[A note to my readers: I have been asked on any number of occasions to say what we can do to find our way through this maze, this “long emergency.” I am suspicious of any social or political action taken without there first being a transformation in our personal sense of being-in-the-world. Additionally, one of our fellow travelers, Hasdrubal Barca, sent me an excellent series that ended with the following call: “The only path forward is inward. Find yourself. Only then will you be able to find the others.” In the spirit of the request, I offer this piece from my book, The Recovery Of Ecstasy. Our need to recover some feral memory trace of who we are is preeminent and may provide a framework for reconstituting society, albeit on a much smaller scale… a more human scale! I hope you enjoy the excerpt.]
America embodies Western civilization’s decisive triumph over nature. We perfected the techniques and technologies to domesticate every centimeter of our world, natural and social. All feral, wild, or indigenous elements here, including the American Indian, have been conquered, dissected, and then carefully planned, plotted, or relocated; but so have “We, The People.” Millennia before arriving on these shores, our earliest civilized forbearers had already forsaken the primal gifts of self-sufficiency and personal autonomy for the apparent safety and security afforded by obedience and conformity to emergent hierarchies of political power and social control. America simply represented the apex in this process, culminating in a modern scientific spirit directed by specialists with an Enlightenment driven pursuit of progress, an unwavering belief in reason, historical causality, and the rule of law.
Progress junkies, Americans have become a nation of experts: specialization being the key to our rapid advancement and the speedy deployment of our cultural artifacts and ideologies around the globe. This, of course, was the logical, i.e., historical, consequence of the division of labor, which saw its own ascendancy in the birth of agriculture, the founding of cities, and the invention of writing – an epochal transformation that took place between twelve and six thousand years ago. With these events began the measured and deliberate march of domestication and fragmentation, a pyramiding of political control, our own enslavement, and a more or less irreparable tear in our autochthonous relations with Mother Earth.
While it is undeniable that the innovations wrought by specialization have made life more comfortable, providing the many “toys” and other distractions of modern existence, it has also cemented our alienation, and emptied uncultivated nature of any real significance. Like my fellow Americans, I was raised to view such advancement as the path to a better, richer life. Yet, while I filled up my life in this way, it did not mean that my life was full, but simply that I was in need of constant distraction to provide the illusion of fullness.
One consequence of such unabated progress was an indistinct sense of homelessness, of being forlorn and abandoned. Like myself, so many of those around me had become anonymous, isolated individuals estranged from, and in conflict with, a fragmented, alienated world to which we were now only accidentally linked by recently forged ties of commercial and technical expediency. The entire edifice with all its attendant scaffolding – art, entertainment, language, politics, religion, work – all had been erected effectively and convincingly, so as to maintain the illusion that I, that we, fundamentally belonged to this culture rather than to ourselves or to Nature.
Yet we could no sooner turn away from this modern civilized sanctuary and return to the wildness of unbridled nature than we could forget how to speak our native tongue. Trying to go back to the forest, ab initio, was neither practical nor desirable for anyone raised and living in digital-America. Besides, we had long since shattered the conditions for the possibility of such a journey. The wild had been destroyed along with our own wildness, leaving behind only “tokens of nature” in its stead. Given the contrasts I had experienced between our hyper-rational, overly-cultivated, novelty-driven outlook, and the more arcadian approaches that I found in Siberia, it seemed appropriate that my starting point might be lessons learned from those simpler lifeways of my civilized, but not yet fully westernized, friends and family on the Central Asian Steppe.
I now carried my estrangement as a resource, an opportunity, a fulcrum for liberation, not simply from a particular cultural system, but more importantly, from the straightjacket of modern civilization’s underlying and increasingly debilitating machinations. I recognized this most palpably following my return from Russia. If I were to find a way back home to some primal ground, it must be through resolutely owning my estrangement and, in so doing, recollecting that ahistorical moment still hidden beneath these historical trappings.
Clearly, my commitment to clock time had itself been forged by some well-embedded cultural habits. But this relatively modern convention did not quite square with my pre-reflective experience of being-in-the-world. And the forgery committed by linear time had a shared heritage with various other cultural systems – literacy, science, and history – effectively concealing my connection with the world-as-lived by my body. In order to recover and reclaim this primal bond, I had to allow the natural rhythms inscribed in and articulated through my sentient body – and not the linear time of my socialized, civilized ego – to express themselves.
But how was I to displace this entrenched temporal prejudice? I was no longer under the illusion that I was managing time; rather, time – linear, historical, clock time – had been managing me, my body, and my world. Its metaphors, guiding how I lived, had fashioned an invisible controlling hand that seemed as inevitable as it was immutable. It served as proxy, counterfeit though it might be, for a more fundamental, all but forgotten, sense of my being present in the world. Once I decided that the solution was in stopping this future-directed hegemony, I was able to return – through my body, and the circadian rhythms of life in my body in the world – to a kairotic ground.
Feeling, perhaps for the first time since infancy, the corporeal basis of my sentient self, I realized how for so many years I had been guided by my sense of sight alone, by visualizing a future toward which I was heading. Like the disembodied self of Enlightenment rationalism, which underlies our modern worldview, I had been ruled almost exclusively by seeing, that sense committed to looking ahead. My other senses had become dulled, selective, and flat. I was unaware of what was around me, focused instead on what was before me, in my line of sight…at some future goal that I now “had in view.” The preponderance of these metaphors directing me was not a mere literary conceit; it was indicative of the restraints that historical consciousness had imposed upon me, on how I “saw” things, on my “worldview.” It was all visual.
It seemed, furthermore, that if my world was culturally constituted, so must the organization of my sensorium be culturally ordered as well. The sensoria, and their specific appetites, certainly seemed to have developed differently within different cultural frameworks. Had I not already sampled this in Siberia with its idiosyncratic antipathies toward both time and space? Was there not also a unique sensual organization of experience among my Siberian friends and family, reflective of such antipathies, with a higher premium on the senses other than sight?
While there was unquestionably a unique perceptual hierarchy in the West, grounded in linear time, with sight at the very top of the pyramid, I was no longer willing to let my own life be vision-driven. I took my cue here from my wife, Anna, who was less concerned with diligently planning the future and more closely engaged in living a full and meaningful present – where scent, taste, and touch were more concretely and intimately involved. And, like most of her countrymen, Anna seemed far more balanced tactilely, aurally, and visually than I had ever been or hoped to be.
Freeing myself from the hegemony of Father Time and his controlling historical vision, I became more attuned to the phases of Mother Earth, to the rhythms of moon and sun, not merely because I saw their rising and setting, their waxing and waning, but because I could hear the periodic sounds of nature associated with their coming and going. I could literally feel variations in the air, temperature, and humidity, smell and even taste the alteration of seasons in a world that surrounded and engulfed me, and filled my senses with life, with being.
My sensorium restored, all my faculties were now more fully engaged. No longer seeing in one dimension, the subjectivity of my body itself came into heightened relief. I now recognized that the very presence of perceptible objects within my line of sight occurred only because I was not simply a gaze; I too was a material, tactile presence. I could grasp the world physically as well as visually.
Spatiality emerged as my body felt itself within a world that reached out and received my flesh; my gestures betraying my body as a point of departure on the world, my openness to its presence, a crossing back over into elemental nature. It was only the chimera of a scientific metaphysics, granting singular and privileged position to sight, that had created the impression of a purely objective world in the first place, as if viewed through a telescope and from a great distance. But this impression did not correspond to what I now sensed, ecstatically, every day.
I now felt my body differently. And it was this sense of embodiment, at the heart of my self-estrangement, my otherness, that was also the giver of new life, a life recollected in my return to its untamed ground, my body-as-subject and the world-as-lived by my body. [From, The Recovery of Ecstasy:Notebooks From Siberia, Sandy Krolick.]