In describing the outskirts of heaven in The Great Divorce CS Lewis employed the descriptor “radiant abyss” for the perimeter of heaven. I have always felt that it is a clear summary of a difficult to define experience. It would also be an accurate brief summary of a set up for the ganzfeld (German for compete field) effect.
For clarification a ganzfeld is a state of perceptual deprivation caused by a lack of visual information. Lets try again for clarity. If you get enough fog and the fog is dense enough you lose track of the horizon or any sensible understanding of space. It is entrancing to observe from a distance and terrifying to drive into. Long periods of exposure to states of sensory deprivation can result in hallucinations.
On a road trip down the Pacific Scenic Byway of Oregon one summer I encountered the radiant abyss. I was on a road trip and we had stopped along the side of the Pacific Scenic Byway as a large storm was moving in. The view from the window of the car was a stone guardrail followed promptly by nothing but solid white. I got out of the car and stood on the stone ledge. You could see down the steep grassy embankment to the water’s edge, then the entire world completely disappeared like an eraser had been vigorously scrubbed over reality. I was transformed into a black and white sketch. I was a stark silhouette on white. It is experiences like these that make sense of early map descriptors like, “Here there be monsters”. The concept that the world is flat and that you can fall clean off of the edge make sense when the horizon is replaced by a blinding ambient glow. There are states in which it is difficult to see and then there are states where you can see perfectly well, but what you see is mysterious.
The term negative space defines areas in an image that do not contain information. It is the open space that is not immediately focal. When an artist desires for the viewer to feel a sense of smallness, more negative space is called for. If there is no indication of a literal horizon within a work of art you are intentionally being removed from reality. To remove the horizon is a way of saying to the viewer “Here there be monsters”. It is an indication of mystery.
This makes the blurred horizonless intentions clear when Mark Rothko suggested a viewing distance of about 2 inches from his very large canvases. The intention was for the work to overwhelm the field of a viewer’s perception. The goal was for the viewer to be engulfed in a new reality if only momentarily. What Rothko replicated was a kind of ganzfeld. The viewers intended horizon was to be the bleeding distant radiance of pure color. It was a color field. The genre of work is referred to as color field. It is large precisely so that it is appears unwieldy and unconquerable.
The same effect is beautifully attained in the the work of James Turrell. Light is the medium, or as he said, “Generally we use light, we don’t pay that much attention to light itself. That’s my interest. The fascination with light and how we come to light.”
While the visual state can be mesmerizing it can obviously result in tragedy. A whiteout blizzard is a storm without a horizon, a storm without shadows or a sense of placement. The roads are shut down with flashing lights and barricades to prevent accidents. In a whiteout blizzard you can walk off of the edge of a cliff and be completely unaware until you are falling downward with the snow. When sensory deprivation occurs at the wrong time and in the wrong place it can be fatal. It is the condition of seeing without perceiving.
In navigation there are compasses, Google maps and lighthouses. These are devices to keep the uncertain haze at bay. They are the objects to relate precise information about your precise location.
There are countless paintings and photographs regarding the sentimental romance of lighthouses. They are the beacons of hope in storms. In the paintings of Thomas Kinkade lighthouses are a representation of the coming afterlife where all things will theoretically be like a nice vacation home in the late afternoon. Everyone gets a bubblegum sunset for Christmas. As David Byrne sang of the bar called Heaven, “Heaven, is a place where nothing eeeever happens.” There is a catch with this approach to reality. The danger in longing is that it makes life exclusively the pursuit of a better, distant future. To present the future as an ideal by portraying it in a suspiciously clear and predictably rosy condition is an illusion. A lighthouse is a functional object designed specifically to stave off tragedy. It is a beacon to indicate mortal danger. Here there be monsters or lots of really sharp rocks.
When I worked in a framing shop years back I had to reframe a Thomas Kinkade picture, upon pulling it out of the frame I discovered that the image had been sloppily and absent-mindedly glued to a scrap of cardboard by the production company. The glowing cottage was mounted with super glue onto a rotting packing box. The distinction between the back and the front of the image were night and day. The front was designed to conceal the interior. To make the front of something look good does not improve the quality of the interior. I don’t care how good you can make the exterior of a shit sandwich look. I’m not eating it. Unfortunately, Thomas Kinkade successfully managed to hide an addiction until, at 54 he OD’ed on alcohol and Valium. He was found with his toenails painted iridescent gold. Throughout a number of his paintings there are hidden Ns, the initial of his estranged wife. The pain of real life was hidden behind blossoming flowers and obscured by pink sunsets until real life interrupted the dream.
I would like to pretend that I am completely beyond this kind of nonsense. I want to believe that I am the kind of person who fully presents his entire self to others without any illusions. To be honest when I get tired it is easier to hide and drink than it is to engage another person. I can pretend that I am either much better or worse than I am in hiding. It is safe. A group of people who could openly surrender themselves to one another, fuck-up and forgive one another would be behaving in a manner that I would describe as heaven-esque. However, I’m guessing that all of the noise from kids and chatting adults might kill the ambient state of my convenient illusions of transcendent non-being or whatever but it seems like a life spent hiding from yourself and others produces a different set of inconveniences. It’s easy to hallucinate imaginary futures staring at theoretical horizons, or as a friend of mine once explained, “Dreamers are assholes.” For clarification I am a dreamer sometimes and so is everybody else. So I guess that we are all damned to be dreamers and assholes together or assholes and dreamers apart. The only clear distinction is that it might be easier to recognize a hallucination if you have a friend who can tell you that the giant fanged floating wolf-tiger is a product of your overactive imagination or that maybe your addiction is getting a little bit out of hand.