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This fragmentary text was found by priests of Kǎichè, May He Live Forever, Great Lord of the Last Empire, in the Year 220 AF. It was contained in a far north KHE resilience that had survived the Flame Deluge that ended the Age of Legends. Further excavations are now ongoing at the site, under the supervision and protection of the Guardian of the 7th Chimera Horde (Mosike).

Modern natural science has hacked away at the idea of a Designer God as more and more phenomena have fallen prey to rational explanation. All the arguments for God’s existence yet dreamt of sink under one paradox or another – cosmology through infinite regression, ontology through elementary logic, and teleology through evolution – the latter of which has even displaced God as the cause of directionality in universal history. While Darwin originally applied it to explain the development of the biosphere (the thin layer of flaura and fauna that covers the Earth), it has since been extended into the boundless past-and-future (Vernadsky’s and de Chardin’s theories of universal evolution). However, evolution is as hopeless as traditional objects of belief when it comes to explaining truly deep metaphysical questions…like why are we? Science can keep shaving away swathes of time in its quest to get closer to the Big Bang, yet it is unimaginable that pure positivism could ever explain the reason behind it.

The only possible resolution is to posit that the world of forms, the realm of mathematics, is not only a deeper reality than what we perceive – it is the only reality. What we perceive as spacio-temporal reality is but an extraordinarily complex, by our standards, mathematical object. This is an incredible claim which will doubtless be met with incredible incredulity. While proving it is impossible, it should be accepted as axiomatic, internalized in the same way that we accept that two parallel lines never meet in Euclidean geometry. Science over the centuries has rejected old folkish beliefs that matter was continuous and elemental (earth, fire, water, etc) and replaced them with evidence that space-time is made up of discrete, if very small, units – cells, atoms, ‘chronons’. There seem to be fundamental limits on observation into the worlds that lie hidden within Planck distances and in between Planck time. So if the universe is discrete, it can in principle be run by a universal computer.

Rebuttals hinging on subjective experience can be side-stepped; as Kant argued in the Critique of Pure Reason, space and time are merely forms of intuition by which we perceive objects. So it goes for “consciousness”, an evolved construct that manifests itself as an emergent pattern. Evolution itself can be modelled from surprisingly simple rules – a simple and graphic way of looking at this is to imagine the universe as a huge, universal cellular automaton. A cellular automaton is a grid with cells, whose states (e.g. black or white) change depending on their neighbours after each iteration to create a new generation. Some can create order and complexity out of initial chaos, thus fulfilling a key criterion of evolution.

A consequence is that all that might be, is – for the world of forms, which we shall call the Void, has all possible mathematical objects. To cite the chapter What Might Be Is from the ancient book Sublime Oblivion:

In a sense, the Void fulfils all the criteria of God. Null and unity, it transcends the human imagination, for human minds are finite in scope. It sidesteps the ‘who created the creator?” paradox, for it is. And was, and will be, though being outside Time, its directionality becomes meaningless. It is zero and infinity of cardinal infinity. What might be, is. All possible cellular automata, all of which can be represented by Turing machines, exist and are. The Void is everywhere, in every one of us, and nowhere.

[missing text] … The next two chapters explore the consequences. Chapter 30, Struggle and Suicide, makes a point that all in life and in history can be reduced to struggle (belief – the illusion of meaning) and suicide (nihilism – the absence of meaning). Evolution is nothing more or less than the dialectic between struggle and suicide, yet they are intimately related, since suicide is only reached through struggle, while suicide is a “rejection of reason and an embrace of struggle”. But what exactly connects the two?

From Chapter 110, Sublime Games

One of the ways humans are unique is in their appreciation of aesthetics; Dostoevsky remarked that ‘beauty is mysterious as well as terrible’, and according to Schopenhauer reaches its pinnacle in the form of the sublime, a concept of greatness beyond mortal imagination…

Schopenhauer saw beauty (pleasure through peaceful contemplation of a benign thing) rising to sublimity (pleasure through seeing a vast, threatening thing capable of undoing the observer) and reaching a terrifying crescendo in the ‘fullest feeling of sublime’ – knowledge of the vastness of the universe in all its dimensions and the consequent insignificance of the observer.

However, the spiritual dialectic in history has also expanded human consciousness to the realm of the sublime! The Claws of Cthulthu [science] have torn humanity from the absolute; this struggle comes to an end with the sublime soul, which recognizes the Void as the Sublime, one and same. At the end we have Trinity: Struggle and Suicide, and the Sublime, which is the relation between them.

The soul of struggle knows what is good and what is evil and strives towards the Sublime, but only reaching it through suicide – the casting away of illusions and reconciliation with an absurd world, when according to Camus, humanity’s striving for unity meets the cold, indifferent universe. There can be no salvation for the (post-historical) sublime soul, for which there can be no meaning and no understanding of what is good and what is evil (for those are the products of history) – the only final resolution is a rejection of reason and reversion to struggle.

A profoundly pessimistic philosophy, maybe even a kind of nihilist manifesto? – but only to those still in the world of struggle.

These views are their fortune, for they are not afflicted with the existential despair of the sublime soul, which yearns for unity (due to its incomplete break from the world of struggle). Yet they are also their loss – the sublime soul knows that contemplation of a dancing flame, the ungentle seas and starry sky has value of its own. After all, gaming is fun.

On the Apocalypse: The end of the world holds a certain fascination to many people, even a seduction. The word itself is derived from a Greek word that literally means a ‘lifting of the veil’, a kind of relevation to a chosen elect (and a wonder of the mystery that is an integral part of Orthodox Christianity). The act in itself is beautiful, appealing to the human aesthetic. The other side of it is the eschaton, which refers to the actual end of the world, typically in a sudden and violent cataclysm.

This, however, is sublime – pleasure in seeing an unimaginable vast, malignant object that threatens to undo the observer, according to Schopenhauer; or as per Kant, while beauty is “connected with the form of the object”, the sublime “is to be found in a formless object” of absolute, boundless greatness. While beauty could be understood, the sublime “shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense”. Thus, a rose is beautiful; a tsunami or a nuclear detonation is sublime. Schopenhauer saw the fullest feeling of the sublime manifested in contemplation of the universe, its immensity and the consequent insignificance of the observer (a point made in Struggle and Suicide is that this reaches its logical conclusion when the sublime soul internalizes the Void). Thus, appreciation of the Apocalypse is merely a function of how well-developed one’s sence of aesthetics is.

Hence there is a Trinity in the Apocalypse – the revelation (lifting of the veil and enlightenment), the supremely sublime end of the world itself and the relation between them, which is the apokalupsis eschaton – the revelation at the end of the world. It is the act by which beauty morphs into sublimity; a majestic sublimation that lays bare the great sublime in all its consummate transcendence.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
What a picture wants? Sublime emotions, not words or analysis.
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The sea billows in its elemental rage and snow-capped mountains loom above the thick fog ahead. A schooner and dinghy flounder in a fury of air and water, forlorn and forsaken. Sailors can be made out on the two ships, frantic atoms against a backdrop of deadly beauty. Insignificant, they stand out. After all, the sublime needs a human presence (yardstick?) to be appreciated.

The painting is ‘Stormy Sea’ (1868) by Ivan Aivazovsky. He was one of the most prolific Russian artists and is especially famous for his mastery of the seascape, which ranged from the calm (‘The Coast at Amalfi’) to the catastrophic (‘The Storm’).

What does it mean to ‘want’? Negatively defined, it is to be deficient in something, such that the absence of it grates on the soul. When we look at a picture, in a sense it becomes a part of us, a simulation in that part of the brain responsible for visual processing. Conflicts can appear between our innate sense of aesthetics and the simulation that was thrust into our mind. Presumably then, a picture is in want of something if it is deficient in something – an object, or perhaps something more general, say lighting. Or maybe it completely fails to arouse any interest and can be dismissed. In any case, let’s say a picture wants what we want of it.

However, in ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, Kundera wrote, ‘we can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.’ In other words, wanting cannot be an enterprise based on pure reason – since we live life only once (that we know of, anyway), we have no basis for comparison had we decided to want another way. Einmal ist keinmal. When we perceive pictures, we do it from the prism of time and space – a form of intuition, according to Kant in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. They become for us (to use the existentialist slang). So when looking at pictures and their wants, we must cast aside the Apollonian and embrace the Dionysian. (This also conveniently saves me from exposing my ignorance of the jargon of art criticism. Should I really be writing this?).

People seek to add beauty in their lives. It is the silent orchestra to which they march to, the invisible sketch along which they tread. Commanding admiration, it is a source of social power that has been exploited since the cave art of the Upper Paleolithic.

Yet beauty has no moral value of its own. Dostoevsky remarked that ‘beauty is mysterious as well as terrible’; according to Schopenhauer, it reaches its pinnacle in the form of the sublime, a concept of greatness beyond mortal imagination. Schopenhauer saw beauty (pleasure through peaceful contemplation of a benign thing) rising to sublimity (pleasure through seeing a vast, threatening thing capable of undoing the observer) and reaching a terrifying crescendo in the ‘fullest feeling of sublime’ – knowledge of the vastness of the universe in all its dimensions and the consequent insignificance of the observer.

The power of nature has been the motif par excellence of art that seeks the sublime since the Romantic period. (I say ‘seeks’, because a storm on a canvass can never threaten the life of an observer in the same way a real storm could. At best, it can build shaky bridges to the sublime, by creating a simulation of the real storm inside the mind of the observer. On another, not entirely related note, movies and especially video games can create such ‘simulations’ much more effectively than a novel or painting – yet Film Studies are derided and I know of no Video Games courses. But I digress).

This subliminal, transcendent power of nature is made explicitly clear in ‘Stormy Sea’. Humans and their petty constructions are utterly powerless against Poseidon’s trident. The best they can do is cling onto their ships (finite chunks of wood hacked out of seamless, elemental Gaia) and pray her revenge doesn’t snuff out their finite, atomistic lives. And all the while the mountain towers all of them, as if it wants to bear them down into the water by the sheer scale of its presence.

I want this painting to go further. I want the waves to break apart the ships and spill its cargo across the waters. Not out of vindictiveness, but because I appreciate the aesthetic. ‘Apocalypse’ is derived from a Greek word that literally means a ‘lifting of the veil’, a kind of revelation to a chosen elect of the eschaton, which refers to the end of the world or similar big, bad thing. For the Apocalyptic in art is nothing less than the pinnacle of the human aesthetic. It is the act by which beauty morphs into sublimity; a graceful disrobement that lays bare the sublime in all its consummate transcendence.

The ships are physical manifestations of the human soul. In the painting, there is a break in the clouds which illuminates the ocean beneath it. There is a dark land mass from the left. (The dinghy, more ‘human’ in scale and spirit than the schooner, lies closer to both light and darkness). Light is traditionally associated with hope and good; dark with despair and evil. Yet here they are in a cruel transposition, for the choice is either drowning in the illuminated water (succumbing to false hope) or seeking salvation on the black earth. Will they choose bliss, ignorance, the unbearable lightness of being; or will they choose the heavy burden of reason (which can dash them against its treacherous rocks)? And will they have a choice?

Therefore myself, I want the picture to come alive. Let the simulation play itself out. It might be deterministic… but the sublime soul knows that contemplation of the ungentle seas and rippling sky has value of its own. After all, gaming is fun.

As for the picture itself, I don’t know what it wants. I do know what it doesn’t want, though. People writing essays purporting to know what it wants.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.