The world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
Not long before he died in 1997, Viktor Frankl was persuaded to revise his old book, ‘The Unconscious God’ , exploring humanity’s ‘unconscious religiousness’ [like Martin Buber, he rejects Jung’s take on this]; the new book was published posthumously [‘Man’s Search For Ultimate Meaning’, 2000; 2011]. Frankl takes the opportunity to review his life’s work, and reaffirm what he had to go through in the concentration camp, and what was forged in him from that confrontation with wholesale evil.
The ‘will to meaning’, which Frankl argues to be the primary human intentionality, can be finally defeated in a kind of evil ennui, or spiritual torpor, which he terms ‘existential vacuity.’ This echoes the ‘accidie’ of the early desert tradition of spirituality in the Christian East. The root meaning of the term in Greek, according to John Chryssavgis, refers to an inability to stump up any ‘concern’ for anybody or anything. St John of Damascus called this condition= “weariness in the face of one’s work”; it becomes impossible not to abandon one’s post.
Existentially, it is the third, and the deepest, undermining of the mystery the heart stands upon in having no ‘ground’ other than the abyss.
This malaise of ‘vacancy’ so widespread in the modern world is explored in ‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles ; the novel is a vividly experiential portrait of the third hell, the empty void, the abyss that becomes nothingness.. His way of expressing a travelling going nowhere, a travelling into empty nothingness, is masterful in its perfect mixing of literal and metaphorical= outer mirrors inner, and inner mirrors outer..
Since this hell creates ‘the banal’, a lot of the events in the story are trivial, necessarily; but on the occasions when the sky splits, and the great nothing roars into the world, or rather, into consciousness, it is dramatic.. If this hell wins, superficiality is the result, but a certain kind of shallowness, a shallows with the certitude of meaninglessness, and futility, in built.
This is not death. It is worse by far than death.. You could be alive or dead, technically speaking, and this ‘absence’ would be the same. Indeed, such is the horror of this absence, even if you were alive to experience it, you would yearn for extinction so as to stop experiencing it. It eclipses any distinction between life and death, ushering in a vacancy so terrible, it is like a scream that, as the book says, exists independently of your inert body, your inert corpse. This hell is not pained in the usual sense. It is a horror that rises from shadowy depths and elicits even in the most feverish, minimal consciousness, a gasp of terror that breaks into the universe, and splinters the sheltering sky above, revealing the same nothingness above as roared up from below..
This third and most abysmally deep hell is very near the surface in America, or rather, just below the surface, threatening the narrow band of indifferent normalcy with collapse into its nameless horror. This is beyond angst. This is the worst case scenario that angst entertains as possibility become reality. This is not the loss of belief in God. This is the loss of all visceral assurance, all subtle intimation, of God from way down in the abyss moving dynamically upward to move the heart into fearless action. This is the reverse assurance, the inverted intimation, of nothingness coming up, like a bad sick. There is no escape, into life, or into death. There is no peace, only falling through, and falling in, forever.
Port Moresby and his wife Kit are from New York, wealthy, upper class, with nothing to do, nor any need to work, spending their life drifting to exotic places– to escape. Escape America, escape each other, escape the self.. They have been everywhere– and nowhere. On this occasion, in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, they are in French Algeria, starting out in the north, and heading inland, going ever more southward, deeper and deeper into the absent zone of the Sahara Desert. They show observant disinterest to the backward Arabs, and make no attempt to relate to them. They prefer the ‘ambiance’ that comes off all the exotic peoples, clothes, mannerisms, animals, architectures, haunted by the burning sun and the wind-tossed sands.. Their conversations with each other are sophisticated and brittle, always avoiding any true contact, yet maintaining a fruitless bond that neither husband nor wife can break. Sex has left their marriage some while back.. Yet they travel together, ever further into the meaninglessness and pointlessness that is inside each, and between both.
They are travelling with a third man, called Tunner, who is a kind of foil they can play off. He is described as having a face of “bland contentment”, whilst Port and Kit are inwardly disturbed, driven by some nameless force they cannot grasp consciously at all, though in him it produces a kind of intensifying despair, and in her it generates numinous fear. She withholds herself, from him, and from all of life. He keeps moving, yet the movement is increasingly peeled back, and revealed, as a kind of desperation. It becomes clearer later in the novel that Port is going into the Nothing to die, to die of the Nothing. He has a date– not with destiny — but with the Nothing. It draws him deeper in, passing through more and more remote and primitive enclaves, going ever more down into the featureless threat emanating from the desert and blowing into the towns. He is rushing with increasing urgency down into the ominous nullity, frantic to catch ever more primitive haulage to get to places ever farther removed from the consolations and defenses of ‘civilization.’
All his life he has skirted the Nothing, let it eat into his innards, and rob him of any élan for living, leaving him poisoned, full of apathy and alienation, throwing away half perceptive quips and effetely clever intimations of the smell of disavowed despair coming off the Nothing his being cannot dispel, indeed, does not want to dispel. He is within a comfort boundary living like this. Yet for no reason, it seems he has elected to take the first boat out of America after the war to North Africa, to begin his adventure into what he consciously thinks of as a year of wandering, but which at an underlying level he knows to be the end of all his restless flitting from location to location. It is as if he is no longer comfortable to be sickened by the Nothing infiltrating his whole inwardness, but now has to drive head-long into its very essence. At some more implicit level, Kit wants to face the Nothing, challenge it to do its worst. He will not, he cannot, fight it. His vital ignition, his creative juice and substantive pith, is too eroded to fight the monster in its lair. It is as if he wants to prove — to himself as much as or more than the rest of the world — that there is only the Nothing, and his life of Nothing was ‘right’ all along..
Kit is less well sketched. The Nothing is breathing on Port, but in her it has created such fearfulness of life that, as the book says, she lives behind a glass from where she observes living things but they cannot affect her. She is like that sea flower whose outstretched petals spring back from any alien touch. Because the Nothing is for her, as for him, insinuated at the very core of existence — the heart of darkness indeed — she tries to hide from its outer looming menace, by hiding behind her fear, going into herself to get away. She wants Port to shield her from the Nothing, this seems her only attachment to him, but he is much farther ‘gone south’ than she is. It is ensconced in his entrails, and in his unserious and non-earnest throw away style, he has a need to declare, before he goes down, the truth of there being no truth. Thus he cannot comfort his wife, but is always increasing her basic unease.
This is a marriage made not in heaven, but in hell.. Even the way in which they cannot reconcile with each other, nor break from each other, speaks of the Nothing that brought them together and is all that they now share..
This story is chilling, though it passes through all the hottest places on earth where even the air is on fire. Forget Dante. We are truly descending.. Even the increasingly bare towns are harbingers of the endless desert farther away, creeping ever closer.
The first layer of hell is briefly evoked. This is the pit of deadness, the old Greek Hades and the ancient Jewish Sheol; a ghostly half-life, a life fatally deadened, life frozen in unending stasis, all initiative stifled, all forward thrust caught in a prison from which there can be no exit. The leitmotif of this initial hell is decay. The seedy towns, the seedy officials giving themselves airs, the sense of pointless outer convention that masks inner failure of nerve and avoidance of real duty.. Everything is random, arbitrary, chaotic, rotting.. The few people in the story who show humanity to the travellers [especially a Jewish merchant disliked by his Muslim neighbours] stand out like beacons, for they rise out of the general malaise, not sinking into the thick mud dragging down any hope that ‘things could be different.’ Whatever began well is ruined. Dust covers everything, blinding the eyes, clogging the soul, strangling the heart… Life is blanked out, leaving the people blank.
The second hell comes with places less reeking of ruination and more burnt up by sun and wind and sand. This place is metallic, stings, bites, has an edge to its suffocating heat. The winds burn, the sands burn, the very land has no protection from the sun that burns to a crisp everything it gazes upon. It finds nothing worthy, and consumes everything in its disapproving and withering intensity..
At this stage in the narrative, Port betrays Kit in a strange encounter with a beautiful young female Arab dancer, who promptly betrays him.. He has made love to this exotic creature in a tent ensconced in a dark valley outside the gates of the city, and when she tries to steal his wallet and he stops her, she cries out to a group of Arab men in other tents nearby, and Port has to flee for his life. They will rob and kill him, for sure. He escapes, slightly exhilarated, because even this episode of falsity is preferable to the nullity that is drawing him towards a vortex that negates all of life, negates everything… This will be the last sexual encounter of Port’s life, and fittingly it is a failure of fidelity, a failure of faithfulness. He briefly exults in it, yet just as easily forgets it.. The furnace of hell is enjoyable for a stolen instant, yet its cold flames flaring up cannot keep out the emptiness of the void into which it is already collapsing.
Meanwhile, Tunner sees Kit as a prize to his male pride, and starts pressuring her, subtly, to sleep with him. Port and Kit have a chance to leave Tunner behind, if they will travel onward to the next little town with a ghastly mother and son duo — Eric and Mrs Lyle — in an old Mercedes; the mother is a travel writer who sneers at everything she sees, escorted on her explorations by a feckless son who pretends to all manner of accomplishments — patently fabricated — everywhere they have visited. Everyone dismisses this pair as ludicrous. But Kit rejects the chance to jettison Tunner, so she and her husband can be alone with one another; ostensibly she feels bad about leaving their guest and travelling companion on his own. In fact she is annoyed about Port’s adventure of the previous night [though she does not want to know what he got up to], and hence contrives to send Port off with the Lyles, while she and Tunner go together on the train.
Port’s ride in the car is fitting punishment: he has to listen to the inane mother carrying on with yet more put downs in the same vein as her previous constant railing against her useless, and vile, son.. There is something very sleazy about him — though once mother and son are witnessed by an Arab hotelier in bed together ferociously going at it, her incessant abuse of him, and his adroit mix of slimy subservience and sneaky subversion towards her, takes on a very different colouring.
In what hell are a mother and son locked in mutual hatred as they incestuously fornicate? They fornicate furiously, not languorously. Is this lust? No, it is something far more hellish. They are not so much possessing each other, devouring each other, consuming each other, as staying close to each other so they can kill each other. Not the sins of omission, as in the first hell of the pit, lamely capitulating to the rigours of existence which results in the surrender of all integrity; rather, the sins of commission, as in the second hell of the furnace, the cold flames which betray and falsify truth. What is the savage truth about this damned pairing? Is it rivalry that causes a parent to suck back a child of the opposite sex to whom they should give birth? Kill off the life in your child that you were never able to live, before it can reach fruition; then contentedly watch it waste its substance in trying to kill you, for revenge.. Your jealousy is now assuaged! That is a love affair of sorts– incest as the murder of the personhood and its heart for existence before it can emerge.
Whatever locks the Lyles together in a mutually destructive mother-son fusion, it is a fierce, not lazy, hell. It is poetically accurate that they both sweat in it, and cannot get any cooling respite. No dew on the blossom; the poisoned flower just sweats the poison like blood from an uncloseable wound.
Tunner seizes his opportunity, taking Kit to the distant town by train, and over the long night, he gets her drunk on champagne and has little problem seducing her; she gives in, not understanding why she does it, and regretting it instantly. The burning remorse of guilt grips her toward her husband. Having slept with Tunner, Kit realizes he is utterly repulsive to her. His charm is hollow. Yet she could never have said no.. The ravages of guilt — absolutely typical of the second layer of hell — never leave Kit for the rest of the story. Her final destination is a mental break-down into a kind of catatonic madness, and guilt is an element in this state. But there are other elements as well. In needing rescue, she is victimized, and her rescuers use her as they will. She has no answer to this. Her will is spent. She can only deploy it to ‘get away.’
Port manages to whisk Kit out of a settlement, in order to finally get clear of Tunner. Yet after several journeys into even more remote places, Port has a fever, and it is clear that he is seriously ill. By now they are far into the Sahara. Under a fort, in a simple room, the French commander of the local garrison diagnoses typhoid. Even before Port finally dies, Kit runs away, hitching a ride with a local caravan headed for Dakar in sub-Saharan Africa. For a moment, this feels like a break out, an embrace of life with no protective thin film between it and her soul, but the two African merchants leading the camel train across the endless wastes repeatedly take her sexually, and her situation forces on her a submission she cannot evade, but which eats into her core more and more.
One of the men having her nightly — they both do, in immediate succession — seems to love her, or at least to prize her; to the disgust of the older man who does not like Kit at all and seems to just use her as a seminal toilet into which to relieve his tensions from the day. The younger man, called Belqassim, insists upon establishing Kit in his household once the stately procession arrives in a city of mud houses. This wealthy African trader is kind to Kit, even tender and generous in love making, and she gets to like sex with him, and even crave it, but he never the less makes it clear that he ‘owns’ her. She is a prisoner in an exotic room, and her only solace is his nighty sessions of love making. As she becomes more addicted to his regular but intermittent visits, so she loses more and more any independence of decision, and power of initiative. Kit’s predicament is not as well sketched as Port’s; in a strange way he stopped running by running faster and faster right into what he was running from, but she withdraws more and more into the self, in a sort of reflex away from what Port in his backward way faced. Is his the more active response, hers the more passive reaction, to what is stalking them both?
Port had always thought to no point, but Kit avoided all thought to no point. As the nemesis approaches her, she simply shuts down. Will it be impressed by this ploy? Will it pass over her? She senses Port as an agony inside her that will go on.. He voices the nemesis for her. It robs her of all voice.
She loses time, loses self, through her submission to the power of her captor. Even when addicted to being ‘in the power of’ the master, the enslavement harms the slave. Kit becomes more and more withdrawn into a kind of pleasant stupor. She only wakes from it by realizing she does not need her lover and jailor, because she can get the sex that hooks her to him from any number of other men.. As with Port in his dying from typhoid, she manages to run away.. Despite a moment of feeling power, because of getting free, she is soon passive toward fate again, once she finds herself in the care of the local French authorities. She is ‘safe’, at last, yet this is only another prison, and increasingly she is only able to feel mounting dread at the coming nemesis which is all that she sees in front of her, waiting for her, advancing upon her.. What is it? She knows without allowing herself to know. She does not want to go home, nor be rescued, yet what does she want? Nothing is clear, and she cannot choose clearly. Her collapse into herself is extreme. Now she is transported back to the Mediterranean coast, to Algiers from where they started out on ‘an amusing adventure, to distract them for a year.’ Still nearly catatonic, or giving the appearance of being so, at the last minute, outside the hotel, having heard from the woman sent by the American Consulate to get her there that Tunner is probably inside waiting for her, she slips her latest masters and, unseen by anyone, jumps onto the old street car taking Arab workers back to the Arab Kasbah.
“At that moment a crowded street car was passing by filled largely with native dock workers in blue overalls. ..Noisily it pushed along, cleaving a passage through the crowd that filled the street, it scraped around another corner, and began the slow ascent to the Avenue Gallieni. Below the harbour lights came into view and were distorted in the gently moving water. Then the shabbier buildings loomed, the streets were dimmer. At the edge of the Arab quarter the car, still loaded with people, made a wide U-turn and stopped; it was the end of the line.”
Kit disappears. Into the ‘shabby and dim’ she will try to hide, but ‘it was the end of the line.’ The dynamics of ‘power over the other’, part of the second and active hell, are for her only a distraction, a temporary respite, from the Nothing. Even in hiding out in the farthest reaches of the soul, immobilized, cowering like a little girl behind a door that has opened which she had always hoped to keep shut, the formless and nameless terror finds her.
She has come to ‘the end of the line.’
The third hell is our profoundest collective nightmare become reality. After all the sinning, all the running, all the falling and falling head-long, we reach the end of the line. As Roberto Duran said sitting on his stool after a battering by Sugar Ray Leonard, ‘no mas.’ There is no more. You have lost life and integrity; you have lost passion and truth; there is no more to lose. You have run out even of hells to keep you busy. Now all the nonsense ends. Now the smoke and mirrors are no more. You are at the end of the line, and even the complex hells you have lived through, dallied with, been drowned and burnt in, will not rescue you from the ultimate end. It is all over.
It is the end of the line.
You have gone to the end of the line, racing outwardly, fleeing inwardly, though a succession of places of increasing sound and fury signifying nothing, and now you have arrived.
This is what is beneath it all.
The depth is empty. Beneath everything, the abyss is empty.
You are where all the hells in the linear progression of a life without God and without the heart upheld by God in its abyss, unable to sustain soul and barely able to keep mind intact, ends. This is it. This is the end.
You have come to the Nothing, at the root of everything, outer and inner, and there is nowhere else to go. Time is up. Space is exhausted. This is it.
You are falling, now, forever. You are not extinguished. You are registering falling. On the bridge that is crumbling, over troubled waters and beneath a fractured sky, the famous painting begins the screaming that will be something almost apart from you, with an impetus of its own, as you fall and fall, unendingly. The screaming goes on, even though you are not there to hear it..
This novel is elegant, sharp, nuanced– and gets under the skin..
These are quotes that startle with their veracity, and accuracy, in describing the onset of the third hell. This final hell, deeper and vaster than the introductory hells, is the great beast lumbering toward Bethlehem to be born, in the poetic image of W.B. Yeats. When this beast is born even in our holy refuges, when this beast is incarnate in each of us, and is all that we can share between us, then ‘it will be all over bar the shouting.’ That will be where our line runs out.
 “He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come.. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness..” [p 11].
 “That night he awoke sobbing. His being was a well a thousand miles deep; he rose from the lower regions with a sense of infinite sadness and repose, but with no memory of any dream save the faceless voice that had whispered: ‘The soul is the weariest part of the body.’ The night was silent, save for a small wind that blew through the fig tree and moved the loops of wire hanging there. Back and forth they rubbed, creaking ever so lightly. After he had listened a while, he fell asleep” [p 109].
 “Experience had taught him that reason could not be counted on in such situations. There was always an extra element, mysterious and not quite within reach, that one had not reckoned with. One had to know, not deduce. And he did not have the knowledge. .. ‘I wonder if after all I’m a coward?’ he thought. Fear spoke; he listened and let it persuade.. The idea saddened him” [p 115].
 “It was a physical shudder; he was alone, abandoned, lost, hopeless, cold. Cold especially — a deep interior cold nothing could change. Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being; he had built the being around it. ..Running assuaged his fear, but when he stopped and looked down at the ring of lights around the market he still felt the cold, like a piece of metal inside him” [p 124].
 “As he walked along the hot road toward the wall of Bou Noura he kept his head down, seeing nothing but the dust and the thousands of small sharp stones. He did not look up because he knew how senseless the landscape would appear. It takes energy to invest life with meaning, and at present this energy was lacking. He knew how things could stand bare, their essence having retreated on all sides to beyond the horizon, as if impelled by a sinister centrifugal force. He did not want to face the intense sky, too blue to be real, above his head, the ribbed pink canyon walls that lay on all sides in the distance, the pyramidal town itself on its rocks, or the dark spots of oasis below. They were there, and they should have pleased his eye, but he did not have the strength to relate them, either to each other or to himself; he could not bring them into any focus beyond the visual. So he would not look at them” [p 143].
 A kindly Jewish shop-keeper says to Kit — upon her saying to him, ‘But I am afraid.. How can I change that?’ – ‘You should be a Jew in Sba, and you would learn not to be afraid! At least you would learn not to be afraid of God. You would see that even when God is most terrible, he is never cruel, the way men are.’ “[But] what he was saying sounded ridiculous [in Kit’s ears]. She said.. she must be going” [p 189].
 “She turned slowly about, scanning the horizon. The air, doubly still now after the departure of the wind, was like something paralysed. Whichever way she looked the night’s landscape suggested only one thing to her: negation of movement, suspension of continuity. But as she stood there.. the sensation came to her.. that some part of this landscape was moving even as she looked at it. She glanced up and grimaced. The whole, monstrous star-filled sky was turning sideways before her eyes. It looked still as death, yet it moved..” [p 202].
 “He opened his eyes. The room was malignant. It was empty. ..But later he had a moment of vertiginous clarity. He was at the edge of a realm where each thought, each image, had an arbitrary existence, where the connection between each thing and the next had been cut. As he laboured to seize the essence of that kind of consciousness, he began to slip back into its precinct without suspecting that.. ..here was an untried variety of thinking, in which there was no necessity for a relationship with life.. [These thoughts] were coming again, they began to flash by.. ..He tried to stem the rush, but he felt his resistance falter.. It was in the silence of the room that he now located all those hostile forces; the very fact that the room’s inert watchfulness was on all sides made him distrust it. Outside himself, it was all there was. [He wished to] have something to hang on to when his eyes should shut.. There was a screaming sound in each ear.. In front of his eyes clusters of round spots were being born. He tried to recoil from the expanding globules of matter. Did he cry out? Could he move?” [pp 202-203].
 “The pain could not go on. He opened his eyes, shut his eyes, saw only the thin sky stretched across to protect him. Slowly the split would occur, the sky draw back, and he would see what he never had doubted lay behind advance upon him with the speed of a million winds. His cry was a separate thing beside him in the desert. It went on and on” [p 208].
 “And Port had said [to Kit]: ‘Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.’ She had not listened at the time because the idea had depressed her.. She was incapable now of thinking about death, and since death was there beside her, she thought of nothing at all” [p 212].
 Kit has a moment of grace, in escaping the outpost where Port has died. “Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through the window at it. The dignity that came from feeling a part of its power and grandeur.. it was years ago that she had last known it” [p 220]. This strange intensity, this looking in which “she had the impression that for the first time since her childhood she was seeing objects clearly”, is soon lost. She cannot regain the lost moment in childhood where, neither wanting power over, nor allowing herself to be in the power of, she was immersed in the power of being alive.
 Kit ponders the nature of sex with Belqassim who ‘owned her completely’ but there is no retreat from the empty abyss by trying to drown in sex: “The bed was a wild sea, she lay at the mercy of its violence and chaos as the heavy waves toppled upon her from above. Why, at the height of the storm, did two drowning hands press themselves tighter and tighter about her throat? Tighter, until even the huge grey music of sea was covered by a greater, darker noise — the roar of nothingness the spirit hears as it approaches the abyss and leans over” [p 261].
 Another rescuer, who has helped Kit get out of the clutches of Belqassim, says to her, [after trying to comfort her], ‘Women always think of what is finished instead of what is beginning. Here we say life is a cliff, and you must never turn around and look back when you are climbing. It makes you sick.’ “..Still she was convinced this was the end, that it would not be long before they found her. They would stand her up before a great mirror, saying to her: ‘Look!’ And she would be obliged to look, and then it would be all over. The dark dream would be shattered; the light of terror would be constant; a merciless beam would be turned upon her; the pain would be unendurable and endless..” [pp 276-277].
 “She gave up.. Before her eyes was the violent blue sky — nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone had once said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed” [p 280].
The book’s outer journey is, at the same time, an inner journey. As we run away from the summons of existence, so we start falling down through layers of innerness that leave behind the ‘European’ ego, and its defenses, and plunge straight through the ‘Arabian’ unconscious, and travel onward into more mysterious deeps where, at last, the abyss infiltrates, like the desert sand, the desert silence, the desert night, announced by the howling of ‘a million winds’ and then a quiet so eerie, it is a tangible presence, audible in peculiar whispers.. The desert is where God is not. Or, the desert is where God is at the most powerful, unvarnished, unhidden, raw and awful, to the human heart — the warrior in the abyss who enables us to stand upon its emptiness and find the groundless ground that banishes all fear. Upon this ground, we face the abyss undergirding the entire world, and unafraid where it will plunge us if we take on the world, we enter the worldly arena to fight.
If you relate from the inner to the outer in a certain way, by passion of heart, you gain strength and power, inspiration and intensity, from the abyss as existence tests your mettle.
If you live differently, in the way portrayed so vividly by Port and Kit — and there are many equivalents of their aimless life — then your life becomes running away, and this running instigates a headlong descent into the emptiness of the abyss as ultimately, and finally, ‘void.’ The obvious ground gives way, and each subsequent more obscure layer of ground gives way, in succession, like the floors in a house falling in on each other, one after the other, bang, bang, bang.. You start falling, down and down, everything collapses in on itself. Strength collapses into full scale weakness, power collapses into full scale disempowerment, inspiration collapses into cynicism and sneering cleverness, laughing at what has castrated you. Yes, it is very funny you have no balls for life, isn’t it?
The English now a days, living in a broken culture that has no forward impetus, make great jokes about that. It is simply hilarious your stomach has turned to water, your fire of heart has frozen, and that you can laugh about it! Clever you! Aren’t you so great to laugh at your smallness! Obviously it matters not one jot that you fiddle while Rome burns. Whether you fiddle with yourself, fiddle with others, fiddle with things, or just sit around fiddling your time away, it makes no difference. The rationalizations for doing nothing come thick and fast. All the ‘advanced’ humour of today, in America as well as Britain, is sharply ironic, implying that scepticism is better than trusting anything, and getting caught out. At all costs, never look the fool. Keep your appearance of cool, even as you whistle in the dark..
The world does unexpectedly contain inconspicuous holy persons in very ordinary situations who can help the fearful, but like Kit with the Jewish merchant, and like Port with everyone, the sophisticated high flyers who mock the impossibility of heroism for themselves invariably pour scorn upon such unheralded people who make a stand against what they have succumbed to.
The book skilfully understates the ever expanding terror that culminates in an ultimate, and final, horror. Over stated, we would get the giggles.. But we should be more sceptical about our laughter. Freud said humour masks aggression. Perhaps being ironical about our impotence is an unstated aggression against what we would have to ‘do’, with the heart, leaning on God, to reignite any potency. If so, such inverted aggression manifests in the attempt to laugh off our fear of the abyss as ‘exaggerated.’ If it can be over blown IN BIG CAPITALS, then we can laughingly dismiss it as just the comic book nervousness of the child, finding numinous threats under the bed, in the closet, behind the wall.. Ha, ha. Look, I hear in your need to laugh at the last, and the profoundest, threat only cowardice. You have fooled yourself, and other foolish people, but you do not fool me. I see the slight tremor in your hand, and I smell the urine rolling down your leg under the fashionable jeans. If it makes you happy, carry on.
Humour can be the last acceptance, the acceptance of it all, just the way it is. This is the big belly laugh. This is the laughter in tears, and the tears in laughter. Laughter catches out the defended, the dishonest, the pompous– for once they laugh out loud at what is said, even by an enemy, they are caught out. They have acknowledged the truth of it. Our spontaneous bodily laughter demonstrates we have realized the truth that the humour declared. This weapon of humour slays all of us, thankfully..
But you know perfectly well that it is not the truth-revealing humour that is any problem. It is the truth-denying humour that is problematic. It wants to say life has failed us, our failure is inevitable, so go to hell with demands for anything more! This is sly, as well as dishonest; we are lightly dismissing the gravity of the emptiness beneath our feet, yet underneath this air of desultory superiority we are angrily repudiating the only path ‘through’ existence that could enable us to cross its terrible deeps. The truth is, we have failed life, we have failed our self. The Eastern desert-dwelling monks of Egypt, Palestine, Syria, called this state into which Kit and Port are moving, ever deeper in, and ever deeper down, ‘accidie.’ This renders the heart listless, despondent, apathetic, yet restlessly unable ever to settle in one place. It is the most deadly of the eight fallen states of being. In it, falling does not end. And thus we end not with a bang, but a whimper.. We go out in abject, and full-scale, defeat.
Very funny. You laugh until you get near your own confrontation with the abyss. Then the acid of denigrating your perilous condition becomes the pain that opened Port’s guts as he died, and sent Kit rushing towards another oblivion which would be the end of the line.
Humour, employed as the desperate attempt to deny the undeniable, to invert what comes up at us from below, to disparage the whole drama that exposes us as coming up short, is the last weapon of the coward.
If the mirror Kit feared to be held up to her were suddenly to be held up to us, in the midst of our stratagems for avoiding the void, then we might see just how unfunny we really are. Failing to rise to our call to existence, leaving our post unmanned, is not funny.
It is beyond sad. It is tragedy. We are too proud to weep. If we could be humble, and if we could weep, this would free the first stumbling and halting steps back to real existence. Blessed are the poor in spirit.. Blessed are those who mourn..
But our tears remain frozen in the ice of our haughtiness..
Pit of Deadening= Shame
Hellish Furnace of Burning= Guilt
Void of Nothingness= Fear, Terror, Horror
Paradoxically, as we go down further in, and go deeper down, it gets hotter, yet this heat is also turning into a cold so profound, like that in outer space, it kills your vitality and puts out your spark.
Paradoxically, it is the cowardice toward what calls us ‘out’ which unleashes an ultimate fear, terror, horror, of what comes to swallow us in our cowardice. The empty abyss confirms us in our cowardly life, and therefore as we go over the edge, and plunge ever more in and ever deeper down, into the Nothingness, at least we have the consolation that we were correct all along about life having no meaning and no point, and even if it did, we could not have risen to its exactions. So, existence is a dirty trick, and the assurance of this seals us in, and brings about the fate we always sought to flee from. We ran from the abyss initially, and therefore we started running into the abyss. A closed circle..
The outer places in the story are existentially real, the back side of the world uncovered by those ‘permanently’ on the run; at the same time, these outer places are also locales in the heart, as we enter its margins and then go farther and farther within the heart’s deeps. To the person loving the world, the unfathomable deeps of the heart are full of roaring lions, and swift moving dragons, helping them do ‘what’s gotta be done.’ To the person frightened of the abyss and in flight from it, the heart’s deeps are a landscape of movement into a vortex whose ‘centrifugal force’ drags everything in our constitution into its black hole.
The book, in short, ‘charts’ the descent into Nothingness, pointing out its way stations toward the third, and last, hell.
Some key points in the descent are worth highlighting.
‘Weariness’= This means he has already given in.. The interior weariness, almost a laziness, and certainly a refusal of the ‘work’ required to change things, is the flip side of outer restlessness, outer keeping busy, outer wandering pointlessly from one meaningless thing to another meaningless thing.. A change of scene is always imperative. It is impossible to stay in one place, and take up arms there and then. The real battle — to return to life, and make an impact upon existence — is postponed. It will be possible elsewhere. It cannot be done here and now. So move on.. Keep moving. This at least gives a faint illusion of ‘real living.’
‘Sadness’= There is a moment we could catch ourselves sliding down hill, and turn back, however hard on us the effort at this late stage may have to be. But when we grow sad as Port does, then this becomes a moment when we choose not to choose, and then promptly forget what we have thrown away. It should outrage us that we can entertain such a self-immolating thought. Yet, at this moment of potential reprieve, when the downward spiral could be stopped, we allow fear to get us off the hook of choice. Fear uses sadness to blunt any remaining ‘anger for truth.’ Henceforth we are regretful towards a life we never tried to live, and ‘in love’ only with the odd motion of spiralling down..
‘Deadening’= Port will always cling to a ‘glacial deadness’ at the core, because he built his very being around it. He has willed this extreme coldness of inward extinction by the running away he has embraced. Running relieves the fear he has elected for rather than pursue the courage of facing up to it and out facing it in the battle on the rim of the well. If we win this battle, the eternal is experienced in the finite, and thus life is in fact a well-spring, contrary to Port’s account of the hated precision of its finiteness. But refusing even to mount the rim is to be propelled, more and more, from the edge.. Our fate is sealed by what we will not do, by our opting for spiritual listlessness.
‘Extinguished’= No more intensity, no more energy, stirs. The point of passion is thrown away, and then the engine of passion runs down. This enervation, reinforcing alienation, is physical, psychological, spiritual.
‘Harsh Light’= At some point in this descent, ‘they’ hold up a mirror, and Kit is forced to look.. What she sees in the mirror that reveals herself to her own consciousness shatters the ‘dark dream’ of the attempt to use sexual — or any other kind of — oblivion to escape seeing what the self has chosen and what it has become as a result of such a choice.
‘The light of terror’ is the pitiless light that finally catches up with us, and is shone on our cowardly evasion, in all its steps, in all its levels, in all its consequences for us and all its impacts on the world. A ‘merciless beam’ is turned on us, at a certain moment in our running away, and we see with stark clarity our absence from the post in the world to which we were summoned, and how those who relied upon us to make a stand at that place and at that time were affected because we refused. Our failure, our cowardice, is lit up, before our own eyes, in all its searing unadorned and unconcealed truth. We experience this truth as a punitive sun burning into us from high above. As we believe by this stage that no change is possible, then it seems such punishing revelation of truth will pain us forever.
Earlier in the book, this merciless light is evoked by the journey across the Sahara. “During the middle of the day it was no longer the sun alone that persecuted from above — the entire sky was like a metal dome grown white with heat. The merciless light pushed down from all directions; the sun was the whole sky” [p 247]. The Egyptian, Syrian, and Greek, desert dwelling monks called this experience of the horribly revealing light ‘the noon day devil.’ When the sun is at its zenith in the middle of the day, this signifies those moments in existence when it is hardest to go uphill, hardest to work, hardest to fight for good. Thus we resist even trying. This refusal of even trying simply adds to our already enervated and burnt out state, rendering ever more futile any urge to struggle to do something. A vicious circle.. It is hard to try, so don’t try, hence it becomes harder to try. The unbearable desert within makes all of existence an unbearable desert without. In and Out, they are the same. Nullity rules!
Yet this sun, though truthful, is used by the devil to keep us faint-hearted. Truth without love is devilish. Even late in the ghastly journey toward irrevocable doom, it is possible for us to discover that ‘even as Jacob’s heart fainted, his spirit recovered.’ We need to see our cowardice for what it is, but ‘judging’ it encloses us in it. This is why William Blake urges that ‘pity’ for people’s failure and falling, and our own, is needed to reverse it. Yahweh is truth, and thus he gets confused with the noon day devil, but he is also mercy. If we come from love, then love has compassion for everything human, including this most final ‘blowing it all.’
We need to swallow our pride, and weep tears of hurt that ask for help. We need to deal more kindly with the tragic fall of the heroic at the base of us all. We need to stop pretending to be what we are not. We need to stop mocking, sneering, laughing, at the falling down of what matters so much, for once it is down, there is no point in anything for anybody.
If we are pitiless in judgement of it all, we will be judged pitilessly– in our own sight.
The abyss reveals God’s terribleness and mercy, compassion, kindness, at once. God is terrible. This makes us, realistically, full of ‘fear and trembling.’ But God is not cruel. The Evil One is cruel. We must learn to differentiate, from the roots up, God’s terribleness and the devil’s cruelty.
Fear is the beginning of the ‘wisdom of the heart’ in regard to God and his mission for us; we are sent by God into the world. Therefore he often tells us, ‘fear not.’ We are not to fear, because he is with us, between us, in us– and moving out into the world, through our heart. The human heart, given to the world, gives God to the world. This makes things go, and turn out, differently.
Yes, fear cruelty, you should, because it wills your destruction, and indeed wills the destruction of the entire human venture; but dwell in God’s terribleness, and fight the evil at work in the world, rampaging through it like a ravening beast no one can stop. God put you here to stop it in its tracks. He will not let you vanquish it by exterminating it. Its role in the human drama will go on until the very end, the real end, the Apocalypse implicit in Ezekiel, Daniel, St John of Patmos. But God put you in the world to stop evil, undercut it, begin its redemption..
Become terrible, in God, to vanquish the cruelty from which all of us shrink, like wilting violets.
“The womb is a tomb, if you stay too long.” This is so if you want to be born. But born for what? If birth delivers you over to a world where the abyss stalks your every step, then why accept birth? Yet, where can you run, retreat, slink off, to avoid being born into having to walk the narrow ridge, having to keep going through the long dark tunnel, of this world?
Kit’s repeated attempt to disappear into oblivion, through different men, and through increasingly depersonalized and impersonal sex= return to the womb.
The oblivion of dissolving into something all-encompassing: protection from the world that calls you out and the you who is called out.
For Kit, ‘regression to the mother’ is not pleasurable in itself, like an adult sucking their thumb to comfort the deprived child latent in them. This is not Freudian, it is Existential. Unconsciously seeking an all-enclosing womb is an increasingly haunted search for an ultimate refuge against the ultimate terror. The refuge must shut out the existential landscape that reveals the world, and our action in it, as inescapably and fundamentally ‘risked’ to the abyss= the blackness breaking through the ‘impenetrable’ sky, the blackness shattering the ‘solid’ earth. The vault of sky can be breached, the foundation of earth can be shaken. The celestial is unknown. The terrestrial is unsecured.
A child goes through stages, in growing into adulthood, of protection by the mother and then protection by the father. The father over looks you, from above, the mother upholds you, from below. But no substitutes for these sheltering helpers in later life can prevail against the blackness. Neither the over-arching sky above, nor the undergirding earth below, provide sufficient consolation, sufficient comfort, against what is hunting us, day in and day out.
So where else left to go? The last place of escape is to climb back into the shelter wherein we began.
As a solution to the existential predicament all flesh is heir to, reversing the dynamic thrust of birth by crawling back into the womb does not work.. The arrow of time goes forward, never backwards.. Even that primordial cave, the circular globe of timelessness prior to being thrown into the inevitable and unstoppable trajectory of time, cannot save us; ‘in the end’ the brief time of seeming timelessness runs out, and the Nothing finds us, wherever we cower from it..
Returning to the mother obliterates our distinctness and uniqueness as a personhood, by absolving us from having to face up to the outer reality and our inner agency toward it. But this is preferable to standing up to the world only by accepting the blackness above and the blackness below.
The womb exerts a powerful pull on us, sabotaging our forward momentum into life, because we believe it more powerful than any mother’s love, more powerful than any father’s love. Kit, like Port, is fatherless and motherless. For her, the womb is, as for many persons today, the only remaining deity. This is atavistically potent. Animal mothers will, under threat, sometimes kill their acutely vulnerable young by eating them; the mother is trying to guard them by putting them back in the womb. We humans just go on all fours back up the birth canal. Absorbed into the enclosed, and magic, circle, at last we rest, we melt, we fuse.. Nothing can disturb this peace, we believe, as we doze off into a dreamy and submerged consciousness. We are being soothed, not just chilled out, but liquefied= the tadpole swimming in the primal waters of life.
This oblivion, this dissolving, in ‘sweet extinction’, is what people often want from sexual experience. They want the womb in the bliss of drugs. They want the womb in the degraded Dionysic frenzy of pop music. People want the womb even in violence= they don’t fight one on one any more, but a large group gone berserk like a pack of feral dogs sweeps over a single victim, and kicks him to death once he is down. Regression to the womb makes us intolerant of pressure, stress, challenge, sustained effort, the aiming of the arrow at a target and the intensity needed to draw the bow string to a point of tension, before it can be released. The womb also demands instant gratification, pleasurable and non-affecting streams of experience, and is impatient and hostile toward the pain of existence which it can only regard as ‘punitive.’ Pain, and the suffering it occasions, deepens the heart. However, in the womb this harsh instruction in the profound is resisted; things are OK, provided you don’t get too excited about them, the child sucking its finger in the womb ‘philosophizes.’ Take it easy, float along, do not invest in anything too demanding, do not get over heated. What is the point. There is no point.. Enjoy the drift in the water wherever it takes you. Be cool..
Above all else, go on eating! Consumerism is soothing, taking in whatever soothes is solacing. Just swallow it passively. This too is the womb state.
The womb, the final hide-out, is no proof against the Nothing. It comes. The Nothing is more powerful than the celestial father and the terrestrial mother; finally, even the womb, the only experience of divinity the secularized world still worships, succumbs. The sanctum away from all numinous threat is invaded. It cannot hold. The baby sleeping its life in fantasy is rudely jolted awake. The terror has arrived.
It is fitting Kit sees the horror as a great maw.
You can laugh. How we moderns laugh at Nothing.
It is reassuring we can deny our perilous condition, by replacing its pathos with bathos.