The Idea of the Centre
The Idea of the Centre
Featured in The Return of Myth by Boris Nad
The idea of the centre can be found in many different traditions: all studies confirm its remarkable prevalence and antiquity, to the extent that we cannot reject the assumption that is universal. Even an attempt to count the different symbols and ways of presenting such a centre would take us too long at this point. But the idea of the centre reaches its highest meaning in the Indo-European traditions.
Ideally, such a centre precedes any space: it defines and determines it, chronologically, qualitatively, and hierarchically. Although invisible to the material world, it is objectively, not subjectively existent. It precedes even the subject which comprehends it. It is, moreover, identical with it, in the same way, it is completely identical to the sacred principle of the cosmos. To the question “Who are you?”, a famous Vedic quotation replays “Thou art That (Tat tvam asi)”. Without the existence of such a centre, the existence of any structure, or order itself (“cosmos” etymologically equates with an ordered whole), any kind of hierarchy is unimaginable.
At the centre of the light of heaven
The idea of the centre in Indo-European traditions was represented and symbolised in very different ways including the “polar baptism”, the “axis” or “Tree of the World-Tree”, and the Holy Grail (the quest for the Grail is actually a search for the lost centre). One of the most memorable representations of the centre was left to us by Plato, in his Republic. Plato is talking about the place where you can see “the light that goes through the whole heaven and earth”, “a light vertical as a column which could be compared with a rainbow […]”. There – “in the middle of the light in the sky”, Plato’s people, saw the ends of the ribbons that hold it – because this light is a nexus, and it holds the whole sky like the ropes placed around a ship – and on that, a spindle of necessity is attached, by means of which all the spheres are set in motion. (Plato, The Statesman, 616-618).
This light is the axis of the world, which connects heaven and earth, the human and the divine. This axis is intangible and trans-temporal; human history is a departure from this centre, and thus a departure from the primordial. It is no coincidence that modern culture has been lucidly defined as the culture of men afflicted by the “loss of the centre” (Sedlmayr). It is one of the keenest and astute definitions of the modern era, and of modern man in general. Modern man is the one who has lost his centre, or a man of the era of the loss centre. In the age of this “loss of the centre”, the very idea of the centre takes on negative connotations and meanings, via discourse on “centrism”.
“Decentralisation”, on the contrary, receives positive interpretations: the loss of the centre and the relocation of the centre, becomes the meaning of liberation from the “dictatorship” of the centre.
In other words, the modern age is the age in which the spirit turns away from its own centre of being, in which the spirit detaches from the being, and also some areas of the psyche detach from the spiritual. The consequence of this is the “free spirit” – the spirit free from being – which is turning to its own speculations, finally eroding being with its own dilemmas and doubts. Modern philosophy, with rare exceptions, is the product of this so-called “liberated”, autonomous spirit.
By analogy, a “free and autonomous art” is art which is separated from all the higher standards and demands, and it is not by chance that it often becomes a mere instrument of self-expression for psychological states of artists. Finally, the last remaining understanding of the idea of the centre erodes, and the spatial centre itself becomes extremely relativized and mutable.
The one who turns the wheels
But the age of the “loss of the centre” has one more hidden meaning, represented by the myth of the Grail quest. The Grail (Graal) is, as already mentioned, a metaphysical centre that has been lost, and this has the meaning of the (first spiritual, and then physical) disaster. In the attempt to forestall it or at least restrain it, the Knights of the Round Table set out in search for the vanished centre.
The symbol of this centre is the mythical Hyperborea as well: the lost Northern homeland, to which lonely people seek to return to, like the mythical heroes, Perseus or Hercules. By winning the lost centre, they re-acquire “immortality”, thus reaching the fullness of the original state. The centre is that distant point which remains motionless itself, and enables the movement the world, hence why the perfect man in Hindu tradition is described as the Chakravartin “the one that turns the wheels”. The mythical image of this is the Vedic Indra who, standing at the axis of the world, turns the heavens himself. The conquest of the centre wins the state of fullness of being.
On the topic of the loss of the centre, separation from it, and the search for the lost centre as well are becoming an important issue in contemporary art. It is also a great divide, which, on the one hand, separates all those who – like the hero of the novel At the Hyperboreans by Milos Crnjanski – venture on such a quest, and, on the other hand, those who distance themselves from the centre, nullifying and negating its very existence. It should be said that such considerations are far beyond the field of the purely aesthetic, and they venture into the field of the metaphysical, in terms of the realisation of the full potential of a human being. But, they are also closely related to the idea of beauty. Inherent to the idea of the centre is the idea of beauty because beauty is a work of measurements, symmetry and order, while the separation and loss of the centre inevitably leads to anarchy and entropy, i.e. towards an “aesthetics of ugliness”.
So, on one side, there are works of art whose structure faithfully reflects the order of eternity, and on the other, there are works that have no structure, or whose structure is incidental, chaotic, random and arbitrary. There are works whose authors follow the ideals of artistic traditions, an era in which the centre was obvious and accessible to all, and there are works which are the results of “experimentation”, destruction and degradation.
On the opposite side of the light of the centre is darkness, chaos and emptiness, which finally puts an end to oblivion and the escape from being.
The works of art in the modern age that embody the idea of the centre are the fruit of intuition, great metaphysical awakenings and endeavours of their authors. Their lasting significance is truly metaphysical because it goes beyond mere representation. The novel At the Hyperboreans by Milos Crnjanski very faithfully and accurately conveys the idea of the centre, which means: the idea of the central position of man in the world, and also the centricity of the world and centricity of its structure. They are, in the end, also exteriorization of the internal content of their creators. However, such contents are not at all a characteristic of the authors or their individual psychology, but only a particular expression of the general, or the expression of tradition, ideas, and values.
However, the same applies to authors whose works deny that same tradition and ideas. By transmitting suggestive experiences of chaos, darkness and the chthonic, as opposed to light and heavenly order, they also continue an opposite tradition of values and ideas. In the end, they are two different opposing psycho-ideologies, and thus two different, mutually exclusive, and irreconcilable types of man.
It has been already said that the origin must be sought in the deep darkness of prehistory. The oldest spiritual monuments and symbols of humankind are showing the same basic dichotomy of worldviews and basic ideas, the dichotomy that can be basically reduced to matriarchal and patriarchal (J.J. Bachofen), or, in terms of Dragoš Kalajić, chthonic and uranic. Paradoxically, many works of modern art, texts, and manifestos, faithfully convey the basic content and ideas of ancient chthonic psychology and forma mentis – to the extent that we can say that modern art only repeats, or reformulates, ancient archetypal and chthonic thinking patterns. For example, as was pointed by Kalajic in his work, on contemporary body art (and many other avant-garde art practices), can be interpreted as a restoration of the ancient Dionysian ritual of the “dismemberment of the dismembered”; these are, admittedly, extreme expressions of contemporary art, but here the rule is that the extreme forms of a phenomenon reveal its true, albeit often hidden, content.
The true origin of these two world-views can be found in ancient history. Moreover, the most complete and purest expressions of the uranic, “heavenly” tradition found ancient spiritual creations, such as, for example, Vedic hymns or Upanishads, and Indo-European myths and epics. This tradition carries something that important, a patriarchal ethic, which cannot be reduced to morality, because ethics are a command coming from the being, while morals are the product of the speculation of the spirit. Furthermore, ethics are affirmative, and the ordering what one has, as opposed to morality, which is based on prohibition.
All other cultures and traditions, with the exception of the Indo-Europeans, are derived from telluric, chthonic cults and forms of religiosity. When the uranian contents appear in different cultures, we should think of whether it involves the influence of Indo-European traditions.
If the true bearer of the uranian spirituality and tradition is the Indo-European man, it remains an open question as to who is the holder of the opposite, chthonic tradition. It is indisputable that the same basic values and ideas, which spring from the chthonic religions and cults, encompass a large southern belt of the Eurasian continent, just as the source of the uranian tradition is undoubtedly in the far north of the continent.
Stay in Hell
The fact that literary and artistic works of the twentieth century affirm uranian ethics, (as opposed to the chthonic), has extraordinary significance for the evidence of the vitality of patriarchal ethics and traditions.
In fact, it is one of the few remaining expressions of the same, historically defeated, tradition. This tradition is still alive only due to personal effort, heroic work, and the rare works of art that represent it.
The time in which this tradition educated and inspired the human community – the “community of noble people” – belongs to the past. Today’s uranian individual is alone, “lost” in the midst of hostility of the “chthonic” mass. Novels such as The story of London and At the Hyperboreans by Milos Crnjanski, The Expulsion by Momcilo Selic and The Marble Cliffs by Ernst Junger, can be read as a testimony to the passage of such heroes through the hell of the modern world, through the very centre of the vortex of modern nihilism, in its most extreme and destructive form. Their stay here, in a world that has become truly monstrous, and which is the exact opposite to celestial order, is akin to actually staying in hell. Such a hero endures life as if it were a war. He lives in a constant war, in the midst of a hostile environment, under siege. This is his ordinary, everyday experience. But the experience of nihilism is necessary. At the end of that road the light must be found; the light of Order, and the sacred principles of the cosmos.
In truth, it is the same light that such a man already possesses in himself, because he already has his own centre, since he is the true embodiment or incarnation of the principle of order. The fight that such a hero leads is the fight for the manifestation of order in the surrounding world. In principle, he is indifferent to its outcome in terms of victory or defeat, because it cannot change his position and nor his being. The only reason why he persists in the struggle is because it is the same struggle between the principles of order and chaos, and light versus darkness, between order and anarchy. It is clear, indeed, that the complete victory of any principle is not possible, or even desirable because it would mark the end of the cosmic game, and thus the end of the created world, which is based on dualism.
The monstrosities of this world, i.e. the chimaeras of modern times, are utopias, from the liberal to the technocratic, and from the communist to the androgynous. Utopias are eminent expressions of the chthonic mentality; dissatisfied with what he is (or more precisely, what he is not, such a person seeks to be something different to what he actually is), he is forced to constantly seek a replacement, a substitute for the lost, or missing, fullness of being. His principle is, therefore, impermanent and mutable, consisting of constant and pointless change to adapt to the forces of nature or history that determine him. His space is thus a utopia (whose destination is “nowhere”), a space to escape from the truth of being. He exists, but he exists outside of being, and far from the centre. His existence is, in a word, an escape from being.
Uranian man and uranic traditions are his true enemy because he is a mirror that shows the truth of being, discovering his fragmented nature and insufficiency. However, we do not know, what motivates him, nor can we describe his actual situation, because we do not possess a similar experience. If the position of the man who owns the centre is “at the centre of the light of heaven” (Plato), this one can only be described as a centre in the heart of hell.
The decision of the Court of the Dead
At the end of that road, the light must be found. The legacy which is in question here does not confirm a victory in history. On a personal level, for a man of the uranian tradition, the battle has already been won in advance, by conquering the centre, by winning the state of fullness of being. In the historical world, victory or defeat are merely ephemeral or possible outcomes that cannot influence him. He is, therefore, truly indifferent. For him the ancient motto attributed to Giordano Bruno is true: “I fought, and that’s enough.”
Of course, the outcome of his struggle is by no means accidental, because, in the end, it does not depend on “historical circumstances” but on predestination and the truth in sacred history. And for a uranic man, unlike a chthonic man, it is an imperative not to win but to be true to his being. The fact that the historical conditions are unfavourable for him, and for the tradition he represents, does not represent a problem for him. Because, as one of the heroes of Junger’s Heliopolis would say:
We do not know, nor do we have a right to know what history is, in essence, in the absolute, beyond time. We speculate, but we do not know the decision of the Court of the Dead.
The true course of history, then, is not evolution but involution, gradually and rapidly falling away from sacred principles. This inevitable decay affects all that has been created and, for a man of the uranian tradition, represents an extraordinary test of his integrity. The strength of his integrity, as opposed to a man of the chthonic tradition who voluntarily complies with the whims and changes of the historical transformation, wages his own struggle “against history”, its randomness and contingency. It should be said, however, that such a position, is only apparent from an external point of view, conservative. Although he generally resists any historical change – knowing that each of them has the effect of worsening the already desperate situation – his real goal is to preserve, but a revolutionary return to its original and the ideal situation, the situation that preceded the history.
In principle, it cannot be achieved within this temporal and historical cycle. What is possible to achieve, it is not a political and social program, which would lead to a renewal. These are only the expressions and manifestations of tradition that he, by his integrity, represents. In other words, he cannot hope to win. The purpose of his struggle is only to maintain his own integrity and the values that he represents so that they persist outside the scope of this historic cycle and become the basis for a new crystallisation of order.
In this struggle, therefore, he is not expecting a verification from “the court of history”, but only from “the court of the dead” – the dead that he, by being faithful to himself legally affirms and represents.
Tradition which disseminates itself through time
From the highest point of view, however, he is the representative of traditions, traditions which oppose the chthonic or matriarchal. The man within history has the freedom to decide between major and irreconcilably conflicting principles of Heaven and Earth. Every man is the arena of a great spiritual drama that repeats throughout history. In the language of the great spiritual symbols, it is a choice between the light of Heaven and the darkness of Hell, between fullness and inadequacy of being. But what is hell for one, is paradise to another, and vice versa.
Having opted for the Earth instead of the sky, a chthonic man, attempts to create an earthly paradise via a series of utopian attempts, all of which lead to Hell. From that perspective, it is possible to discuss the failure of utopian attempts. Utopias are, as noted by Cioran, achievable, but in the spirit opposite to the one in which they were conceived. When one develops a fantasy about freedom, he is faced with tyranny. When he fantasises about peace, he faces terror.
But utopian energy and the tension of the chthonic substrate cannot be exhausted or spent. The apparent “failure” of one utopian project only frees up space and energy to achieve a new one, which results in the progressive deterioration of historical conditions. The failure of the “communist utopia”, for example, only releases energy for another utopia, but each of these attempts has consequences that are, in the historical sense, irreversible. From the uranian standpoint, the only significant result of all these attempts is the destruction of the last remains of the old patriarchal institutions and values. From the chthonic standpoint, however, comes the rematch against former historical winners, marked by delayed historical recognition of chthonic values against uranic.
The previously mentioned destruction of “the last of the old patriarchal institutions and values”, however, creates a completely new historical situation for holders of uranian tradition. The lack of any external backing and support to patriarchal institutions, which are all destroyed, is forcing the last people of uranian tradition to search for a foothold only in themselves.
Sudden realisation and manifestations of this “against history”, clearly testify to its extraordinary strength and vitality. Its occurrences, in its pure state, alongside the “direction of history”, without the support of any institutions, and with isolated efforts, creates existential ruptures for individuals, confirming that it does indeed have the power to disseminate itself through time.
Translated by Victor and Zinka Brkic