Along the Via Negativa with Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, 1: Seeing Nobody on the Road

on July 4, 2009

There is a quality in the works of Lewis Carroll which is both extremely mystical and quite hard to pin down. The best term I’ve come up with to describe it is “via negativa” — the “negative way” — and even that phrase has distinct limits.

If you google on “via negativa,” as I’ve just been doing, you wind up with a lot of websites which define it as the aspect of Christian theology that attempts to define God by enumerating everything that God is not.

I have a number of problems with that — specifically the “Christian” part, the “theology” part, the “define” part and the “God” part. For one thing, the via negativa is a lot older than Christianity. For another, it isn’t really compatible with Christianity. It merely got hijacked along the way by a bunch of theologians who didn’t like the idea of having a cadre of undocumented mystics running around loose and thought they could fix the problem by reinterpreting the via negativa as a kind of subset of their own God-studies.

It never really worked, of course. It merely left an enormous back door open in Christianity for mystics, heretics, and assorted ontological guerrillas to wander in and out of as they chose. But that’s their problem. I’m just here to assert that — like Humpty Dumpty — I intend to use the term “via negativa” any damn way I like and ignore the last two millennia of accumulated baggage.

Very well, then.

Once you lay all the crap aside, it may be simplest to think of the via negativa as a kind of Western equivalent to Zen — a set of koans whose purpose is to short out the rational mind long enough to set it up for the psychic phase-shift popularly known as “enlightenment.”

Another way of thinking about it is in terms of the old anecdote about a sculptor who was asked how he had produced his magnificent sculpture of a bear. “Well,” he answered, “I started with a block of marble and I just knocked off all the bits that weren’t part of a bear.”

The via negativa is like that — except that in this case, the challenge is to knock away all the bits that aren’t part of God. If you’re honest about the exercise, you’ll wind up with Nothing — which is precisely the point.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson may have been conventionally religious in his day job — but in his guise as Lewis Carroll, he was an acolyte of Nothing. This is apparent in Alice’s encounter with the White King in Through the Looking-Glass:

“Just look along the road, and tell me if you can see either of them.”

“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice.

“I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance too! Why, it’s as much as I can do to see real people, by this light!”

All this was lost on Alice, who was still looking intently along the road, shading her eyes with one hand.

Alice, typically, thinks she’s merely engaging in a commonplace turn of phrase. But the King, who like most of these Looking-Glass folk has some awareness of the uncertain nature of reality, believes she is claiming the rare and transcendent power of seeing Nobody and is properly appreciative.

We should be, as well.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

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A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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