An Ideal Knife

Cast Away on a Sea of Births
Cast Away on a Sea of Births, 2018

“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.

Leaving the Garden

“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

Leaving the Garden
Leaving the Garden, 2015

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.

New Jerusalem

New written piece:

The Fires Below New Jerusalem/the Wheel of Holocaust, 2015

“…Seen in this light, the part of the world that is damaged is that part of ourselves that, in the refractions of our perceptions, sees deformity instead of perfection. The only true messiah is therefore the understanding which discards the obscuring veil from the perfection 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 contains the understanding that the only act which is worthwhile is the one performed for its own sake. It necessitates that the change we desire be enacted now; for indeed, when else is there?”

The Fires Below New Jerusalem

The Fires Below New Jerusalem
The Fires Below New Jerusalem, 2015

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?

Waiting for the Fall

Waiting for the Fall
Waiting for the Fall, 2015

As the civilized systems of our collective creation seek to tame and exert dominion over the natural systems of the world, so too do they inevitably crawl within the wilds of our natures in search of conquest. The engines of industry, in coercion of their chosen tools towards impersonal and broken ends, indeed must banish the call of howling wills. Though our collective systems may once have been born out of the physical need caused by collective mistakes, such systems have persisted after the need has passed. Now, through structural edifices, and more insidiously, in the hearts of those caught within their nets, they have taken on purpose of their own.

For most, the nature of such systems is disguised by their constant presence; with habituation, their weight can be almost forgotten, lingering on only at the edges of awareness, nagging and persistent. This character is even more pronounced for those born into such worlds; ones who may find themselves unknowingly chained, both body and soul, to false necessities. Plastic simulacrums which destroy internal habitations with the same slow certainty with which they lay waste to the natural world. The culmination of this heritage forms a linkage that stretches not only across individual lives, but on into the span of generations.

The autarkic life of technological necessity, existing both independent of any singular individual, and yet lacking any embodiment outside, creates a strange tableau, in which each individual finds themselves both victim and oppressor. This apparent contradiction manifests itself first when such systems are internalized, and afterward in the external, when these same values are expressed once more. While we lack the power to directly fell such systems in their bulk, we do nevertheless retain the ability yo tear up their roots which dwell within us.

Indeed, a personal liberation is a prerequisite for the universal. The transgressions needed to topple the source of bondage requires a freedom that cannot exist in the conquered. After touching true freedom, a return to imprisonment is impossible; the force of final realization is enough to forever preserve an internal, indestructible, liberation. Once such freedom enters our souls, there is no return.

The Tree of Life, and of Death

At their most essential core all elements of existence follow the same pattern: life, death, and rebirth. The creative act births new existence out of the decay of the old and, after a time, the new phenomenon is undone to permit the next incarnation. This rebirth can be seen in myriad forms but its essence remains the same: the destroyed image is recreated in altered form, with time becoming ever more divergent and slowly approaching a unity as the lines of the specific blur into the universal.

The Tree of Life, and of Death
The Tree of Life, and of Death, 2015

This cycle is visible at all levels of our personal lives, from the stream of the ever present now, to the circadian cycles of oblivion and lucidity that dominate our conscious minds. Our personal deaths are likewise shadowed by eternal returns, both physical, through our relations, and spiritual, through our words and acts. Even as a collective we can witness a similar order, where our societies pass through their own cycles of decline, revolution, and renewal.

The universality of these cycles is even more clear in the natural world; spring and summer bring rebirth and life, autumn and winter, death. The prey that perishes, through its death permits countless lives to be born and exist. The fire that ravages the forest and scourers out the most resilient of life also rejuvenates the soil and nourishes new growth. Each aspect of the cycle is a necessary element, contributing equally to continuing existence in an unending, ever changing, work of perfection.

It is for this reason that the earliest forms of neolithic religion looked to the sun. Such sun cults saw in the daily journey of the sun a metaphor for all other cycles, especially our own human journeys. As the sun travels across the sky so do we pass through our lives and into night. And as the sun sets only to rise again in the morning, so too do we die only to be reborn.

Such cycles can likewise be seen in modern spirituality, where this understanding has itself been subject to the principles it describes. A such, death and rebirth are as central to religion of today as they were to our ancestors. Even the symbolism displays the marks of these cycles. In Christianity the elongated cross only mildly diverges from the sun-cross, and as both symbols share similar forms, so too do they express nearly identical concepts. Likewise, other versions of the sun-cross are nearly identical to the Wheel of Dharma and svastika, respectively symbolic of the karmic cycle of life, death, and rebirth in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. Indeed, this symbol dates back as far as civilization itself; in the Indus Valley, the same symbol was used as an astronomical symbol, representing the cycles of the heavens.

In our personal lives the lesson that we must take away from this understanding is that death is as central to existence as is life. As beings in the throes of existing we naturally posses a predilection for existence, and yet for life to continue we must learn to embrace destruction as well, faithful that rebirth is no more traumatic than if must be. And indeed, when we have learned to see the cycle in its fullness we likewise realize that the trauma of undoing is most painful because we fear it.

A Pyramid Rising Out of the Sea

New written piece:

A Pyramid Rising Out of the Sea, 2015

“…Like all of our deepest fears, this terror of the abyss finds purchase in our symbols, myths, and stories. Among them; the sexually resplendent serpent who tempts the first woman in the garden of Eden, Níðhöggr, the dragon who gnaws at the roots of the world-tree, and the snake that steals eternal youth from Gilgamesh. The shared phallic and venomous characteristics of this manifestation are no coincidence. Indeed, sexuality often seems to be at the root of both destructive and creative acts. The serpent can thus be seen as a channel through which the abyssal chaos penetrates our formed mental worlds and permits new creative acts…”

A Pyramid Rising Out of the Sea

A Pyramid Rising Out of the Sea
A Pyramid Rising Out of the Sea, 2015

The ancient Egyptians visualized creation as an event in which the sun was birthed by a pyramidal mound, itself rising out of the ancient, primordial, waters of chaos. While there are many layers to this mythology, it is a potent image that can serve as an apt metaphor for the emergence of the mental frameworks which give meaning to our worlds. From this perspective the pyramid can be seen as the individual psyche; at its apex, the light of consciousness, expanding downward into the shared symbols and motifs of the unconscious and collective, all while its base rests in the chaos of unstructured, meaningless, external stimuli.

Thanks to modern psychology, the concepts of the conscious and the unconscious have become familiar terms to describe layers of the mind. While these terms are useful approximations, like most classifications, the zones thus described are ultimately not discrete. Rather, much like the ocean, the layers expand massively downward, from the light of consciousness into gradient zones of unconscious darkness. The true depth of such darkness however expands radically below the surface, both downward and outward, eventually eclipsing what we normally term the individual. For below both the conscious and the unconscious of the individual mind is the collection of shared cultural motifs termed the collective unconscious, and ultimately below this are the direct stimuli that we term the physical world. Each layer may be seen as a perceptual filter that variously molds or shapes our perception of each preceding zone.

The individuality of a single being is therefore also gradient; a gradual blending of the discrete into the universal. To return to the initial metaphor, the individual mind rises out of the chaos of the universal, bringing with it conceptual frameworks and the clarity of understanding. Interestingly, both the darkest depths of the unknown, aphotic, chaos and the momentary light of conscious understanding are, in their own ways, universally shared among all beings. The first as the unfiltered, shared, world of physicality. The second through the universality of perceiving itself, where the momentary, experiential act links all through the transcendence of the witness, I.

The knowledge that below our momentary awareness exists a collection of desires, fears, and beliefs that exert almost complete gravity over our supposedly independent thoughts and actions is hardly a new discovery, yet nevertheless the belief that we are creatures only of the conscious mind, rational actors in a rational and known world, stubbornly persists. Indeed, our unconscious existences are often feared, perhaps because they so easily pierce the carefully crafted worlds we rely on for stability in the face of the unknown.

Like all of our deepest fears, this terror of the abyss finds purchase in our symbols and stories. Among them: the sexually resplendent serpent who tempts the first woman in the garden of Eden; Níðhöggr, the dragon who gnaws at the roots of the world-tree; and the snake that steals eternal youth from Gilgamesh. The shared phallic and venomous characteristics of this manifestation are no coincidence. Sexuality is often at the root of destructive and creative acts alike. The serpent can thus be seen as a channel through which the abyssal chaos penetrates our formed mental worlds and permits new creative acts.

Whether the well of our primordial desires is demonized due to the threat it presents to constraining paradigms, or whether it emerges out of our own, personal, fears is largely irrelevant. Our leviathans are ultimately part of the totality of ourselves, neither to be feared nor repressed if we are to achieve a state of harmony. Indeed, they are only monstrous when we do not accept them as a necessary and critical part of ourselves.

Forest Fire and the Trimūrti

Forest Fire
Forest Fire, 2014

One of the distinguishing features of Christianity relative to other contemporary religious schemas is the externalization of the destructive force. In almost all widespread modern interpretations of Christianity the cyclical progression of life, death, and rebirth is seen as leading towards an ultimate end. An end where the cycle will at last stop with the death of destruction and the establishment of an eternal stasis of unending, unrejuvenated, life. While precedents can certainly be found, for example in the Jewish concept of New Jerusalem, the promise of life without death as a central tenant, stands as a central tenant in Christianity alone.

An interesting counterexample can be found in Hinduism. Similar to Christianity, the concept of the three-in-one god is also precedent. The central forces of the universe are thought of in terms of the creative (Brahma), the protective (Vishnu), and the destructive (Shiva). While a similar concept can be found in the Christian trinity, in the case of the trinity the holy spirit is is substituted for the destructive, which instead is personified as an external force, namely the devil.

Even in Judaism, Yahweh is shown as both a protective and destructive force, as easily capable of blessing as wanton devastation. Indeed, it is something of a cognitive-dissonance in modern Christianity that a supposedly moral god was once capable of such wrath. The solution to this dilemma is the realization that

we turn to nature however death is seen in all aspects of life. From the ashes of the forest fire grows new life. The fox kills the hare to feed its young. Dead matter feeds the growth of the new. Like any truth that is repressed the eventual emergence is warped and distorted.

That Christ is presented as a conquer of death, rather than role of death in. This fact especially curious as it, if the death of the savior was the catalyst that brought about new life perhaps it is best to regard destruction as a necessary, inalienable, aspect of the world, rather than a force that must be conquered. Instead, death may be regarded as a necessary part of a unified whole.

Forest Sacrament

The essential composite and dynamics of the universe are undeniable; entropy consumes with the same inevitability as the generative element creates and recreates. That the cycle of these phenomenon exist as axiomatic truths however has not inhibited their obfuscation. Indeed, how various schemas have chosen to interpret the presences of death specifically has varied greatly. One of the distinguishing features that has emerged in contemporary Christianity for instance is its near universal externalization of the destructive.

Forest Sacrament
Forest Sacrament, 2013

For those familiar only with the estrangement of destruction, its malignancy can seem self-evident. Contrasting counterexamples however abound. Ranging from the embraced violence of mesoamerican mythology, to its acceptance of it in the near-eastern pantheon, destruction is rarely found only in the other. Far from being considered opposed to the divine, in dharmic theology, destruction is often seen as a central, and sometimes even ultimate, aspect of the divine. In such cases undoing, no less than doing, is rightly perceived as a necessary aspect of the whole.

In Christianity, that the creative is considered not just a dominate trait of a complex entity, but indeed as the primary, if not sole, aspect of the Godhead, is telling. While earlier incarnations of the Abrahamic El do place an emphasis on the creative aspects of the deity, so too do they also acknowledge the ruinous. Not surprisingly, as the concept of the destructive divine became increasingly unpalatable, the personification of destruction emerged as an inherently independent, invasive, figure. That this figure ultimately took on the form of earlier horned and hoofed nature deities is far from coincidental.

In the natural, world death is a constant presence which grants life to many even as it robs it from some: from the ashes of the forest fire grows new life; the lion that kills the lamb feeds its young with the refuse. Destruction of the old is always necessary and central to the growth of the new. This incontrovertible character is in direct contrast to the divine peace emphasized as the modern Christian ideal. In this context it is not surprising that the personification of the wild would take on a threatening aspect. Indeed, in the horned being of life and death is found all that is missing in sterilized ideals of static perfection.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this perceptual shift is contained in the Christ story itself. In a mythology centered on rebirth there can, with equal emphasis, be perceived the importance of death as of life. Rather than a conquest over death, the role of destruction in the resurrection should be seen as the divine catalyst for new life. When instead an excision is attempted on a necessary process, an impassable divide is created between existence and its imagined ideal. This sundering not only results in the separation of the divine from the natural, but also the division of man from the divine. It is impossible to love something without accepting the totality of it.