by Sam Buntz
I’m a big fan of Michael Apted’s documentary series, Up (although I haven’t seen the most recent installment yet). The series began in the 1950s with “Seven Up”, looking at the lives and opinions of British seven-year-olds from a wide variety of backgrounds. The director, Apted, proceeded to check in with them every seven years from then on, witnessing some surprising life changes. I remember, somewhere around 42 Up, in which a number of the documentary’s subjects were discussing their recent divorces, Apted asked one of the couples who actually had stayed together what they thought the secret was. They admitted that they would get mad at each other sometimes, but the husband (one of the original seven year-olds) said that the key was to always remember what it was like in the beginning, when you were getting to know each other. And, somehow, that memory manages to filter into and re-enliven the present.
I think that’s a profound observation. When you start to believe, with the best of the old philosophers, that “the greatest desire of every being is to return to its origin”, it has the potential to re-orient your whole worldview. You start to see that forgetting one’s origins causes many of the most common difficulties, and the reverberations of the idea seem endless: personal, political, scientific, religious, sociological, psychological… For instance, contemporary psychologists (not to mention old-school analysts like Freud and Jung) tend to search for the key to the present in the formative past. And in the earlier period of psychoanalytic investigation, Freud said, “Wherever Id (the primitive source of desire) was, there the ego shall be.” The entire psychoanalytic method thus lies in searching for primal, original attachments and desires that the patient hasn’t outgrown, while attempting to offer healthy substitutes.
The religious and mystical ramifications are pretty obvious as well. A Zen Master once encouraged his disciple to meditate on the question, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” In Christian spirituality, the notion is a potent one, with central luminaries like St. Augustine and Dante urging the soul to re-orient its desires away from the myriad objects of the material world and towards its source in God, and sin itself seems to be defined as forgetting that Origin. The sense conveyed by Eastern and Western religious thinking is that without a connection to the fundamental sources of life, a human being becomes dry and dead, inhabiting a mechanical universe where everything seems to lack soul and substance. There is Jesus famous parable of the “True Vine”, where the branches that are connected to the vine of Christ, the Word, are filled with life—but withered flammability awaits the others. In Hindu thought as well, it is the primal Brahman—Existence-Consciousness-Bliss and the ultimate origin of everything— that must be attained in order to find peace in life. The same is basically true for ancient Greek philosophies like Neo-Platonism.
In the more worldly areas of inquiry, the search for the single, originating principle is also of pre-eminent concern. The question of the ultimate nature of the laws of physics is inextricably tied-up with the universe’s origin in the Big Bang, and the conditions governing that primal event. In political science, a huge debate has centered around what life would be like in an original or given state of nature—whether it would be “nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes put it, or a state of primitive freedom and goodness, as Jean Jacques Rousseau saw it. The creation of constitutions and the development of common law are caught up with this broader dialogue.
The arts, too, quest endlessly for origins. Harold Bloom, the Yale literary critic, said that, unlike the Freudians, who tried to substitute new enjoyments for the now-unobtainable ones to which the self originally became attached (like, for example, breast milk) the great poets are always reaching for a primordial bliss, not content with any substitute. As Hart Crane put it, “I was promised an improved infancy,” and poets from Wordsworth to Wallace Stevens have sought to re-integrate the mind with the Nature it perceives and from which it once arose. With other poets, this often takes the form of a semi-mystical quest, where the soul attempts to find succor in itself or in an Oversoul, the source of nourishment and the nourished-self finally being one and the same.
I mention all these different examples just to suggest the scope of the idea, the supreme relevance of a return to origins. Regardless of your position on any issue, the question of the Beginning always looms up. Men of the Enlightenment, like Rousseau, insisted on the primacy of human goodness in an initial state of contentment, whereas Christian teaching suggests that an origin in goodness (Creation by God) was replaced by an origin in sin (The Fall). You can see it in the conservatives on the Supreme Court who appeal to the original meaning of the Constitution, as the Founders would’ve seen it, and in the liberals on the same court who appeal to certain primordial natural rights that transcend the Constitution’s ability to document them with too much precision. The past is an inexhaustible source of fuel for the present, and anyone can learn more about themselves and profit philosophically by considering their origins. In “East Coker”, T.S. Eliot wisely declared: “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living… / Old men ought to be explorers / Here or there does not matter / We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion / …In my end, is my beginning.”