This post has sat in draft form for many months. It’s neither been published nor can I definitively side-line it. As time has passed, it seems unseemly to return focus to the event of Paul Kingsnorth‘s Apotheosis in The New York Times, but there are things here that still matter, that have grown in importance and go way beyond what incited them.
So, many months overdue, here goes:
A short follow-up on Startling Sleepwalkers, On the Prospects of Waking Them from Their Nightmares.
I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.
Is this where the conversation on Environmentalism might actually touch bottom? Where it stops bobbing about, a battle of opinions, a competition over ownership of optimism and reality?
Translating self-improvement as “Saving the Earth” uncovers an inherent bind. Watts points to why strategies based on bolstering separation will always lead to further separation and therefore destruction. It’s not a conspiracy or treason to an ideal that brings us to neo-environmentalism. Neo-environmentalism is environmentalism’s reductio ad absurdo, its nightmare of reason. The logical result of bringing this attitude of separation to questions of our role within the whole that is the earth and its biosphere. Such striving makes it inevitable.
The New York Time’s article on Paul Kingsnorth – an attempt to mainstream Dark Mountain – misses the mark right here. An effort to shoe-horn something outside the common narrative frame into another tale of a driven loner, passionate in his views staking out a claim, wrestling with demons. It’s another effort to hold us in a trap. To return us to attitudes and framing narratives Dark Mountain warned us about. Those connected with Dark Mountain have made an effort to bring attention to this trap. They have opened conversations on ways it might be avoided. None of that here. Instead we get a profile, a “sketch of an eccentric character.” We’re left wondering how this new “star” can be brought into the familiar firmament of fame.
These popularizations might be seen as an effort to hold a door open to those just entering “the grieving process.” Or, it might be taken as shifting the fight to new ground, asking what might happen if we refuse to let go of our grief.
Either interpretation seems forced. Even if true, neither presents an honest way forward.
The traps that have made civilization possible and kept it going – even now as its effects prove catastrophic – are pernicious. But there is enough clarity available to us to find a way past this particular stumbling block. It’s not easy; but it is clear.
This whole Ego-game of separation. The way we must argue over who’s a pessimist and why we need to convince anyone of anything. The entire media-gambit maintains the status quo by inoculating an “informed public” with snippets of “radical ideas.” These are all dead-ends.
We can’t “Save the world.”
We can’t improve our selves by trying to do anything.
Perhaps here is where we leave Dark Mountain imposing heights? Its fearful crags. Its calamitous precipice. Its drama keeps us looking up in trepidation, providing a frisson. May this have been what led us to scale its heights in the first place?
These motivations share one impulse. They provide a way for us to follow our desire. We get to lose some of our illusions, holding onto their source while managing to inhabit what passes for a Very Late Modern “success story.”
All this while maintaining an egocentric mental life.
We are tempted. Even as all signs point to our need to abandon this effort as part of what drove us to wish to Un-civilize our selves in the first place.
The warning is right there in this term, un-civilize. Setting up a negative as an ideal may help us skirt a trap; but it is no way to find a path towards anything of lasting value.
None of this denies the immense value found in the catalytic moment Dark Mountain presents us. It is a warning against idolizing….
Dark Mountain was, and can continue to be, a sign-post. There when we need it, looming behind us as we continue to cross this turbulent stream.
Crossing a turbulent stream….
If this is the case what we need is to find a way to keep our balance in the midst of its flow. Bohm’s childhood insight comes to mind. The way to manage jumping from one stepping-stone to the next is by surrendering to the dynamic moment. No planning, no strategy, will see us across.
Not as dramatic….
The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.
To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.