Thursday, August 6, 2020

Thinking Myth: Seeing the Nothing That Is not There and the Nothing That Is

(A Presentation at the 2020 Mythologium, a conference on Mythology, July 31-August 2)

I’m very pleased to be invited here today, and to be able to talk about nothing. Oscar Wilde once remarked, “I love to talk about nothing. It’s the only thing I know anything about.” In Genesis, we are told that “In the beginning […] The earth was without form, and void.” Heinz Pagels, an American physicist, remarked that the universe is “a re-expression of nothingness.” Ernest Hemingway, in A Clean, Well Lighted Place famously writes, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada (translation: well, anyway…). Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.” Shakespeare’s Lear tells his fool, “This is nothing, Fool.” The Fool replies, “Then tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer, you gave me nothing for’t. Can you make no use of nothing, Nuncle?” Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead remarks, “No sane person fears nothingness.” And then there was Martin Heidegger, who said, “The nothing nothings.”

 Marcus Aurelius said that life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, and that is never truer than when one decides to wrestle with nothingness. When we inquire into nothingness as an absence of something, or as an alternative to, or a lack of, something, we’re asking the wrong question. Shadows and holes have locations and even qualities of temporality, but they don’t consist of matter. Nothingness is not a negativity contingent on some positive something.

Nothingness always encompasses us, it inhabits us in the form of the intuition of what we were before we were born, and where we’re headed when we die. When we speak of nothingness, of no-thingness, we’re not speaking of emptiness, we’re not speaking of disorder, nor are we speaking of incomprehensibility, because contrary to being incomprehensible, we feel the looming presence of nothing attending our every mood. We are inclined to believe that something is better than nothing, that more is better than less, and that there are no voids in the natural world. But nothingness is something entirely of itself, and when I use the word in the context in which I am using it today, I’m not being coy or evasive, suggesting that nothingness is a euphemism for a something that is unfathomably mysterious. Nothingness is Chaos in its archaic Greek sense, the primordial source from which all order comes, and by which it is maintained.

Nothingness is a reality so unimaginably rich, so pregnant with inconceivable possibility, that no language or use of language can capture it, no matter how precise or innovative, no matter how poetic or imaginative or expressive it may be. We know that even mosquito larvae see shadows, so one might conclude that the perception of “nothing” doesn’t depend on complex or highly evolved mental states, in fact, the cognition of “nothing” may be primal. Silence, too, is often thought of as nothing, but silence is not simply the opposite of sound. What we hear as silence, a dog hears as noise, or John Cage heard as music; and Cage said that “These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended upon to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them.” (Alex Ross, Searching for Silence, The New Yorker, October 4, 2010)

Moods and emotions, particularly dread and anxiety, place one in relationship to, and suggest a relationship with, nothingness. In fact, these moods constitute, in part, what Heidegger called “Fundamental Thinking,” and they allow one to be more fully aware of Being, what Heidegger called Dasein, and in Heidegger’s view, Dasein is projected out of nothingness. Indeed, much, maybe even most, of life is lived through feelings that are not, in themselves, cognitions. Moods or emotions are not something that we possess, that we put forth, but instead they are aspects of living—ontological experiences which possess us, and by which we understand ourselves to be overcome or subjected to. Dasein, or literally There-Being, is fundamentally a disclosure of Nothingness, and one may go so far as to say Being IS nothingness, as they are not conceptual opposites. Nothingness belongs to essence itself, and it issues forth Being. But logic tends to break down in the face of Nothingness because logic exists in relationship to matter and time; logic does not exist in relationship to the unimaginable, the unthinkable, or in relationship to no-thingness. Logic, reason, and rationality are not able to reach into Dasein or Essence itself. Isaiah Berlin put it this way:

No matter what I say I always have to leave three dots at the end. Whatever description I give always opens the doors to something further, something even darker, perhaps, but certainly something which is in principle incapable of being reduced to precise, clear, verifiable, objective prose.” 

One might say that Life ‘happens’ in the ellipses.

To understand Nothingness, one must let go of anthropomorphisms and the tendency to want to reduce experiences and concepts to certainties and facts. So, traditional anthropomorphized notions of a universe that is responsive to human entreaty or influence must be renounced, and the phenomena represented by relational narratives must be surrendered to the ellipse. Consequently, these ellipses are shockingly rich, downright Protean, one might say. Poetry lives in the ellipses, and most importantly for our purposes here today, so too does myth.

The Greek word, poesis, means to make. It is, Donald Polkinghorne says, “an activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” (Practice and the Human Sciences: The Case for a Judgement-Based Practice of Care, SUNY Press, 2004, p. 115) It is apparently, but only apparently, the act of creating something out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo. But, the only way that something can be created out of nothing, is for the nothing to be nothing like what we typically understand nothing to be. The nothing of creation cannot be an absence or a lack, it must be something else. As Wallace Stevens put it in his poem, Of Mere Being, it’s “beyond the last thought,” and “without human meaning, without human feeling, a foreign song.”

                    The Palm at the end of the mind,
                           Beyond the last thought, rises
                           In the bronze décor,

                           A gold-feathered bird
                           Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
                           Without human feeling, a foreign song.

                           You know then that it is not the reason
                           That makes us happy or unhappy.
                           The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

                           The palm stands on the edge of space.
                           The wind moves slowly in the branches.
                           The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

By conjuring “the palm at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought,” Stevens demands that we struggle free from rational, familiar thought—"you know then that it is not the reason,” he writes—in other words, it’s not the cognitive function of reason—"that makes us happy or unhappy.” Abandoning reason, we enter a world beyond the factual, beyond the familiar world of known things, we experience the transcendent essence of being, and we become aware of the Nothingness, which is that unanthropomorphic world “without human meaning, without human feeling.”

That palm tree beyond the last thought and beyond human feeling on the edge of space is, in Stevens’ poem, the symbol of indefatigable, indestructible Being which is projected from Nothingness. The barely glimpsed bird with golden feathers in the palm tree, the “fire-fangled feathers,” can only be a Phoenix, the bird that self-immolates and is reborn from its own ashes. And the brilliant mind of Wallace Stevens knew that the Greek word for palm is phoenix, and by placing the phoenix in a Phoenix, he emphasizes the abiogenic fecundity of Nothingness.

Once to a friend, Anton Chekov remarked that if you see a gun on prominent display in the first act, you can be sure it will be fired in the third. So, let’s pick up that gun and examine it for a bit before we fire it. Freud once remarked of his own theories that they appealed to him because they tended to, like the theories of Copernicus or Darwin, diminish man’s pride. While that may be one of the greatest humblebrags ever uttered, Myth has a similar power to absorb and disturb us in secret ways, diminish our pride; it puts us human beings in our place in the world, and in the order of things.

Myths point to, or implicate intriguing truths, the apparatuses of Being and disclosures of Nothingness that generally remain frustratingly secret, and in a certain sense, allow us to explore—or at least wonder about, that which lay beyond the last thought. Myths highlight the existentially puzzling phenomena to which we’d rather not give too much attention, things like consciousness, death, the constant struggle between free will and determinism, and all the other issues of human There-Being that remain stubbornly resistant to the intellect. Myth allows one to grasp the full force and effect of a complex world on limited human beings, and this is so because myth arises from a response to Nothingness, an attempt to understand Nothingness.

Myths are projections of Being (or Dasein) much in the same way as Being is a projection of Nothingness. Heidegger’s use of the word understand (verstehen) is one of the two essential constituents to Dasein, or There-Being (Da is the there in there-being), but he didn’t use the word “understand” in the way we typically use the word to indicate a grasp of something, to see things more clearly, or to integrate information into a larger context. Rather, Heidegger insisted that understanding was not so much a cognitive process as much as it was a capability, a capacity, a possibility of existence. For Heidegger, one who understands something is one who can deploy practical skills. This doesn’t require one to have a highly developed theoretical understanding of one’s skills. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that Babe Ruth would not have been able to speak to the technical aspects—such as the transfer of energy, or apply the principles of fluid dynamics to the effort of hitting a home run. Ruth just knew—he understood (er verstand)—how to hit a home run. It was simply a part of his being.

Let’s look at another poem, because in the context of this presentation, the poesis of Wallace Stevens and mythopoesis are pointing at the same thing—nothingness, and the search for a practical relationship to it. Here’s Wallace Stevens again, and his poem, The Snow Man:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

In this poem, we see that all the conditions to properly recognize nothingness are satisfied. A mind of winter isn’t created through or because of an intellectual or theoretical effort; it’s fashioned out of experience, the experience of having been cold a long time, so long in fact, that you begin to act, even think, like winter itself; moving slower, sometimes ponderously slow, and parts of your psyche become brittle and exposed, as other parts are buried and the flow of libido is thinned, conserving energy while ambition is dormant and darkness absorbs us into our own depths. There’s no misery in the sound of the wind and a few mutinous leaves, because now, one is the winter wind; one no longer inhabits the winter landscape, one has become it. I have a sneaking suspicion that this is the experience one has just before freezing to death, so one can see the risk accompanying such understanding. One recognizes that one is oneself the Nothing that is not there as well as the Nothing that is.

Human Dasein and the Nothingness from which it’s projected can’t be grasped, can’t be logically apprehended, and when myth is used as a parlor game whose only object is that of recognizing and identifying one’s ego with the patterns of a particular archetype while neglecting the frequently perilous challenges of the archetypal, the various myths and mythic figures become just another story the ego can use for its own inflation, or to engender the comfort of familiarity and certainty, and confirm what one wants to be true, or even what one has believed all along.

Personalizing myth and archetypal images in this manner is similar to a butterfly collector pinning a butterfly in a shadow box; the object of beauty and fascination, the object of a particular kind of awe, is no longer alive. Semiotically speaking, the butterfly thus pinned has become a sign rather than a symbol. Likewise, the myth is reduced to a psychic tchotchke, an object of bemusement, in which one is no longer able to find beauty or follow heedlessly on its unhurried, meandering, often erratic way, leading away from the comfortable environs of domesticity and deeper into, not just the natural world, but deeper into one’s own nature and the sublime discoveries awaiting one there. (I should point out that the Greek homonym, psyche, is used to denote both butterfly and soul.)

Thinking mythically, thinking not of archetypes but of the archetypal, one finds the real power of myth; one wakes up, as it were, and is less constrained, less burdened, and less in opposition to the complexities and limitations of living a human life. Mythic thinking opens the doors of perception to astonishment, to contentment, to life with its full range of emotion and experience. Thought this way, one discovers, to quote from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, that “Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form - all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”

Thank you, and I am very grateful that you were willing to listen so attentively to nothing.

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