The title of this piece is taken from the opening lines of a W.B. Yeats poem; describing in apocalyptic terms the spiraling out of order into chaos, I was reminded of the pacific trash gyre and the kaleidoscopic patterns of current. While the imagery of this painting presents a tangible environmental anchor to the dream of entropic undoing, I see in these symbols an equal connection to the realms of spirit and metaphor. The endangered marine life depicted in the piece is both a literal representation of an ecosystem caught in a spiral of extinction, and also ourselves, caught in ever remoter turnings of collective action. Swept into great movements of which we are both fisher and quarry, the animals are the titanic ghosts of our collective unconsciousness, rushing towards an unknowable end. There is beauty here too however, as even in the moment of the onrush, we are left as observers of an ineffable beauty that extends into, and transcends, the gyre.
The concept of sanctuary contains in it an implicit ideal of separation, for the raising and bracing of barriers to persevere against the storms of the world. This urge for preservation is both understandable and necessary; even as a concept of self can not exist without walls to define itself, so too is our mutable physical existence tied to it. Sanctuary represents protection, and the pain and tumult of the greater totality threatens us with consumption and annihilation in its absence.
It must be remembered however that all forms of separation are ultimately illusionary, and the aegis of sanctuary is a transient shroud. Threads of eternal interconnection exist between all phenomenon, with lines of distinction in constant flux by the building deluges of change. In the face of such inevitability, sanctuary can with equal measure become an attempt to impose stasis on a process of transformation. A clinging that creates barriers not just between self and pain, but also between ourselves and the ability to transcend it.
Instead, in recognition, not denial, of the inherent unity of existence can we expand the self beyond both sanctuary and destruction. True sanctuary is found in the recognition of transience and an embrace of dissolution. Then it is possible for the momentary spark of consciousness to recognize its mirror in the towering inferno of the world. Then we may burn the walls of our sanctuary and exist as the light and flame. In doing so the broken shard of self is lost in unity with laughing epiphanies of storm.
Initially the world comes to us through a flood of light and sensation. It is only through a patchwork heritage of cognitive frameworks that the dream coalesces into meaning and narrative. Such schemas are ultimately built on conceptual categorizations of like and unlike that exist to separate the ocean of interconectedness into understandable types. Though they provide us a tower from which to preserve a concept of self from the deluge of unfiltered unity, at their heart they remain illusionary divisions.
Despite attempts to map the unknowable expanse of reality, the totality of existence is axiomatically itself rather than the means used to perceive it. When, however, in the face of our greater humanity, the pursuit of the ideal takes precedence over the real an unavoidable conflict occurs. No matter the passion or progress made in pursuit of the ideal, the reality of the world unavoidably diverges and it is often our reaction to this shortcoming that forms the ultimate outcome of our pursuits.
Without a radical acceptance of the world in its totality means quickly descend into ends, and in our yearning for imagined futures we lose the only methods capable of bringing about the change we desire. Rejection of the world instead cyclically recreates the circumstances of our dissatisfaction. It is only through a recognition of the inherent unity of existence beyond delusions and conceptualizations that we may achieve the love we seek.
– Originally written for The Love Politik: One World Indivisible
Throughout most of our waking moments we perceive the world through the lens of conceptual ideals, where classes of phenomenon are carved out of observation, and defined by the oppositional dualities we perceive in them. Through mutual opposition, atavistic unity is shattered into categorical separations of light and darkness, above and below, mater and spirit, and self and not-self. While such proud towers of our own invention remain inviolate, so too must coexistence and the unity of the transcendent be hidden behind layers of conceptualization and expectation.
During our moments of revelation however the clarity of direct perception easily proves the fragility of separation. Free from the tangles of our own nets, a unity of opposites becomes a direct experience as the basis of division is released. Like sand, divisions that were perceived as immutable seemingly fall away in the face of a greater truth. We may instead find our self confronted by a darkness that coexists with the light, with a fire that burns but does not consume, and with a unity of the divine with the material.
That such a coexistance is possible however does not reveal itself through an overcoming of the natural law we had perceived as absolute, but rather through a realization of the subjective nature of its delineation. The basis of their truth was built upon an alter of straw, but the overcoming of it is not accomplished by either burning or further building, but rather by seeing something else altogether: that the idol was built from our own hands, and that the manifest truth require neither alters, nor scaffolding. Dionysus, Apollo, Ecstasy, Sublimation, 2018 That such a coexistance is possible however does not reveal itself through an overcoming of the natural law we had perceived as absolute, but rather through a realization of the subjective nature of its delineation. The basis of their truth was built upon an alter of straw, but the overcoming of it is not accomplished by either burning or further building, but rather by seeing something else altogether: that the idol was built from our own hands, and that the manifest truth require neither alters, nor scaffolding.
For the immediacy of revelation comes from its wordless clarity, not the spiderwebs of explanatory discourse, nor the labyrinthine charting of a cave which does not exist. And then what can be said of the ineffable, except that before its witnessing we will abandon the pursuit of shadows for the wellspring of generative light.
The light above and the depths below are two primal archetypes which alter and diffuse our consciousness in ways which are often as mysterious to us as they are potent. Sea and sky, the corresponding symbolic representations in their turn dominate the inner latitudes of the mind more than almost any other symbols.
In Jungian theory, the watery deep is considered a psychological symbol of the unconscious; or the depths of the unknown that paradoxically exist both within us and beyond us. It is a threatening concept, and one that calls into question the very fundamental idea of self-hood as envisioned by the conscious mind. For the existence of an internal other is fundamentally inconsistent with a unified and stable entity, and indeed there is a primordial, irrational terror of being swallowed by this self-within-a-self; the great serpent of the unknown that wants and thinks of its own accord.
The burning sky above is likewise a near universal embodiment of divinity, and represents an outside that comes to dwell within, rather than an inside that seeks to escape. The powers of heaven, which even as they exist beyond us are felt with immediacy, and through their embrace allow a transcendence of that same self that fears the below. This division may even be conceptualized as negative or positive relations of the consciousness to the essential experience of other.
Self and other, and their connectedness are the keys to understanding these symbols which so permeate our psychological lives. The reality of our consciousness is that it exists in a constant state of flux. The boundaries of our awareness and very self-hood are consistently both waxing and waning. As we integrate, subsume, repress, and sublimate we are internally clarifying and classifying ourselves as a conceptual object. We are defying the boundaries of our consciousness, and by doing so ourselves.
On one side of the perceived duality between upper and lower is the internal that threatens to shrink the consciousness, on the other the external that promises to expand it. Such duality itself is ultimately misplaced however, as both the sea and sky are components of the same otherness, and illustrate the futility of all such limited conceptualizations of self.
While the self-concept may be expanded to an extent that is inclusive of both heavens and chthonic hells, in doing so it remains weighted by the oppositional dualities themselves. The illusion is broken when it is understood that the essence of duality is conceptual, and there are no mental construct whatsoever for experiences which are existential ineffable. Confronting such radical expansions necessitates a letting go of the calcified and static echoes of the past, and demands existence instead as a momentary and timeless experience of now.
The world as it appears to us is constructed of thought, an edifice of understanding against the tumultuous waves of pure, unfettered reality, unsculpted, and lacking inherent meaning. An empty and pure thing, unfathomable in unalterable clarity and depth, that is carved like canyons that run without thought. Words are the chisel out of which towers are built to keep the deluge at bay, but they are a prison for beings of capable of transformation, and of light that may learn to swim. There is no ark for the whales and the fishes.
Nor is one needed. To embrace direct experience of the external is to discard the perception of differentiation. To embrace the other is to embrace both internal and external aspects of otherness, to see self equally in the darkness of the night sky as in the face of another. The totality that emerges out of this is one of unity of opposites, that discards self-identity into a light that coexists without diminishing the darkness.
– Originally published in Wake Up Screaming #17!: The Mind
Despite its central role in either facilitating or obstructing the act of creation, the internal state of the artist remains one of the most esoteric topics in discussions of the artistic practice. The successful invocation and use of states of intense concentration and passionate release however are tools that can be as critical to the artist as brushes or pallet knives. Even when such aspects are considered, the focus is most often relegated to highly refined states of productive focus. Far less frequently discussed, and perhaps less frequently invoked, are the states of disorder, dissociation, and frenzy.
Ultimately, the tempests of the unconscious mind are the source of the well-spring of creativity, and in the realm of the spirits there are many muses eager to speak to the attentive listener, or else howl in ignored fury. While the hidden interplay between feeling, symbol, and desire is, by definition, difficult to consciously navigate, it also contains the keys to accessing this fire in its depths.
One of the clearest representations of this source is found in the Greek god Dionysus. Often miscast as the ‘god of wine’, this portrayal mistakes the method for the source. A far more revealing descriptor of his essential character would be ‘god of intoxication.’ Considered dangerous and subversive to the social order, before its brutal repression by the Roman state cultic worship of Dionysus centered on the embrace of states of altered consciousness through intoxicants, forbidden sexual practices, and omphagic frenzy. Despite the diversity of these rituals, they shared a common purpose as a bridge to states of ritual madness.
While self-sparagmos is possible as well, for the artist such states of divine ecstasy may also manifest themselves as a surrender to the pure expression of creative energy. While application of this passion often takes the form of wild extremes of expressiveness, it can also result in sparsely proficient application of familiar techniques in subtly radical ways. This should come as no surprise when one considers that the physical skills governing artistic practice are almost always most effectively subconsciously learned and applied. It must also be cautioned though that the creative potential inherent in these unstructured states is balanced by the danger of a work being overtaken by chaos.
When this chaos emerges in a greater context however it can fulfill a direct aesthetic necessity. Even in works whose emphasis is harmony, the contrast provided by discord may elevate a work to new heights. The Nietzschean aesthetic framework for instance considers that for an artistic endeavor to reach its highest potential it must embrace both the frenzied passion of Dionysus, as well as the subtle harmony associated with the god of light and beauty: Apollo. Indeed, just as imperfection is a necessary component of the perfect phenomenon, it is ultimately the fusion of states that permits the greatest realizations of beauty.
For a culture that consistently elevates the rational and orderly at the cost of the intuitive, often to the point of suffocation, utilizing the disordered madness of Dionysus can seem foreign and uncomfortable. However, the use of ecstatic states has by no means been a limited experiment. Examples of similar practices are familiar enough that their absence appears as the aberration, rather than than the norm. Sufi mystical dancers and poets, accounts of viking-age berserkers, indigenous shamanic ceremonies, and Buddhist Tantric practices all share similar of states of intoxicated passion. Indeed, even the earliest known human story is suffused with the motifs of ecstatic ritual; as Gilgamesh attempts a resurrection he does so with shamanic drumming and a ritual invocation to the spirits.
Regardless of whether the artist chooses to directly commune with the spirits of Dionysus, the dynamic life of the discordant can not be ignored. Even as a subset of the creative act, all outpourings of feeling originate in movings of the psychic depths, and creative endeavors that fail to provide access to this reserve fail the most basic task of art. In the creative deserts of rationality, it is the leviathans of our own abysses that offer us water.
The blinding light of death is the dissolution of individuality, absolute, consumptive, binding and limited; we are beings of both individual sparks and universal light. The flame that we carry is not selfish, and the births and metamorphoses engendered by death maintain a continuity even as given facets are extinguished. Through the kaleidoscope of change and destruction, love and rebirth, the raw spirits that coalesce into beings that perceive themselves and fear the unknown, remain untouched by the scattering.
Through an examination of this same self however, concepts of post-death states and reincarnations begin to be perceivable in their actuality. The root of this conceptual-self stems from the consciousness that interprets sensory input and imagines itself as a disparate entity, tied to a given physical apparition, self-constructed through narratives, habits, traits, and ultimately acts. This perspective is, at best, a half-truth, for it fails to consider the instrument of perception. Indeed the existence of an implicit physical world is itself a product of internal conceptualization. When sense, memory, and thought are understood as malleable, the dependent assumption of immutable physicality, and the ends implied by its decay, must inevitably be discarded.
It is in many ways a sacred moment when the dusty collection of particulate is at last dissolved into the universal, suspended in the primordial water, before emerging once more in new forms and acts. That the collection ever imagined itself as a thing apart was always an illusion, cast like a shadow by the singular light of consciousness. For even existentially, as beings that dream tales of a life lived and a narrative concluded, we were deceived. The great change that we defined as oblivion was inseparable from our breath. As we closed our eyes each night we, with unreasonable faith, trusted that that which left us would return. With each moment passed we did not mourn for the eddy of ourselves lost in the stream. Even the memories that we held with such precarious grips, that we swore gave truth to the lie, shift like dunes in the deserts of our individuality.
A better question than what follows death then might be what is the nature of the entity that perceives death? If the self-construct that perceives the physical is not defined by it, physical death may be regarded as a minor schism. Acts of transcendence can, in their turn, be understood as acts of self-identification, where an ego defines itself, not by a specific physical manifestation, but immaterially.
The immutability of death thus emerges as a reflection on the limits of an ego, rather than an incontrovertible trait of the universe. When the thin film of materiality peels back to reveal the light of the abyss, we are left with what is ultimately a choice; as the imagined manifest of an ego, be extinguished, or as the avatar of the universal, embrace the change, as we have ten-ten-thousand times before.
There is such beauty in the unordered, unrestricted natural flow of life that, following its own internal pattern, grows in a harmonious chaotic mass of being. So far from the manicured greenspaces and carefully sculpted lives that inhabit the great spiritual deserts of modern cities. Plagued by isolation, the lives spent in their cages cry out with desperation, plainly visible for those who have walked outside the walled garden.
In an existence so devoid of life. Roiled in sexuality so devoid of passion. Consumption without satiation. Every aspect of, true, unfiltered life shoved with urgency into stiff molds. A death that would be better without the false vestiges inhabiting empty forms.
We are not this. We were made to run free beneath the stars, with unfettered passions in a world as alive as our hearts. As the city reaches its claws into the sky and strangles the distant shimmering harmonies of light and swallows with a dull half-glow a night bleached of darkness; even the blackness of death is robbed from us.
The wildness in our souls must not be so quenched. Our breath must be like the thunder over the plains, overgrown and alive. Night must be allowed to return so that the stars, eternal beneath the shroud of unlight, can shine again, so that we can truly die, and guided by the stars, return and truly live.
“That is true, he said.
And do you not suppose, Adeimantus, that a single boxer who was perfect in his art would easily be a match for two stout and well-to-do gentlemen who were not boxers?” – Plato, The Republic
The answer should be obvious that an ideal boxer, one who was perfect at their art, could defeat an limitless number of opponents. Just as the ideal artist could infinitely alter the viewer. The ideal farmer could feed hungry minds. The perfect knife could cut though paradoxes and truths. All such ideals ultimately approach the same singular concept of “perfection.” Infinite anything, once enacted, implies infinite everything. Our previously mentioned ideal artist would, through their ideal art, create an ideal reality. One that was, in practice, no different than that of the ideal knife.
Perfection is a curious concept. Such conceptual singularity is at the root of the Western concept of an immutable God. The idea that makes up this core, on which so many other ideas are either explicitly or implicitly base, is that God, rather than existing as a being of infinite perfection, is perfection itself. The unreachable concept, inexplicable but self-evident, the ideal being, the perfect work of art, are all in their ways descriptors for this singularity that all things might reach, given the infinite.
As matter approaches light each incremental increase in speed requires an exponential increase in energy. So too does any work, as it approaches perfection, require ever increasing effort to attain even the smallest incremental increase towards its ideal. Matter must not despair however; the tail of the serpent is also its beginning. The great paradox is that to achieve the unattainable one must accept the perfection in imperfection. The world is ideal already, as is the knife.
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:17 – 19
One of the most interesting recurring motifs in near-eastern religion is the idea of mankind’s fall. Preceded by a state of harmony with the natural world, and precipitated by forbidden knowledge, it is the fall that leads to mankind’s current state of toil and mortality. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth catalyzes in the tale of the wild-man, Enkidu’s, sexual seduction and resulting understanding of language and civilization. In Abrahamic mythology it takes the form of the first man and first woman’s temptation with, and eventual consumption of, the symbolic fruit of knowledge. Persisting though minor variations, all stories end with the same result: a resounding human disharmony with the natural world, and the pain of death.
The common narrative elements of harmonious innocence, sexual temptation, knowledge, and an ultimate separation from natural grace reflect both a common heritage and also a persisting resonance. As a result of the long history of the story, myriad interpretations have attempted to account for its origin and enduring power. True to that nature of myths there can be no single, all-encompassing, explanation or account. Nevertheless, from the deluge of meanings can be extracted a critical account of one of the most basic principles of humanity’s interaction with the natural world.
Population of a species at any given time are generally the result of an equilibrium between resources, depredation, and natality. Fluxes in any of these variables triggers a reactive response that adapts to the imbalances. The responsiveness of the system results in both sustainable populations as well as dynamic ecosystems that are able to recover from periods of instability. Population explosions that occur during periods of surplus are thus followed by periods of constriction when the resource is eventually exhausted. The size of this contraction naturally varies depending on the imbalance, ranging from minor seasonal variance, to outright collapse when a severe disparity between resources and a dependent population arises.
The same forces can also be seen acting on and guiding the growth of human societies. While the resource in question may vary between time and place, from grain stocks and clean water, to fossil fuels and timber, the principles remain remarkably consistent. Unlike other species however, human populations are subject to a further factor that permits ever-increasing growth and mitigates contraction. For humans, the vagaries of the cycle are mitigated by technological innovation which permits either the better use of a given resource or, far more often, the exploitation of a new resource to fill the gap left by the consumed one.
One of the earliest and most dramatic examples of this is the Neolithic revolution. Rapidly advancing cultural sophistication and a changing climate caused a human population explosion that culminated in the extinction of the large migratory herd mammals that had previously sustained the growth. The imminent collapses facing societies dependent on these species however was averted by a rapidly shifting reliance on agriculture, hitherto used only as a supplemental food source. During this period of transition, societies by necessity left behind the more prosperous nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle for the more arduous life of sedentary agriculture.
While the innovations granted by the fruit of knowledge provided a reprieve from human collapse, it has not permitted such grace for the ecosystems we inhabit, and ultimately depend upon. Lacking periods of reduced pressure, damaged ecosystems and exhausted resources are rarely allowed to recover, and are instead faced with continued human expansion. As the emergence of agriculture once triggered vast tracks of forest being burned for farmland, so now does rapid climate change and urban expansion ravage remaining ecosystems. This pattern has replayed itself without pause as civilization has spread and decimated every natural ecosystem which it has encountered.
As various inevitable end points now, at last, begin to converge in our distant view, we are faced with ever-contracting options. Unlimited growth, no matter how mitigated by technological advance, will inevitably consume all non-human systems. As we now eye the stars with greedy vision, we must face the realization that the same tree of knowledge that has saved us will destroy us, or else, inevitably lead us on into the final exile.
In almost all expressions of Abrahamic religion there can be found the idea of a Messianic era-to-come. Despite minor variations, this vision inevitably presents a future state of worldly perfection; a time and place in which the faults of the current world are cleansed and the earth is transformed into an ideal finality. Inherent in this concept is the premise that there exists an apotheosis of the world; an ideal disparate from our current incarnation.
In Judaism this idea manifests itself as the arrival of the referenced Messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. In Christian eschatology the idealized future takes the form of age of peace, where destruction itself is bound. In Islam the Messianic Age is marked by the return of Imam Mahdi and the Christ figure who together usher in an age of universal religiosity through Islam. Indicative of the pervasiveness of this concept, a no less potent secular version of this idea also exists. Such an “end of history” can be found equally underpinning systems otherwise as divergent as communism, western liberalism, and fascism. In all depictions, religious or secular, the distinguishing characteristic is that this static future remains distinct from any realized spiritual reality.
In a world of suffering and loss, the yearning to escape from ceaseless cycles of destruction and creation into an eternal stasis is an understandable conceit. The tragedy is that inherent in any framework that sees existence as broken is the root of suffering itself. To view the world as flawed is to nurture a wound spread with each attempt to fix what requires no repair.
Tellingly, in both Christianity and Islamic mythology the arrival of the Messianic Age is preceded by a final orgy of destruction, in which the forces of destruction themselves are violently purged from the ranks of the worthy. The idea’s secular manifestation often follows similar reasoning, with endless philosophies based on utopian visions of finality also pointing with equal abandon to the fires of genocide, warfare, and bondage. Such results should hardly be surprising: hatred begets hatred.
The oldest example of the messianic idea however is found in Judaism. Interestingly, in Judaism, a parallel concept can also be found in the principle of Tikkun olam, which holds that although the world is broken, through personal action it may be repaired and ultimately perfected. Like other examples, Tikkun olam, in its turn, has been interpreted primarily as a call to external action. A divergent interpretation however can see in it an internal manifest. A personal necessity to repair a shattered world which can be directly realized through the repair of a personal fissure.
Seen in this light, the only part of the world that is damaged is that part of ourselves that, in the refractions of our own perceptions, sees deformity instead of perfection. The true messiah is the understanding which discards the obscuring veil from what is already present in the waters of the eternal now. This is not an escape from action, but rather a call to it; for it also implies that the only act which is worthwhile is the one performed for its own sake. It necessitates that the transformations we desire be enacted now; for indeed, when else is there?