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.