A human being is part of the whole, which we calll the ‘Universe’: a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its astonishing beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation, and the foundation for inner peace.”
~ Albert Einstein
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. This may sound easy, but it isn’t. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself. To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets. If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
~ e.e. cummings
Comparing the world to a prison or a hospital in which we are all inmates or patients is hardly original. Patrick McGoohan did the former, and TS Eliot did the latter. They are clever, moving allegories, but not terribly useful. The mysterious enemy of The Prisoner turns out to be his own ego. But our modern global imprisonment is subtler: It is our culture that has imprisoned us, a culture evolved in the belief that this is what’s best for the survival and continued expansion of the species.
It has done this, I would argue, by colonizing our minds, through language, by making us dependent on centralized systems for everything, and by threats of arrest, deprivation, violence, social and physical isolation, misery, suffering and death if we don’t do what our society deems appropriate.
Without this massively complicated, violent, inhibiting culture to keep us all in line, and the supporting technologies that have desolated this planet and contributed to the pervasive violence and stress of our culture, Earth could probably only support 1-2% of the current human population. Without the technologies of weaponry and catastrophic agriculture, we are ill-suited to live in more than a tiny percentage of the planet’s biomes. These fierce technologies have also come in handy in homogenizing our culture and, as cummings puts it, making us “everybody else”.
Language has helped enormously in our oppression, through propaganda fed to us by all of our culture’s media and systems, and by our own well-meaning families and peers, dosed out as if it were medicine. If the culture can control what we think and feel, it can control what we do. The enemy, as we shouted from the rooftops and the barricades in the 1960s, is not “the Man” or the elite or the government or the corpocracy, but rather “society” as a whole, these systems of control and coercion that make us “everybody else”. It is our culture, trying to grow our numbers endlessly by diminishing each of us, fitting more of us in. The enemy is all of us and none of us. Our culture is a terrible out-of-control experiment. It is our Frankenstein monster, intended to serve us and make the world better, but now desolating the planet and imprisoning us all. And, to return to Eliot’s hospital metaphor, it has made us all physically (due to chronic stress) and mentally (due to traumatizing, endemic violence) ill. That illness is terribly, tragically contagious. The illness can’t be cured, the cultural dysfunction that has caused it can’t be fixed, solved, or reformed, and the collapse of the culture, like all civilizations before it, can’t be prevented, mitigated or reversed.
Worse still, to pull us away from our innate biophilia — our love for all-life-on-Earth — so that we cease to care about the monstrous suffering and extinction our culture must necessarily inflict on all other species to enable the continued exponential growth in our own numbers and consumption, our culture has instilled in us a terrifying fear of nature (“red in tooth and claw”) and a consequent forced disconnection from all other life. Until we have become, in the larger sense, homeless. We know, with all the knowledge of our bodies, our senses, our instincts and a million years of pre-civilization DNA, that this disconnection is unhealthy, foolish, ghastly, inhuman. We grieve the loss of connection, and ache to find our way home. But we no longer hear or see what we have lost, no longer hear the voices of our animal kind howling for the suffering and death we have inflicted on them, and yet calling us home. As Einstein explains in the quote above, our imprisonment, apart from these loved ones, and our resultant mental dis-ease, are thus total and complete.
So we are all damaged, filled with anguish and pain and fear and anger and sadness and grief, and those of us who realize this have each become Eliot’s “wounded surgeon”, or Jung’s Chiron archetype, plying our bloody steel sutures while our own bodies ache for healing.
In my recently-updated bio I draw upon Stewart and Cohen’s theories to explain how I think our culture colonizes us:
I have come to believe that our concept of self is illusory, a ‘figment of reality’, and that ‘we’ are really just collectives of the cells and organs that make up our bodies, now fighting for control of our ‘minds’ (which our organs evolved for their benefit to better coordinate information and mobility) with our civilization culture, a culture which is desperate to perpetuate itself despite its fatal and tragic failures and its utter unsustainability.
I find enormous solace in this view of our inherent ‘selves’ being ’embodied’ and independent of our culture, and invaded by it, using our minds (which are not ‘us’) and through them our emotions as the battleground. Our bodies, fed by our senses, our intuition, our ‘independent’ thoughts, and all the knowledge and wisdom of all their component parts (recent research suggests our digestive systems alone process far more ‘information’ than our ‘minds’, and that only a tiny fraction of the information ‘we’ acquire is ‘brain-conscious’), are fighting to be ‘nobody-but-ourselves’ while our invading culture, using violence and propaganda (language), is fighting to make us ‘everybody else’. This is cummings’ “hardest battle that any human being can fight, and never stop fighting”.
You don’t have to guess which side I’m on.
I think I sensed this even in my youth, when I wrote this poem in 1971 (excuse the lame construction and style; I was only 19 at the time):
we are alone now,
our people gunned down fifty times since our
the enemy’s smoking fireguns
red against the coldgrey mist, and our ideals
our only defence against grinding insignificance.
we have exchanged our green armbands
for white, soaked in blood red crosses
while we die each day in the irony of golden fogshrouded sunrises.
we have exchanged our ambitions for daisies
with broken stems and tiremarked petals
blowing in the alleys with the dust.
our one remaining weapon
seems to point in both directions, and is missing rivets;
it sits starkly in the sadness of midmorning,
on the platform of the watchtower
guarded by no sentry,
its pivot so rusted that we must lift it up
and turn it to face the enemy,
which comes from all directions
when it chooses to come at all.
we are getting quite comfortable these days
in open-necked shirts, with mudstained foreheads,
talking in low voices and reading by moonlight,
drinking metallic water from a tin ladle,
listening to leaves rustling in the darkness
and looking through a candle at pretty, intent eyes.
there is so much to wait for,
i said to her once
as we were looking for berries in the forest.
but only a week later
i felt my thoughts sliding into the first snow of winter.
The “we” I was writing about, perhaps unknowingly, was not my generation, or progressives, or flower children. It was “we” under assault by civilization culture, and our fight was the “hardest battle” to be nobody-but-ourselves.
It seems to me there are two ways to deal with this imprisonment, this dis-ease, this tragic predicament. The first is to yield, and the second is to fight. Our culture wants us to give in and give up, to give ourselves up, to seek salvation, to ‘let our heart be broken’ (s0 it can get in more easily), to admit to being perpetrators ourselves of sin and violence, to break down in tears, to conform, to rely on language (the culture’s handmaiden) as the primary tool of healing, to accept as true others’ critical analysis of us, and to confess our weakness and our sins, and ask for redemption. Our culture wants us to join the ranks of mindless, distracted consumers and workers, so they can stop worrying about the threat that we pose to their beliefs and to the established order. It has the political parties, the corporations, the educators, the media, the organized religions, the government administrations, the police, the armed forces, and through them most of the people we know, on its side in this fight.
The so-called ‘alternative’ culture’s secular religions (EST, Landmark, Spiral Dynamics, NLP, scientology, NVC, Integral Theory, and hundreds more) have adopted the same processes of confession, giving in, letting yourself be broken so you can be healed, hierarchy, dogma and devotion that the mainstream religions espouse. This alt-culture is the humanist dialect of civilization culture. But as John Gray reveals in Straw Dogs, humanism is just another form of belief in the magical powers of the human species. Why are so many willing to believe that the species of homo sapiens, whose singular accomplishment is the unleashing on this planet of the sixth great extinction of life, will somehow collectively solve all the problems it has created, and more?
The humanists come in various flavours and political stripes, and include the technophiles who believe human ingenuity and innovation is Earth’s salvation (look what they’ve done for us so far!); the scientists who want us to conquer other planets, freeze-dry ourselves until the Theory of Everything has solved all problems, and transport our essence into non-corporeal forms; revolutionaries who think that putting a different group of humans in charge is all we need; and libertarians who think getting rid of government is all we need.
All of these groups are adherents to the civilization cult(ure) — the belief in our culture’s and species’ ‘progress’ and our belief that we humans, if we will only work together and get with the program (or the re-program), can fix everything. Join us, they say, be one of us. Be one with us. If we work humbly towards a shared goal and all speak the same language, we can get through this, with (enter deity’s name here)’s help.
It doesn’t work for me. I’ve never felt part of this culture, in any of its dialects. It’s magical thinking. It’s more of what ails us. It’s inhuman. It’s a form of ‘self’ abuse, cowardice, confession of guilt for what we did not do and acceptance of responsibility for what we cannot do, because it’s easy, and it’s what everyone else is doing. Confession may be good for the collective soul, but it does nothing for the planet. Or for me.
My body, my senses, my instincts, my uncolonized intellect, my DNA-encoded bones all tell me that there must be another way. I seek that other way, even if my body is tired and my mind confused by so much fiction.
I seek a way of strength, not of weakness. Of joy instead of sorrow and guilt. Of fighting (and never stop fighting!), instead of giving up (I’m terrified of imprisonment, but not afraid of death). Of embodied healing, through exercise and nutrition and rest, not fixing or ‘reprogramming’ my brain. Of joyfully fucking the pain away instead of rationalizing or crying it away. Of liberating myself from this culture, not giving in to it. Of stopping the violence, not confessing my complicity in or collective responsibility for it. Of seeking the nourishment of connection with all-life-on-Earth, not society’s forgiveness or absolution or salvation or redemption. Of attention to the real, present world and its astonishing beauty, not the convoluted painful trauma-filled story-world inside our heads that holds so many hostage.
But although I’ve been privileged to live relatively unscathed on the edge of this culture (and increasingly further out on that edge), I too am imprisoned and damaged by it. What can I do differently from the other wounded surgeons in this global prison-hospital? How do I fight and never stop fighting? Here are some of the ways I’m exploring:
- This fall I’m going to try an experiment — a week without language. No reading, writing, talking or listening to words. Others who have tried this have found the experience astonishing. If it works, I’ll try it longer, and perhaps with others.
- Working gently on the chains of my imprisonment by and dependence on civilization culture. Learning to do some things myself. Learning to do without some things that keep me tied to the culture. Unbinding myself from civilization’s cruelest invention — time.
- Becoming less patient with and less tolerant of apologists for and self-obsessed victims of civilization culture. That means valuing my time more and walking away from pointless debates and excessively needy people. That doesn’t mean becoming less empathetic or inured or desensitized (though for so many this is their way of coping with civilization’s violence). It means triage — focusing time on those I love, those whose company gives me joy. It means being with people, playfully, but not getting caught up in their stuff, or my own.
- Becoming more aware of propaganda and not getting sucked in by it, even when it comes from those with similar sensibilities to my own, and those close to me. Learning the presence not to be triggered emotionally.
- Becoming more feral, less self-censoring, and finding more feral people to spend time with — not to be like them, but to learn how they fight the culture, and to help each other in our liberation from it.
- Focused activism — real direct actions (not petitions, letters, demonstrations, or easily-reversed and soon-forgotten token actions) to safely and sustainably prevent or reduce some of the worst suffering produced by civilization culture, or to help liberate other creatures (including humans) from that culture. I have no idea what those actions might be, or even if there are any that meet these criteria. Interventions in complex systems are tricky and difficult. I suspect actions that prevent births happening in the first place (of more humans, or of creatures born into lifelong captivity) might be a starting point.
- Reconnecting — sleeping outdoors, spending more time in wilderness, listening to the land and to wild creatures. Living a more embodied, grounded life.
- Pursuing visual and audio art forms that do not employ language (as creator and as audience). Perhaps expand that to poetry that is anti-cultural, that works to liberate language from its use as a tool of our oppression, delusion and captivity.
Anarchist writer Wolfi Landstreicher wrote this about the hardest battle:
In a very general way, we know what we want. We want to live as wild, free beings in a world of wild, free beings. The humiliation of having to follow rules, of having to sell our lives away to buy survival, of seeing our usurped desires transformed into abstractions and images in order to sell us commodities fills us with rage. How long will we put up with this misery? We want to make this world into a place where our desires can be immediately realized, not just sporadically, but normally. We want to re-eroticize our lives. We want to live not in a dead world of resources, but in a living world of free wild lovers. We need to start exploring the extent to which we are capable of living these dreams in the present without isolating ourselves. This will give us a clearer understanding of the domination of civilization over our lives, an understanding which will allow us to fight domestication more intensely and so expand the extent to which we can live wildly.
I recognize that the above list is mostly objectives, but I plan to evolve it into specific actions, and then into practices, activities that will be part of my regular calendar and, in time perhaps, part of me. A me less cowed by the tools of disconnection and less inhibited by all the gunk our culture has laid on me throughout my life. The gunk that prevents me from being nobody-but-myself. So I can fight, and never stop fighting.
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I think I will join you in the “week of no talking” and “wilderness” experience. I have been in the “no self-censor” mode too long, and it just make me look like an “asshole.” And I start to feel that way – too many
I was headed this way last spring, but was interrupted by “needs” of family and others – which just lead back into the cycle of “pointless debates with excessively needy people”.
“I love my children to death,” as long as I keep supporting and participating in this unintended consequence, this waste of time and energy, we call our industrial civilization.
Thank you so much for this excellent post. Also for the ‘October 30, 2010
A Culture of Dependence’.
Understanding the reasons we act this way, I usually see people who fight for this system as ignorant or profoundly hurt. The following text by Glenn Parton is so appropriate. A terrified animal is dangerous…
Remembering the Tribal Self
Thank you for a great post.
On the issue of the self I was struck recently by the analogy of U G Krishnamurti that the self is like a dog with bleeding gums chewing on a bone, believing that it is getting nourishment. I am finding that hard to get out of my mind.