“Spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” This Nietzchean statement puzzles and challenges. What might a spirituality that cuts life -- rather than just skimming over its surface -- look like?
Spirit Cuts Life: Heathenry that Seeks Purchase in the World’s Flesh
“Spirit is the life that itself cuts life.” This Nietzchean statement puzzles and challenges. What does a spirituality that cuts life – rather than just skimming over its surface – look like?
In an era where stated beliefs and actual deeds tend to fall far apart, we are pressed by the question of a spirituality that finds purchase in the world’s flesh. Expansive though it is, the question is also personal. I propose to explore it through my own metaphors and filters: Heathenry, runes, chaos magic, alchemy, psychology, philosophy, music, history, art, and the gods only know what else.
I use words as a tool for transformation. They’re powerful things; Heidegger assures us that “language is the house of Being,” and the Old Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem advises that “[the divine] is the chief of speech.” So much of culture, belief, and action is possible only through the pre-figuring power of words, lending order and structure to our perception, telling us where to attend and how to act.
Yet we all too easy fall into an abyss, one which lies between speech and action. We need metaphors with flesh, sinew, bone, and blood – else be stranded in the drought-stricken plains of empty intention. The purpose of my writing for “Spirit Cuts Life” is, therefore, to arm myself with words that can propel me across the chasm of irony and hypocrisy, a chasm which doggedly haunts the human condition. In the process I hope to share sentiments that help others to do the same.
These articles, therefore, may be personal narratives, or reflections on symbols, or short stories, or any sort of strange combination of the above. Their purpose is to spit in the soup of life, to sow seeds of discontent that might thereby sprout into unexpected possibilities. Their purpose is to be a thorn that pricks the side of laziness, fear, and forgetfulness. Their purpose is to provoke, question, even confuse (myself included).
My own abyss of word and deed lies in the twin flaws of amnesia and doubt.
Amnesia: despite all the strange and uncanny experiences I have been gifted with, I still find the allure of reality-as-meaningless-Brownian-motion to be all too compelling. Doubt: first it was “does this magic stuff really work?” Then it became “well I know this magic stuff works, but maybe I’m personally just too hopeless to make it work ever again!” There is a certain brand of arrogance in which one can think oneself unique and special in one’s flaws and isolation; with such artifice one fumbles at covering over the existential abyss.
Words, words, words. Mad things that coil around us. Our minds produce them endlessly, automatically, below the threshold of awareness. Taming the Word seems to be essential if spirit is to cut life in my life, which is to say, if my life is to be genuinely spiritual and not merely a semblance, a rootless performance to be trotted out for gatherings of peers or for articles like this.
What words lie heavy with value for you, bear you down, anchor your soaring wits to the stolid earth? What words moor you in the storm of crisis, grief, loss, or the uncanniness of inevitable change? The Heathen Anglo-Saxons saw words as a comfort to the wise; we can presume that they only meant the “right” words. We tend to swamp ourselves with negative scripts, but cutting life requires an aggressive cultivation of life affirmation.
Which carries me to the distant shore of Runa, of matters runic. The original meaning of rune is mystery, and here we have our first bridge between action and word; here we have an opportunity to cut life if we seize it aright. A rune – a symbol, a definite, delimited, unambiguous statement, yet one which dissolves into endless associations and interconnections when thought turns to rumination.
Runes condense mystery into something that can be objectified – or subjectified – but in any case, grasped. And with this railing to cling to in the face of the torrent, an opportunity to proceed is invited. Runes can lead down the garden path of academic abstraction if we let them (though by the same token, without critical thinking and at least a bit of scholarly ethic, they will be hesitant to release their secrets). But they can also be a bridge, or a series of fords and byways.
So I propose to step through the door that the runes – meant in the broadest sense – imply; I propose to trace out actions and experiments that can help me to cut life, to become living spirit.
Hegel wrote about something he called objective spirit, and it is a notion of relevance to these reflections. For Hegel, there is the spirit, the subjective, which is to say, human faculties such as understanding, reason, imagination. And there are objects and objective reality. The former lack density and solidity; the latter yield not to human comprehension, but bind it in exasperating refusal.
But in objective spirit we find the marriage of thought and object. When an artist or maker turns the unformed into a thing of both function and beauty – there is objective spirit. For now the inner, the subjective, is reflected back from the objective world. Spirit finds flesh; flesh is guided by meaning. The reflection is never perfect; the idea is set free by accepting the realities and limitations of the medium, and in this way spirit and object become equals, trans-forming one another.
Once this relationship becomes possible, the human imagination begins perhaps even to appreciate the meaning of things unworked and untouched by thought and feeling. The ground for our love of wildness lies in our ability to tame things by letting them make us a little more wild in return. This is the alchemical marriage of spirit and matter.
For the old Heathens, sacred places tended to be places where wild nature was palpable, but where human artifice was also present – one reason why prehistoric megaliths remain sacred even today, or why so much of Heathen art was dominated by nature themes. Our creative urge opens our eyes to experience what was always already there.
Is this holy crow above me.
Black as holes within a memory
And blue as our new second sun.
I stick my hand into his shadow
To pull the pieces from the sand.
Which I attempt to reassemble
To see just who I might have been.
I do not recognize the vessel,
But the eyes seem so familiar.
Like phosphorescent desert buttons
Singing one familiar song...”
– Tool, “Third Eye”
To cut life is to be in the business of creating objective spirit. Of allowing myself to have my inner life manifest in the world around me; of allowing the world around me to set order and sense and fixity to my volatile inner nature. And the bridge is runic, mysterious, for the runes tell stories about objective life, but in such a way that they help subjective spirit to song.
Recently I have been having a romance with the Löwenmensch, a 32-35,000 year old mammoth tusk carving found in Germany. This figure depicts a human with the head of a smiling lion, and it radiates a self-satisfied, generous, and beneficently powerful aura. Löwenmensch had to be pieced painstakingly together from 200 shards, and indeed the work still continues. I see myself as being the same – my life a process of painstaking assembly. At times an intuition of the final result hovers, a guiding thought; at times, total despair and bewilderment reigns.
The lion-headed man to me represents a very early expression of spirit – the life that itself cuts life – of the man-beast whose grim countenance nevertheless cannot resist mirth. Laughter was Zarathustra’s greatest weapon, and play – and we will see whether cutting into life might not also be a dance and a rune and a song.
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