Emotions in the wild

by Charles on May 19, 2016

This is an exchange, originally published here on the History of Emotions blog, with Thomas Dixon. Thomas’s questions are in bold italics.

Your experiments in becoming a beast seem to have been motivated by something like E. M. Forster’s motto “Only connect” – but applied to non-human animals. Did you end up feeling that you had connected and, if so, with what?

I would prefer to say that I ended up acknowledging that I was connected.

The opening line of the book is: ‘I want to know what it is like to be a wild thing’. That is a woefully misconceived line. For, whether I like it or not, I am a wild thing. That’s the (trite) Darwinian truth.

My DNA wasn’t forged in a factory. The shape of my psyche was determined by wood, wind and water. Why do we like sitting next to a fire in the winter? It’s not because we see a Dickensian parlour in our sentimental mind’s eye. It’s because our subconscious is happy to know that when the wolf crouched just beyond the light makes its move, we can grab a burning branch and shove it in the wolf’s face.

David Abram points out that there are no non-wild places – just places of relative unwildness. Leave a piece of pie in an inner-city office for a few days, and it’ll be covered with exuberantly wild mould. Your gut is a mass of entirely wild organisms over which you have no control. You depend on their wild fecundity for your thriving and your survival.

So: I am connected to non-human species, whether I like it or not. Many of my defining relationships are with non-human species. We’re much better off noting and accepting the relationships that make us. Nasty things happen if we don’t. Ask Freud.

We have systematically, brutally and disastrously unlearned the languages we need in order to articulate properly our relationships with the non-natural world. The relationships are still there: we’re just painfully constipated when we try to discuss them.

I suspect that all worthwhile knowledge is acquired by anamnesis. And that’s certainly what I was about on the moors and in the woods. I started to unforget my fellowship with the natural world, and unforgot a few words in which to describe that fellowship.
There were moments when old memories flooded in particularly fast. I looked into the eyes of an urban fox. I knew that it knew something about me that I didn’t know, and that it was changed by the encounter. You asked me about connection. Connection entails reciprocity, and that meeting stank muskily of reciprocity. [click to continue…]


Being a Beast talks

by Charles on April 10, 2016

Currently scheduled 2016 talks are:

9 February: Royal Geographical Society
5 March: Words by the Water Festival
10 April: Oxford Literary Festival
23 April: Bristol Festival of Ideas
5 May: Chipping Campden Literary Festival
22 May: Wood Festival
27 May: Greenwich Literary Festival
8 June: Waterstones, Oxford
11 June: Cheltenham Science Festival
19 June: Wealden Literary Festival
31 July: Port Eliot Literary Festival
3 September: World Explorers’ Summit, Cardiff
17 September: Oxford Alumni Weekend
22 September: London Salon
24 September: Write on Kew Literary Festival
2 October: Crickhowell Literary Festival
30 October: Wantage Literary Festival
12 November: Bridport Literary Festival



‘J’ is not the title of this novel. The title is ‘J’ with two lines through it, to denote the two fingers that one of the central characters, Kevern Cohen, puts neurotically to his lips whenever he utters the letter ‘J’. For this is a novel about things that are not uttered, and the consequences of that silence.

The backdrop is grey and flat. Officially Jacobson’s England is a peaceful place: indeed to suggest that it is not is dangerous. Yet many of the women in the bleak Cornish village where much of the plot takes place have bruised faces. There is murder and sexual violence.

There is a systematic cult of the anodyne. Nothing is exactly banned – for to ban something would demand detailed examination of the reasons for the ban – and rigour of any sort is feared. But jazz is disapproved of, because it involves improvisation. People like to know at the beginning of a tune how it will end. The cultural diet is bland: people read ‘rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances’.

Another marker of this tedious monoculture is the names. Everyone has a Jewish surname. Cornwall is full of Cohens and Goldsteins. This, it gradually emerges, is because of a devastating, near-complete Holocaust. At some political and psychological level the evil of this has been acknowledged: the names have been changed so that never again will Jews be identifiable. If everyone is a Cohen the real Cohens will be safe. Yet at another level the event is denied. It is literally unthinkable that it could have happened. And so it is always referred to as ‘What happened, if it happened.’ There is a ‘non-statutory monitor of the public mood’ which promotes passivity through maxims such as ‘The over-examined life is not worth living’ and ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ For this society, history does not exist: it is unwise to possess old things. Old, improvised things are particularly frowned upon. ‘If someone asks you about Fats Waller’, advises Kevern Cohen’s father, ‘deny all knowledge.’

Two Jews escaped the Holocaust: Kevern Cohen and Ailinn Solomons. They are counter-cultural. They read real literature and listen to Fats Waller. Their meeting is engineered by, and their burgeoning relationship fostered by the State. But why? [click to continue…]



by Charles on July 15, 2014

On the shelves in my study there are long rows of small, hard-backed notebooks. Most of them are blue or black, with a red fabric spine. On the spine there are usually some dates, and often some place names: Beirut: 8-9/1993; Danakil: 4/2002; Misc North Africa 4-6/2007; Spitsbergen and North Pole: 2004; Peloponnese, 9/1997. Occasionally there are some subjects: Swifts; Wolf-cults; Being an Animal; Intuitions; and, mysteriously, not to say pretentiously, ‘Notes from a Yorkshire Sinai’.

When I take a notebook down, blow off the dust, and open it, things fall out; a receipt for dinner for two in Cairo (who was she? And how on earth did I afford that as an undergraduate?); a faded blue flower from a radioactive mountain in Kyrgyzstan; grains of sand from Wadi Rum; part of a menu from Kashgar; a butterfly wing from the highlands of West Papua; a bus ticket from Van to Ankara. At the back of each notebook there are scribbles, often in another hand; the dose of tinadazole for the giardia I got in the Kumaon hills; the address, in a grim Almaty tower block, of Olga, who always (says my annotation), wore beaver-skin boots; the date when the first swallows gust over the Straits of Gibraltar; the time of the late, slow train from Madras to Trichi; the name of a man in Andritsaina who puts out a dog bowl of wine for Dionysus every night.

But nothing falls out of recent notebooks. There are no recent notebooks. I’ve been away a lot, and I’ve written. But I’ve seen the business of writing as the business of fitting what I see into a – and increasingly the scheme. So I’ve sat at café tables in Reykjavik, Delhi, Brisbane and Addis Ababa looking around me and gathering only what is necessary to support The Thesis. [click to continue…]


Travelling with camels: a practical guide

by Charles March 7, 2013

1.         Why use camels? 1.1       The alternatives are feet and vehicles. Vehicles are boring, unreliable and hopeless in mountains and serious sand. Feet cannot carry for any significant distances the food and (particularly) water needed to keep them going. So unless the desert area you are in is not a proper desert, you cannot rely [...]

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Who were the Israelites?

by Charles February 28, 2013

Somehow, sometime, and somewhere, Israel became a people. That meant two different but related things: it meant becoming different from its neighbours, and it meant becoming itself. Often Israelite self-identification was negative: ‘We are Israelite because we are not Philistine’, or ‘We are Israelite because we do not eat pigs’. Sometimes it still is. Neighbours [...]

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A Dyslexic boy in a Trojan horse

by Charles October 25, 2012

‘Come in’, said the Well Known Educational Psychologist. We did. ‘Please sit down’, she said, and we did. She didn’t waste time, and quite right too. We wanted to know. ‘Tom and I have had a very interesting afternoon.’ That sounded bad. ‘He’s a very able child indeed’. That sounded worse, because it came with [...]

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In the Hot Unconscious

by Charles August 19, 2012

Charles Foster’s latest book, ‘In the Hot Unconscious: An Indian Journey’, has just been published. It’s about how myths are made and perceived, and about the conversation that has to happen, and usually doesn’t, between the mystical traditions of East and West, and between the two sides of our own heads. What critics are saying: [...]

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My son’s dyslexic, and I’m glad

by Charles February 16, 2012

My son is dyslexic, and I’m glad. Most people think that I am deranged or callous. But I have two related reasons, both of which seem to me to be good. The first is that his dyslexia is an inextricable part of him. I can’t say: ‘This is the pathological bit, which I resent’, as [...]

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