“if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

“And if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

an imagined Nietzschean aphorism:

The paranoiac infinity. The paranoiac infinity is instinct incarnate. It is the ‘trial and error’ loop pre-programmed into all animals including humans. But only conscious beings such as humans (‘conscious’ here used in a Jaynesian sense of the term – generally as the ‘capacity for introspection’) are able to operate outside of instinct. Instinct is the infinitely looping continuation of inherent knowledge in all beings: the information which is stored and carried forward from generation to generation. But when humanity broke free of its reliance upon instinct around 3000 years ago, around the advent of print technology for most built-up, non-isolated societies, these instincts were buried (why store information genetically when it can be stored in the external world? In books?). These instincts are by no means extinguished, just subdued, and have now come to be known as ‘the unconscious’. So what form did these instincts take in earlier mankind before the advent of the printed word? Speech came before written language, this we know for certain. We also know that the complexity of humans meant that it was not so simple as storing simple, useful information such as the urge to bury food, or to avoid certain coloured or patterned predators. And so, according to Julian Jaynes, before the advent of the written word and its capacity to preserve knowledge, and so replace the function that instinct once served, we had the spoken word in the form of an inner voice. This voice was nothing like that which we know now, which we so easily and unthinkingly manipulate at will as we read and think routinely, but rather an autonomous, perhaps ‘superegoic’, even Godly voice which would tell us what to do, and would in a sense act as an ancestor to modern memory. Memory as we know it is only a few thousand years old, and there are those who still dwell in this preconscious, ‘outspoken’ form of memory. These are regarded as oral peoples; societies without any historic presence of literacy within their culture, and so peoples without any fully formed Symbolic order (following Lacan), who live in a simultaneous, instantaneous world. Marshall McLuhan (in his Gutenberg Galaxy) and Walter J. Ong (in Orality and Literacy) have come to the same conclusion from their own vastly different approaches. The paranoiac infinity of instinct is still there, lurking, and only reappears when such a so-called ‘madness’ is necessary as a rehabilitative process (Lacan labelled madness as innately restorative, recuperative, as did R. D. Laing). The return of the paranoiac infinity, dormant and yet present in all of us, can still be provoked and awakened in times of enormous stress: either when an Oedipal system is not properly organised during infancy and so does not allow for a totalising Symbolic network, or when the Symbolic universe is decimated by some seismic upheaval capable of reconstituting the Symbolic veneer placed atop reality (as in a psychotic breakdown). The paranoiac infinity is the primary source and fuel of all religion, of all mythology. The many repetitions and echoes in myth which transcend cultures, are quite simply incarnations of this buried instinct. An echolalia of those that came before. But there are those who can gaze into the paranoiac infinity, that well of instinct, and return unscathed. Nietzsche was such a man.

[nb. this is what happens when you read too much Nietzsche. also featured image is John Martin’s ‘day of his wrath’ (1853)]


4 thoughts on ““if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

  1. This is amazing… also I loved that phrase of hope at the end “But there are those who can gaze into the paranoiac infinity, that well of instinct, and return unscathed. Nietzsche was such a man.” But on Wikipedia it says that Nietzsche collapsed at age 44 and then lost his mental capacities after that. I first heard about Nietzsche through reading Jim Morrison’s poetry — JM was really into Nietzsche. He too regularly looked into the abyss, but also died young…


    1. Yes he famously collapsed in a market Square while trying to protect a horse from being beaten by its owner. He was then institutionalised for a while before being taken back to his childhood home and eventually exhibited by his twisted sister for many years. There’s a newish bio by Sue prideux called I am Dynamite which I highly recommend if you’re interested in Nietzsche’s life. He did lose his mental capacities after that event yes, but more importantly because he lost much of his memory.. but I don’t believe madness is by any means the ultimate end. He was plagued by intermittent madness throughout his life, and these led to revelatory works such as Zarathustra written in ten days wandering alone through the mountains! The Paranoiac infinity is something which best evidenced perhaps in Kay Jamison’s touched with Fire, which reminds me I must post on it sometime!

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      1. 😭”On 3 January 1889, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown.[75] Two policemen approached him after he caused a public disturbance in the streets of Turin. What happened remains unknown, but an often-repeated tale from shortly after his death states that Nietzsche witnessed the flogging of a horse at the other end of the Piazza Carlo Alberto, ran to the horse, threw his arms up around its neck to protect it, and then collapsed to the ground.[76][77] In the following few days, Nietzsche sent short writings—known as the Wahnzettel (“Madness Letters”)—to a number of friends including Cosima Wagner and Jacob Burckhardt. Most of them were signed “Dionysos”, though some were also signed “der Gekreuzigte” meaning “the crucified one”. To his former colleague Burckhardt, Nietzsche wrote: “I have had Caiaphas put in fetters. Also, last year I was crucified by the German doctors in a very drawn-out manner. Wilhelm, Bismarck, and all anti-Semites abolished.”[78] Additionally, he commanded the German emperor to go to Rome to be shot and summoned the European powers to take military action against Germany,[79] that the pope should be put in jail and that he, Nietzsche, created the world and was in the process of having all anti-Semites shot dead.[80]” (—Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche)
        Later it says that his sister took control of his works and even at one point hired Rudolf Steiner to try to explain her brother’s philosophies to her, but “Steiner abandoned the attempt after only a few months, declaring that it was impossible to teach her anything about philosophy.” (!!)
        Wow I did not know that about Zarathustra! Fascinating! And thanks for the recommendations of I Am Dynamite, and of Touched With Fire. Looking forward to your (possible) post(s) on it/them! xo

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      2. It really exemplifies how misunderstood Nietzsche is doesn’t it! That such a ‘cold’, ‘heartless’ ‘fascist’ man as so many (skim-readers) label him even still, was sent mad after seeing an act of cruelty on a horse, and whose last, hallucinatory wishes were that all anti-Semites be shot dead! XD

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