“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)]