The Active Darkness: The Horror of the Real

“If today we overtly abandon the idealistic point of view, as the Gnostics and Manicheans implicitly abandoned it, the attitude of those who see in their own lives an effect of the creative action of evil appears even radically optimistic.”

—Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess

“In this sense, Being always stood in opposition to thinking as something impregnable, so that the Philosophy that would explain everything found nothing more difficult than to provide an explanation for precisely this Being. They had to explain this incomprehensibility, this active counterstriving against all thinking, this active darkness, this positive inclination toward darkness. But they preferred to have done away entirely with the discomforting and to resolve fully the incomprehensible in comprehension or (like Leibniz) in representation [Vorstellung].”

—Schelling, The Ages of the World

So those who followed Kant into representationalism sought to escape the horror of the Real; and, instead of working through this ‘active darkness’ at the core of Being — comprehending it on its own terms, they sought to escape it, deny it, cover it over in their philosophies of representationalism: their Idealism. As Schelling puts it,

“Idealism, which really consists in the denial and nonacknowledgment of that negating primordial force, is the universal system of our times.” (Ages of the World, 34).

Schelling puts it point blank that Idealism is a defense system, a system of denial, distortion, and delusion, a protection against the truth of the active darkness, the primordial force at the heart of existence (Being). All representational thought is a denial of reality and the Real. What is the Real? As Benjamin Noys states:

Whereas Lacan noted that the concept of the ‘Real’ initially presented itself to psychoanalysis ‘in the form of trauma’ (1979: 55), Žižek figures this trauma as a moment of horror. Although the ‘Real’ is positioned by Žižek as unrepresentable he constantly tries to approach it by allusion to contemporary horror Gothic texts, from Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) to the works of Patricia Highsmith and Stephen King. These texts provide the figuration of the breakdown of representation in the revelation of the appearance of the Real as a horrifying ‘Thing’.1

We might say that the shock of the Real is the moment when we are faced with this “primordial force” that Schelling speaks of as the horror of what cannot be named, represented, symbolized, or reduced to any form of human apprehension and meaning. It is the ‘active darkness’ that surrounds us on all sides, the living presence of – at least for me, Schopenhauer’s “Will” at the core of movement and becoming. Georges Bataille speaking of the ancient Gnostic cults in Greece offered a glimpse of this ‘active darkness’ as a creative principle:

In practice, it is possible to see as a leitmotiv of Gnosticism the conception of matter as an active principle having its own eternal autonomous existence as darkness (which would not be simply the absence of light, but the monstrous archontes revealed by this absence), and as evil (which would not be the absence of good, but a creative action). This conception was perfectly incompatible with the very principle of the profoundly monistic Hellenistic spirit, whose dominant tendency saw matter and evil as degradations of superior principles. Attributing the creation of the earth, where our repugnant and derisory agitation takes place, to a horrible and perfectly illegitimate principle evidently implies, from the point of view of the Greek intellectual construction, a nauseating, inadmissible pessimism, the exact opposite of what had to be established at all costs and made universally manifest. 2 (Visions of Excess, 73).

Against all forms of representational thought and Idealisms Bataille states further: “It is difficult to believe that on the whole Gnosticism does not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for obscene and lawless archontes, for the head of the solar ass (whose comic and desperate braying would be the signal for a shameless revolt against idealism in power).” (74). These ancient allegories and fables of archontes, dark angels, etc. are prefiguration’s of those surmised notions in modern quantum physics of dark energy and dark matter which support the visible universe around us.

Noys describes this concept of the Real in Lacanian Zizek’s terms as “Gothic: maintaining it as the ‘unspeakable’ and horrifying disruption of our sense of reality.” (3) It’s this breakdown of our representational image of reality, the withdrawal of our defense systems against the primordial force of mattering, of base matter that cannot be represented which is the movement of the world and its ‘active darkness’.

We are taught that the normal everyday world we wake up to — work and play in, is the only true world, our world as the phenomenal core of reality as we know it. But the Real as an active, evil, and creative force, a primordial force of ‘active darkness’ strives against this normalization, this delusion and illusion that we have created – the Symbolic World. Our horror of the truth of the world-as-it-is-in-itself led us into a false world, false reality built out of a tissue of lies and representations. Noys using Zizek’s philosophy suggests we live in a Gothic world: “on the one hand we have the Real as the monstrous outside, the ‘Thing’, which we cannot ever truly approach but can only ever protect ourselves against through the formations of fantasy. On the other hand, the injunction of Žižek’s Gothic is to recognize the monster as the projection of our own excesses, as our own refusal to admit the negativity at the heart of our existence. We relocate the horror from the outside back to the inside. This can only ever be a temporary transgressive manoeuvre as the Real always remains fundamentally untouchable: outside the law and language.” (4)

The Real always remains outside the law and language, outside our ‘Human Security System’ – all those representations of human meaning that hide from us the world-in-itself which is forever unrepresented and unrepresentable. Just like all those Gothic horror movies and science fiction films like the Alien we are left with the monstrous Realm as an exterior or Outside force that seeps into our normalized world of the human: “The horror emerges through the transgressive gesture but remains, fundamentally, untouchable and exterior.” (Noys, 4). The closer we come to confronting the horror of the Real the more we fall into our own projections, our illusions and delusions. As Noys commenting on H.P. Lovecraft’s argument about the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents” he asks:

What remains is the question of how to truly confront the Real; but does this, as in Lovecraft’s statement, only lead us to the impasse in which we ‘either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age’? (5)

Most of us when confronted with the horror of life and death blind ourselves to its darkness, accepting the banal notions that religion, philosophy, and the sciences offer us in the way of explanation. Comforted by the supposed explanatory power of these social institutions of authority in our lives we accept their representations of safety and security against the darkness of existence. And, yet, something still nags at us from the outside, some dark force gnaws at our mind seeking through dream or nightmare to awaken us from this false reality of comfort and delusion.

Contemporary Gothic is the portrayal of the Real not as some Outside monstrous force but as the dark side of our own socialization, our Society itself as a force for delusion and illusion, a trap within which we are all bound in a gothic nightmare world. Our confrontation with the symbolic order of society, capitalism, and the planetary degradation at the hands of this global system of delusion and illusion binds us in a darkening chamber of madness. In this sense the modern capitalist system is a monstrous parasite feeding off its human host: “Capital parasitizes itself on ‘pure life’.” (Noys, 8) Noys in conclusion offers a reading of the Gothic in all its duplicitous forms as forming a “parallax view” (Zizek) of the Real (I quote at length):

What Žižek’s modern Gothic demonstrates for us is this possibility of reading the Gothic towards the de-reification of the Real and the registering of the distorting effects of antagonism. This process also involves a reading from the Gothic to psychoanalysis, to refuse Žižek’s tendency to expel the Gothic from his text. Rather than forming a vicious circle, in which psychoanalysis finds its confirmation in the Gothic and the Gothic finds its truth in psychoanalysis, we have the possibility of a hermeneutic circle of deepening understanding. It is the Gothic text itself that offers sophisticated resources and narrative strategies for holding together the ‘parallax view’ of the Real – neither collapsing the Real into an immediate symbol of antagonism nor reifying the Real as monstrous. This, we could say, is an instance of the problematic role of narrative fiction or literature in psychoanalysis, which all too often treats texts as mere exemplars. In the case of Žižek his love affair with the Gothic sours at precisely the point when a return to the Gothic is most necessary, dismissing the Gothic as believing in the ‘real Real’ leads him to miss the ‘geometric’ Gothic that registers the disturbing effect of the ‘topological twist’ in the parallax view between the Gothic and psychoanalysis. It is in this topological twist that horror itself is rendered as the appearance of social reality, the Gothic distortions and curvatures of capitalist space, and here where psychoanalysis can and should re-encounter the Gothic.” (Noys, 11).

The notion that a new Gothic can deepen our understanding of the Real without falling back into a dualistic confirmation on either side of psychoanalytical divide in thought, one in which the Real collapses into “an immediate symbol of antagonism nor reifying the Real as monstrous”, delivers us to an existential appreciation and acceptance of the paradoxical relation we have with reality and the Real. Noys would against Zizek’s Gothic mode return us to the horrors of the social and political Real where “psychoanalysis can and should re-encounter the Gothic”. Our task is to understand the mechanisms, defenses, and entrapments within which we are trapped by the social, political, and economic forces in a false reality of delusion and illusion. The ‘topological twist’ that unveils the ‘active darkness’ at the core of the Real works to break apart this deluded social construct – the ideological and symbolic structures of the world we live in like a bad rendering of the Matrix film and open us once again to the monstrous creativity of the universe itself rather than be trapped in the closed worlds of civilization and its isolation, imprisonment, and corruption.

  1. Noys, Benjamin. The Horror of the Real: Žižek’s Modern Gothic. International Journal of Zizek Studies: Volume Four, Number Four (p. 2)
  2. Bataille, Georges. Visions of Excess. Univ Of Minnesota Press; 1st edition (June 20, 1985)