“Die Early and Often”: Being Attis in the Anthropocene
“We are not going to be saved.”
From John Halstead
In yesterday’s post, “‘What If It’s Already Too Late?’: Being an Activist in the Anthropocene”, I faced the fact that we are … well, f**ked. Our civilization is rushing toward its inevitable end. And it’s going to take out a big part of the biosphere with it.
Cap and trade is not going to save us. Renewable energy is not going to save us. Nuclear energy is not going to save us. Carbon capture is not going to save use. The politicians are not going to save us. The scientists are not going to save us. The activists are not going to save us.
We are not going to be saved.
For so many reasons, we are going to fail … and fail badly.
Once we come to terms with that fact, the question becomes …
So What Do We Do Now?
“The real question is what is the social role of one who understands that all this will end?”
— Vinay Gupta, “Death and the Human Condition” in Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times
What does socially responsible acceptance look like?
Well, let’s start with what it doesn’t look like …
I know it doesn’t look like throwing up our hands and doing nothing.
But I also don’t think it looks like more “expressive hobbyists” marching on weekends, rallying in front of empty government buildings with the hope of influencing lawmakers, and getting arrested for blocking traffic hundreds of miles away from the thing being protested–what Sophia Burns calls “catharsis politics”. (Been there, done that!)
I also don’t think it looks like more of the circle-jerk that is activist networking, where people from one activist organization agree to attend the events of another group with the expectation that the latter will reciprocate by attending the events of the former, thus creating the “comical scenario [where] 20 different organizations ‘endorse’ an event at which only 40 people show up”. (Been there, done that too!)
But I don’t think it looks like communist “base-building” either, at least not if it’s done with the ulterior motive of fostering an increasingly improbable proletariat revolution. Even if the revolution were going to happen, it would be too little too late.
And I’m sure it doesn’t looks like endless quibbling over trivial details of Leftist political theory with online frenemies, alienating naïve progressives with superior cynicism, or sending passionate manifestos, heavy laden with Marxist jargon, into the etheric echo chamber. (See “Your Politics Are Boring as Fuck” by Nadia C.)
I think maybe it does look like building what Dr. Bones calls a “leftism with benefits”, acquiring land, skills, and resources to improve the lives of the exploited and oppressed in the here and now, while also creating spaces to which people can retreat to when as the shit hits the fan. I think maybe it does look like building refuges, as Peter Kingsnorth suggests, for human and other-than-human life:
“Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place …
“Ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? Can you work, with others or alone, to create places or networks that act as refuges from the unfolding storm?”
— Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”
This is a rational response to impending disaster. A compassionate response. A good response. One that has the virtue of at least reducing some of the suffering that will attend the end of the world.
But I’ll be honest. I want something more than pragmatism. It’s not enough to keep me going. I want something more from the end of the world.
I want transformation.
And for that, I have to turn to religion.
We Are the Dying God
“I will go down to self-annihilation and Eternal Death;
Lest the Last Judgement come and find me unannihilate,
And I be seiz’d and giv’n into the hands of my own Selfhood.”
— William Blake, “Milton’s Journey to Eternal Death”
One of the things that drew me to Neo-Paganism was the myth of the Dying God. There are several examples of dying gods in ancient pagan sources: Egyptian Osiris, Canaanite Ba’al, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Dionysus … and Phrygian Attis, who sacrificed himself to the Great Mother goddess Cybele and was reborn as a pine tree.
“They say that the Mother of the Gods seeing Attis lying by the river Gallus fell in love with him, took him, crowned him with her cap of stars … He fell in love with a nymph and left the mother to live with her. For this, the Mother of the Gods made Attis go mad and cut off his genital organs … and then return to dwell with her.
“Now the Mother of the Gods is the principle that generates life; that is why she is called Mother. Attis is the creator of all things which are born and die … For Gallus signifies the … Milky Way, the point at which body subject to passion begins. … Attis loved a nymph: the nymphs preside over generation … But since the process of generation must be stopped somewhere … the creator who makes these things casts away his generative powers into creation and is joined to the Gods again. Now these things never happened, but always are. … Thus, as the myth is in accord with the cosmos, we for that reason keep a festival imitating the cosmos, for how could we obtain a higher order?”
— Sallustius, “On the Gods and The World”, IV
In the rites of Attis, celebrated the week of the spring equinox, a pine tree was cut down and carried in a procession to the temple with lamentations. His devotees would whip themselves and sprinkle the altars and effigy of Attis with their own blood. Those who were to be dedicated as priests of the Cybele performed self-castrations. And on the third day, the equinox, the people celebrated the Hilaria (Rejoicing), when Attis is reborn–to begin the cycle all over again.
The details of the Dying God myth very with time and place, but the Dying God archetype transcends the local instances of the myth. James Frazer and Robert Graves articulated the outline of the archetype in modern times. From these classicists, contemporary Neo-Paganism adopted the myth of the Dying God and gave it religious expression in the form of the Wheel of the Year.
The Wheel can be understood as the life cycle of the Dying God mapped onto the solar year. Not just the life of the Dying God, though. The Wheel of the Year represents the cycle of his relationship to the undying Goddess in her triune form of mother-lover-slayer. (Note: The genders of these deities can be interchangeable or altogether optional.) Starhawk explains the relationship of the Dying God and the Goddess in this way:
“The Goddess is the Encircler, the Ground of Being; the God is That-Which-Is-Brought-Forth, her mirror image, her other pole. She is the earth; He is the grain. She is the all encompassing sky; He is the sun, her fireball. She is the Wheel; He is the traveler. He is the sacrifice of life to death that life may go on. She is the Mother and Destroyer; He is all that is born and is destroyed.”
— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
The myth of the Dying God teaches us about the meaning of death and the power of surrender. It’s natural to want to live forever, but we are destined to die. Death is part of the cycle of life, and nothing dies in vain. No matter or energy is lost. The movement of the Wheel–the Spiral Dance of the Goddess–sanctifies death, making it holy.
The myth of the Dying God and its embodiment in Neo-Pagan ritual has the potential to foster a transformation of consciousness toward death. In Neo-Pagan ritual, we become the Dying God and symbolically enact a voluntary offering of our transient self to the Goddess who is the Great Cosmic Round.
“Ritualistic and mythical identification with the sacrificing God honors the life spark, even in death, and prepares to give way gracefully to new life, when the time comes for each of us to die. Waxing and waning, birth and death, take place within the human psyche and life cycle. Each is to be welcomed in its proper time and season, because life is a process of constant change. … The God is that force within us that chooses to surrender itself to the cycle, to ride the Wheel.”
— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
By identifying with the Dying God, we renounce the need for control and permanence, for the sake of meaning and transformation. As Joseph Campbell explained,
“When the will of the individual to his own immortality has been extinguished—as it is in rites such as these—through an effective realization of the immortality of being itself and of its play through all things, he is united with that being, in experience, in a stunning crisis of release from the psychology of … mortality.”
— Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology
This means more than merely accepting our fate. It means shifting from an egocentric perspective, in which death is the ultimate evil, to a cosmic perspective, in which death is part of the cycle of life. Rather than raging against the dying of the light, we surrender to the Wheel, and in surrendering, we are transformed. This transformation brings no apotheosis, no individual immortality, but it enables us to realize the meaning of our lives as part of a greater whole which transcends us.
“The whole point of these esoteric ceremonies, rituals, prayers, etc., was to accept the death of the separate-self sense and thus rise to an identity or communion with the Great Goddess. This was a self-sacrifice, which allowed the individual to transcend the self.”
— Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution
Learning How to Die
“The ceaseless labour of your life is to build the house of death.”
— Michel de Montaigne
If we are to be the Dying God, then our job is to die. According to Joseph Campbell,
“When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified–and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn.”
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
But we actually do have a choice. We can accept our fate and be willing sacrifices. Or we can rage against the dying of the light and go out in a blaze of glory. But there are costs if we choose the latter course. As Starhawk explains,
“The God chooses to sacrifice [Himself] in order to remain within the orbit of the Goddess, within the cycle of the natural world, and within the ecstatic, primal union that creates the world. Were He to cling to any point on the wheel and refuse to give way to change, the cycle would stop; He would fall out of orbit and lose all. Harmony would be destroyed; union would be broken. He would not be preserving Himself; He would be denying his true self. His deepest passion, his very nature.”
— Starhawk, The Spiral Dance
Collectively, our society is in denial, and the costs of our denial are all around us: in the wrecking of the biosphere, in the extinction of millions of other species, in the poisoning of the soil, the water, and the air.
How do we return to the orbit of the Goddess? How do we surrender to the Wheel?
Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, writes that, if we want to know how to live in the Anthropocene, we need to “learn how to die”. We need to find what Isabella Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre call “a modus moriendi“. We need to learn how to die well.
Scranton’s suggestion for dying well is reinvesting in the humanities, relearning the art of bookmaking, and trying to preserve the best of our cultural heritage:
“If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, then we must not lose our few thousand years of hard-won knowledge, accumulated at great cost and against great odds.”
— Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
But how do we choose? How do we decide what to preserve? What if we end up preserving the very parts of our civilization which caused all of this to happen in the first place?
And isn’t Scranton’s prescription just another “immortality project”. Are we really embracing the death of civilization if we are still trying to preserve its best parts for posterity?
Donna Haraway, author of Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, has a different idea:
Rather than humanities, Haraway writes of “humusities” or the “human as humus”. Rather than humanism (or post-humanism), she advocates a multi-species “compostism”:
“Critters are at stake in each other in every mixing and turning of the terran compost pile. We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist. Critters—human and not—become-with each other, compose and decompose each other, in every scale and register of time and stuff in sympoietic tangling, in ecological evolutionary developmental earthly worlding and unworlding.”
This kind of cryptic language is characteristic of Haraway. (She calls it “tentacular” thinking. Imagine literary tentacles reaching everywhere, grasping here and there, creating temporary webs of significance.) Haraway experiments with words and phrases as a way of grasping at a different mode of being (or “worlding”), one which de-centers the human. (This de-centering is reflected in Haraway’s substitution of the term “Chthulucene” for “Anthropocene”.)
Haraway calls this new mode of being “sympoiesis”, which means “making with”, as in making our world with other species:
“Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. … earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company.”
“The more one looks, the more the name of the game of living and dying on earth is a convoluted multispecies affair that goes by the name of symbiosis, the yoking together of companion species, at table together.”
In the face of civilizational collapse and mass extinction, Haraway rejects both hope in “technotheocratic geoengineering fixes” and “wallowing in despair”. Instead, she urges us to “stay with the trouble”, to
“collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the exterminism of the Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener, make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents, and futures.”
One way to do this, according to Haraway, is to “make kin” with the other-than-human beings with whom we constitute the compost piles of the earth.
Making kin means seeing our kind “as humus, rather than as human or nonhuman”. It means recognizing that “all earthlings are kin in the deepest sense … All critters share a common ‘flesh'”. It means
“learning again, or for the first time, how to become less deadly, more response-able, more attuned, more capable of surprise, more able to practice the arts of living and dying well in multispecies symbiosis, sympoiesis, and symanimagenesis on a damaged planet …”
Roy Scranton seems to come to the same conclusion at the end of his second book We’re Doomed. Now What?:
“The dire and seemingly unsolvable fact of climate change—just like the unsolvable fact of our own morality—doesn’t signify the end of ethical thought but its beginning, for it’s only in recognizing the fact that our lives are limited, complicit, imperfect, and interdependent that we begin to understand what it means to live together in this world.”
— Roy Scranton, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World”
Haraway admits this won’t be easy. Multi-species sympoiesis isn’t something that can be “donned like a magic cape”, she says.
But we can begin by thinking ourselves beyond our egocentricism and anthropocentricism and into relationship with the more-than-human world. Haraway calls this “thinking with”. Other writers have attempted to think-with the other-than-human. Aldo Leopold’s “thinking like a mountain”, comes to mind, as does Robinson Jeffers “inhumanism”:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
— Robinson Jeffers, “Carmel Point”
Writing more prosaically, Roy Scranton explains what we need is a radical shift of perspective:
“We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes, and polar bear eyes, and not even just with eyes at all but with the wild, barely articulate being of clouds and seas and rocks and trees and stars.”
— Roy Scranton, “We’re Doomed. Now What?”, New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015
Science Fiction or Speculative Fabulation?
“It is through stories that we weave reality.”
I began this essay with references to contemporary apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic science fiction, weaved in the ancient/modern myth of Attis/the Dying God, and now I return to science fiction, or what filmmaker Fabrizio Terranova calls “speculative fabulation”:
“A type of narration that enables one to unfold new worlds through arousing an appetite for what’s possible (what could or could have taken place). It is not just about understanding a totally new creation. The remarkable difference is that it is about placing lures susceptible of bringing forth today possibilities that were already in situations.”
Haraway’s “Camille Stories: Children of Compost” is an example of this kind of writing. It tells the story of people living in a time of ongoing extinction due to climate change, the effects of which last for centuries. The Children of Compost form communities of a few hundred people who migrate to damaged places and develop transformative practices for intentional kin making and work sympoietically to heal (and be healed by) kin in those places. This means intentionally reducing human numbers, while increasing the flourishing of all the species who inhabit a place.
In the Compost communities, children are rare, but precious. When a decision is made to bring a new human infant into being, an other-than-human animal or plant symbiont is chosen for the child from among species who are threatened with extinction. At birth, a few genes and a few microorganisms of the symbiont are added to the human child’s body. The human child’s formative years are spent learning how to nurture the symbiont species, as well as the other species on whom the symbiont depends.
This commitment to symbiosis binds five generations of humans. The Camille Stories relate the stories of five generations of Camilles, living between 2025 and 2425 in a part of West Virginia devastated by mountaintop removal. The Camilles are bound symbiotically to the Monarch butterflies, who migrate between Mexico and Canada, and work sympoietically to promote their flourishing. Storytelling is central to this work, as Haraway explains:
“compostists soon found that storytelling was the most powerful practice for comforting, inspiring, remembering, warning, nurturing compassion, mourning, and becoming-with each other in their differences, hopes, and terrors.”
But despite the deepening of the symbiotic bond and sympoietic practices over three generations, the fourth Camille is faced with the loss of monarch migrations, along with the loss of 50 percent of all species planet-wide. Camille 4 must prepare Camille 5 for a new role, as a “Speaker for the Dead”, one who will remember, mourn, and “represence” the monarch, as a form of sympoeisis with the dead (what Haraway calls “symanimagenesis”). Haraway leaves undetermined the question of the future of the Children of Compost and the possibility of a multi-species flourishing. Rather than imagining a utopia, she “stays with the trouble”.
Haraway’s Children of Compost remind me of the resistance community at the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, living in the ashes of nuclear holocaust. Except instead of preserving books, the literary legacy of humanity (like Roy Scranton suggests), the Children of Compost preserve the Book of Nature and the genetic legacy of the more-than-human biosphere. Instead of individuals passively memorizing stories from books, the compostists engage in storytelling, an active and communal process in which the “text” is always evolving. Instead of preservation being solely a matter of the mind, the Children of Compost do the work of healing with their bodies and with their hearts, as well as their minds. And instead of the image of the phoenix, which concludes Fahrenheit 451, Haraway offers the model of compost.
Last Words: “Die Early and Often”
How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
to open ourselves, to be
— Galway Kinnell, “Another Night in the Ruins”
“‘Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship, till in the sacramental act so burned by thee, that to this hour I bear the scar … Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes.'”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
At the end of the world, we are called be the flames … to be the ashes … to be compost … to be the Dying God.
This isn’t a very hopeful response, I know. But as Robinson Jeffers wrote,
It’s not exactly a hopeless response either, though. It’s a kind of hopeful hopelessness or hopeless hopefulness.
“Hopelessness is the limit and beginning of a new kind of hope. You have to keep going–not to achieve dreams of beautiful mountaintop forests, but because life is more powerful than death. Hopelessness makes possible new hope, a faith in the basic tissue of life that is stronger than any disaster.”
We need different stories, different myths.
The Dark Mountain Project is one group of artists and storytellers who are trying to tell different stories,
“to paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own–a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare–might recognise as something approaching a truth. It sets out to tug our attention away from ourselves and turn it outwards; to uncentre our minds. It is writing, in short, which puts civilisation–and us–into perspective.”
Others are doing this as well. Haraway’s “Children of Compost” is one example. The Neo-Pagan myth of the Dying God, as told by Miles Batty and others, is another. And it’s not just writers who participate in storytelling, though. Poets, musicians, filmmakers and other artists also contribute. Examples of contemporary kin-making and dying-well include:
- fiction: Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series, Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, and John Steinbeck’s To A God Unknown
- poetry: Mary Oliver, David Whyte, Wendell Berry, and (of course) Robinson Jeffers
- music: Geoff Bartley’s “The Language of Stones” (Sarah Stockwell cover), Paul Winter’s “Missa Gaia” or “Earth Mass”, Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”, and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (K.D. Lang cover)
- film: Darren Aronofky’s The Fountain, James Cameron’s Avatar, and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke
- photography: Gregory Colbert and Katerina Plotnikova
- (Share your own suggestions in the comments below.)
Haraway herself draws from a multiplicity of media beyond books, including music, anime, and even video games. For example, she writes about her experience playing Never Alone, a video game created in collaboration Alaska Native community members. In the game, the player moves between Iñupiaq girl named Nuna and her Arctic fox companion as they leave Nuna’s home village to discover the source of an unprecedented blizzard and restore balance to nature.
Haraway writes that she “dies early and often” in the game. I don’t think I’m reading too much into Haraway’s phrasing (is such a thing even possible?) to hear an echo of the political slogan “vote early and often”. To “die early and often” echoes the advice of religious sages from many different religions to “die before you die”. To “die early and often” means to walk the path of the Dying God.
To “die early” means to face our death, both personal and collective, the death of the myth of individuality and the death of the myth of human progress. It means to face our fate before it arrives on our doorstep.
Vinay Gupta is a contributor to the Dark Mountain Project and a kapalika, a member of the ascetic sect of Shiva devotees who traditionally carried empty human skulls as begging bowls. Gupta writes that one of the functions of the kapalika:
“is to strip away the lies about death, the mythology and the avoidance, and to spread hope by a simple fact: the avoidance of the truth of death is worse than death itself. Death cannot be avoided, but its avoidance can be avoided.”
— Vinay Gupta, “Death and the Human Condition” in Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times
To “die often” means creating “new practices of imagination, resistance, revolt, repair, and mourning, and of living and dying well” (Haraway) and creative rituals of kin-making to embody our new stories and myths. John Seed and Joanna Macy’s “Council of All Beings” might be one example of such practices and rituals. There is much work to be done to translate these new stories and myths into practices of living and dying well in the Anthropocene.
I imagine such practices would yield practical goods, much like a “leftism with benefits”, but in a more-than-human dimension: multispecies mutual aid, if you will. (Not a new idea, actually. Kropotkin’s conception of mutual aid was inspired by interspecies cooperation.)
Since we must walk the Dying God’s path, we should do so together, sympoietically, with our human-kin, yes, but also with all the other earth-kin with whom we are doomed to die. “Living-with was the only possible way to live-well,” writes Haraway. So too, dying-with is the only possible way to die well.
Sometimes this seems like an inadequate response, too little too late, and I have to remind myself that I’m not trying to save the world anymore–I’m trying to “stay with the trouble.”
We are doomed to walk the path of the Dying God. We must do so not in the hope of survival or salvation. Our job is not to survive … or even to birth a new world. Our job is to die … to die well, to die-with, to die early and often, to die in such a way that the “ash heap of history” might become the compost pile of the Goddess.
Bill McKIbben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Rolling Stone, July 19, 2012
Brad Werner, “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”, presented at American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2012
The Dark Mountain Project, Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilized Times (2017)
Erza Klein, “7 reasons America will fail on climate change”, Vox, June 5, 2014
Jonathan Mingle, “Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind”, Slate, Dec. 7, 2012
Nafeez Ahmed, “Scientists Warn the UN of Capitalism’s Imminent Demise”, Motherboard, August 27, 2018
–, “How science is telling us all to revolt”, New Statesman, Oct. 29, 2013
Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, “Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto”, 2009
Paul Kingsnorth, “Dark Ecology”, Orion Magazine
–, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”, Orion Magazine
–, “Why I stopped believing in environmentalism and started the Dark Mountain Project”, The Guardian, Apr. 29, 2010
–, “Anthropocene City: Houston as Hyperobject”, Mustarinda Magazine
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and here at Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.
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