A lingering sense of origin continues to lay claim to our hearts and minds. It beckons because we have been exiled from something. Odysseus seeks a return in his Odyssey and in fact there may be no older figure in Western civilization than the wanderer, the pilgrim, the voyager in search of a homecoming. 'Where are we going?' asked Novalis, and answered: 'Always home'. (1)
We are certainly stranded today, more and more so. The perfecting of communication technology, for example, finds us ever more cut off and lonely. Schelling, who like Novalis wrote some two hundred years ago, is helpful here: '... each era has always obscured its predecessor, so that it hardly betrays any sign of an origin ... the work of thousands of years must be stripped away to come at last to the foundation, to the ground'. (2) Although Progress has carried us far from Origin, it has not disappeared. Cezanne wanted to grasp 'nature in its origin'; (3) the task of the artist is 'to lend duration to genesis [origin]'. (4) Unfashionable now perhaps, but as Edward Shils notes, 'Some preoccupation with "origin" is found in almost all human societies'. (5)
Origin speaks to us of our goal or destination. Karl Kraus, bluntly states: 'The origin is the goal.' (6) Without interest in it, without a conception of what is involved, there is less of a sense of possible arrival. Origin can help liberate the future insofar as it retrieves our relation to what has come before.
What is it of which we speak? Is it some kind of Big Bang? Fichte wondered whether or not there is 'an absolute origin, starting from which and beyond which it is impossible to go further'. (7) Event is a popular buzzword in some philosophical circles today. Is origin, at base, a kind of 'Event'? Or more of a state of being, a primordial condition (particle or wave)? Rousseau stressed an ab-original state of nature, which certainly could be a strong candidate. And Paul de Man conceded 'the hold it has over our present thought'. (8) In his Remembering Paradise, Peter Nasco refers to 'the remarkable degree of similarity between depictions [of supposed original Golden Ages] ... over hundreds if not thousands of years in otherwise radically different societies'. (9) Edenic beginnings of humanity, treasured cross-culturally.
There have been and still are those who insist that questions about origin are, or should be, at the heart of mindful endeavour. Even as philosophy overall seems to have decided that 'the origin is not available to us'. (10) The postmodernists go further still: origin is not only unavailable, its pursuit is wholly misguided and illusory. Having forsaken overview, meaning/truth, clarity, causality and a few other basics, it is unsurprising that origin, too, is part of their craven retreat on all fronts into word games, cut-rate aesthetics, and relativism. But the often-announced eclipse of postmodernism, by the way, may finally be arriving. One hopeful sign is what is called the new historicism, a cultural materialist outlook with potentially utopian overtones and an interest in origins. (11) Phenomenology-oriented Eugen Fink provides a caveat: 'The more originary the force which ventures to open a clearing, the deeper are the shadows in its fundamental ideas.' (12) A provocative warning that will serve to introduce the other side of the coin: origin in a distinctly negative sense.
What is the originary event, the onset, of the disease called civilization? Do we not assume that combating an illness means first finding out what caused it, what explains its progression, its symptoms? For Rene Girard, the foundation was a scapegoating. An act of collective sacrificial violence brought forth civilized humanity. Eric Gans explains it in terms of the birth of symbolic culture. Language, representation itself, is the origin. (13) Gans noticed, pace Freud, that the move to the symbolic and its development is at base a continuing renunciation, a continuing loss. I've explored origin as a negative element in various respects, off and on for a few decades. What is the positive draw, the gravitational pull of origin?
Nostalgia may fit a variety of meanings or purposes. As an ideological add-on in the service of an idealised political culture, as a merchandising...