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Notes & Gleanings: The Tao of Jesus, Ray Bradbury's Career Advice, and the Wisdom of Meaninglessness
Links, reflections, and curated reading recommendations
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on creativity for writers, situated at the intersection of religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and the numinous unknown.
Dear Living Dark readers,
You may have noticed that it has been something like forever—nearly four months!—since my last “Notes and Gleanings” post. In this and the next couple of editions, I’ll collect the best of my notes and reading reflections going back to when I left off in June, and will progress rapidly up to the present.
As always, these aggregated thoughts represent a round-up of my activity on Substack Notes and TwitterX, plus reading recommendations (and sometimes viewing and listening ones) brought back from my spontaneous foragings.
Remember: For any notes that show up below as abridged previews, you can click on them to call up their full text in your browser or in the Substack app.
The Living Dark is a reader-supported guide to the inner genius for writers and creators. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Before the notes and quotes, here’s a reminder that my new short ebook Transmitting Vision: Essays on the Writer’s Path is now available to subscribers. It contains seven essays on topics of interest to all writers and creators, including:
the importance of having a muse
essential practices for writers
the nature and history of the daimon
specific ways to invite inspiration
the core creative-artistic function of transmitting a vision from writer to reader.
Paid subscribers get a complimentary copy of the whole book. Free subscribers get a free preview.
This edition of “Notes & Gleanings” includes:
If nonduality is true and we’re all one Self, why don’t we know each other’s thoughts?
The “spark file” method of preserving and combining your fleeting ideas
Four writers on how art protects us from reality and makes life endurable
The solution to creative block: giving up
Ray Bradbury’s recipe for a successful writing career
The Tao of Jesus
When Robert Olen Butler wrote a complete short story on camera
Steven Pressfield on being possessed by the muses
Thomas Ligotti on the purpose of horror literature
Life after spiritual awakening: on being a wandering idler in the universe
Barbara Ehrenreich on the deeply disturbing reality of mystical experiences, especially for committed skeptics
The enduring wonderfulness of the world’s last remaining physical encyclopedia
The satanic mystical experience that once visited Thomas J. J. Altizer, one of the men at the center of the 1960s Death of God movement
The mysterious subconscious origin of poetry
How writing reveals the patterns in a your soul
Ray Bradbury’s pervasive influence on other creators
The wisdom of absolute meaninglessness
The question of nonduality and telepathy
An awesome way to preserve your ideas: the spark file
On art as a bulwark against raw reality
On defeating creative block by embracing it
Ray Bradbury’s recipe for authorial success
Finding the Tao in the teachings of Jesus
Writing in public and on camera: Robert Olen Butler
Steven Pressfield on the inspired madness of creativity
Thomas Ligotti: Horror is for entertainment and disillusionment
On being a cosmic flâneur
The reputational dangers of mystical experiences
Barbara Ehrenreich, famed for her provocative reflections as a sociologically inclined author-activist—as in her modern classic Nickel and Dimed: Getting By in America—wrote a distinctly different kind of book in Living with a Wild God, a memoir of her lifelong attempt to come to terms with an adolescent mystical experience that rocked her rationalist-skeptic world. Here she is in the book’s foreword, commenting on the intellectual and reputational perils that attend such experiences:
In praise of the World Book Encyclopedia, the last remaining paper encyclopedia
Awesome: The AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica bought a physical set of the World Book Encyclopedia—the last remaining general reference encyclopedia still in print—and fell in love with it. His thoughts call out the special charm, and also the special importance, of the printed (on paper) word in an age when digital text threatens to become an Orwellian memory hole:
Opening up a volume of the World Book took me back in time. Memories of school libraries and book reports came flooding back. Notably, each volume has nothing to distract you from reading. No pop-ups, no requests for donations, no ads. It’s just you and the information, curated by World Book's editors....
I’m no information prepper, but I’m glad that no matter what happens online, the information inside my World Book set will never change. Sometimes it's nice not to always be magically up to date.
Thomas Altizer’s satanic epiphany
Thomas Altizer was one of the chief theologians of the 1960s “death of God” movement, which culminated, culturally speaking, in the famous Time magazine cover asking “Is God Dead?”, whose cultural ubiquity was capped by its appearance in a doctors’ waiting room in Rosemary’s Baby. But did you know that Altizer once had a satanic mystical experience?
From an article in the National Catholic Register:
Altizer had once hoped to become an Episcopal priest, but as he explained in his memoir, “Living the Death of God” (2006), he failed a psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist believed he would probably be institutionalized within the year. Here is what he [Altizer] revealed according to an article in the Catholic League:
“Shortly before this examination, I was in a turbulent condition. While crossing the Midway, I would experience violent tremors in the ground, and I was visited by a deep depression, one that occurred again and again throughout my life, but now with particular intensity. During this period, I had perhaps the deepest experience of my life, and one that I believe profoundly affected my vocation as a theologian, and even my theological work itself. This occurred late at night, while I was in my room. I suddenly awoke and became truly possessed and experienced an epiphany of Satan which I have never been able fully to deny, an experience in which I could actually feel Satan consuming me, absorbing me into his very being, as though this was the deepest possible initiation and bonding, and the deepest and yet most horrible union.”
However, Altizer also revealed in the same memoir that several years later, while reading Erich Heller’s essay on Rilke and Nietzsche in a library at the University of Chicago, he had another experience that essentially reversed—or perhaps completed—the first one:
I had what I have ever since regarded as a genuine religious conversion, and this was a conversion to the death of God. For then I truly experienced the death of God, and experienced it as a conversion, and thus an act of grace from God himself. Never can such an experience be forgotten, and while it truly paralleled my earlier experience of the epiphany of Satan, this time I experienced a pure grace, as though it were the very reversal of my experience of Satan.
It’s stories like these, revealing profound psychological and spiritual currents swirling through people's lives and through cultures at large, and sewing them (us) all together in vast patterns of mysterious, inscrutable meaning, that often motivate and energize my days.
Poet Michael Untch on poems as uncanny creations of the subconscious
In a June interview for Literary Hub, poet Mitchell Untch spoke movingly on grief, the uncanny, and letting the unconscious create his poems. The insight per sentence ratio is strikingly high, as in the following passage:
Through the process of creation, I allow my subconscious to write the poem. I’ve learned that subconsciousness is more powerful than the conscious dictation or active determination of a thought. In other words, I don’t think when I write. I start with an impulse and trust the culmination of my life experiences to inform my writing. I get out of the way of stopping to think too much, or what I call 'lifting the pen,' and I simply let go and write nonstop for twenty to thirty minutes. The culmination of my life experiences will automatically inform the conscious undertaking. Grief never leaves you. It’s always with you. In that sense, the tense of grief can be present and past combined.
When my twin brother died, I felt he never left. When I look in the mirror, I still see him. Sure, the physical presence is gone, but not the spiritual. I feel I’ve succeeded when I can look back at something I’ve written and say to myself, “Where did that come from? Did I write that?”
I don’t know where my writing will end. I don’t know at the time that I’m writing a poem where it will end. Liminal space is described as a space that generates mystery, the unknown, the unexplored. I try to inhabit that space with words.
Poems are uncanny creations of the subconscious. I think to be a good poem there needs to be a sense of the mysterious, a feeling that the writer’s moving into uncharted territory.
This all resonates so very deeply with the concept of the demon muse, to which I've devoted many years of meditation.
How writing reveals the pattern of your soul
I think one of the most satisfying things as a writer is to remain true to your innate sense of direction, navigating simply by the beacon of intense native fascination, and to find that this creates coherent patterns over time.
In illustration of this point, here’s Becca Rothfeld, the nonfiction books critic at The Washington Post—and also a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard (but presently on hiatus)—talking to the Chronicle Review newsletter about the way her writing evinces this phenomenon:
Len Gutkin (interviewer): Do you think across reviews in terms of thematic clusters or through-lines? Or is every review its own thing?
Becca Rothfeld: I think it sort of happens naturally, in virtue of my preoccupations. The kind of books about which I think I would have something interesting to say tend to be about certain clusters of topics. So, in the coming months I’ll write a number of reviews about liberalism and whether it can be resuscitated — just because I’m interested in that topic. Maybe there’s a logic in the things that end up happening unbeknownst to me too, the cunning of history at work. Because I do find that my reviews end up creating a body of work with themes and preoccupations that overlap in interesting ways. Things crystallize of their own accord, in a way that feels really comprehensive and satisfying. Maybe that’s the doing of my subconscious.
Compare to William Stafford’s life-giving words, which I’ve returned to and quoted repeatedly over the past 10 or 15 years, in his essential essay “A Way of Writing”:
So, receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it. It has one justification: it occurs to me. No one else can guide me. I must follow my own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.
A strange bonus happens. At times, without my insisting on it, my writings become coherent; the successive elements that occur to me are clearly related. They lead by themselves to new connections. Sometimes the language, even the syllables that happen along, may start a trend. Sometimes the materials alert me to something waiting in my mind, ready for sustained attention. At such times, I allow myself to be eloquent, or intentional, or for great swoops (Treacherous! Not to be trusted!) reasonable. But I do not insist on any of that; for I know that back of my activity there will be the coherence of my self, and that indulgence of my impulses will bring recurrent patterns and meanings again.
Ray Bradbury’s life-changing impact on generations of artists
There’s something deeply affirming about reading accounts of how one of your own deepest influences in life and literature plays the same role in the lives of basically everybody else:
[Ray Bradbury’s] influence is long-term....For instance, in the 1960s, Bradbury spoke at a Southern California high school. Inspired by Bradbury’s enthusiasm for movies, one young student turned to a friend and said, “I’m going to be the greatest filmmaker there ever was.” Gary Kurtz went on to produce American Graffiti, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Dark Crystal.
Bradbury speaks of many of today’s creators as his “children” and some of them acknowledge it openly. “Are you still my papa?” Steven Spielberg asked Bradbury on their last meeting. “Yes,” was the reply. “I’m still your papa.”
“Do you have any idea of the number of lives you’ve changed?” I asked Bradbury. “I have an idea it’s quite a few.”
From Timothy Perrin, “Ray Bradbury’s Nostalgia for the Future,” Writer’s Digest, February 1986
The importance of meaninglessness, emptiness, and vanity in human experience
You know that thing where you’re innocently reading a book, and suddenly you stumble across a sentence that rivets you with its almost impossibly perfect articulation of your own truth?
This happened to me in early July with Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God (mentioned above).
It came in the following sentence from Chapter 9, page 178:
There are times when the world just gets too stale to generate new situations and you are left with reruns of what you’ve already experienced way too many times.
This stopped me in my tracks when I read it. Because I have been there. I have lived there. I know quite well the state of mind and spirit that Ehrenreich is describing..
Her words evoke the memory of a single sentence, spanning two lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that lodged in my soul when I really grokked it for the first time in my twenties after having first read it in high school:
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
And also the opening words of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, which likewise hit home in the decade after I graduated from college and began making my way in the world:
Vanity! Useless! Meaningless! Everything is utterly meaningless, a passing vapor!
The wisdom that arises from passages like this one, or from Hamlet’s lament, or from Ehrenreich’s statement, is simply this: that such states, while nominally unpleasant, should not be rejected or denied. They are part of the totality of human experience, of what it means to be human. Any view of life or map of reality that doesn’t include them and somehow account for them is incomplete. Facing them, feeling them, and learning what they have to teach is a necessary part of fulfilling your purpose in this dream of separation, of being a separate individual in a world of otherness and multiplicity.
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A writer’s guide to the inner genius. Creativity and calling at the intersection of nonduality and the daemon muse.