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)