Primal Trust or Primal Fear?

Primal Trust or Primal Fear?

When he was a teenager the German/Swiss philosopher Jean Gebser (1905-1973) experienced something that would stay with him the rest of his life.

It was so significant that it would later inform the work for which he is most known, his magnum opus, The Ever-Present Origin, a monumental history of human consciousness in terms of its different “structures.”

On the face of it, what happened to Gebser was not uncommon; most of us have found ourselves in a similar situation. But Gebser drew a deep insight from a challenge that others may have let pass without too much reflection.

What happened to Gebser? As part of his school requirements, he was forced to jump from a diving board that stretched high above a deep pool. Learning to swim was mandatory at his school and Gebser was obliged to face what was called “free swimming.” This had the student plunge into deep water and do his best to stay afloat for ten minutes unaided. For someone just learning to swim this would no doubt cause some concern. But Gebser had already had more than one close call involving water. When he was a year old, his mother’s carelessness resulted in him almost drowning in the bath. And some years later, as a young boy he slipped and almost plummeted from a steep cliff into a river below. So now, with other boys urging him on, and his teacher waiting, Gebser had to consciously face and literally throw himself into what had earlier traumatised him.

Those few seconds before the young Gebser took what would be the first of many “leaps into the unknown,” crystalised in him what years later would be a guiding insight of his life’s work. “It was then,” he later wrote in an unfinished autobiographical account, “that I lost my fear in the face of uncertainty. A sense of confidence began to mature within me which later determined my entire bearing and attitude toward life, a confidence in the sources of our strength of being, a confidence in their immediate accessibility. This is an inner security that is fully effective only when we are able to do whatever we do not for our own sake…”[1]

Years later this confidence in the face of uncertainty would form the basis of Gebser’s notion of what he called Urvertrauen, “primal trust,” a deep sense of well-being and acceptance of life. This is the counterpart of Urangst, or “primal fear,” the underlying anxiety that characterises most of our attitudes toward the world.

We are familiar with angst. It is that background sense of unease that the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed was the underlying condition of humanity, a view of human existence taken up by Martin Heidegger and the existentialists that followed. It isn’t caused by anything in particular, but is a kind of free-floating anxiety, what the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski described as living with “the feeling of an all-encompassing crisis without being able to identify its causes…” By now the term, once unfamiliar, has become part of everyday vernacular and has even become a verb: we can “angst” about some trivial worry or other, and we do, much of the time.

It’s opposite, the kind of “trust” the young Gebser felt when, as the writer Joseph Conrad advised, “into the destructive element” he “immersed” – leaping into the unknown and some very deep water – is less common. In fact, “trust” in just about anything is in short supply these days, and those among us who do display some evidence of it are usually considered fools or naïve by those who don’t. But just as angst has no specific cause or reason – the angst we say we feel about our bank balance is not true angst – the “trust” the young Gebser discovered as he stepped off the diving board, wasn’t trust in anything in particular, not in the life guard on duty or the solicitousness of his classmates, but in the sources of life itself. It was a trust in the belief that life means well by us, even if there may seem scant evidence of this and a surfeit of evidence to the contrary.

In the years that followed Gebser’s leap into the unknown, he had more than deep water to worry about. Or, one could say that the deep water he plunged into would, metaphorically, soon extend across most of Europe. His family suffered from a financial crisis in the early 1920s. Relations between his parents were not good and in 1922, Gebser’s father died from the results of a suicide attempt. Gebser was forced to leave school and, still a teenager, find work. He did, at a bank, but his heart wasn’t in it and he took another leap when he abandoned his well-paying job and threw himself into a short-lived publishing venture with a friend. (Although most known, if at all, as a philosopher, Gebser was also a poet.)

From the late 1920s until the outset of WWII, Gebser led a wandering life across Europe, leaving one newly settled existence and venturing into the unknown yet again, just before danger struck. In 1929 he left Germany just as Hitler’s Nazis were beginning their rise to power. In Spain, during the Civil War, he escaped Franco’s fascists just before his apartment was bombed. He was almost shot at the French border, but manage to cross it safely; the same could not be said for his friend, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was shot by the Nationalists. A few years later, when the nascent Nazis he had seen a decade earlier were threatening all of Europe, he managed to cross the border from France, which would soon fall, just before it closed, and reached Switzerland, where he would remain, with other exiles, waiting out the catastrophe.

Through all of this, the insight that came to Gebser as he poised to leap into the unknown decades earlier, grew within him. The “primal trust” that had helped him take the plunge years ago now guided him through the increasingly dangerous socio-political currents that criss-crossed the continent. It was during his time in Spain that the central insight which he would spend decades labouring to unpack came to him. It concerned the evidence he believed existed for the idea that, since the first appearance of human consciousness many millennia ago, it had “mutated” into different forms, and was now, in the early 20th century, going through yet another mutation. It was while working on a study of the poetry of Rilke, that the “lightning like insight,” as Gebser called it, came to him.

It is interesting that Rilke’s poetry had such an effect on Gebser. Rilke, too, knew what Gebser meant by “primal trust.” In a document entitled “Experience,” Rilke tried to describe a peculiar feeling that came over him in 1912, while staying at the Duino Castle, where the inspiration for his remarkable Duino Elegies came to him. Rilke writes that, as he walked along the grounds of the castle, he came upon a short, shrub-like tree, which forked just at his shoulder height. Rilke reclined into it, and felt remarkably relaxed. Soon he fell into a kind of mystical state. He writes that it was “as though imperceptible vibrations were passing into him from the interior of the tree…” Sensations he would not normally have noticed entered his consciousness and he felt as if he had somehow “got to the other side of Nature,” it’s interiority, its inner world. Everything he looked at seemed to offer some insight, some meaning, that was just on the threshold of revealing itself. On another occasion, a profound calm and quietness came over him. He felt that “everything was in tune with me,” and that he had entered a space as “undisturbed as the interior of a rose.”[2]

It was out of this great peace, this “angelic space, in which one keeps quite still,” that the powerful poetic vision of the Angel of the Elegies came to Rilke. The Angel was “terrible,” meaning awesome and tremendous, yet its message to the poet was that it was his task to “praise” the things of the earth, the ordinary, everyday things. Not to sing of ineffable mysteries – the Angel knew those already – but of the simple, yet incomprehensibly miraculous existence of “House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window…”. For to say them as the poet does increases their being in ways that, had he remained mute, would never have been. This is the “praise in spite of” that Rilke sang of in his Sonnets to Orpheus, the “yea-saying” that, in spite of all suffering and pain, rises up in the poet’s heart. It is a saying yes to life, in all its uncertainty, that is rooted in the same trust that Gebser discovered on the high dive and helped him through other crises.

This trust or, to put it another way, lack of anxiety in the face of uncertainty, can appear in the most despairing of situations, and can be  awakened by the most unexpected things. While working as a correspondent for a British newspaper during the Spanish Civil War, the writer Arthur Koestler came as close to death as Gebser did, but his proximity to it lasted much longer. Koestler was arrested by the fascists – his communist past did not help him here – and spent more than three months in prison, expecting to be shot at any moment, never knowing if each day would be his last, before he was finally released. In his autobiography, Koestler recounts that, in order to pass the time, he began to scratch mathematical formulae on the wall with a bit of iron spring he had taken from his bed (he was forbidden to write and not allowed paper and pencil).

When he managed to scratch out Euclid’s proof that the number of primes is infinite, something odd happened.[3] Looking at the formula, Koestler fell into a state of “enchantment,” an obliviousness to everything around him. What triggered this? It was that the formula was a “meaningful and comprehensive statement about the infinite.” Why was this important? Because it turned the “infinite” into something concrete and real, rather than an abstraction. And it was a reality that Koestler participated in. It was there, right in front of him on the prison wall. Koestler writes that he had tasted the “fragrance of eternity” and felt the quiver of the “arrow in the blue,” and could not recall how long he remained so entranced, murmuring “this is perfect – perfect.” But then a nagging memory began to draw him out his trance, some “trivial circumstance that marred the perfection of the moment.” What was it? The recollection that, ah, yes, he was in jail and might be shot at any moment. To which Koestler responded: “So what? Is that all? Have you nothing more serious to worry about?”[4]

Koestler’s encounter with infinity left him with the feeling that his “I” had ceased to exist, in the sense that it had been made irrelevant. The veil had fallen from things and he had glimpsed the “real reality”  underneath. This was “the hidden order of things… normally obscured by layers of irrelevancy.” He came to call this reality “the invisible writing”; it was a kind of secret code that, in moments like this, suddenly becomes as plain as day. All the tension of awaiting his execution had been drained away; he experienced a profound catharsis, the “peace that passeth all understanding.” Later, what remained was a “serene and fear-dispelling after effect that lasted for days.”

We may not be like Koestler, waiting in a cell, expecting to be shot. Or like Gebser, standing on the edge of a high-dive, confronting the unknown and our fears. But as they did, we live in a time of profound unrest and uncertainty, and the kind of angst they and their contemporaries knew is not unknown to us. We would not be exaggerating to suggest that it has even increased. From climate change to social disorder, wars, pandemics, and much more, recent years have seen a dizzying multiplicity of crises which has left many of us feeling helpless. There is a real sense of things falling apart, of a world changing too quickly for its inhabitants to keep up with. This is something Gebser himself believed was happening: that human consciousness was going through another “mutation,” and in the process, the world of the previous “structure of consciousness” – the rational, scientific, “modern” world – was breaking down, in order to make way for the new structure, which Gebser called the Integral.

I cannot go into detail about this here. But what Gebser envisions as the emerging form of consciousness has, as its essence, the “primal trust” he experienced that day on the diving board. Many years later, Gebser experienced it again, during his journey to India. It happened in Sarnath, the site, legend has it, of the Buddha’s first sermon. Gebser wrote that the experience happened with “crystal clarity in everyday life,” but that it was at the same time a “transfiguration and irradiation of the indescribable…” He speaks of an “unearthly, transparent light” that evoked a “quiet jubilation,” awakening again his sense of “primal trust” and bringing with it a “knowledge of invulnerability.”[5] He said that since that experience “everything is in its proper place.” And as had Koestler waiting in his cell, Gebser found that his “I,” the everyday careworn ego, had become an irrelevancy. It did not disappear. But it and its worries were no longer important.

Perhaps we can take heart in the knowledge that the “primal trust” that Gebser embraced as he leaped into the unknown is there for us as well, as we face our own uncertain times. Let us hope we have trust enough to trust it when it comes.


[1] Jean Keckeis “In Memoriam Jean Gebser” in Jean Gebser The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Noel Barstad and Algis Mickunas (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985) p. xvii.

[2] Rainer Maria Rilke Duino Elegies trans. J. B. Leishman and Stepen Spender (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1939) pp. 124-26.

[3] Primes are numbers which cannot be divided evenly expect by 1 or themselves. 3, 5, 7 are primes; there is no formula for arriving at the highest prime number.

[4] Arthur Koestler The Invisible Writing (London: Macmillan Co, 1969) pp. 428-30.

[5] Quoted in Georg Feuerstein Structures of Consciousness (Lower Lake, CA: Integral Publishing, 1987) p. 173.

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Date: July 5, 2024
Author: Gary Lachman (Great Britain)
Photo: blue-Bild von Pexels auf Pixabay CCO

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