Monday, September 15, 2008

The Modern Abyss

Modernity was a child of the Abyss. The writers, painters, and musicians of the modern age all struggled with it to varying degrees. For some, it was just another subject; others focused almost exclusively on that most profound problem. In Baudelaire’s anxiety, in Nietzsche’s Will, and in Surrealism’s liberation there is a common presence: that of a "God" dying, dead, or disintegrating, his death unleashing another boundless void for each perishing atom of his absoluteness. Where faith had imposed its ancient forms, there suddenly gaped freedom as infinite as the power of that once omnipotent "God". Rationalism killed that deity; logic gave him a ghost. (The pragmatism implied in rationalism is lost in logic, which is capable of destructive infinities and provides a firm foundation for the irrational.) The ghost of "God" looms over modernity in the form of a void, of Chaos, of the Abyss.

From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, artists and other intellectuals experimented with forms intended to combat or consummate the Chaos left over after the loss of the absolutist paradigm theretofore at the heart of many social constructs. Symbolism, Nietzsche, and Surrealism concerned themselves very directly with the Abyss, each treating it as either a burden to overcome or source to embrace.

Nietzsche described man as “a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss” (Zarathustra, 14). He advocated self-overcoming, a process that makes use of abyssal awareness as an instrument of evolution. The creative individualist, armed with a strong Will, seeks to conquer a part of this infinite freedom, thereby snatching wisdom from the chasm on the way towards the overman. A living micro-abyss, the overman is unhindered by morality, submissiveness, and other dictates of his omnipotent, omniscient, now defunct predecessor.

Before "God" died, Charles Baudelaire experienced an abyss designed by him, described in this quatrain from “the Abyss”:

On all sides around me shores are descending…

Silence… terrible, terrifying Space…

At night I watch God’s knowing finger trace

Unending nightmares on the dark unending

(Flowers of Evil, 194).

Baudelaire’s God is part of the Abyss, or rather is part Abyss. Where faith fails the poet, infinite darkness creeps in, disfiguring the moribund deity. A hostile "Almighty" now exploits the void in his absolutist form, conceiving horrors for the faithless as he dies. By the time we reach Nietzsche, we have an immense corpse to deal with:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto (The Gay Science, 181).

This question, here posed by a fictional madman in a narrative, nonetheless expresses much of Nietzsche’s relationship to this Abyss. It is also an enduring question for the arts, even today. It is now hidden, however, behind language that eschews not only "God, but the Abyss as well. When a contemporary artist conquers his or her bit of infinity and flaunts it in a show of individualism, that artist possesses some degree of the new "divine" spark epitomized in the total conflagration of the Abyss.

Writing, whether prose or poetry, may be the most thorough means of conveying the abyssal essence of modernity. Depicted through words, abstractions can be as limited or boundless as the writer chooses. However, words are not the only medium used by modern intellectuals in confronting the Abyss.

Painters were among the most prominent Symbolists and Surrealists. Both of these movements found expression in multiple media; thus, the Abyss tackled by poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and André Breton also manifested in the art of Edvard Munch and Salvador Dalí. Although their paintings and drawings are unable to delineate the abyssal condition with all the accuracy of writing, their visual reconciliation of form and formlessness has a more direct, highly sensory impact. This corresponds with Nietzsche’s prescription that one must appeal to the senses in order to teach abstract truths (Beyond Good and Evil, 50).

Dalí produced extraordinary examples of the synthesis between metaphysical chaos and sensual form. His "materio-mysticism", to use Anna Balakian’s term, sought absolutes of increasing polarity from the very beginning of his Surrealist oeuvre. He also dealt with the Abyss directly, in writing, with an inventive caveat for the modern artist:

Velásquez and Vermeer were divisionists in their time. They intuited modern angst. Today, the most talented, most sensitive painters merely communicate the angst of indeterminism. Modern science tells us nothing actually exists… So there is nothing abnormal about some painters making their pictures out of nothing. But that is only a transitional phase. The great painter must know how to assimilate the nothingness into his picture. And that nothingness is what will give life to tomorrow’s great art (Maniac Eyeball, 271).

This seems to speak directly to the Abstract Expressionists. Influenced by Surrealism, they not only sought form for the formless, but often captured formlessness itself. The Abstract Expressionist’s proximity to Chaos may seem closer to the Abyss than the precise realism of Dalí. Here is where the relationship between our subject and this medium grow surprisingly complicated, though easily described.

The boundless infinitude of the Abyss encapsulates every possibility and potential impossibility. Growing out of the limitations of human knowledge, it represents everything within and beyond perception and imagination. Therefore, one could claim anything at all as a fragment of the Abyss. A visual abstraction can elicit responses more divergent than any verbal abstraction. That is because, like music, its language is much more open than that of words. Especially today, when subjectivity is prized above the attempted purity of the Abstract Expressionists, the meaning of a brush stroke has a more potentially varied meaning than most words, perhaps including the word “abyss”. Indeed, there is more culturally inherent meaning in a musical chord than in a streak or field of paint.

Music has the advantage of being a purely sensual abstraction. It may be the art that expresses most directly the artist’s feelings about his or her abyssal awareness. Regardless of the patterns imposed upon sounds by musicians, music achieves its life through entropy and is therefore an art of chaos. The instrument’s vibrations stir the air and jostle the eardrum, leaving the brain to interpret any form within the unseen agitations. As with any art, this can take on greater or lesser degrees of apparent organization. The form of Mozart, though inherently part of the abyssal chaos, does not convey a sense of it as that of John Cage. The definition of the Abyss is intellectual; its conveyance is, for lack of a more decisive word, mystical.

André Breton, who established the principles followed by the Surrealists in all media, conjured abyssal imagery in his mystical prescription of “throwing ourselves, without knowing how to swim, into the water, and without believing in the phoenix, plunging into the fire to reach this truth” (Manifestoes of Surrealism, 163). Nietzsche, on the other hand, declared, “We possess art lest we perish of the truth” (The Will to Power, 435). Both of these thinkers acknowledge the hazards of the Abyss, but they essentially contradict each other in their approach to handling it. Nietzsche saw art as protection from this destructive truth, whereas Breton used art in his attempts to lure the mind into it. This Surrealist mysticism is an attempt at a godless sublime. This strain of Surrealist activity sought to abolish all sensory differentiation and induce a sense of universal union that can only be described as abyssal. Breton and Nietzsche also agree in a way, for by embracing the Abyss as a source of creative potential one necessarily opposes it. The Surrealist embrace of the formless Abyss through art is a redemptive nihilism, simultaneously proclaiming the meaninglessness of the void and affirming the joy of expanding into it.

The Abyss is not only to be found in such extreme examples. All dissatisfaction with artistic mimesis stems from an awareness of the human lack of omniscience. Wherever there is an unknown, there are infinite possibilities. Dalí sought to trace the ancestry of such disorienting and apparently modern themes back to Velásquez and Vermeer, discouraging most modern abstraction. Today, however, the abyssal chaos seems to find its embodiment primarily in the nearly complete fragmentation of creative discourse. Are artists growing closer to being overmen? Is each affirming his Will as his own law (Zarathustra, 63), or is there only narcissism?

These examples only begin to outline the origins and potentialities of the Abyss. Since extends into the unfathomable, modernity’s house-of-cards foundation can scarcely be defined, and its infinite breadth makes it difficult to locate culturally with legitimate authoritativeness. It nonetheless remains clear that any serious inquiry regarding the modern—or postmodern—condition must, at some point, face the faceless Abyss.

“And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee” (Beyond Good and Evil, 52).


Baudelaire, Charles. Marthiel and Jackson Mathews, Eds. The Flowers of Evil. New York: New Directions, 1989.

Breton, André. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane. University of Michigan: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Trans. Helen Zimmern. Beyond Good and Evil. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Trans. Walter Kauffman. The Gay Science. Random House, 1974.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Walter Kauffman, Ed. The Will to Power. New York: Random House, 1968.

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