Monday, January 10, 2011

Brief thoughts on A Language Older Than Words

If the two volumes of Derrick Jensen's Endgame were about, on the one hand, the problem that is civilization itself, the argument against it as such, and, on the other hand, meditations on the kinds of actions that might do serious damage to its ability to continue functioning, A Language Older Than Words is more about the world that we have lost access to because of it. That, in fact, it would speak to us if we would only listen, has stopped because we have lost the ability or inclination to listen. The book opens with an anecdote about the time he asked the coyotes to please stop killing his chickens, after which they killed no more chickens. There is another story about a duck that extended its neck out to be killed by him. There is a fascinating section towards the end of the book about a scientist who has done decades of research into communication with plants; well aware of the reception his work would receive in scientific circles, he doesn't even try to present it. (A question raised by and through the book: Why would the world speak to us in the conditions under which it is usually studied?)

Jensen is well aware that he is inviting your ridicule by telling such stories. He thought he was losing his mind. He tells other stories. He tells of conversations with indigenous writers and activists, recounting their words for how their cultures have experienced the world. He talks about his abusive father and how he learned to disappear when horrible things were happening, to not feel them. He quotes from accounts of the first European contact with North America, about the overwhelming abundance of both flora and fauna. He writes about the inevitability of story after story of our culture's contact with indigenous people. Extermination. Story after story recounting the despoiling of land after land. Desertification. He, again, concludes that we're all fucking crazy.

I'd offer quotations from the book, but I've already leant it out. However, by coincidence, I noticed last week that Skholiast had recently quoted a key passage from the book, in which Jensen reports the following words from Jeannette Armstrong, "poet, teacher and activist from the Okanagan tribes":
Attitudes about interspecies communication are the primary difference between western and indigenous philosophies. Even the most progressive western philosophers still generally believe that listening to the land is a metaphor. It's not a metaphor. It's how the world is.
Skholiast, incidentally, while admitting that he has "many difficulties" with the book, says that "it is still written the way I believe philosophy ought to be written (with urgency and beauty)". I'm curious about his difficulties. I can imagine what mine might once have been (I agree about the urgency and beauty). Oddly (oddly?), I find I have no difficulties with it now, even if I am unsure how to process many of the stories found in it. I have no trouble whatever with Jensen's overall message about the insanity of our civilization, except insofar as I am already troubled by that insanity. Read his book, but read it with an open mind.


Ethan said...

Funny, I came here almost directly from posting a Jensen quote (from Endgame) at my place.

I think one reason why I like him so much is that he reminds me of my father, who talks to plants and animals, who once as a child found that he could breathe underwater and is sure that if he had never come up would still be able to, who recently saw a friend of his (a Narragansett man at the site of an ancient village) disappear into another place and time while simultaneously still being with him in the present. I've never had an experience like that, and for a time wrote off what my father said as kind of goofy faux-mysticism, but recently I've been coming more to the perspective you describe here, that the insanity of civilization is what keeps these experiences from being part of our everyday life.

Speaking of everyday life, I'm currently scanning through Vaneigem's Revolution of Everyday Life in preparation for a more thorough go-through, and not half an hour ago I came across this passage (on page 222 in my edition). It seems relevant:

The child packs such a horde of events into a few days or even a few hours that his time does not trickle away like an adult's. Two months vacation is an eternity for him. For an old man two months is a fleeting moment. The child's days escape adult time--they are time swollen by subjectivity, by passion, by dreams inhabited by reality. Outside this universe the educators wait patiently, watch in hand, for the child to join in the round dance of adult time. It is they who have time...Innocent of the ways of conditioning, [the child] falls like some young animal into the snare.

Richard said...

Hi Ethan. Thanks for that quotation from the Vaneigem book; it's beautiful (and then ominous).

AB said...

Richard, thanks for the reminder of A Language Older Than Worlds, which I read several years ago. It is beautiful and disturbing in equal measure. Though it struck me forcibly, I lack a frame of reference for the stories he tells.

I am curious to read Endgame though and continue with an open mind.