There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be Hell’
—“Hotel California,” The Eagles
I was delighted last Saturday to come across an article in the Wall Street Journal that was about something unrelated to contemporary events. Only, in the end, one realizes that in an interconnected world everything relates to the present.
Not that Nobel prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek looked explicitly at contemporary affairs. In “A Physicist’s Nightmare of the Void,” he didn’t discuss the fragmentation of contemporary America into ever-narrower tribal identities, or the conflagration consuming much of Africa and the Middle East.
Instead, Wilczek described a terrifying dream in which he experienced the complete emptiness — the “Void” — that, as a scientist, he’d hitherto understood only in an abstract way.
Unmoored, floating, bathed in a featureless, preternaturally bright pure white, I didn’t know where I was or which way I pointed. Those questions had no resolution — indeed, no meaning. There were no landmarks, no sources of orientation, nothing to approach or to touch.
Deprived of all sensory stimuli, Wilczek tells us, people begin to provide their own experiences by hallucinating. And, as Aldous Huxley so vividly describes in The Doors of Perception, which chronicles his experience with mescaline, when you are in the midst of a hallucination you experience it intensely. To you it’s undeniably real, even if it strikes you that all of the laws of nature are being bent.
Wilczek had been engaged in a search for the origin of the universe, and to this end he’d been thinking about how to empty space to its original purity. Space as it might have appeared to its Creator. But now, faced with this nothingness, Wilczek was profoundly frightened. He wondered whether “this was death, delivering on the promise of eternal, omnipresent celestial light — the Empyrean of the ancient Greeks and of Dante’s ‘Paradiso.’”
If this was Heaven, Wilczek, the physicist, was experiencing it as the Void he’d been working hard to find. And he didn’t want to be there forever.
I understand Wilczek’s ambivalence toward the hereafter. Whenever I read Adonais, Shelley’s reflection on the death of his friend John Keats, I’m particularly struck by the following lines:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-colour’d glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.
Shelley sensed the ambiguity implicit in the “white radiance of Eternity.” To get there, Death must trample life into fragments.
I, too, have a preference for the “dome of man-colour’d glass.” I love watching the ever-moving pieces of the kaleidoscope of life as they arrange and rearrange themselves into pictures that are random yet coherent. Eternity can wait. So long as I have a choice, I’ll choose life.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche devotes a section to “the Preachers of Death.” They are the life-deniers, for whom life is not a gift but a curse. They long only for Eternity, and in order to reach it, they would kill everyone, including themselves. They see the world as “full of those to whom death must be preached.” They’d sacrifice humanity on the altar of environmentalism, or Allah.
In my own dream of the Void a few years ago, I felt my body being violently taken from me, and I was afloat in a vast, limitless blueness and doubting my own existence. I tried to distance myself from my experience by intellectualizing it. I reasoned, in lawyerly fashion, that this could not be happening because I hadn’t consented to it. More philosophically, I reasoned that, as I was thinking, I must still exist, if only as a thinker.
Increasingly uncomfortable, I recalled how Nietzsche’s experience of the Void and how he’d transcended it. Nietzsche’s doctrine of Eternal Recurrence, which he conceived in a hallucination, is based on his understanding of the second law of thermodynamics that posits infinite space and time, and finite matter, from which it follows that the same combinations of matter must necessarily recur an infinite number of times. In other words, we are condemned to relive every moment of our lives eternally. Within this system, suicide is not a live option.
Nietzsche was paralyzed by this vision for a long time, and was able to pull back from the abyss by formulating his idea of amor fati, the act of embracing of one’s fate. You can’t change events, but you can change your attitude towards them. (Remember the movie Groundhog Day?) You transcend death by fully embracing your life. And so I decided that I would relax, take everything in, and regard the entire matter as an adventure.
But as there was nothing to take in, I began hallucinating. I conjured up pictures from my past that I didn’t want to leave behind. There was my husband, sitting across from me on a Ferris wheel one lovely evening in Paris, wearing his baseball cap and grinning the grin I’d come to know so well over the years. There was my daughter on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, reading from the Torah in Hebrew before her family and the whole of our Congregation, looking at the same time both confident and vulnerable. As far as I was concerned, this dream never had to end.
But the pictures began to deteriorate. They faded and their edges got ragged. They began to crack, trampled into fragments, like very old photographs. Soon there’d be nothing left of them. It was at this point that I found myself approaching a tunnel. What’s a transition without a tunnel? On the other end I could see Wilczek’s “preternaturally bright pure white” and I was being drawn directly into it, becoming a part of it.
I never got there, however. I awoke, confused, to the sound of my own voice reciting over and over again in Hebrew the last words that Jews are required to say before they die. “The Lord our God is One.” I heard my husband mutter in his sleep, “What are you talking about?” It was dark, I was in my bed, my husband beside me, and it was good to be alive.
Our different lives caused Wilczek and me to experience and respond to the Void in different ways. Nietzsche’s experience was undoubtedly shaped by his time that was giving birth to the deadly cult of Nazism. We all carry our histories with us. They embody the archetypes and instincts that underlie our reasoning, and determine the way in which we will react in a stress or crisis situation.
“We are all just prisoners here, of our own device,” sang The Eagles. We create our own Voids.
Today, the most powerful nation in the world is also experiencing a kind of Void, an emptiness in which everything solid has melted away. As in here are preachers of death amongst us. Our values are shattered, our virtues are forgotten and our religion is in tatters. We destroy our environment and murder fetuses without compunction even as we decry the burning of villages and murder of innocents by Islamists. In the face of unspeakable atrocities we are paralyzed.
We are asked now to choose between two candidates for the presidency of our great country, both very different from the presidents we’ve seen before. The familiar signposts have been erased, the trusted pillars of the past are no more. The voice of the lying partisan is stilled. We are thrown back, radically, upon ourselves. How we react will determine whether we find the way back from the Void for our country and ourselves. And, indeed, the world.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://spectatorworld.com/.