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Pluto and the Death of God

The following is excerpted from Pluto: New Horizons for a Lost Horizon: Astronomy, Astrology, and Mythology, edited by Richard Grossinger and published by North Atlantic Books.

Pluto appeared in the sky between the wars, as the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression and the world continued its demented march toward Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Those two catastrophes were still years away; but already in 1930, those who cared (or dared) to scry the forces at work behind the scenes could feel the rising heat.

The great writer D. H. Lawrence was among these seers. In the opening to a novel released two years before Pluto made headlines, he observed that it is precisely because we live in tragic times that we reject a tragic vision of existence: “The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins.” A careful reader of Friedrich Nietzsche, Lawrence knew that the social and political troubles of his day were just the outward signs of a deeper crisis, one whose nature was as metaphysical as it was socio-historical. As the plot of Lady Chatterley’s Lover illustrates, this crisis existed well beyond the theater of power politics: it touched the most intimate areas of human life. This was something no treaty, social program, or League of Nations could fix, a collective “loss of soul” operating at pandemic levels.

It was in the midst of this crisis that astronomers located the obscure object their calculations had assured them existed at the edge of our solar system. But before talking about Pluto, I want to delve a little deeper into the situation in which it emerged, so as to better understand its imaginal significance.

Nietzsche had put his finger on the nub of the problem two generations before Lawrence with his proclamation of the death of God. While at one level, the statement “God is dead” is squarely aimed at the Christian deity, in the context of Nietzsche’s overall philosophy it has a much wider scope. “Christianity” is the name Nietzsche gives to what he considers to be the most sophisticated articulation of an ancient, deep-rooted cultural asceticism, endemic to the West. It is essentially a form of nihilism, entailing a metaphysical denial of the body-soul in favor of a transcendent principle in whose searing light our world appears as mere shadow. From its place beyond the confines of matter and psyche, the transcendent object—what Nietzsche calls “God”—becomes the basis for universal moral judgment in this world. It determines right and wrong, truth and falsehood; but since it is outside of space-time it can’t communicate with us directly: a priest (or other expert) is required to judge the living and the dead in its name. This life-denying attitude derives from what Nietzsche called a “spirit of vengeance” that has driven Western culture since the days of Socrates. It is a force that sucks the lifeblood out of embodied being, effectively imposing on everyone an infinite spiritual debt that can never be repaid.

The most subtle and virulent form of asceticism for Nietzsche isn’t the Christian faith per se but modern secularism, with its enshrinement of metaphysical truth as a thing of intrinsic moral value. That is why Nietzsche follows up the proclamation “God is dead” with the warning that even in death, the shadow of God “still looms” . . . and will continue to do so for a long time. The doctrine of truth—which persists in the humanities as well as the sciences—is the ghost of God, the pesky vestige of a principle whose unreality has already disclosed itself in the collective psyche.

Over and above its indictment of the old cosmic patriarch, “God is dead” is a mantra signaling the disappearance of any principle on which one might hang an absolute, the vanishing of the very basis for positing universal values of any kind. For Nietzsche the news is both good and bad. It is good news because, the rug of transcendence having being pulled from under our feet, it is only a matter of time before we are forced to adopt a different way of being. But it is also bad news, because the realization that transcendence is a fiction is so traumatic that we may well destroy ourselves sooner than embrace a new modality.

The way I understand it, the Nietzschean demotion of truth doesn’t mean that truth is nonexistent. Nietzsche is talking about the end of truth as a monolithic value deserving unquestioned devotion in the manner of an idol. As the French thinker Gilles Deleuze explains in a beautiful treatise on Nietzschean philosophy, it isn’t a question of whether truth exists but whether all truths are equal—and most importantly, whether truth as such is necessarily good. “There are imbecile thoughts, imbecile discourses, that are made up entirely of truths; but these truths are base, they are those of a base, heavy and leaden soul,” he writes. [1] Consider the know-it-all who would dismiss a poetic description of the sunrise because “actually, the sun doesn’t rise, it’s the Earth that’s turning,” or the historicist who would repudiate the revolutionary by reminding her that “all revolutions turn out badly in the end.” Both make use of base truths to undermine more profound ones. Their truths are “base” because they shrink the horizon of the possible, they presuppose a world that can be conquered by the intellect and that can be judged, as opposed to one that exceeds every ideation. The acolytes of truth want to banish all sense of a universe in which something new might arise at any moment to challenge our most basic suppositions as to the nature of the real.

“Illusions” such as sunrises, revolutions, and works of art can contain truths that, while having no basis in hardcore actuality, are more expansive and significant than any plain statement of fact. Indispensable though they may be from an empirical standpoint, facts speak only what has been the case in the past: they have no claim on the real potentialities of the now. So it isn’t truth as such that Nietzsche said must come to an end so much as a “human, all too human” understanding of truth. Likewise, it wasn’t God himself whose death Nietzsche proclaimed, but a similarly too-human conception of the divine.

The modern crisis encapsulated in the mantra “God is dead” is an epistemic one: it involves the way we think about the world rather than the world itself. The way Deleuze puts it in his interpretation of Nietzsche, modernity has replaced knowledge with belief. It is this switch from knowing to believing that has changed the situation. We can’t claim to truly know anything anymore. Even the solidity of matter becomes suspect in the light of modern ideas of nature and the cosmos. The Enlightenment quest for truth has revealed uncertainty to be an inextricable attribute of human thought. The best we can do today is to believe we know. In this sense it is we, and not the Australian aborigines, who live in Dreamtime, rowing merrily down the stream of a life that’s but a dream. The West has shattered its dearest illusions to uncover levels of the real that won’t conform to its own metaphysical ideals. We are just taking our sweet time acknowledging it. Hence the crisis.

While in daily life we continue to act as though everything were OK, an abyss yawns beneath ordinary consciousness, a groundlessness the horror writer Thomas Ligotti called the “Shadow at the Bottom of the World.” [2] If the old transcendent god continues to haunt us in a secular guise, demanding that we persist in holding absolute truths despite the evidence of our thoughts, it is because only through this belief can we trick ourselves out of facing the void. And so we fight the shadow of the abyss with the shadow of God. Here I return to the opening of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. [3]

We’ve got to go on, because stopping would mean confronting the imponderable fact that we have been divested of every line of defense against the total what-the- fuckness of it all. The only absolute remaining behind the mirages and the chicanery of obsolete transcendence is absolute unknowing, absolute mystery.

Anyone who has had a bona fide panic attack knows what I mean by “groundlessness.” The fear comes on when the egoic mind hits on the untruth of truth, or the truth of untruth. The world suddenly takes on a cold, menacing glare. It doesn’t become meaningless; rather, it comes alive with meanings emanating from an inhuman presence beyond comprehension, an alien intelligence whose indifference to our plight gives it an aura of malignancy and cruelty. In 1927, three years before the Pluto discovery, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time proposed that anxiety wasn’t a mental disturbance but the only sane reaction to the actual nature of reality. Anxiety, for Heidegger, is the “fundamental mood,” the modern mindset par excellence—that which brings us closest to the essence of Being.

Modern humans are adrift in the unknowable, the most potent image of which may be the immeasurable vastness of outer space through which Planet Earth wafts like a wad of spit from the mouth of Cthulhu. It’s true that there is no shortage of religions, philosophical models, esoteric traditions, and spiritual practices for those who seek to make sense of the situation (myself included). However, it is impossible to entertain any one of these models of belief without being aware of the fact that it exists as one “option” among many. Whether the one I pick is the most adequate is anyone’s guess, especially when I realize that there are very smart people vouching for almost every position. We live in a metaphysically flat time, with all of these different models existing on the same theoretical plane.

Be that as it may, mystical experiences, magical encounters, extraplanar flights, synchronistic happenings, and prophetic visions still abound. That is heartening because it tells us that secular materialism is really just one more option on the table, not the sober default its proponents would like it to be. On the other hand, even the most miraculous occurrence cannot restore the ground we have lost. A dozen mystics will return from the otherworld with a dozen different maps of meaning. And while we can think our way to a synthesis that makes, say, G. I. Gurdjieff’s cosmology compatible with Rudolph Steiner’s, the critical differences in need of bridging are a case in point. It isn’t that the mystics are wrong; evidently, Gurdjieff and Steiner saw something—something important—in their visions. But in turning this something into a set of communicable ideas, they altered it in a significant way. The figurations of the real described by Gurdjieff, Steiner, and others seem to have as much to do with who did the seeing as they do with what was seen—and that is modernity defined.

As Carl Jung observes in the Red Book, if a new divinity, a new ground, should arise, it must inhere in the relative, that is to say the mysterious, the innately ambivalent: both/and as opposed to either/or. The pluralism that characterizes the spiritual scene today is not going away. We must somehow find our footing in groundlessness itself.

The discovery of Pluto coincides with the modern revelation of groundlessness. Synchronistically speaking, Pluto is the emissary of the death of God, expressing it through the death god’s return to mass consciousness.

It is worth noting that Pluto is not equivalent to the Christian devil (that dubious honor goes to Pan). In fact Pluto hardly appears at all in the Christian mythos, with good reason. For what room is there for the personification of nothingness in a cosmos where nothingness was done away with on the First Day? If there is one thing that traditional Christianity did splendidly, it was to reassure people that death was not a void, that the personality survived it intact. (It is true that it still does this for millions of Christians today. But again, modern Christians believe their creed with the full knowledge that it is one possibility among many. Far from being self-evident, contemporary Christianity must vie with its competitors. It therefore contains doubt as a constitutive element.) In the traditional Christian worldview, death isn’t a real event but an optical illusion to be dispelled on the Day of Judgment. The fact that the body expires is completely irrelevant, because time and space themselves are irrelevant in the Kingdom of God.

It was the decline of Christianity as the preeminent Western mindset that allowed for the reemergence of Death as an archetype, and Pluto must be seen in the light of this epochal return. After Pluto, death once again becomes the ultimate horizon it had been for the people of antiquity. During the Cold War, its presence took the form of the atomic bomb (remember the key role of plutonium in making nuclear weapons), while today it looms above us still in the guise of global climate change (an eventuality that evokes a singularly Plutonian image of the Earth as a dead planet). Pluto can—should, I think—be interpreted as a symbol of the finality of death in a cosmos deprived of the metaphysical axis required to give existence an intelligible teleology.

We have been living under the sign of Pluto now for nearly a century, which may explain part of our fascination with doomsday scenarios. Nor does the fact that Pluto may have lost its official status as a planet indicate a change in the situation. It only makes sense that a planet named Pluto would turn out to be a dubious planet in the end: its namesake was the god who was not a god. In the ancient world Pluto was a deity without a temple, shrine, or cult, an invisible power dwelling apart from his Olympian siblings in the dank and lonely underworld. As James Hillman said, Pluto is the entity who has no substantial existence and yet in whose presence all things become manifest. [4] Whether as planet, planetoid, or “swarm,” to borrow Richard Grossinger’s term, Pluto remains what it is: the outer limit of our groundless world. Our black horizon.

Since I started thinking about this, it has occurred to me that I am able to summon up a mental image of every major Roman god except Pluto. When I try, I get the image of Mickey Mouse’s pet dog instead. Incidentally, Pluto the Dog was born the same year Pluto the God reincarnated as Planet X (though it took until 1931 for him to get his name). Is it going too far to see a connection here? Think about it: just one year after a previously unknown object is named Pluto on account of its darkness, invisibility, and ambiance of futility, a ridiculous cartoon character bearing the same name enters popular consciousness with enough punch to become the first thing that pops into most heads when they hear the P-word. Silly as it seems, my sense is that Disney gave us Pluto the Dog as a distraction from the revelations of Pluto the God. Just as the three-headed dog Cerberus guards the doors of Hades, so Disney’s bumbling mutt (and the whole entertainment culture he stands for) protects our day-world from the groundless night whose sign was Pluto.

Disney’s scheme to defeat a god with a dog was by all appearances unconscious. In all probability, Walt just liked the sound of the word. But that doesn’t necessarily raise doubts about the scheme’s intentionality. By their fruits ye shall know them: ever since the wars we have been bombarded by cartoony silliness, the purpose of which is to distract us from the increasingly dire realities hemming us in, be they political, economic, or ecological. There is no “they” doing it; we are doing it to ourselves, because we do not want to see that the ground is gone, that, as Alan Moore puts it, “the world is rudderless.”

If this deployment of Pluto the Dog—and of the incessant fantasia that followed

him—was unconscious, it should come as no surprise that it revealed more than it would have if it had been a deliberate tactic. In his very first appearance in a 1930 animated film, Pluto (then named Rover) accompanies Mickey and Minnie on a roadside picnic. While the talking mice dance around the meadow in blissful ignorance, wild animals proceed to devour every scrap of food they have brought, proving Pluto to be rather sub-par as a guard dog. Then a storm erupts, putting a soggy end to the proceedings, and Mickey finally finds a use for the dog by sitting him on the windshield and making him use his tail as a wiper for the rain.

Even in this first attempt to upstage the death god, the ultimate futility of the enterprise betrays itself. Pluto the Dog is no match for Cerberus, the indifferent monstrosity of nature. Eighty-five years after the film’s release, the storm has indeed broken over the picnic that is consumer society. Spectacle is becoming less effective at distracting us from the unfolding disaster. Like Mickey and Minnie, we are stranded in the rain with our cartoon dog. The hubris of Enlightenment had us strutting for a while; but today our invention and cleverness are turning against us, and we must struggle to reverse the processes we ourselves have set in motion. The future has never looked quite as Plutonian as it does now. Within a few centuries’ time, Earth itself may look as deserving of the name Pluto as any other lifeless space rock.

We cannot go on imagining that we are the center of the universe or that we have God’s number. Pluto’s lesson, I think, is the same as it was when it appeared on the astrological horizon: a lesson of humility. We have been postponing it for almost a hundred years. If humanity is to survive the transition from transcendence to immanence foretold by Nietzsche, we must learn to fall to our knees again—only this time, it can’t be before our own image. We must learn to bow before the mystery itself, and embrace it as the basis of a new religiosity.

Pluto’s reappearance in the modern era calls us back to a time when the death god was acknowledged, however quietly, as an essential dimension of the phenomenal world. Perhaps it is in the nature of this god to reveal that all of our perambulations have been circular, and that we stand today in the same position as the ancient Greeks did when the tragedy of existence brought them face to face with him. Even then, people wanted to turn away and remain blind, like the characters in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to the tragic nature of a tragic situation. But then as now there were exceptions. Called “the Obscure” by his contemporaries, the fifth century BC philosopher Heraclitus spoke in a language no one understood. Even the tone of his writings suggests he was writing for the people of another time. My sense is that Heraclitus was writing for us now, albeit even in 2015 he is perhaps best described as a philosopher of the future. Heraclitus is one of the few thinkers to have the courage to seize on becoming as the deepest stratum of Being. In his philosophy, Being has no fixity: what is is insofar as it changes, and changes constantly. Groundlessness was Heraclitus’ rule: he was able to look out at the world without projecting a transcendental axis to stabilize the vision into a tolerable dream. Flux, for him, was the only truth . . . the truth of untruth. Even the most sophisticated ideas or concepts could not in his eyes do justice to the whole.

Heraclitus famously remarked that the Eternal was not a patriarch like Yahweh or Zeus, but a “child at play.” What he called the “Logos” was the form of change itself, the pure difference inhering in all things, endlessly incarnating itself through acts of creation and experimentation. Long before Nietzsche, Heraclitus knew that God was dead, but this didn’t stop him from speaking of God as Logos. This isn’t a moralistic God, but it is not an immoral one either: the Logos is transmoral, encompassing the reality of good and evil, yet subsuming them in something bigger. Nor is it useful to argue over whether this force of Becoming belongs to order or chaos: it is both/and, what James Joyce called a “chaosmos.”

Heraclitus can serve as the beginning of a spirituality of immanence that allows meaning and purpose to survive, in new forms, in a post-transcendent world. In him, we find a vision that philosophy turned away from just as it was getting started, but that artists have embraced, often unconsciously, since the dawn of time. It took two and a half thousand years of transcendental idealizing to reach the point where the fiction won’t stick anymore. Circumstances have made it such that, terrible or not, the pre-Socratic Heraclitean vision of eternal flux imposes itself on all of us. The survival of our species seems to hinge on whether or not we are able to accept it.

Throughout his career, Carl Jung implored us to turn to our own personal darkness, recognize our shadows, and stop projecting them onto other people and institutions. “We are the origin of all coming evil,” he said. The global catastrophe that is upon us now is a direct outcome of our refusal to face the horror. When the great anthropologist Knud Rasmussen asked the Inuit shaman Aua what his people believed, the latter replied: “We do not believe. We fear.” Meaning: we see that no belief can encompass the whole, and that it is precisely in hypostatizing metaphysical models of the totality that we blind ourselves to Becoming and expose ourselves to danger. Aua knew that it takes tremendous courage to fear consciously. Traditional Inuit culture has no God—no univocal, monolithic signifier. Nevertheless it has thrived in the harshest climate on Earth for millennia and enabled some of the most penetrating explorations of the imaginal realm that have ever been undertaken, in terms of both shamanic practice and artistic creation. I mention this because there are some who, upon hearing the phrase “God is dead,” think that it means the end of spirituality because in God’s absence, the dimension of the sacred evaporates. In fact, I think it’s the opposite: only once God is dead (or, what is more exact from a Plutonian perspective, only once God is death) do the most expansive visions of the divine become possible. Here we stand not only with the shamans and artists, but also with the great mystics of the organized religions, all of whom experienced, in solitude, the atheistic crisis that we are about to undergo as a civilization.

In some esoteric passages Deleuze speaks of the importance of “affirming chance.” I interpret this to mean a few things. First, it means accepting that everything the egoic subject wishes were the case (destiny, truth, divine justice, deliverance, even enlightenment) are only relatively true. In giving them an absolute status we effectively construct an image of the world that must be reaffirmed against all the vicissitudes of reality, which contradict it at every turn. Second, to affirm chance means to recognize that vaporizing our fictions (“killing the Buddha,” as they say in Zen) can be as liberating as it is terrifying. The ego gives in to a deeper selfhood that, though it is no longer reducible to a personality, opens up new possibilities. Indeed, through the affirmation of chance literally everything becomes possible, since the divine judgment that limited the scope of the real is finally consigned to silence. Third, affirming chance means recognizing that the mystery of being is one that no religious gnosis, philosophical system, or scientific discovery will ever solve. Existence inheres in mystery, not in the sense that the riddle of life has a final answer we don’t yet know, but in the sense that knowing—actually getting to the bottom of anything—is simply something we humans don’t do. Truth ceases to be a function of power by which one might pass judgments about what is real or unreal, possible or impossible, only when we recognize that mystery is constitutive of reality as such. It is through this interruption in the closed circuit of the cosmos that the holy gets in. It is in groundlessness that the sacred comes to permeate every particle of the world.

In one fragment, Heraclitus states that Pluto and Dionysus are one and the same. [5] At first glance, no two gods could seem more opposed to one another than these two. Pluto is the lugubrious king of silence and death, Dionysus the wild prince of music and life. But on closer inspection the equation bears out. Dionysus is the god who descends into Hades in order to rise again as the “twice-born.” He is the one who, by accepting death as a dimension of life, is able to attain to the plenitude. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, Dionysus embodies all that is “active” in the universe, all those creative forces that precede and overcome the “passive” passions of the reactive self, which for their part secrete only nihilism and judgment. [6] The active forces encompass those aspects of life that the instruments of reason cannot measure: magic, miracles, synchronicity, vision, creation, self-giving . . . Though they are as present today as they always have been, the active forces can now only manifest in the private experience of isolated individuals or small groups of people—their reality cannot be shared at the societal level. I think the time is coming when it will be necessary for our civilization to see them once more as an integral part of the universe.

The apocalypse announced by Pluto in 1930 is now upon us. Night is falling. If we continue to resist, then we will almost certainly descend into a true and final darkness. But perhaps there is still a chance to come to terms with the shadow at the bottom of the world, to tap into its dark energy in order to transform our world and ourselves into some new form of being. Could that be what the aptly-named Grateful Dead were getting at with those obscure lines from their Plutonian ode, “Dark Star”: “Shall we go, you and I while we can, / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?” [7]

J.F. Martel is the author of Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, recently released by Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books


  1. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 105.
  2. Thomas Ligotti, Grimscribe: His Life and Works (Burton, MI: Subterranean Press, 2011), 215–226. “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World” is the title of the collection’s closing story, which depicts a small rural community’s hopeless confrontation with the abyss.
  3. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (London: Penguin Books, 1960), 5.
  4. James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 27–32.
  5. Fragment 15. Heraclitus uses the name Hades for the death god.
  6. See Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, for more on active and passive forces in Nietzsche’s thought.
  7. Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, “Dark Star” (song lyrics), accessed April 22, 2014,


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