Sackcloth and Ashes

Originally written 1 Oct. 2018.


I

The temptation is not to commit suicide, but to learn to live. There is no good, rational reason not to commit suicide, but irrationally I keep on living. I’d like to say it’s because of hope for something better; but it was only when I stopped hoping that I stopped having images of ropes and trees. During all my travels I haven’t met a single happy old person — joyful and content, sure, but never simply happy. And so the lesson I’ve had to relearn is this: the question is not how to achieve happiness, but how to contend with suffering.

For me, it’s all about the “Lo!” — the parts of the world, small and grand, hidden and out in the open, that shock you into no longer comprehending, only apprehending, that shock you into Awe, that make you say “Lo!” and then, crippled by the beauty of it, forget about the “behold.”

Of course, none of these ideas are particularly new to me. They’re how I dealt with my childhood and what I’ve posted about for years now, but somehow I forgot them. In a future post I’ll explain how I’ve experienced that forgetting and reremembering.

II

Choice and Fate. “Choice” can be a deceptive word. Certainly it is one way of looking at how we experience the world; but what is the meaning of choice when we cannot choose what we choose? This would suggest that perhaps the best word for understanding our interactions in the world is not “choice,” but “fate.” In The Blank Slate, as he is outlining the implications of a sociobiological view of human nature, Pinker describes the problem well:

The other surprise is that we may have to make room for a pre-scientific explanatory concept in our view of human nature — not free will, as many people have suggested to me, but fate. It is not free will because among the traits that may differ between identical twins reared together are ones that are stubbornly involuntary. No one chooses to become schizophrenic, homosexual, musically gifted, or, for that matter, anxious or self-confident or open to experience. But the old idea of fate — in the sense of uncontrollable fortune, not strict predestination — can be reconciled with modern biology once we remember the many openings for chance to operate in development. Harris, noting how recent and parochial is the belief that we can shape our children, quotes a woman living in a remote village of India in the 1950s. When asked what kind of man she hoped her child would grow into, she shrugged and replied, “It is in his fate, no matter what I want.”

The problem is complex, and, I suspect, irresolvable, since it is so tied up with the problem of consciousness, the seemingly inherent division of human experience: one the one hand there is an external Nature that acts on us; on the other hand there is an experience of knowing, sensing, and Will. But, if we are open to “pre-scientific explanatory concept[s],” maybe we can make it a both / and matter, not an either / or one. Because no matter what, we simply do not know enough to avoid exercising our wills, placing our bets. Merleau-Ponty writes:

It was said long ago that politics is the art of the possible. That does not suppress our initiative: since we do not know the future, we have only, after carefully weighing everything, to push in our direction. But that reminds us of the gravity of politics; it obliges us, instead of simply forcing our will, to take a look hard among the facts for the shape they should take.

III

Salvation of history. Eliade’s analyis of Christianity has resolved a lot of my questions about it. He interprets Christianity as an attempt to save man from history, from linear time. Eliade believed that in traditional societies time was understood in terms of cycles, reiteratio

ns, etc., and that this provided a coherent framework for man to contend with the tragedy of existing. But with the shift to historical, linear time, man could no longer see his suffering as a reiteration, or see life as a process of eternally dying and being born anew. Resultingly, the tragedy of life becomes unbearable. But the Christ figure, Eliade writes, enters into historical time in order to grant it meaning, to allow man to contend with the “terror of history.”

Seen this way, perhaps the goal isn’t to shun my Christianity, as I have recently been wont to do. Maybe I could — surprise! — do as I’ve done before: recognize it as one myth that comes to terms with human experience, one way to look at the Lo!, one point on the spectrum belonging to the anthropological man. In other words, the goal isn’t to shun Christianity so much as to open up to the alternative mythologies; the other faces of Lo!

Of course, this doesn’t change my opinion that Christianity is ultimately a medicine for the modern condition, which has made man worse off. Still, it is useful — and, as modern people, necessary — to be able to put on the Christian lens.

See The Myth of the Eternal Return, or Cosmos and History, by Mircea Eliade.

V

Both a vision and a myth. One of the main reasons Wild Roots was so hard on me was the realization that the “death-of-naturists” had a stronger point than I’d given them credit for. Most of the nature in North America has been too degraded for more than a handful of people to survive off it exclusively: our large mammals are gone, the American Chestnut and Passenger Pigeon are no longer food options, the land is polluted and divided by roads, the soil is in a sad state, the water is often undrinkable, property laws get in the way of everything, and the human nature side of things is all fucked up. If we need land to fully rewild our natures, then most of us have a long way to go. This doesn’t destroy the mission of and certainly not the need for a rewilding politics — as Hettinger puts it, “what remains [is] all the more precious.” Fortunately, too, we have strong tools in conservation and psychology to restore our lost land. Still, as I write in “Taking Rewilding Seriously“:

 

None of this is to say that we can achieve everything we would like to. Extinct species are a permanent problem. And no 21-year-old who was raised in a highly populated city is going to live an entirely wild life — ever. In addition to recognizing that we have real, achievable goals, we also need to recognize the proper place for mourning. The move from conservation to rewilding has been touted as a positive vision, a way to move away from the dourness of old environmentalism and conservation. In a certain sense this is true. But the necessity of rewilding is a sad fact about modern life: civilization has destroyed so many wild areas that we need to restore some before we can fully live by our values.

We might, then, envision the 21st century rewilder as performing an act of restoration through destruction: by acknowledging what of wild nature has been lost and striking at its industrial assassin, he becomes like the prophets of the Old Testament, clothed in sackcloth and ashes, participating in a funeral procession for nature. But this is no modern funeral. Death is not a finality; it is a moment for bacchic celebration that heralds a new birth. Again: “Dionysus cut into pieces is a promise to life: that it will be eternally born anew, that it will return from its destruction.”

 

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