Pascal and the Big Empty

“The silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me”, wrote Pascal. But Pascal was confused. It is not the infinite spaces that he feared but the emptiness of time that he feared. What he means by “Nothingness” is this emptiness of time. When Pascal writes that man is a finite and “mean” creature existing between the two abysses of Infinity and Nothing, he means “between” Infinite space and the emptiness of time.

Pascal acquired the reputation of being a Christian “mystic” because of this? He fled from the abysses of Infinity and Nothingness — that is to say, space and time — into the safe spaces and times of a mortal life. Most especially, he fled the Big Empty into a particularly dogmatic form of Christianity because it promised relief from the emptiness in the “fullness of time”.

If Pascal was a “mystic”, then so are we all. Pascal believed that as ordinary men and women our lives were far removed from the extremes of Infinity and Nothingness, which represented the boundary states of existence. 1 and 0 in binary terms. That is not true. There is no real “distance” between 0 and 1. Pascal believed that men and women lived out their ordinary lives in blessed incomprehension, oblivious to the reality of Infinity and Nothing. That is not true either. We simply censor it out because we do know it. We do not live our lives “between” this double infinity or the “two abysses”. We are this double infinity. We are the frightful intersection of 0 and 1, of the Nothing and the All.

The emptiness of time haunts us. We call it “gnawing emptiness” as if we were its food and were being eaten and consumed by it. Jean Gebser refers to this as our “anxiety” or “bad conscience” about time. So frightful is the emptiness of time that we seek refuge from it in drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, workaholism, or in any “doing” and busy-ness that will take our minds of it. Pascal’s “pensées” — his “thoughts” — were this for Pascal. They were his little “doings”. They served the same function for Pascal as drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes do for others. Weaving, ducking, dodging the gnawing emptiness. We feel the emptiness of time as ennui. Ennui is our experience of the Big Empty.

Ennui is a great French term for this. It’s more than just “boredom”. It’s the sense of malaise and dread that arises when one senses the utter emptiness of time, the breath of the Big Empty, the Great Nothingness, the Void, the Abyss. “Nothing comes from nothing, yet God created the world from Nothing.” This — the emptiness of time — is what afrighted Pascal and filled him with dread. He took refuge from this in his “thoughts” as another seeks refuge in dogmas, drugs, stimulants, or “doings”.  It is because we know and fear the emptiness of time that we “pass time”, “do time”, “kill time”, “fill time”, and God knows what else we do to avoid facing the emptiness of time. Most of Pascal’s pensées are trite because they aren’t intended to disclose truths but to avoid them. They are his consolations.

Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot is also about the emptiness of time and the dreadful wait for time to be fulfilled. It never arrives. The play ends as it began, in ennui. It begins with the Estragon’s “Nothing to be done”. It ends the same way. There is no progression from the first nothing to the last.

Yet, says Rumi, “emptiness is what your soul wants” — the emptiness that terrifies the ego-consciousness.

What, then, is the Big Empty — the Great Nothingness that so terrifies us that we take refuge from it in “doings” of all kinds? We fill the emptiness and abyss of time with our daily doings because we “know” the emptiness of time and the Great Nothing. We fear it as the loss of self and of the boundaries of the self, for it is death in disguise. We fear the emptiness of time because we fear that this emptiness — the Great Nothingness — will penetrate our lives and dissolve us. “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you”, wrote Nietzsche. And from that, Pascal fled in terror and closed himself up in pensiveness. His pensées were his shields against reality and the true emptiness of time.

Did Pascal lack courage for the truth? Is that what makes Pascal an antithetical type to a Rumi, a Nietzsche, a William Blake? Why is “fearlessness” and a warrior’s spirit — a certain self-abandon — a requirement for the true Bodhisattva? It is for the same reasons that Castaneda was required to develop “shields” and a highly disciplined life for his struggle with “infinity” — his famous and inconceivable “leap into the abyss”.

I have news for you. Every single one of us is poised upon the edge of that same abyss. That abyss is infinity, the boundless. And we respond to that either in the manner of a Pascal, or in the manner of a Blake or Rumi.

Rumi: rather than flee the Big Empty, he embraced it as himself. He allowed it to gnaw him, as it were. What did he discover? What was left after all the gnawing is what time and death could not consume. It was his “true self”. That the emptiness of time, the thing that horrifies us, is not what it seems. It is the presence of the infinite in the midst of time. The very thing we have feared is that which we are and which sustains us. “The Being of the world is not in the world”, Rumi writes. “Non-Being is not what it seems”.

The Big Empty is the same as Blake’s “eternity in the hour” and the “infinite” in all things. The same, in effect, as what Buddhists call “the empty mirror”. The very thing we fear is what we are. The Big Empty from which we flee is the incomprehensible face of the formless — infinite and eternal — that we are in the very midst of our mortal and finite lives in space and time.

It’s that perception that gives rise to “Olympian laughter”. It’s one of my favourite Zen sayings,

Ten years in the forest dreaming
Now on the lakeshore
Laughing a new laugh.

Also, in the gospel according to Christ, the end of time and the fullness of time are treated as the same. That laughter is the laughter of the soul that has realised that “nirvana and samsara are the same”. The laughter is the ironic laughter of the man or woman who realises that what they have fled from in life is the very thing towards which they were fleeing all along.

Every moment we face the Big Empty. And every moment we resist it. We resist it by indulging in some “doing”; some distraction or another. But if we allowed the Big Empty to penetrate us, we would come to realise what it is — the silence of the dawn before the beginnings of time. It is the presence of eternity in time. It is the “ever-present origin” itself. The coincidentia oppositorum.

Is that what William Irwin Thompson means when he says that the present changes in human consciousness are the movement from “ego consciousness” to “the Daimon”? What is the Daimon after all? A god. A “divine power”. It is Nietzsche’s “overman”, now become strong enough for the stare of the abyss. It is Blake’s “Albion”, dancing his “dance of Eternal Death” after rising from “the dark Satanic mill” where he laboured with slaves. It is Jean Gebser’s “integral consciousness” that has disclosed the secret of “time-freedom”. It is Aurobindo’s “supramental consciousness”. It is also called “Buddha Mind” and “Christ consciousness”. It is Rumi’s man who has spit out the black snake in the poem “Jesus on a Lean Donkey“.

Nietzsche was mightily impressed with that poem by Rumi. He “borrowed” it as the theme of his Zarathustra, in the chapter called “The Vision and the Enigma”.

We might say that, as the ego-consciousness emerged in man’s struggle with space and infinity, the Daimon emerges as this for man’s struggle with time and eternity, for which reason Nietzsche’s pre-amble to “the Vision and the Enigma” opens with his famous “eternal recurrence of same” and the intellectual struggle with the dwarf about the meaning of time. The dwarf is the ego-consciousness.



10 responses to “Pascal and the Big Empty”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Of course, the question arises. If this “Daimon” is the next development of the human consciousness (or call it what you will, “integral consciousness”, “supramental consciousness”, “transhuman”, etc), how does one recognise it as such? Indeed, what evidence is there at all for this “emanation” (Thompson) or “irruption” (Gebser and Aurobindo) or the beginning of a “New Age” (Blake)?

    Gebser is very vague on this. He is better at illuminating the salient features of the old structures of consciousness than those of the new “integral”.

    Of course, the emergence of new “holistic” systems of thought and logic and the refocus of our attention from space to time could be a foreshadowing of this “irruption”, as well as our intense interest now in “the unconscious” and in the illumination of the unconscious, in “self-realisation” etc.

    But the real test of the reality of the “Daimon” is the sudden “diaphaneity” of the world, in Gebser’s terms. That is to say, the evident opacity of the world gives way to transparency or translucency and “the doors of perception” are opened. Until this experience of “diaphaneity” of the world occurs widely, one can hardly speak of “new consciousness” or of a “new age” as a common evolutionary destiny or contemporary event.

    The validity of the Daimon rests solely upon the sudden diaphaneity of the world.

    • crowdog1 says :

      I think what you say is very much in line with how Krishnamurti felt. It does not exist to mention until the moment the limits of the old are exploded. So he paid attention only to exposing the limits, and left all metaphysical speculation off the table.

  2. crowdog1 says :

    Beautiful. I have no idea how Beckett really stood with regard to that infinity. My guess is he wrestled with it. But I relate to what Beckett wrote as if it were an act of tremendous courage. Because he seems to show us the cowardice of retreat without retreating from the vision. Without offering the distractions of hope, salvation. In his stories it’s always only thought creating a hell for itself. The comedy seems to hinge on this transparency, this absurdity. Reading it from that angle, the phrase “nothing can be done” seems to act as a toggle or swivel point between despair and freedom. One can read the sentence as merely despair. Or one can read the sentence as an insight into the limits of thought. We can’t DO anything, we can’t escape. And that’s the very resolution itself. Because the entire hell rises from DOINGS, and escapes. Anyways that’s how I read it. And I feel justified, as I say, particularly in light of The Unnameable, because one can’t delve that far into the reflex doings of despair without inspired courage, or, more likely, simply tripping upon the unnameable (ungraspable, unDOable) diaphanous transformation.

    • Scott Preston says :

      It might be said that Vladimir and Estragon are living in “Pascal Time” — the twixt and tween the two abysses, which begins in Nothing and ends in the Indeterminate.

      I’ve read it described as “the most famous play of the 20th century”. Oodles of commentaries have been written about it, so there’s something about it and its sense of time that seems to resonate very deeply with people.

      There’s something quite odd (one might even say “uncanny”) about this in connection with Fukuyama’s “end of history” and also Gebser’s “time-freedom” of the integral consciousness. I’m presently meditating on the peculiar parallelism of these two very different conceptions of the same thing and how they might relate to the experience of time in Waiting for Godot.

      It’s about the irruption of time into consciousness. But the way Fukuyama handles this is very, very different from how Gebser handles the irruption of time. So much so that I’m compelled to recognise that Fukuyama’s “mental time” is the “frozen” time of the ego-nature, while Gebser’s “atemporal” idea of “time-freedom” is the time of the Daimon.

      Time is the key here, I believe. If I can show in what way Fukuyama’s “end of history” is only the distorted “mental time” of the ego-nature (Pascal Time, as it were), while Gebser’s “atemporal” conception of time as “time-freedom” belongs to “integral consciousness”, then we can establish that, indeed, the “Daimon” is the incipient reality of the new, emergent consciousness, able to transfigure time itself, as the ego-consciousness once transfigured space.

      It’s in this transfiguration of time as “diaphaneity” that the Daimon will be proved as the new “mutation”.

      This author, commenting on Gebser’s understanding of “time-freedom”, calls it “atemporal creativity”

      • Scott Preston says :

        Let me put the foregoing another way….

        It is in the intellectual and spiritual struggle with time that the truth of the Daimon will be proved or disproved, and that it will supercede the ego-consciousness. Since the discovery of time as “the fourth dimension”, time has become for us a challenge to be met. “Waiting for Godot” is very time-conscious and part of that challenge of time, as is Fukuyama’s “end of history” too.

        Therefore, any signs of a true “mutation” in consciousness will occur as the transfigurations of time. So, it is to this struggle with time that we must look for signs of the incipient mutation — that is to say, for evidence of the movement from ego-consciousness structure to William Irwin Thompson’s fourfold “Daimon” or Gebser’s “integral consciousness”.

        Time is the key.

        • crowdog1 says :

          OK. Yes, I see Waiting for Godot as reflecting the frozen time of our still-dominant Zeitgeist. Maybe the play is “important” because it brings this frozen state to consciousness, makes us peculiarly, ridiculously aware of its limitations. For me it did. The difference between a Fukuyama and a Beckett in this case being the former works to extend the freeze in some sense; and the latter exposes the freeze to the heat of awareness.

          By the way, have you ever read the conversations between Bohm and K called “The Ending of Time”? Here:

          • Scott Preston says :

            Thanks for the link to the Bohm-Krishnamurti dialogues. I read the first chapter. Evidently, they are diving for the meaning of the “ever-present origin” and taking a bloody roundabout route to get there. But it is where the first dialogue ends.

            It will be interesting to see where they go from there over the next couple of dialogues.

            • crowdog1 says :

              Krishnamurti is doing something a little hard to see right off the bat. He’s not really trying to come up with a way of “saying” or describing the nature of things. He’s not driving at a conceptual clarity. He’s driving directly at irruption. This means at times the dialogue can seem very indirect from one angle. Because the more articulate we get, the more conceptual the understanding tends to be. From another angle, he seems very direct indeed.

  3. Eric Hiatt says :

    I recently came to the realizations in this post, and the most relief I’ve ever felt is seeing how many others had already figured it out.

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