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Gleanings: Bruce Sterling's Daemon, Creative Serendipity, and the Heaven of the Now
Distilled recommendations from reading into the dark
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Here are a few new reading and viewing recommendations brought back from my recent foragings. Items this time include:
science fiction legend Bruce Sterling on the daemon as primal storyteller
a shared experience of daemonic serendipity between two artists interviewed by my sister for the Peabody Essex Museum
nondual teacher Rupert Spira on the reality behind the religious metaphor of being reunited with loved ones after death
All italicized emphases in quoted passages are added by me.
Bruce Sterling — “The daemon is a sense-making network”
I recently came across a striking passage about the creative daemon in the introduction to the 2014 fiction collection Ascendancies: The Best of Bruce Sterling. Sterling is of course famed — or rather, legendary — as one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement, someone who helped to implant the whole thing firmly and deeply in the collective consciousness. Some years ago at a genre convention in Austin, I was fortunate to serve with him on a panel about dystopian fiction and its real-world connections. The conversation was good, the audience was engaged, and Sterling was personable when I thanked him afterward for the positive interaction. For all these reasons, he has always remained on my radar.
Maybe that’s why I was so struck to see him offering his personal take on the daemon’s nature and talking about its role in his fiction-writing process.
First, he mentions that he possesses a plethora of idea for stories he hasn’t written yet:
I’ve got a hundred idea for other [stories beyond the ones I’ve already written] — really weird ideas — but, well, ideas aren’t stories. As stories, I’ve yet to get them done.
Then he invokes the metaphor of the daemon and weds it to the idea of building something with Legos to explain how he senses when one of his ideas has reached fulfillment in a finished story:
A Sterling story is generally done — or it stops, at least — when the writer’s inner creative daemon has fully stacked up its Lego blocks.
Next, he explicates this daemonic Lego builder idea in greater detail, averring that the daemon isn’t so much a conscious intelligence as a primal imaginative drive that views all creation as building blocks for its own manifestation in stories and other sense-making mediums, which the conscious, rational mind then serves to shape, edit, and refine for public consumption:
Rational analysis is never the strong suit of the inner daemon. The inner daemon is profoundly creative, yet he’s rather stupid. A creative daemon by nature is a rather simple, headstrong being who sees the cosmos as daemon-friendly toy-blocks. The daemon assembles a mental world from raw confusion into some meaningful coherency. He does that through assembling his blocks. The daemon himself is made of the blocks. He’s not a conscious personality, he’s much lower in the chain-of-being than that; the daemon is a sense-making network, some pre-conscious society-of-mind. The daemon is a capturer of imagination. That’s his reason for being.
When the daemon is on top of his game, he can whip up a story from his shadowy basement of mentality. A story is a tower of blocks, one with some coherent structure of feeling. A story says something evocative about the world, it somehow means something. . . . Then the conscious mind can bind that in wire, slap on a label and ship it.
Sterling finishes by noting that writers and other artists don’t actually control this creative drive and its accompanying process. They just shepherd it along.
That’s how I write stories. That’s how these works came into being. Thanks for putting up with that confession. I rather hope to do a lot more of that. I don’t do it with any particular regularity because I’m not fully in control of the process. The same goes for a lot of artists. You learn to live with that.
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The daemon of serendipity
My sister, Dinah Cardin, produces and hosts PEMcast, the podcast of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. (A brief brotherly brag: Earlier this year PEMcast won a MUSE Award from the American Alliance of Museums.) The latest episode focuses on artists whose work is inspired by and interacts with the planetary climate crisis, and one segment, featuring a conversation with photographer Stephen Gorman and illustrator Ed Koren, caught my ear because of its unique invocation of the same thing Sterling noted above: the sense of creativity as something autonomous, something other, a strange force that we do not so much control as mediate.
Gorman and Koren’s works are presently paired in PEM’s exhibition “Down to the Bone,” which “centers on the uncanny synergy between Gorman’s wildlife and landscape photographs, and Koren’s drawings, lithographs, and etchings.” Here’s how the daemon of creativity, not mentioned explicitly but definitely hovering somewhere nearby, arose in the two men’s conversation with my sister:
DINAH: While the artists both live in Vermont and work toward a similar mission, they long worked independently, unbeknownst to one another. [Speaking directly to Ed and Steve:] All of a sudden it was like, “Why is Ed drawing Steve’s photographs?”
STEVE: That was my wife, Mary, when we walked into Ed’s exhibition at a gallery in Vermont and went over to see his drawings. We walked in and Mary said, “You know, Ed has drawn your photographs.”
ED: And I was equally gobsmacked. I’ve been drawing these drawings for a long time, and Steve has come along and copied them for photographs. But not really at all, not in the least. Just serendipity. Just total, complete chance.
DINAH: How did these creatures [in the drawings] come about?
ED: I don’t know. They just came. I mean, literally, that’s the case. It starts with a mark on a piece of paper and proceeds from there to the final drawing. And sooner or later, I’m confronted with something I really like.
Heaven is the truth of our being
In recent years I have lost several close family members, including, most pointedly, my father. Having been raised in a conventionally evangelical Protestant religious tradition, which was and is itself located in the midst of the wider American tradition of Protestant Christian religious belief, I had the idea of a post-mortem reunion with loved ones imprinted on my psyche at a very young age. In later life, as my spiritual and philosophical understanding has matured and evolved, I watched my belief in the literal reality of such a thing softly fade away.
But the basic idea of experiencing a fundamental reunion with the essence of a cherished human relationship has remained with me. I have come to regard the idea of a reunion with my father or anyone else as a powerful spiritual metaphor, a projected story that encodes and contains a truth that is actually more real than literal truth.
This is why I appreciate the following words from Rupert Spira, one of the present age’s most lucid and elegantly articulate exponents of nondual spiritual wisdom. The fact that he is also, as Oxford Ceramics Gallery notes, “among the finest ceramists of his generation” serves to cement his fascination for me. I find this role combination of enlightened spiritual teacher plus acclaimed artist to be fascinating.
I have personally derived great benefit from Rupert’s recorded talks and teachings, of which there is a vast catalog available at YouTube. The following came to attention recently, and I thought I would share it with you. The transcription is my own. The clarity, elegance, and insight are his, delivered extemporaneously in a public satsang circumstance exactly as I have transcribed them.
The religious metaphor of being reunited with our loved ones in heaven after death is an appropriation by the mind of a truth, but conceived in terms of the limitations of that mind.
Because the mind is limited and cannot know reality directly, the mind superimposes its own limitation on reality and conceives of reality in a way that is consistent with those limitations. In particular, it projects the idea of time and space onto reality, which is infinite and eternal, no time, no space.
So the truth in the tradition that we will be united with our loved ones in heaven after death is that we will be reunited, that we will be one with them. The falsity in it is the reference to time and space, that it’s going to happen after death and in heaven, which is conceived as another place, another realm, not this realm.
So the mind has an intuition of the truth — that we will be united — and then it immediately imposes its two primary mistakes onto its intuition, and says it will happen at another time and in another place.
What it really means, the heaven that the religious metaphor speaks of, is our being. That’s what heaven is, the realm of eternal peace that is the nature of our being. And that’s where we are reunited with our loved ones, not necessarily after the death of the body, but after the felt sense of separation dies.
So, in this life, right here, when the felt sense of separation with another dies, at that moment we recognize our shared being. That is being reunited in heaven after death. So, that’s where to find your wife. She's just there. She’s shining in your heart. You carry her around with you all the time.