Strange friends on the Dark Mountain?

by Charles on April 4, 2019

The Dark Mountain Manifesto has been formative for me. It seems churlish – indeed nearly patricidal – to criticise it. But I’ve lived with it now for long enough to see it more clearly than I did, and I am uneasy now about some of it.

It is not Kingsnorth’s and Hine’s delight in apocalypse that troubles me. That is a matter of taste and, probably, nerve. I simply don’t have their courage. I can’t bear to look sufficiently hard at the future to describe it as explicitly as they do. Nor is it their despair. That is a matter of judgment (and theirs is probably better than mine) and temperament. It is, rather, their identification of friends and enemies.

There are, if one is to believe the Manifesto, precious few friends. That, indeed, is part of the Manifesto’s and the movement’s appeal. We are the Faithful (or, better, Faithless) Remnant: the Chosen Few – Chosen because we have remained un-chosen by the Machine on account of our empathy, our independence, our unkempt hair, and the smell of wood-smoke clinging to our jumpers: the clear-sighted, undeluded elite, unseduced by the blandishments of hope or comfort: the seeds from which new life will spring when the fire is out. It’s all very flattering. That’s the only sort of club I want to join.

Conventional environmentalists (Dark Mountain’s orthodoxy goes) have lost the plot. Their hearts might be in the right place, but their heads aren’t. They may be guilty of one or more of several sins, but the sins all boil down to a pathological hopefulness. They may have fallen for one version of the myth of progress – thinking that technology will be able to mop up the mess. They may think that humans – even those humans who run big corporations – aren’t as bad as all that, and will repent. And so on. They will still be clinging to their cherished illusions as the ship goes down. We, stark and steely eyed, will watch them from the Dark Mountain, sigh (to show we’re compassionate), and then turn and trudge further towards the summit.

We have only one another, and even we are characterised more by our mutual suspicion and our suspicion of the rest of the world than by any real bond. We share little apart from our address on the Mountain. Sharing is itself suspect: it denotes a feebleness of mind at a time when toughness is the cardinal virtue.

I parody brutally and unforgivably, and yet I hope I can be forgiven. But my repentance is not complete. There is some truth here. In particular we Mountaineers have more friends than we think. Or at least (and especially in such desperate times as these), my enemy’s enemies are, to a first degree of approximation, my friends.

So who are the enemies? The paranoid answer is: more or less everyone. The trite answer is oil men in suits, unreflective chavs, and benighted Tories. The more helpful answer demands a look at the beliefs motivating the enemies. By their metaphysics shall ye know them.

The Manifesto rightly identifies two corrosive myths. The enemies will order their lives according to them. Sniff out the myth, and you’ve found an enemy. The myths are, per the Manifesto, the myth of progress (which tells us that we humans are destined for greatness), and the myth of nature (upon which the myth of progress is founded), which says that our greatness is cost-free. We do not, per the myth of nature, see ourselves as part of nature. Indeed, says the Manifesto, ‘our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of civilization. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this our unique glory is contained.’ As to the myth of nature: quite right. As to the myth of progress: quite right too. But this myth deserves a closer look. The Manifesto embodies (and perhaps conflates) two meanings.

The first is a belief that evolution has been earnestly working away, chiselling nature in accordance with some Platonic blueprint, incrementally edging towards perfection. This belief is keen on metaphors like pyramids and trees. It ends in hubris. For preening himself (yes, it is always himself) at the summit of evolution’s pyramid, and basking in the divine light at the top of the evolutionary tree, is of course Man. I’ll call this the Myth of Incremental Perfection (MIP).

The second is the assumption that ‘progress’ is anti-entropic: that it entails a shift from chaos to order: from simplicity to complexity: and that when it comes to human history, this tendency is manifested in an increasing reliance on reason and a decreasing enslavement to the inchoate forces of atavism, religion, and other dark swirling things. It loves straight lines, algorithms, IKEA furniture, and analogies between human brains and computers: it loathes bull sacrifice, musty manuscripts, deciduous trees, and the Romantic poets. I’ll call this the Myth of Reason (MOR).

Both the MIP and the MOR are very recently forged myths. The MIP, being an evolutionary myth, pre-dated Darwin (who of course did not think up the idea of evolution itself, but only the mechanism of natural selection), but not, in its present form, by much. And the MOR is a myth that was seeded by the Renaissance and flowered in the Enlightenment. It posits (contrary to the MIP), that there has been not a consistent march towards human perfection, but a radical historical discontinuity. It is terribly romantic about the Greeks from the Pre-Socratics to Aristotle, and correspondingly rude about human history from Aristotle to the Italian Quattrocento. Reason (says the convinced MIP-er, whose archetype is one of those icy eighteenth century French philosophers, and whose modern spokesmen are Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins) governed the life of those Greeks. Reason shone on and through their lives like the bright sun of Attica. Error could not withstand it. But religion welled up from Palestine and Mecca and put out the light. Error ruled for a millennium. There were a few candles in the darkness – men like Galileo and Bacon and even, despite his unfortunate religiosity, Abelard. But when the walls of Byzantium (the ultimate sanctuary of reaction) came down and the old Greek books were liberated and found their way to the west again, the old Greek light of reason shone ago. The clerics recoiled and shrivelled like vampires at dawn, and we could all be free. It is a liberation theology as heady and polemical as anything preached by Jon Sabrino.

There are some important differences between the MIP and the MOR. The MIP is a populist ideology. It is scientism, not science. It is not held by professional biologists – at least when they are doing the day job. Teleology is a four-letter word for informed evolutionists. Evolution takes many wrong turns, and the consequences of those wrong turns are not always mitigated by natural selection. The notion of hierarchy is meaningless. Yes, natural selection selects rigorously for fitness, but fitness is about reproductive success. There are no pyramids, or if there are you’re only on top by dint of your numbers rather than your elegance. Viruses are fitter than Nobel Prize winners. The MIP, therefore, is wrong.

The MOR, however, probably represents the zeitgeist amongst contemporary modern historians. This, I think, is pure narcissism. It stems from the academy’s constitutional aversion to religion, and a consequential characterisation of historical progress as a farcical stand-off between Reason and Religion. Since university academics all like to think of themselves as Reasonable, how better to paint history as a slow, stuttering, punctuated, but eventually complete vindication of them?

But things are changing. Here, for instance, is Larry Siebentop: ‘What is characteristic about historical writing in recent centuries? It is an inclination to minimize the moral and intellectual distance between the modern world and the ancient world, while at the same time maximising the moral and intellectual distance between modern Europe and the middle ages. That inclination first appeared ….in the Italian Renaissance, with its admiration of antiquity and hostility to the ‘scholasticism’ of the universities and the church. But it was in the eighteenth century…that this inclination developed into a passionate anti-clericalism, which re-shaped the understanding of European history.’

As Siebentop implies, this minimizing and maximising are historically ludicrous. They are only possible because modern historians don’t know enough ancient history. No one really familiar with the world of the Pre-Socratics and the Socratics, or with the writings of the supposed High Priests of Hellenic Reason, could suppose that religion (of a wild, bloody, ecstatic, prostrating kind) was not the assumption and the point of every syllogism. The gods sit hunched on and in every Greek stone. They weren’t exorcised when the stones were dressed and used to build the Athenian Academy. They continued to direct affairs. The old philosophers were smart enough to know that to call something a ‘first cause’ wasn’t to strip it (or him) of its divinity.

The MOR, then, is also wrong.

It may be that Dark Mountain (if there is such a thing) thinks that re-education is pointless. I don’t, myself. I think that the battles to show the scientific silliness of the MIP and the historiographical naivety of the MOR are being won – and won fast. There will be an ideological dividend from the victories.

But that’s not my main point. My main point is to try to show Mountaineers who their enemies are, and thus who their friends are.

This should now be obvious. We’ve all met the MIP-ers – the strident reductionists in internet chat rooms who laugh at mystery and think that everything can be satisfactorily explained by The God Delusion and by a small number of partial differential equations (of which they have read, vaguely, in A Brief History of Time). And many of us have met the MOR-ers, too. I live amongst them. Most of my best friends are MOR-ers. They are secular liberals. They do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. They hate mystery because it is their job to abolish uncertainty, and so it is professionally unsatisfactory to acknowledge that there are some perennial uncertainties, immune to everything that university research groups can throw at them; and because the Catholics are into mystery, aren’t they? – and they had the Inquisition and hate gays.

Uncomfortable though it may be, then, our friends are the religious. The really religious, that is, not the White American Evangelicals who think that the dominion spoken of in Genesis is a divine mandate for arctic pipelines, and that the Imago Dei means an untrammelled free market. No, I mean the ones who think that Mind is not just inside human skulls; that souls (whatever they are) are likely to be more enduring than thoughts or nation states; that altruism is not just reciprocal altruism, kin selection, or group selection; that kindness, however stupid, is more stern and urgent an imperative than breathing; that children know more than bankers, poets more than actuaries, and Dionysius more than Apollo; that time is a funny medium, in which we are not truly at home; that the boundaries of beings are porous; that nothing important can be measured; that old books are better than new ones; that killing things is morally serious and requires strenuous justification; that it is not inevitable that there should be something instead of nothing, and that the only response to the fact that there is something, and to the kind of thing that the something is, should be open-mouthed wonder; and, generally, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in all the philosophies in all the university libraries in all the world.

I feel less embarrassed about writing this than I would have done five years ago. There’s been a rapprochement between cassocks and home-knitted smocks – to their mutual enrichment. Even Kingsnorth (a good friend, by the way), talks unabashedly about ‘spirituality’ in mediaeval churches, and tells us that he’s a Zen Buddhist. I think that’s real progress

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