Cancer, Technology and an Ineffable Visceral Space

Everyone was a cancer patient and everyone was–like all those people who go to cancer hospitals, have the best care in the entire fucking world and don’t make it–going to die. This was an all-consuming thought. And really, what was the point of it all? Why had I bothered to go through all that, if it was just going to be a less intense version of that for the rest of my time alive?

From Julian Langer

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I.

I regularly commit what might be considered a severe social faux pas, though it is not really a blunder and I do not feel shame about it. This faux pas is that I mention, often too lightly, in conversation a subject matter often deemed too taboo for everyday conversation.

The subject matter is that which goths, nihilists and existentialists love to talk about – I talk about death.

From my mother’s death and my father’s near death from drug addiction in my early childhood, as well the loss of other family members and loved ones; death and life have been constant themes within my thoughts. But undoubtedly the biggest influence on my relationship and perspective towards life and death has been the experiences I went through as a young cancer patient.

As I go to write about the process of being-a-cancer-patient, I’m immediately struck by how the words I turn to feel entirely inadequate. If I were to try to really communicate to you (as in you individually reading this, if we were relating one to one) something of what it feels like to be the other side of cancer treatment, I’d probably lower my stance, draw in air and release a guttural and primal scream; then grab hold of you in the tightest, fullest hug I could muster; and then play you something on the guitar. So little of that felt phenomenon can be expressed this way – as-in via text. But I’ll go on.

II.

They found my tumour initially because they were trying to find out why I was developing double vision. I first noticed the double vision in its early stages when I watched seagulls fly by the river in the town I live near to. Given the state of British ecology, these birds are forced to live within the built-space this culture has constructed on top of the land. They are an extremely regular sight, and often labelled vermin by those who do not have eyes to see their beauty.

My eyes were seeing in double. It was weird. It was confusing. Corrective glasses made normal day-to-day activity easier, but why was this happening?

I had my first MRI scan, to see what was going on in my head. What an experience that was! They had to restart the scan because I’d moved too much looking around the scanner as it did its thing.

If you’ve never been in an MRI machine, let me paint you a picture in words of my times in MRI machines. First thing you do is you lie on this platform, positioning yourself so your head rests in the slot designed for it. Then they place this grey-thing under your knees, so your legs are slightly raised throughout. You then feel the platform rise towards the ceiling, stopping when you are level with the opening of the machine. Your head then gets put in this open-box thing, with wadding to make you more comfortable, and you are handed something to squeeze should you need the process to stop or attention for any other reason. Then you feel yourself moving backwards into the machine, into silence. This is a hideously uncomfortable silence, where you are fully aware of how uncomfortable your body feels within this colossal piece of technological construction. And it feels as if it would go on forever, but then it starts.

The first time I heard that noise I felt my heart pounding immediately. Everything about this was wrong! If you can imagine all the worst elements of drum and bass, mixed with the worst elements of industrial metal that would be the best comparison I could give. That sound pulsates through your entire body, and it feels like it is the noise shaking the machine with your body inside it. My muscles tightened. My mouth went dry. The first time I couldn’t stop looking around to see if something was going wrong – as I said, they had to restart it and begin again because my moving had meant the scans were unusable.

Not in my first time, but in the vast majority of scans after that, they’d stop halfway through, to inject this dye through a cannula I’d already had put in place, so they could track everything better; then to return to the shaking booming machine. Sometimes you’re given headphones and they put music on, but I’ve never heard it over the mechanical thumps in the belly of those things. An energetic, visceral surge desiring escape flowed through me, which remained the case throughout every other time I found myself inside one of those machines – though I eventually learnt to get myself very Zen in them and to ignore what was going on around me.

The day after this first scan, my 19th birthday, I went in to get the results and a doctor informed me that the scan had found a pineal legion, a brain tumour, which at this stage couldn’t be confirmed as cancerous, benign, or what. What followed for the next year and a half was months of regular MRI scans, the occasional lumbar puncture and waiting for the tumour to grow large enough to get a biopsy of; because it was too small and they didn’t want to risk damage when all it was doing at that stage was moving my eye.

III.

I had been practicing Buddhism since I was 17 and I turned to this heavily during this time, as well as throwing myself into creative projects. The waiting period was strange. I’d been a study-geek since I was a kid and I continued to find myself drawn to studying all I could find on philosophy, radical politics and “spiritual” stuff. Life continued as normal in many ways. It was just always there, as this ever-present thing.

A friend performed reiki on me, which was weird. Christians and Muslims who knew of me having a brain tumour prayed for me. The tumour was growing still, but at an incredibly slow rate – which meant it was still too small for the neurosurgeons to do a biopsy of it. Was this “spiritual” stuff contributing to this? I didn’t know, but fuck it, I wasn’t gonna knock it!

As I mentioned, I was embracing a Buddhist practice at that time in my life – though possibly a more westernised form than many of you reading this will view as true-Buddhism. I would meditate semi-regularly and occasionally chant. My recovering addict father had pushed the idea on me throughout my childhood than everyone “needs” some form of “spirituality,” and for a time I had largely internalised this notion. This conflicted though with the writers and philosophers I was finding myself drawn to; individuals like Wilde, Nietzsche, Camus and Armand; as what I was getting from their writings were words that fuelled my fire to rebel against this push from my father.

So in place of his Christianised Buddhism, I adopted a much more (indifferent-)agnostic Buddhist practice. Before my embracing a Buddhist practice I had explored Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and Neo-Paganism (with a consistent solid interest in Hinduism, but didn’t consider practicing until after treatment- and only for a short period), but none of these really stuck as long as Buddhism did and that was what I was embracing during my time as a cancer patient.

My father and I have always had a strained relationship, with him consistently pushing the idea that I should forgive him for his part of our relationship, because if I don’t I will suffer, as I go to hell/have a hellish life for not forgiving him – gosh darn it, don’t you just love Christian morality! With this, he asserted on multiple occasions when my treatment actually started that he believed that, because the tumour was a pineal legion, and some “spiritual” people have called the pineal gland the gateway to the third eye, that I had the tumour because I wasn’t a more spiritually-forgiving person (though I strongly suspect he was simply pushing for me to be less pissed off at him, so if I did die he would feel like at the very least we had made peace and he could feel like a decent dad).

Let me take a second to say though that, in many ways my father was a great dad during treatment, pushing to get me the best care and driving long distances to appointments and lots more. But if I’m going to write about how cancer affected my perception of the world, life and death, I have got to write about how he pushed that the tumour was basically my fault and I had to get more “spiritual”, as he saw it, in order to not die (but this piece is not about him or my relationship with him). Moving on.

IV.

Before treatment actually started I’d had this headache for 3 days. It wasn’t too bad and I wasn’t worrying, but worried family pushed for me get an emergency appointment to see my GP, so I did. At that stage they weren’t worried about the headache. But a few days later I’m in A & E with a migraine, being given the steroid dexamethasone to reduce the pressure the tumour was putting on my brain – now the little fucker was getting interesting and starting to kill me.

Suddenly shit got different! Suddenly I was back and forth between appointments. Everyone wanted to keep Julian alive.

Julian however was mostly focused on sleeping and eating. Dexamethasone had two side effects, both of which I found near unbearable; I couldn’t sleep and I was always starving hungry. Stress and having lots to think about still has an impact on my sleep patterns, but with the meds at this time I was getting three hours maximum most nights – there was lots of watching TV throughout the night, trying to fall asleep to it. And the hunger, words are entirely inadequate for describing the depth of the hunger I was feeling. This wasn’t “I’ve missed a meal and now am more hungry than I would normally be at this time” hungry! This was “I am screaming at you to put food in me or else you will fucking die arsehole” hunger; it was a hunger that felt like there was an emptiness within my being that was going to collapse in on itself if I didn’t eat something. So you better fucking well believe I ate! Salad sandwiches multiple times a day, fajitas, crisps, pasta and SO MUCH CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE ME IF I TOLD YOU! (I owe a great deal of my mental well being throughout the months of dexamethasone and afterwards to Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked ice cream).

While so much around me was about keeping me from dying, I was consumed by the suffering this medication I had been put on to keep me alive was bringing me. It was only in the months after treatment that I started to value that experience of suffering – but I’m jumping ahead of myself.

My first night sleeping in a hospital for observations was a new experience for me, one that I did not want, but went along with because the doctor I was under the care of at that point had insisted on it, despite my obviously finding the idea extremely upsetting. I’d seen my mother die in a hospital bed when I was 7; and I’d stood there screaming at her body for her to wake up and to be my mum again. Years later I learnt she died because the hospital made an administrative error and she could have survived what happened to her. To my mind, hospitals meant death. Those cold, sterilised walls and floors felt like lifeless expanses that something entirely visceral inside of me was rejecting, in a very primal way. But as I said, I did it. I slept there, or at least tried to, and made it through until the morning.

The next day I asked the doctor if I could start coming off the tablets, because the headaches had gone and I wanted the suffering to end. Without properly understanding what they were doing and in an utterly careless fashion, he stated yes and gave me an incredibly short weaning off period to come off them – which I accepted because, here was the professional saying what I wanted to hear. Days later I was rushed to hospital (a different one to the one I’d slept at) with an excruciatingly painful migraine and in a zombie like state of lifelessness and put straight back on the dose I’d been on, along with another steroid to help my endocrine system recover from the “crash” in hormones I had just undergone. I’d very, very nearly died and felt like death – the doctor fucked up and I never saw him again.

V.

It was a strange feeling, nearly dying, and coupled with the lack of energy, because my body was void of nearly all the testosterone, adrenaline and cortisol I usually had flowing through me, I felt like a nothingness, empty and soulless, with all my personality sucked out of me. It wasn’t that I felt depressed, or sad, or anything like that. No! That would have been something – even when I felt sad and depressed I felt alive. This feeling was death.

Being back on the steroids perked me up, a bit. I was still exhausted and not-all-there, but I was more me, which was something at least. That same visceral feeling I would have with the MRI machines I had with the meds. They were entirely undesirable, but they were working and doing what I needed them to do. Taking them was a choice made for my personal welfare and I am selfish about my personal needs.

Shortly after this though came the second close brush with death. I was taking the medication, but had a mind-blowingly bad migraine. This one was more intense than the others had been. This was pain I couldn’t have imagined feeling. I didn’t want to move, so tried to sleep it off. This didn’t work and pretty soon the paramedics were at the house and I was being carted off to the hospital.

The painkillers I had at the hospital went down an absolute treat! I was the happiest I’d been in a long time! Everyone around me was panicked and trying to work out what to do with me. Calls were being made between hospitals, my father and girl friend were terrified and loved ones were being called with updates on how I was doing. And while all that movement was going on around me, I was high and happy.

Hours later and a journey from North Devon to Bristol in an ambulance, I found myself on the neurology ward of Frenchay hospital, having my surgery plans explained to me by a lovely old hipster brain surgeon (with a brief chat about mutual music loves). I asked what general anaesthetic would be like and was told “like a good gin and tonic.” I was on the bed, about to go into the theatre room, and told they were about to put me to sleep. There was a moment when I was aware of them administering the painkiller and then I was awaking in the recovery ward.

When I woke up there were two definite differences to my body from when I’d gone to sleep. The first I was prepared for and had expected. The surgery I had was called an endoscopic third ventriculostomy and involved them placing what is called a ventricular reservoir in my head – basically a tube in my brain and a silicone bump on my head to protect me from potential future hydrocephalus. This is something that I have in my head still 6 years on and will most likely have until the day I die. I have often joked about being a bionic human, with my body forever changed by technology. I’m not going to lie; it is very weird to think about – but I’ll write more on this later. All that mattered at that point was – I am alive and this is gonna help keep me alive! The second difference, though less permanent, was far more traumatising at the time.

VI.

Soon after waking I came to discover a tube attached to my bed that had not been there before. After a brief investigation of the bed and my body, I came to realise the tube was inserted somewhere I had never EVER expected to find a tube! (If you haven’t guessed already, they’d inserted a urinary catheter). THE HORROR! I don’t mind telling you that my penis is something I value and treasure, for a multitude of reasons, and have degree of aesthetic preferences around its appearance and treatment, which includes not having a tube up it. There was an element to which it was apparent, the doctors had seen my naked body, in a way I had not considered before, which, given the amount of body-shame I felt at the time was a bit embarrassing. But more so, again in a very visceral, animal and primal embodied sense, I DON’T WANT A TUBE UP MY DICK!

Hours after waking up, when I felt like I had enough energy to walk a little bit and had shown I could move my legs, I asked the nurse to remove the catheter, so I could walk up and down the ward. She held my member and then moments later I felt a sensation in my dick that makes me squirm and recoil in disgust still, as I write this. After a minute to recover from what just happened, I started to get myself off the bed. A nurse from Somalia, whose kindness throughout my stay on that ward I will value for the rest of my life, held my arm as I walked the corridor from one end to the other. No one thought I’d be walking that quickly, but I was defiant and knew I was going to do it – I knew that this body that I am wasn’t going to just lay in bed with a tube where no tube should be; I was going to walk, and fuck anyone who said otherwise.

After the surgery I spent several days and nights on ward and then came home for a few weeks rest, before I went up to hospital for the second and hopefully final lot of brain surgery. This was a weird time. I felt in many ways ruined, especially the day the last of the general anaesthetic wore off and I couldn’t stop crying. I had my head shaved, because where they’d shaved a rectangular block out of my long fringe looked ridiculous, and that was a particularly sad moment, as I’ve always love my hair. I was low energy, because of my hormones and what it was taking out of my body to recover from the surgeries, and still starving hungry all of the time. I had started seeing regularly a craniosacral therapist and the holistic treatment was definitely helping me sleep, which was a plus, as well as supporting my recovery in other ways. Chocolate ice cream was continuing to be a great pick me up. But what helped me the most through those weeks was something entirely beyond words.

Between her university classes and exams, my girl friend Katie, then of 5 years (now wife), was doing all she could to be there for me and be loving and supportive. The experience of love I got from her was more than just words and deeds. There was an energy I could feel in her touch, as she held me with my head on her lap, not judging as I wept uncontrollably. Whether we were watching TV or talking to family, her arms around me communicated an intention that rendered all words as lesser. One night she washed me as I sat in the bath and the love and care I felt her hands communicate made all language slip away into an abyss that left me in bliss. Amidst all the horror that was going on around me, all the suffering and shit I was going through, here was something completely wonderful, that brought the beauty of life and experience back to me in a direct and immediate way. As much as her actions were beyond words, my descriptions are entirely inadequate. You will never be able to know the energy that was felt between us in those moments (and honestly that is something I am glad of).

The second lot of brain surgery was quicker than the first and in many ways a lot easier. I spent most of my stay on ward consuming that beautiful hyper-real spectacle that we postmodern 21st century westerners remain addicted to: TV. No catheter! And was again able to walk afterwards faster than expected. The thing that was the best part of my second brain surgery was that the biopsy had found out the type of tumour that was in my brain.

If you know anything about pineal germinomas (also know as germ cell tumours), you will know that, as far as brain tumours go, being told you have one is extremely good news! These tumours are very easy to treat; they don’t often come back; and really this was confirmation that I was going to kick cancer’s fucking arse and live beyond this hellish ordeal I was going through! This was the best news yet and everyone around me was glad to learn this.

I had a month between my last brain surgery and starting radiation therapy. That month involved mostly listening to music, watching TV, playing guitar, eating (LOTS), siting in the garden and the occasional outing to shops or town, if I felt well enough to do it. I was exhausted though. It took me 3 attempts to stand up from the toilet one morning. The thing I kept saying to people was that I just wanted to go and walk outside. That primal urge to move my body across the land was something I felt deep within me, but at that time I simply couldn’t. That was something deeply upsetting and frustrating. My body, the being that I am, felt like something other than myself, but equally I was consumed by this-is-me-now – and I had to deal with that.

I knew I was alive and that was valuable. I felt like death, but knew that this process was transient and I would soon be a different space and in a different space.

Radiation therapy was weird. The first thing I remember them doing was making me this mask to hold my head in place on the table – a mask I kept after treatment ended and have a solid love/hate relationship with. For a month I would go to the hospital 5 days a week every morning; lie down on this table, in front of this colossal machine that looked straight out of science fiction; have my head locked in place by the mask; have radiation beams fired at my head, which you cannot see, hear, or smell, but after the first week or so start to feel the effects of; and then go home, and spend all day resting, playing guitar, video games or watching TV. The day my hair fell out sucked! I was in the bath and it all just started to come out in clumps – it felt much more like losing a part of myself compared with when it had been shaved off 2 months earlier (that was (kind of) my choice at least). But the real impact of radiation therapy didn’t start until after cancer treatment had ended, in the months immediately after – a period of time I have barely spoken about with anyone.

VII.

As I go to write about this now, I’m aware of my body tensing and I’m thinking more about my breath and what my eyes are doing in their sockets. This is very much a space where I have always found the idea of trying to put words to it something I couldn’t do. This was a space of finding myself in the dark-mysticism of what philosophers like Bataille, Foucault and Lacan have called limit-experience. This space is probably the closest I’ve been to the impossible and probably the closest I’ll get to the impossible.

If this comes across as non-sense to you, what I’m about to write, that is ok with me – if you haven’t experienced this you most likely simply won’t get it. This period, the months immediately after treatment, around my 21st birthday and immediately after; this was a point of falling into a schism, whose abyss seemed like it was going to consume me. I kept this very, very private at the time, as I didn’t want to upset those who had supported me throughout the proceeding months and who had done all they could to keep me alive. It felt like utter madness, where I was split between contradictions and caught between monoliths. This wasn’t feeling depressed or sad but something like being both caged and liberated, will also climbing and falling.

I’d thought about suicide a fair bit during my mid-teens, but mostly in a distant sense. The time I considered it most was in the months immediately following treatment. Why? Well to answer that I have to start a little before this period.

As I was going to and from between radiation therapy appointments, watching people in their cars from my seat as we drove past them, I would often think about them going to work to get money to buy food and pay for everything they needed to stay alive. I would also think about them feeling exhausted from work when home, watching TV and sitting on their smart phones playing games and tweeting crap they didn’t really care about. I would think about this over and over and over again. I would think about society being made up of people distracting themselves from death and doing all they could to avoid it all day every day. The more I did the more it all appeared to be one noisy MRI machine; one giant radiation therapy machine; one catheter up everyone’s dick.

Everyone was a cancer patient and everyone was–like all those people who go to cancer hospitals, have the best care in the entire fucking world and don’t make it–going to die. This was an all-consuming thought. And really, what was the point of it all? Why had I bothered to go through all that, if it was just going to be a less intense version of that for the rest of my time alive? Why not just kill myself? I would never be anything of who I was before – I’d always have the tube in my brain and knew I’d never see the world the same again. The Buddhism I had embraced for years was feeling more and more like a lived suicide; a denial of my life through trying to lose my attachment to this body that I am and that I had just gone through so much to keep alive. I contemplated suicide, a lot. I thought of what it would be to just not exist.

All “spirituality” grew less and less beautiful, and seemed more like a technology of flesh renunciation, as I found myself increasingly within-my-body. For a short period I explored Hinduism, but the more I did I found myself trying to find meaning in this space that just didn’t resonate with me (though perhaps was the religion that best mirrored my experience). I’ve always hated arsehole “humanist” atheists, who are often more dogmatic than most religious people, and didn’t want to reject what might be beautiful in religious stuff. But I knew that that stuff was no longer for me. It all felt like part of the same life-of-death this culture was looking increasingly like to me, and I wanted to embrace as little death as possible. (Perhaps if my father had been different I’d have a different relationship with this stuff – but that would be a different me and a different world, so I can never know.)

Something un-worded, visceral, embodied and entirely animal kept me from doing anything like attempting suicide. During this time I was still playing a lot of guitar and writing songs, and I had lots of love and support from people around me, in particular from Katie. This gave life more beauty during this horrific time. I then started re-reading existentialist philosophers, in particular Camus and Nietzsche, and took creativity in the face of all the meaninglessness around me to be my pathway. And I began to find value in what had happened, knowing that I was in many ways stronger for what had happened, though forever changed.

I started at the same time my undergraduate degree in social psychology and philosophy, and putting myself out into the world as a singer-songwriter. As I explored these spaces I found myself within, delving both into my studies and my creativity as a musician, I found myself drawn towards the weird, the fleshy and the wild, in ways that I couldn’t put to words, but that fitted this sensation I had been undergoing.

After the first year post-treatment I was doing well. I’d started exercising more and the body I am was feeling more and more like me. My degree was going very well and music was bringing me lots of joy. I was beginning to find a vocabulary to articulate something of what I was aware of but could not say, not out of taboo, but because it felt beyond the words.

I read Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology and was exploring existentialist ideas on authenticity and inauthenticity, which was the closest thing yet to the feelings I had undergone and the awareness I had of myself within the world. I explored this alongside poststructuralist ideas on hyper-realism and the self as an object constructed through the technology of language. I began to explore philosophy of technology and found resonance with philosophers like Zerzan and found rekindled a visceral childlike love of what is Wild and living. And as my body grew stronger, I would walk more and more through the woods that surround me in the British countryside, listening to the birds as often as I could hear them. Aesthetically, I’ve always been drawn to music that conjured images of Wild “natural” spaces, with poetry of living-beings, and works of art that are of non-domesticated scenes and full of madness. I’d found a space that I shared energy with, and, though it was in so many ways horrifying, as I studied with increasing intensity the ecological situation and what that entails, I found myself increasingly energised and more passionate about living as furiously as possible.

One night, as I was starting on the first draft on Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods–a work that was largely me trying to put words to this sensation I had undergone–the words I had received through the studies I was engaged with at that time – I spent several hours reading articles and watching talks on “diseases of civilisation”, which includes, as you might have guessed, cancer. Weirdly enough though, this didn’t make me feel angrier about civilisation or about what I had gone through as a cancer patient, in any way that might immediately seem logical. That unworded, visceral, animal and entirely defiant energy within me was burning in a way that felt beautiful to me.

What became apparent to me was that civilisation is a cancer and that cancer’s manifest form, as a phenomenon, is technology: the technology that is keeping people alive is also killing them. Two things can happen with cancer – either it kills you, or you kill it. If I kill it, like I had done before, then I survive and keep living. If it kills me, then my body will become something else, something the cancer has no way of affecting. This was a strange but wonderful realisation to have. It was neither hopeful, or hopeless. Whatever happens, regardless of whether you have cancer or not, you and I are definitely going to die, which is ok, because we grow into new beings, still very much part of life.

It all felt absurd, but beautifully absurd. Horrific and ugly, but also something I wanted to grab at and bite into. That ineffable visceral energy, whose Wild burnings I’d felt throughout all that time going through treatment, like some skilled fish who lingers just below the surface ready to strike at insects or birds who come to close, that nameless energy, born out of the paradoxical dark-mysticism of the impossible limit-experience I had found myself within, I was starting to be able to articulate it, through the book project, through other writing projects and, though it was finding itself less in song and more in instrumentals, through music.

I was aware that I couldn’t find another living being doing what this culture does. The badgers, birds, trees and foxes weren’t living that cancer, those their lives were obviously impacted by it. And it seems to me, the more I study civilisation, that this is not a “human” phenomenon, but one specifically of this culture.

VIII.

I am still trying to find words to describe this impossible, embodied process to people who might find resonance with this experience of Being-in-the-world. I study loads and write loads, because, to a large degree, the project of my life is trying to scream at the world “YOU ARE FUCKING ALIVE” and as much of what that means, in as beautiful deconstructive, destructive and creative ways as I am able. I don’t know how successfully I am doing this, or will ever do it, but it is where my passions are drawn to.

But here is the thing – we don’t really have a cure for cancer (and I write that as a cancer survivor, who knows we can kill it). And all our bodies, like the earth we are manifest Extensions of, are infected with civilisation. Technologies might dull the pains and reduce the affect it has, for as long as we have the means to provide those technologies – like the painkillers and steroids I loved and hated in so many ways. Greater more powerful technologies might kill this cancer; but like how radiation therapy could have given me another tumour and still might well make me infertile as an on-going affect on my body, they could well lead to other, potentially worse, horrors. I don’t know to what degree the prayers and the crystals, the juices and holistic therapies, the reiki or the meditation, did anything, but I’m not arrogant enough to claim that I know they did nothing and am glad for any part in my healing they could have provided. Getting through cancer is messy – it is shit, piss, blood, tears and involves being looked at in an entirely naked sense. To survive cancer you have got to put the image you want to have of yourself aside and simply be who the fuck you are in that moment.

We all have civilisation within our being. Many(/most) of us will die from it. It is not a nice comfortable thing to acknowledge, but it is the truth I feel within my body and am as sure of that as I am sure of my own existence within Life, as this mammal who dances mad dances in the woods of Briton. If any of us are going to survive it, it will be those of us who remove our catheters as soon as possible and summon up all the strength they have within them to walk. It is difficult, it is heart breaking, but it is also wonderful, in a weird paradoxical way.

I am not writing this expecting many of you reading this to like it. I am sure lots of you will disregard me as some hypocritical “primitivist” bashing the technology his life has depended upon, through the medium of the internet that wouldn’t exist if he had his way. To those of you who feel that way, I’m not bothered by you not getting it, because I doubt I would if I had not felt the sensations I had done and if your body has nothing similar to draw from you just won’t get it. And if civilisation is what kills you too, I hope your passing is as painless as possible.

Politics has come to seem more and more to be a machine of death, that cultishly worships itself; with its varying factions being different deities within this pantheon. Though less the case than in mainstream-politics, this largely seems the case with radical-politics too, with its endless arbitrary factionalism, call-outs policing of each other and politics-as-fashion. Because I feel a visceral, animal pull of will towards life/power, rather than embracing death, for the most part, while sometimes anti-political, I have tried to keep the bulk of my projects away from politics. This is also the case for the 2 political ideologies I have been occasionally lumped in with (despite having voiced critiqued of both) – anarcho-primitivism and eco-extremism.

With this, I have tried to focus my writings, not on quietist renunciation, but on what it means to Live, while we are surrounded by this Leviathan of death, this cancer, this vile and disgusting machinery. I’d also like to put it here that I haven’t embraced anti-civilisation philosophy because I read anti-civ writers like Zerzan, Kaczynski, Quinn or Jenson – though many of their ideas and arguments resonate with my experience – but because what I as-my-body has gone through, both as feeling-what-it-is-to-be-dead and as being-an-Extension-of-the-world-that-is-dying. This is something beyond words and argument; it is the space that you find yourself in after the full stop at the end of the last sentence.

Here I am, committing that faux pas again – the great cosmological-taboo. I love the work by Camus The Myth of Sisyphus, though my writing project has been and ones currently in process, have all been reversal of his assertion – whether or not we commit suicide is a rather boring and unimportant question; whether or not we commit Life is the philosophical question that my being feels drawn to. Sure, Life might be weird and absurd and impossible and confusing, but there is an awe inspiring mystical beauty to all of that, which I find to be a desirable place to dance in. Anti-civilisation politics and philosophy is never going to be popular within “society” and is always going to offend those who don’t like and don’t find resonance with it.

I’m not trying to write something people are going to like – I’m trying to communicate something honest. We are drowning in information, thanks to the internet and TV. There is very little honesty, very little authenticity. If this is a faux pas, so be it.


Julian Langer

Writer of Feral Consciousness: Deconstruction of the Modern Myth and Return to the Woods, blogger at Eco-Revolt, and has been published on a number of other sites. Eco-anarchist and guerilla ontologist philosopher. Lover of woods, deer, badgers and other wild Beings. Musician and activist.


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Thinking About the Dead

A number of years ago I had a series of horrific nightmares, visions of faceless men in dark suits pursuing me. They wanted to kill me because I had revealed their secrets, and they warned me over and over again not to tell anyone what was happening. I didn’t listen, and worked some of the images from these nightmares into poems and stories.

Alone at night, I hear the doorknob turn,

The hinges creak- and standing in the light

Are cold and silent men. I stand in fright,

And one by one they float in through the door.

Their suits are charcoal gray, their ties are thin.

On every mouth, a Mona Lisa grin.

Their eyes could just as well be balls of glass,

Their faces stuffed and mounted. Waves of dread

Pass over me and through me. Like the dead

There’s nothing there at all- an absent space

Just papered over by a face as clean

And free of comment as a pure machine.

“We’ve found him,” says the first one

And I turn, to try to get away. The power comes

And lifts me off my feet, completely numb

From crown to sole. Cold, drunken currents flow

And hold me in a field of fearful awe.

They know the truth. I disobeyed the Law

And now the consequence has found me out.

“You should have kept your mouth shut,” says a voice,

“Or joined the Legion while you had the choice,

“But chronicling our secrets…” As I scream,

Their faces start to glow. They circle in

Like feeding sharks. But, though I may have sinned

I still remain defiant. Down below,

In Death’s primeval waters, there is lore

Of hidden things that none have known before,

And I can steal it if I slip the trap.

The horror closes in. My fingers make

A sign of power, and I bolt awake.

My wife’s asleep beside me in our bed.

The kitchen light is flickering. Outside,

The city sleeps. And I am still alive.

A new dream followed, so vivid and convincing that I might as well have been wide awake. I was summoned into the presence of a powerful man, whose presence inspired intense dread – a sorcerer and a cannibal.

“You were warned,” he told me angrily. “You were warned already and you didn’t listen. Now it’s all going to start again, and there will be nothing you can do to protect yourself or your family. Everything will be destroyed.”

In momentary panic, I begged him to tell me what I could do to avoid this fate, and he told me the issue wasn’t what I should do but what I should not. I asked him what he meant.

“Nothing that could expand or fulfill human potential,” he said. “Nothing that makes you think about the dead.”

In all mythologies I know of, there are some spirits who are friends to humanity under the right circumstances – and then there are the others. The ancient Gnostics called them Archons, false gods who seek to prevent humanity from fulfilling its potential. When an Archon doesn’t want you to think about the dead, it’s time to think about the dead.

Drowned Women and Dead Kings

In the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri Sturluson describes the Norse god Odin as a deified king, and Odin or Wotan appears in some of the royal genealogies of the Germanic-speaking peoples. According to Euhemerus, Zeus was once a king of Crete. According to The Yellow Book of Lecan, Manannan MacLir was a famous merchant, so adept as a ship captain that he was considered a god of the sea after death.

Most pagans dismiss this sort of thing as euhemerization, an after-the-fact attempt to reduce a deity to mortal status. Euhemerization is definitely over-simplified – the name Zeus derives from the name of the Indo-European sky god, so this deity is obviously more than a deified Cretan king – but there could still be more to the idea than meets the eye. For one thing, some deities are known for a fact to be deified mortals.

The Chinese war god Guan Yu is a deified general who died in the the year 220. The guardian deity Zhong Kui was a scholar who committed suicide in protest after being denied the honors he had earned in the imperial examinations. The ocean goddess Mazu was originally a woman named Lin Moniang who drowned at sea in the year 987. According to The Divine Woman by Edward R. Schafer, Chinese river goddesses were often identified with drowned women, and wind and thunder gods were equated with local heroes.

According to Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters by Avron Boretz, Chinese deities are powerful ghosts:

“(T)he visible and invisible realms are merely phases along a continuum, the realm of qi. Ghosts (gui) and gods are thus constantly interacting with the living… The beings of the invisible realm, however, are all spirits of the dead. The qi of those who die violently or prematurely lingers among the living, tainted with the residues of decay. These noxious beings, generically labeled ghosts, are the most dangerous, since they are not only poisonous but also bear malice toward the living. On the other hand, the remains and spirits of those cared for by living kin are transformed into ancestors… and ghosts who possess extraordinary power or talent can be redeemed and installed as gods…”

The three categories described by Boretz are gods, ghosts and ancestors, but all three categories are the spirits of dead people. Ancestors are dead people who lived out their full lifespan and died a natural death with appropriate  burial rites, ghosts are the angry and destructive spirits of people who died young or violently and gods are ghosts who are especially powerful and capable of benevolence.

This tendency to view all spirits as the spirits of the dead is not restricted to China. European lore contains gods, ghosts and fairy beings, but all three are at least sometimes dead people.

The Evil Dead

According to The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind by Claude Lecouteux, European revenants are created in exactly the same way as Chinese ghosts:

“Are all the dead dreadful? No, there are only certain categories that present any danger. The ranks of these are called ‘the evil dead.’ Members of this group include those who have perished in violent deaths… that is, before the day fixed by fate for death… ‘those for whom no one has wept’ (indeplorati), formed the bulk of the troop of revenants and ghosts… all those who had not received the ritual burial… were potential revenants…”

In the lore of Bretagne (the Celtic region of France), revenants were considered the ghosts of the wealthy and powerful, condemned to wander the earth because of their own wickedness in life:

“The people that need to be exorcised are almost always the rich who have obtained their wealth by wicked means, and those who have led a disorderly life. Therefore they are mostly nobles and middle class; peasants have too hard a task earning their living not to be peaceful after their death… Their souls are condemned to wander until all the wrongs they have done have somehow been put right. They are ill-tempered and wicked… and get their own back for their distress by making trouble amongst the living. They are exorcised in order to immobilize and silence them.” (Celtic Legends of the Beyond; Anatole Le Braz, trans. Derek Bryce)

The Archon-figure who warned me not to think about the dead certainly gave the impression of someone wealthy and powerful, a kingpin lounging around on a deck chair with his phone next to him while his servants ushered me into his presence. Most of the evil dead, however, are not kingpins. Some are solitary, haunting particular places or people. Some are soldiers in the service of more powerful spirits. Some ride the night sky with the Wild Hunt.

The Wild Hunt is a spectral army of ghosts and witches, hell-hounds and huntsmen, chasing the wicked or those marked for death in the coming year. The leader of the Hunt is sometimes a god (Odin in Sweden, Gwynn ap Nudd in Wales), sometimes a dead king such as Arthur or Theoderic, sometimes a pagan goddess such as Diana or a spirit woman such as Holda.

In Scottish lore, the leader of the Wild Hunt is Nicnevin, the Queen of Elphame.

Queen of Witches and Elves

Elphame is the Fairyland of lowland Scotland, and lowland Scottish fairy lore has many Norse or Saxon characteristics. The Queen of Elphame, however, has a Gaelic name – Nicnevin is pronounced exactly the same as Nic Neamhain or “Daughter of Nemain,” a Gaelic war goddess. (Skeptics have proposed alternative etymologies, but all the alternatives I’ve seen are grammatically impossible in Gaelic.) Until the 14th century, Gaelic was widely spoken even in the lowlands, and Gaelic fairy lore clearly combined with Norse and Saxon beliefs. The fairies of Scottish lore are dangerous spirits, who ride out with Nicnevin at their head during the Halloween season. The spirits of witches ride with them, shooting down humans who are doomed to die. Their weapons are Stone Age arrowheads known as Elf Shot or “strokes.”

The belief that fatal illnesses are caused by the elvish weapons of the Wild Hunt is also found in Germanic lore, where the elves are sometimes identified with the malevolent dead. According to Claude Lecouteux:

“Dwarves, alfes (Nordic elves) and the caquemars [nightmares]… who either rode humans or shot arrows at them: these were the origins of all ills… But what are dwarves and elves doing here? It should be known that these beings from common mythology… were close kin to the departed if they are not the deceased themselves… Dwarves were wicked, harm-causing dead…”

Nicnevin is a fairy queen and the daughter of a goddess, but she is also the goddess of the Scottish witches – much like Diana or Aradia, who also lead the Wild Hunt and are considered the goddesses of Italian witchcraft and of Italian fairies.

The ambiguity in this lore is confusing but instructive. Who rides with the Wild Hunt – witches, fairies or the dead? Who leads the Wild Hunt – a god or a goddess, a fairy queen, a witch queen or a dead king?

Perhaps the answer is that there are no clear boundaries between these categories.

The People of the Mounds

In Gaelic lore, the beings we refer to as fairies are called the Aos Sí or “people of the mounds,” often shortened to “the Sí.” So what are these mounds?

Not all fairy mounds have the same origins, but in many cases they are Stone Age burial mounds and passage graves. The most famous of these is the Brú na Bóinne, a funerary cult complex with elements dating back to the 35th century BC. In medieval Irish lore with pre-Christian origins, the Brú na Bóinne is the palace of the Dagda, king of the Tuatha De Danann, the Irish gods. The Brú na Bóinne is also associated with the goddess Boann and the god Oengus. These are Celtic deities, but they are said to live in a Stone Age burial mound. In Irish lore, the Danann gods are the rulers of the Aos Sí.

If the gods are the rulers of the fairies and the fairies are the spirits from the Stone Age burial mounds, then doesn’t it follow that both the gods and the fairies are the spirits of the most ancient dead? The Gaelic version of the Wild Hunt is called the Sluagh Sidhe or “Host from the Mounds,” and their weapon is again the Neolithic arrowhead.

When I’ve suggested this before in Celtic Polytheist circles I’ve met intense resistance, as if people were reluctant to acknowledge any possibility that there might be no clear distinction between gods, ghosts and fairies. One person argued to me that the Gaels had no idea that the Brú na Bóinne and similar structures were originally burial mounds, and thus would not have drawn any link between the dead and the Aos Sí. However, the Gaels were actually fully aware that fairy hills were really burial mounds. According to the Secret Commonwealth by Reverend Kirk:

“There be many places called fairy hills, which the mountain-people think impious and dangerous to peel or discover, by taking earth or wood from them; superstitiously believing the souls of their predecessors to dwell there.”

Kirk goes on to say that mounds were sometimes erected next to churchyards so that the spirits of the dead could go into them and create a new fairy mound over time. This is far from the only source equating the fairies with the spirits of the dead. According to Emma Wilby’s Visions of Isobel Gowdie:

“(I)t was widely believed that the deceased could find themselves dwelling, or trapped, in fairyland, and many cunning folk claimed that the helping spirit who guided them through fairyland and interceded with the fairies on their behalf was a spirit of the dead. Other cunning folk overtly claimed that the fairies were themselves the dead.”

Wilby goes on to identify the spirits of the Wild Hunt as “those who died an unnatural, premature or violent death” – the evil dead of European folklore, whose leader in Scotland was the fairy queen Nicnevin. Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie rode with the Wild Hunt in dreams and visions, shooting down bothersome local aristocrats with Neolithic arrowheads. The Scottish witchcraft trial records include numerous references to specific, named dead people as being seen among the dead in the fairy mounds, led by a fairy queen.

The evidence in this situation may seem confusing, but only if we try to resist the obvious conclusion – the fairies, the dead and the gods may not be exactly the same thing, but they cannot be clearly distinguished from each other either. There is considerable overlap between these three types of spirit being, and that has interesting theological implications.

Toward a Theology of Death

Returning to Chinese folk religion as described by Avron Boretz, I think we can see the same three broad categories of spirit being in both China and Europe. Some of the dead become ancestors, honored by and generally benevolent toward their descendants. (The dead who go to the House of Donn in Irish lore may represent this type.) Some of the dead are angry and potentially dangerous because they died in a traumatic way (ghosts and the spirits of the Wild Hunt, malevolent fairies, the “Unseelie Court”). Some of the dead have such powerful spirits that they become what we call gods, capable of intervening in the world in various significant ways.

But if the gods are dead people, what do we make of the claim that they are eternal beings? I don’t think there’s a contradiction here. Imagine a cosmic deity of Water – such an elemental force is almost purely archetypal, with few of the specific characteristics we would associate with a named deity. This cosmic deity of Water manifests on one particular spot on Earth as a specific river. Every river has a personality of its own – the river might be rough and wild or gentle and broad, it might have waterfalls or many turns and bends or any number of other characteristics. A society of animists worshiping this river would be able to talk about it in person-like terms. Then one day a woman accidentally drowns in the river, and the people think of her ghost as being angry at its fate – liable to drown others, a malevolent fairy. By giving her gifts and singing her songs, they soothe the fairy woman’s traumatized spirit and establish a friendly relationship with her. She merges with the personality of the river itself, with the cosmic power of elemental Water – and becomes the goddess of that river. A specific person with agency, a natural phenomenon and an eternal deity all in one.

The spirits of the natural world can be as broad and archetypal as Fire and Water, or as specific and personal as the ghost of a drowned woman. By dying in the world, we give our life to it. We people every corner of the Earth with our spirits and our memories. We become the magic.

By giving offerings to spirits and the dead we not only give love to those we honor as ancestors, but healing and reintegration to those who died in pain and trauma. We transform an angry, suffering ghost who wishes to harm the living into a friend and ally, and in some cases that being eventually becomes a deity.

How do we “expand and fulfill human potential”?

We change our lost souls into gods.


Christopher Scott Thompson

cst-authorChristopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword. Thompson lives with his family in Portland, Maine.


Christopher Scott Thompson’s new book, Pagan Anarchism, can be ordered here.

The Year Of Dark Epiphanies

Greece wasn’t really, technically, on fire. Most of it was just falling apart. This was 2011, and austerity measures had been hard at work for a few years already, gutting the economy, destroying lives, and driving half the population to xenophobia. There were a lot of anarchists in prison there, at that time. Well, always. But I was paying extra attention to it just then because I was on a ferry from Italy, heading to Greece for the first time in my life

It was a year of dark epiphanies, a year during which I wrapped my head around a lot of adult, scary bullshit. It was the year I put the words “anxiety” and “panic” to the demon that’d been plaguing my brain. It was the year I realized that actions have consequences beyond immediate and physical ones like getting arrested or injured or sick. It was the year I started to grapple with the divine, death, and family.

I spent two days and a night on the floor of the deck with the other people who don’t have the money for cabins. I watched the Mediterranean go by and tried not to terrify myself with what the Greek border guards might make of me.

“Fuck,” I said to myself, hopefully sub-vocally, “I wish I believed in God.”

To know the divine is one way to gain the strength to move past fear. It would be a lot easier to have that comfort to fall back on.

I wondered for awhile if it’s possible to wage war without faith. Faith in God is probably the common type, but I bet the hordes of godless communists and anarchists who fought fascism in the 20th century had faith of another sort.

The anarchist martyr August Spies (d. 1887) stood on the gallows and shouted: “the day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” That’s a kind of faith.

He was right, what’s more. The martyrdom of him and his four compatriots spurred a national discussion of labor issues and won a great number of people over to anarchism. His grave in Chicago is, ironically, a federally-recognized landmark.

I do have faith. I believe in anarchism—I believe that freedom is a relationship between people, not something doled out by a state or a church or something that springs forth from our wallets. I believe it’s worth fighting for that freedom, even if it scares the living shit out of me to stand up to cops and jailers and all of their ilk. I believe that these ideals, these relationships of freedom we forge in life, will survive my passing.

But on that ferry, I just wished I believed in God. It seemed a simpler way to accept mortality.

The ferry landed, and I got into the country without a hitch. I stumbled my way through a month or so of trying to be useful to the people I care about and the global movement I love. To be frank I’m not sure I had much success at either.

Tradition is a myth, a story we tell each other. 364 days and 23 hours of the year, I despise Christmas music. When I’m with the family I rarely see, at the darkest time of year with the cold about to set in, I understand it. “We’ve grown a little older, we’ve grown a little colder,” goes one chorus.

My immediate family is getting older without a younger generation taking its place, and my extended family seems to be drifting apart. We’re Catholic—culturally at least—and it’s only at Christmas that I see more than a few of my relatives. Christmas Eve has never been the same since my father’s parents died. We get together at the same house, eat the same food, sing the same songs, and it isn’t the same.

Tradition, in a conservative sense, clings to a fictitious, static way of being. Nothing stays the same in this world. The rapid pace of technological development and population growth in the modern era makes the inevitability of change readily apparent, but I believe with all my heart that the environment and the ways of life we develop to interact with that environment have always shifted from generation to generation. The conservative understanding of tradition is a violent lie we tell one another to force conformity to an illusory ideal.

At its best, tradition is a buoy in the chaotic and metaphorical sea of time. It signals the way to shore or at least gives us something to cling to so as to catch our breath. We are not beholden to tradition. It doesn’t confine us, it doesn’t trap us in the past. I’ll call this the liberatory interpretation of tradition mostly because I like the word liberatory (a word which doesn’t exist even though my friends use it all the damn time).

Since no one has ever had much luck forcing me to conform to anything, I’ve never personally been much affected by the conservative understanding of tradition. I’ve never presumed to do what my family says ought to be done. But it took me until the year of dark epiphanies to appreciate the liberatory version.

Winter holidays are the vain and beautiful attempt to drive back the sorrow of aging.

It doesn’t work, in the end, but of course in the end the dark and the cold come for us all.

The men in my family drift in that liminal space between paganism and Catholicism. One winter, one of them said to me: “the reason I like Catholicism is that it’s essentially polytheistic. We revere the saints, each a different aspect of the divine.” Well, I paraphrase him. The next year, he declared he was a pagan. He calls me on winter solstice, sometimes, to wish me a happy new year’s. It warms my heart.

Another dark year, anxiety was doing its best to destroy me. Chest pains, numbness in my limbs and jaw, headaches, and every morning I was wracked with hot and cold flashes for hours at a go. It wasn’t that I wanted to die, it was that I knew I was about to.

“You have a guardian angel,” my family told me.

My grandfather was Catholic, probably wasn’t very pagan. He designed ships for the navy, and once they were built he’d make the captain drive them into the worst storms they could find. Safety testing. He stood out on the deck and let the wind and the rain and the waves try to tear apart these ships he’d designed. According to my family, the same divine creature watches over me as watched over him.

It’s easy to poke holes in this. But when I want to be brave, sometimes I think about my granddad on one of his ships.

People are up in arms about how the word “literally” can now, according to the dictionary, be accurately used to mean “figuratively.” People think this is literally the worst thing ever. This never bothered me, personally. I actually thought it was kind of cool to have an expression of hyperbole so strong it says “this isn’t even hyperbole.”

When I think about a literal understanding of the divine, this ambiguous meaning is perfect. My granddad literally had this invisible dude (not God, a minor dude in the invisible pantheon) watching his back who kept him from drowning. When I say literally, I mean figuratively but he meant literally. But it’s the same word because it’s the same thing, in the end.

It’s a shame about what happens when people take their literal gods too literally of course, and start denying that the other people’s literal gods exist. And for all my newfound acceptance of my upbringing, I think it’s outright monstrous to tell a child that if they don’t behave they’ll be tortured for all eternity. But the evidence against every religion that’s ever held power is clearcut and well-documented, unnecessary to explore herein.

Near the end of that dark year, I developed a faith, of sorts. It’s one of the mix-mashed things that takes a reverence for the universe and throws some metaphorical (literal!) gods on top. I’m old enough now that I’m willing to accept that I’m culturally Catholic, but it would be just as honest to call myself an atheist as a pagan. If religion is a metaphor to help us make sense of the fact that we’re skeletons inhabited by colonies of microbes and stitched together with bloody meat, then I figured I could use one. I’d be a chaos magician who doesn’t believe in magic.

My fabricated faith doesn’t do shit for my anxiety. I tried for awhile. I had this mantra: “I am of the earth. I will return to the earth.” I said it to myself as panic came over me in waves, and to be real, it didn’t work. A darker epiphany still: I gave it all this thought, but religion wasn’t enough.

It’s been mostly the detached, scientific Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—and the tools it taught me—that’s gotten me through. As the worst things in my life happen, I go to self-diagnosis mode: how am I feeling, concretely? On an emotional pain scale of 1 to 10, where am I? Where do I think it would appropriate to be? How long does each wave of panic or grief take hold of my mind? How long are the intervals between?

Those are the kinds of questions that work for me. Better than invisible dudes or nature-is-god or even freedom-and-anarchy-are-all-that-matter.

But coming to know the divine, in my own way, has helped me understand the bigger picture. It’s helped me come to terms with the arc of my life, of the role I play as a strand in the woven twine of my family, my movement, and human history. I feel more connected to the earth, I feel more comfortable with the inevitability of my own death.

All light comes from darkness, after all.


Margaret Killjoy

Margaret Killjoyis an author and editor who travels with no fixed home. Margaret’s most recent book is A Country of Ghosts, a utopian novel published by Combustion Books in 2014. Find more of Margaret’s words at Birds Before The Storm.

 


This work was originally published in our first journal, A Beautiful Resistance: Everything We Already Are.

 

"Approaching Mist" by Josh Lewis

Bell Unrung

I’ve discovered a thick bell

inside of me

that elegiac poetry rings

a terribly deep booming

knell

 

It has always been there, I can tell

but I had forgotten

I think it is in all of us

a human ache, a fathomless

well

 

Being dead while alive mutes its swell

wraps the bell in fog and distance

and it must be one of the Mysteries

that you have to be alive to feel

its peal

 

that resounding shake of loss in your core

that throws all semblance to hell

 

Depression… could its fog be protection?

from all we have lost and are losing?

But a quelling that keeps us dead

In the face of death

And life

 

A society that does not realize it is in mourning

that grief is appropriate

that an elegy is going unsung

yet still death is

come

 

 

Death and Taxes: Real and Artificial Scarcities from an Eco-Psychological Perspective


“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” — Henry David Thoreau

Revolutionary road-2
“From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear.” (image credit: publicity still from the 2008 film, “Revolutionary Road”)

From the time I woke up until I went to bed, there was the fear. Sometimes I could give voice to this fear, but mostly it remained unspoken. It threaded through all of my conversation, all of my activities, all of my thoughts. The fear was with me even in my dreams.

It was the fear that there is not enough.

This fear appeared sometime in my childhood, and it has stayed with me as I moved into adulthood. It stayed with me as I graduated from college and law school and got a job. It has stayed with me even as my annual income has doubled and tripled. No matter how much I had, there was always the fear. The fear of going hungry. The fear of not being able to pay bills. The fear of not being able to pay for a doctor. The fear of not being able to pay for my kids’ college. The fear of not being able to support myself in retirement.

I would find myself, in my distracted moments, whispering, “If only I had …” or “All I need is …”.

Does this sound familiar? This fear that there is not enough, that there will never be enough?

This fear even played out in my romantic relationships, which had a desperate, grasping quality to them, my need for someone to “complete” me. It even manifested in my relationship with my God, whose love always seemed conditional, something which could be hoarded by the “righteous” and withheld from “sinners”.

The strange thing was that this fear did not lessen as my life circumstances changes, as the objective measures of my economic security increased. Nor was it lessened by the knowledge that I and those like me enjoy a level of material security unknown in other parts of the world, and undreamt of in the history of the humankind. The fear might seem to go away for a little while when I went shopping, when I bought something I didn’t need. But it always returned.

Why?

Because this fear is not based on anything real — it is manufactured.


“You can’t take it with you” — Alan Parsons Project

supermarket-empty
“This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it.”

This perpetual fear of not having enough is manufactured. It is manufactured by our economic system and those who benefit from it. An artificial scarcity is created by systemic maldistribution. This artificial scarcity creates the fear. It is fed by advertising. It is perpetuated by our public discourse, the things we say to each other, the hidden assumptions behind statements like: “Raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment.” and “Easy access to health care will create consumers with an insatiable demand for medical services.”

This fear is perpetuated by the cycle of boom and bust, economic “bubbles” followed by economic downturns, which encourages both hoarding and conspicuous consumption. It is encouraged by the government in the name of “patriotism”. The fear encourages compulsive shopping, compulsive eating, compulsive sex — all of which feeds back into the system.

There are real scarcities, of course. Real insecurities. But they are hidden, masked by the artificial scarcities and manufactured insecurities. Artificial scarcities obscure the real scarcities, the absolute scarcities. We live on a planet with finite resources and we are growing without restraint, because of an economic system premised on infinite growth, and because of a belief that unlimited offspring are inalienable right. Clean air, clear water, fertile land, trees, fossil fuels — these are real scarcities, but we consume them like they are inexhaustible. We consume resources that are truly scarce in order to stave off the fear of artificial scarcities: money, jobs, consumer goods. I can’t grow enough food to sustain my family, I can’t make my own clothes, and I can’t build a house: these are real insecurities. But they are not the insecurities that are driving me on a day-to-day basis.

So long as we’re caught up in the system, we can’t tell the difference between the real scarcities and the artificial ones. Not only do we mistake artificial scarcities for real ones, we also mistake real scarcities for artificial ones. And so, believing that the real scarcity of earth’s resources is artificial — i.e., the product of artifice — we put our faith in another kind of artifice, a technological fix that we hope will save us from rising temperatures and rising sea levels. And believing that the earth itself is the artifice of God, we put our faith in a divine savior who will rescue us and carry us away to a similarly artificial paradise. All of which leads to more overconsumption — “make hay while you can” — and more hoarding — storing up against the inevitable “end times”.


“And death shall have no dominion.” — Dylan Thomas

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“At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of ‘me’.” (image credit: “death and the maiden 1” by paperskull )

We need to root out the source of the fear that drives this cycle. Yes, artificial scarcity is created by maldistribution, but the fear of scarcity has a deeper root. Yes, advertising and our collective myths perpetuate this fear, but they just take advantage of something much more primal. Not enough money, not enough possessions, not enough love: At the root of these is the fear of death — the fear that there is not enough life, the fear that there is a limited about of “me”. All fear of scarcity derives from this fear of death.

“To Have or to Be” is how Erich Fromm framed our ontological dilemma. Because we cannot be infinite, we seek to consume infinitely. We hoard wealth as a hedge against death and squander resources as a way of denying our finitude. We strive for dominion over mother nature, not just to end suffering, but hoping thereby to attain dominion over death. But ironically this fear of death drives us to destroy the very material conditions of our lives, to murder the earth of which we are part. Or if we cannot maintain the illusion of control, then we take refuge in a state of dissociation from matter, from our bodies, from the natural world, surrounding ourselves with artificial world of non-biodegradable plastics and the never-ending stream of stimulation from our electronic screens. Here we can be immortal — for a little while at least.


“Our only but wholly adequate significance is as parts of the unimaginable whole.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

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“I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species.” (image credit: still from the 2014 movie, “Lucy”)

It should have happened on a mountaintop. Or in a redwood forest. Instead, it happened to me in a movie theater, of all places. It wasn’t even a particularly good movie. I guess we don’t get to choose the time and place of our epiphanies. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. If I had not been immersing myself in eco-Pagan discourse and practice, I might not have been primed for the experience.

The climax of the movie in question was a montage of images connecting the heroine to her ancestral primate past and to the physical universe as whole. It triggered something in me, and as I walked out of the theater, I had an intense feeling of both our infinitesimal insignificance and our inestimable consequence as a species. I felt both of radical dissociation from the everyday concerns of my life and of deep responsibility to the earth and to universe as a whole.

I didn’t realize it right away, but in the coming days and months, it dawned on me that the ever-present anxiety about my own death was not so ever-present. I’m not saying I was suddenly careless when crossing the street, or that I was unconcerned about what would happen to my kids if I died at a relatively young age. But the end of my life just did not seem to matter that much in the cosmic scheme of things. Yesterday I turned 40, which for many people is an anxiety-ridden transition, but as the day approached, I felt only an increasing lightness of being. It might be an overstatement to say I no longer fear death, but I no longer experience each moment like a stopwatch running backward. And my personal death no longer looms over me like Nemesis with her sword. Instead, I feel that one day I might actually be able embrace it, like an old lover.

I also noticed that the perpetual fear of not having enough was strangely absent. And I started to see how this sense of scarcity which had been my constant companion was an artificial creation of a sick system which actually obscures the real scarcities. Everything seemed different in this new light. I still went to work and paid my bills, but I did this with a new sense of detachment. The anxiety which had previously underlain all of my activities, all of my thoughts, had largely evaporated. There are still days when I lapse back into my old patterns of thought: “If only I had …”. But I can still call back the vision, the sense of being a part of something so vast that my fears are dwarfed by it. And then that fear of not having enough loosens its hold on me.


“For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself?” — The Gospel of Luke

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“We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself.”

This shift in consciousness which I experienced is what ecologist Arne Naess calls “Self Realization”, an experience of the shifting of the center of one’s identity from the ego-self to the “eco-self”. We realize that we are not who we thought we were. We are not our minds. Even our bodies are not our own, but are colonized by other living organisms, just as we colonize Gaia. Our skin, the boundary by which we measure where “I” end and “it” begins, is not solid after all, but is permeable, the thinnest of veils. As ecologist David Abram explains, we realize “that we are a part of something so much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves […] that our own life is entirely continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, that our breathing bodies are simply a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth”.

We realize that we are a small, but radically interconnected, part of this vast earth — which is itself a part of an even vaster cosmos — a part of the earth that has recently become conscious of itself, and as such has special responsibilities. Paul Shepard describes this change in this way:

“If nature is not a prison and earth a shoddy way-station, we must find the faith and force to affirm its metabolism as our own—or rather, our own as part of it. To do so means nothing less than a shift in our whole frame of reference and our attitude toward life itself, a wider perception of the landscape as a creative, harmonious being where relationships of things are as real as the things. Without losing our sense of a great human destiny and without intellectual surrender, we must affirm that the world is a being, a part of our own body.”

With this shift in the locus of our identity comes a new perspective on our individual lives and our place in the cosmos. Somewhere along the way, we lose that fear that was our constant companion — the fear of never having enough, and the fear of death. Writing at the end of the 19th century, socialist and nature mystic, Edward Carpenter, described a “cosmic consciousness” in archaic humankind, a sensibility which he hoped to see return in modern times:

“To the early man the notion of his having a separate individuality could only with difficulty occur; hence he troubled himself not with the suicidal questionings concerning the whence and whither which now vex the modern mind. For what causes these questions to be asked is simply the wretched feeling of isolation, actual or prospective, which man necessarily has when he contemplates himself as a separate atom in this immense universe—the gulf which lies below seemingly ready to swallow him, and the anxiety to find some mode of escape. But when he feels once more that he, that he himself, is absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly a part of this great whole—why then there is no gulf into which he can possibly fall.”

With this cosmic consciousness, comes a new perspective on everything. We can see artificial scarcities for what they are and can distinguish them from real scarcities. And we come to see that what matters most is not economic security or personal immortality, but the survival of the human race and of all of life. And so, in loosing ourselves, we gain the whole world.


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