HELPLESSNESS

Our fear of helplessness, the perception of the cosmos and even ourselves as nonliving, and the threat of a meaningless and disordered world are all familiar complaints of the alienated modern man and, as I have suggested, are all associated with characteristic phases of psychological development. Insofar as they comprise or express our sense of a menacing disintegration, they serve a neurotic quest for control. From the self-abnegation and bodily humiliation of Christian flagellants, to the pious compulsions of fanatic cleanliness and sanitation, and finally the yearning for power over physical nature made possible by industrialized technology, we are engaged in a desperate flight from inchoate diversity and our own feelings of anonymity and fragmentation. Today we seek to fabricate a world in which we hope to heal our stunted identities and rear children in a hopeful and meaningful setting. But our rural/urban landscapes, generated by an ideology of mastery, define by subordination, not analogy. The archetypal role of nature—the mineral, plant, and animal world found most complete in wilderness—is in the development of the individual human personality, for it embodies the poetic expression of ways of being and relating to others. Urban civilization creates the illusion of a shortcut to individual maturity by attempting to omit the eight to ten years of immersion in nonhuman nature. Maturity so achieved is spurious because the individual, though he may become precociously articulate and sensitive to subtle human interplay, is without a grounding in the given structure that is nature. His grief and sense of loss seem to him to be a personality problem, so that, caught in a double bind, he will be encouraged to talk out his sense of inadequacy as though it were an interpersonal or ideological matter. Indeed, the real brittleness of modern social relationships has its roots in that vacuum where a beautiful and awesome otherness should have been encountered. The multifold otherness-with-similarities of nonhuman nature is a training ground for that delicate equilibrium between the play of likeness and difference in all social intercourse and for affirmation instead of fear of the ambiguities and liveliness of the self.

Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness.

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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF BELONGINGS

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Perhaps there was no more dramatic change in the transition from hunting-gathering to farming than in the kind and number of possessions. Among archaic people who use no beasts of burden, true possessions are few and small. What objects are owned are divided between those privately held and those in which there is a joint interest. Among the latter, such as religious objects or the carcass of a game animal, the individual shares obligations as well as benefits, but in neither case does he accumulate or seem to feel impoverished. The wariness of gifts and the lack of accumulation found in these people are not due to nomadism, for the desire would still be evident. Nor can these characteristics be explained away as a culturally conditioned materialism, as that would beg the question.

This absence of wanting belongings seems more likely to be part of a psychological dimension of human life and its modification in civilization. “Belongings” is an interesting word, referring to membership and therefore to parts of a whole. If that whole is Me, then perhaps the acquisition of mostly man-made objects can contribute in some way to my identity—a way that may compensate for some earlier means lost when people became sedentary and their world mostly man-made landscapes. Or, if objects fail to fully suffice, we want more and more, as we crave more of a pain-killing drug. In short, what is it about the domesticated civilized world that alters the concept of self so that it is enhanced by property?

My self is to some extent made by me, at least insofar as I seem to gain control over it. A wilderness environment is, on the contrary, mostly given. For the hunter-forager, this Me in a non-Me world is the most penetrating and powerful realization in life. The mature person in such a culture is not concerned with blunting that dreadful reality but with establishing lines of connectedness or relationship. Formal culture is shaped by the elaboration of covenants and negotiations with the Other. The separation makes impossible a fuzzy confusion; there is no vague “identity with nature,” but rather a lifelong task of formulating—and internalizing—treaties of affiliation. The forms and terms of that relationship become part of a secondary level of my identity, the background or gestalt. This refining of what-I-am-not is a developmental matter, and the human life cycle conforms to stages in its progress.

Now consider the process in a world in which that Other has mostly disappeared. Food, tools, animals, structures, whole landscapes are man-made; even to me personally they seem more made than given and serve as extensions of that part of the self which I determine. My infantile ego glories in this great consuming I-am. Everything in sight belongs to me in the same sense as my members: legs, arms, hands, and so on. The buildings, streets, and cultivated fields are all continuous with my voluntary nervous system, my tamed, controlled self.

In the ideology of farming, wild things are enemies of the tame; the wild Other is not the context but the opponent of “my” domain. Impulses, fears, and dreams—the realm of the unconscious—no longer are represented by the community of wild things with which I can work out a meaningful relationship. The unconscious is driven deeper and away with the wilderness. New definitions of the self by trade and political subordination in part replace the metaphoric reciprocity between natural and cultural in the totemic life of the hunterforagers. But the new system defines by exclusion. What had been a complementary entity embracing friendly and dangerous parts in a unified cosmos now takes on the colors of hostility and fragmentation. Even where the great earth religions of high agriculture tend to mend this rupture in the mythology of the symbolic mother, its stunting of the identity process remains.

Although he formulated the cognitive distinctions between totemic culture, with its analogy of a system of differences in nonhuman nature as a paradigm for the organization of culture, and caste or agriculture, which find models for human relationships in the types of things made, Levi-Strauss avoided the psychological developmental implications with admirable caution. But it is clear from the developmental scheme of Erikson that fine mastery of the neuromuscular system, self-discipline of the body, the emergence of skills, and awakening to tools are late-juvenile and early-adolescent concerns. In farming, the land itself becomes a tool, an instrument of production, a possession that is at once the object and implement of vocation as well as a definer of the self.

As farming shifts from subsistence to monoculture, village specialists who do not themselves cultivate the soil appear. Their roles are psychologically and mythically reintegrated into society as a whole. Smith, potter, clerk, and priest become constituents of the new reality. That reality is for them all like the pot to the potter:

(1) the wild world has reduced significance in his own conscious identity and may therefore be perceived (along with some part of himself) as chaotic; (2) he himself, like his pot, is a static made object, and, by inference, so is the rest of society and the world; (3) there is a central core of nonlivingness in himself; (4) the ultimate refinements in his unique self are to be achieved by acts of will or creativity; (5) daily labor —routine, repetitive motions for long hours at a time—is at the heart of his being; (6) his relationship to others is based on an exchange of possessions, and the accumulation of them is a measure of his personal achievement; and (7) the nonhuman world is primarily a source of substance to be shaped or made by man, as it was mythically by God.

These are but fragments of the world of the artisan. Gradations exist between that world and totemic cultures. The transition took many centuries before man’s concept of the wilderness was indeed defined by the first synonym in Roget’s Thesaurus: “disorder.” In the earliest farming societies perhaps there were only nuances of the psychology of domestication. The individual would not see himself as a possession or conceive of being possessed by others until tribal villages coalesced into chiefdoms and he was conscripted or enslaved or his labor sold as a commodity, events that may have been as much an outcome as a cause of the new consciousness. That was many generations in the future as the first harvesters of wild wheat began to save some grains to plant. Yet we see them headed, however tentatively, toward the view of the planet as a thing rather than a thou, a product instead of an organism, to be possessed rather than encountered as a presence.

This attitude connects with the psychological position of early infancy, when differentiation between the living and the nonliving is still unclear. The badly nurtured infant may become imprinted with the hardness of its cradle or bottle so irreversibly that it cannot, even as an adult, form fully caring human relationships. But that is the extreme case. The earliest farmers were inclined to represent the landscape as a living being, even, at first, to conceive life in made things. But as those things became commodities and infancy was reshaped accordingly, the cosmos would become increasingly ambiguous. Attempts to resolve this conflict between the “itness” and the numen of things—both in the landscape and its reciprocal, the inner self—are a major goal of the religious and cultural activity of civilization.

Paul Shepard, Nature and Madness.

LIBER SCRIPTUS PROFERETUR

VV: What have you learned from science?

EC: Only one thing: that one ought to wash one’s hands before touching nature.

VV: You want to imply that most scientists don’t deserve science?

EC: Yes. But they have made science into something that they deserve.

VV: What is the remedy?

EC: There is no remedy.

VV: At the place where you are now it is not for you to blow the trumpet of the Apocalypsis. Another tuba will spread its miraculous sound. I repeat my question.

EC: The first step would have to be to make science small again and to disengage it from technology and from the pursuit of power.

VV: How would you do this?

EC: I don’t think it can be done according to a blueprint, and it will not take place without a series of catastrophes of a dimension that would make mankind stop and look. Our kind of science has become a disease of the Western mind. We were taught that by digging deeper and deeper we should reach the center of our world. But all we find is rock and fire. So we take the stone as our heart and the flame as our hope.

VV: Is that all that has been found?

EC: We have been lured into a search for the ever-diminishing dimensions. Each new decimal opens a new grotto of delights. Drowning in precision, drunk with controls of controls, we lose ourselves in the quick and dead sands of eternity. It will be too late when we finally become aware of our error. The center of our world is not where we have been looking for it.

Erwin Chargaff, Liber Scriptus Proferetur (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

THE SILENCE OF THE HEAVENS

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I CAME TO BIOCHEMISTRY through chemistry; I came to chemistry, partly by the labyrinthine routes that I have related, and partly through the youthfully romantic notion that the natural sciences had something to do with nature. What I liked about chemistry was its clarity surrounded by darkness; what attracted me, slowly and hesitatingly, to biology was its darkness surrounded by the brightness of the givenness of nature, the holiness of life. And so I have always oscillated between the brightness of reality and the darkness of the unknowable. When Pascal speaks of God in hiding, Deus absconditus, we hear not only the profound existential thinker, but also the great searcher for the reality of the world. I consider this unquenchable resonance as the greatest gift that can be bestowed on a naturalist.

When I look back on my early way in science, on the problems I studied, on the papers I published-and even more, perhaps, on those things that never got into print- I notice a freedom of movement, a lack of guild-imposed narrowness, whose existence in my youth I myself, as I write this, had almost forgotten. The world of science was open before us to a degree that has become inconceivable now, when pages and pages of application papers must justify the plan of investigating, “in depth,” the thirty-fifth foot of the centipede; and one is judged by a jury of one’s peers who are all centipedists or molecular podiatrists. I would say that most of the great scientists of the past could not have arisen, that, in fact, most sciences could not have been founded, if the present utility-drunk and goaldirected
attitude had prevailed.

It is clear that to meditate on the whole of nature, or even on the whole of living nature, is not a road that the natural sciences could long have traveled. This is the way of the poet, the philosopher, the seer. A division of labor had to take place. But the overfragmentation of the vision of nature- or actually its complete disappearance among the majority of scientists-has created a Humpty-Dumpty world that must become increasingly unmanageable as more and tinier pieces are broken off, “for closer inspection,” from the continuum of nature. The consequence of the excessive specialization, which often brings us news that nobody cares to hear, has been that in revisiting a field with which one had been very familiar, say, ten or twenty years earlier, one feels like an intruder in one’s own bathroom, with twenty-four grim experts sharing the tub.

Profounder men than I have failed to diagnose, let alone cure, the disease that has infected us all, and I should say that the ostensible goals have obliterated the real origins of our search. Without a firm center we flounder. The wonderful, inconceivably intricate tapestry is being taken apart strand by strand; each thread is being pulled out, torn up, and analyzed; and at the end even the memory of the design is lost and can no longer be recalled. What has become of an enterprise that started as an exploration of the gesta Dei per naturam?

To follow the acts of God by way of nature is itself an act that can never be completed. Kepler knew this and so did many others, but it is now being forgotten. In general, it is hoped that our road will lead to understanding; mostly it leads only to explanations. The difference between these two terms is also being forgotten: a sleight of hand that I have considered in a recent essay, Einstein is somewhere quoted as having said: “The ununderstandable about nature is that it is understandable.” I think he should have said: “that it is explainable.” These are two very different things, for we understand very little about nature. Even the most exact of our exact sciences float above axiomatic abysses that cannot be explored. It is true, when one’s reason runs a fever, one believes, as in a dream, that this understanding can be grasped; but when one wakes up and the fever is gone, all one is left with are litanies of shallowness.

In our time, so-called laws of nature are being fabricated on the assembly line. But how often is the regularity of these “laws of nature” only the reflection of the regularity of the method employed in their formulation! Lately, many tricks have been discovered about nature; but these tricks seem to have been specially produced by nature for the imbeciles to find out; and there is no Maimonides to guide them out of their confusion. In other words, science is still faced with the age-old predicament, the lack of ultimate verification. It is written in the Analects of Confucius (XII, 19): “The Master said, Heaven does not speak.”

Erwin Chargaff, The Silence of the Heavens (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

THE FOREST AND ITS TREES

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Language, that most mysterious gift of humanity, is usually singled out as the one faculty that distinguishes man from animal. I could think of other less flattering differences; but at any rate it is true that language separates man from man, that it is the most faithful mirror of growth and decline. For instance, it has often occurred to me that as inconspicuous an event as the disappearance from English usage of the nominative pronoun of the second person singular, i.e., of “thou,” may have represented a greater upheaval for those concerned than many more famous revolutions. God, lovers, and letter-carriers are addressed in the same manner; the majesty of intimacy has given place to a polite remoteness; the indispensable ritual of changing from vous to tu has become the victim of a grammatical egalitarianism that has corroded the poetic core of the language.

Its lyrical labyrinths have been filled up and made useful for all purposes. After this happened, only the greatest of poets have been able to break through the utility barriers of a tired vocabulary.

There must, of course, have been reasons why this happened, but I am not eager to give, or ask for, an explanation. My long life in the midst of the explanatory sciences has made me tired of explanations. They are, except in the most trivial instances, a placebo for our reason, dulling us to the mysteries surrounding us, without which we could not live. Great as is my admiration for the modern concept of “biological information,” I do not, for instance, believe that it is some form of genetic change-the loss of a few purines from English DNA-that has caused the disappearance of the invaluable pronoun.

For this reason, and for many others, I look with great diffidence on the struggles between the various schools of modern linguistics: between what one could call molecular or Cartesian linguistics on the one hand and behaviorist linguistics on the other. Those who assume that the ability to form syntactic structures is born with us are probably correct. Does this mean that there are certain regions in our DNA that “program” us for the ability or, better, for the compulsion? I doubt it. Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable. It is likely that we could learn more about the initiation of language from following the creation of a lyrical poem than from studying sentence structures. If the abrupt throwing of bridges above the dark abyss of the onset of human life, if the explosive formation of associations, in which sense and sound become undistinguishahle, make the great poet or the great wit, then the young child is probably both.

Although I have often said that, were I given a second life of learning, I should take up the study of language, I must say that I have always learned more about language from great writers than from textbooks. Unfortunately, few poets have spoken about words, since they very rightly did not consider them as tools. But there exist a few passages of great interest.

It is not accidental that in following the numerous hypotheses on the origin of language, which have been put forward in the last 200 years or so, one is constantly reminded of the more recent, and equally fruitless, discussions on the origin of life. The substitution of the experimentally provable “could-havebeen” for the experimentally inaccessible “has-been” is an old trick of pseudo-scientific prestidigitation that usually ends in calling “life” what is not life and “language” what is not language.

The attempt to define the undefinable, to achieve a retrogression into the origin of origins, will always end in the banal recognition that the experimental sciences are not historical ones and that they are even less philosophical than is presentday philosophy. Goethe, so often maligned by idiots in his capacity of thinker about nature, has said it once for all. It is the highest bliss for the thinking man to have explored what can be explored and quietly to worship what cannot. Even in this simple instance, there appears the predicament of the translator-traitor. All languages are equally rich, but not in convertible currency.

In the evening and at night, my friend Albert Fuchs and I often walked through the beautiful streets of Vienna, and we talked endlessly about writing: what made a text genuine, what caused a poem to be good. We distinguished between Aussage (statement) and Ausdruck (expression), and we concluded that only the genius could “express,” whereas any talent could “state.” Something of this distinction has remained with me, and I would still say that only what is “stated” can be translated, but not what is “expressed.” That is why Thomas Mann is eminently translatable and Stifter or Rimbaud are not.

There exist mysterious links between language and the human brain; and the heartless and brutal way in which language is used in our times, as if it were only a power tool in public relations, a shortcut from sly producer to gullible consumer, has always seemed to me the most threatening portent of incipient bestialization. It is frightening to observe that a progressive aphasia, not organically determined, appears to overtake large numbers of people who seem to be unable to express themselves except by hoarse barks and (undeleted) expletives.

Erwin Chargaff, The Forest and its Trees (from Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life before Nature).

BEING ECOLOGICAL

Being Ecological

Don’t care about ecology? You might think you don’t, but you might all the same. Don’t read ecology books? This book is for you.

It’s understandable: ecology books can be confusing information dumps that are out of date by the time they drop on you. Slapping you upside the head to make you feel bad. Shaking your lapels while yelling disturbing facts. Handwringing in agony about ‘What are we going to do?’ Horseshoe‑in‑a‑boxing-​glove propaganda. This book has none of that. Being Ecological doesn’t preach to the eco-choir. It’s for you: maybe you’re in the choir but only sometimes, or maybe you have no idea what choirs are, or maybe you don’t care at all. Rest assured this book is not going to preach at you. It also contains no ecological facts, no shocking revelations about our world, no ethical or political advice, and no grand tour of ecological thinking. This is a pretty useless ecology book, in fact. But why write something so ‘useless’ in such urgent times? Have I never heard of global warming? Why are you even reading this? Well, the truth is you might already be ecological, you just didn’t know it.

Continue reading “BEING ECOLOGICAL”