“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” -Meister Eckhart
“Beginning with an abject suffering, the insolence that slyly persists grows again, first slowly, then, in a flash, reaches the wave of happiness affirmed against all reason.” – Georges Bataille, Inner Experience
Growing up Catholic, my family would go to church every Sunday for mass. As a young boy I often felt church to be an interesting and uplifting experience, a chance for me to hang out with God, sing with enough people to hide my tone-deaf voice, and eat doughnuts afterward. In fact, before the disillusionment of my teenage years, I wanted to be either a Catholic priest or a monk. Then video games, hormones, drug experimentation, and a wide range of literature made me walk away from the wonders of an ancient faith. Today, I still hold a lot of animosity toward the church, and the idea of religion in general. But my animosity is also ambivalent because I still have fond memories of church, the moral teachings, and the mysteries that faith presents us.
Reading Janaka Stucky’s latest book Ascend Ascend made me rethink my relationship to religion and spirituality. Not in a way that inspired some kind of transcendent faith experience, nor in a spiritual awakening. Rather, I was more intrigued by Judeo-Christian theology and its relationship to linguistics, continental philosophy, and critical theory. I had recently sat in on a Catholic mass, and was struck by something when the sacrament of communion was being performed. The procession to the altar took the gifts, the bread and wine offerings, and a bible. I was intrigued that after almost 2,000 years, people are still venerating a book. To me, it felt like the power that exists between language and belief, language and thought, and language and faith was profound. These are the mysteries I had been so fascinated with as a boy. Bringing this curiosity to my reading Ascend Ascend, I went down a rabbit hole, and I think I shall never emerge. What follows is less a review than it is a meditation with a text, or indeed a series of texts, that have converged together during this period of intense inner experience and reflection.
Ascend Ascend is comprised of seven incantatory iterations, varying in length, and are titled after aspects of the Kabbalah. The titles of each section are only named in the table of contents, but are marked throughout the book by Archangelic Seals that each represent a multiplicity of associations that are thematic to each section. These titles and seals act as more than a nod toward an ancient ritual, practice, and philosophy, and instead connote their meanings as prayers, incantations, and meditations that are both exploring the relationship between the infinite and material, as well as acting as an esoteric practice to create new worlds where these relations are no longer distinct. I should note, with respect, that I’m not an expert on Kabbalah, nor a practitioner of its rituals. In fact, I remain fairly ignorant of it, but this book has piqued my interest. I should also note that, in order to both maintain mystery for the reader, and for practical brevity, I felt compelled to abbreviate the quoted sections a great deal, marked by ellipsis. I fear it might do the text an injustice considering the weight of the themes covered, but I encourage all to get a copy for themselves and experience the incantations in their own manner. But, this is beside the point. It doesn’t make these things any less interesting from a critical and philosophical point of view, and that is what I shall try to attempt here.
Good God, y’all
We shall begin with God, or at least the concept of God. The proof of God’s existence or non-existence is, essentially, irrelevant. Proofs are not in line with the nature of God as such because God is often portrayed as a productive force, continuously producing and never in a fixed state of post-production through the process of self-determination. God thus emerges from within us, not as the productive intelligence that created us. But, as we are limited by our senses in understanding the world around us, we can only cognize God in the abstract, through the creation and destruction of ideas about God. In many ways, because of this inability to understand God beyond the abstract into the hyperessential noumenal, God exists as a state of unconsciousness, or perhaps even pre-consciousness, subconsciousness, or spectral consciousness. This non-logical state is why there is no way to control the concept of God, and why negation and negativity, working within the states of unconsciousness and its influence on self-determination, bring the concept of God ex nihilio to this discourse. God, therefore, is a kind of Death as an always-already productive force, the effect of which remains, and will remain, unknowable. This conception of Death is not the terminus of all things, only a confusion and extraction of the material to the essential. The body decays and becomes other, and the consciousness (be it waking, logical consciousness, or the subaltern forms that it may take) loses its ability of self-determined expression and remains at the mercy of the pre-determined material conditions as it rots into the essential components of its previous construction. Death, however, is not a finality; there is an object permanence to the universe.
But, does Death nullify? In this world of ours, we need Death to keep us going. It is what we are feeding on after all. This should make one uncomfortable because, for all our distance, we can’t find an escape from God’s judgement. We still find problems with the noumenal, and with the effects of Death. We thrive on the dead – animal and plant carcasses, fossilized energy, microbial environments in our guts – and in this sin, we are allowed to continue breathing, fucking, shitting, living, becoming. We exist by the grace of this sin. Ascend Ascend touches on this in its second section – Yetzirah, the World of Formation
“For reasons inherent
In matter itself
I ascend with agony
On all living things ascending
Ascending I ascend
I am the name itself
The is itself I am
The limit of the great dream”
Ascension with agony is the speaker recognizing the price paid for ascension. And, having assumed responsibility for it, the speaker then inscribes the sin with meaning that can only be accessed through dream, through the states of Godly unconsciousness. It may be a moral action, but it is also one that is simultaneously self-determined and pre-determined. This is nothing new, and in-fact was expanded on by Derrida in his essay How to Avoid Speaking: Denials when he quotes Pseudo-Dionysius:
But here, as we ascend from the highest to what lies beyond, the logos is drawn inward according to the measure of the ascent. After all ascent it will be wholly without sound and wholly united to the unspeakable.
Ascension is thus creating a logos of the negative, and inward state. What could be more inward that an unconscious state? Dreams operate on this kind of logic, this ability to be a whole, full of fractured contradictions, surrealisms, and unspeakables. But in this place where speech remains absent (“without sound” “unspeakable”) any real cognition of the logos remains unavailable to sensory perception. This brings me to the second theme that came to mind reading this book.
Christ called himself the Word, Logos. Logos is the logic of the sacred. Logos is the circle we are bouncing inside of, contained by the walls of the body and the walls of language. The walls of language are bound by involuntary system of difference where meaning is created through relations and rejections between mechanistic variables that range from phonemes, connotations, prescriptive determinations, cultures, and cognitive processes. The walls of the body are bound by an involuntary system of organic relations where meaning is created through stimuli and affective responses. The relation between the two is determined by a multiplicity of variables such as time, space, culture, birth. On a whole, we can image this as a multiplicity of multiplicities, which bounce between self-determination and pre-determination. It is immanent phenomena akin to an Earthly chained God, one that is both capable and incapable of self-determination. These two cancel each other out, and create a linguistic negativity – a void that does not want to be filled. In this way, Logocentrism is related to the Logos of Christ in that Christ acts as the sign connecting the sacred signifier with the profane signified. And as they operate they attempt, in futility, to fill the void created by the negative spaces within language and thought. That is, from the deconstructed point of view, we can only know the Christ-sign by what it is not, and since Derrida has effectively destroyed the powers of the transcendent sign, we can safely say that it is nothing. In a way it could be analogous to quantum physics, where the majority of space is nothingness charged by the location, movements, and polarizations of atoms, quarks, and other fermions. But, meaning still seems to remain because the deconstructive dialectic truncates in on itself and re-creates the concepts.
This has been a top down process – the Logos descends from the essence to the material and inscribes, through the displacement process of ekstasis, the utterances of speech, formed into words, and later into writing. Think about Odin chaining himself to the World Tree only to come up with the Runes, an ancient Nordic alphabet that also served as a divination tool. Language gives us an idea, a concept that we try to wrap our minds around, and when we can’t complete the thought, God intervenes to give us ecstasy – the ability to stand off from one’s Self and perceive something Other. In religious ecstasy the Other is God, or some iteration of a univocal, unifying whole that the Self is but a part of. In existentialist circles, ecstasy is the emotive and empathetic ability to perceive the Other as another person, another consciousness. I don’t think these two are mutually exclusive, and we should turn to the title of the focus work to explain this.
Ascend Ascend is a double imperative that is both encouraging and commanding. In terms of ecstasy, ascension is related to, but differentiated from, transcendence. The trans- prefix here indicates something across, beyond, as if there is a barrier that is able to be broached by a means other than Death. Yet, without trying to touch the noumena, ascension operates within the profane, material world. The speaker then combines the profane affect of religious ecstasy with an utterance of a sacred, expressive, existential ecstasy. What happens to ecstasy when l’existence précède l’essence? We ascend, and the ascension reverses the top-down hierarchical processes of transcendence by allowing the profane signified to inform the sacred.
“Blessed is our cry
Our cry our radiant repeating
The gleaming cinder
Like honey like wax like roses
The world vanishing and nothing
But us remaining beneath the abyss
Of god singing
I am the one that is not
And when the cry comes no longer
Be the vessel the cry comes
Not from your mouth
Alone it is not you talking”
Here the trance induced speaker is wrapping around the contradiction of a simultaneous presence and absence of God. The metaphysics here are expanded with the image metaphors – like honey – that give me a sense of being too holy, and too unholy. It’s sticky with sounds, with cries, and the honey is stuck to the vessel. The body. The mouth. “Be the vessel the cry comes” invokes a loss of singular self-determination, common in mystical circles to become a vessel for the transcendent, in order to command both the reader, the speaker-self, and God to a communion. By bridging these voices, these conscious and unconscious states, and playing with the present absence of God, the speaker is working in what I would call a negative ecstasy.
The trouble with defining this term comes from the myriad relations that are encompassing it. It’s like trying to build a tricycle with a Radio Flyer wagon, a big wheel, and your dad’s dusty 12 speeder rusting in the garage. Taking cues from the negative dialectics of the deconstructed Christ sign, negative theology (a theological process that attempts to define God by what it is not), and the combined religious and existential uses of ecstasy, negative ecstasy is an immanent psychological phenomenon where the Self is not wholly outside of experience, and instead is subsumed into a cognitive and sensory perception of a multiplicity of Other(s). The Self then becomes part and parcel of the Other, is penetrated by the Other, and is then informed, transformed, and mutated by the Other. The speaker in Ascend Ascend expresses this process in the aptly named first section Assiah, the Material World.
“My penetrated body
Rotted by this leprous alien song
I am penetrated
I am penetrated
I am pierced
I am penetrated by insects plants and beasts
The ecstatic march of flesh
I am penetrated by birds by stones
And the wind’s twisted shell
I am penetrated by death and cannot see
Igniting the orchard within
Me the path of names
A stone I name an insect I name
An idea dancing across
A dust motes horizonless gaze
I name a nightmare
The negative ecstasy being experienced by the speaker here can be seen as the speaker’s Self allowing the things which God is not to enter the affective domain of the body, which in-turn inform the body’s relationship and definition of its Self, and of the God concept within. The productive forces of the Death-God bounce around inside the linguistic signs and the walls of the body through the destruction of syntactical consistency and repetitive invocations akin to monastic prayer. The penetrating force is the speaker’s relationship to the material, which produces the immaterial, metaphysical affects of negative ecstasy.
This is a process of horror, of a nightmarish combination of the sacred and profane being held together by the walls of the speaker’s body and language. Instead of being penetrated by Love, the Holy Spirit, or any other Platonic essence, the speaker is penetrated by the profane material of objects – plants, beasts, birds, butterflies – because the speaker always-already contains the sacred signifiers, the malleable meanings of divinity. The act must be painful, and it is this pain which produces the horror.
Explosions of the Sublime
Pain and suffering of the material world is channeled, subsumed, and passed through the body of the speaker. As we have seen, this is done through a mixture of juxtaposition between the sacred and profane, as well as the patterns between signs and signifiers that emerge from a trance infused with negative ecstasy and a logos of material ascension. Repetition also works for the speaker here as they merge thought, image, and affect while trying to find the limits and demarcations of the sign. The speaker fails and explodes, but the explosion is preeminent, and the repetitive nature of the incantations provide a poetics of a God finding productivity in the failure by not allowing much pause, and certainly not any cessation. The fifth section, Beri’ah, the World of Creation, begins in a dream that is marked by an apostrophe to the “celestial city.” The dream builds momentum until the speaker begins a repetitive phrase – “I explode in blood sublimely” – which foregrounds the creative productivity of the poet-priest.
“I am the preworld objectless scape of ink
Extolling the death bell forever
Calling each fin to sup
I am the eater of history and darkness
I am the root of the tongue
I explode in blood sublimely
Each epoch of my red milk
Forged to tendrils of perfect knowing
In the ceaseless gentle hammering of gills
I explode in blood sublimely
Dispossessed approaching the negative
Dusk of rainbows extinguished
In the belly of a terrible worm” (46-47)
This section builds on the negative ecstasy that has been occurring throughout, but there seems to be a crescendo building in the intensity of the language through the proximity of repetitive signs. The explosions of blood, in blood, operate in the negative ecstasy of a speaker full of a new world, one erupting from the walls of body and language. It’s as if the speaker has built themselves as a cosmic egg, one that began undifferentiated by meaning and affect, and is about to hatch a new existence. The speaker then calls for the reception of the blood (yolk?) to the chaosmos.
“The angels receive me
Amid their thrashing enormous flippers
And fins receive me
Amid their cavernous and holy
Gullets receive me
Amid their glutted
The fourth dimension of the eternal
An insect I buzz
Hallelujah into the abyss” (49-51)
The book could have ended here on a signatory note, but it does not. The processes of negative ecstasy, incantations, and ritualistic destruction of the ego and the Self continue, and at many points they exceed analysis. These excesses add to the intuitive affect, akin to a religious experience, that Ascend Ascend built throughout each section.
Unfortunately, I was not able to witness Janaka Stucky perform these rituals during his Atlas Obscura tour. I’m sure the effect would have been intensified, but I was nonetheless moved by this book and the mystical and mysterious way it operated through an ancient ritual informed by a troubled modern world. I did, however, read Ascend Ascend with a specially curated playlist (below). I feel like this book is necessary for our dying, troubled world. There needs to be a massive transformation in how we view ourselves and our relationship to the world around us, one that is not informed by the abject quest for wealth, for validation, for war. This is one of many beginnings toward that end, and I could envision us all buzzing Hallelujah into the abyss.
Playlist (Band/Artist – Album):
- OM – Advaitic Songs
- OM – God is Good
- Earth – Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light I & II
- Panopticon – Autumn Eternal
- Graves At Sea – The Curse That Is
- Bell Witch – Four Phantoms
- Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos – Chant
- Johannes Brahms – Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (perf. Itzhak Perlman)
1. Derrida, Jacques. “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.” Languages of the Unsayable: the Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, edited by Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 3–70.