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Notes & Gleanings: The AI Matrix, the Pathos of Rod Serling, and Life's Ultimate Question
Links, reflections, and curated reading recommendations
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:
Dear Living Dark readers,
Here’s a new batch of thoughts and reflections from my recent activity on Substack Notes, plus a new batch of reading, listening, and viewing recommendations brought back from my recent 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.
Separately, also remember that volume 2 of my Journals is due for publication at the end of this month. Preorders are open right now for the Kindle edition. Paperback and hardcover versions will become available on publication day (June 30). You can read the introduction to the combined two-volume set here.
Items in this edition of “Notes & Gleanings” include:
the connection between religion/spirituality and weird/cosmic horror
a new story-by-story evaluation of David Hartwell’s classic horror anthology The Dark Descent
the recreated partial syllabus from a college course that I once developed and taught on religion and horror
the replication crisis in scientific research and the hopeful collapse of false cultural narratives
an exquisite new album of instrumental music by Pierre-Yves Martel, composer in residence for the wonderful Weird Studies podcast
social media’s power to imprison us in self-punked hyperworlds of fatuous outrage
a deranged AI-generated commercial that gives Dante and Harlan Ellison a run for their money
the mad monkey mind of 24/7 “news”
a beautiful song to rescue you from the three items above
the importance of basing your sense of security on reality
the rapidly blurring line between AI prompting and human thinking
the danger that AI hallucinations could become self-validating through AI-created “evidence”
a brief thought on the almost overtly anti-Taoist tenor of modern Western culture
thoughts from me, in response to Daniel Pinchbeck, on why we’re living in the Kali Yuga, the degenerative stage of the cosmic cycle of World Ages
the two bleakest endings in mainstream American movie history
the weirdness of seeing my own words unexpectedly quoted in a book on sleep paralysis
how the “diabolum”—the inbuilt core of human civilizational dysfunction—tends to replicate itself through efforts to oppose it
the creative-emotional cycle of authorial elation and dejection
the creative and spiritual benefits of biphasic sleep
a fine essay on James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code and its salubrious recasting of the idea of personal destiny
an intriguing reading of Shakespeare “as primarily a horror writer”
a lovely essay on deep, authentic desire as the key to your purpose and the clue to your life’s meaning
an interview with Eckhart Tolle on stillness, presence, art, and the lessons of suffering
Jacob Needleman on the way sacred texts call us out of ourselves
Jacob Needleman on finding your purpose in the Te of the Tao Te Ching
the pathos of Rod Serling
Robert Wolfe on the ultimate question that presents itself to each of us
My lifelong interest in religion, spirituality, and cosmic horror fiction (a clip from my 2022 Lovecraft eZine interview)
At Tor.com, a new essay series on David Hartwell’s editorial choices in The Dark Descent
The lost syllabus from my college course on religion and the supernatural in literature
Science’s replication crisis, incredulity toward metanarratives, and our apocalyptic Great Awakening
Music for Zen Lovecraftians
The Fortean unsane hell realm of social media outrage
The alien intelligence hell realm of AI-created commercials
The idiotically mendacious hell realm of wall-to-wall “news”
The music of paradise
Fleeting feelings vs. ultimate self-knowing
Losing the line where AI stops and you begin
The possibility of a self-validating AI fake informational Matrix
The modern West’s madness, called out by the Tao Te Ching
Why the apocalypse, like everything else, is eternally now
The darkest mainstream American movie
Haunted by my own words
The devilish worm in the human apple
What it feels like to write: from inspiration, to obstruction, to elation, to despair, to imposter syndrome—then repeat
Segmented sleep for creative enrichment
Scott Britton shared some interesting thoughts recently on the subject of interrupted—or segmented or biphasic—sleep patterns:
Every night for as long as I can remember, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night. Although I usually could get back to sleep, sometimes I couldn't, which would cause me to drag the next day. For the longest time, I was incredibly frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t sleep through the night. . . .
A couple of years ago, I began to notice something interesting. When [I would] wake up during these twilight hours, I’d have a perfectly clear awareness; no thoughts, just peaceful stillness. It was comparable to the deepest states of meditation I’d experienced.
In this stillness, all types of information would flood into my awareness through a quiet audible voice. Sometimes it’d be solutions to problems I was chewing on and other times it’d be guidance completely out of left field. It felt like I was connected to a divine firehose of information. I enjoyed these events, but still resisted the fact that I was being woken up each night.
One day it occurred to me that perhaps I was being woken up each night not because something was wrong with me, but for a bigger reason: to receive information from the Divine.
Reading this brought back some memories. A decade or so ago I became deeply intrigued when there was a burst of mainstream interest in this very subject as it made the rounds in the popular press. The big revelation seemed to be that this is how much or most of the human race slept—in two distinct segments or phases, punctuated by a period of wakefulness in the middle of the night—before the advent of the industrial age. As Scott points out (and as all those essays and articles likewise emphasized), we may well have lost something by coming to insist that a long span of unbroken hours represents the only “valid” way to envision human sleep patterns.
I did a little digging and reintroduced myself to the following resources, which I commend to your attention:
I remember reading a solid 2013 Harper’s article on this subject by Dr. A. Roger Ekirch, titled “Segmented Sleep.”
The same Dr. Ekirch also wrote the 2016 paper “Segmented Sleep in Preindustrial Societies,” as well as an entire book titled At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, which examines the different cultural ways in which humans have experienced the universal phenomenon of night throughout history.
Aeon published an excellent article on this subject in 2016 titled “Broken Sleep,” which looks at the creative benefits of this sleep pattern and asks whether we may have lost something by abandoning it.
Reconceiving the idea of destiny with James Hillman
The following reflective essay on James Hillman’s acorn theory—the model of the personal daimon as the key to understanding our individually implanted characters, callings, and destinies—as presented in Hillman’s modern classic The Soul’s Code is itself a model of sensitive, lucid interpretation and commentary. I highly recommend it.
Herein lies the really valuable idea of The Soul’s Code. Whether destiny exists or not, whether we can redefine it as a tautology, or whether we are capable of taking the god’s-eye view, we have a choice: to look at accidents as simply accidents, or to look at these things as fate, to give them telos even if we do not believe in a grand purpose and teleology. We are all subject to all kinds of forces much greater than ourselves. Life will yank us all around. Will you be merely yanked? Jerked around, and mad at the world for being convenient? Or will you lean into your circumstances, embrace or at least accept accidents, look at them backwards and see how they fit into your life? . . . The reconception of destiny in The Soul’s Code is the suggestion that we might live from this retrospective and wisened posture; to grant ourselves fate rather than believe in it.
William Shakespeare: horror writer
This is well worth considering:
A desolate moor, haunted by incomprehensible supernatural beings. Chains rattling in a dark castle, ghosts prowling the ramparts. A grisly corpse, hands chopped off and tongue sliced out. For any horror-lovers, whether the Gothic classics or the contemporary greats, these tropes will ring familiar.
They come, of course, from Shakespeare.
In fact, after more than a decade of teaching his work, I’ve come to see Shakespeare—at least when he’s writing tragedies—as primarily a horror writer. He might perhaps be the most significant influence in the entire English language to the Gothic, and consequently the modern, horror tradition. . . .
If my many years of teaching Shakespeare taught me anything, it’s that that real horror doesn’t live under the bed, in the dark cupboard, or on a desolate Scottish moor. It lives in the people we think we love and trust. It thrives in our desires, our doubts, our self-justifications.
It is born in the deepest recesses of our hearts.
Your core desire as your existential homing beacon
The approach laid out by Vaishali Iyer in a Substack essay on the power of desire is, to my mind, lucid and powerful:
Following our desires is one way to orient ourselves in the world. I don’t mean madly scrambling to get everything you want materially, or superficially, or even spiritually. We see enough of that all around, and it clearly doesn’t lead to any kind of fulfilment or lasting happiness. In this, the spiritual traditions we know are 100% spot-on accurate. I’m talking about desire as the journey of discovering what your deeper self is truly here for, in this body, in this world. Why are you here? What do you want from your life? What have you been born to experience? Who are you meant to be?
The answers to these questions, even when not articulated in words, are the rising stars that we can orient around throughout our life, the guiding light that we can follow towards meaning and purpose.
My own amplification and riff: What do we really desire, and how does clarifying the deep nature of each separate desire, and also the nature of our chief, deep, core desire, the One Desire to Rule Them All, contribute to fulfilling both the karmic “outgoing” motion that manifests as our experience of unique individual identity and the awakening “incoming” motion that is our return to home base in the unity of self-realization? A sustained focus on answering this question, or rather on simply feeling the resonant, magnetic depth and importance of the question itself, uncovers the whole purpose and meaning of our lives.
I have approached this myself through exploring and sharpening the ancient Western metaphor of the daimon or inner genius, the gods-given spirit that accompanies each of us from birth and serves as our intermediary to the divine, standing as the source of and blueprint for our welter of individual temperament, character, interests, and talents, and that also attracts or constellates different outer conditions and experiences to help elicit and manifest this core orientation. Homing in on the daimon clarifies the core desire in each of us, the individual craving, drive, and purpose that is embodied in and uniquely represented by each of us. (See my A Course in Demonic Creativity for a book-length reflection on this matter.)
In recent years my thoughts and experiences on the whole thing have become increasingly bound up with my rising apprehension of (or by) nonduality. So Vaishali’s lovely essay on desire came along at an opportune time to intersect with this phenomenon.
Eckhart Tolle on writing, art, silence, and suffering
Here’s Eckhart Tolle on the writer/artist as the voice of a transcendent silence:
Somehow, there’s a certain power that goes beyond the words, and that’s the place where art originates. A work of art comes out of a state of deep stillness. Somehow, and nobody knows how, the essence of the unmanifested, of the stillness, flows into the work….
When someone becomes transparent, then something shines through that person that has nothing to do with the person or any of his or her personal history. What is required is becoming so transparent that the self or ego dissolves.
And here he is talking about the spiritual teaching of suffering, both individual and collective: (a phenomenon with which I have extensive firsthand experience, as I expect is true of everyone reading this):
Usually, even though the mind says, “I can’t stand it anymore,” you can still stand it. You have not yet reached the point where the little egoic me is dissolved. But when the pain that the little me creates for itself becomes intense enough, the ego will self-destruct. It has a self-destruct mechanism built in, fortunately, so eventually every ego dies….
Collective egos function in the same way. When the ego dominates in organizations, even spiritual organizations, there is usually a big drama or upheaval of some kind, and self-destruction begins….
And after this self-destruction is when the real spiritual teaching comes. It’s beyond words.
Jacob Needleman on the way sacred texts call out our shared human essence
Jacob Needleman's description of the Tao Te Ching in his classic introductory essay on this ancient book is actually a brilliant description of authentic sacred texts in general, both their nature and their purpose:
It speaks to each of us at our own level of understanding, while inviting us to search for levels of insight and experience that are not yet within our comprehension. As with every text that deserves to be called sacred, it is a half-silvered mirror. To read it is not only to see ourselves as we are but to glimpse a greatness extending far beyond our knowledge of ourselves and the universe we live in. . . .
Any work of art that communicates so enduringly over such enormous reaches of time and cultural diversity addresses, we may be sure, the essence of human nature and the human condition, rather than sociocultural aspects that are particular to this or that society. The Tao Te Ching deals with what is permanent in us. It speaks of a possible inner greatness and an equally possible inner failure, which are both indelibly written into our very structure as human beings. Under its gaze, we are not “American” or “Chinese” or “European.” We are that being, Man, uniquely called to occupy a precise place in the cosmic order, no matter where or in what era we live.
MORE: Introduction (PDF) to the classic translation of Tao Te Ching by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
Jacob Needleman on becoming “a conduit for the supreme power of the universe”
Here’s Jacob Needleman with some electrifying words on finding your purpose in the "Te" of the Tao Te Ching. Bold emphases are added by me. Note how what he says is scalable with total precision to both the general question of a whole life purpose or calling and the more specific matter—of acute interest, perhaps, to those of us here at Substack—of understanding and negotiating the personal and cosmic forces involved in the creative artistic process:
This word [“Te”] directs our attention to the question of the expression or manifestation in our day-to-day lives of the supreme reality. . . . Te refers to nothing less than the quality of human action that allows the central creative purpose of the universe to manifest through it. . . .
[Human beings] are created to receive this force consciously and . . . called to allow [their] actions to manifest that force. . . .
The ego, our ordinary “initiator of action,” is an ephemeral construction, which is formed by factors operating far beneath the level of the Source and which, in the unenlightened state of awareness, represents a kind of blockage or impediment to the interplay of fundamental cosmic forces. In other words, because of our identification of ourselves with the ego, what we ordinarily call '“action,” or “doing,” in fact cuts us off from the complete reception of conscious energy in our bodies and actions. . . .
Our primary and perhaps only true responsibility is to become individuals who are also conduits for the supreme creative power of the universe. All other responsibilities—for knowing the truth, for feeling the good, and for accomplishing what is useful and effective—must flow from this: in our external world, in our day-to-day lives, and within the recesses of our psychological makeup.
To that last sentence’s list of life areas into which this principle ought to flow, I would add: and also in our writing and art.
MORE: Introduction (PDF) to the classic translation of Tao Te Ching by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English
Rod Serling’s poignant inner life
Rod Serling is one of television history’s—and American history’s—most fascinating people. This is only my opinion, of course. But it happens to be correct. This recent essay about him offers a moving portrait of a man whose outward fame was complemented by a deeply sensitive inner life.
If Serling had lived a normal life span, he would have been vindicated in his belief that his own fears were common ones and that his diagnosis of his ailing society was accurate. His premature death, coming at a low point in his reputation and productivity, adds to the pathos of his life….
Serling was the most recognizable writer in the country. The face he showed to the public was an appealing one, and very much an American face—principled but modest, industrious, courageous. Beneath that there was a different man: vain, self-indulgent, needy. And underneath that there was a sensitive artist, and a traumatized war veteran, and a young man who lost his father too early. The inmost Serling was perhaps ever that eager boy in Binghamton, standing on his tiptoes to be seen. (As an adult, he stood just 5’5”.) As a writer, he sought to integrate these different selves, to find the sense of coherence that evaded him in life. He would never quite feel that he had done so.
The final question
Only one question, ultimately, needs answering in each of our lives. The late Robert Wolfe, a writer and teacher of nonduality whose articulations of deep matters could sometimes reach heights of resonant clarity, explains:
A sage does not view him/herself as an individual or a “person,” so could care less whether considered to be a “good” or “evil” person. Those are dualistic ideas, in their most obvious form. . . .
Your questions will be endless, as long as you continue to pose them from a dualistic framework. Ponder one thing instead. If there is only that which is all that is, as the sages aver, who is this questioner?
There is no question that you cannot answer for yourself, once that question is resolved! By not dealing with that question first, your time will be wasted in pursuit of other questions, which—from the standpoint of realization—have no value, in any case.
MORE: Robert Wolfe, Living Nonduality (p. 268)
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