There is a feeling of strangeness that has come over the world. We have a sense, scarcely articulated, that something is coming. And that the world we have become familiar over hundreds of years of capitalism and industrialism, has suddenly become surreal and bizarre. We suddenly become aware of the shadow that walks alongside us.
From Ramon Elani
“Wild, dark times are rumbling toward us, and the prophet who wishes to write a new apocalypse will have to invent entirely new beasts, and beasts so terrible that the ancient animal symbols of St. John will seem like cooing doves and cupids in comparison.”—Heinrich Heine
“The dream is a hidden door to the innermost recesses of the soul, opening into that cosmic night…All consciousness separates, but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of the eternal night. There he is still whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood.”—C.G. Jung
The human world drifts closer to the abyss. We may still linger in the shallows. The water maybe only knee-high. Gentle fish play about our ankles and tickle our toes. But a deep blue void beyond our comprehension awaits. Are we seeing the future or the past? Cities swallowed by rains. Water rising. Skyscrapers shrouded with seaweed. Highways and shopping centers encased by mountains of sediment and algae.
Modern, capitalist, industrial consciousness is unprepared to make sense of what it sees. And what it now knows is coming. The myth of the future has long since eroded and collapsed, sending up a cloud of dust to block out the sun. Progress. Technology. Human perfection. Four hundred years of dreams. Dreams of shimmering tomorrows extending like a neon caterpillar into the heart of eternity. All blown away in a hurricane from paradise.
In 1962 J.G. Ballard wrote The Drowned World, his first novel. In this maddeningly prophetic vision, Ballard imagines the world of the 21st century, devastated by climate change. As the concept of manmade global warming was still essentially unthought of at the time, the cause of Ballard’s apocalypse is a series of powerful solar flares that weaken the atmosphere and initiate a process of irrevocable heating. Confined to the polar regions, civilization is only barely able to survive and humanity knows that will not last much longer. A strange mix of scientists, mystics, and eccentric adventurers travel south to the remains of Europe, which has reverted to a prehistoric swamp, inhabited by the massive reptiles that are gradually reclaiming the ruined earth. The human population has dropped to no more than five million and babies are no longer being born, a result, perhaps, of the massive amounts of solar radiation that pours unfiltered into the earth’s atmosphere. There is no human future and the planet rushes unstoppably back toward its own primordial dawn.
We too now stand at the threshold of a primeval, mythic age. The sorts of cataclysms that are foretold by every culture’s oldest stories are now commonplace and we know that greater ones are not far off. It is time to acknowledge the nature, the character of our present moment. What form of temporal consciousness can account for the increasingly likely possibility of human annihilation? For those who inhabit Ballard’s Drowned World, the only response to an undeniable geological reality is a descent into the ominous lagoons of the prehistoric, prehuman psyche that persists residually in the shadowy subconscious. As the conditions of Ballard’s world becomes more similar to that of the Triassic age, so too does the psychological and spiritual condition of his characters revert to prehistoric forms. The world dissipates into an archaic dreamscape.
“Everywhere in nature one sees evidence of innate releasing mechanisms literally millions of years old, which have lain dormant through thousands of generations but retained their power undiminished… We all carry within us a submerged memory of the time when the giant spiders were lethal, and when the reptiles were the planet’s dominant life form.”
What other mysterious shapes lie beneath the dark waters of conscious thought? As Houston, Mumbai, and Miami are drowning, we must ask ourselves: how do we face this world of catastrophe? The oceanic mother is drawing us back to herself. We are being pulled back to the water. Back to the womb.
“If we let these buried phantoms master us as they re-appear we’ll be swept back helplessly in the flood-tide like pieces of flotsam.”
There are powers awakening in the world that we have long forgotten and if we do not heed them, we will vanish from the face of the earth. Techno-industrial society has taught us to deny those powers. To deny that they ever existed. Climate change has shattered that vicious lie. Who can watch the waters rising, the deserts spreading, the sun burning through the sky without feeling terror grip the heart. Climate change has reminded us how small we are and how weak we stand before the might of the gods. We stand now with two choices before us: collective suicide or the descent into what we have forgotten. The descent into the deep, into the world that we foolishly believe dwells only in our dreams. No, it is a world that pulses in our blood. Memory. The terror we feel when we see the storms approaching reminds us of the mythic age we once inhabited.
Amitav Ghosh begins his new book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by reflecting on the history of his people in what is now Bangladesh. Ancestral memories of flooding rivers, displacement, wandering, refugees. Ghosh writes “I remember the elemental force that untethered my ancestors from their homeland… When I look into my past the river seems to meet my eyes, staring back, as if to ask, Do you recognize me, wherever you are?” The folly of bourgeois, capitalist, industrial society is to deny agency to the non-human world. What is non-human is only relevant apropos its use to humans. Thus climate change presents a paradox so inconceivable to the techno-industrial mind that it has become utterly paralyzed. Nobody knows how to respond. What does it mean that the earth has risen up against us? This earth that we have, over the last 300 years, become accustomed to seeing as nothing more than a resource to be exploited or a backdrop for our human dramas. We have forgotten the gods but that does not mean they cease to exist.
The techno-industrial world is not capable of understanding what it has unleashed. Thus it will drift away in the flood of history. We are only confused in our response because we have accepted the terms of our education in modernity. We are only confused because we have been taught to see humanity as the center of the universe. We have been taught that humanity is exceptional. That the rules don’t apply to us. That we are irreducibly other than the world. That we are above the world and its powers. In short, the legacy of the enlightenment has taught us to believe that we can become gods. Climate change has shattered this delusion. Humanity will utterly perish if it does not abandon this foolishness. And if we readjust our eyes to see without the distortion of the past 300 years, we will see that everything is clear. As Ghosh writes, “comprehension need play no part in a moment of recognition. The most important element of the word recognition thus lies in its first syllable, which harks back to something prior, an already existing awareness that makes possible the passage from ignorance to knowledge.” In other words, comprehension is a tool of the capitalist, the engineer, the scientist, the modern. Comprehension is an idea engendered by a conception of the world that is measurable, knowable, finite and a conception of humanity that is limitless. Comprehension is an idea of control, of domination. To comprehend is to name, to bind. It is an idea that will strangle and suck the life out of the world and ourselves.
Recognition is the language of the seer, the wild deer in the misty glen, the bloody raven on the alder tree, the bear dreaming in a mossy cave. Recognition has always been with us. It is the way of our first ancestors and our last descendants. To know what you always knew. To be accepted and to accept. I will not seek to control you. I merely see you and I know what you are. There is an ease and a quietness to recognition, though it can bring earthquakes and break the sky. Ghosh reminds us, “[recognition] cannot disclose itself except in the presence of its lost other…it arises from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.” Recognition is a return. It is to find what has been lost, and to understand that it has been within us the whole time. We stand upon the barren mountaintop, upon the cliffs before the pounding waves, amid the lifeless suffocating sands. We see the ruin and devastation coming toward us. The coming storms are inescapable. They cannot be reasoned with. We cannot throw money at them. We cannot bomb them into oblivion. We cannot think our way out of this. We have reached the edge of what techno-industrial, capitalist society can accomplish. There is nothing left for us now than to sit with our horror; to dive into the depths, to welcome the rushing dark waters, and to seek what we have forgotten beneath the waves.
Thus climate change brings us back to ourselves and the world. It reminds us what we have known throughout our time on this earth: that we are surrounded by forces and powers and energies that are utterly beyond us, that we can never hope to dominate them, that every moment of our lives are conditioned and made possible by them, that we are nothing more than fruit flies to them, that we can never understand their workings or the extent of their might. We know in some vague way that we function through them. We know that there is a relationship between us. There are terms and agreements. There are consequences for promises and covenants broken.
It is not so long ago that all humanity held covenant with the spirits of the earth. Floods, famines, draughts, storms were seen as the actions of the gods. There was a cultural and psychological context for such events. When the gods were angry they punished humanity. The end of the world was a story all people told. And that story was always followed by rebirth. In other words, these stories helped humanity understand its place in the cosmos. Small, helpless, fragile. As subject to the greater powers as the smallest creature that runs and scurries. But also connected to the cycle of destruction and rebirth. To be subject to the terrifying forces of the universe is also to be bound to all of creation. What agonies do we suffer now from our insistence of separation from the world? How easy it has been for us to delude ourselves thus. For hundreds of years and increasingly, humanity has built its world to be apart from the greater world. To encase ourselves in steel, to escape into a virtual world, to preserve ourselves in the tower. All to be immune from the violence and terror of the gods. We sadly believe this to be our goal. But the flood that comes upon us now will bare us naked. A new time is coming. As Ghosh puts it: “we have entered a time when the wild has become the norm.” It is implied of course, that for almost all of our history, the wild was the norm. It was never not the norm. We just pretended for a bit.
Thus, let us bravely declare our return to the age of myths! To the timeless! To the dreaming! We know the monsters that lurk in the heart of the storms. We fought them before. We knew them to be greater than ourselves and when they came, we lost many souls. Yet we stand before them proudly, defiantly, because we know that we are part of this world just as they are. We are made of the same stuff and we return to the same source. We have the same mother. “Every man and every woman is a star.”
Modernity has strangled itself. When time became conscious of itself, the gods and their powers fled from the time-demon that we conjured. Jung: “As you know, in olden times the ancestral souls lived in pots in the kitchen. Lares and penates are important psychological personages who should not be frightened away by too much modernity.” We have driven the world away from us. This demon helped us reimagine the world as tame, safe, abundant, slow, and weak. Things may change, the modern voices mutter, but they change slowly. Never fear, never fear. These are the voices of ghastly withered things. They do not see how their bodies have crumbled beneath the tedium and banality of bourgeois consciousness. And with their bodies, the body of the earth. Modernity has tried to tell us, for three hundred years, that nature could be controlled, that humanity could be perfected, that the myths of Ragnarok and revelations were mere fables, not to be believed. All swept away by the storm.
For thousands of years we have known that tigers are demons, to be feared and appeased. Villages must be built far away from the realms of the tigers and their forests and mangroves are not to be disturbed. We have known that trees have spirits. We have known that the ocean is dark and that its wrath is terrifying. Thus villages and houses would never have been built by the beach. As Ghosh points out, now it is considered a great mark of wealth and status to have a beachfront property. The gods care nothing for our wealth and status and these houses will be swept away to be driftwood and seaglass. The catastrophes that are coming and are here, for all the anguish they cause and loss of life, bring us back. Bring us to remembrance. Bring us to recognition.
There is a feeling of strangeness that has come over the world. We have a sense, scarcely articulated, that something is coming. And that the world we have become familiar over hundreds of years of capitalism and industrialism, has suddenly become surreal and bizarre. We suddenly become aware of the shadow that walks alongside us. Ghosh aptly brings to mind the concept of the uncanny. Climate change is nothing if not uncanny. We cannot think it. It is beyond us. But what is the nature of this quality? Climate change is uncanny because “we recognize something we had turned away from: that is to say, the presence and proximity of nonhuman interlocutors.” Mythic time animates a world filled with voices. Stones, trees, clouds, ferns have always sought to speak with us. We have long since ceased to listen or respond. As the hurricanes come down upon us now, all that is left is to beg them to spare us from their wrath.
Ghosh suggests that climate change forces us to remember that “humans were never alone, that we have always been surrounded by beings of all sorts who share elements of that which we had thought to be the most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought, and consciousness.” There was a time when this idea would not have seemed strange. Indeed, there was a time when this idea would have been universally accepted by every man, woman, and child on earth. Modernity posits a lonely world, emptied of life and vitality. Humanity sits alone in the tower. But now the tower is crumbling.
In the mythic time it was understood that as the wild world around was throbbing with consciousness, that consciousness could also interpenetrate our own. There was communication between humanity, animals, plants, stones, and trees: “there are entities in the world, like forests, that are fully capable of inserting themselves into our processes of thought.” In other words, the horizon of human thought is defined by the forces and spirits of the earth. Perhaps humanity is nothing more than a thought or a dream of the earth. Climate change has made it clear to us that the nonhuman world is influenced by human action, despite the fact that its power is unimaginably more vast and profound. The mythic consciousness understands this relationship intimately. Offerings and sacrifices were made to honor and acknowledge this relationship. Demons, monsters, and catastrophes are sent by the gods to punish or teach us. It is a response to our actions. The horrors of climate change “are the mysterious work of our own hands returning to haunt us in unthinkable shapes and forms.” Jung was of the same mind. Observing the mechanized reality of 20th century America, he pleaded that something must be done to “compensate the earth.” We turn away from the world we have wrought because it is too horrible to believe. There is no penance or sacrifice great enough to atone for what we have done.
And worst of all, we have no excuse. As Ghosh points out “it is not as if we had been warned… An awareness of the precariousness of human existence is to be found in every culture: it is reflected in biblical and Quranic images of the apocalypse, in the figuring of Fimbulwinter in Norse mythology, in tales of pralaya in Sanskrit literature, and so on.” Every culture on earth has spoken of the end times. The time when the gods would bring the full force of the earth against the human race. The mythic world gives us a way to understand this notion of time. It teaches us that the end of this world is not forever. Indeed, it teaches us that there is no real end, only new beginnings. But make no mistake, a new beginning can only occur by obliterating every trace of the old world in a violent conflagration so massive that the cosmos themselves will shake. The coming dawn of the new world does not make the darkness, terror, and blood of ragnarok any less. The mythic consciousness understands that we cannot have rebirth without death. That violence is the shadow side of creation. Horror and love. Power and frailty. Modern consciousness insists on splitting everything up into discrete boxes. The box has been shattered now and we can no longer turn away from the shadows. Linnaeus wrote, “Surely Descartes never saw an ape.” Jung articulated the same position: “He [man] can only state with certainty that he is no monkey, no bird, no fish, and no tree. But what he positively is, remains obscure.” Modernity teaches us that we can make easy distinctions. The wild world resists this with a strength cannot be denied.
Modernity teaches us that time travels as an arrow. The future rushes irresistibly towards us. The forms of consciousness of the past are rendered invalid by being part of the past. Modernity teaches us that everything evolved from a less developed form. Climate change has changed it all. Modernity has now revealed itself to be a hollow fiction. We rush blindly into the past. The doors of the spirit world swing open. The world of myths, the world of dreams await us. We have no other way to understand the world around us and this world will destroy us.
Let us end here with Jung. If the way through the horrors that are coming lies in the deep twilight of our mythic past, there can be no better guide. For Jung, everything we are as modern creatures rests upon an immeasurably vast primordial foundation. Millions of years of memories swim in the darkness of this buried swamp. Having put aside the world of omens, magic, and superstition we have denied the knowledge contained in these memories. And by keeping them shut away from the light, we mutate them into grotesque, murderous things and will creep out of the muck and slime in the depth of night and strangle us. The animal in us, the mythic consciousness, the power of instinct, the ability to hear the rustling voices of the trees, these things cannot be extinguished. They can only be forgotten or remembered. And the recognition that Ghosh writes about is the method by which these powers are restored to us. Climate change stabs our heart with such profound terror that ancient whispers within us cry out. They remember cataclysms of the past. They remember stories of the end of the world.
There is only one path now. For that I suppose we must be grateful to modernity. A thousand more years of this world would have wrought unspeakable horrors upon the human soul and the spirit of the earth. We know now, or will shortly know, that techno-industrial society is a fraud. We must abandon the pursuit of knowledge and control. Jung wrote “knowledge does not enrich us; it removes us more and more from the mythic world in which we were once at home by right of birth.” For all the technical prowess of modernity, climate change was the result. And we cannot tinker our way out of it. But to be separated from the mythic consciousness only by a distance of time is no separation at all. For we no longer assert the linear movement of history. We stand at its edge and find ourselves back to its beginning.
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England
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