Saturday, May 7, 2016

Wombs and Abysses

Then spake Solomon, The Lord said that he would dwell in the thick darkness. 
— I Kings 8:12

Mircea Eliade, professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, submitted a startling essay to a conference in September 1953. He asked the question: what is the cause of the modern world’s ruinous anxiety? Here is his answer:
Anxiety in the face of the nothingness of death seems to be a uniquely modern phenomenon. For all other, non-European cultures, death is felt neither as an absolute end nor as nothingness. Death is instead a rite of passage to another form of being, and this is why it is always found in relation to signs and rites of initiation, of rebirth or resurrection. ... Death is the Great Initiation. But for the modern world, death is emptied of its metaphysical meaning, and this is why it is associated with nothingness. And before nothingness modern man is paralyzed. ... 
Here is what a primitive man would say to us: anxiety is the great test of initiation; it comes with plunging into the wilderness haunted by demons and ancestral spirits; the wilderness which is Hell and the other world; it is the great fear that paralyzes the novice when he is swallowed by the monster and taken into the darkness of his belly, where he is cut into pieces and digested so that he can be reborn as a new man.
This is a rather subtle point. Eliade is not saying that we are more anxious than people who live in primitive societies. Nor is he saying that we fear death, whereas they did not. He admits that we are anxious like them, but says that our anxiety is of a fundamentally different kind to theirs. We, like all human beings, are faced with the horror of death. But in death we see an barren pit: there is nothing beyond it, and we will be there forever. Nor is it any consolation to us to hear the clever argument that there will be no us to feel lonely and cut off. If this argument held any water, we would not be as frightened as we are. Since moderns see death as an end to everything, we justly despise it as a thief of everything that we love: families, homes, and the sun.

The anxiety that grips us as a result is terrible, because there is no point to it. It just holds us fast, unless we can find some way of forgetting about death. Most people manage to do this successfully for some part of their lives, and can eat, drink, and be merry, but the thought of death always finds its way in.
Ivan Ilych would turn his attention to Death and try to drive the thought of it away, but without success. It would come and stand before him and look at him, and he would be petrified and the light would die out of his eyes, and he would again begin asking himself whether It alone was true. And his colleagues and subordinates would see with surprise and distress that he, the brilliant and subtle judge, was becoming confused and making mistakes. He would shake himself, try to pull himself together, manage somehow to bring the sitting to a close, and return home with the sorrowful consciousness that his judicial labours could not as formerly hide from him what he wanted them to hide, and could not deliver him from It. And what was worst of all was that It drew his attention to itself not in order to make him take some action but only that he should look at It, look it straight in the face: look at it and without doing anything, suffer inexpressibly. And to save himself from this condition Ivan Ilych looked for consolations — new screens — and new screens were found and for a while seemed to save him, but then they immediately fell to pieces or rather became transparent, as if It penetrated them and nothing could veil It.
The power of this fear in our lives is so great that Eliade’s comment seems extremely surprising. He argues that, far from the norm, our kind of death-anxiety is vanishingly rare in the grand history of mankind. It is only irreligious people like us, born into a modern and industrialized society, who find ourselves prey to it. But I think I know what he meant by his description of the primitive experience of fear.

I was taken to an Easter vigil this year. It was harrowing. The ritual, if I’m allowed to reveal the mysteries of another religion, goes like this: The priest lights an engraved candle from a bonfire outside, and the congregation follows him silently into the dark womb of the church, stopping three times to kneel. (One pauses three times too at Jewish burials on the way to the grave: the sense in the context of the Easter vigil is that the congregation is descending all together into the pit of death.) And just like Jonah in the belly of the whale, the community enters a thick darkness, in which it sings its sublimest prayers. There is only candlelight to light the church: it is a divine seed impregnating the darkness of Hell. The catechumens approach the alter one by one. They are baptized, anointed, clothed in white, and given blazing torches.

Suddenly, there is communal birth: the choir sings the Gloriabells ring out, shrouds are pulled off the graven images, and the church is flooded in light. There is a short mass, and the congregation emerges into the air. It is early morning.

(I’m describing the platonic form of the vigil; the actual service I went to in March was a little awkward and plodding.)

The symbolism of this left me awestruck. Christmas is usually the holiday that our century associates with birth, but in the Christian worldview, human birth is really death: you are forced into a disgusting, sniveling body, and forced to be a slave to lust and the devil for your entire life. No: Easter is the season of birth. It means liberation from the dank world of the flesh and rebirth into Christ’s kingdom. In the middle ages, at least: most modern Christianity has lost the world-despising energy to pursue this point.

This rebirth is accomplished by killing the worldly body. In Jesus’ case, this meant the Crucifixion; for medieval Christians, it meant denying the flesh until the end of their earthly lives. And, on the night before Easter, it meant plunging into the darkness. This looks like the darkness of the abyss, and it filled them with terror. But it was actually the darkness of the womb. Christians were born again to the life that really matters, just after they had died to a life that is worth nothing at all.

Now remember Eliade: the novice is “swallowed by the monster and taken into the darkness of his belly, where he is cut into pieces and digested so that he can be reborn as a new man.”

Going into the belly of the beast is indeed horrifying. It means leaving the sunlit world that you love and going into the world of demons. If you know that a god who loves you waits on the other side, your terror is still there, but it is a different terror. It is purifying fear, a fire that burns your soul clean of its lust for the former life. You are refined into something new.

Rebirth out of darkness is not a uniquely Christian phenomenon. I do not know whether Eliade’s suggestion is true that purifying terror is common to all pre-modern peoples. But I do know that it pervades the Hebrew Bible.
And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him. And God said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance. And thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age.
Even more striking is the prayer of Jonah that I’ve already mentioned:
Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s womb,
And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.
For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.
Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the roots of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God.
When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.
And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
This has all the elements of the medieval Easter vigil. Jonah has fallen into the snare of God and brought into the deepest wilderness imaginable. Cut off from all light and human society, he dies and  becomes a new man. Emerged from the whale’s womb, he is so charged with holy feeling that God himself has to remind him that earthly people don’t know their right from their left hand.

We can see the same kind of initiation in the Rúnatal, Odin’s account of how he learned the runes.

Veit ec at ec hecc vindga meiði a
netr allar nío,
geiri vndaþr oc gefinn Oðni,
sialfr sialfom mer,
a þeim meiþi, er mangi veit, hvers hann af rótom renn.  
I know that I hung on the wind-tossed tree
nine nights long,
wounded with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree whose roots are hidden from men. 
Við hleifi mic seldo ne viþ hornigi,
nysta ec niþr,
nam ec vp rvnar,
opandi nam,
fell ec aptr þaðan.
They did not gladden me with bread or a horn;
downwards I peered.
I took up the runes;
screaming I took them,
then I fell from there.
Again: loneliness, pain, fear; finally sudden enlightenment and escape from the night-wilderness. 

We don’t have this experience at all today, unless we have the mixed fortune of living in a community that preserves a medieval world-feeling. It’s considered socially bizarre today to express raw fear of demons and the night. In the most practical terms, the lightbulb has replaced daylight and drowned out night, preventing us from ever finding ourselves immersed in literal darkness. (Even in a dark theatre, there’s always a bright sign on the wing saying EXIT that simultaneously robs us of total darkness and reminds us stupidly that yes, don’t worry, there is still an outside world). Maybe it’s just as well: in our modern sickness, if we ever did go down to a dark pit, it would be a barren cavern for us. It would never strike us to see it as a womb.

But fear is still there: the It that tormented Ivan Ilych confronts us too at three o’clock in the morning. Eliade would suggest that we cure ourselves by turning our death-anxiety into initiating, purifying fear. But this is what distinguishes us—me at any rate—from the fascist and pagan Eliade: there is no new life to wake up to.

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