Charnel Vision

One of my minor affectations is periodizing my writing into sardonically named 6-year eras. The first six years of this blog were the Rust Age (2007-12). The next six years were the Snowflake Age (2013-18). We’re about to enter the last year of the third age of Ribbonfarm, (2019-24), and I finally have a name for it: this is the Charnel Age.

Over the last few years, I flirted with other candidate names (Plastic Age and Cryptic Age were in the running for a while) but never quite felt any of them in my bones. But when I thought of Charnel Age, it instantly struck me as exactly right. Everything I’ve done in the last few years has been colored by what one might call charnel vision: a tendency to see things from the perspective of natural processes of transience, death, and decay. Paradoxically, it is a disposition that provides solace rather than causing distress once you get comfortable with it. Charnel vision feels healthy. Resisting it seems unhealthy.

Charnel vision is somewhat alien to a modern Western sensibility; it creates dissonance if you’re accustomed to occupying a headspace that is an eternal struggle between historicist narratives of fiat optimism and fiat pessimism. Charnel vision is neither optimistic, nor pessimistic. It is a way of seeing — one that calls for a certain sort of philosophical literacy — within which optimism and pessimism are not well-posed categories.

I expect 2024 to be the year we hit a worldwide extremum of charnel vibes, before fragile new life strengthens enough to capture our imaginations once again, and organic sanguine currents in the zeitgeist once again overwhelm organic melancholy ones (I find the frame of the four humors to be much more psychologically sound than the optimism/pessimism frame favored by modern discourses).

The idea of a charnel ground is a very familiar one in India, but very unfamiliar in the West, and I didn’t quite appreciate the significance of this cultural difference until years after I got here. A charnel ground is simply a patch of land where human corpses are unceremoniously dumped to decompose in the open air, with the help of scavenger species (vultures, jackals and the like). They still exist, though they are not as common as they once were. As you might expect, this is a fate mostly reserved for the poor and abandoned. Respectable people get respectful (and as in the West, aestheticized and sanitized) funerals via burial or cremation. India is also home to an imported hybrid funerary practice, the tower of silence used by Parsis, with origins in pre-Islamic Iranian cultures. A tower of silence is basically a charnel ground atop a tower, with somewhat more ritual scaffolding around it.

Charnel grounds, as you might expect, are associated with a certain amount of horror in the Indian imagination, but as you probably don’t expect, also with morality tales, philosophy, and contemplation. The famous Betaal-Pachisi cycle of stories, which I blogged about in 2009, has a frame story that involves King Vikram repeatedly returning to a charnel ground to recapture an underworld creature known as a betaal, for complicated reasons. The stories within the frame story are a series of non-horror, often even comedic, moral dilemmas that the betaal poses to the king; a sort of allegory of his moral development through the 25 stories, as he solves each dilemma. His ultimate escape from the cycle of repeatedly returning to recapture the betaal from the charnel ground can be understood as a sort of enlightenment allegory about escaping the karmic cycle.

When I was a kid (about 6 or 7 I think), the stories were being serialized in a children’s magazine called Chandamama (Moon Uncle), and the accompanying illustrations were probably my first experience of horror. I’d hurriedly skip past the pages with the charnel ground illustrations. Here is the main one, which appeared in every issue. This picture is a pretty tame one meant for children by the way, since bleached bones are obviously the relatively non-horrifying final stage of decomposition.

Back when I blogged about it, I made an analogy between betaals and Western vampires, but now I think the analogy is a very poor one. Betaals are creatures of charnel grounds that don’t really have a proper counterpart or narrative context in the West. As an aside, one of the reasons I rarely blog about Indian stuff is that much of it is completely unfamiliar to non-Indian readers, so it takes too much work to establish enough context to even provoke a reaction. The only non-Indian who has ever had a reaction to the post linked above was David Chapman several years ago, around when we first connected online. David, being a practitioner of Vajrayana, obviously knew much more about it than I did, and has a whole website inspired in part by Betaal-Pachisi called Buddhism for Vampires.

The Vikram-Betaal stories (which were also the basis of various comic books and a popular TV show that aired a few years later, when I was old enough not to be scared by them) are just the tip of an iceberg of charnel-related culture in and around India, spanning both Hindu and Buddhist societies. To the extent there was a genre of horror movies in India when I was growing up, it mostly comprised extremely crappy B-movies (many by the Ramsey brothers) that combined horror and soft-porn elements. The horror elements were invariably drawn from Tantric culture, which of course prominently features charnel grounds and sketchy people doing dubious things in and around them.

The closest thing to charnel cultural context in the modern West is probably Lovecraftian horror. I finished reading the complete works of Lovecraft this year (and the complete works of J. G. Ballard as well, which is in part an adjacent kind of surrealist charnel horror — High-Rise is a good example). The difference is that Tantric culture is a kind of legitimized heterodoxy with a clear and respected (if feared) place in Indian culture, while Western occult culture is an underground culture that is associated with evil within a good/evil cosmogony, and with deviant rather than normal societal conditions. As an example, in India, Kali is commonly and uncontroversially worshipped in mainstream culture, with a major festival and numerous temples devoted to her. But she is also the patron goddess of Tantric practices involving varying sorts of charnel horror. Christian missionaries often interpret Kali worship as devil worship, which is a not-even-wrong way of understanding it. Revealingly, many historic charnel grounds (no longer in use) are popular pilgrimage spots.

But perhaps the most important difference between East and West is that charnel grounds in India (and Tibet and elsewhere in the neighborhood) are more than garbage dumps for corpses nobody wants to pay to bury or cremate. They also serve as primary loci for a whole host of meditative traditions. The Vajrayana Buddhist tradition is perhaps the best known in the West. Charnel-ground meditation shoves your face into the brutal realities of the transience of life in a very visceral way. Meditating on a bloated, putrefying corpse while swatting away jackals trying to snack on you is a different sort of challenge than meditating in a pleasant forest ashram. Or I assume it is. I haven’t tried either. There’s a whole philosophy around it, and David Chapman’s various sites are probably a good English introduction to the whole scene.

The tldr of the underlying philosophical posture is that the universe is a grimdark place of relentless and absolutely certain death and destruction created by the God of Werner Herzog. The charnel ground is merely a place where it is impossible to ignore the fact. To the adept, all of reality is a charnel ground. You just need to acquire a certain way of seeing to see it outside of places like literal charnel grounds.

This is not the deep thought it might appear to be at first glance. It’s obviously the case that a pleasant hike through a beautiful national park is also a hike through a charnel ground. Nature does not bury or cremate her dead; she merely recycles it in naturally clean and pleasant ways. Death and decay are only horrifying in artificial contexts designed to foster illusions of timelessness, like monumental human built environments. Roadkill on a highway is fundamentally more horrifying than half-eaten carrion on a nature trail. When I first thought this thought during a beautiful hike in the Himalayas around 1996, during which we encountered plenty of signs of death and decay, it felt like an earth-shattering revelation. Now it feels like a sophomoric banality (in my defense I was only a bit past my sophomore year then). But though it’s not a deep thought, it can be a deep feeling. It is one thing to intellectually appreciate the charnel character of all reality, but quite another to see that character as a matter of second nature; to have a charnel-vision worldview.

While I grok the philosophy, and to some extent, the “charnel vision” praxis (which includes Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions of course, but also a lot else from around the world that shares the sensibility, such as Lovecraftian horror), I guess I lack the seriousness of temperament to live my life by it. The closest I come to a lived charnel philosophy is picking somewhat macabre charnel names for some projects (the rover I’m building is called Nature is Murder, after a famous Werner Herzog monologue; it’s my first experiment in a very Vajrayana vision of scavenger robots operating in a Martian robotic charnel ground).

I suppose I operate by some mix of a charnel philosophy and Woody Allen “eternal nothingness is fine so long as you happen to be dressed for it” insouciance. Maybe I’m Vajrayana-minded on Tuesdays and Thursdays and too shallow and attached to worldly things to be particularly philosophical the other days of the week. Charnel vision is not a default way of seeing for me, though I can turn it on and off when I feel like it. While I wouldn’t seek out charnel horrors or dwell on them, I tend not to look away from them either.

Getting back to 2019-2024, I hope it is relatively obvious why I am naming the age that’s winding down the Charnel Age. To the charnel-ground philosopher, of course, every age is tautologically a charnel age, and it is putrefying corpses all the way down. But I have a more restricted sense of charnel conditions in mind, particularly with reference to the tone of my own writing through the last five years, which I think is going to persist for at least another year.

2019-24 is a period that spans the latter years of the Trump death cult, the death-haloed geriatric administration of Biden, a deadly pandemic, longevity obsessions, an unraveling of a half-century-old world order of relative peace and stability, sudden reversals of positive trends on several fronts, and a growing moral panic in the West over civilizational decline, aging populations, and anti-natalism. The Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars are the bloodiest in many decades, reversing the medium-term trend towards high-precision, low-casualty smart warfare, with regression to tanks pounding each other and brutal WW I/II battlefield tactics. Climate change went from a relatively sanitary space of bad-faith debates among ideologies to a lived global reality of deadly weather and flows of miserable refugees across borders. And perhaps most importantly, an entire global institutional landscape, between 50 to 500 years old, began to die and putrefy.

If all this doesn’t constitute a world as an in-your-face charnel ground, I don’t know what does.

Institutional decline and decay is perhaps the most visible marker of this being a Charnel Age. We lack a proper funerary culture for putting institutions to rest with a suitable degree of ceremony and gravitas, and letting them fade into memory with dignity. There is no such thing as burial or cremation as far as institutions are concerned. There is only the world as an always-already institutional charnel ground, with undignified decay all around, and scavenger political and economic forces roaming about, feasting on their putrefying flesh, as noxious emissions spread through the environment. We use euphemisms like innovation and disruption to talk about it in ways that center novelty and elide the charnel aspects of those processes, and are poorer for it.

While there were certainly new and interesting things taking root in the world, they were and are young and fragile, as young things necessarily must be. Generativity is all around us, but charnel vibes have utterly dominated it for the last few years. You have to invest aggressively, desperately, and expensively in fiat optimism to focus exclusively on the generative threads of today, and while I understand the impulse, it strikes me as ultimately counterproductive and unnecessary. It is not only unnecessary to deny death and decay to perform belief in life and growth, acknowledging those things is in fact necessary for truly living and growing. You cannot truly engage with, or seek to be part of, what is coming to life, without also engaging with what is decaying and dying. Even Ender Wiggin, that murderous little child psychopath antihero of Ender’s Game, was philosopher enough to be attracted to speaking for the dead.

As above, so below, as the hermetics say. Individual lives and activities are not immune to the Charnel Age. There have been three deaths in my own close family in the last few years (two human, one by Covid; and one beloved pet). There has been plenty of transience, decay, and change.

This blog, of course, has been wandering about in a half-alive funerary haze through the last few years, trying to discover renewed purpose in the digital charnel ground that is the old blogosphere, and public social media generally. As Twitter continues to die a comically tortured death, and public social media continues its retreat to a fearful cozyweb underground of substacks, messengers, discords, and slack, the meaning of blogging has changed. As a blogger, each of the past five years has felt like one of King Vikram’s journeys from the charnel ground, with the betaal on his back posing an impossible moral dilemma. The specific question of how and why to continue writing this blog feels like synecdoche for a bigger world of questioning. The world has been asking itself repeatedly through the last five years how and why to continue existing. Just as Vikram will break out of the cycle if he can solve the betaal‘s riddle without it escaping, the world will break out of the charnel-ascendant phase (and me out of repeatedly trying to figure out where to take this blog) when some sort of fundamental paradox resolves itself in billions of specific ways, in the lives of billions of individuals and institutions.

If all this sounds very grim, I think that has little to do with actual conditions, and more to do with the limitations of the English language and the shockingly shallow sort of fiat optimism to which Western culture has been reduced in its own imagination in the last five years. And since the Western understanding of itself is ex officio the world’s current understanding of itself, there is no proper escape from this particular powerful manufactured normalcy trap. Yes, you can disagree with this world view, and reject the tedious optimism/pessimism view of reality, but not without being acutely conscious of breaking out of normalcy and inhabiting a headspace disconnected from broader discourses. And being viewed by the default normalcy of fiat optimism as suffering from a condition that needs to be medicated and/or legislated out of existence.

That’s why I think charnel vision is a healthy thing. A world that desperately celebrates optimism and medicates pessimism is a world that is not truly willing to look at itself and contemplate the death and decay that must necessarily accompany life and growth.

Ironically, even India, the spiritual home of charnel vision in many ways, has been taken over by a very Western sort of fiat optimism under the nominally Hindu-nationalist Modi administration. It’s the most American political culture I’ve ever seen take root in India, which genuinely cracks me up.

In 2024, I think the world, and all our individual and institutional lives, will continue to acquire an increasingly inescapable charnel vibe. It will probably peak in November with the likely Biden-Trump rematch, which already feels like a tale being set into motion in a charnel ground. The prospect of voting in the next election feels like a moral politics dilemma worthy of a betaal challenge to King Vikram. And that’s just one of a thousand small and big charnel-colored things on the calendar already. And it isn’t even New Year’s yet.

The charnel grimdarkness will apparently continue until morale improves.

Kidding aside (we need more charnel humor), I’m curiously undisturbed by prospects for the coming year. Not because there are actual bright-side things you could focus on (which there are), but because in some ways, it feels like we’re finally beginning to accept the necessity and healthfulness of this collective period of charnel-ground meditation that we’ve all been forced into for the last few years. We’re finally recognizing that the only way out of this charnel ground of a historical epoch is through it.

I leave you with this picture of the winter solstice sunset I took today, at the start of the longest night of the year, looking out over the charnel swamp wetland I live next to these days.

Happy holidays!

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Paradoxically, this post fills me with optimism!
    One of your blogging strengths was always to propose constructive ways of dealing with unpleasant realities (e.g. Gervais Priciple, Slightly Evil, etc)
    I kinda felt you had been poisoned by the hysterical techno-optimism denial that has dominated SV-adjacent discourse the last few years, and this feels like a welcome return to form.
    I like Marc Andreessen, but his recent manifesto sounds to me like “Long Live the King, the King is Dead”. A possible future post?

  2. I too spent many a childhood day reading Chandamama. The scarcity of good reading material made us read just about anything in the 80s.

  3. LifeLearner42 says

    Longtime reader, first time poster. I hesitated to be the first to comment… until I contemplated that no one posting at all might be a false confirmation of any bias you might have about this blog not being seen/read/appreciated.

    This post resonated and (darkly) delighted me on many levels. This is indeed a charnal time, collection and individually. In the past 6 months I have encountered much death in my personal realm, and I lacked a term and frame of reference for my own view of it being a healthy and integral (even fascinating) function in a far greater process.

    Thanks to this post, I now have at the very least what I choose to view as a validation of my recent experiences and observations. Rather than being some undesirable and pessimistic mindset worthy of medicating, I likely am instead simply having a healthy (albeit unpopular) appreciation of an inescapable, necessary, and deeply beautiful aspect of our existence.

    I view you as a modern day philospher and certainly one of my favorite deep thinkers. It amazes me that you are younger than I am and yet you never cease to expand my thinking (and lexicon) with a deliciously unique blend of philosophy and psychology, science and logic that is deeply satisfying! Don’t stop posting!

  4. VR said: “… with undignified decay all around, and scavenger political and economic forces roaming about, feasting on their putrefying flesh, as noxious emissions spread through the environment. We use euphemisms like innovation and disruption to talk about it in ways that center novelty and elide the charnel aspects of those processes, and are poorer for it.”

    Best description of Substack I’ve ever read.

    See Hamish McKenzie’s ignorance of his excuse of substack as charnal ground and voices:
    https://substack.com/@hamish/note/c-45811343

    Venkatash, I believe you would write an insightful and viral adjunct to Hamish and Substack. Might even help them and us. Charnel Sub Stacks… “As Twitter continues to die a comically tortured death, and public social media continues its retreat to a fearful cozyweb underground of substacks”. Charnal ground is Elon’s biggest fear. Probably Marc A’s too.

    Please keep Ribbonfarm free from “scavenger political and economic forces”.

    And you might like:
    “How Dark Souls and Darth Revan helped me to make sense of my professorship

    “John Tregoning compares academia to role-playing video games as a way to discuss how the choices we make can affect the paths we take.”
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-04080-5

    Thanks as always.

  5. Beautiful vivid description of transitioning to the liminal state of the charnel state and noting the shift in the collective “vibe” in the west that we well blends the growing sense of doomerism, decay/rot, and disruption, loss of status, transition, disregard of moral boundaries and a return to a constellation of just overall weirdness. I always thought of the Sky Towers of the Parsis as a beautiful raw funerary symbol. Thanks for this simile to the current state.

    From this decay looking forward to a revitalization that eventually will follow in the cycle of destruction/creation.

    Regarding revitalization, do you see any particular areas where this might begin to emerge first?

    I keep wondering if the shift in collective power to multipolarity is a revitalization to the decay of the west… individuals abandon their old ways and old thoughts and under this stress alter their lifestyles and eventually accept change in status…

    I expect things to get even weirder as we transition thru the post charnel…

  6. Another fascinating article and so relevant to the things that are hot in my oven of contemplation. Hell it feels as though you know me better than myself.

    “A mood of universal destruction and renewal…has set its mark on our age. This mood makes itself felt everywhere, politically, socially, and philosophically. We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos—the right moment—for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious human within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science…. So much is at stake and so much depends on the psychological constitution of the modern human.”
    —C. G. Jung
    The Undiscovered Self

  7. Ravi Daithankar says

    This made for a fantastic read! It is a subject that I have thought about long and hard for over a decade now, after my first real charnel ground experience and the raw and visceral reaction that it brought. It really is a shame that there is no appropriately un-heavy tenor in which the broader culture (Western and Indian, tbh) processes everything you’ve said here. It is completely absent in the West, like you said. But even in India, it is now basically a pointless ritual that is a proxy for honest, visceral introspection. And once you see just how much in contrast the stated purpose of the charnel ground is from the grief theater that it has become the stage for, it is actually pretty hilarious. Not even in a grimdank sort of way. Like, at a meta level, the whole exercise may just be accomplishing something that is even bigger than its own stated purpose, although in a very bizarre and ironical fashion. Imagine an end-stage Betaal Pachisi in which Betaal actually starts to tire from the futility of the grind that is nudging Vikram towards some kind of enlightenment and instead starts stumbling into his own, even bigger insights. LMAO!

    But more seriously, my take on this is that on the whole, as a species we are biologically wired and designed to miss the point you are trying to make, for evolutionary reasons. A tiny percentage of the population of course is cursed to see it the way you’re putting it. And that is liberating in its own way. But it is also a major drag to be constantly aware that almost nobody else “gets it”. And like it or not, a lot of what counts as progress or generative ideas in the world historically have come from a place of complete charnel vision-blindness. If a large proportion of society was “wise” to the sort of perspective you’re referring to, it would be a pretty quick slide into a nihilistic, pointlessness-centered society that would see no reason to get anything done ever. Imagining a mature society that is capable of and comfortable with soaking in the ideas of decay, putrefying liberation, and charnel ground meditation while being generative and constructive at the same time is a pretty radical utopian idea.

    Although I suppose one can fantasize!

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