“That Foul Great Swallow”

Have you ever stepped up to the edge of a cliff, and then stepped back suddenly, shaken and appalled that the drop-off was much worse than you expected?  This experience is not at all uncommon, and it serves as the basis of our metaphysical expression “stare into the void,” or, as some say, “the abyss.”  What men see when they stare into the metaphysical void is not entirely clear, but there can be no doubt that they see something, and also that it is a very curious sort of void in which something may be seen.

Speaking as one who has himself teetered, appalled, on brinks material and brinks metaphysical, I will testify that what men see in the void is nothingness, or, if you like, non-being.  I am not enough of a metaphysician to explain how a man is conscious of nothingness, or even just what this means.  All I know is that I have stepped into the place where absence is present, and when I did, I stepped back suddenly, shaken and appalled.

Most of us step into this place with the thought of our own death.  I do not mean the thought of our dying, which is a fearful anticipation of panic and pain, but the thought of not being, annihilation, nothingness.  I mean the thought of our own absolute absence. If the night is long and melancholy is cruel, this thought will grow and blossom like a poison flower.  It is not only ourselves that will not be, but everything we have ever loved, and known, and done—indeed everything whatsoever. All things will at last pass through the door to annihilation, and nothing but nothingness will remain.

“Our dust will share the common lot,
And, oh, how soon it is forgot”*

That nothing but nothingness will remain is an appalling thought.  And to see this with the mind’s eye is to stare into the abyss.

When in such a mood, Nietzsche counsels “courage.”   “Courage,” he writes, “even slayeth giddiness night abysses.”  This may be true for all I know, but in my experience, it is abysses that slayeth courage.

Or, later in same book, Zarathustra says: “Courage hath he who knoweth fear but subdueth fear; he who seeth the abyss, but with pride.”

What this means I cannot say, for it seems to me that “he who seeth the abyss” sees that all is vanity, pride not excepted.  If Nietzsche though pride could save a man at the brink of the abyss, I think he greatly underestimated the voracity of the void.

The abyss swallows everything.

“And what thing soever besides cometh within the chaos of this monster’s mouth, be it beast, boat, or stone, down it goes all incontinently that foul great swallow of his, and perisheth in the bottomless gulf of his paunch.”**


*) Charles W. Hubner, “The Lesson of the Leaf” (1881)
**) Plutarch, quoted in Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)

12 thoughts on ““That Foul Great Swallow”

  1. Pingback: “That Foul Great Swallow” | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: “That Foul Great Swallow” | Reaction Times

    • As I said, he greatly underestimated the voracity of the abyss. It is simply not the sort of thing at which one can scoff or sneer.

      • Incidentally, JM, I recently had precisely the experience that you describe in your opening paragraph. Richard Cocks, Dick Fader, and I visited the Salmon River Falls north and east of Oswego. The two Richards were braver than I, walking up the very edge of the 100-foot drop. I couldn’t push myself any closer than about twenty feet from the verge. No abysses for me.

      • It’s like that moment when you are listening to a postmodern academic reading his paper and you simultaneously realize the depth of his nonsense and the strength of his belief in it. The ground just drops away at your feet!

      • Dr. Bertonneau, that’s funny.
        My father was a sort of a thrill-seeker and “fearless” in his own way. As such, and when I was around 16 years-old, he purchased a hang glider that we would spend several months in small installments learning how to fly. We started out rather small and relatively safe in our self-taught lessons, beginning with small pond dams in the local area and minor sloping hills.
        As it was, however, one of my great uncles owned several thousand acres of property bordering to the South on the Red River. About a quarter of a mile north of the river on a section of the property there was/is a “bluff” that is between 150-200 ft in height. At the bottom of the bluff is a pecan grove, or a “pecan bottom” as we always called it.
        The side of the bluff itself is virtually vertical and relatively clear of trees and foliage extending several hundred feet from its bottom. My father and I would go there now and again with the hang glider in tow. Thrill-seeker that he was, my dad would stand at the edge of the cliff and envision himself gliding down its steep slope on the hang glider.
        Now, I have personally never been the sort of thrill-seeker that even my father was in his reticence to jump off that cliff. Nevertheless I was extremely unaware of the danger that doing so presented at 16 years-old. On more than one occasion I literally begged my dad to let me jump off it on the hang glider. But in his good wisdom (thank God!) he always answered my petition with an emphatic “no!”
        In the midst of all of this my dad and I devised a plan together of attaching the hang glider to a rope and pulling it into the wind to assist in giving us more lift. The wind was gusty the day we put it all to the test. I was second in line behind dad to give it a try. Dad’s ride went off without a hitch; with the help of several of us towing the rope he managed to get off the ground about thirty feet and to safely (and almost perfectly) glide back to the ground. My ride/flight was not so perfect nor perfectly executed. I made a fundamental mistake initially by pointing the nose too steeply into the relative wind. Coupled with the fact that we had already moved ahead from human towing to that of a pickup truck, and the fact that the wind became progressively stronger and more gusty, this all combined to be disastrous.
        The short of it is that I violently crashed the hang-glider from the height of about 100 feet. In the very moment that I completely lost control of the craft, I saw the abyss Prof. Smith speaks of, and have never forgotten the experience! Fortunately I walked away from the incident relatively unscathed; the hang glider itself incurred quite a bit more damage than I did, as it turned out. Which was fine by my thrill-seeking dad apparently, because within a week of that incident he had sold it to some other thrill-seeker in the area, and never again did we speak of the incident until many years later.
        I can still stand at the edge of that cliff and look off into the pecan bottom with nostalgic memories, but I have no interest nor desire to jump off it on a hang glider!

      • If you think Nietzsche was scoffing or sneering at the abyss, you have misread him entirely. There are plenty of things to complain of in Nietzsche, but he wasn’t a jackass.

      • You’re right that “scoffing” and “sneering” are not exactly right. He wanted hard men, not flippant men. He wanted men to act like Ajax and Achilles, not like Oscar Wilde. There was a time when the word “grim” would have expressed the attitude of resolute and unflinching determination, but I think the note of trepidation has crept into even that word. Now that I think of it, the difficulty I have describing his preferred attitude in just a few English words may be part of the problem.

      • “Grim”? Have you actually read Zarathustra? It is the opposite of grim.

        Nietzsche and Wilde actually have a lot in common (both aphorists, both radical aesthetes).

        It is not that hard to make out Nietzche’s attitude, basically an affirmation of Being in the face of the void. This may be ridiculously prideful, but it is no way grim or sneering.

      • I’m sorry this comment was lost for a month. I was not trying to suppress a critical remark. As I said in my comment, I was using the word grim in its old sense of “resolute and unflinching determination,” not in its new sense of dismal. You are absolutely right that Nietzsche’s philosophy was an attempt at secular transcendence of “dismal science.” Zarathustra was, by my reading, a rejection of Victorian sentimentality, and I believe Victorian sentimentality needed rejection.

  3. At age seventeen, cliff-climbing with my buddy Al Cunningham on the crumbly yellow shale ramparts of Pt. Dume in Malibu, the collapse of that part of a ledge that I had just sidled along left me stranded for a nervously calculating hour or so fifty feet above the rocks and waves. To cross the gap back to safety (well, relative safety) required getting my fingers into a tiny slot in the cliff-face above my head and about halfway across the gap and then twisting my body through space so as to get a foothold on the other side; whereupon I could swing again and have both feet on the intact ledge. The geometry of it is difficult to explain. It should not have worked, I should be dead; but it did work. Now — no more abysses for me.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.