silence;
Which comes from the Mother.
That silence—let alone the god-conjuring and god-warming (animating, quickening, inspiriting) and form-creating magic—worked better for me in trying to get the “shape” of what I was glancing against outside. This process actually got me feeling, well, not stoned but definitely high and not quite all here.
The second response I noted was distraction—the surfaces and images around me in my office almost felt like they were trying to claw my attention back.
I’ve pondered how to try to bring whatever this way of knowing closer or to somehow “exteriorize” it from where it is at the moment. I felt as if my body had a better time feeling it—and I started letting vowels and sounds try to come forth in response to whatever I was noticing. In essence, I tried using my body’s dark senses and let my body speak the sounds or words aloud. Lots of vowels, and maybe I’ve been looking at PGM barbarous names a lot lately, but I was definitely reminded of them. And, at that point, I also can’t help but think about Alkistis Dimech’s work on the occulted body and using your dark senses as a way to communicate, to con-verse with spirits and place and more, not in shallow words (at least not at first) but through something more substantive and experiential.
Sadly, I wish I had something more “substantive” to point to. I have found myself reflecting on my own “substance,” my own deeper selfhood that’s also there—or can be—in this kind of work. And I wonder how much the barbarous names ultimately come from such an experience of the world.
In a way, it’s an attempt to speak the things themselves, and another part of me wonders if I’m overcomplicating this process. What I am seeing, perceiving imperfectly I do so through my imagination, through my imaginal faculty. What I perceive defies easy languaging, but what I am wanting to do is to make exterior what at the moment feels only interior to me, only in my imagination. That’s Jung-style Red Booking—or, far more accurately, Jung was rediscovering what the ancient Egyptians already known.
The Egyptians probably weren’t speaking in metaphor and allegory. I suspect they viewed the Greek’s “figures of speech” and troping of language (metaphor, simile, etc.) as surface prattle, as mere word games. The Egyptologists looked at the Pyramid Texts and more and could only see surface narratives and tried to “interpret” them metaphorically—and failing that, they could only conclude that the Egyptians were simple children playing with animals and pictures. Instead, the Egyptians had experienced and known the deeper, realer side of things, and that reality was Anubis, Osiris, Isis, and Nuit. It was form-creating, god-conjuring, god-warming magic, not just symbolism.
There’s something pleasingly safe about abstraction. It ultimately doesn’t have to do anything. It doesn’t have to matter. Indeed, it specifically avoids matter. And we live in an abstract world, a world of surfaces that we can easily manipulate to little result. To think like, to speak like the ancient Egyptian priests and magicians is a different enterprise entirely.
Featured Image: “The White Desert – between Farafra and Bahariya oasis – western Egypt” by Nomo (Michael Hoefner) (CC-SA-2.5)
 Jeremy Naydler, The Shamanic Wisdom of the Pyramid Texts: The Mystical Tradition of Ancient Egypt (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2005), 39.
 Naydler, 40.
 Jeremy Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996), 126. The translation appears to be Naydler’s, and it differs from Faulkner’s and Budge’s. Faulkner translates the silence as “the gods are hushed” and the “womb of the Mother” as “the mother who created you.” “God-warming magic” Faulkner renders as “your mother has made you warm for the gods,” which makes little sense. See Raymond O. Faulkner, translator, The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day, edited by Eva von Dassow, 20th anniversary edition, revised edition (San Francisco: Chronicle, 2015), plate 15-A. Budge translates magic as “charm,” but “[the charm]…created the forms of being from the…mother, and which either createth the gods or maketh them silent, and which giveth the heat of fire unto the gods.” See Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, translator, The Book of the Dead: The Chapters of Coming Forth by Day (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1898), 71. Ultimately, I find Naydler’s translation works better, makes more sense, and actually helps me make sense of my experience here.