As a teenager I studied the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Now, decades later, here I was on an airplane flight from New York to Texas, rereading Beyond Good and Evil, when I came across one of his most widely-quoted aphorisms: “When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”
I paused to ponder what Nietzsche might have meant. Was this a comment on the risk of excessive introspection? (He’d prefaced the statement by cautioning that people who fight monsters may themselves become monsters.) Or was he expressing a concern about the spirit of nihilism, for elsewhere he wrote that the self contains an “abysmal sickness, weariness, discouragement” – symptoms of the impoverishment of life that results when the “will to power” turns against itself.
The dictionary defines abyss as “a deep or seemingly bottomless chasm.” I imagined a tunnel deep within myself, reaching back into my distant memories, or perhaps even farther back into a realm of ancestral knowledge. Maybe this tunnel would lead all the way back to the beginnings of life, maybe it would contain clues to the primordial forces that animate living beings.
Looking up from the book for a moment, I glanced out the airplane window and found that staring straight at me was — a cloud.
This was a year or two ago. Since then this strange idea has stuck with me, namely, that deep within the abyss you might find a cloud….
Now I’m on my way to Texas once again, having recently taken a job that entails frequent travel to the state. The airplane’s just taken off from La Guardia and is heading southwest along the New Jersey coast. Out the window looms a cloudscape composed of multiple layers of gray stratus, featureless and shadowy and somewhat forlorn — when from a gap in the layers the sun peeks through, and suddenly a fan of crepuscular rays has spread across the horizon, as if a cosmic eye were batting its lashes.
As a longtime resident of New York, I think of the state as having temperate weather with abundant moisture and a high percentage of overcast days. Perhaps the stratus layers condense as northwesterly airflows cross the Catskills Mountains.
The jet continues southwest. The sun sinks, the sky turns bronze. We reach the open country of the Great Plains and suddenly we’ve arrived in a cumulonimbus zone. The moisture bubbles up in enormous columns, then flattens off into the anvil-shaped layers known as incus, which occur at the altitude where water vapor phase-shifts into crystals.
One month later (it’s August now): it’s once again into the cumulonimbus zone, but this time the mid-afternoon sky is a peaceful shade of blue. These clouds may contain violent cells capable of producing lightning, hail, or even tornadoes, but for now they strike me as well-formed and graceful. One massive cloudbank contains a circular gap, reminiscent of the arches of Moab.
From a distance the incus clouds looked two-dimensional, but as the jet passes underneath the high layers, strange swirling features are revealed on the underside, including the waving pouches called mammatus, while far below a layer of cumulus cloaks the ground.
As the sun nears the horizon, the clouds turn a dusky coral color.
The next flight is in late September. This time I’ll arrive a little earlier, so as to leave time for an evening run before checking in at my hotel. On the descent we pass through a band of cumulus and upon reaching the ground, there in the north sits a huge cumulonimbus. Soon I’m heading north in my rental car, straight towards this brooding presence, which sits above a landscape of freeway interchanges and distribution centers.
When you’re operating out of doors, clouds matter, because their presence gives you early warning of conditions that might well impact your experience. Imagine our distant ancestors, before such things as weather maps or forecasts or raincoats for that matter: they would’ve been constantly on the move in search of food, but also mindful of the risk of inclement conditions and therefore always conscious of the nearest shelter. The sight of distant clouds would have carried import.
I continue north, while the thunderhead hovers in the distance, large and portentous. When I arrive at the starting point for my run, there it is hulking in the northeast, the white cumulus bubbling up into the atmosphere, while the lower edges are flanked by dark bands of stratus looking ominous.
I head out on my run, delighted to be on the move after hours of sitting stationary in cars and planes. But at the same time I’m feeling anxious about an unfamiliar route and the risk of weather. Meanwhile the stratus layers have flowed in overhead, and the light’s begun to fade, although the sun breaks through in some places and lights up cloud edges. These clouds do not represent the storm itself, but are merely forerunners. Farther off, I glimpse great swirls of cirrus, hinting at a vortex.
The gray stratus thickens. The thunderhead is no longer visible (was it all in my mind?). As the sun nears the horizon, falling rain becomes visible to the northwest.
No precipitation found me. On the drive over to my hotel, I wondered where the storm was headed and whether I would awake to rain against the windows. But the next morning it was quiet. Once again I questioned what was real and what I’d merely imagined. But evidently something had happened, because the weather radar showed a disturbance to the north, a sizeable zone of heavy rain spanning Oklahoma and Arkansas, while a map of surface conditions showed that a cold front had closed in on Dallas and then somehow reversed course, pulling back to the north.
On the short drive over to work, there was rain in the northeast. If not the storm itself, rearguard elements perhaps.
That evening, twisting cirrus plumes caught the setting sun, turned orange and yellow with hints of coral pink, made me think of dancing dragons.
I became convinced that the clouds of Texas are of different shapes and colors than those of New York, no doubt due to differences in temperature or humidity or the prevalence of sun-baked dust instead of blowing mists, although I have not been able to find data to support this thesis.
In his writings Nietzsche used the words “abyss” and “abysmal” in connection with “sickness” and “the will to decline” (a reference to Christianity, which he loathed). The abyss was a source of “arrogance” and “antagonism” and a realm where lurked the spirit of German nationalism (which he also loathed). He used the abyss as a metaphor for crimes against nature, the pleasures associated with destruction and negation, “gloomy, black, unnerving sadness,” “invincible horror,” indecencies and abuses, suspicion, decadence, universal decay.
Nietzsche may well have felt that he was teetering on the edge of an abyss, if not sliding into the depths. He suffered throughout his life from various physical afflictions including migraine headaches and digestive problems, which forced him to retire from teaching in his 30s. For relief he turned to opium and other sedatives. His books were too radical for contemporary tastes; they sold poorly and left him unemployable and increasingly isolated. At age 45 he suffered a mental breakdown and then multiple strokes. He died at age 56.
As a young man I was sympathetic to the tension in Nietzsche’s writing. I recall sometimes feeling quite weak and hollow inside, as if there were an empty chasm at my core. At the time I believed I had something to offer the world, but also felt unsure about myself and afraid that I would be a failure. Maybe that was one way of sensing the abyss. And maybe that was why I found Nietzsche’s philosophy so uplifting, because his “will to power” was not the quest for dominion over other people but rather a recognition of the energy of life, and his “ubermensch” (or overman) did not reflect a belief in the superiority of any one class or race but rather the destiny of people to overcome self-limitations and create something higher.
Over the years, those feelings of emptiness faded as I accumulated experience and some modest success. And then, one day, as I gazed out the airplane window it occurred to me that the abyss might contain not only fear and weakness, but also acceptance and equanimity.
It would appear that in recent years I have developed something of an affinity for clouds. This attitude seems natural and appropriate since people, like clouds, are composed largely of water — and not to mention, many of us feel animated by the sun and sensitive to temperature and wind.
I find myself studying them closely. In New York City I’ve glimpsed distant banks of cumulus hurrying between the office towers, while in the Catskill Mountains I’ve witnessed moisture rising from the forests and tendrils of fog erupting from the cloves and small cloud-puffs racing past summits and the formation known as cirrus vertebratus arrayed above the autumn forests.
In New Zealand, I sipped a cup of tea while admiring an almond-shaped lenticular cloud that had formed above a ridge, while in Utah a mushroom cloud bubbled above Mt. Peale so massive that it dwarfed the mountain.
Let us walk on clouds, let us harangue the infinite, let us surround ourselves with symbols!
— Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Case of Wagner”