“Suppose machinery does extend its sway, suppose science in the hands of [the few] does more and more dominate us, suppose the great battle of the future, with its own “good and evil,” comes to be the struggle of the individual to be himself against the struggle of society to prevent him being himself, what we shall have to do will only be what the saints, lovers, artists, mystics have always done, namely, sink into ourselves and into Nature and find our pleasure in the most simple, stripped, austere, and meagre sensations.”
— J.C. Powys, Autobiography
“Since you are my readers and I have not been much of a traveler, I will not talk about people a thousand miles off, but come as near home as I can. As the time is short, I will leave out all the flattery and retain the criticism. Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.”
— H.D. Thoreau, Life Without Principle
What better and more obtainable goal could we have in this time of planetary crisis, caused in large part by the “too big-ness” of centralized, imperialist organization, the too-bigness of the technologies and industries and the disproportionate amount of non-renewable, CO2-producing energy required to support our advanced lifestyle, than turning ourselves small? Working against such a goal is the ego-syntonic de-mythicized context that no longer provides a mirror by which we might correct our behavior back to the humanly sustainable (that is, if we could bear to look at the real situation without blaming the other, like Snow White’s stepmom, the Queen).
Many call for contraction, but contraction can begin only with individuals who can be “content with less.” I see no movement afoot that would bring this extremely unwanted change in consciousness about. On the whole, we’d rather let the hunter take Snow White out to the woods and “off” her than alter our inner and outer, ego-buttressing arrangements. For instance, a movement encouraging walking, not for fitness, but for “sauntering” (as was advocated by HD Thoreau), for daily contact with one’s real surroundings, for slowing one’s pace to that of one’s own muscular propulsion, could increase our capacity for smallness. Such a movement would not dictate to others to “put down those screens,” but encourage walking, promote the looking around, talking quietly with one another in the way one does during a walk in the out-of-doors, when trees, mosses, stones, the occasional deer or chipmunk start to have their inevitable “collecting” effect on our scattered, multi-tasking brain patterns.
This movement would advise, start where you are. If you live in the city, don’t get in the car and drive to a place in the country, or to the trampled national park. Start in the parks of your city; that were bequeathed to you by ancestors who were not only rich, but possessed of a sense of the worthwhile. In the 19th century, when many parks were begun, when cemeteries were designed to encourage solitude and contemplation of mortality and the beautiful, the beneficent effects of direct contact with nature, with trees, flowers, grass, rocks, flowing water, as well as with lovely statuary and landscaping could be shared by all economic levels.
In Utica, we would be talking about the park system established by the Proctors, Thomas and Frederick who with their wives the Williams sisters Maria and Rachel, left a legacy of a large and beautifully designed system consisting of three separate parks, plus a median park down the center of the “Memorial Parkway.” My husband and I frequently walk in the park called “the Switchbacks.” Although we do run into some head-phone bedecked striders and runners and dog-walkers there, the most numerous users of our parks are by far the recent immigrants, who apparently have not yet lost their attachment to nature and their innate love of walking just for the pleasure of it, not to mention their knowledge of plants and herbs which they can be seen harvesting in springtime. We pass many young Asians of various nationalities, sometimes whole families, once a berobed Buddhist monk. In the other parks, we have passed picnicking communities of what I guess to be Sudanese, handsome people, the women and girls all with heads covered. We don’t always know the nationality of those we pass on the trails. But walking in Utica’s parks means inhabiting a space not much frequented by our own kind and sharing a surprising, unspoken connectedness with those whose culture includes Nature and whose limited means prevent their flocking to the Adirondacks.
Catastrophe Isn’t New
My husband chides the climate activists whose proposals suggest the pending climate disaster can be turned around by tweaking our technology, without giving up our western, “de-sensed” world. These voices are less marginalized than the more radical ones who aren’t inclined to “mince words.” Those who see the catastrophe headed straight for us, those acting as our elders “leaving out flattery and retaining the criticism,” point the way we must go in for the collective good, not for the short term good of those currently profiting/profiteering/plundering. They recognize that everything has to change; our much convenienced way of life must return to its basis in relatedness, for life as we know it is coming to an end.
This is a very difficult awareness to keep hold of, as each one of us has to face the demands of making a living, feeding ourselves, providing shelter, raising children, etc., all of which are part of the security provided for the fortunate, the way that is killing the planet. Moreover, it is difficult to keep in mind when the corporate-dominated society’s main mode of communication, mass media, is itself a denial that there is any cause for concern. That is, even if one goes to a website that presents the facts of pending climate disaster, the very fact that the fabulous electronic device that took you there is working argues against there being cause for alarm.
I have wondered myself at the excessive alarm (call it terror)I feel when I am experiencing problems with my computer. Some of it is the helplessness in the face of computer technology that I share with my boomer generation. But attached to this is a fear of losing the reassurance the functioning computer brings me that “life” as I’m accustomed to it continues for the moment, a reassurance from which I, like the ungracefully aging Queen, extrapolate greedily, abating my fear that all is dying and it’s time to change.
This truth is being told to us by those who feel it is their duty to hold up the mirror to us reflecting our situation. What keeps us paralyzed and in denial is not suppression of the facts, but the fact we no longer know how to exist next door to catastrophe; we’ve lost the ability in just the past few centuries, cultivated by our human ancestors over hundreds of thousands of years, to live with awareness of the Big Catastrophe, which is the mortality given us at birth.
Nobody’s talking about it
A friend mentioned to me recently that St Croix, a Virgin Island located very close to Puerto Rico, where she owns a home, was utterly destroyed by hurricane Maria, and “nobody’s talking about it.” For that matter, nobody’s talking about Puerto Rico (only about celebrity benefits for Puerto Rico), or, except for a passing sentence, about the fires in California. Nobody’s talking about all the trees that are clearly dying in our Switchback park, nor about the large number of trees that look to me to be dying up in the Adirondacks. This year we are noticing the lack of foliage colors; “leaves are just going brown and falling off.” But nobody’s talking about it. When someone like my husband does talk about the dying trees, it’s a surefire conversation stopper. Where do you go with this kind of news that comes too close to the terror of the Unknowns of the human future facing drastic climate change? What do you say when the unmentionable affront to politeness is this environmental horror bearing down on us? One can distract oneself – so simple for us to do; requiring no great effort and no repudiation, repentance, or sacrifice whatsoever. ‘Twould be far better to heed the unwelcome information so plain in the mirror. Dark news we fear to face, though presenting itself with special urgency today, isn’t new. ‘Horror’ wasn’t anomalous to our ancestors, more at the mercy of nature and roving hordes, and it certainly isn’t new to the peoples conquered and/or enslaved on our way to empire.
Those conquered peoples who managed to keep the ancient wisdom current, employing it to deal creatively with horrific, brutish oppression, have something to teach us today. I think of this in relation to the vitality of “Negro spirituals,” of the blues, of the jazz Orin and I bring to our nonprofit in Utica because we love it. This art exemplifies the transformation of the catastrophe of life into joy. Neither stoicism, resignation nor competitiveness will allow us to live joyfully next to doom. Only the power of imagination, of metaphor, which human beings are supposed to employ will do it. Though we moderns have come to think of it as optional, perhaps as old-fashioned superstition or simple-minded “magical thinking,” without imagination, we have no choice but to join the ranks of those in neoliberal denial. Neoliberalism, but the latest top-down contortion of our thinking, makes it possible for the majority of us to take comfort in illusion and avoid not only mortality, but the consequences of our self-blinding. It keeps us defending the status quo arrangements even when we know things are systemically wrong. Imagination is unnecessary and in-the-way if the goal for humanity is robothood, but indispensable for dealing with life as catastrophe, the way it is if we are not deluding ourselves, the way our ancestors, informed religiously by myth, understood it to be.
This is the message I believe Joseph Campbell was trying to get across through his late-in-life guru platform via the 1980’s PBS program, The Power of Myth. His “follow your bliss” advice, though undoubtedly scoffed at by his colleagues in academia, had a great impact on me. It was an important clue to the ever-marginalized but never extinguished truth expressed in the Romantic tradition, by poets, seers, mystics and prophets, gnostics and other radical dissenters in all ages. From their truth we are shielded not just by the “veils” of reality that naturally complicate the pursuit of knowledge, but by the imperially triumphant rationalism and scientism that dominates all of our institutions and the political left. Contrarily, there is a way to reclaim the path lit by imagination, by which the serious challenges of life, of Nature not under our control, become matters we know about, can teach our children about, can make real beauty out of, into which Joy and Blues are woven fine. From this perspective, catastrophe is the necessary defeat that can return one to being human, which I am calling “making ourselves small,” or as Powys expressed it, “sinking into ourselves and into Nature.”
The largeness to be gained from making ourselves small is not the largeness of dominance and might, but the true largeness of our potential humanity, now in chains. It requires imagination to set it free, walking on our two good legs, choosing the heroic path laid out not by a scoffing and supercilious science-for-hire, but in myth-based organic pattern.