Are Words the Enemy of Belonging? On Paul Kingsnorth’s “Savage Gods”
By Ellie RobinsSeptember 30, 2019
Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth
I don’t have any real right to feel this way. I wasn’t born in a war zone. I haven’t been forced from my home by drought or famine or persecution. I haven’t even been gentrified out of it. I have simply always felt a million miles from myself.
Do you feel this way? Does everyone these days, at least sometimes? It seems like it. Whole swathes of the globe are drowning in nostalgia for a glorious past, an uncomplicated homeland that never existed. Meanwhile, the makers of pop culture keep stranding people in alternate dimensions: Stranger Things, The OA, Dark, the return of Twin Peaks. Why are millions of us tuning in to watch children and adults scramble through the woods, through the dark, through caves and the abyss of the great beyond in search of homes they never meant to leave? Aren’t we all groping through the dark, praying to come home?
I’m sure Paul Kingsnorth would spit bile at some idiot reviewer lining up his work alongside the gauzy fripperies of TV. Luckily, he probably won’t read this; in his latest book, Savage Gods, he renounces the written word, at least for a while, in the hope that this will bring him home.
How does that work? Kingsnorth too has always been homesick, though he calls it “lost,” and he calls the force behind his lostness — our lostness — “the Machine.” What is the nature of this Machine? “Money whips us around like a tornado,” he writes in Savage Gods:
[M]oney and capital, greed and ambition and hunger and power, they uproot people and scatter them about and we all keep our heads down as the Machine passes through, drizzling us across the landscapes of the world, breaking the link between people and place and time, demanding our labor and our gratitude, hypnotizing us with its white light, transforming us into eaters, consumers of experience and consumers of place, players of games, servants.
Every one of Kingsnorth’s books has been a battle against this Machine, an attempt to come home. For One No, Many Yeses (2003), he traveled the world, embedding himself in cells of resistance to global finance — a young man’s quest for healing through fire. In 2008, Real England lamented the homogenization and globalization of British life, the loss of its wild spaces and the corporate takeover of its towns and cities — the ruin of Kingsnorth’s home. That same year, as world leaders scrambled to patch up the global economy, Kingsnorth co-published the manifesto for his newly launched Dark Mountain Project, which found homecoming in “uncivilization.” Civilization, the project holds, is fragile, and often falls. It is falling now. And we will weather the storm only by telling radically new stories about what it is to be human and to inhabit this earth — stories Kingsnorth set out to tell in his next two books: the novels The Wake (2014) and Beast (2016), each of which tells of an Englishman at the end of the world, or of some world that had felt, to him, like the world. These are men living and breathing through the aftermath of collapses, cultural or personal, just as we are or soon will be doing. If he once believed he’d get home by smashing the system, by the time he wrote the Man Booker–nominated The Wake, Kingsnorth had grown to trust that the system would smash itself, leaving the writer to bring people home to what was left — to the wild and the elements and the darkness always lurking, before and beyond the rise and fall.
But none of them worked, these attempts to write himself home. Kingsnorth was still lost. Still, he had a plan, a checkmate move on the Machine he’d been keeping up his sleeve through these years of striding forth into the world in rage and despair: he would find a place, settle, have a field of his own. And so several years ago, he moved, with his wife and two small children, to a smallholding in the west of Ireland, where he and his wife planned to grow their own food and educate their own children, to compost their family’s shit and plant trees and learn to truly live in and with a place. So of course when they arrived, Kingsnorth had a breakdown of sorts — the main problem with wishes being that sometimes they come true, leaving you in the space you’d carved out for them, staring at your own damn self.
“I thought that if I had a field then I would feel less lost,” Kingsnorth writes,
I thought that if I had some land I would belong somewhere. And sometimes I feel it has started to happen. Sometimes I think the place is looking out at me, curious. He’s been here for a while. What’s he up to? Other times I sit in the field, in the circle of Scots pines we have planted on the highest point and I feel I am not here at all. This is my field, but it doesn’t feel like mine. What could it ever feel like to own a piece of ground? I have never felt like I really owned anything. If you don’t believe you really exist, you can’t believe you own anything. Sometimes I can sit in the field, like I am sitting here now, and feel like I am floating on air and through it and on into empty space.
If he can’t come home through fire, or through writing, or even through place, is all lost? What more of the Machine can he shed?
“[U]nlike Descartes, I believe that language can lessen the distance between humans and the world of which we are a part,” writes Elizabeth Rush in Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (2018). “I believe that it can foster interspecies intimacy, and, as a result, care.”
It tells you something about just how hypertextual a moment we live in that this doesn’t seem a particularly controversial statement. If you’d said it 30 or 40 years ago, in the heyday of poststructuralism, you might well have invited a very long and very boring argument about the relationship between signifier and signified. And it’s not just French intellectuals. Oral cultures such as indigenous communities have been known to mistrust the written word (and with good reason, given the ways it has oppressed and dispossessed them). Kingsnorth quotes Russell Means of the Oglala Lakota people of the Sioux Tribe, who detests writing as “one of the white world’s ways of destroying the cultures of non-European peoples, the imposing of an abstraction over the spoken relationship of a people.” William Golding too held that the abstractions of thought, facilitated by language, were the beginning of the end for humankind. And Kingsnorth offers this very fine thought from the philosopher John Zerzan: “Language may be properly considered the fundamental ideology, perhaps as deep a separation from the natural world as self-existent time.”
For most of us, this question feels moot. Would we be more at home on this earth if we saw a tree and heard the shimmering of its leaves, saw their gradations of green, felt the roughness of its bark and the tickle of ants scaling it, instead of thinking “oak”? Maybe, but what are you going to do? Language cannot be unlearned.
But for a hyperliterate man in a field in west Ireland, a man who once published a novel in a language of his own invention, a man who for all his trying to write himself home is still stranded somewhere apart from the world, the idea that language was the problem took hold. He started to wonder if he wouldn’t get further in his quest for home by just shutting up. If he quit the compulsive verbalization, could he, he wondered, become more like his children, who are still attuned to the silent mysteries, who have claimed a small space on the family’s new land that they call Wildy — “a place where children talk to fairies and birds and trees and the spirits that inhabit them”?
Actually, he didn’t start to wonder. That’s too gentle. He found himself plagued by the horrible suspicion that he had to give up the one thing he couldn’t, wouldn’t give up. “I worry that all words are lies,” he writes. “That all abstractions are figments, and argumentative words, the construction of positions, the worst lies of all.” He turns down commissions. He is visited at night by the trickster god Loki. A book — this book — pours out of him in torrents in the small hours. It’s 125 pages of blazing prose — part memoir, part last-ditch bargaining with the muse, part self-interrogation — alive with despair and doubt and also the will to live, which means the will to belong, at last. And it ends with a fairly clear sacrificial statement. (Though Kingsnorth does leave the door open to return to writing, to allow the words to flow through him again, if and when he’s felt what he needs to feel without them.)
Kingsnorth has already identified himself — in the title of his last book, no less — as a recovering environmentalist. He has bowed out of the race to tackle carbon emissions and industrial poisoning and mass extinction, to protect any wild space other than the one of which he is now steward, and to take on the global economy that drives the destruction. By shutting up, he’s doubling down on his opt-out. And it’s very hard to decide how to feel about that.
Faced with the truth about the rate of polar melt and species die-off, and the dwindling years we have left to limit climate catastrophe (11, per a recent UN estimate), most people have one of two responses: psychic shutdown, usually in the form of some degree of denial, or frantic action, of which there are two broad categories — changing one’s own behavior (by consuming less and differently, traveling less, having fewer children) and/or working to educate and persuade others about the importance of action. That last response, the drive to persuade, often feels most urgent. If more people only knew, and cared in the right way, surely things would change. And so people like me start newsletters and try to squeeze mentions of the climate crisis into any part of a newspaper they can; people pithier than me take to Twitter; and the authors of cli-fi write new narratives of our burning world. Kingsnorth himself wrote one of our most rousing rallying cries for the power of art to recast the world, in the manifesto for the Dark Mountain Project.
But how much does it achieve, all this talking and writing? “We may look back at self-expression as the terrible deadening conformity of our time,” says Adam Curtis, and as the world burns and so many great and good minds spend the best part of the day shouting into their echo chambers online, it’s easy to see what he means. Too often, as Kingsnorth points out, we mistake words for action, or, even more dangerously, for life itself: “All humans do is talk,” he writes. “Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action, and the trees stand there silently and we just talk.”
When we’re talking so much, we can’t listen — to each other or to the earth. How can we stop destroying the planet if we don’t take time to really know it? And if we ourselves don’t really know it, how the hell do we expect to persuade others to fundamentally change their lives for it? I write my missives about place and climate change from the windowless closet I’ve converted into an office, in which I spend about 10 hours a day, working. How can I lead anyone else to the kind of ferocious love of this earth that’s needed now, from a cupboard? And so what am I writing for, really?
Well. I’m writing, we’re writing, because we’re scared and angry and because we can’t bear the thought that so many lives are already being lost, so many places destroyed, so many animals, human and nonhuman, forced from their homes, with nowhere else to go. And as I write, I’m buoyed by recent triumphs: Extinction Rebellion’s victory in encouraging the British government to declare a climate emergency. The column inches and airwaves devoted to the campaign for a Green New Deal. The rise of Greta Thunberg. And this isn’t all just words: global carbon emissions are up, but they’re falling in many developed nations (notably not including the United States), with some indication that the kind of climate policies now being enacted in those nations are among the reasons why.
For his part, Kingsnorth would like to never hear the words “carbon emissions” again. “Sometimes I think that ‘saving the world’ is just another way of controlling it,” he wrote in the essay “Learning What to Make of It.” He would like people like me to take a leaf out of his book, shut up, and learn to love the world — to really love it for itself — instead of gabbing about the ways it’s being destroyed. But what would happen then? The fossil fuel companies would certainly not follow suit in reflective silence. It’d be pedal to the metal to our collective demise.
And in a way, that’s what this uncivilizer wants, or has at least accepted: the Fall. Survivors huddled round a campfire, iPhone-less once and for all and thus, at last, truly alive. Kingsnorth describes the period that produced Savage Gods as a sort of midlife crisis and suggests that humanity is going through its own midlife crisis. It’s a version of the Jungian idea of the two halves of life: ego, followed by true meaning, but between them, meltdown.
I’d imagine it’s easier to surrender to this apparently generative crisis if you’re sitting on a few acres of your own fertile land in Ireland than if you’re a Guatemalan farmer wondering what the fuck to do now that you can’t grow anything. That’s the problem with opting out. Stillness and receptivity may be the path of true understanding, but in the mess we’re in — the terribly unjust, unevenly distributed mess we’re in — isn’t it unconscionably selfish?
And it’s selfish, too, for a writer of Kingsnorth’s gifts to deprive the world of them. After all, he would never have arrived at his current readiness to plunge into wordlessness were it not for all the many words that have shaped him. Savage Gods is threaded through with the thoughts of Kingsnorth’s literary heroes: D. H. Lawrence, William Golding, Annie Dillard, Rilke, Patrick Kavanagh, Neruda, Dickinson, Yeats. Where would the world be without each and every one of them? In a direr state still, for sure. And clearly even Kingsnorth knows silence can’t be the whole answer: the irony is not lost on him that he’s written a book about renouncing writing.
But then, he’s not claiming to have the whole answer, or any answer, or encouraging anyone else to follow suit. This is not a manifesto — that kind of verbal strong-arming was first to go when he threw out the words. Like all the best books, it’s a wail sent up from the heart of one of the intractable problems of the human condition: real change comes only from crisis, and crisis always involves loss. The real change we need is to stop imposing ourselves on the planet, in deed and, possibly, in word. The real change we need is to learn to listen and to be. For Kingsnorth, the cost of this change is a perhaps temporary loss of language. For the world at large, the cost will be mass death. It has already begun. The question is, by trying to stop it, do the rest of us mitigate the problem, or hinder humanity from learning the lessons we need to learn?
Whatever you think of Kingsnorth, there are few writers as raw or brave on the page. Savage Gods is an important book, and one that could come only from him, which makes it all the more wrenching that we don’t know whether there’ll ever be another. He won’t read this, so I’ll shout it at his back as he wanders into the wordless wild: thank you for the words.
Ellie Robins is a writer and translator based in Los Angeles. Her translation of Alan Pauls’s A History of Money was published by Melville House in 2015.
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