Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness

Coming into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness

by William Irwin Thompson
New York: St. Martins Press, 1996. Cloth, 264pages.

William Irwin Thompson has been writing books since 1967, and his newest book, Coming into Being, is the summa of all his writings. Throughout the course of his career, Thompson's objective has been twofold: first, to articulate his vision of what he terms the emerging planetary society, which he sees as rendering obsolete the industrial nation state; and secondarily, his hermeneutic of culture has stressed the continuity of thought between myth, science, and literature. Thompson bases his unitary vision upon the human imagination, and it is to a reimagination of the evolution of consciousness that his new book is directed. Coming into Being is a rich and dazzling tapestry of erudition and wit, which should serve to satisfy the appetites of those readers addicted to such chroniclers of the evolution of consciousness as Erich Neumann, Jean Gebser, or Teilhard de Chardin.

In a movement from West to East that recapitulates T. S. Eliot's quest in "The Waste Land" for the spiritual protein of human wisdom, the reader views in succession the great texts of literate civilization through the X-ray acumen of Thompson's mind. The book opens with a meditation on the origins of life in the evolution of the earliest cells, and here Thompson's style bristles with the kind of poetic lyricism that made famous the prose poems of Lewis Thomas in his book The Lives of a Cell. Thompson then moves forward to a discussion of scientific narratives about human origins, which he sees as the equivalent: of modern myths, and in this respect, Thompson is most characteristically himself in showing how the structures of supposedly objective scientific thought turn out to be isomorphic to mythical narratives. "Science is the conscious content," as he puts it, "but myth is the unconscious structure." The book then moves on through a discussion of neolithic goddess figurines, where the reader is treated to a detailed discussion of the complexities involved in their iconographical fusions of male and female anatomies.

Eventually, the sweeping river of Thompson's narrative arrives at the greater tributaries of such masterpieces of literate civilization as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Rig Veda, the Ramayana, the Upanishads, and the Tao te Ching. Along the way, the reader discovers through Thompson's eyes that the primary aim of Western culture has been the creation and dominance of the masculine ego, with its divorce of the spiritual from the material, as epitomized in Platonic thought. Thompson has a lot to say about themes of gender, and this is probably where his approach to the study of consciousness differs from others. His reading of texts such as the story of Samson and Delilah or Gilgamesh is concerned to point out where the feminine principle of cooperation and creativity is displaced at the hands of aggressive patriarchal heroes. Although this sociological dimension is but one among Thompson's multi-leveled readings his primary intent being the creation of "an imaginary hyper-space in which multiple readings are seen together” it is a dimension of hermeneutic in which he excels, and readers interested in such issues will find them here.

With the sacred texts of the Far East, Thompson shows us in such writings as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita that the traditional Western divorce of consciousness from matter is surpassed by the supramental wisdom that recognizes the animal, vegetable, and mineral domains as analogues of consciousness: waking, dreaming, and sleeping, respectively. With Lao-tzu's mystical philosophy of opposites in the Tao te Ching, we arrive at a recognition of the necessity for a balance of both worlds, the heavenly as well as the earthly.

Readers who are expecting a scholarly analysis in the mode of Eliade or Coomaraswamy should be forewarned that this book "is addressed more to the imagination of culture than to the academic management of scholarly research." The discussions, accordingly, are informal, interdisciplinary, and evocative; they are as richly textured as any page out of the Book of Kells, and should serve to stimulate the imagination of those readers who will have the pleasure of Mr. Thompson's thoughtful company.


June 1997