The Dark Sublime: The Poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne

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I would my love could kill thee; I am satiated
With seeing thee live, and fain would have thee dead.

-Algernon Charles Swinburne, Anactoria

Algernon Charles Swinburne (April 5, 1837 – April 10, 1909) English poet and critic, outstanding for prosodic innovations and noteworthy as the symbol of mid-Victorian poetic revolt. The characteristic qualities of his verse are insistent alliteration, unflagging rhythmic energy, sheer melodiousness, great variation of pace and stress, effortless expansion of a given theme, and evocative if rather imprecise use of imagery. His poetic style is highly individual and his command of word-colour and word-music striking. Swinburne’s technical gifts and capacity for prosodic invention were extraordinary, but too often his poems’ remorseless rhythms have a narcotic effect, and he has been accused of paying more attention to the melody of words than to their meaning. Swinburne was pagan in his sympathies and passionately antitheist. This is the bare truth of a poet who would epitomize the dark sadomasochistic world of Late Romanticism, otherwise known as English Decadence.

Little read today except by aficionados of that dark realm of the fantastic one wonders at his strange craft, the elegant measure of his line and its  insouciance. Swinburne would fuse French Decadence to reinforce Coleridge against Wordsworth reviving the gothic sublime in all its horrific glory. An admirer of Sade, Gautier, and Baudelaire, Swinburne restored to English literature the sexual frankness it lost after the eighteenth century. After the Victorian defeat of Oscar Wilde the fate of Swinburne was assured. Wilde’s love letter to Lord Alfred Douglas De Profundis would lay bare the dark contours of his own prejudices and fears, presenting his association with young, working-class male prostitutes as a kind of moral and creative lapse, a bout of slumming that distracted him from the free practice of his art: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease … I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and meaner minds.” (here) Toward the end of his prison term in Reading he would sum up the art of Late Romanticism (Decadence), saying, “Language requires to be tuned, like a violin; and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message.” Sadly, the fate of Wilde’s outer life would haunt the poetry and writings of Swinburne, which would fall into disfavor as a Late Victorian world of morality and accusation would put a damper on any sense of sexuality in poetry of literature.

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The Daemonic Imaginal: Ecstasy and Horror of the Noumenon

Historically speaking, demons are far from being horned and goateed Mephistos tempting us to do bad things. The demon is as much a philosophical concept as it is a religious and political one. In fact, the “demon” is often a placeholder for some sort of non-human, malefic agency that acts against the human (that is, against the world-for-us).

-Eugene Thacker,  In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1

There are three gates through which the hunter of souls ventures to bind: vision, hearing, and mind or imagination. If it happens that someone passes through all three of these gates, he binds most powerfully and ties down most tightly.

-Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic

Vauung seems to think there are lessons to be learnt from this despicable mess. It describes a labyrinth which is nothing but an intricate hall of mirrors, losing you in an ‘unconscious’ which is magnificent beyond comprehension yet indistinguishable from an elaborate trap.

-Nick Land,  Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007

Stuart Clark in Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe offers us an opening onto an abstruse subject: Demonology. “Demonology was a composite subject consisting of discussions about the workings of nature, the processes of history, the maintenance of religious purity, and the nature of political authority and order.” (6) One could say that contrariety is the key to demonology, a thinking against the impurity and counter-sublime that would destroy both the cultural aristocracy and its elitism, as well as its political, religious, and legal order-nomos. In Empedocles the notion of contrarieties would find its harbinger in promoting discord (Strife) and concord (Love) as the primary contraries in a dualistic system of warring elements that produced the cosmos between Heimarmene (Fate, Discord) and Harmonia (Concord, Order).

Heimarmene or the Moirai (Moirae) were the three goddesses of fate who personified the inescapable destiny of man. They assigned to every person his or her fate or share in the scheme of things. Their name means “Parts.” “Shares” or “Alottted Portions.” The individuals were Klotho (Clotho), the “the Spinner,” who spun the thread of life, Lakhesis (Lachesis), “the Apportioner of Lots”, who measured it, and Atropos (or Aisa), “She who cannot be turned,” who cut it short. Zeus Moiragetes, the god of fate, was their leader.

At the birth of a man, the Moirai spinned out the thread of his future life, followed his steps, and directed the consequences of his actions according to the counsel of the gods. It was not an inflexible fate; Zeus, if he chose, had the power of saving even those who were already on the point of being seized by their fate. The Fates did not abruptly interfere in human affairs but availed themselves of intermediate causes, and determined the lot of mortals not absolutely, but only conditionally, even man himself, in his freedom was allowed to exercise a certain influence upon them. As man’s fate terminated at his death, the goddesses of fate become the goddesses of death, Moirai Thanatoio.

HARMONIA was the goddess of harmony and concord. She was a daughter of Ares and Aphrodite and as such presided over both marital harmony, soothing strife and discord, and harmonious action of soldiers in war. Late Greek and Roman writers sometimes portrayed her as harmony in a more abstract sense–a deity who presided over cosmic balance. In Plato’s Timaeus harmonization by proportion (of contrary elements, seasons, physical motions, and components of the soul) became the principle by which the Divinity created from chaos.

One can discover the use of contrariety as a guiding concept throughout both religious and philosophical speculation from Plato and Aristotle, his pupil on down to Immanuel Kant whose philosophical system both concluded one tradition and began what we’ve come to term Modernity (even though this term had been contested throughout the 16th to 18th centuries). The Aristotelian maxim contrariorum eadem est doctrina expresses this, as does Kant’s dictum that ‘all a priori division of concepts must be by dichotomy’.

The dichotomy that will concern us in this tentative assaying of the territory of demonology or thinking with demons is that of the contrariety of the phenomenal/noumenal divide. So I begin with Immanuel Kant. One could almost say that the demon in his philosophy is the concept of the noumenon. In our own time many philosophers, anti-philosophers, non-philosophers have converged upon the noumenon. Kant  was the philosopher who sundered the known from the unknown, appearance from reality, sensible from intelligible. One could traces aspects of this battle back through the Idealists / Rationalists and on down into the Scholastics nominalist/realist divides in one form or another. Yet, it was Kant that introduced the categories and introduced the specific terms argument of the terms in his division of the concepts of “phenomena” and “noumena” that have haunted both Continental and Analytical philosophy in the Secular Age.  Kant first used these terms in his 1770 Inaugural Dissertation, On the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World.

Sensibility is the receptivity of a subject in virtue of which it is possible for the subject’s own representative state to be affected in a definite way by the presence of some object. Intelligence (rationality) is the faculty of a subject in virtue of which it has the power to represent things which cannot by their own quality come before the senses of that subject. The object of sensibility is the sensible; that which contains nothing but what is to be cognized through the intelligence is intelligible. In the schools of the ancients, the former was called a phenomenon and the latter a noumenon. Cognition, in so far as it is subject to the laws of sensibility is sensitive, and, in so far as it is subject to the laws of intelligence, it is intellectual or rational. (§3, Ak 2:392).

Kant goes on to claim that there is a form of the intelligible world, an objective principle, which is “some cause in virtue of which there is a combining together of the things which exist in themselves” (§13, Ak 2:398). This cause is a unitary being on which all substances depend, a creator and architect of the world. Thus, Kant makes what he would later call a “transcendental” use of the pure concept of cause (or that from which something is derived) in principles like the following: “The substances which constitute the world are beings which derive from another being, though not from a number of different beings; they all derive from the same being” (§20, Ak 2:408).

Kant introduced the concept of the noumenon in the oppositional or negative sense, as the concept of an object that is not the object of a sensible intuition or the intellect; a placeholder for the limits of thought rather than thought itself. The function of this concept is to “limit the pretension of sensibility” (KrV A255/B311); and since this “pretension” is that sensible, i.e., spatiotemporal, predicates apply to things in general, this limitation is central to Kant’s “critical” project. Moreover, it brings with it the replacement of a transcendental by an empirical realism and therewith a commitment to transcendental idealism.1

One last item is the battle between those in favor of a “two-world” theory, and those in favor of a “two-aspect” theory of the phenomenon/noumenon divide. Allison will condense his argument from the anti-idealist camp using the work of P.F. Strawson and H.A. Pritchard. Strawson would reduce Kant’s Transcendental Idealism to incoherence, suggesting that Kant perverts the scientific empirical model of the mind’s being affected by physical objects by a mental trick. For Strawson Kant division into sensible/intelligible, appearance/reality distinctions creates the very problem it pretends to overcome: the reduction of the spatiotemporal relation to the subjective constitution of the mind (i.e., that the external is constructed by the mind, not affected by the sensible objects themselves). Secondly, is Pritchard’s argument that Kant confuses the issue claiming that we can know appearances but not things-in-themselves, and proceeds to affirm that we can really know appearances and they really are spatial. This leads Pritchard says to the assumption by Kant that we can only know things as they seem to us through appearances (representations), not how they really are in-themselves external to this system of representational mythology. 2

It would lead to too far afield to dig deeper into the tangled skein of analytical vs. transcendental idealist divide in Strawson, Pritchard, Paul Guyer, and Rae Langton. Each in their own way tried to separate out the transcendental idealism from the analytical aspects of Kant’s philosophy. I’ll leave that to the interested reader.

To simplify: the point is that for Kant there is no argument that things-in-themselves exist independent of us (realism), the point is rather that until these things are conceptualized for us and by us in the mind. But this does not mean that they exist as in Bishop Berkeley as Ideas or sense data in the mind independent of those external objects, rather these external objects to become objects for us must conform to the conditions of their representation in our mind. Whatever these objects, things, entities are independent of us is meaningless until they are made intelligible in the mind and conditioned as representations.

Most of modern philosophy and art has been a civil-war over this representational model of the mind that Kant distilled out of ancient to rationalist philosophy.  Kant himself would try to blend the two without fusing them saying: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” (A51/B76) For Allison Kant’s Transcendental Idealism was founded on a “two aspect” theory of epistemic conditioning, one that would require the transcendental distinction between appearances and things in themselves as based on two ways of considering things be maintained (as they appear and as they are in themselves) rather than as, on a more traditional reading, between two ontologically distinct sets of entities (appearances and things in themselves). (TI, p. 16)

This battle between epistemic conditioning of reality for us or for itself on the one hand, and those who would ontologize this gap between things for us and in themselves plays into many current notions surrounding knowledge. If reality must conform to the representations we have of it then we are bound in a circle of predetermined forms that guide our thoughts, while if reality can be divided in itself between objects as appearance (phenomenon) and objects as noumenal unknowns to which we have no direct access then we are bound to diametric and confrontational views of life and meaning.

Some like Quentin Meillassoux in his recent After Finitude would argue against what he termed correlationism, which is seen to be the thesis that it is impossible to think being independent of the relation between thought and being.  Meillassoux’s aim is to think the absolute or reality as it exists independent of human beings. The correlationist on the other hand thinks that there is no human without world, nor world without human, but only a primal correlation or rapport between the two. Hence, the object has no autonomy for the correlationist. In franker terms, the object does not exist. Kant’s ultimate judgment and the central teaching of his so called Copernican Revolution was to turn philosophy into a meditation on human finitude and forbid it from discussing reality-in-itself. So that after him all we could affirm positively was the phenomenal region of our spatio-temporal cosmos as conditioned by our representational mind.

Meillassoux and others since Kant have tried without success to counter this explicit closure of the noumenon, seeking to discover another path, one that seeks outside direct access to this noumenal sphere a more indirect access to its unknowability. It’s in this liminal sphere between the possible and impossible, phenomenal and noumenal that the wars of philosophy between epistemic and ontological access have for two centuries striven sometimes winning small battles here and there but none winning the war. The noumenon will not let itself be reduced to either epistemic conditioning nor ontological excess, it acts like a daemonic continuum that is full of discord, strife, and contradiction that allows only the vagrant mediator, the vanishing mediator to convey, though indirectly some semblance of the darkness made visible.

The Daemonic Realms: The “Subject” of Posthumanism

“…all demons are malevolent, deceiving, posturing enemies of humanity…”

-Jean Bodin, Démonomanie

Thinking about the daemonic or thinking the daemon brings us to edge of both thought and speech, of what can be thought and what spoken. Kepler in his, “The Speech of Daemons,” which formed a part of his allegory of the Cosmos that sought to explain his scientific and natural views constitutes the central core of the elaborately framed narrative. The Daemon became in his Somnium: The Dream, or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy a polysemic allegorical assemblage of the Christian and scientific imagination, represents Kepler’s attempt to resolve competing discourses available for theorizing nature. Kepler struggled to break through the limits of thought in his time, a thought that restricted the minds of those he sought to convey his natural and cosmological information to. To do that he pushed the limits of a form of dream discourse that could reach into that abyss of the daemonic imaginal where meaning could be brought back in a form of daemonic speech that spoke the alterity beyond the limit’s of his time’s cultural register. Eugene Thacker in his three-volume work In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy on the horror of philosophy would offer a view onto this limiting factor of our knowledge of the world and ourselves:

[T]he horror of philosophy: the isolation of those moments in which philosophy reveals its own limitations and constraints, moments in which thinking enigmatically confronts the horizon of its own possibility – the thought of the unthinkable that philosophy cannot pronounce but via a non-philosophical language.(2)

The Daemonic Imaginal is that alterity beyond the limit of our symbolic and cultural horizon that allows the abyss to open its darkness to us and reveal what is both most natural and most daemonic to us in forms that take on powers of speech and thought irreducible to the logic and instrumental reasoning of our everyday utilitarian language and mental make-up. Yet, this is not some transcendent realm of spirits from some external world beyond our world, but rather the powers at the heart of our elemental desires and fears, our deepest noumenal affective registry that cannot be any part of intuition (Intellect) or sense-data (Sensibility) but is rather part of that contrariety and agonistic world of strife that is neither logical or reasonable.

The Daemon arises from that dark sphere of thought by way of indirect appropriation, through lures and traps, alluring its subtle world not by way of representations and the light of Reason, but rather by way of diagrams, sigils, forces and powers of imaginal entreaty, drawing this non-knowledge into that intermediated realm between the sublime and ridiculous without reducing it to our daylight utilitarian symbols thereby degrading it and losing the very force of its message. As Thacker surmises

I would propose that horror be understood not as dealing with human fear in a human world (the world-for-us), but that horror be understood as being about the limits of the human as it confronts a world that is not just a World, and not just the Earth, but also a Planet (the world-without-us). (8)

Opening any number of current philosophical or scientific works in the past few years one gets a feeling that an advanced cadre of alien invaders were slowly erasing the memory of the human from our cultural complex, as if an invasion of alien thinkers had replaced our age old vision of human exceptionalism. This novel undermining of two thousand years of Christian humanist civilization some say has been going on since the Enlightenment age of Kant. That what is occurring in our midst, to the detrimental to the both the older humanistic and humancentric view of life, self, and the universe is nothing less than the destruction of the human species in advance of some transvaluation of both our values and our genetic inheritance in an ongoing transformation into a posthuman civilization.

If as some have surmised that one can only radicalize or reverse a philosophical system then what has happened recently in terms of philosophy is the extreme end of Kantianism: it has been both radicalized and reversed to the extreme nth degree and found wanting. Over the past two centuries Kant’s system would divide the House of Philosophy into both Analytical and Continental forms in its quest to overcome the dilemma he’d set for his philosophy of finitude and the phenomenal. Unable to break out of the correlational circle of thought and affirm objects independent of the mind’s representations, philosophers have sought either to extend into analytical and mathematical theoretic or the discursive and phenomenological theoretic left open to it. Both paths ended in failure. But even this failure to break out of the correlational circle has spawned other possibilities.

Slavoj Zizek realizing the quandary of this circular reasoning will remind us of Niels Bohr who liked to repeat, at the level of the physics of micro-particles, there is no “objective” measurement, no access to “objective” reality— not because we (our mind) constitutes reality, but because we are part of the reality which we measure, and thus lack an “objective distance” towards it.3 Zizek himself will join all those dualists that have seen a gap between thought and reality, yet he stays with the notion of the Subject or a humancentric view that begs the question. As he’ll say of Meillassoux,

Meillassoux’s claim is to have achieved the breakthrough into independent “objective” reality. But there is a third Hegelian option: the true problem that follows from Meillassoux’s basic speculative gesture (transposing the contingency of our notion of reality into the Thing itself) is not so much what more we can say about reality-in-itself, but how our subjective standpoint and subjectivity itself fit into reality. (LTN, KL 14517)

That seems to be the most degrading and almost reactionary aspect of Zizek’s stance in maintaining the notion of a Subject in a world where neuroscientists and many philosophers have escaped or evaded this notion as retrograde and dubious at best. I don’t have time to go into all the arguments for this here, and will only add Thomas Metzinger’s statement:

Contrary to what most people believe, nobody has ever been or had a self. But it is not just that the modern philosophy of mind and cognitive neuroscience together are about to shatter the myth of the self. It has now become clear that we will never solve the philosophical puzzle of consciousness—that is, how it can arise in the brain, which is a purely physical object—if we don’t come to terms with this simple proposition: that to the best of our current knowledge there is no thing, no indivisible entity, that is us, neither in the brain nor in some metaphysical realm beyond this world. So when we speak of conscious experience as a subjective phenomenon, what is the entity having these experiences?4

Which will force Zizek to then ask if problem is not “Can we penetrate the veil of subjectively constituted phenomena to Things-in-themselves?” but “How do phenomena themselves arise within the flat stupidity of reality which just is; how does reality redouble itself and start to appear to itself?” For this, we need a theory of the subject which involves neither transcendental subjectivity nor a reduction of the subject to a part of objective reality; such a theory also enables us to formulate in a new way what Meillassoux calls the problem of correlationism (ancestrality). Here, both Lacan and Hegel are anti-Leninists, for their problem is not “how to reach objective reality which is independent of (its correlation to) subjectivity,” but how subjectivity is already inscribed into reality— to quote Lacan again, not only is the picture in my eye, but I am also in the picture. (LTN, KL 14520)

Ultimately for Zizek there is an irreducible (constitutive) discord, or non-correlation, between subject and reality: in order for the subject to emerge, the impossible object-that-is-subject must be excluded from reality, since it is this very exclusion which opens up the space for the subject. The problem is not to think the Real outside of transcendental correlation, independently of the subject; the problem is to think the Real inside the subject, the hard core of the Real in the very heart of the subject, its ex-timate center. (LTN, 14533) Thinking through what this exclusion from reality might entail, the negation that opens up this object that is the Subject and forces the extreme solution to think the Real at the core of this Subject as internal to the Subject in itself seems to reverse the Kantian distinction. Now the noumenon is at the core of the Subject rather than in the external world or Thing-in-itself. Rather than a split between appearance / thing-in-itself or phenomenon/noumenon we now have in Zizek’s metaphysical system the introduction of a split also into the subject, between its thinking and its (not actual life-being but its) non-thought thought, its non-non-thought, between discourse and the Real (not reality). So the point is not only to overcome the inaccessible In-itself by claiming that “there is nothing beyond the veil of semblances except what the subject itself put there,” but to relate the In-itself to the split in the subject itself. (LTN, KL 14543)

This displacement of the noumenal from the external to the internal split within the Subject-in-itself seems to open the world of the daemonic that Eugene Thacker in the epigraph to this essay terms  “a placeholder for some sort of non-human, malefic agency that acts against the human”.

…it has been gone for 2,000 years, either because God withdrew the Holy Spirit or because for one reason or another man lost the method and the notion. And then all that came were daemons rather than daimons— evil spirits only…

-Philip K Dick,  The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

The Split: The Daemonic in the Subject

I am one of those who not only knows that those who sleep in death will awaken, but I know how (and I know it, too, by gnosis, not pistis). Thus I see now that the fact of anamnesis is tied in with the basic, informational quality of the universe. After all, it was information which retrieved me, whereupon I then could distinguish other higher information and learn from it.

– Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

E.R. Dodds in his now classic The Greeks and the Irrational would remind us that the ancient people of Greece, from whom our conceptuality and notions of reason and the irrational first arose, saw the world in daemonic terms as the will of Zeus “working itself out through an inexorable moral law, his characters see only a daemonic world, haunted by malignant forces”.6 Dodds would go on to say,

The daemonic, as distinct from the divine, has at all periods played a large part in Greek popular belief (and still does). People in the Odyssey attribute many events in their lives, both mental and physical, to the agency of anonymous daemons; we get the impression, however, that they do not always mean it very seriously. But in the age that lies between the Odyssey and the Orestia, the daemons seem to draw closer: they grow more persistent, more insidious, more sinister. (GI, KL 794)

The Greeks would in fact begin to see our passional nature, our irrational emotions and intentions as daemons. As Dodds will tell us those irrational impulses which arise in a man against his will to tempt him, such as Theognis calls hope and fear are “dangerous daemons,” or when Sophocles speaks of Eros as a power that “warps to wrong the righteous mind, for its destruction,”  we should not dismiss this as “personification”: behind it lies the old Homeric feeling that these things are not truly part of the self, since they are not within man’s conscious control; they are endowed with a life and energy of their own, and so can force a man, as it were from the outside, into conduct foreign to him. (GI, KL 804) A second type of daemon would be associated with various diseases that would eat away the body such as Cholera, Smallpox, and Plague. Third would be the notion of moira or “portion” of personal luck in which as Theognis laments that more depends on one’s daemon than on one’s character: if your daemon is of poor quality, mere good judgement is of no avail— your enterprises come to nothing. (GI, 907)

Empedocles would teach the Greeks of the occult self which persisted through successive incarnations which he called, not “psyche” but “daemon.” This daemon has, apparently, nothing to do with perception or thought, which Empedocles held to be mechanically determined; the function of the daemon is to be the carrier of man’s potential divinity113 and actual guilt. It is nearer in some ways to the indwelling spirit which the shaman inherits from other shamans than it is to the rational “soul” in which Socrates believed; but it has been moralised as a guilt-carrier, and the world of the senses has become the Hades in which it suffers torment. (GI, KL 3036)

This notion of the split within the Subject as daemon and psyche would have repercussions down through Plato and then into the Neo-Platonists and Christian Gnostics who would inherit these ideas and extend them taking over the notion that we already exist in Hades or Hell and suffer the torments of a Demon King, the Devil or Demiurge. As Dodds would admit the Classical Age inherited a whole series of inconsistent pictures of the “soul” or “self” the living corpse in the grave, the shadowy image in Hades, the perishable breath that is spilt in the air or absorbed in the aether, the daemon that is reborn in other bodies. (GI, KL 3607) Yet, as the Greeks demythologized their society and rationalized it into philosophical concepts and reason the externalization of these daemons would slowly withdraw into the human head as intentions, impulses, and irrational drives pulling and pushing humans into sinister paths.

Plato’s fission of the empirical man into daemon and beast is perhaps not quite so inconsequent as it may appear to the modern reader. It reflects a similar fission in Plato’s view of human nature: the gulf between the immortal and the mortal soul corresponds to the gulf between Plato’s vision of man as he might be and his estimate of man as he is. (GI, KL 4253) Over time the naturalization of these mythical entities into passions, emotions, intentions would resolve them in ways that allowed the political and social control of human behavior. Yet, the rational never quite was able to exclude the older mythical elements from its systems, and even Socrates would do honor to his daemon on his death bed.

In our time Zizek will speak of this daemonic realm of the Real as the pure virtual surface, the “incorporeal” Real, which is to be opposed to the Real in its most terrifying imaginary dimension, the primordial abyss which swallows up everything, dissolving all identities— a figure well known in literature in multiple guises, from Edgar Allan Poe’s maelstrom and Kurtz’s “horror” at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to Pip from Melville’s Moby Dick who, cast to the bottom of the ocean, experiences the demon God:

Carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes … Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke to it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. (LTN, 1579)

Zizek would return us to Plato, to the Real of the Gap: the assertion of the gap between the spatio-temporal order of reality in its eternal movement of generation and corruption, and the “eternal” order of Ideas— the notion that empirical reality can “participate” in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through it, appear in it. As he’ll suggest:

Where Plato got it wrong is in his ontologization of Ideas (strictly homologous to Descartes’s ontologization of the cogito), as if Ideas form another, even more substantial and stable order of “true” reality. What Plato was not ready (or, rather, able) to accept was the thoroughly virtual, “immaterial” (or, rather, “insubstantial”) status of Ideas: like sense-events in Deleuze’s ontology, Ideas have no causality of their own; they are virtual entities generated by spatio-temporal material processes. Take an attractor in mathematics: all positive lines or points in its sphere of attraction only endlessly approach it, without ever reaching its form— the existence of this form is purely virtual; it is nothing more than the form towards which the lines and points tend. However, precisely as such, the virtual is the Real of this field: the immovable focal point around which all elements circulate— the term “form” here should be given its full Platonic weight, since we are dealing with an “eternal” Idea in which reality imperfectly “participates.” (LTN, KL 935)

For Zizek our realm, this universe of material reality is “all there is,” that there is no Platonic true world beyond the cosmos: and, the ontological status of Ideas is that of pure appearing. The question becomes not “how can we reach the true reality beyond appearances?” but “how can appearance emerge in reality?” The conclusion Plato avoids is implied in his own line of thought: the supersensible Idea does not dwell beyond appearances, in a separate ontological sphere of fully constituted Being; it is appearance as appearance. No wonder that the two great admirers of Plato’s Parmenides, Hegel and Lacan, both provide exactly the same formula of the “truth” of the Platonic supersensible Idea: the supersensible

comes from the world of appearance which has mediated it; in other words, appearance is its essence and, in fact, its filling. The supersensible is the sensuous and the perceived posited as it is in truth; but the truth of the sensuous and the perceived is to be appearance. The supersensible is therefore appearance qua appearance … It is often said that the supersensible world is not appearance; but what is here understood by appearance is not appearance, but rather the sensuous world as itself the really actual. (LTN, 953)

The implicit lesson of Plato is not that everything is appearance, that it is not possible to draw a clear line of separation between appearance and reality (that would have meant the victory of sophism), but that essence is “appearance as appearance,” that essence appears in contrast to appearance within appearance; that the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.(LTN, 969)

Which brings us to the Void. For Zizek appearance as essence is in itself empty, a nothingness manifest, the “nothingness of a pure gap (antagonism, tension, “contradiction”), the pure form of dislocation ontologically preceding any dislocated content”. (LTN, 983)

This whole digression brings us back to the inhuman split subject within as the place of this warring, antagonistic, contradictory realm of the daemonic Real.

The Rise of the Archons: Gnosticism, Gnosis, and Nonknowledge

Why do these spiritual beings have mercy on us in the first place? And why do they choose to speak to us through sudden and striking images? Why is their presence always marked by an odd, eerie, weird apparition? Why do they have to pervert nature in order to reveal their messages?

-Armando Maggi, In The Company of Demons

Philosophical sophisticates like Marcus Aurelius are no less vulnerable than the local shoemaker, for, as Marcus’s own philosophy might show,  daimones can turn philosophy itself into a means of subjugating people to their tyranny.7 Pagels in her study on the origin of Satan will trace the concept of daimonies through its Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic variants. The whole of the ancient world was pervaded by the daimonic in both its moral and amoral forms. One finds literature in all pagan or Christian forms pervaded by magic, binding spells, curse tablets, voodoo dolls, and rituals to control and direct daimonies for good or ill.9

In his Against the Heresies Irenaeus relates the origins of the Demiurge:

When she saw that all the rest had a consort, but she herself was without a partner, she sought for one, with whom she might unite; and when she did not  fi nd one she took it sorely, extended herself, and looked down into the lower regions, thinking to  fi nd a consort there. And when she found none she leapt forth, disgusted also because she had made the leap without the goodwill of the Father. Then, moved by simplicity and goodness, she generated a work in which was ignorance and audacity.

This work of hers they call the First Archon, the creator of this world. They relate that he stole from his mother a great power and departed from her into the lower regions, and made the  firmament of heaven in which also they say he dwells.

One hears in this an echo and inversion of the ancient Christian and Greek myths with Sophia, Wisdom, giving birth to the blind demiurge or first Archon who will in turn steal a “great power” from his Mother that will help him reorder and construct the Cosmos: the lower realms of our universe. One thinks of Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus, or Pandora’s box of toxic gifts as well… as if the corruption began with the breaking of a taboo, a sacrifice – a blind and tearful progenitor seeking to mold a universe of pure hate and desolation.

Neoplatonism and Pico’s attempted synthesis of all philosophies on a mystical basis are really, at bottom, an aspiration after a new gnosis rather than a new philosophy. At any rate, it was their immersion in the atmosphere of gnosis through their veneration for Hermes Trismegistus which led Ficino and Pico to their religious approach to magic and to their placing of the Magus on a lofty pinnacle of insight, a position very different from that held by the vulgar necromancers and conjurors in former less enlightened times.

-Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Georges Bataille will tell us that 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).9 Here we see Bataille revealing the power of darkness and matter as energetic power, both active and creative. Bataille attributes to such sovereign moments of energetic, affective expenditure a sacrificial character. “the principle of sacrifice is destruction,” he writes, “but though it sometimes goes so far as to destroy completely . . . the destruction that sacrifice is intended to bring about is not annihilation. The thing—only the thing—is what sacrifice means to destroy in the victim. Sacrifice destroys an object’s . . . ties of subordination; it draws the victim out of the world of utility” and into the sphere of the sacred.10 (NE, 220)

One might say Bataille was seeking an anti-political left-hand path out of our capitalist prison, a way to exit the system of profits without expenditure that was a living hell for those trapped within its vast mechanisms of clockwork utilitarian culture and practice. And, for Bataille, the only path out was down and into the daemonic heart of “inner experience,” a revitalization of those dark powers of the ancient archons who were the energetic force of excess and transgression. Bataille sought to negate the darkest prison of all: Time.

For Bataille the sacred was a realm of splits and gaps as well. He’d seek through “inner experience” (gnosis or non-knowledge) a exit from the mundane and utilitarian profane work-a-day world, and an entry into the realm of the left-hand path of the dangerous, decaying, morbid sacred. Bataille advances this “duality of the sacred,” extending and radicalizing the features of the “two opposing classes” observed by Durkheim: “pure
and impure,” vivifying and decaying. According to Bataille’s account, the right sacred amounts to a transcendent projection of the profane world; it is rational utility elevated to the level of God or some other exalted figure. The left sacred, by contrast, is the Dionysian dimension of the sacred; it is not accessed in transcendence but activated through the transgression of prohibitions that keep the profane world intact. Whereas the elevated, Apollonian consciousness seeks stable and enduring forms, the disciple of the monstrous, left sacred revels in “ruptur[ing] the highest elevation, and . . . has a share in the elaboration or decomposition of forms” attendant upon intoxication, madness, and artistic profusion. (NE, 221)

This lower left-hand sacred path was for Bataille excessive and  transgressive, escaping assimilation or systematization. In this way, like the chthonic god with which it is affiliated in Bataille’s thought, the left sacred is a “low value” that disrupts both the rational order of utility—the “real world,” conditioned by telic thought and dedicated to useful projects—as well as its divinized counterpart, the right sacred. It is at once activated by, and provokes the death of, the closed,  individual self—the death that grants the experience of continuity.(NE, 221)

It’s in this realm of continuity that the daimonic manifests itself. “Nonknowledge communicates ecstasy,” Bataille writes. “Thus ecstasy only remains possible in the anguish of ecstasy, in this sense, that it cannot be satisfaction, grasped knowledge.” It is in the “dazed lucidity” of ecstatic agnosia that one realizes the sacrificial shattering of the self. In a manner that recalls Freud’s characterization of dreams, this oneiric mystical experience is “heedless of contradictions”; indeed, it proceeds in and through affective and intellectual contradictions, with “as much disorder as in dreams.” This ecstasy is the anti-Hegelian, excessively Nietzschean fomentation of inner experience: the point of extreme “contradiction” in which “circular, absolute knowledge is definitive non-knowledge.” Inner experience is the encounter with the dream knot: a “dream of the unknown . . . the refusal to be everything,” a loss of self in the night of nonknowledge, which carries the “meaning of dream.” (NE, 236)

It’s this sense in Bataille’s gnosis of nonknowledge of coming up against the limit of the human, of sacrifice and the loss of self in immersion with the inhuman core of being, its continuity. As Thacker will remind us

Here again we arrive at the concept of the demon as a limit for thought, a limit that is constituted not by being or becoming, but by non-being, or nothingness. And here we should state what we have been hinting at all along, which is that in contrast to the theology of the demon, or the poetics of the demon, there is something more basic still that has to do with the ideas of negation and nothingness – hence we should really think of the demon as an ontological problem (not theology, not poetry, but philosophy). (DTP, 45)

It’s this sense that the daimon is more about thought and the limits of thought, an ontological problem about limits that brings us back to Kant and the noumenon. As Thacker will state it “if demonology is to be thought in a philosophical register, then it would have to function as a kind of philosoheme that brings together a cluster of ideas that have, for some time, served as problematic areas for philosophy itself: negation, nothingness, and the non-human. (DTP, 45) What the daimonic brings us to is the agonistic confrontation with the Real outside the mundane and profane realm of work and utilitarian values, and into that horizon of possibility where the unthinkable noumenal that philosophy cannot speak is suddenly communicated by the very daimones themselves via a non-philosophical language. (DTP, 2)

This is where Bataille’s impure way of extreme surrealism, an onerism that no longer as in Andre Breton seeks to synthesize the contradictions of the daimonic in some Hegelian sublation, follows rather the monstrous images of dream into the contradictory realms of darkness and decomposition, risking the loss of self as the acceptable transgression needed to raise the energies from their abyss. Thacker mentions Rudolf Otto in regards to this

In the West, Otto argues, there have been two major modes in which this negative thought has been expressed: silence and darkness. To these Otto adds a third, which he finds dominant in Eastern variants of mystical experience, which he terms “emptiness and empty distances,” or the void. Here the negation of thought turns into an affirmation, but a paradoxical affirmation of “nothingness” or “emptiness.” As Otto puts it, “‘void’ is, like darkness and silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every ‘this’ and ‘here,’ in order that the ‘wholly other’ may become actual.” (DTP, 155-156)

Invoking the Powers of Thought: Daimones as Intelligencers

Is qabbalism problematical or mysterious? …Epistemologically speaking, qabbalistic programmes have a status strictly equivalent to that of experimental particle physics, or other natural-scientific research programmes, even if their guiding hypotheses might seem decidedly less plausible than those dominant within mainstream scientific institutions.

-Nick Land, Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007

Giordano Bruno would describe transnatural magic as the power of invoking the Mind’s daimons:

The methods of the fifth kind of magic are words, charms, the reasons of numbers and times, images, forms, seals, symbols, or letters. This magic is intermediary between natural magic and extra- or supranatural magic. the most suitable name for it is mathematical magic or, rather, occult philosophy.

The sixth kind is achieved by means of the cult or invocation of external or superior intelligences or agents, through prayers, incantations, fumigations, sacrifices as well as certain customs and ceremonies directed toward the gods, demons, and heroes. The results to contract the spirit into itself in such a way that the spirit is changed into the receiver and instrument and appears endowed with the wisdom of things, but this wisdom can easily be withdrawn, at the same time as the spirit, by means of sufficient remedies. This is the magic of the hopeless, who become recipients of evil demons caught with the help of the Art [Ars notoria]. Its purpose is to command the lower demons through the authority of the higher demons; the latter, one cultivates and attract; the former, one exorcises and controls. This form of magic is transnatural or metaphysical and is called theurgia. (EM, 157)

Couliano’s readings of these thinkers who revitalized the hermetic, magical, and gnostic forms of thought Ficino, Bruno and others gives us a view onto these ancient worlds of the Medieval Mind that have recourse to sources of thought and literature that preserved these traditions and practices out of Greece, Rome, Alexandria, and kept them buried in the vast libraries of the Catholic world. Bruno would castigate the authors of the Malleus maleficarum as obscurantists who knew nothing of the magical arts:

Recently, the words “magician” and “magic” have been denigrated: we have not taken this into consideration at all. The magician has been called stupid and evil sorcerer who has obtained, through dealings and pact with the evil demon, the faculty to do harm or to enjoy certain things. This opinion is not shared by wise men of philologists, but it is taken up by the hooded ones [bardocuculli; that is, monks] such as the author of the Malleus maleficarum. In our day, this definition has been reassumed by all sorts or writers, as we can observe by reading the catechisms for the ignorant and for drowsy priests. (De Magia, III, EM, 157)

It is from Bruno that the philosophical aspects of demonology will become more mainstream within Catholicism. Demons he would tells us are invisible spirits who have the ability to act upon the intelligence and judgment. They produce visual and auditory hallucinations, sometimes simultaneously. Bruno differentiates five categories of demons. The first, who corresponds to Psellus’s subterranean and aquatic demons, are bruta Animalia and have no sense. The second, who inhabit ruins and prisons, are “timid, suspicious and credulous.” They can be invoked, since they are capable of hearing and understanding spoken language. The third are of “a more prudent king.” They inhabit the air and are especially redoubtable since they lead a man astray through imagination and false promises. The fourth, who inhabit the airy regions, are beneficent and resplendent. The fifth, who inhabit the stellar light, are sometimes called gods or heroes but in reality they only agents of the one and only God. The cabbalists call them Fissim, Seraphim, Cherubim, etc. (De Magia, III, EM 427-428)

Bruno’s philosophy cannot be separated from his religion. It was his religion, the “religion of the world”, which he saw in this expanded form of the infinite universe and the innumerable worlds as an expanded gnosis, a new revelation of the divinity from the “vestiges”. Copernicanism was a symbol of the new revelation, which was to mean a return to the natural religion of the Egyptians, magic…

-Frances A. Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

Demonic possessions in this house are not unknown. Is this really Keith, her father? taken when she was half her present age, and returned now as not the man she knew, but only the shell— with the soft meaty slug of soul that smiles and loves, that feels its mortality, either rotted away or been picked at by the needle mouths of death-by-government— a process by which living souls unwillingly become the demons known to the main sequence of Western magic as the Qlippoth, Shells of the Dead. . .

-Thomas Pynchon,  Gravity’s Rainbow

For several centuries we’ve heard the Grand Narrative of the separation of scientific thought out of this ancient world of sorcery, hermeticism, magian literature, kabbalah, occult and arcane practices of witchcraft and other forms. To what end? Is there anything behind this other than the delusions of mythographers and poets? Is the strange and weird worlds of this hidden realm of thought have any place in our world now? One sees the vestiges of it in the soupy sweetness of various forms of New Age obscurantism. Yet, one also sees Universities sponsoring Esoteric studies and an occult revival at reputable universities in such works as Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (here). At night on American television one can see a myriad of programs in the pop-cultural sphere of ghost hunters, channelers: or people who speak with the dead, etc., along with occult or other magical or witchcraft programs as if the ancient sorceries were still well and alive in the madness of the mass mind. Is the unknown at the limits of the mind’s tether opening up to the noumenal sphere once again? Is the noumenal part of the split internal to the core of our inhuman monstrousness? Or, is it rather the Real at the heart of the abyss within which we are all situated? Who can answer? Are the demons speaking, sending us messages from the dark places?

Zdzislaw Beksinski - 1978 (4)

I know it’s true; I mean, I know now that what I’ve been seeing which I assumed was many sources, many doctrines, was and is the worldview and knowledge, the gnosis and secret wisdom…

-Philip K.Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick

On January 7, 1994 Alan Moore would spend part of an evening talking to an entity who claimed to be a Goetic demon first mentioned in the Apocrypha (Moore would later weave Goetic demons into Promethea). He struggled over whether the demon was purely internal, that is, a projection of his psyche, or whether it was external and more or less what it claimed to be. In the fantastic paradoxical pattern that will structure all that follows, Moore confesses that the most satisfying answer is that it was both: “That doesn’t make any logical sense but that satisfied me most emotionally. It feels truest.”

“These are gnostic experiences,” the writer declares. “You’ve either had them
or you haven’t.” By gnostic, Moore means a particular kind of direct and immediate
experiential knowledge of one’s own divinity that cannot be reduced to reason or faith
and stands very much opposed to the consensus reality of society and religion: “Faith is for sissies who daren’t go and look for themselves. That’s my basic position. Magic
is based upon gnosis. Direct knowledge.”12

The dark side of the Etz Chiim is also called the Tree of Death and considered to represent the reverse or occult side of the Tree of Life. It is a diagram of the evil forces or Qliphoth (hebrew, Shells) assigned to each Sephiroth. They represent the counter-forces of the ten divine emanations as described in Lurianic Kabbalah. The Tree of Death, however, essentially is a creation of 20th century Western occultism rather than genuine Jewish Kabbalah.

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“The Devil is composed of God’s ruins’” 

-Eliphas Levi, Dogma and ritual

The Qliphoth are the evil forces that exist within creation. Their coming into existence was one of the central philosophical problems dealt with after the forced displacement of Jews from Spain in 1492. Similarly like World War II positioned the  theodicy problem (i.e. ‘How can a merciful God allow evil in creation?’) in the centre of Christian speculation, it was the banishment from Spain in 1492 that was perceived as similar fundamental and unanswerable paradox for the Jewish communities. After all the Jews were God’s chosen people, yet the banishment from Spain had destroyed the first perceived state of freedom and homeland since the destruction of the Second Temple.

During his short years in Safed – where many Kabbalists arrived from Spain – it was Isaac Luria who tried to answer this unanswerable question with revolutionary freedom of thought. His main key was to transcend the idea of a fall of man from the Garden Eden into the actual process of creation of the world itself. Thus, with a single stroke he transcended the origin of evil from human to cosmic level. This revolutionary thought of a cosmogonic fall of creation will be sketched out in a highly abbreviated and insufficient form in this first chapter.

The Lurianic process of creation starts with a voluntary act of the Divine to confine itself within itself. The Divine in the final state before creation is called Ain Soph Aur which can be translated as ‘borderless light of non-creation’. In order for the Divine to become diversified and active in creation it had to create a space, a vacuum of non-being into which it could immerse itself by help of a sequence of ten subsequent emanations from the Ain Soph Aur. Nine of these emanations would express one perfect aspect of the nature of the Divine each and they would all unite and come together in the tenth. For these emanations – and all subsequent creation – however, to be differentiated from the perfect borderless light (Ain Soph Aur) they had to be in a confined space of emptiness which they could subsequently fill with life. This ongoing process of the Divine confining itself within itself in order to create space for creation is a key concept of Lurianic Kabbalah and called Zimzum (also, Tzimtzum).

Into this vacuum of non-being the Divine released a single ray of light. This ray of light emerged from the Ain Soph Aur, entered into the empty space of creation and started to bring forth the matrix of all life in ten distinct emanations. These emanations are illustrated as ten ‘first-lights’ which the author of the Sefer Yetzirah introduces by the name of Sephira (singular) or Sephiroth (plural).

One by one, each light would be captured in a vessel made of clay in order to transfer their state of pure being into one of becoming and creation. Each vessel had a specific name, function and shape, perfectly expressing the idea of creation it represented and brought to life by the light it captured. The sequence of filling these vessels with light is called Seder Hishtalshelus (the order of development).

This process went well for the first four Sephiroth, which all came forth from the veil of non-being into the vacuum of creation. The shell of the fifth Sephira, however, turned out to be not solid enough in order to capture the light that emanated into it. The fifth point or light and vessel in the sequence of creation was dedicated to the idea of Strength or Severity (hebrew, Geburah). Thus the clay vessel broke due to the overflowing light of Strength in it and the process of creation continued with the remaining five Sephiroth.

Yet, even though creation continued the original vessel of Geburah couldn’t be restored. This, finally,  is the way how evil managed to enter into creation by shape of untamed Strength or Severity. This momentous event during the first ten emanations is called Schebirath ha-Kelim (hebrew, breaking of the vessels) and marks the birth of the ten original demonic forces, called Qliphoth (hebrew, shells).

The broken parts of the original vessel of Geburah sank down to the bottom of the Zimzum space of creation. Just like droplets of oil remain on the surface of a broken clay vessel the light of creation remained captured on these shells. It is these remains of divine light which are the reason why the broken shells weren’t lifeless but filled with a shadow-like yet highly effective state of demonic being.

This process lays open the essential nature of the Qliphoth according to Lurianic Kabbalah. Just like flames devour its own aliment while burning, the only reason for the Qliphoth to come into being were the original sparks of divine light captured on their shells. In case one managed to separate the oil from the clay surface or the flame from the coal the flame immediately disappeared and the coal was left without life.

The Qliphoth therefore continuously strive for new aliment, just like flames constantly need new coals to keep burning. Yet, at the same time they destroy their very reason for being when they come in touch with it. It is this paradox of using creation to maintain the existence of destruction that marks the essence of demonic forces in Lurianic Kabbalah.

This is also the reason why Western occultists started to call this dark side of the Etz Chiim the Tree of Death. The forces who came to life in the process known as Schebirath ha-Kelim cannot be mistaken for demons in a graeco-egyptian or medieval sense. The Qliphoth aren’t former celestial or chthonic deities related to a foreign cult or religion which were redefined by Kabbalists at a later point. The Qliphoth are an authentic kabbalistic creation in order to explain evil in creation. As each of them reveal by nature of their name their urge is to conceal and suffocate the seeds of life – and to ultimately destroy man’s aspiration and pursuit of finding beauty in every aspect of creation.

(Note Sources: Gershom Scholem – On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism; On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah; Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah; Kabbalah)13

The Gateway to Ignorance and Silence

Because our knowledge is ignorance, or because it is neither knowledge of anything there nor the understanding of any truth, or because even if there is some entrance to that [truth], the door may not come open except by means of ignorance-which is simultaneously  path, gatekeeper, and gate.

-Giordano Bruno. The Cabala of Pegasus

Bruno conceived of a daimonic continuum existing between the human and divine realms. Bataille dreams of the split in the sacred of divine realms and impure and corrupting powers leading to immanent ecstasy and horror neither sublime nor ridiculous, instead a lifting up into the downward abyss of things unknown and impossible, a self-lacerating jouissance at once macabre, obscene, and morbid revealing the realms of the archontes in their blackened night of horror. As Thacker will remark,

If historical mysticism still had as its aim the subject’s experience, and as its highest principle that of God, then mysticism today – after the death of God – would be about the impossibility of experience, it would be about that which in shadows withdraws from any possible experience, and yet still makes its presence felt, through the periodic upheavals of weather, land, and matter. If historical mysticism is, in the last instance, theological, then mysticism today, a mysticism of the unhuman, would have to be, in the last instance, climatological. It is a kind of mysticism that can only be expressed in the dust of this planet. (DTP, 158)

 And what lies in the dust of the planet if not as Iamblichus once affirmed negatively, the “archons of the midnight sun who guide the terrible rays,” where a picture emerges that presents the descent into the elements of the material world’s envoys, those alien ones from the darkest labyrinths of silence:

It is hard to believe the Gnostics did not manifest above all a sinister love of darkness, a monstrous taste for the obscene and lawless archontes, for the head of the solar ass… a peculiar licentious Gnostic sect with their sexual rites fulfills this obscure demand for baseness that is irreducible and commands our indecent respect even as it continues in the  black magic traditions to the present day. (VE, 48)


  1. Allison, Henry E. Essays on Kant. Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 7, 2012)
  2. Allison, Henry E. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism: An Interpretation and Defense. Yale University Press; Revised ed. edition (March 11, 2004)
  3. Zizek, Slavoj. Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 14510-14513). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  4. Metzinger, Thomas. The Ego Tunnel (p. 1).  Basic Books; First Trade Paper Edition edition (March 17, 2009)
  5. Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1
  6. Dodds, E. R.. The Greeks and the Irrational (Sather Classical Lectures) (Kindle Locations 776-777). University of California Press; 2 edition (June 16, 2004)
  7. Pagels, Elaine. The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. Vintage; Reprint edition (October 12, 2011)
  8. Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. University of Pennsylvania 1999
  9. Bataille, Georges. Visions Of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (Theory and History of Literature Vol 14)  University of Minnesota Press; 1 edition (June 20, 1985)
  10. Jeremy Biles, Kent Brintnall (Editors). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (FUP)) Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  11. Ioan P. Culianu. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (November 15, 1987)
  12. Jeffrey J. Kripal. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (December 21, 2015)
  13. Scholem, Gershom. Conf. On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism Schocken; Revised ed. edition (January 30, 1996);  On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts in the Kabbalah  Schocken (March 30, 2011); Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah  Princeton University Press; Revised ed. edition (January 1, 1976); Kabbalah Doreset Press; 1St edition (December 1987)

The Neon Demon: Decadence and the Art of Darkness

Since the most eloquent decadences edify us no further as to unhappiness than the stammerings of a shepherd, and ultimately there is more wisdom in the mockery of an idiot than in the investigations of the laboratories, is it not madness to pursue truth on the paths of time—or in books?

– Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay

An interview is up for Nicolas Winding Refn’s – film director of Drive and Only God Forgives on Quietus by Phillipa Snow –  new movie The Neon Demon.

Is the neo-aesthete’s revival of an arch decadence? The artificial enclosure of violence and despair within the neon terror of a refined oblivion devoid of even nullity, a slow infestation of the sublime underbelly of death so vital it inhabits a posthuman futurism without the “post” or “human”?

“Neon is no longer anxious” Eleanor Courtemanche writes… as if anxiety and the uncanny no longer worked for us, as if Freud-Lacan and the Oedipalization were finally a myth of a past refined out of existence. Now the comedy of the nil can appropriate the cliché’s of kitsch within kitsch, expose the throbbing pulse of automated death at the heart of a devitalized voyeurism.

Pain as a commodity, the sacred as a moment between pain and ecstasy becomes in this new economy just one more sad conformity. Pain as the marketable ecstasy of those who have no emotion, the psychopath of devitalized robots and artificial denizens of an apocalyptic comedy at the end of human civilization. No longer the moral hijinks of an outdated derision or scornful hatred of the body, rather the undaunted acceptance of flesh as itself the excess of a last ditch effort to squeeze ecstasy from a devitalized world of cold and impersonal death.

Bear with me as I digress through both decadent literature and critique, gathering a thousand flowers along the way that may dip into that dark abyss of sacred pain and jouissance.

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A Short History of Decay

Percy Bysshe Shelley in his infamous poem On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery brought us the dark romanticism of terror as the breakaway sublime of a new form of Beauty when in his last refrain he stated:

‘Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror; 
  For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare 
Kindled by that inextricable error,  
  Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air 
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror 
  Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman’s countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.

In his early The Romantic Agony Mario Praz would tells us of this new darker romanticism, saying of “Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror…” that these lines of pleasure and pain are combined in one single impression. “The very objects which should induce a shudder – the livid face of the severed head, the squirming mass of vipers, the rigidity of death, the sinister light, the repulsive animals, the lizard, the bat – all these give rise to a new sense of beauty, a beauty imperiled and contaminated, a new thrill.”1

That moralist Max Nordau in his castigation of those followers of Charles Baudelaire, the Decadents brought forward his harsh condemnation of this night school saying it “reflects the character of its master, strangely distorted; it has become in some sort like a prism, which diffracts his light into elementary rays. His delusion of anxiety and his predilection for disease, death, and putrefaction (necrophilia), have fallen…”2 As for Baudelaire himself, he once stated of modernity:

. . . it is much easier to decide outright that everything about the garb
of an age is absolutely ugly than to devote oneself to the task of distilling
from it the mysterious element of beauty that it may contain, however
slight or minimal that element may be. By ‘modernity’ I mean the
ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half
is the eternal and the immutable.3

In his study of this heritage, Daniel Pick, in Faces of Degeneration would analyze the various threads of this notion of cultural decline into the ugly.3 Degeneration was seen as a general decline in humanity from a previous age as seen in poverty, disease, destitution, degradation, and misery in general. Degeneration was seen as the opposite of progress (which occupied an alternative though rejected view of history) and was expressed as a theory to explain crime, poverty, and the lack of moral character by various European writers and thinkers. In particular, the thinkers Morel, Lombroso, Maudsley, and Nordau wrote extensively on the issue of degeneration as it applied to crime and art. Other European figures focused on the horror of the crowd (as seen in various revolutions in particular the French Revolution) or the rise of Social Darwinism and eugenics. Authors also focused on the themes of degeneration in their novels including those which mentioned the issues of mental deterioration, psychoanalysis, and the decline brought about by entropy. These ideas occupied a prominent place on both the political left among various proposals for socialism and the right which often advocated eugenics (and which came to emerge in the Nazi terror). Pick’s book considers these ideas as they developed in European thought during this period and their role in the continuing history of the twentieth century as it would impact both Communism and Fascism, as well as the medical community by way of Psychoanalysis and Freud’s scientism among other traces.

The social, scientific, and industrial revolutions of the later nineteenth century brought with them a ferment of new artistic visions. An emphasis on scientific determinism and the depiction of reality led to the aesthetic movement known as Naturalism, which allowed the human condition to be presented in detached, objective terms, often with a minimum of moral judgment. This in turn was counterbalanced by more metaphorical modes of expression such as Symbolism, Decadence, and Aestheticism, which flourished in both literature and the visual arts, and tended to exalt subjective individual experience at the expense of straightforward depictions of nature and reality. Dismay at the fast pace of social and technological innovation led many adherents of these less realistic movements to reject faith in the new beginnings proclaimed by the voices of progress, and instead focus in an almost perverse way on the imagery of degeneration, artificiality, and ruin.4

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The Mundane World of Sex

The man who proposes a new faith is persecuted, until it is his turn to become a persecutor: truths begin by a conflict with the police and end by calling them in; for each absurdity we have suffered for degenerates into a legality, as every martyrdom ends in the paragraphs of the Law, in the insipidities of the calendar, or the nomenclature of the streets.

– Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay

In his interview Nicolas Winding Refn remarking on sex tells us  there’s something mundane about it, that “it’s something we all do – hopefully,” and “everyone has his own take on it”. Our obsession with porn, violence, necrophilia, rape, perversion, etc. is a way of moving the audience, the voyeuristic eye, the perverse need to observe the outer forms of sex, its visual cues and bodily imprint as if to quantify and measure its dark secrets. As Refn hones in on the key is not the direct visual participation that allows us to sensualize the filmic, but rather by “not showing sex, you’re actually much more sexy, because in not showing sex, you’re forcing the audience to have a very subliminal reaction to it, and everything becomes very specific [to them]”.

thM6HAWKstrawThe Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus  Bosch among the many bizarre and outlandish images, will find both a giant strawberry (a symbol of earthly pleasure in Medieval iconography; the fruit looks very tempting, but tastes of nothing), and a naked couple copulating within a glass vessel. What interests us about Bosch is not only his strange and beautiful painting, but also his supposed involvement with a heretical sect called the Adamites. This sect, according to de Perrodil’s Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes, saw it as their sacred duty to violate the laws which the Creator had given to man. This neatly encapsulates the Decadent impulse. They also wished to rehabilitate Adam and Eve by seeking inspiration from their conduct in the garden of Eden. Nudity and sexual games formed part of their ritual. The Adamites were of course condemned and brutally persecuted by vindictive ecclesiastical authorities.5

An 1893 poem by Albert Samain proclaims “the era of the Androgyne,” who mushrooms over culture like an antichrist. The sex-repelling Decadent androgyne is Apollonian because of its opposition to nature and its high mentalization, a western specialty. It is louring and enervated rather than radiant:

Musique – encens – parfums,… poisons,… littérature ! …
Les fleurs vibrent dans les jardins effervescents ;
Et l’Androgyne aux grands yeux verts phosphorescents
Fleurit au charnier d’or d’un monde en pourriture.

Aux apostats du Sexe, elle apporte en pâture,
Sous sa robe d’or vert aux joyaux bruissants,
Sa chair de vierge acide et ses spasmes grinçants
Et sa volupté maigre aiguisée en torture.

L’archet mord jusqu’au sang l’âme des violons,
L’art qui râle agité d’hystériques frissons
En la sentant venir a redressé l’échine…

Le stigmate ardent brûle aux fronts hallucinés.
Gloire aux sens ! Hosanna sur les nerfs forcenés.
L’Antechrist de la chair visite les damnés…

Voici, voici venir les temps de l’Androgyne.      

            And, my translation…

Music – incense – perfumes,… poisons,… literature! …
Flowers vibrate in the sparkling gardens;
And your large and androgynous
Phosphorescent green eyes flower
At the grave of gold of a world in decay.

To the apostates of sex, she brings in food,
Under her dress of green gold jewels rustling,
Acidic virgin of fleshy spasms squeaking
And his lean pleasure sharpened into torture.

The bow bites until the violins in the soul’s blood vibrate, an art –
General shaking of hysterical chills struggles
Coming in feelings of geometric defiance…

The frontal assault of ardent hallucinations burn in stigmatic splendor, 
Glory to the senses! Hosanna to the federalists nerves.
The Antichrist of the flesh visits the damned…

Behold, here comes the time of the Androgyny.

lsSidonie-Gabrielle Colette or just – Colette calls this type of androgyne “anxious and veiled,” eternally sad, trailing “its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears.”

Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo (written in 1888 and published in 1908), in which the philosopher called himself “a decadent,” opens with a biographical section that resembles a psycho-medical case study of his delicate, morbid nature and physical ailments. The Case of Wagner (1888) treats degeneration and decadence as instantiations of a single discourse: “[T]he change of art into histrionics,” wrote Nietzsche, “is no less an expression of physiological degeneration (more precisely, a form of hystericism) than every single corruption and infirmity of the art inaugurated by Wagner.” He preceded this comment with the claim that Wagner is a decadent, “the modern artist par excellence,” embodying modernity’s sickness. Calling Wagner a “neurosis,” he wrote, “[P]erhaps nothing is better known today, at least nothing has been better studied, than the Protean character of degeneration that here conceals itself in the chrysalis of art and artist.”6 As Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, degeneration “explained how a heredity that was burdened with various maladies ([. . .] organic, functional, or psychical) ended by producing a sexual pervert.”7

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Late Romanticism: The Gothic Art of Darkness

David Punter in his excellent study The Literature of Pity reminds us that there is a great deal that could be said about the relations between pity and the dark worlds of Gothicism; indeed, “a radical view would suggest that the longstanding association between terror and Gothic has been in part a cover story which places us as readers in positions of power – identifying, for example, with the hero/villain – rather than allowing us to share in the no doubt pitiable plight of the victim/heroine”(107).8

This sense of the voyeuristic element of sex and power comes out in the interview of Refn when he speaks of the stereotyping of porn and violence coupled with the femme fatale, telling us “there is still a very heavily-stereotyped view about women and violence. It’s generally either very pornographic, where it’s sexualizing an act of a violent nature: either by degrading it, or by worshipping it, but in either case purely from a male perspective. And then there is the other version, which is a lot more complicated — that women can be vicious to women, and what’s so wrong with showing that? Because there’s nothing sexual in that viciousness.”

Janey Place writes that ‘[t]he dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture’ (1980, p. 35). The conspicuousness of the femme fatale in Western culture has waxed and waned; she features heavily in the tragic drama of the early seventeenth century and was something of an obsession for a number of poets and novelists in the nineteenth century and in popular art in fin de siècle France. She became ubiquitous in Hollywood film noir of the 1940s and 1950s, the genre with which the term femme fatale is most closely associated, as well as the neo-noir of the late 1980s and early 1990s.9

femme_fataleWoman as fatal to man has been the primary image in men’s discourse for two-thousand years or more. The more nature is beaten back in the west, the more the femme fatale reappears, as a return of the repressed. As Camille Paglia will remark, “She is the spectre of the west’s bad conscience about nature. She is the moral ambiguity of nature, a malevolent moon that keeps breaking through our fog of hopeful sentiment.”10 The femme fatale became the secret fear men had of women and the natural both within themselves and in nature, she would incarnate that dark power of both the unconscious and the externality of deterministic natural process that men in their religious and sacred mythologies had tried, vainly to surmount through at first philosophy by way of Platonic beauty or the Idea, a notion of the perfect world, a world beyond our delusional one; and, secondly, through the endless world of the grotesque, macabre, and bitter satires from Juvenal to Swift and beyond. With the Romantics things would bifurcate into the aesthetic of Beauty and of Terror, the sublime would seek transcendence or immanent revelation and excess (transgression). One might say that this tradition as a whole in which the path of light and that of darkness lead to a ‘literature of narcissism’. As Refn who directed this film with his daughter in mind, says:

We live in a society where we’re constantly being bombarded by the negativity of the future, the negativity of the digital revolution, the negativity of youth being self-absorbed — like my parents weren’t? I mean, they were hippies! So I think, well, my daughter will grow up into this world of amazing opportunities. And maybe the final frontier is no longer treating narcissism as a taboo, but — on the contrary — celebrating it as a natural evolution of the human psyche.

As Paglia would say, “The femme fatale is one of the refinements of female narcissism, of the ambivalent self-directedness that is completed by the birth of a child or by the conversion of spouse or lover into child. (ibid., 14)” Returning to the image of the Medusa Paglia suggests that “Medusa’s snaky hair is also the writhing vegetable growth of nature. Her hideous grimace is men’s fear of the laughter of women. She that gives life also blocks the way to freedom.” (ibid., 14)  The Divine Marquee de Sade once suggested that we have the right to thwart nature’s procreative compulsions, through sodomy or abortion. Paglia would go so far as to affirm that “male homosexuality may be the most valorous of attempts to evade the femme fatale and to defeat nature” (14-15). Suggesting that male homosexuals by turning away from the Medusan mother, whether in honor or detestation of her, had become one of the “great forgers of absolutist western identity” (15).

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Novalis and the Kiss of Death: A Poetics of the Baneful

The poet Novalis would develop a complete aestheticism of the voluptuosity, a secret and forbidden world of the sensuous and the mundane held within a an enclosure of the excess of the natural by way of a construction of the artificial. For Novalis himself initiates his account of the human body with the lips and the entire system of the mouth a complex system in which nourishment, elimination, sexuality, and speech are interrelated indeed, by an “anastomosis of discursive individuals” (2: 350). The system of the mouth subtends a “theory of voluptuosity”; yet it is also subject to the dire forces of nature. Nature, characterized by the expansive force of eros, is nevertheless often described in the notebooks in the way a voice in The Apprentices at Saïs describes it, namely, as “a terrifying death-mill,” ”a frightful, rapacious power,” “a realm of voracity and the wildest excess, an immensity pregnant with misery.” Novalis’s theory of voluptuosity culminates in a “poetics of the baneful.” The first kiss is always a kiss of death and the first thing to die is the concept of “firstness,” inasmuch as thaumaturgic idealism does not conjure up a theory of origins.11

Strangely, this poetics of the baneful and malignant would according to Novalis possibly bring about a metamorphosis within the human species and their culture is only we learned love our “illness or pain”:

Perhaps a similar metamorphosis would occur if human beings could come to love what is baneful in the world the moment a human being began to love its illness or pain, the most stimulating voluptuosity would lie in its arms the summit of positive pleasure would permeate it. Could not illness be a means to a higher synthesis the more horrific the pain, the higher the pleasure concealed within it. (Harmony.) Every illness is perhaps the necessary commencement of the more intense conjunction of two creatures the necessary beginning of love. Enthusiasm for illnesses and pains. Death a closer conjunction of lovers. (Krell, 61).

As the neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, “Pain is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to an injury.”12 The notion of pain, self-inflicted or other inflicted, masochism or sadism is encrusted in human memory, violence, and the sacred:

Pain is not a simple matter: There is an enormous difference between the unwanted pain of a cancer patient or victim of a car crash, and the voluntary and modulated self-hurting of a religious practitioner. Religious pain, secular or institutional, produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person’s bond with the divine and with other persons. Of course, since not all pain is voluntary or self-inflicted, one mystery of the religious life is how unwanted suffering can become transformed into sacred pain. (Glucklich, 6)

As Ariel Glucklich will suggest the task of sacred pain is to transform destructive or disintegrative suffering into a positive religious or secular, psychological mechanism for reintegration within a more deeply valued level of reality than individual existence. (Glucklich, 6) Georges Bataille who sought the intimacy of ecstasy within a secular or immanent mysticism was once gifted with some photographs of a Chinese man undergoing the lingchi method of torture and execution, in which flesh, organs, and limbs are slowly sliced from the still-living victim until he succumbs—“death by a thousand cuts.” Bataille meditated upon this “insane” and “shocking” image of “pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable,” with the fervency of a monk contemplating the crucifi ed body of Christ. The meditation elicited an ambivalent spiritual convulsion whose reverberations carried into Bataille’s final days.13

In Inner Experience, Bataille sketches a set of practices that foster aimlessness by developing a particular kind of relationship to an unknown—but desirable—object. Bataille wants a project that will undo project, a program with the intention of dissolving intentionality, for the purpose of destroying purposiveness. In the process of discovering a secular form of jouissance Bataille will involve intimacy and  a “jouissance of otherness” distinct from masochistic jouissance, a jouissance that “owes nothing to the death drive.” (NE, 65) As Biles and Brintnall maintain this jouissance “has as its precondition the stripping away of the self” and can be described as an “ascetic . . . practice,” insisting that it is not masochistic and, in fact, requires, as an additional precondition, “a loss of all that gives us pleasure and pain in our negotiable exchanges with the world.” (ibid., 65)

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The Beauty of Decadence

I think “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future. I’m not critiquing, nor validating. I think you have to accept it in order to examine it. But surely our obsession with beauty is only going to increase. And longevity will only continue to shrink in our perception of beauty, and the ideal will continue to get younger. Those are facts. The question is, how do we deal with it?

-Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon an Interview

Umberto Eco will align the concept of the Beautiful with the Good tracing it back to that Platonic world of perfection and the real, saying,

‘Beautiful’—together with ‘graceful’ and ‘pretty’, or ‘sublime’, ‘marvellous’, Lucera, Museo Civico ‘ superb’ and similar expressions—is an adjective that we often employ to indicate something that we like. In this sense, it seems that what is beautiful is the same as what is good, and in fact in various historical periods there was a close link between the Beautiful and the Good.14 Notions of the Sublime have been with us at least since Longinus if not before. Harold Bloom, quoting Thomas Weiskel’s The Romantic Sublime relates:

The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human— God or the gods, the daemon or Nature— is matter for great disagreement. What, if anything, defines the range of the human is scarcely less sure.15

But is there an inverse to this? What of the grotesque, the ugly, the macabre? Is there a non-teleological and immanent (non-transcendent) form of the Sublime? Or, is this as some suggest rather the realm of the Ridiculous and Comic? For Baudelaire the arch-decadent would harbor the notion that nature is a living temple where confused words would sometimes slip forth from the mute stones releasing the symbolic confusion of human worlds, thereby breaking the Law of custom and habit and freeing the revelations that had been lying imprisoned within the depths of abysses and evil. For Arthur Rimbaud the visionary decadent must undergo a “lengthy, immense, and rational dissolution of the senses,” and would say in his A Season in Hell:

One evening, I seated Beauty on my knees.
– And I found her bitter.
– And I railed against her. …

I succeeded in erasing from my mind all human hope. Upon every joy, in order to strangle it, I made the muffled leap of the wild beast.16

Bataille in Erotism: Death and Sensuality (City Lights, 1986) would report

In  sacrifice, the victim is chosen so that its perfection shall give  point  to the full  brutality of  death. Human  beauty, in the union  of  bodies, shows the contrast  between the purest aspect  of  mankind and the hideous animal quality of the sexual organs. The  paradox  of  ugliness  and  beauty  in eroticism  is  strikingly expressed  by  Leonardo  da  Vinci  in his Notebooks:

“The  act  of  coition  and the  members employed are so ugly that  but for the beauty of the faces, the adornments  of  their partners and the  frantic urge,  Nature would lose the  human race.”

Leonardo does not see that the charm of a fair face or  fine clothes is effective  in that  that fair  face  promises  what  clothes  conceal.  The face and its beauty must  be  profaned, first  by  uncovering the woman’s secret  parts, and then  by  putting the male organ into them. (73).

Ultimately for Bataille Beauty’s cardinal importance in contrast to ugliness is that ugliness ‘cannot be spoiled‘, and to despoil is the essence of  eroticism. “Humanity implies  the  taboos, and  in  eroticism it and they are transgressed. Humanity is transgressed, profaned and besmirched. The  greater the  beauty, the more it is  befouled.” (73). So that when the director of The Neon Demon as quoted above states that “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future, we understand that as in Bataille that without Beauty there would be an end to desire and jouissance, that pleasureable pain of sacrifice and an eroticism that gives us the degradation of immanent corruption and evil bliss. The allurements of seduction, the energia of the abyssal darkness, the fleshy excess that invades us from within and without all fold us in a world of delusionary delirium, eroticism and death without end… an artificial paradise and a resplendent inferno of desire.

Laughter may not show respect but it does show horror.

-Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality

But you know all this, my sweet Beauty. Our only hope is that our present purgatory will come to an end one day: we rub along with it as best we can. What else is left to us? … And as Gozzi said, “We cannot be always laughing…”

-Garielle Wittkop, Murder Most Serene


  1. Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Meridian; Reprint Edition edition (1956)
  2. Nordau, Max. Degeneration. University of Nebraska Press; Reprinted edition (November 1, 1993)
  3. Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-1918 (Ideas in Context). Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (July 30, 1993)
  4. Marja Harmanmaa and Christopher Nissen. Decadence, Degeneration, and the End: Studies in the European Fin de Siecle. Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (November 19, 2014)
  5. Medlar Lucan. The Decadent Gardner (Kindle Locations 219-227). Dedalus. Kindle Edition.
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche. transl. Walter Kaufmann. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Vintage; Reissue edition (December 17, 1989)
  7. Foucault, History of Sexuality, 1:118.
  8. Punter, David. The Literature of Pity. Edinburgh University Press; 1 edition (April 30, 2014)
  9. Simkin, S. Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: From Pandora’s Box to Amanda Knox. Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (October 28, 2014)
  10. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 13). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  11. David Farrell Krell . Contagion: Sexuality, Disease, and Death in German Idealism and Romanticism (Studies in Continental Thought).  Indiana University Press (March 22, 1998)
  12. Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (p. 87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  13. Jeremy Biles,Kent Brintnall (Editors). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (FUP)  Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
  14. Eco, Umberto. History of Beauty. Rizzoli; Reprint edition (September 21, 2010) (p. 7)
  15. Bloom, Harold. The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (Kindle Locations 161-163). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  16. Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell and The Illuminations (Kindle Locations 373-374). Kindle Edition.

Monstrous Existence: Icon of Creativity and Destruction

.‘Oh Mother’  – Kali-Ma, Queen of Life and Death: dance upon my ashen bones, dine upon my entrails, feed upon my darkest soul!
…..– Hymn to Night & Time

Smash the mirror: it’s a lie what you tell yourself, the world is invisible and waiting. Let the darkness seep in and envelop you. The world of light you see around you is but the flotsam and jetsam, a drift of rainbow plumage on a sea of energy that seeks its daemonic day in the Sun.

Enter your melancholia as if it were your lover’s body; and like a lover savor its dark passions, then like a Mantis slay it, be done with it, and eat it alive till there is nothing of melancholy left but only the power of your dread life.

Think on Black Kali-ma, an image of the fierce life of creative destruction that is this universe – Time’s darkest face and image: a poetic icon of all that exists in its most monstrous form and formlessness, – being and becoming, the turning plover of the ancient milky way: the sea of milk and pure energia; the ever-turning wheel of death and becoming, the distilling wisdom of tens of billions of years living in the circle of fire at the center of hell: Time’s dark dominion that shapes the powers of all things, good or ill. The Iron Prison within which we circulate like algorithms forged in the electronic void. Broken vessels of some former age of silence wherein the collapse of all being brought forth the bursting flames of being like the breath of a great dragon, only to falter in the extremity of Night’s dark and impenetrable belly…

Seek out the graveyards of ancient fools of time, sit on the headstones of forgotten masters of despair, laugh at the impossibility of your monstrous existence. Then savor its bittersweet tang, and enter into your dark jouissance!


The Kālikāhṛdaya says:

‘I worship Kālī the Destructress of Kāla the Shining One, who is the Bīja Krīm who is Kāma who is beyond Kāla and who is Dakṣinakālikā.’ Gandharva-Tantra says: ‘Hrīm, I bow to Mahādevī who is Turīya and Brahman. He who remembers Her does not sink in the ocean of existence.’ Candī says: ‘Oh Thou whose Body is pure Energia who hast three divine eyes, who weareth the crescent moon, to Thee I bow for the attainment of all Evil.’

Georges Bataille, Nick Land: Base Materialism, Aberrant Thought, and the Archontes

 

In his essay Base Materialism and Gnosticism Georges Bataille will give a rather different reading of our ancient spiritual systems: “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.”

The notion that matter is not dead as most of our philosophical and scientific thinkers thought up till the introduction of quantum theory, along with this notion that rather than some eternal realm of Ideas, some Platonic acosmic world of archetypal powers superior to our Cosmos, another view onto things might be: a truth that matter harbored within its immanent fold a strange and energetic, even monstrous and daemonic source of intelligence and creative action never entered these ancient systems of philosophy. In fact, as Bataille would remark: “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… 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. It is possible in all freedom to be a plaything of evil if evil itself does not have to answer before God”.

Bataille has also come to the conclusion that philosophy, and even the sciences should not concern itself with Being or the Science of Being, Ontology: “Thus it appears – all things considered – that Gnosticism, in its psychological process, is not so different from present-day materialism, I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” So that against Kant and all his inheritors matter would no longer be reduced to ontology, nor even to the epistemic view onto “being” or “phenomena” as if these were the attributes and core of matter, Being’s Kingdom. No. As he’d suggest,

Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations. But the psychological process brought to light by Gnosticism had the same impact: it was a question of disconcerting the human spirit and idealism before something base, to the extent that one recognized the helplessness of superior principles.1

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The Unexpected Visitant

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Tonight she came like a soft light pooling among shadows,
a moon born music from within,
a dance in the depths, a beguiling.

My body awakened, light and exuberant;
a subtle fire stirring in my heart,
an energy – a quickening.

One pushes to the edge of things for so long one forgets
the tension of release, the jubilation of despair turned vibrant;
a serenity of darkness that sends one into a voluptuous festival.

If I wander here now it’s for the sheer reason that insomnia
lifted me from my lethargic indifference, gave me back
a natural capacity for surprise, a message from the void.

What does one do during such a transformation?
No longer bound to some religious or metaphysical tale of wonders
one seeks allowance for that which is happening to happen.

The Word that would be word no longer assures us of this change.
Is this the inhuman we’ve been seeking all along? A metamorphosis
from darkness to darkness, a visitation breaking from the surrounding stillness?

The ancients would’ve applied a narrative to it, given a mask to its strangeness;
but now we seem at a loss, unfounded in our new born knowledge.
It is is all one can say; the fruit thereof is one’s life. A certain jouissance


– Steven Craig Hickman ©2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.