Transparency is the Only Shield against Disaster (Parts 1–2)
Editor’s note: This is the first of three installments. The complete essay has seven parts. See installment 2 (parts 3–5) and installment 3 (parts 6–7).
“And the Powers all gathered and went to the Archgenitor. They said to him, ‘Where is your boasting now? Did we not hear you say, “I am your God and I am your father and it is I who begat you and there is no other beside me?” Now behold, there has appeared a Voice belonging to that invisible Speech of the Aeon, which we know not.’”from the Nag Hammadi text Trimorphic Protenoia
As I write this, we are now in the 2019th year of the era labeled “After Christ.” Certain Christian, Jewish, and Gnostic sects living in the First Century A.D. would be amazed by the very fact of our existence. The institutionalized violence of the Roman Empire had cut cultures from their roots. A widespread sense of alienation had taken hold. It was clear to many that the end was near, that the Powers-That-Be were corrupt, and that the mandate for the ancient world had been withdrawn. In Matthew 16:28, Jesus says, “There are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.” Yet the world did not end, not exactly, nor was the heavenly city lowered from the clouds.
Let us look more closely, though, at the peculiar phrasing of this statement. It informs us that the “Son of Man”—a role, perhaps, and not a specific person—will be coming “in” his Kingdom. This implies that his kingdom may be a kind of vehicle, although it is left to us to imagine what form this might take. We might choose to see this as a flying city, perhaps, or as the reenactment of a prehistoric record, or as a field of energy, or as the fullness of the primal body/mind, or as the utterance of a vision-serpent. If the world did not end, exactly, and if the kingdom did not sink deep roots in the earth, the existing order may nonetheless have passed away. A luminous city may have opened and departed.
Frustration with the uncooperative nature of the Apocalypse set in early on. Over the next 2000 years, it would be rescheduled five-dozen or so times. No matter how many of the predicted dates proved false, the idea never lost its attractiveness, and, after lying dormant for some period, it could quickly return to take possession of the psyche. In 1523, for example, scores of astrologers throughout Europe determined that a second Deluge would occur in 1524. This would be brought on by the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, in the sign of Pisces. Since the Deluge was scheduled to start in London, many thousands of the city’s inhabitants fled. In all, more than 160 works by 56 authors either confirmed the prophesy or denounced it as a delusion.
When anticipation of the end of things takes hold, it is striking that the experience seems so immediate to those involved. It almost seems as though the experience existed in an already completed form, as though it were waiting for some small pretext to emerge.
Curiously, there is nothing in the word apocalypse itself that implies that the event must take place in the future. From the Greek “apokalyptein,” the word means simply “to uncover; to disclose; to reveal.” (The roots are “apo,” “off; away from,” and “kalyptein,” “to cover; to conceal.”) Certainly John, writing between A.D. 69 and A.D. 96, gives little or no indication that he is theorizing about events that will not take place for several thousand years. One of the prophesies then current, that of the Essenes, said that the end would occur in A.D. 70, perhaps the very year that John wrote. Here is John’s description of some of the instructions that he received:
Then the voice which I heard from heaven spoke to me again and said, “Go, take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the earth.” So I went to the angel and said to him, “Give me the little book.” And he said to me, “Take and eat it; and it will make your stomach bitter, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.”
“Eat,” “stomach,” “bitter,” “sweet,” “honey,” “mouth”—these are very physical words, and the act in question could not be more direct. By the eating of the little book, John becomes—on some alchemical level—that which he sees and hears. Thus, it is possible that the predictions of the Essenes were accurate after all. If an apocalypse is the disclosure of previously hidden information, we could say that it occurred at the exact moment of John’s experience.
If we pause to look a bit closer at the word roots, at “apo” and “kalyptein,” we may be surprised to learn that the name “Calypso” also comes from the latter root. In the Odyssey, set sometime in the Bronze Age, the goddess Calypso enchants Odysseus with her singing and keeps him prisoner on her island, Ogygia, for seven years. When Odysseus departs, this could also be seen as an un-covering, as a small apocalypse. The world does not end; rather, Zeus sends Hermes to Calypso, with instructions that she should set the hero free. Threats are made. Calypso is quite annoyed at what she sees as a double-standard: the gods hate it when goddesses choose to have affairs with mortals, while they do not restrain their sexual urges in the least. She nonetheless provides Odysseus with water, wine, bread, a grove of trees to cut, a bronze ax with an olivewood handle, cloth to make sails, and whatever else is needed to build and supply his raft. As a final gift, she provides him with an in-depth knowledge of the stars. The whole of the story, the weaving of the spell and the uncovering, seems to take place at some occult angle to the present. It is relevant, perhaps, that seven years have gone by. “One thing happens,” says Homer, “and then the next.” The historical date is of no particular importance.
If the number seven is present in the story of Odysseus and Calypso, it is present in a relatively non-dramatic way. We are left to probe the esoteric significance of the number at our leisure. In John’s retelling of his vision, on the other hand, the number is obsessively repeated. Among other things, there are seven golden lampstands, seven churches that are in Asia, seven vials of wrath, seven heads on the Great Beast that rises out of the sea, seven plagues, seven thunders, seven stars in the hand of the Son of Man, seven trumpets that announce catastrophes, a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, and, of course, the seven seals, which are scheduled to be opened. The Hebrew word for seven is “sheba,” which means “promise” or “oath.” It is a word that guarantees some form of fulfillment. In the form of “shiva,” it is also a seven day period of mourning that follows the death of a loved one. (While John wrote in Koine Greek, the number symbolism of the book is closely tied to the Old Testament.) However John may have understood it, the role played by the number seven in the book is clearly an ambiguous one, with a two-faced, Janus-like aspect. It is in some way connected to both destruction and perfection, and it points to the completion of a cycle.
To the eater of the little book, the end was something that was viscerally present, in all of its horror and beauty; it was also something that was waiting to be sprung upon the world, seemingly in the none too distant future, somewhere around 70 to 100 A.D.
So, what does it mean for the Apocalypse to take place in the present moment, and, somewhat paradoxically, to be always just about to occur? In January of 2009, I took part in a forum for Jasun Horsley’s article “Owning the Apocalypse: The Up Side of Annihilation.” December 21st, 2012, the end-date—according to some theorists—of a 5125-year Mayan cycle that had begun in 3114 B.C., was just a few years off. The year was acting as a kind of “strange attractor,” as a catalyst for certain subliminal hopes and fears, as a screen for the projection of archetypal contents, as a cure-all for those dispossessed by the whims of a decentralized plutocracy, as a perfect storm of vision and commercial branding. Some anticipated a pole-shift, resulting in world destruction; others envisioned a wave of mass-enlightenment. Like an inhabitable fish, a visceral longing for the Apocalypse was once more rising from the depths.
In this forum, S.J. wrote,
If galactic consciousness was only possible upon the deaths of six billion people, I would take the six billion if given a choice. Screw your Enlightenment! But I don’t even think that this is the right way to frame the issue. Personally, I feel that the shift has already taken place, and in a way has always been there. The Buddha, saints, mystics, shamans of all times and cultures experienced full awareness within this world, the Spell, the Matrix. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is affirmed that samsara is nirvana. The whole cycle of birth and rebirth, which is Maya the original Matrix, is the realm of enlightened awareness.
We are on the verge of something truly mind-blowing, and our resistance to the idea of mass death as something “negative” just shows, to me, how unready we are, even conceptually, for the magnitude of what is coming, as a species and as individuals. I can say this: the loss of identity which (I believe) is our only possibility for survival now will be far more terrifying (and undesirable) than any horrible death by apocalypse could ever be. Those of us who begin to experience this shift may well wish we’d been numbered with the lucky expendables. Galactic consciousness is nothing anyone in their right mind would volunteer for, and those dumb enough to do so, soon regret it.
It struck me as possible that these viewpoints were not mutually exclusive. To my way of thinking, the cosmos is already as perfect as it needs to be, although our perception of this larger context has been obscured from the dawn of recorded history, if not longer. Apocalypse pertains to the rolling on and rolling off of stage-sets, as embodied in, among other things, the 12 signs of the zodiac. These stage-sets activate the potentials that are encoded in the All. As they stomp and fret their hour upon the stage, the actors prove all but indifferent to the larger context from which they have come, yet they fear, on some level, that they are still the stuff of dreams. Always, it is space itself that acts.
A world disappears; the theatre in which this destruction is carried out does not have to go anywhere, or to evolve beyond what is already within the actors’ reach. The future does not necessarily follow upon the past, nor is the past only mechanically active in the present. As one stage-set disappears and another one appears, there is an interval, a pregnant pause, a dead zone, in which the vertical and horizontal axes get realigned. We may experience this as an earthquake or a tidal wave, as the highlighting of some seemingly random footnote, as a scream that causes the screamer to forget that he has a head, as a spark that shatters then reconstitutes the whole of the metalinguistic structure.
Many new things then become possible, but this may or may not result in the projection of destruction onto physical time/space. A continent sinks. The sun burns out. A wave consumes Valhalla, bringing to an end the blood-feast of the gods. The Venir and the Aesir, it must be said, are too drunk to be feeling any pain. They double over with laughter at how loudly the planets ring. Like leaves from the boughs of Yggdrasil, wind sweeps the gods and their messengers towards the depths of the nonexistent, towards the light of a cloudless sky. Or, one actor has been momentarily transported from the theatre. The pregnant pause could just as easily result in the ecstasy of a shamanic flight, in the seeding of the next Omphalos, or in the rebirth of the art of memory. Our world has been replaced with an almost exact duplicate. One actor has returned, only slightly the worse for wear, from his close encounter with the vertical axis, having reestablished contact with what existed before history.
That the Apocalypse is imminent, I do not doubt, but it is the meaning of the word imminent that I would like to call into question. Let me phrase this in a different way: we must be militantly open in our descriptions of how the horizontal and the vertical axes intersect. Viewed from the perspective of the horizontal axis, the Apocalypse is the eruption of repressed archetypal forces onto the stage-set of the objective world. It is the projection of the vertical axis onto history, the penetration of dead cultural forms by the violence of primordial energy. Viewed from the perspective of the vertical axis, however, the Apocalypse might best be understood as a reflexively triggered spectacle, a trial by fire at the boundary between worlds.
If such a trial is terrifying, it may, in the end, be good for the explorer’s health. It signifies, quite simply, that the explorer has successfully entered into the axis, taking the whole of both the personal and the collective psyche with him, and that he is being powered by a sufficiently explosive degree of force. Cities pop like bubbles. Swelling and collapsing, an ocean of dead poets roars, unable to pierce the silence that has thrust into his ears. The person who has entered is not the same as the being who will exit.
Upon exiting the axis, the explorer may discover that he has picked up a companion, that his shadow does not always imitate his movements, that it slips without warning to the back side of the mirror, that it treats the subject who casts it as a child to be punished. There seems no way to predict how long the earth will support his feet. Solidity is no longer a guarantee of permanence. In the explorer’s solar plexus, there are knots that have been loosened. His vision has become far more volatile than it was, and it is not clear who or what is seeing through his eyes. His head has become a radioactive wasteland, a conch blown by the ghosts of the Younger Dryas, a playground for the wind.
Any contact with the Double can reflexively prompt fear, which then spreads out to encompass a much wider range of fears, up to and including fear of a physical version of the Apocalypse. The light that flares from this dark presence may sear the explorer’s bones. His muscles may twitch and spasm. Great gulfs may open up. Seven vortices may pour their toxins on his tongue. If the Double has made him an offer that it is not safe to refuse, neither is it any safer to cooperate. If the Double has generously offered to serve as an instructor, the explorer has no way, at first, to guess the nature of its motives. The brighter and darker aspects of the Double may not seem to be connected. The same vision can be interpreted as a lesson or a trap, and it may very well be both.
A fleet of comets arcs towards Earth, from the Oort cloud or the Keiper belt, from the fog of the collective psyche. Refreshed from its sleep of 30,000 years, Pithovirus Sibericus declares itself a god. One-half micron in diameter, it spreads throughout the globe. The explorer dreams of a geomagnetic storm, of power grids gone dark, of the simultaneous meltdown of dozens of reactors. “Am I being told to start a cult?” he thinks. “Should I sound an alarm or just give away most of my clothes?” “Unknown unknowns” press on the explorer from all sides. One catastrophe is no more likely than another to occur. “No one knows the day or the hour” that our habits will prove impotent.
Half-focusing his eyes, suspending judgment on the teleology of the image, the explorer must keep his field of vision open. He must guard against what Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” A “species die-off,” for example, may be a kind of “objective correlative” for his fears. Grof’s “perinatal matrices” speak to this simultaneous existence of a beginning and an end. Apocalyptic images are encoded in the very process of our birth; any large-scale expansion of the explorer’s consciousness can reactivate the trauma of this earlier contraction. Such an experience is overwhelming, and immediate, and it may seem that there is no way out. But when an already completed story is reenacted for a subject, does the spectacle take place in the present, in the future, or in the past?
Biology both recapitulates and prefigures the larger process of cosmogenesis. In the same way that embryogenesis allows humans to give birth to human beings, there is also a process of cosmogenesis that allows the cosmos to give birth to primordial beings, or Aeons, whose downwardly mobile representative is the Double. Development can be projected across horizontal space, in time-cycles as vast as they are incomprehensible; it can also occur almost instantly through the vertical lightning flash of initiation.