The roots of creative darkness

(A shorter version of this post can be found at the DePaul University Institute for Nature and Culture‘s website, Environmental Critique. Thanks to Dr. Christine Skolnik for the invitation to contribute.)


At first glance, the three figures under discussion – Algernon Blackwood, Marion Milner, and Friedrich Schelling – seem to form a rather unlikely trio, especially if you are looking for insights into politics in the Anthropocene. Before I can examine why they complement each other so well – not to mention what insights they do, in fact, provide when grouped together – I will introduce each figure, since my impression is that none of them tend to be particularly familiar to us. Then I will turn briefly to my concept of creative darkness itself, which I develop from Schelling’s philosophy of nature, and we can see, perhaps, what political and theoretical work Blackwood and Milner might be able to do for us flailing and precarious subjects of ecological crisis.

Blackwood, Milner, Schelling

Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was an English writer of horror and fantasy tales in the early 20th century. Best known for such stories as “The Willows” – considered by H. P. Lovecraft to be one of the finest weird tales ever written – Blackwood’s output ranges from the didactic and whimsical to the disconcerting, eerie, and haunting. As Mike Ashley, S. T. Joshi, and others document, his stories tarry constantly with dark vitalities and psychic doctors, with transformative terrors and with the radical disruption, even dissolution, of the subject upon her encounter with natural forces that exceed and escape from the prisonhouse of modern selfhood. Fundamentally, Blackwood thinks that we moderns desperately need to reform our consciousness of nature, indeed, our very constitution as subjects – “Nature is something that no longer exists as an object of perception for us,” Blackwood complains in a letter, as if anticipating contemporary “death of nature” arguments found in environmental studies. In any case, Blackwood turns, varyingly, to occultism, Spinozism, and theosophy in order to advocate for elevated levels of consciousness that he thinks only disturbing or exhilarating encounters with the wild can engender.

Marion Milner (1900-1998), by contrast, was a practicing psychoanalyst, best known for her development of freewriting techniques and introspective journaling, as well as her classic case study of a 20-year-long analysis with a severely schizophrenic analysand, Susan, and her wry self-reflections on the negative capacities of the self in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950). She is also notable for following the doctrinal schools of neither Anna Freud nor Melanie Klein after Freud’s death. Instead, after concluding her analysis with Donald Winnicott, she independently developed her own highly interpretive psychoanalytic praxis in the context of British object-relations psychoanalysis. Always of principal interest to Milner is what she perceives as the fundamentally unconscious origins of existential creativity, and how it is that creative acts and practices can be blocked – or else made possible – by the subject’s own comportment toward “inner” and “outer” nature alike. “The idea of a live tree,” she writes, “with its roots hidden in darkness and its branches outspread in the light, seems to me an apt symbol for a way in which one can experience oneself creatively.”

Last, we have Friedrich Schelling, a 19th-century German philosopher of nature writing mostly between 1794 and 1815. Schelling argues that nature fundamentally consists of infinite productivity – that is to say, nature is neither the aggregate of all products, nor is it an embodied or underlying “substance,” as it is for Spinoza. Rather, nature is the very principle of productivity as such. This immediately raises a theoretical problem for him, namely, how to account for the fact that infinite productivity can produce finite products – say, subjects and objects. Schelling attempts to solve the problem as follows. The infinite productivity of nature consists of two opposing drives or forces, the centrifugal and the centripetal. These forces underlie the various principles of attraction and repulsion that define and structure the empirical distribution of the tangible. This fundamental opposition remains always already active; otherwise, the productivity of nature would equilibrate into mere product, mere stasis. As such, apparent momentary stability appears insofar as the constitutive opposition of forces in nature flirts with equilibrium and then falls repeatedly into disequilibrium. What this produces, Schelling claims, is not an entropic slide into absolute disequilibrium, but, rather, developmental stages of increasing complexity and reticulation – what Schelling calls “potencies.” A potency is a formal degree of complex organization (or self-organization). Each is composed of “darkness,” that is to say, of matter that is organized more or less differently, thereby giving rise to further potencies that exceed basal norms. As Schelling writes in an 1806 essay (appended to the third edition of his 1798 Von der Weltseele: “Das Dunkelste aller Dinge, ja das Dunkel selbts nach einigen, ist die Materie” (“Matter is the darkest of all things – indeed, it is the darkness itself”). Accordingly, we see in Schelling a deep fascination with what we can call the “nightside” of nature, that is to say, those expressions of nature that do not reveal themselves easily or, perhaps, at all to the instrumental techniques of the natural sciences. The nightside of nature does not refer to some immaterial specter animating nature (any more than the nightside of the Moon refers to a spectral presence that haunts its dayside), but rather to those ways in which nature produces subjectivity as a part of itself, as its interiority, as an occulted aspect (as in much psychoanalysis), or an element of excess (as for Georges Bataille) that remains implicated in nature nonetheless.


So there we have them: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling. An author of weird horror stories, a psychoanalyst, and a German Idealist. It is necessary to note, in passing, the various ways in which we could reconstruct genealogies of influence, or force fields of effect, that link these apparently disparate figures together. For example, much scholarly work (e.g., Henri Ellenberger, Matthew Ffytche, Sean McGrath, Slavoj Žižek) has been done to show how the German Idealists – and Schelling, in particular – contribute to the development of the concept of the unconscious prior to Freud. On the other hand, the lineage of Dark Romanticism that precedes the weird tale bears no small relationship to these very same discourses – E. T. A. Hoffman was a touchstone for Freud, of course, while a figure like Heinrich von Kleist was close friends with Gotthilf Schubert, one of Schelling’s disciples. In Blackwood’s case, some of the meager scholarship addressing him examines the influence of Gustav Fechner upon his work. Fechner, a German psychologist in the mid-19th century, was a late devotee of Schelling’s, and much of his work assigned itself the task of reconciling the mind/body problem, specifically. Rather than dwelling further upon any of these genealogies, however, I would like to put all three figures to a more speculative use.

Inherit the darkness: Schelling

It is from Schelling primarily that the concept of creative darkness emerges, although, as Eugene Thacker and others have noted, affinities between various descriptive vocabularies of darkness and some sense of primal, or primary, creativity can be discovered in many alternative traditions (ranging from various Western mystical traditions to the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo and even the Tao Te Ching).

Creative darkness refers to the interaction between the emergence of ontological novelty as the product of creative agency or action, on the one hand, and the alluring, but often disconcerting or even horrifying opacity of nature, on the other hand.

Schelling captures this interaction in his ongoing development and use of a philosophy in which both “what we call ‘reason’ is a mere play of necessarily unknown natural forces” and yet, at the same time, while

everything in the world is, as we see it now, rule, order and form; anarchy still lies in the ground, as if it could break through once again, and nowhere does it appear as if order and form were what is original but rather as if initial anarchy had been brought to order. This is the incomprehensible base of reality in things, the indivisible remainder, that which with the greatest exertion cannot be resolved in understanding but rather remains eternally in the ground. The understanding is born in the genuine sense from that which is without understanding. Without this preceding darkness creatures have no reality; darkness is their necessary inheritance.

I employ the term “creative darkness,” then, to evoke both the productive ambiguities of the concept of nature and the “preceding darkness” that remains always implicit to the emergence of the new.

For Schelling’s philosophy of nature, the question is always: How do free subjects emerge in nature? I think this is a particularly relevant question for any attempt to think a meaningful, nonpostural politics in the Anthropocene – a term that, as Timothy Morton excels at pointing out, implies both the remarkable power of human agency and nevertheless implicates the human in the ecological crisis we face today. Accordingly, the attempt to conjure possible existential alternatives to our current path is one of our principal political tasks today. To do this – to create “new modes and orders” (borrowing the term from Machiavelli) – requires first that we attend closely to the seething darkness of nature itself – both “inner” and “outer.”

“Rooted in darkness”: Milner

It is here, then – for our sense of the “the inner darkness of our nature,” or the natures that we are – that the turn to Milner proves most productive, for she unceasingly directs our attention to the expressions and sources of the creative unconscious as implicit in the materiality of the body itself. For Milner, the unconscious is not a generically ideological writing machine, nor is it the subject of symbolic interpolation, but rather, the interface between the body and what we still rather unimaginatively still call “the mind.” For Milner, the body and the mind are not distinct entities in any sense. Bodies dream, feel, and think long before they are conscious. Having a mind – or, perhaps more clearly, making a mind happen – is one of the many things that bodies do. So there is a sense in which the unconscious is the body, or that function of the body that makes minds and enables minds to take shape, to endure, to change, and to shift over time.

Occasionally, Milner nearly waxes metaphysical, referring to “the primary undifferentiated darkness from which all awareness of difference emerges.” Most of the time, however, she directs her attention to the analytic scene, read by her as a space in which the sometimes difficult, aggressive forces of association, creativity, and play struggle constantly with the forces of moralistic inhibition, prideful disavowal, and manic sterility. As she writes, everything turns on the “distinction between a good going to pieces and a bad going to pieces.” And these are precisely the terms in which Milner develops her sometimes nebulous theory of creativity, which nevertheless roots itself at the center of her praxis. There is an aspect of the entire ego process, she writes, “that I have postulated as basic to all creative activity, that aspect by which the ego seeks its own temporary dissolution.”

How, then, does this dissolution take place? If we refer to her case study, The Hands of the Living God, we can identify some very evocative examples. I will highlight only one here. Referring to the analysand Susan’s sporadic, but overwhelmingly intense self-loathing, Milner suggests that, “deeper than the feeling of the dreadful blackness of her heart, based on moral judgment of her own destructive wishes, I thought there lurked an intuition of [Susan’s] need to find her roots in darkness” – that is to say, “in a not knowing that was not the result of a defensive denial, but, instead, the inescapable condition and background to all knowing.”

What can this possibly mean? I think Milner is directing our attention toward what I would call a deeply personal materialism, one which simultaneously separates and sutures action and ideation in the conscious and unconscious personality of the subject. Hence Milner’s advocacy for what we might call a arboreal model of the self (as against the various rhizomatic models of subjectivity proposed in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari): “So it was that I came to try thinking of the tree as a symbol for the ego’s direct, non-symbolic sense of its own being: something rooted in darkness, but spreading its branches into the light.”

Sylvan darkness: Blackwood

In Blackwood’s novella, “The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” precisely this same structural emergence of the subject takes place, albeit at a different scale. Although Blackwood almost always directs our attention expressly to the seething darkness of nature “out there” – consider, for example, the endless, earthly alien whispering of the willows in “The Willows” – his interest often turns to dissolving subjects whose very dissolution opens up the possibility for a heightened attunement to the natural world, or else whose interpenetration by inhuman agencies makes possible radically different forms of life or ways of being-in-the-world.

“The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” then, concerns the long, slow seduction and integration of the retired forester David Bitacky by the forest near which he retires. What this seduction largely entails remains ambiguous, although the main character of the story, David’s wife, documents the seduction with unsettlement, at first, and, eventually, horror at the darkly vital stationary green hurricane that the forest embodies. David spends more and more time in the depths of the forest alone – “a man, like a tree, walking.” Eventually, of course, the forest consumes David, and sylvan dread (borrowing the term from Richard Gavin) becomes a fierce, verdant joy. As Punter and Byron indicate, “the transcendence of human concerns that this implies is carefully balanced against his wife’s powerful sense of loss.” Blackwood concludes: “In the distance she heard the roaring of the Forest further out. Her husband’s voice was in it.”

On the one hand, the deep amoralism of Blackwood’s forest brings to mind Karen Blixen’s wry observation that: “I don’t believe in evil, I believe only in horror. In nature there is no evil, only an abundance of horror: the plagues and the blights and the ants and the maggots.” From Mrs. Bitacky’s perspective, at least, one might as well add forests to this list of horrors – revising Emerson’s famously “occult relation between man and vegetable.” On the other hand, we have very convincing arguments by Anthony Camara to the effect that Blackwood’s vision of “outer nature” does not “contain incomprehensible alien forces so much as it is dynamically constituted by the un-grounding operations of such forces.” This is precisely the point where we return to the figure of Schelling – the philosopher of Abgrund, the abyss, or Ungrund, the nonground that serves as the very ground of nature itself.

Toward a conclusion

In conclusion, I want to suggest that considering the concept of creative darkness through the speculative lens these three figures provide together gives us access to a dimension of speculative political theory that we often overlook. Specifically, two central contentions animate the foregoing considerations. First, I want to suggest that the politics of ecological receptivity and transformation we need now are impossible without a new theory of the human subject. Second, I think we need to start looking at why this does not mean what we probably think it means – for by abstracting her out of the conditions of creative darkness she occupies, we fundamentally have lost touch or misunderstood what sort of creature a human subject is.