at play in the comedy of survival

An Appreciation of Joseph Meeker

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice and CounterPunch webzines. It was also published on the Dark Mountain Project blog.

Many of our imaginations have been captured by the seemingly unalterable and suicidal trajectory of contemporary civilization. It feels like the story arc of one of the great tragic heroes: Oedipus, Macbeth, Faust – destined to rise to great heights, attempt unprecedented levels of power over matter and life, and then fall, leaving the world’s stage strewn with the dead. But the “tragic fall” is not just an affective state of mind or a poetic myth. It is, in fact, what individual civilizations have tended to do since humans began to create them seven thousand years ago (unless they were conquered and absorbed into other civilizations, which then fell).

And now, for the first time in human history a single civilization has gone global, touching every member of an unprecedentedly large and still growing world population. And also for the first time, we have all the tools: scientific, cognitive, historical – to see the seeds of its fall in development. Even the wonks at NASA have confirmed that this pattern exists and we are replicating it. And we still can’t seem to change course.

The posture advocated by some who understand this is a correspondingly tragic view, which to them means acceptance of the Faustian bargain, acceptance that the human story is inevitably a story of hubris, of overweening ambition, aggression, and final destruction. And that we are living now somewhere near the climax of hubris, and must brace ourselves for destruction.

The problem comes in what this posture represents: is it representative in any way of how other living systems work? Because if we really want to vindicate the ethic of living things, wild things, uncivilized things, and rediscover their resilience and their relevance to our human life, then the tragic story arc is not the rule.

This idea was first articulated by the US scientist and literary scholar Joseph Meeker, in a small book called The Comedy of Survival. It was published in 1974, when an ecological consciousness – meaning a science-based understanding of the world as a living system in which everything was connected and interdependent – finally seemed to be on the rise within the civilization that had been marked by its utter contempt for earth-centered religions and societies.

Meeker was a uniquely interdisciplinary man: a postdoctoral comparatist in both world literature and in ethology (the study of animal behavior). Before becoming a professor of comparative literature he had worked as a ranger in the US National Park Service in Alaska. He has remained a committed ecologist throughout his career. (He is now professor emeritus of Union Institute and University.) His work deserves a wider audience; it can stand with many of the better-known ecological thinkers of our time: Thomas Berry, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams. But even so Meeker’s contribution is truly unique.

In The Comedy of Survival, he proposed the idea that two of the major modes of imaginative literature might be seen, from an evolutionary perspective, as representing different adaptive strategies. While “cultural evolution” in a Darwinian sense is hotly debated and the whole idea is problematic, Meeker was about something different. He saw literature as mimetic (imitative), an attempt at metaphoric representation of fundamental aspects of human life. And since strategies for physical survival and adaptation to the environment are part of the reality of any species, including humans, there was no reason why literature shouldn’t in some way reflect them too.

The two modes were tragedy and comedy. In studying world literature, Meeker found some significant differences between them. Tragedy was almost exclusively the creation of Western civilization, arising out of its heroic myths, while comedy was “very nearly universal, occurring wherever human culture exists.” Tragedy focused on an individual hero who “suffers and dies for his ideals, while the comic hero survives without them.” Comedy looked at all high ideals of individual triumph or transcendence with a jaded eye, and its successful conclusion was always one where life, continuance and community – generally represented by a wedding, or several – were celebrated. Meeker wrote:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified […] At the end of the tale [the comic hero] manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible […] Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm [the human] capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair […] Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

The Greek demigod who gave his name to the word, Comus, was according to Meeker, “a god of fertility in a large but unpretentious sense. His concerns included the ordinary sexual fertility of plants, men and animals, and also the general success of family and community life insofar as these depend on biological processes.”

In taking the first steps toward the elaboration of an “ecological aesthetic,” Meeker declared that just as comedy could be thought of as ecological, successful ecological systems could equally be called comic: “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.” He viewed biological life and cultural life as reciprocal, invoking Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “life imitates art at least as much as art imitates life.”

Put concisely, Meeker’s ecological aesthetic (which, as he made clear, was also an ethics, another way in which his thinking was appropriately holistic and anti-disciplinary) was this: “Much that has been loved and admired by a humanistic culture is unfortunately incompatible with biological stability […] If cherished human traditions have led to the damage of the world, then those traditions must be revised.”

The Comedy of Survival looks at specific works containing some of the principles Meeker was trying to put forward. From Aristophanes’ proto-feminist anti-war play Lysistrata to Dante’s Divine Comedy to Spanish picaresque novels and the 20th century satirical masterwork Catch-22, Meeker showed comic heroes and comic stories embody many of the attributes of successful survival strategies in (non-human) animals. These “comic” behaviors make it possible to co-exist with predators and prey, respond to threats by avoiding or redirecting unnecessary aggression, and survive and thrive in a complex, dynamic environment.

His look at the picaresque hero provides the most striking examples. Picaresque comedy is a genre not much studied, in comparison with tragedy, epic literature, and even other forms of comedy, but Meeker saw it as the chief mode in which the “minority report of Western civilization” makes its case. He presents several examples of picaresque behavior in literature: how lowborn Lazarillo de Tormes escapes the oppression of his social condition, how Thomas Mann’s confidence trickster Felix Krull “shapes himself to please” society, all the while exposing its illusions, or how Catch-22’s Yossarian manages to evade the death machine of organized warfare. “Picaresque life,” he concludes, “is animal existence augmented by the imaginative and adaptive powers of the human mind.”

Conversely, Meeker portrays tragedy and its heroic idealism not as a profound understanding of life, but rather a fatal misrepresentation. Tragedy was a product of Western anthropocentrism, which was coeval with a disastrous relationship to nature: “The assumption of human superiority to the processes of nature has justified human exploitation of nature without regard for the consequences[.] Humanistic individualism has encouraged people to ignore the multiple dependencies necessary to the sustenance of life.” Meeker repeatedly emphasized that the genius of evolution is not in the perfection of the individual or even of the species, but the ecosystem, a dynamically stable condition of maximum diversity.

While he is more concerned with undermining the tragic paradigm, Meeker is also careful to distinguish picaresque behavior from the misplaced nostalgia and idealization that mark the pastoral mode. The picaro (or picara, who is less frequently represented in the men’s club of Western Lit) does not seek to withdraw from society to an idealized rural space. (Doomers and self-styled “survivalists” take note.) Rather he or she is constantly seeking to find ways to survive and thrive in a complex and shifting environment which is created just as much by human activity as by non-human natural processes.

The picaresque metaphor for society is not the so-called simple life of the agrarian homestead, but the complex wilderness. Dangers can never be eliminated in the wild; they must be evaded or neutralized, by predators and prey alike. Meeker also wrote: “The way out of environmental crisis does not lead back to the supposed simplicity of the cave or the farm, but toward a more intricate form of living guided by a complex human mind seeking to find its appropriate place upon a complex earth.”

However, it is not complexity per se but a fuller understanding of what real complexity means that would be the mark of a human society worthy of the complex web of life from which it emerged. Meeker gave us this guidepost, “If a ‘return to nature’ were to be based upon the model of a climax ecosystem, civilization would have to become far more complex than anything humanity has yet produced.”

Here is a summation of his ideas about civilized vs. wild complexity:

The truth may be that civilized human life is much simpler than most animal life. We seem to have used our enlarged brain in order to reduce the number of choices facing us, and we have sought the simple way of destroying or ignoring our competition rather than the more demanding task of accommodating ourselves to the forces that surround us. We establish artificial polarities like good and evil, truth and falsehood, pain and pleasure, and demand that a choice be made which will elevate one and destroy the other. We transform complicated wilderness environments into ecologically simple farmlands. We seek unity and we fear diversity. We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival. In the present environmental dilemma, humanity stands like a pioneer species facing heroically the consequences of its own tragic behavior, with a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals [italics mine].

In the third edition of The Comedy of Survival (1997), Meeker added the idea of developing a “play ethic” to counter the dour and biologically destructive productivity fetish of the Western work ethic. He compared the open-ended, non-purposive nature of play with evolutionary strategies:

[B]oth ecological succession and natural selection are aimless processes that work with whatever conditions and forms are present in opportunistic and inventive ways to create new forms […] They are like play in their purposelessness and spontaneity. The comic way may be inefficient and wasteful, as evolution and succession are, but these processes have created the beauty of biological diversity, including humans.

(I would only disagree with the use of the words “inefficient and wasteful,” as complexity theorists like Stuart Kauffman have shown that layers of redundancy and elaborate speciation actually work to minimize entropy in living systems and the web of life overall. But I think Meeker was being playfully provocative here.)

In his description of the play ethic, Meeker championed increasing our participation in activities that “are their own reward: music, gardening, conversation.” (This lifted my spirits greatly, as all of them are ones I treasure in my own life.) Here comedy as both an ethics and an aesthetics returns in the form of activities that are actually common to human experience, not abstract theoretical formations. Meeker discourages abstraction and encourages praxis. After all biological systems are not abstractions. They are the largest scale embodiment of the idea that “truth is concrete.”

More than forty crucial years have passed since The Comedy of Survival, and the modern environmental movement, appeared. The last twenty particularly have left little room for any faith that there will be large-scale eco-centric reform before a massive alteration in the basic conditions of planetary life – already underway – takes place. In today’s global civilization, the Western tragic arc seems to be playing out, with human society replicating all the elements of its own earlier literary models: striving, unremitting aggression, hubris, defiance of limits. Ironically, in a reversal of what Meeker saw in literature, the tragic mode has become universal while more “comic” types of human social formations: tribal societies, nomads, smallholders, bohemians – are increasingly marginalized and living on the edge of extinction. It’s looking unlikely that the fulfillment of the tragic arc will be forestalled from within this totalizing system. (Why traditional Left strategies are failing to provide an alternative to ecocide, at least in part because of the extent to which they also reflect the tragic, anthropocentric paradigm needs to be the subject of a whole separate study.)

But if Meeker was correct, evolution’s comic strategy won’t disappear, unless the whole web of life disappears. And comic human behaviors may currently be the minority report, but they are not gone or irrelevant. Turning our eyes, hands, and thoughts to how we might practice etho-mimicry in the comic way is at the very least something less psychopathic to do with our limited time and skills than remaining transfixed in dread or despair, enslaved bystanders to ineluctable tragedy, a Greek chorus of woe.

When we talk about resilience, we often forget that emotional resilience is as essential to human survival as physical. If those who feel global civilization is irredeemable are really to represent a living alternative, perhaps we ought to embody a different emotional and imaginative paradigm: no longer the Faustian, or even the tragic sense of life, but something more like Meeker’s picaresque. Humble, smart, negentropic, playful – these are useful values with concrete behaviors we can adopt.

Even so, in the current context, it may not be possible to fully enact the comic mode in our own lives – after all, to be successful it requires reinforcement, other people we know to play along. But even as a thought experiment, the comic way offers pleasure and relief, as well as identifying exemplary capabilities humans will need, if we’re ever to be worthy of rejoining our fellow players on the evolutionary stage.

Selected Works by Joseph Meeker:

The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology (1st edition, 1974. Foreword by Konrad Lorenz), Toward an Environmental Ethic (2nd edition, 1980. Preface by Paul Shepard), Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic (3rd edition, 1997)

The Spheres of Life (1975)

Minding the Earth (1988)


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