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….