beyond hope, or the story of the carrier bag vs. the spear
This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.
Here’s today’s essay topic: The Paper of Record Does In-depth Profile of Another White Guy
Subtopic: Where’s the story?
Key discussion questions: 1) Is despair just a “white male thing?” 2) What is the role of art in times of ecocide?
First of all, it should be a subject of some bemusement that contemporary media culture is so Talmudic that an entire essay can be a commentary on a single brief passage in our infinitely scrolling Torah of news (an interview in the New York Times) – but so it is.
Anyway, recently the Times profiled Paul Kingsnorth, writer and former anti-globalization activist, because of his public decision in 2009 to abandon traditional activism (which he had decided was futile in the face of global warming and whole-scale habitat destruction), and start an arts movement instead. His cri de coeur has had a perhaps unexpected ripple effect through many lives, mine included. I found the Dark Mountain website a couple of years ago and began reading what was posted there, and felt as if I’d suddenly found a place for a kind of creative discourse I’d been missing in many other forums where substantive things were discussed, and a place where I could express my own thoughts as well – they didn’t care if you had any kind of publishing CV, much less were famous (or even “well-known” – according to Peter Cook’s great distinction in the classic taxi driver skit with Dudley Moore)– as long as you were interested in exploring the multiple crises of this time without reaching for the standard props. Especially the kind of starkly binary thinking that, it could be argued, had gotten human society to this troubling point.
But the argument that swirled around Kingsnorth’s “Uncivilization” manifesto, and was resurrected somewhat with the Times piece, is more significant for what it says about the dominant culture in which the escalating degradation of our planetary habitat is taking place than about the positions of the contenders. What was contentious was his public expression of despair, and worse, in the view of his fellow activists, a kind of rallying cry for others to despair as well.
Kingsnorth and Dark Mountain had intentionally exposed, flowing interred by desperation and hidden from the glaring light of continual crisis-response in the culture of progressive activism, a veritable river of despair. And it was welling up largely among intelligent and sensitive people, but also, tellingly, those who had actually received the full benefits of contemporary civilization. Why? Because it had begun to dawn on some who had learned to think globally in this era of unprecedented globalization, that our home planet isn’t Pottery Barn and what we’ve (underscored) broken can’t be paid for and can’t be fixed. That some enormous losses, ones we’ve already racked up, are unrecoverable. And that what’s already been lost – never mind what’s to come – may have been worth more than all of what was gained. What profit when you gain the whole world and lose your soul? As somebody said.
My experience, after almost thirty years of being involved in some way in what is known as activism, is that every activist, along with many other people who are not activists, has experienced such feelings. But activists, schooled as they are in the history of progressive social reform and revolution, are duty-bound to deny and repress those feelings as soon as they arise – or at least never, ever, as Paul Kingsnorth did, to make them public and, even worse, act upon them and encourage others to do likewise.
In our bipolar culture, whether you’re a radical or a reactionary, if something isn’t good, it’s bad. If it’s bad you try to get rid of it. Despair isn’t good, so it must be bad. Progressive activism certainly can’t allow it. The evil corporate types who were profiteering off the destruction of our planetary habitat wanted us to despair so we’d just – turn the TV up louder or go out and shop more, I guess.
It isn’t so simple, as some activists, to their credit, tried to recognize. Despair is tightly intertwined with grief, and grief is common in many mammals. Failure to grieve is psychopathic in humans, when there is something real to grieve about. And there is.
I was born under the shadow of nuclear annihilation of the last century, and I know what that felt like. We had not even truly eliminated that threat, and now came one that – dare I say it? was actually worse in some ways. Why? Because global nuclear annihilation, however unprecedentedly powerful and inescapably our doing, was still a future scenario. It remained preventable, and that made eliminating its possibility part of a general struggle for human progress.
But the realization that’s causing the most distress and despair and grief among the sensitive today, I think, is that the destruction that has already happened to the planetary web of life is incalculable, and it’s only speeding up. There is a kind of systemic determinism at work that predates industrialism or even capitalism. That was already unleashed by the first seeds planted in rows by human hands, perhaps.
Even more terrifying than the nightmare of our weapons, you see, is the nightmare of our comforts, our progress, our desires. We will instinctively recoil from the ultimate aggression that our warlike societies conjure up – perhaps. But we won’t relinquish all our happy, friendly desires: to sleep in warm, soft beds, and eat as much as we want, and move from place to place without physical work – after all, so many people alive today haven’t even had a chance to fulfill those desires yet!
But that the actual price of these things would be the decimation of the most complex and astounding web of life that’s ever existed on this world and for all we know, in the whole universe – to know that that’s going to be the most lasting legacy of your time, and probably your whole species – well, that can make you feel despair. You don’t even have to believe that the ultimate result will be a desert planet with acid seas. There’s enough to mourn already.
It seems to me that any attempt to marshal creativity to “tell new stories,” is a legitimate and healthy response to grief and despair. So while I understood why some activists were stung, I felt differently. Let us have a place where our imaginations are free to explore the descent into the underworld, the darkness, which, at least in the old myths, is also fecund and powerful and generative of light, always intertwined with it. Nothing is merely bilateral in living organisms or ecosystems. It was arrogance to assume we could either destroy or “save” the planet; it was a product of the same arrogance that allowed us to dominate it. Let us – or really only some of us, on behalf of the rest – instead explore our weakness, our lack of centrality in the cosmic story. Practicing more humility couldn’t be bad.
The furor died down, everybody went on back to what they were doing: Dark Mountain continued, activism and resistance continued, habitat destruction and global warming continued.
But now comes the issue of the Times profile – of any Times profile, really – in and of itself. It wasn’t really concerned with the Dark Mountain arts project except as a product of Kingsnorth’s personal journey. After all, as the Times writer troubled to point out, there’s really nobody else famous associated with it (except, tangentially, Naomi Klein, a friend of Paul’s).
As I read the story, I realized it that in fact it was set within a particular, very Western -very Indo-Euro-American – if you will, frame. It was epic theater – a hero story.
There was Paul, the lone hero malgré soi: tall, white, articulate, and charismatic, the sort of person who always collects a crowd whether he tries to or not, the sort of person we Westerners have all been schooled (since the Greeks at least) to pin our hopes upon to carry the sword for us and lead us into battle – and he was saying he wasn’t going to fight anymore. Like Achilles brooding in his tent.
There was wise Athena – Naomi Klein – counseling him not to give up, his thinking could be as nuanced as he wanted it to be but he had a moral obligation not to abandon the struggle. And Ajax, his fellow warrior (George Monbiot) crossing verbal swords with him in a match that left both standing in pretty much the same place they were when they started and everybody else wondering who won – and probably deciding it was whichever person they had supported initially.
And jealous Hera (somebody or other from Grist Magazine) snarking about how Paul should just get over himself and get on with it, while scoffing at the Dark Mountain “Uncivilization” festivals as just a bunch of silly modern people cavorting in animal masks in the woods. (No doubt they would have done far more good if they had piled themselves on planes and flown off to another climate summit instead…)
And there was Paul’s loyal “fuzzy” sidekick, Dougald Hine, the “first follower,” as he called himself. Every great hero has one; as Hine says, it’s what allows us to differentiate them from lunatics. And finally there was the chorus (the five hundred and some commenters) wringing its collective hands and holding its head and saying, “Woe is we! What shall we do with this man? Is he a traitor? Is he a hero still?”
(This is a bit of an injustice –the comments were wide-ranging and many were surprisingly nuanced – and gratifyingly free of mispelings (sic) and EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! Many of the commenters nobly tried to resist thinking that it mattered in the least what you thought about Paul and his personal choices, and noted that the real issues were elsewhere.)
Actually at this point the whole thing stopped being a tragedy by Sophocles or a Homeric epic and started to reveal itself as a satire by Aristophanes. The canonical Western satirists, to a man (gender-specificity intended) were conservatives who had no faith in human idealism or human progress. And yet laughter is always subversive, as is the status-lowering that comes with deflating pretension; they can open up possibilities in the mind that did not exist there before. I found myself laughing out loud. (For some reason it was the vision of Naomi Klein with a winged helmet that really got me chuckling.) It was all so Dark, and there were Matters of Great Weight at stake – this is the Paper of Record, after all – why did I feel the important things were utterly swept aside by what I was reading?
At some point I paused to wonder why the Times interviewer/playwright had assigned no role to Paul’s wife, not a single image, word or phrase– they were going off now to Ireland to farm and homeschool – did she have no thoughts about all this? Were her thoughts less important than Naomi Klein’s, or the “first follower’s,” too minor to be germane to the Hero Story?
Dark Mountain was urging us to “[stop] believing the stories our civilization is telling us,” and here Paul Kingsnorth was being raveled up in one of the oldest and dodgiest stories that the venerable institution of patriarchy has produced to reify itself: the Savior Myth. This isn’t his fault, I hasten to add. No individual sets these frames, and it is the Cassandra-like role of those marginal beings who have studied literary expression to point out their enduring presence in our lives.
There are other stories, though. Many of them also have no individual names attached to them in any kind of proprietary way. There are a lot of people just “getting on with it;” most often, as always, because circumstances force their hands: they are not the primary beneficiaries of global civilization, they are people it discards and abuses. They fight to improve their environment because it is literally toxic to them, or to protect it because it directly sustains them. But some of them also have a different vision of what a civilization worth the name would look like. One thing that’s certain is that unless they write books and get on planes and go off to a hell of a lot of climate summits, they don’t get in-depth profiles in the New York Times. (“All the news that’s fit to print,” just think what that implies, a friend of mine once said.)
But maybe that’s just as well. Because whether they come from North or South, from the poorest slum or the Ivy League, no individual leaders will change the course of global civilization. Our reliance on them is at the root of what must be transformed. The best survival strategies, if healthy participation in a complex ecosystem is our goal, are fundamentally collective.
In a little book called The Comedy of Survival (1972), not much studied today by either students of literature or ecologists, the literary scholar and ecologist Joseph Meeker analyzed the great stories of Western literature from an evolutionary perspective. He maintained that the tragic story arc, from Oedipus to Hamlet to Death of a Salesman, is less useful to a human value system that would promote collective survival than the comic one.
Meeker notes that the tragic view is highly specific to Western culture, while comedy is “very nearly universal,” appearing “wherever human culture exists.” While tragedy “presents man in a state of conflict with greater powers, by which man will ultimately be defeated after an heroic struggle,” comedy “demonstrates that humans are durable, although they may be weak, stupid and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for ideals, the comic hero survives without them.” Meeker also goes on to cite the possibility of comedic ecological strategies: “Productive and stable ecosystems are those which minimize destructive aggression, encourage maximum diversity, and seek to establish equilibrium among their participants—which is essentially what happens in literary comedy.”
Meeker makes a convincing case that the Hero Story or Savior Myth is really obsolete from an evolutionary perspective. But it’s not so easy to get rid of these things; their psychic power is profound. They are to the ego what high fructose corn syrup is to brain chemistry. Progressive activists are as prone to succumb to them as anybody. They take their heroes from real life, and like to call them “catalysts,” or “visionaries.” But watch out – whether it’s Hugo Chavez or Cesar Chavez, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Che, again and again we have seen such men play out a tragic story arc that allows the rest of us catharsis and lets us off the hook.
In Cuba I remember the faded billboard images of Che with the simple slogan: Be Like Him. At first it sounds right enough. Except that we are not at all like him; we are like ourselves. Any idea of living in a more harmonious way as a species ultimately has to contend with the full spectrum of human behavior, with all of us, as we are, now.
All the while, something else is happening, just as old, older than the Hero Story. In villages and urban neighborhoods, on farms and in workshops and even factories, people who are what they are – not extraordinary (except to the extent that everybody is), not charismatic or handsome or universally likeable or commendable, just people, an awful lot of whom are women – are consciously trying to do something differently, to produce without waste, to thrive without colonizing and exploiting. Many new experiments fail, many longstanding healthy ecosystems are overwhelmed by outside forces. Overall, civilization shows no signs of being reformed or reformable by such endeavors. But the attempts to live this way persist. I suppose you could call it a comic strategy – without heroes or martyrs, without prophets – or profits.
When the experiment is succeeding, hope is palpable in these places, but that is not really the point. Hope should not be glorified anymore than despair should be vilified. Is hope in “personal salvation” after this life really useful to the web of life here and now? Is hope of striking it rich in the lottery someday such a great thing for the poor? Or the hope that our enemies will be humiliated or destroyed? Hope and despair are intertwining states of consciousness, poles of flux, not things that can be fixed on pedestals outside ourselves to emulate or reject.
“You gotta give ‘em hope,” said San Francisco’s martyred activist hero Harvey Milk – and we cheer! But no: you gotta give ‘em (we must give ourselves) real betterment– and then the hope takes care of itself. To be clear about what real betterment means is the great challenge for our species today. It would mean at the very least to redefine “collective” in a much broader sense than we have done since civilization began.
Ursula K. Le Guin, visionary writer of speculative fiction and fantasy, also studied the stories we tell ourselves from an ecological perspective. She wrote a lovely essay called “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which she found, as Meeker did, that the Hero Story was full of holes through which a lot of valuable reality poured out and was lost. The arc of the lone hero’s spear, penetrating the powerful beast, made an exciting shape to follow with our minds, to arouse our pity and terror. However, most of what kept us going as a species was the humbler activity of gathering what we needed and carrying it with us. “I would say that the proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings.” Like Dark Mountain, Le Guin thought it mattered a great deal what stories we told ourselves. Here she talks about her genre, science fiction, in this light:
If science fiction is the mythology of modern technology, then its myth is tragic. ‘Technology,’ or ‘modern science’ [used … as] shorthand for the ‘hard’ sciences and ‘high’ technology founded upon continuous economic growth, is a heroic undertaking, Herculean, Promethean, conceived as triumph, hence ultimately as tragedy […] If, however, one avoids the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic, and redefines technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination, one pleasant side effect is that science fiction can be seen as […] not necessarily Promethean or apocalyptic at all, and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one.
Part of resilience – a word that seems to be gaining against the false promise and emptied significance of “sustainability” – is taking with you only what is really useful and discarding what is not. This includes concepts as much as consumer goods. If I have to choose, I’m ready to discard the tragic sense of life, and let Prometheus and Hercules take a rest in clover somewhere, knowing that activity to persist and resist is ongoing, and storytelling will play its part too.
The last line of the Dark Mountain manifesto is the following:
The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.
I like that word, together. That’s the story I’d like to carry. I can see myself happily weaving a bag for it, maybe to give to those who feel the Hero Story ultimately offers us no choice any more except despair.