The Course of Empire The Savage State 1836 by Cole Thomas
‘Without civilization we would revert to chaos…to savagery…. to barbarism!’
These words send arrows through my heart. They are the words that hold the expansive nature of our beings to ransom. They are the words that make us believe that what we have is all that is humanly possible. And they are the words that may very well be true, if we don’t start to shift our perspective.
Having departed on our journey some months now, it seems like a good time to revisit this word, this spell called civilization, and to share my deep thoughts and concerns over our entrancement to its claims and the unfulfilled promises that hold us and our small worlds to ransom. In doing so I will attempt to share a story that may just lead to gaining of wider perspective.
When I talk about civilization I refer to its use in describing a culture that considers itself most advanced, both moral and socially. I also refer to western civilization in this living breathing moment, because this is a moment where it and I meet. It’s a civilization that supposedly started some 8000-10000 years ago, coming about by our ability to cultivate land and produce a surplus.
Like most people I had always considered myself to be civilised, I was born and educated in its institutions, and had always thought I would die, a fully signed up member. In fact until picking up a book some three years ago called End Game – The Problem with Civilization by Derrick Jenson, I hadn’t thought of civilization to be a particularly negative thing in and of itself. The suffering at the end of all its material gains and comforts was part and parcel of life, of this thing we call progress, an unavoidable consequence of this reality and its master plan to bring us all into its bedazzling technological light. Everyone would have their time in the sun eventually as human race slowly rises above the earth to take flight into the stars. If there was a pang of doubt or sensation of pain in what I was experiencing it was eased somewhat by the expanding number of non-profit organisations and charities working away to ensure an end to its unsightly fallout. There were the drugs too of course. Civilisation, our greatest achievement, what other option was there?
As a child at my local cinema I had watched cowboys and Indians battle in the westerns and sided with the white man as they fought to keep the enemy at bay with a blaze of gun smoke under the shower of arrows. Of course I was too young to understand the fact that it was the Indian’s land that had been stolen, and that their very trust had been betrayed in some historical past. But perhaps I was never meant to understand. Wherever you turn It is always about good versus bad, and the natives, whether of the Great Plains, the African continent or the deep jungle were on the whole always painted as the bad; human sacrificing, flesh eating, immoral demons. As for witches, those wicked women living in the woods, with piercing cackle and twisted and distorted and features. I say on the whole because there are always other stories being told, much like this one, and as life’s discontent seeped into the sea of my soul it was these tales I became more interested in.
Through my questions I soon came to understand, that in civilisation we born into a culture of prejudice, we are not born with it, as some would lead us to believe. As we develop and grow older, as we go through a process of first mimicking and then learning the ways of our culture, being the innately social beings that we are (born to belong), perhaps then and only then once our minds have been formed unto the nature of our specific reality does the seed of prejudice, the seed of right and wrong germinate, as for the first time we see in others difference, and in this void, the potential for fear and distrust. Perhaps this too is an innate response, an evolutionary gift from our journey on this earth. Perhaps as a feeling it ensures we aren’t too trusting of newcomers who’s language we cant understand and whose body language we are unable to read. They could, after all, be a very real threat to the health of our immediate community. But maybe this is far too reductionist and it has come about another way. Whatever the reason for prejudice, we experience it. It exists as a feeling. And we can decide on whether it serves us or not, whether the feeling we have toward another, this suspicion, has any substance, whether it foretells a reality, whether it is something of a gift or detracts from our very experience of life.
In our culture we witness and experience all kinds of prejudgement. Most recently, according to the latest news reports, we have a prejudice toward single adults, the crime of it! This is expanded to gender, people born with physical ‘deformities’, people with different sexual preferences, people from different social backgrounds, those who think and live differently to us, people who we don’t consider beautiful (relative to what we are told beauty is). These cultural prejudices, the ones that exist within our ‘civilized’ culture can change over time. What is treated with suspicion in one moment can become desirable or even fashionable with a little mediated self-manipulation, but there is one prejudice that seems to stick. One cast upon us by this word or should I say spell that we give name to as civilisation. For in its pursuit and for all its claims to bettering and advancing our lot, we acknowledge its very existence, its opposite, something uncivilized, a place or people that are not socially, culturally or morally advanced, a badlands full of witches, idol worship, unruly and deadly animals, plants, and flesh eating, arrow-firing natives.
Somewhere back in the dark closet of our past we were all members of this savage murderous landscape but thanks to civilization we were saved, and because of it we must pledge our very limited lives and all our earthly power to its ideologies; social, economic, political and of course cultural. There are writers who write very well about this brutal and uncivilized place from which we need to be saved, Jay Griffiths does so beautifully in her book called ‘Wild – An Elemental journey’. And Charles Eisenstein, another, who gives an enlightening account of how western civilisation came to be in his magnum opus The Ascent of Humanity, a story of how we arrived at this and possibly where we may be heading.
Surely if the world before civilisation were such a brutal and harsh landscape we could only have found ourselves surviving for millions of years by shear luck, by clambering up various trees or rock faces to escape the nasty beasts emerging from the shadows of difference. To have arrived at this point, this moment of civilization would have nothing to do with the fact that this wild untameable landscape was in fact our home and that we were very much a part of it, that we had all the skills and abilities to read and move with it, skills that evolved over millions of years. Our survival would have nothing to do with the fact that hunting animals much larger and powerful than ourselves would have meant working co-operatively, entrusting our lives to other members of our tribe on a daily basis? Our survival would have nothing to do with the songs we sang together? It would have nothing to do with us being born of this earth? I don’t romanticise, I just ask questions.
It’s strange how we use a word that describes our culture as advanced despite the fact that a majority of us civilized humans in the west have not one clue where their water, food, materials of shelter and heat originate from, let alone being able to source these things outside of a superstore. Our innate ability to be able to read and interpret the landscape, to live under our own ingenuity and self leadership has been abandoned in the pursuit of an idea that seems intent on launching an attack on both our inner and outer landscapes. Perversely it our ability to adapt to such a range of conditions that has enabled its emergence, as the degraded environment that demands our innovation is one of civilisation, a word and culture that has severed us from our wider community at the cost of all things vital; clean air, clean water, and healthy soil and soul. It is a word rooted the Latin civilis, meaning civil, related to the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning city or city-state. It describes more densely populated settlements, characterized by a ruling elite, and subordinate urban and rural populations, which, by the division of labor, engage in intensive agriculture, mining, small-scale manufacture and trade. Civilization is a process that concentrates power, extending man’s control over both nature, and over other human beings. And it is a culture that has now permeated throughout the world (not for the first time, but perhaps the most extensively) as indigenous land based peoples are ingested into its body through acts of war and more recently cultural violence, such as the ongoing enclosures of commons. Jarring as it is, as compliant citizens we are both perpetrators and victims of this violence, historically and through the daily living of our lives. Divide and conquer, a successful strategy of war.
But lets be too hard on ourselves, the lights of the city, the spire of the temple contain within their sensing, a magic and excitement many of us have found hard to resist. For there is of course something very powerful experientially of coming into communion with one another, physically and mentally, of sharing a rhythm however frantic and jarring to our psyche. But perhaps it is also a sharing of sadness that keeps us here, the sadness that our experiential bodies are yearning for a different rhythm, that of our tribal ancestors and the drums that can no longer be heard at the heart of gathering, of drums that can only be heard in the unruly moments of protest and the hubris of carnival when we enter into our body and take our place within the collective whole. Consumption and fame are just the scraps we feed ourselves to keep our hunger for each other and life at bay, and to stave off the pain. Ironically this only takes us further away from the relationship we seek. An idea explored in more depth in a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff, a recent read as I prepare myself for parenthood and the duty of care of a new life.
Reflecting once again upon the quote at the start of these uncivilized meanderings, it seems the main challenges we face in our efforts to live once again with the soil and soul and to allow a shared vision, is the challenge of re-membering, of over-riding both our cultural belief that before civilization we lived a life of pain, drudgery and ultimately misery, prey to wild beast and biting insects (as opposed to speeding cars and Taser guns). If any drudgery has been a part of our past I know it to have been under the hierarchical cosh of civilization as those at the bottom, the foot soldiers, the serfs, and the slaves, are forced to serve the interests of a powerful and delusional few who consider themselves god given in their right to guide us through this terrible trip through our shadow, this blip in our collective sanity, this test of our will. The idea that without this power over us is only a story of course, a toxic myth, evidence of which will reveal itself should you choose to scratch away the skin of mistruth, and look with new eyes upon natural world and those living in its embrace. Like so many stories it has been told to convince people of its perspective, it’s ‘ideas’, and the ‘reality’ it describes. In its telling it is a story that seeks to lay claim to our past to dominate the present. It is a story that without which, we would find ourselves descending into an age of darkness. It is a story that without which, our morality, and our desire to live ‘closely’ and socially with one another in community would be lost forever. It is a story that tries to lay claim to our very experience and love of life. It is a story that separates us, and it is a story of violence. But it is a story that is just a story and we need to remember this. If civilization were to spectacularly fail; if peak oil, climate change, crop failures or water shortages were to send us into a sudden crisis, perhaps then, as the hand that feeds and clothes us withdraws, perhaps then, and only then would we experience the uncivilized world of its creation.
As a child I was told adults don’t lie, that adults don’t mislead or get things wrong, that when they speak, they speak the truth, their words describe reality and the universe it nestles within, that we the civilized are king, and I, I am fortunate to be its child. Only as I have grown older and a little more insane I have come to experience this as an act of deceit, of misinformation, a lie throws my very sense of being into chaos as I come to see this culture (not us) for what it is. The knife cuts deep. A moment of awakening should we choose. A moment of awakening should we choose.
I sit in this moment. A moment when my civilized mind and uncivilized and wild body are coming to the conclusion that it no longer serves either to be separated. That to live this way is simply not to live with the fullness of possibility. To live this way is to forgo the absolute miracle of life and the experience of true love.
I sit in this moment unable to believe that this storey is the best one we can tell. How can I believe a story that excludes so many, for the benefit of so few, in pursuit of so little at the cost of so much? This is not a story I want to participate in. And because of this I choose to enter into transition, to undo the spell of isolation civilization has over me, to become un-civilized, to become whole, and along with all those longing for a better world for ALL, build one, one compost toilet at a time.
We can’t go back but maybe we can re-member.