The Horror and the Wonder

“In times of peace”, wrote Nietzsche, “a warrior goes to war against himself.” What Nietzsche means by that is somewhat fleshed out by another of Nietzsche’s aphorisms. “It’s not the courage of one’s convictions that counts, but the courage to attack one’s convictions that counts.” This is the true spirit of what is called both “crusade” and “jihad” and what Carlos Castaneda’s teacher, don Juan, referred to as the art and mood of the warrior. One should not confuse the stupid, imbecilities of history and human nature that are usually associated with those words with their actual spiritual meaning and content. It means, self-overcoming.

Long before the more secular and mundane popes perverted its meaning, St. Anastasius had already interpreted “crusade” properly as “taking the cross into one’s heart”, bearing in mind that the cross is a mandala, the image of a holon. Similarly, what we might call the “spiritual” significance of Sharia (or equivalently “the way of the cross”) has nothing to do with the legalistic formulas and frameworks (in fact, chains) that it became. The word “sharia” is a marvelous metaphor. It refers to “a path that leads through the desert to water”, and that corresponds to what Castaneda’s teacher, don Juan, called “a path with heart”. It is also equivalent to what Nietzsche called his “formula for happiness” — “a straight line… and a goal.”

Now, we are compelled by these facts to recognise that there is what we might call a spiritual mode of perception and understanding and what we might call a mundane (or “sensate”) mode of perception and understanding. In that respect, dualisms like “spirit” and “matter” or “ideal” and “material” or “transcendent” or “immanent” really have nothing to do with the truth of reality, but arise from this  double mode of perception or the structure of consciousness. A man like William Blake spent virtually all his life in the spiritual mode. This is what is meant when he writes in A Vision of the Last Judgement,

Error is created. Truth is eternal. Error, or Creation, will be Burned up, & then, & not till Then, Truth or Eternity will appear. It is Burnt up the Moment Men cease to behold it. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is hindrance & not Action; it is as the dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. “What,” it will be Question’d, “When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, `Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative eye any more than I would Question a window concerning a Sight. I look thro’ it & not with it.

Similarly, when Nietzsche writes that his “unique” ability “to switch foreground and background perspectives” is the basis of his wisdom, this is also what is meant. Nietzsche also had the ability to switch between the spiritual mode of perception and the mundane mode of perception, and this enabled him to formulate his “life philosophy” of “the revaluation of values”. This is the difference between “insight” and just “sight”. We are polar beings (like the “batteries” in The Matrix) but too many people get stuck in one pole exclusively, which is the narcissistic mode of consciousness or what we call “egoism”, or what Castaneda’s don Juan called “the tonal”.

Because Nietzsche knew the difference between the spiritual mode of perception and the mundane mode, he could anticipate that his philosophy, particularly of the “overman”, would be misconstrued and distorted, as indeed it was and has been. As he put it, he was not under any illusions, and knew that “some day something terrible will be associated with my name”, as indeed has come to pass. The distortions of Nietzsche’s meaning are sometimes referred to as “vulgar Nietzscheanism”, or what I’ve been referring to as the “mundane”. Nietzsche himself made a distinction between the “noble” and the “ignoble” modes, which for all intents and purposes correspond to what I’ve been calling the “spiritual” and the “mundane”. The “ennoblement of mankind” basically means shifting the emphasis of perception more towards the spiritual rather than the mundane or simian sensate consciousness (the “lizard brain”, as it were).

The facts of the spiritual and mundane modes of perception (the latter sometimes also referred to as “fundamentalist” or “literalist”) compel us to recognise that the human form is constituted by two principles, which is also reflected in Castaneda’s reference to “the nagual” and “the tonal” sides, and roughly correspond to what Nietzsche called “the Dionysian” and “the Apollonian”. These are also Goethe’s “two souls” which expresses the essential polarity of the human form,

Two souls, alas, reside within my breast,
And each from the other would be parted.
The one in sturdy lust for love
With clutching organs clinging to the world,
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage.

And that brings me back to what I consider the key feature of what I’ve been calling The Holistic Philosophy — the centrality of the paradox or “coincidentia oppositorum” or “conjunctio oppositorum“. It is sometimes strongly associated with alchemy, and, as Jung rediscovered, the chief goal of alchemy — the transformation of lead into gold — was really a symbolic reference to shifting the mode of perception from the mundane to the spiritual, “gold” standing for the ennoblement of the base or vulgar symbolised by “lead”. More mundane types who took the purpose of alchemy as the literal transformation of lead into gold were often dismissed as “Puffers”. They correspond somewhat to our contemporary religious fundamentalists. So, the Holistic Philosophy has its precursors in the alchemists. Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” is also alchemy.

Coincidentia oppositorum is also the import of Castaneda’s “mood of the warrior” or “way of the warrior”. As his teacher explained to him, the art of the warrior is “to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”; that is to say, to balance the awful and the awesome. The truth is, that physical reality is a horror through-and-through. It is filled with disease, decay, and death. It is what Buddhists call “samsara“. But it is also a wondrous world, too, and the awful and the awesome really can’t be separated from one another. It’s part of the polarity or complementarity, and it’s the recognition of this that is the ultimate conclusion of Buddhism — “nirvana and samsara are the same”. But, as one Buddhist noted in a typical paradox, “they aren’t until they are”. That is to say, not until dualism is overcome are the spiritual and the mundane perceived in their unity and not as segregated at all.

So, to balance the horror of physical existence with the wonder at physical existence is the art of the warrior, the agony and the ecstasy, as it were. (Seth calls this wondrous aspect “the magical” side of consciousness). And that is pretty much what William Blake means by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Nietzsche discovered that polarity himself in musing on the myth of Silenus and Midas — the horror of existence, the tragedy of existence. The will to Not-Be is also part of our constitution. It was his “stare into the abyss”. But he had don Juan’s “warrior spirit” to be sure, and he tried to find a way to live well despite the horror. And that’s basically the meaning of Nietzsche’s “life philosophy”. The revaluation of values is also a kind of “magic”.

The coincidence of the horror and the wonder, of the awful and the awesome, is conditioned by what Castaneda’s teacher called “the predilection of the warrior”. That is to say, existence may be percieved as a great tragedy or a great comedy. Don Juan preferred to perceive it as comedy simply because it made him laugh, and laughter made his body feel better. The Greek Philosophy Heraclitus, on the other hand, was also called “The Weeping Philosopher”, for his predilection was towards the tragical. So, life is a paradox of horror and wonder. And living well at the conjunction or intersection of the horror and the wonder is pretty much the gist of Nietzsche, too, and he called that “the overman” or “transhuman”. And I would say that this is the essential tension between the horror and the wonder from which human creativity originates and arises.

The marriage of horror and wonder is also the theme of much of Blake’s poetry, which is why I find Blake such an interesting character. I’ll have more to say about creativity in relation to the polarity of Terror (or Horror) and Wonder later. But basically, it’s why no revolution in human affairs can occur without being accompanied by horrors. Revolutions in particular are generally creative, and they represent the conjunction of both horror and wonder in an often undisciplined and uncontrolled way.



5 responses to “The Horror and the Wonder”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Interesting article I just came across this evening in Maclean’s Magazine entitled “The science is in: God is the answer”. You can read it at

    Of interest to me is the neurological aspects of “spirituality” raised in the article. As you may recall, I wrote something about that a few months back in reference to the “lizard brain” and how changes in consciousness can result in the brain “re-wiring” itself. That is to say, there are direct biological changes that come about as a result of changes in consciousness structure.

    This article seems to support that.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      “So, life is a paradox of horror and wonder.”

      Yes, and I would add that not in equal measure, however. A little bit of horror can bring about much wonder, and vice versa

      The most retched person I have ever known is, I realize after nearly three decades later, without a doubt responsible for me being able to visit my parents on a regular basis today, and even for my parents being alive today.

      It is truly a paradox of horror and wonder that such a man with such malicious intents can be the reason for the joy my family has experienced for many many years. Had he been an honest man, a moral man, an ethical man, he would have caused great and irreversible damage to my family, especially to my parents. To me, this has been one of the most mysterious life experiences I have had.

      It seems to me that the article by Miller would have the correct message and meaning if we replace “religiosity” with “free-choice religiosity,” and “religion” with “free choice of religion” everywhere in the article.

      When it comes to religion, it is of utmost importance that subscription to it be completely voluntary and based on free choice with no other motivation at work. In other words, “religion” internalized as “foreign installation” is disastrous. Only after we make these substitutions, most of Miller’s conjectures could be true. Otherwise, as Blake says:

      “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
      The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
      The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
      The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
      The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
      Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.
      The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” –
      Proverbs of Hell by William Blake.

      Miller’s “dogma-free spirituality” is the way to go.

      Miller begins to get it right toward the end of her article when she connects Christian religion’s “praying, chanting, singing, swaying and rocking all together” as brain soothing.

      Yes, for that very reason, “music” has been a constant good in my life – of course, except for that one time when a favorite song of mine came on the radio when I was driving on a highway. Listening to the song made me go over the speed limit by a lot. I got pulled over by a cop and got a ticket 🙂

      Those singings and chanting and hymns at the church are very uplifting.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      “It is also equivalent to what Nietzsche called his “formula for happiness” — “a straight line… and a goal.””

      Very true. In fact, a very long time ago I heard or read someplace that the so called “middle-age crisis” is due to attaining all the goals set earlier in life. By someone’s mid fifties, the goals that drove one’s efforts in life are most likely have been achieved and removed from something to look forward to with every sunrise. Hence, the crisis. It’s like that slinky that, at the bottom of the stairs, runs out of steps to move to and gets stuck on top of itself.

      So, although keeping to a straight line may prove to be challenging at times, it is a much more easier to maintain portion of the formula for happiness than constantly having a worthwhile goal. But I can tell from experience that Nietzsche’s formula is a very simple and elegant definition for happiness.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    Here’s the latest on horror of life in California and elsewhere in the 21st century:

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