I love you more than all the fires
That fence out the world
For the fire makes a circle
So that no one sees you any more
But darkness holds it all:
The shape and the flame,
The animal and myself;
How it holds them,
All powers, all sight –
And it is possible: its great strength
Is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.
(‘Du Dunkelheit’, Rainer Maria Rilke, transl. David Whyte)
In this piece I’d like to explore a couple of themes – the first is darkness, and by extension, the unconscious, the unknown – or rather, our image of and relationship to, that which is beyond and behind awareness, off the map. Secondly, the quality of the interconnectedness of all beings, all things; interdependent arising, as Buddhism would put it, ‘interbeing’ as the neologism of psychobabble prefers. I will try to be brief! To start somewhere, let’s consider a few quotes – something like Terence McKenna’s remark that
‘the bigger we build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed’
which gets into the paradox of human knowing, from a day-world place of rational analysis – that is to say, as we know more, there is inevitably more to know – rolling back frontiers of the known, illuminating as it may be, just gets us in deeper, it achieves no resolution, we do well to let go of that expectation. The darkness stares right back, as Rilke points out, it ‘holds them, all powers, all sight’.
Another line comes from Seamus Heaney, who died, it seems, as I was writing this piece (I take no responsibility for that!). I never cared much for his poetry, though I saw him speak as Professor of Poetry back in Oxford in 1989/90 and he was impressively erudite. To be fair, he did great justice to Beowulf in his verse translation too. But his take on darkness seems pertinent here, especially now at his dying time. He says, variously
‘All I know is a door into the dark’
and ‘I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing’
and ‘the end of art is peace’.
All I know, all my accumulated knowledge, is nothing but a door, a threshold, a sort of means of entry into ‘the dark.’ What I come to know buys me entry to a deeper, darker unknown. He goes on, more active ‘I rhyme to see myself’ – my action of creating in words is an act of self-referencing, seeking to know that I exist, but also to ‘set the darkness echoing’ – to hear through that which I cannot know, a trace or echo of that which I am, returning. The sensory switch is from seeing to hearing, and of we follow this deeply enough, senses dissolve, melt one into another (in Tibetan Buddhist thought this is marked as an elemental process of absorption, earth into water, water into fire, fire into wind or air, wind into space and the final dissolution of gross mind-body experience into an ever subtler, unreconstructed, clear-light nature of mind). We need to hear, and to feel and to smell out our way with the darkness every bit as much as we need to build bonfires to illuminate it, or don night-vision goggles so we can predate upon our own kind more efficiently.
‘Art’ says Heaney, results at last in peace – the ‘peace that passeth all understanding’ – or perhaps it is fair to say, he is showing us that death of ‘art’ – it inevitably ends, passes into silence, darkness, peace as our substance, our lives, all must and all do. There is much here to ponder psychodynamically, intra-personally, but also in terms of the collective, the transpersonal.
In his never bettered masterpiece The Denial of Death (1974, Pultzer Prize winner), Ernest Beckerwrote
“the irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms.”
Later in the same work, expanding on his theme, he wryly notes
“we are gods with anuses”
Yet, worms are also food for us, and without their happy industry, soilless, we wither and starve. Life, as Joseph Campbell was fond of pointing out, is ‘a thing that should not be’ since it requires death, consumption, being food, being predator and preyed upon. What is the relationship then, between ‘those who serve and those who eat’ in any given moment?
On a collective level it would seem that the question is taboo – anti-democratic, referring to too-hard a truth for modern ears to welcome. And yet, by the very same process, this democracy is itself an agent of awakening towards paradox – generating as it does, crisis upon crisis of morals, of resource distribution, and of power. Dmitry Orlov observes in his ‘Five Stages of Collapse’(2013) that the only democracy worthy of the mantle is direct democracy, participatory, on a scale of direct human relationship. This is a rare form in modern times, and by his calculations, a function of population size and scale (hence a Swiss or Icelander has greater democratic ‘wealth’ than and Indian or an American) – it is mostly co-opted by ‘representative democracy’ – an altogether different abstracted form, much more predicated on hierarchy and corruption. Interdependence here shifts from mutuality of relationship and interest, to a form of exploitation and cynical game playing, a matter of poll numbers and margins, vested interest and lobby power. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that modern democracy, that benchmark of technological-enlightenment values, is more likely what David Orr calls ‘an artefact of abundance’. In other words a kind of conceit of a particular age, one marked by surplus energy from the exploitation of a one-off fossil-fuel endowment. We burn and burn and burn all that we can dig up, chop down, mine, pump or extract to make a bigger bonfire, to go to war with the dark. Yet for all our impressively global light pollution, the stars still shine in the dark – the dark still holds it all. Just as silence prevails in and behind all sound, making sound itself possible – so too darkness, the occasion for all light. To finish the thought on democracy (which is not only a collective political arrangement, to be sure, but also an internal psychological mirror or mask, a part of our conditioning) here’s Oswald Spengler being rather presecient:
(Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, 1918)
He goes on to describe the ‘’soul of old Gothic” which he sees as necessarily returning in “knightly orders overpower(ing) plunderous vikingism”. And describes the task before us beautifully as the“unwearying care of this world as it is”, to wit, “the very opposite of the interestedness of the money-power age” demanding “high honour and conscientiousness”. He concludes his prophesying with a final battle ‘between democracy and Caesarism, between the leading forces of dictatorial money economics and the purely political will-to-order of the Caesars’
(Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, 1918)
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”
Hunter S Thompson
By way of moving these thoughts towards a conclusion, another quote
I can fit into your puzzle, but it’s hardly, hardly ever a hold
And I’ll tell you the trouble
The habits I’ve got are more than ten thousand years old
And we cannot sell our souls to learning morals
Big brother is no place for us to slide
We cannot live by numbers or on laurels
And hardly on how far from death we hide
And it’s not a case of rampant paranoia
But just an age I’d love to see unborn
Not that I’d be missing playing Goya
But more like I feel awkward passing on civilisation
Civilisation down to my children
Without a question”
Roy Harper ‘The Game’ (1975, ‘HQ’)
The point of these teachings, and their potency, lies in their bearing upon behaviour and action. To perceive interdependence
“means that we can begin to understand the ultimate truth. This happens because by studying the way things appear through the play of interdependence, we begin to realize that nothing is as solid, as real, as concrete, as it seems to be. In fact, things manifest as what they really are, which is empty”
(Ven Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Geshe Lharampa, ‘The Twelve Links of Interdependent Origination’)
On other levels interdependence has traction too, from the way geographers describe complex systems of ecological, human, geological and climatic interaction, through to economic modelling, even computer game design and the contemporary spate of ‘gamification’ of life.
‘No man is an island
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”
as John Donne put it in Meditation XVII, from Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623).
Life does not care for our ideas about life, rather, life is entirely embedded and thoroughly interdependent at every scale and in all the ten directions – earth is life, life is earth, without separation – the earth is as it is because of life, life created the conditions for life by being life, earth lives because it is life living itself – life isn’t happening on it or to it, life is it – we are life in view of recognising this at apparently higher scales of abstraction, reason, understanding. Life is mineral, vegetable, animal, mental, emotional, it is transcendent-immanent, individual and collective, uniquely commonplace in and upon this blue-white diamond, this impossible green nut orbiting its magical everyday sun, magnificently generous from the fire in consciousness to the Self in all.
Someone with too much time on their hands once calculated (speculated) that the total number of human lives lived, so far, upon the earth, is in the region of 108 billion. 108 billion human births since the dawn of our species. Which, roughly speaking, means that about 7% of the total number of humans ever to exist, is alive on this earth right now in this moment – potentially available for us to know directly (you can call them if you like, right after you’ve finished reading). Even so, the other 100 billion of our ancestors and forebears didn’t really go anywhere either – materially the substance of their bodies decayed back through the various organic cycles and now exist, some changed, some (like inert molecules of argon) no different, in and around us now, to say nothing of their consciousnesses, their dream vehicles, their karmas. To live is to live in the haunting of substantiality, made out of borrowed atoms, with inherited genes, standard issue drives and nervous systems, recycled from numberless previous lives.
“Whether we live or die is a matter of absolutely no concern whatsoever to the desert. Let men in their madness blast every city on earth into black rubble and envelop the entire planet in a cloud of lethal gas – the canyons and hills, the springs and rocks will still be here, the sunlight will filter through, the water will form and warmth shall be upon the land, and after sufficient time, no matter how long, somewhere, living things will emerge and join and stand once again, this time perhaps to take a different and better course. I have seen the place called Trinity, in New Mexico, where our wise men exploded the first atomic bomb and the heat of the blast fused sand into a greenish glass – already the grass has returned, and the cactus and the mesquite. On this bedrock of animal faith I take my stand, close by the old road that leads eventually out of the valley of paradox”
(Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968)