“The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” — don Juan, from Carlos Castaneda
“The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive” — (ibid.)
“What does not kill me makes me stronger” — Nietzsche
Many moons ago, in the pages of the old Dark Age Blog, I composed a piece about the human situation — and not just the human situation — as a matter of being stuck between “the hammer of God and the anvil of the Earth”, much like the situation of Job in the Old Testament. This position is what is called “suffering”, and is called in Buddhism “dukkha“.
I’ve discovered that much of what goes by the name “atheism” is not really based upon reasoned consideration, but on resentment of this situation. This struck me as particularly true of the militant atheism of Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens pointed to the evils of human history and life’s sufferings as proof that there is no benevolent God. Denial thus becomes an act of revenge, and atheism more like a curse hurled by the impotent wallowing in human self-pity against all that is seemingly omnipotent in relation to the weakness, nakedness, and exposure of the individual.
But why was this “God” expected to be like Santa Claus, dispensing blessings and curses, presents or lumps of coal? There is something very childish in such conceptions of the divine in terms of supreme Fatherhood (or Motherhood for that matter). William Blake mocked such a notion of God by naming him “Nobodaddy.” Nietzsche did us a great favour in pronouncing the death of God, for it clears the deck (hopefully) for a more mature relationship between the human and that which is named “God”, which is existence itself.
It is claimed that the universe is hostile to life, or at least as being a machine that is coldly and completely indifferent to life. That mood was building up long before Nietzsche perceived its meaning as “death of God”
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach“)
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (Shakespeare, MacBeth).
Bewilderment at existence — perplexity in the face of existence — such is expressed in these lines. In MacBeth’s famous lines, even an anticipation of the absurd as a theme of contemporary life. Nietzsche did not invent the death of God. He had already perceived it in the poets and dramatists of his day, and recognised it as incipient nihilism. Bewilderment is the appropriate word for this — to be be-wildered is to be returned to wilderness, without orientation, without known values as sign-posts and landmarks, to be lost in the deep dark forest of existence.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
Our bewilderment is a deconstruction of values that no longer serve as reliable cardinal points in the deep dark forest of existence. Nietzsche’s “death of God” and the “stare into the abyss” belong to this bewilderment, and goes by the name “nihilism” and the “absurd” (which is the abyss-mal). Along with Nietzsche’s death of God, also, is what Erich Kahler refers to, in The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transformation of Man, as the contemporary “destruction” or “loss of the human form”. Death of God and loss of the human form are mutually entangled events, and where most see this as nihilism, the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser also sees this movement as what he calls “an essential restructuration” of the human psyche and of the definition of “human” — the anguished and painful emergence of a new structure of consciousness (The Ever-Present Origin). The loss of definition is also a loss of boundaries and limits. As “an essential restructuration” (Gebser) the “destruction of the human form” (Kahler) is both a death and a resurrection, Void and Genesis; coincidentia oppositorum. As Schiller once put it, “in today walks tomorrow”, and this gives our “times” (plural) their character of paradox, ambiguity, and contradiction — strife, stress, tension, conflict, upheaval and down-throw together or, as Heraclitus once put it — “the road upwards and the road downwards are the same”.
In these times, particularly, the sense that the universe is indifferent or, in fact, hostile to life seems particularly pronounced. We even fret and become anxious about our safety and security from rogue asteroids as much as rogue viruses, rogue states, and each other. We perceive ourselves surrounded and besieged by all kinds of animate and inanimate existential threats.
But this is only the projected image of our own psychic disintegration and incoherence, which is Kahler’s meaning in describing the seminal event of our time as destruction of the human form.
Is the universe hostile to life? If it were true, be assured that life here would not exist at all. What is experienced as hostility is, in fact, a continuous challenge issued toward living or organic forms to transcend themselves — a pressure exerted on life without which life would not evolve but would stagnate, decay, and wither away. Genesis has never stopped, really. If a rough piece of gold or silver had awareness, it might complain about and resent the hammer blows of the jeweller as being proof of the jeweller’s hostility towards gold and silver. Hence don Juan (and Nietzsche’s) remarks about the average man as interpreting life in terms of blessing and curse (or good and evil), whereas the warrior accepts everything as a challenge that compels him or her to transcend himself or herself. The practice of self-overcoming is godlike in the sense that one becomes consciously identified with the evolutionary process itself, and directs it instead of being directed by it, or, as don Juan put it, feeling as if one were blown about like a dry leaf by a strong wind. In Nietzsche’s case, his mood in facing adversity or good fortune both was “I willed it so”.
Rosenstock-Huessy once said that “man is God’s poem”, and the last lines have yet to be written. But, who knows? Perhaps God might be more like a Jeweller.