The Roots of Creative Darkness

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)

 

two men

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich

Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is writing a dissertation prospectively titled “On the Political Uses of Creative Darkness: Nature, Companion Ecologies, Biopolitics,” and his website can be found at https://www.michaeluhall.com/.

CS: What follows are excerpts from a longer piece which can be found on Uhall’s blog, here .

Introduction: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling

At first glance, the three figures under discussion – Algernon Blackwood, Marion Milner, and Friedrich Schelling – seem to form a rather unlikely trio, especially if you’re looking for insights into politics in the Anthropocene. Before I can examine why they complement each other so well – not to mention what insights they do, in fact, provide when grouped together – I’ll introduce each figure, since my impression is that none of them tend to be particularly familiar to us.

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Algernon Blackwood  (1869-1951) was an English writer of horror and fantasy tales in the early 20th century. Best known for such stories as “The Willows” – considered by H. P. Lovecraft to be one of the finest weird tales ever written – Blackwood’s output ranges from the didactic and whimsical to the disconcerting, eerie, and haunting. As Mike Ashley, S. T. Joshi, and others document, his stories tarry constantly with dark vitalities and psychic doctors, with transformative terrors and with the radical disruption, even dissolution, of the subject upon her encounter with natural forces that exceed and escape from the prisonhouse of modern selfhood.

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Marion Milner  (1900-1998), by contrast, was a practicing psychoanalyst, best known for her development of freewriting techniques and introspective journaling, as well as her classic case study of a 20-year-long analysis with a severely schizophrenic analysand, Susan, and her wry self-reflections on the negative capacities of the self in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950). [ . . .] Always of principal interest to Milner is what she perceives as the fundamentally unconscious origins of existential creativity, and how it is that creative acts and practices can be blocked – or else made possible – by the subject’s own comportment toward “inner” and “outer” nature alike. “The idea of a live tree,” she writes, “with its roots hidden in darkness and its branches outspread in the light, seems to me an apt symbol for a way in which one can experience oneself creatively.”

Last, we have Friedrich Schelling, a 19th century German philosopher of nature writing mostly between 1794 and 1815. Schelling argues that nature fundamentally consists of infinite productivity – that is to say, nature is neither the aggregate of all products, nor is it an embodied or underlying “substance,” as for Spinoza. Rather, nature is the very principle of productivity as such. [ . . .] Apparent momentary stability appears insofar as the constitutive opposition of forces in nature flirts with equilibrium and then falls repeatedly into disequilibrium. What this produces, Schelling claims, is not an entropic slide into absolute disequilibrium, but, rather, developmental stages of increasing complexity and reticulation – what Schelling calls “potencies.” A potency is a formal degree of complex organization (or self-organization). Each is composed of “darkness,” that is to say, of matter that is organized more or less differently, thereby giving rise to potencies that exceed basal norms. As Schelling writes in an 1806 essay: “Das Dunkelste aller Dinge, ja das Dunkel selbts nach einigen, ist die Materie” (“Matter is the darkest of all things – indeed, it is the darkness itself”). Accordingly, we see in Schelling a deep fascination with what we can call the “nightside” of nature, that is to say, those expressions of nature that do not reveal themselves easily or, perhaps, at all to the instrumental techniques of the natural sciences.

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Contexts

So there we have them: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling. An author of weird horror stories, a psychoanalyst, and a German Idealist. It’s necessary to note, in passing, the various ways in which we could reconstruct genealogies of influence or force fields of effect that link these apparently disparate figures together. For example, much scholarly work (e.g., Ellenberger, Ffytche, McGrath, Žižek) has been done to show how the German Idealists – and Schelling, in particular – contribute to the development of the concept of the unconscious prior to Freud. On the other hand, the lineage of Dark Romanticism that precedes the weird tale bears no small relationship to these very same discourses – E. T. A. Hoffman was a touchstone for Freud, of course, while a figure like Heinrich von Kleist was close friends with Gotthilf Schubert, one of Schelling’s disciples. In Blackwood’s case, some of the meager scholarship addressing him examines the influence of Gustav Fechner upon his work. Fechner, a German psychologist in the mid-19th century, was a late devotee of Schelling’s, and much of his work assigned itself the task of reconciling the mind/body problem, specifically. Rather than dwelling further on any of these genealogies, however, I’d like to put all three figures to a more speculative use.

Inherit the darkness: Schelling

It’s from Schelling primarily that the concept of creative darkness emerges, although, as Eugene Thacker and others have noted, affinities between various descriptive vocabularies of darkness and some sense of primal, or primary, creativity can be discovered in many alternative traditions (ranging from various Western mystical traditions to the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo and even the Tao Te Ching).

Creative darkness refers to the interaction between the emergence of ontological novelty as the product of creative agency or action, on the one hand, and the alluring, but often disconcerting or even horrifying opacity of nature, on the other hand.

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For Schelling’s philosophy of nature, the question is always: How do free subjects emerge in nature? I think this is a particularly relevant question for any attempt to think a meaningful, nonpostural politics in the Anthropocene – a term that, as Timothy Morton excels at pointing out, implies both the remarkable power of human agency and nevertheless implicates the human in the ecological crisis we face today. Accordingly, the attempt to conjure possible existential alternatives to our current path is one of our principal political tasks today. To do this – to create “new modes and orders” (borrowing the term from Machiavelli) – requires first that we attend closely to the seething darkness of nature itself – both “inner” and “outer.”

“Rooted in darkness”: Milner

It’s here, then – for our sense of the “the inner darkness of our nature,” or the natures that we are – that the turn to Milner proves most productive, for she unceasingly directs our attention to the expressions and sources of the creative unconscious as implicit in the materiality of the body itself. For Milner, the unconscious is not a generically ideological writing machine, nor is it the subject of symbolic interpolation, but rather, the interface between the body and what we still rather unimaginatively still call “the mind.” For Milner, the body and the mind are not distinct entities in any sense. Bodies dream, feel, and think long before they are conscious. Having a mind – or, perhaps more clearly, making a mind happen – is one of the many things that bodies do. So there’s a sense in which the unconscious is the body, or that function of the body that makes minds and enables minds to take shape, to endure, to change, and to shift over time.

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I think Milner is directing our attention toward what I’d call a deeply personal materialism, one which simultaneously separates and sutures action and ideation in the conscious and unconscious personality of the subject. Hence Milner’s advocacy for what we might call a arboreal model of the self (as against the various [rhizomatic] [] models of subjectivity proposed in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari): “So it was that I came to try thinking of the tree as a symbol for the ego’s direct, non-symbolic sense of its own being: something rooted in darkness, but spreading its branches into the light.”

Sylvan darkness: Blackwood

In Blackwood’s novella, “[The Man Whom the Trees Loved],” [] precisely this same structural emergence of the subject takes place, albeit at a different scale. Although Blackwood almost always directs our attention expressly to the seething darkness of nature “out there” – consider, for example, the endless, earthly alien whispering of the willows in “The Willows” – his interest often turns to dissolving subjects whose very dissolution opens up the possibility for a heightened attunement to the natural world, or else whose interpenetration by inhuman agencies makes possible radically different forms of life or ways of being-in-the-world.

“The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” then, concerns the long, slow seduction and integration of the retired forester David Bitacky by the forest near which he retires. What this seduction largely entails remains ambiguous, although the main character of the story, David’s wife, documents the seduction with unsettlement, at first, and, eventually, horror at the darkly vital stationary green hurricane that the forest embodies. David spends more and more time in the depths of the forest alone – “a man, like a tree, walking.” Eventually, of course, the forest consumes David, and sylvan dread becomes a fierce, verdant joy. As Punter and Byron state, “the transcendence of human concerns that this implies is carefully balanced against his wife’s powerful sense of loss.” Returning to Blackwood: “In the distance she heard the roaring of the Forest further out. Her husband’s voice was in it.”

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Toward a conclusion

In conclusion, I argue that considering the concept of creative darkness through the speculative lens these three figures provide gives us access to a dimension of speculative political theory that we often overlook. Specifically, two central contentions animate the foregoing considerations. First, I want to suggest that the politics of ecological receptivity and transformation we need now are impossible without a new theory of the human subject. Second, I think we need to start looking at why this doesn’t mean what we probably think it means – for by abstracting her out of the conditions of creative darkness, we have fundamentally lost touch or misunderstood what sort of creature a human subject is.

Read the whole paper here.

Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.51/

 

 

 

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