Rendering Darkness and Light Present : Jean Gebser and the Principle of Diaphany

Jean Gebser (1905-1973) was a German poet, philosopher, and phenomenologist of consciousness. He is best known for his magisterial opus, The Ever-Present Origin (Ursprung und Gegenwart, 1949-1953), in which he articulates the structures and mutations of consciousness underpinning the pivotal shifts in human civilisation. Gebser’s key insight was that as consciousness mutates toward its innate integrality, it drastically restructures human ontology and with it civilisation as a whole. Five hundred years before Christ, the fundamental mode of reality-perception mutated from mythos to logos through the agency of figures such as Socrates, Siddhartha, and Lao Tzu. For Gebser, we are on the cusp of a new mutation, presaged by figures such as Rainer Maria Rilke, who in Gebser’s view passed through ‘things’ into the transparent lucidity ‘behind’ things, thus breaking through to a new, aperspectival perception of reality.


The emphasis on diaphany (transparency) arises for Gebser from the perception that the nature of origin (Ursprung) is neither a primordial light nor a primordial darkness but a Diaphainon—that which ‘renders darkness as well as brightness transparent or diaphanous’. [1] Diaphany, for Gebser, is a matrix for the rational structures of consciousness (wakeful logos and light) as well as the pre-rational structures of consciousness (myth, dream, darkness). Like the Upanishadic concept of Turiya (the ‘fourth’ consciousness that lies at the root of all sleeping, dreaming, and waking) diaphany enables a deep openness to the archaic and nocturnal modes of being—the underworld and the unconscious—as equally as it does the light of day. In a letter to Georg Feuerstein, Gebser writes:

I have never brought the ‘dark’ quality of the archaic consciousness into connection with a darkness of Origin. The archaic consciousness is only dark insofar as it ‘lies’ before the sleep-consciousness; Origin itself is transparent, unbound to darkness or brightness, which are simply attributes of manifestation. [2]

The word diaphany, like the word phenomenology, is based on the Greek verb phainomai (φαινομαι, ‘to appear, shine’). Whereas phenomenology is the study of pure appearances as they manifest to consciousness, diaphany is concerned with that which appears or shines through phenomena (dia, ‘through’, + phainomai). Gebser refers to it variously as the Durchscheinende (the ‘shining-through’), as durchsichtig (‘transparent’, ‘see-through’, ‘invisible’), and as hindurchscheint (transluminated). Rather than delineating a ‘world-view’ (Weltanschauung) diaphany is, more specifically, a ‘view through the world’ (Welt-durch-anschauung). [3]

Now, the view through the world reveals the roots of the world. It is not simply the ability to see through material things as if they were made of glass. Rather, it is the ability to ‘render present everything “behind” and “before” the world’, and through this, ‘to render present our own origin’. [4] What shines through (dia, durch) is no less than origin itself—the primordial leap (Ur-Sprung) made present through diaphanous perception. Significantly, such a mode of perception does not neglect the phenomenal world. It fathoms it. As Paul Klee remarks: ‘Nature is not at the surface but in the depths. Colours are an expression of this depth at the surface. They surge up from the roots of the world’. [5]

In a similar vein, this study seeks to explore the idea of diaphany not by examining Gebser’s philosophical articulation of it—its surface—but by looking at the vital experiences that underpinned it—its depths. Rather than a purely conceptual approach, which risks mere abstraction, I have chosen to explore the principle of diaphany through Gebser’s life experiences, through his poetic perceptions, and in particular, through his relationship to the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. To do this, there is perhaps no better starting point than the lightning-like flash of inspiration that, according to Gebser himself, seeded his entire life’s work.  

The Intimate Sky

It was in Andalusia. Three years previously, in a spirit of primordial trust, he had abandoned both his fatherland and his mother-tongue in order to ‘swim freely abroad in the foreign world’. [6] Making his way through the South of France—Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, St-Jean-de-Gard—Gebser entered Spain in September 1929. By the winter of 1932–33 he found himself in the Spanish province of Málaga, near the southernmost periphery of Europe. It was here that he had what he later called the ‘lightning-like inspiration’ (blitzartige Eingebung) for his work on consciousness. [7] Málaga, it should be noted, is one of the most ancient, continuously inhabited cities in the world. Founded by the Phoenicians almost three millennia ago, it has seen successive rule by Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, and Spanish civilisations. As a consequence, the old-town is a veritable ‘open museum’ of this rich and deep heritage, and it is highly significant that Gebser’s inspiration for the ever-presence of origin occurred in a city so visibly open to the presence of the past. While Gebser does not describe the flash of inspiration specifically, if we look to the texts from this period, which are primarily in the form of poems and notebook entries, as well as his first monograph proper, Rilke and Spain (Rilke und Spanien, 1936/1944), which was first prepared for publication in Madrid, we gain some distinct clues as to the nature of his inspiration. In particular, we discern a significant and repeated emphasis on the transparent nature of the sky (Himmel). Comments Gebser:

The predominance of the sky in the Spanish landscape, in particular in Castile, the purity, the extraordinary transparency of the light and the atmosphere, which encompasses and emphasises things, the appearance of human silhouettes before this sky, which disclose themselves differently, like nowhere else in the world, and assert themselves in a gripping manner (an assertive attitude almost like the language and style of a Cervantes); but again this sky, which rises out of the shimmering, vibrating emptiness of the plateau: these are experiences only given to those who visit Spain. [8]

The sky of which Gebser speaks is not merely an object of external perception. It was experienced as intimately as his own body. ‘The air is of such a lightness that it feels like one is breathing from the heels’, he remarks, alluding to the Taoist idea that true men, primordial men, breathe from a deeper metaphysiological source than contemporary people: [9]

When I say sky, I have the same sense of intimacy with it that our feet have with the earth. […] Our bare foot knows much about the earth, but the knowledge of wind and star is already in our hands […] A star is no further or nearer for us than this stone or that flower. We could pick up the stone; we could pick the flower and draw it into our presence. In the end, this also holds true for our intimate dealings with the sky. From a certain point on, what we take into ourselves is equal. [10]

In Spain, Gebser appears to have broken through to what Rilke, in the Seventh Elegy, called ‘the intimate skies’ (die innigen Himmel). The ambiance of Rilke’s work cannot be overestimated here. Gebser was not only following Rilke’s sources of inspiration in Spain, he sought and was ultimately inspired by the same muse as Rilke. His quest to discover this muse is first crystallised in the experience of a sky that lends the perception of reality a diaphanous character that transforms the way ‘things’ disclose themselves. Ultimately, however, it opened him up to that ‘space’ so particular to Rilke—that ‘cosmic interiority’ (Weltinnenraum) in which the veil between inner and outer melts away entirely to reveal one continuum. As Rilke wrote in 1914:

A single expanse stretches through every being
An interior cosmos. Birds fly in silence
right through us. [11]

Rilke’s Weltinnenraum is a word which condenses the term for cosmic space (Weltraum) with the adjective for inner, or interior (innen). What I have rendered here as ‘interior cosmos’, others have given as ‘inner space’, ‘inner universe’, or even ‘inniverse’. Each rendition helps circumambulate the Rilkean reality that Gebser found and entered; a reality characterised by a vast, diaphanous fluidity between one’s innermost being and the unbound expanse of reality. These themes would also recur in Gebser’s later poetic works. In his Winter Poem (Wintergedicht, 1944), which he penned in one continuous sitting, without making a single revision or correction, and which Rudolf Hämmerli describes as the ‘poetic expression [Fassung] of The Ever-Present Origin’, Gebser would write at length on the brilliant transparency intimated by the white of the winter sky. [12] Here again, the sky is as palpable as earth, stone, or flower:

The shining winter sky
is close enough to touch;
and you too are this sky.
No reason to distinguish.
For all the stars flow through your veins. [13]

Like Rilke’s ‘intimate skies’, the expanse of the universe is so close—so present to one’s being—that any rigid division between internal and external, self and universe, is dissolved. Hence there is ‘no reason to distinguish’, for it is precisely this division of experience into near and far, inside and outside—in short, into subject-object duality—that prevents us from opening up into the stream of appearances and allowing its surging origins to course through our beings. The dissolution of duality, however, also has a darker side. The celestial and the underworldly are also one continuum, and this was especially the true for Gebser. In opening himself up so intimately to unveiled reality, he effectively evoked the presence of the dead. In order to understand what this means, we must delve into Gebser’s childhood. For it is here that we first discern the deeper roots of his personal relationship with the dead that, along with the sky, flowered most fully to his awareness in Spain.

The Ever-Presence of the Dead

Her name was Ilse, and she died when Gebser was around two. She was his sister, and was a year older than him. Although she departed early, her presence remained with him. A few years later, at the age of six, he disappeared one day whilst hunting for Easter eggs. Frantic, his parents found him later that evening calmly sitting at his sister’s grave, speaking ‘very earnestly with the dead’. [14] Gebser recalls that while his sister was ‘here’ for only a short time, during that time she was never entirely here. Like him, she was from ‘someplace else’. There was an ‘otherworldliness’ or ‘beyondness’ about her (Unhiesigkeit). ‘This Unhiesigkeit I have in common with her’, he remarks. ‘In any event, I remained in life; but always, as it were, with only one foot’. [15] Gebser intimates that his sister’s death brought about an awareness of the ever-presence of the dead within the integral structure of life. That is to say, Ilse’s death lead Gebser beyond the pervasive dualistic structures of western cosmology in which the dead and the living are fundamentally disconnected presences. Rather, for Gebser, not only do the dead always accompany us, we are intimately connected to them. Moreover, they can help or harm us just as we can help or harm them. In a touching account of his sister’s death, he likens our participation in the realm of the dead to the reciprocal vitality and decline of ‘wine in Spring’ and the ‘berry-stains in Autumn’:

In Spring, when the heidelberry preserve is accidentally spilt on the tablecloth, the cleaning lady has to go to a lot of trouble to wash the stains out. And at least some remain. In Autumn, however, six months later, when the berries on the branches dry out and begin to die, the stains wash out of the cloth without any effort.

If the grape harvest was in Autumn, then the grapevines begin to bloom six months later. They have a very short flourishing period, but an uncommonly fine and delicate scent. At the same time, the wine in the cellar begins to ferment and it will only settle again in the barrels and bottles when the flourishing [of the vines] has died away.

The fact that something changes its state or its form from what it once was does not mean that it has disappeared from the world; it is perhaps, as one says, dead; but you see yourself how little this actually means. For everything that hasn’t been born yet or that hasn’t happened yet―thus everything that one in an almost despairing way calls the future―must also be dead. [16]

This delicate understanding of death as intimately interwoven into the world of the living gave Gebser an especially profound insight into Rilke’s perceptual breakthrough. Indeed, when reading Rilke and Spain with Gebser’s own experiences in mind, one gains the distinct impression that his comments on Rilke closely reflect his own intuitions:

The division of existence into a visible part and an invisible part (the earthly world and the heavenly or divine world) creates as a consequence an existential condition in which both are instantly divorced from each other. […] [Rilke] had not only passed through things, he had actually transcended that border: he stood in death. He had the impression of being in empty space, in the emptiness beyond, a situation that not only had validity for him personally, but also more generally for the entire contemporary western world, a situation that had its origin in the spiritual revolution at the end of the last century. In Rilke, however, this general situation crystallised itself in a single person: the angst that this situation evokes takes on an impersonal character from that point in time on, as I have already said. […] Little by little he united the worlds until their borders were extinguished […] [Here], the affirmation of life is at the same time an affirmation of death; furthermore: he stands in both realms at the same time, because he has dissolved their borders. [17]

Dissolving the walls of the dualistically separated world was, for Gebser, ultimately integral to his understanding of diaphany, for as both Rilke and Klee suggest, diaphany is not merely the ability to see ‘through’ things, but to see the roots of things brimming up through the surface of things. It is to see two sides at once. ‘Two years ago’, wrote Gebser in 1938, ‘in the Summer of 1936, on the occasion of my Rilke essay, I wrote of the two sides of things, which are turned both towards and away from us, and what I meant was that, if we could succeed in getting beyond the side that is turned away from us, we would stand at once in the midst of life and in the midst of death’. [18] ‘With our human senses’, he continues, ‘we only perceive the sides of things that are turned towards us. I believe that there are faculties within us that can also experience the other side’. [19] This motif of opening up to the other side of things, the side that is turned away from us, gains distinct expression in Gebser’s ‘Poem of the Dead’ (Totengedicht, 1945), which was written the year after his Wintergedicht. Herein, Gebser likens our existence to a room in which the ‘things of life’, our basic furniture and other utilities, are already, at the same time, ‘things of death’. We move in, set ourselves up, furnish our space, and although we habitually see only one side of existence, the side turned toward us, in reality we exist in the ‘twin current of the great breathing’. [20] We dwell on the divide between ‘life and death’, ‘silence and sound’. [21] And the walls of this room begin to open up:

[…] don’t forget this, these walls,
have yet another side:
these things, which seem immovable to you,
are full of transformation [22]

In this passage Gebser plays on the relationship between the word Wand, ‘wall’, and Wandlung, ‘transformation’. There is a rich etymological background behind the poetic forms that Gebser uses to suggest a wall can bend or transform. In German, Wand originally refers to walls made from wicker-work, a woven lattice; the term traces back to a thin branch of wood that bends, like wattle. This is also the basis of the English word ‘wand’, a stick or staff, which originally would have been flexible rather than rigid. Derived from Proto-Germanic *wend- ‘to turn’, German Wand is also cognate with the English verbs ‘wend’ and ‘wind’, which also have closer German equivalents in the verbs winden ‘to wind’, and wenden, ‘to turn’.

And so the walls will transform
as an inner window opens behind the soul;
whether bed or grave,
a pitcher of tears,
or simply a fountain,
it means the same thing:
Deep sleep could well be high waking,
for what gnaws,
when bright day besets you,
when night closes in. [23]

Before we conclude, two final comments may be cited to enhance the sense of symmetry implicit in Gebser’s ‘great breathing’. The first pertains to Frederico García Lorca (1898–1936), the Spanish poet and dramatist who Gebser not only befriended, but closely collaborated with before he was murdered at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In his memoir of Lorca, Gebser interprets the sketches that the Spanish poet made before his death, ‘which were without a doubt composed in the last nine months of his life’, as expressing foreknowledge of his demise: ‘the death that he felt ahead of time’, that he ‘drew to himself’, that was ‘already in him’. [24] ‘For just as life is already effective in us nine months before our birth, so too is death already effective in us nine months before we die’. [25]

We feel the fingers of Hades long before we are swept away, for the dead are integrally present by virtue of our living. When we become conscious of this, our first reaction is understandably fear. But we should not be troubled. We should be gentle in the presence of the dead, remarks Gebser; tender before ‘melting time’ and ‘dissolving space’. [26] In his unfinished biographical writings, he says: ’When we are born we scream and cry, when we die, we should smile’. [27] And it is this remark more than any other that grows in significance, because Gebser actually did die smiling. Along with a demeanour of great peace, his deathmask in Bern preserves a deeply satisfied smile.


Ultimately, Gebser’s ease with the underworld was not something he entertained theoretically, but lived—and died—integrally. So too his openness to the Rilkean Weltinnenraum. Both realisations are emblematic for Gebser of the ability to transcend dualistic awareness, to render the roots of phenomena present, and to distil the ontologies of darkness and light through the vessels of diaphany.

By way of conclusion it may be remarked that the two broad aspects that we have focused on in this short study touch a striking note of resonance with core aspects of Mahayana and Platonic philosophy. On one hand, to realise one’s innermost being as not merely a ‘self’ but a single expanse that ‘stretches through all beings’—an ‘intensified sky’, in Rilke’s words—is perhaps one of the most eloquent and evocative expressions of the śūnyatāconcept in a western language. More precisely, it evokes the dharmadhatu as ‘expanse of phenomena’ in a way that dissolves the boundaries not only between inner and outer realities, but between all sentient beings.

On the other hand, Gebser’s direct openness to the ever-presence of the dead places him firmly in the tradition of philosophy as conceived in the Socratic spirit, where philosophia is not merely a matter of critical inquiry for its own sake, but inheres specifically in ‘meditation on death’ (meletē thanatou), of ‘learning to die before you die’. In connection to both of these points, we must mention one final experience of diaphany that Gebser explicitly discusses. It occurred many years later, almost a decade after he published The Ever-Present Origin. And it was in India.

As part of his extensive travels through Asia in the early 1960s, Gebser visited the site of the Buddha’s very first teaching. When Siddhartha Gautama set the wheel of dharma in motion at Sarnath, he taught both the causes of suffering and the path of liberation from suffering. He highlighted the samsaric condition in which life and desire are intimately bound to aversion and death, and how the path out of this predicament proceeded through ‘vision, knowledge, calm, insight, and awakening’. [28] In 1961, the Zen Master and Buddhist scholar, Daisetzu Teitaro Suzuki, described Gebser’s experience at Sarnath as Satori (awakening). [29]

‘There had been no rapture to observe’, remarks Gebser. ‘I was not swept away into the irrational. There was no loss of consciousness of the world. Instead, there was the overcoming of the mental-rational: there was arational transparency and with it that intensity of consciousness that had integrated both the irrational and the rational in such a manner that both were respectively available, without the possibility of being overwhelmed by them, for their bearers, the vital and the psychic, submit to the spiritual’: [30]

One cannot make this transparency visible, one cannot see it, indeed one is only able to become perceptibly aware of it (in the precise sense of the word ‘aware’), through effortless intensification of wakefulness. It is more than clarity or illumination, more than transfiguration or glorification, more than radiance. One could possibly speak of it as the flashing-forth or sudden shining-through of the whole. Who participates in this is more or less purified, as if melted and remoulded, liberated from the scoria of the soul, from the narrow limitations of mentation, without in the slightest manner being lost to the world through intoxication or ecstatic rapture; rather, who participates in this finds themselves perfectly in order, with the deepest sense of trust, and with the sacred lucidity of origin’s ever-presence pulsating through them. [31]

Ultimately for Gebser, the principle of diaphany transforms ‘ordinary’ reality into a vehicle for an extraordinary lucidity that goes beyond the perception of fixed things. In this sense it speaks to the heart of the world’s mystical traditions in which the phenomenal world opens up into a locus of revelation. ‘Things’ become vehicles for an inner expanse, and the liberating nature of origin becomes palpably present.

dr-aaron-cheakDr. Aaron Cheak, PhD, is a scholar of comparative religion, philosophy, and esotericism. He teaches the history of Eastern and Western alchemies at the University of Philosophical Research, and is the current president of the International Jean Gebser Society. He received his doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of Queensland in 2011 for his work on French Hermetic philosopher, René Schwaller de Lubicz. Outside the academy, Aaron has been trained in the preparation of spagyric elixirs (Paracelsus College, Spagyricus Institute) and is a practitioner within the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages of Vajrayana Buddhism. He maintains an active interest in tea, wine, poetry, typography and alchemy. Dr Cheak is the author and editor of Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde (2013), and editor-in-chief at Rubedo Press.
  1. Jean Gebser, Ursprung und Gegenwart. Zweiter Teil, Gesamtausgabe III, 536: ‘[D]as Diaphainon aber, das Durchscheinende […] Dunkel und Helligkeit transparent, diaphan, werden läßt’; The Ever-Present Origin, Barstad and Mickunas (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1985), 399.
  2. Jean Gebser to Georg Feuerstein, 07–09–1972 (Schweizerishes Literaturarchiv, Bern): ‘Ich habe nie das “Dunkle” des archaischen Bewusstseins mit einer Dunkelheit des Ursprungs in Verbindung gebracht. Das archaische Bewusstsein ist nur insofern dunkel, als es noch vor dem Schlafbewusstsein “liegt”; der Ursprung selber ist transparent, umgebunden an dunkel oder hell, die blosse Manifestationsattribute sind’.
  3. Gebser, Gesamtausgabe V/1, 141. Here Gebser is drawing on Expressionist Franz Marc, one of the founders of the journal and movement, Der Blaue Reiter; in place of Weltanschauung, Marc suggests aWeltdurchschauung—i.e. a view through the world rather than a view of the world.
  4. Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, trans. Barstad and Mickunas, 7.
  5. Werner Haftman, Paul Klee, 1950, 87; cited in Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, 516 n 167; and GesamtausgabeV/1, 141.
  6. Die schlafenden Jahre; Gesamtausgabe VII, 363.
  7. Verfall und Teilhabe; Gesamtausgabe V/2: ‘For the record: my concept of the development of a new consciousness, which came to my awareness in the winter of 1932/33 in a lightning-like flash of inspiration, and which I began to present since 1939, has extensive similarities to the world-design of Sri Aurobindo, however, documentation of this was not known to me at that time’; also Gebser’s clarification in Ever-Present Origin, 102 n 4.
  8. Rilke und Spanien; Gesamtausgabe I, 49.
  9. Zhuang Zhou vi, 2: ‘The True men of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true man comes (even) from his heels, while men generally breathe (only) from their throats’. The Writings of Chuang Tzu, trans. James Legge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1891).
  10. Gebser, Aussagen: Ein Merk- und Spiegelbuch des Hintergrundes; Notizen und Tagebuchaufzeichnungen 1922–1973; Gesamtausgabe 7, 262.
  11. Rilke, Es winkt zu Fühlung… from Die Gedichte 1910 bis 1922 (München oder Irschenhausen, August/September 1914): ‘Durch alle Wesen reicht der eineRaum: / Weltinnenraum. Die Vögel fliegen still / durch uns hindurch’. For discussion see Rainer Maria Rilke, Inner Sky: Poems, Notes, Dreams, selected and translated by Damion Searles (Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine, 2010), 177.
  12. Rudolf Hämmerli, ‘Nachwort des Herausgebers’, in Gesamtausgabe VII, 424.
  13. Gebser, Wintergedicht; Gesamtausgabe 7, 129.
  14. Die schlafenden Jahre, 342: ‘Er saß am schwesterlichen Grab, glücklich, und sprach sehr angelegentlich mit der Toten’.
  15. Die schlafenden Jahre, 342: ‘Jedenfalls blieb ich im Leben. Aber immer nur giwissermaßen mit einem Fuß’.
  16. Die schlafenden Jahre, 341.
  17. Rilke und Spanien, 45–6.
  18. Aussagen, 262.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Totengedicht, Gesamtausgabe 7, 143.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Totengedicht, 147.
  24. Lorca und das Reich der Mütter, Gesamtausgabe 1, 100.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Totengedicht, 143.
  27. Die schlafenden Jahre, 376.
  28. Samyutta Nikāya11.
  29. Not irrational, but arational; that’s it. This experience that you had, it was not Samadhi; it was Satori’. In Gebser, Asien lächelt anders, Gesamtausgabe VI, 164.
  30. Asien lächelt anders, 164. Cf. Gesamtausgabe V/II 88, 102; VI 159, 164; II 318; IV 318 n 84.
  31. Asien lächelt anders, 157.

(Reproduced by permission of Rubedo Press.)