Above the Clouds

It’s been quiet around here (it seems with the gloom of the US political situation, prepping for a new job, and my mom being hospitalized my ability to write has been stopped up), but before the newness of the year is gone I want to spill out a few words here. The old year sputtered out with an occasional remaining fit of coughing and spewing. A new one has come in with the energy of a careening freight train, will the rails hold, or if not what might be down there at the end of the line? Some will say years are arbitrary but they are astronomical realities. Sure, it’s a cultural thing where they’re said to start and to end and begin again but we are symbolic animals and psyche is as real as soma.

 

For many in the northern hemisphere it’s winter, but here in the tropics day and night are the antinomies, but the nights have at least cooled off. At the end of the year I had the opportunity to journey up to a high summit (just under 14,000 feet) where winter is reigning. Plenty of snow on the amazing mountain of Maunakea. The effects of high altitude, of low oxygen can easily induce light trance-like states, and the otherworld can more easily communicate with this one at these heights, I have found. Whether via literal heights or those we can reach in our imagination, in “interesting times” it is important to get above the clouds from time to time, above the light pollution of the media (including social media). Of course, one can go underneath too, but that is a different journey.

 

I do have a few announcements to make:

 

I will be at PantheaCon in San Jose in February and presenting a class on filidecht practice on Feb. 17th, “Cauldron Work: The Cauldron of Poesy” (9PM). Here’s from the program:

 

The Three Cauldrons are discussed in the medieval Irish text: “The Cauldron of Poesy”, attributed to the mythical vision poet (fili) Amergin. We will talk about the nature of the whirlpool-like cauldrons and their turning in this wisdom tradition, the importance of our emotions in this tradition (which can turn the cauldrons), and techniques to scan for personal knowledge. To turn the cauldron of wisdom upright, even if momentarily, brings mystical insight. We will discuss the key technique of incubation as well; poetry, art, song, knowledge, wisdom are fruit of this work.

 

The devotional book The Dark Ones, published late last year by Neosalexandria has my poem for the Cailleach, along with a lot of familiar voices. Ordering info here:

https://neosalexandria.org/bibliotheca-alexandrina/current-titles/fiction-anthologies/the-dark-ones-tales-and-poems-of-the-shadow-gods/

 

The new issue of A Beautiful Resistance is available for pre-order and will be out next month. I have an essay there about the left-hand sacred, an important understanding of the sacred earlier developed by Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille and very relevant for 21st century pagans/polytheists. https://godsandradicals.org/2017/01/01/left-sacred-presale/

Here’s a lovely meme with a quote from the essay made by Rhyd Wildermuth:

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Finally, a quote from an inspiring essay by William Hawes:

“Each of us must find the strength to light their own flame, find their own inner strength and sacred fire, and use their passion and creativity to change the world. By using our collective brilliance, a new space could be opened up for a new kind of Earth. Reviving our communities one-by-one gives us our only chance to confront and defeat the many tentacle monster of international capitalism and US imperialism. There is an alternative: but you won’t find it by watching your TV, or playing on your smartphone.”

https://godsandradicals.org/2017/01/16/lighting-a-flame-in-dark-times/

Imbolc is coming! May Brigid’s flame inspire us.

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Extinction Remembrance Day

November 30th is Remembrance Day for Lost Species. I believe commemorations like this can be channels for the grief that any authentic living in this time must confront. Definitely a good day to mark for those with an animist bent.

More information can be found at this website.

https://www.lostspeciesday.org/

I’ve also found valuable thoughts from Lo (Keen) on extinction on this blog: https://rotwork.wordpress.com/

I’ve written a couple of poems and tributes to the lost birds of the Big Island of Hawai’i for this day.

A distinctively human consciousness arose in Paleolithic

linguistics and painted its wrestle with abyssal animal mind,

staving guilt of hunt and anxiety separation

with ritual’s diplomacy:

ochre and feathers

and sorcerers dancing on the edge of worlds,

occasionally falling off into the pit of bones.

now centuries of the rites cast aside,

suppressed volcanoes of grief wait unaddressed

and sedimentary layers of numbness press on our continents—

a society looks for the forgotten

who peek occasionally from sedated dreams,

in pixar and pokemon-alert smartphones

(the children were out in August—I hadn’t known there were any,

but there they’d gathered near where the stream gushes by the supermarket unseen)

while outside barely known

the Sixth Extinction rages on.

We the truly lost species as tectonic plates grind on.

Here on the island of Hawai’i there are at least ten species of bird that have gone extinct since the arrival of whites in the late 18th century. There are many more if the entire archipelago is included. Hawaii has suffered more extinctions and more endangered species than any other US state. The majority of these lost species are of a group of birds called Hawaiian honeycreepers that underwent diverse speciation as they adapted to a multitude of island environments much like the finches that led Darwin to theorizing evolution. In many cases their habitat was destroyed by sugar plantations and cattle ranching; also the introduction of rats, mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit (there were none before the Europeans came), mongooses and cats have led to the demise of others.

The Hawaii mamo, Drepanis pacifica, last seen in 1898.

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The greater Koa finch, Rhodocanthis palmeri. Last confirmed sighting in 1896.

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The lesser Koa finch, R. flaviceps, 1891.

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The Kona grosbeak, Chloridops kona. 1894.

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The Hawai’i o’o, Moho nobilis, last seen in 1934.

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The ula-‘ai-hawene, Ciridops anna, extinct at the latest by 1937.

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The greater ‘amakini, Viridonia sagittirostris, last seen in1901. Lost to sugar plantations destroying its habitat.

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The lesser ‘akialoa, Akialoa obscura. Last seen in 1940.

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The Hawaiian rail, Porzana sandwichensis. 1884 or maybe 1893.

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The kioea, Chaetoptila angustipluma, 1859.

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All images Wikipedia, public domain.

 

An Elegy

before the cattle, before the sugar,

before the mosquitoes and rats

brought by whalers’ ships,

before the plantations

how much richer the island life—

when the lost birds could be heard cracking

the naio fruits, flitting in gold epaulettes and black dress

among the ohia trees,

opening the seed pods in the koa groves,

sheltering from fierce noon sun and plundering

nectar with long curved beaks. Your flights

haunt, a lost net of sorrow.

.

Gods & Radicals

As the US roils with turmoil, a rising tide of hate crimes and a promise from the Strongman the Electoral College put into office that the US will pull out of the Paris Accords, I take stock of my religious communities. This has been a divisive year in many ways, in so many layers. Many things have changed. One of the bright constellations in this depressing year has been the growth of Gods & Radicals, and its publications, including the magazine A Beautiful Resistance. A re-membering of the radical nature of being pagan in a capitalist-dominated world, something many had forgotten in the mainstreaming, especially in the US, of paganism/polytheism, is called forth. The roots of paganism have sent up new shoots. The ensuing year further revealed that publisher Rhyd Wildermuth’s exposes were real and of great import: that in our pagan/polytheist communities the alt-right had put their envenomed tentacles down. There was much hew and cry about how dare such accusations be made, but then we saw how many revealed themselves as White Supremacists, along with those who would give them passage and cheer, and who knew no integrity in their campaigns against those that they felt threatened by. A year ago, I thought the alt-right were but a tempest in a teapot. I was wrong: now a major voice of this new revised version of fascism has been given a top job in Drumpf’s White House, the head of the horrifying Breitbart alt-right ‘news’ website. A year or so ago I was told a Storm was coming; it has arrived, taken the capital and frightens the planet. An informative background on the alternative right: https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/alternative-right

 

G&R offers a wide variety of writers and perspectives (although its detractors claim otherwise) from Alley Valkyrie to Christopher Scott Thompson, the Hunter S. Thompson-esque hell-raising of Dr. Bones to the beautiful poetry of Lorna Smithers, the eco-wisdom of Sean Donahue, the spirited politics of T. Thorn Coyle, Yvonne Aburrow, Wildermuth and so many more compassionate, intelligent voices. Such voices are needed more than ever in these times of descent into neo-fascism. Please contribute to their fundraiser! It runs till the end of the year.

https://godsandradicals.org/solidarity/

There are plenty of cool perks too!

Keepers of the Past, Guides to the Future

I’ve lately been very struck by this statement of Arundhati Roy, Indian writer, activist and author of The God of Small Things:

“The day that capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives lowdown on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle everyday to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and rivers protect them.”

 

“The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different imaginations—an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as communism. An imagination which has an altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but may really be the guides to our future.” (Quoted in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein).

 

I find there is much applicable to pagan polytheism and our reconstructions here. And an understanding of the positive side of traditions that a reconstructionist should hope to cultivate as attitudes/practices/imagination that are an “altogether different understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment” and a good way of life that what our mainstream viewpoint of neoliberal capitalism asserts. Whether Celtic—Irish, Welsh, Gaulish, etc.—or Scandinavian, Hellenic, Baltic, etc. reconstruction of our traditions provide tools of imagination and life as we fare into a dangerous future and forging new/old ways of life that are integrated into the great life cycles of our planet, of our biology and ecology and the greater cosmos. They provide us with understandings of reciprocal living in a relational landscape, that we may step out into a sacred intimacy with world.

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Christopher Williams, Ceridwen, 1910. Wikipedia commons.

Nietzsche & Dionysos

This is an essay that will be in a collection that I will publish next spring/summer.

 

I feel Friedrich Nietzsche has been sadly neglected as a pagan/polytheist precursor, he who did so much to lay open avenues for pagan developments, among others. Many misunderstand his death of God statement and see this as a proclamation of an ideological atheist, rather than a clearing and the insight that the Abrahamic god was dead, at least in as occupying the center stage that he had held for so long in western culture. His trenchant analyses of the negative influences that Christianity had on European cultures, especially in terms of its cultivation of what he called resentiment, the resentment of those who identify spiritually as victims, and the nihilistic pessimism of the passive approach to a life so cultivated and the goal of living as life’s negation, which he explored in books such as Beyond Good and Evil and the Anti-Christ, retain much of value in today’s world (I find this especially obvious in the assertions so often made today that one should not critique Christianity, even in its most regressive forms and institutions, often under the banner of “inter-faith”). But for our purposes his Dionysianism is central. In his passionate weave of Dionysos and the Heraklitean philosophy of becoming, life-affirming (but not shying from the tragic) resources for pagan/polytheistic theology can be found.

 

The son of a pastor, Nietzsche had an interest in paganism from his earliest years. As a child, living in the small town of Naumberg after his father’s death (1850) Friedrich and his sister constructed an altar for Wotan. As quoted from Zarathustra’s Secret by a German academic, Joachim Kohler, Elizabeth Nietzsche said, “We happened to hear that the nearby hill called the Kirchberg had originally been a place of sacrifice, so we collected stones and fragments of bone and built an altar round which we erected a pile of bones and wood, then set fire to it. When our goodly pastor, attracted by the strange smell, came to see what we were doing, he found us striding solemnly around the altar with burning torches held aloft, chanting a kind of hymn to the words, “Wotan, hear us!” (22). Elizabeth went on to horrible things* but we can only wonder how much Friedrich’s imaginings and contemplations of Wotan was a formative element. He remembered an eagle answering their call who had screeched out the name of the god. In this period he wrote his dreams down faithfully, and an important figure was a cloaked gamekeeper with “wild, glowering” features who seems to echo the Wild Huntsman. A few years later, his diary reports, ”’Finally, we reached a valley,…surrounded by wild undergrowth. Suddenly our companion took a whistle from his pocket and blew a shrill tone. At once the forest came to life, torches were to be seen here and there and we surrounded by men in masks” (24). This sounds like the spirit of the Wild Hunt. But it would be Dionysos to whom the adult Nietzsche would be dedicated; it is relevant that Dionysus also has an aspect as a leader of the dead and other spirits in a procession similar to the Wild Hunt.

 

Nietzsche often described himself in the role of a healer, a physician diagnosing the illness of Western civilization, and in his early book The Birth of Tragedy, the diagnosis was that the Dionysian aspect of life had been suppressed and neglected in Europe under the reign of Christianity and what he saw as its world-denying regimen. The Apollonian was just as important but had been given much greater due. There was no art form so vital in his view as Greek tragedy, that pure form of dramatic poetry that had been developed as part of the Urban Dionysia, the great Athenian festival dedicated to the ecstatic god. The tragedy grew out of the dithyramb, the enthusiastic choric form of poetry chanted and danced to Dionysus. He wrote that “Dionysus never ceased to be the tragic hero… all the famous figures of the Greek stage…are only masks of that original hero Dionysus. Nietzsche was himself a poet, though many only know him as the philosopher who wrote in a poetic style. He wrote a book of dithyrambs, which any lover of Dionysus should have, entitled, Dithyrambs of Dionysos. A German/English bilingual edition translated by RJ Hollindale and published by Anvil Press is an easily accessible one. He wrote the nine poems from 1883 to 1888, before his mental breakdown. A short poem that inscribes the beginning of the book is written as Dionysus:

In as much as I want to do mankind a boundless favour, I give them my dithyrambs.

 

I place them in the hands of the poet of Isoline {meaning Nietzsche}

The first and greatest satyr alive today—and not only today…

Dionysus

 

Nietzsche’s most famous and complex work, Thus Spake Zarathustra, presents a pagan vision of life. The philosopher T. K. Seung has written a hermeneutic work on Thus Spake Zarathustra entitled Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul wherein he argues for the epic nature of the book, specifically that is as an epic journey of the soul. He situates Nietzsche as a pantheist, and in the lineage of Spinoza, a walker on the sacred earth, a climber on an epic quest, which parallels some of the writing of the book, which took place in the mountains of Switzerland as well as on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Spinoza dealt with the problem of the deterministic material universe, the endless chains of causality, and how to create human joy from this seeming impasse of free will, and this would be one of Nietzsche’s concerns as well. One of the thorniest problems in interpretations of Zarathustra over generations is what Nietzsche meant by his doctrine of eternal recurrence; Zarathustra proclaims that seemingly impossible doctrine that everything will be repeated over and over, our lives in all our minutiae. Seung interprets it to be Spinoza’s chain of causality, the endless connections of our material lives and of the universe we are part of. The scientific universe whether of Newton or Einstein is this determined reality and the notion of the sovereign individual unleashed in this cosmography presents a basic contradiction. The laws of nature can’t be overcome. Seung states, “As long as these two ideas are kept apart from each other, there is no problem. But they generate an intractable problem when they are placed together. How can the individual be a creative master in the deterministic world?” (xiv). For post-medieval western philosophers the medieval theological debate over Adam’s free will versus predestination became one of free will vs. nature. For Seung this is Nietzsche’s ring of the eternal recurrence, a metaphor for the situation of the would-be sovereign individual within the laws of nature.

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Photo by Maylene Thyssen, Denmark.

 

But why not take the Dionysian Nietzsche at face value, and examine the theology of eternal recurrence? Carl Kerenyi in Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life wrote, “in the union of the two archetypal images, the divine pair of Dionysos and Ariadne represent the eternal passage of zoe into and through the genesis of living creatures, this occurs over and over again and is always, uninterruptedly, present.” Nietzsche had named himself the “last disciple of Dionysos” (Twilight of the Idols 563) and had found a precursor for his thought in Heraclitus: “The affirmation of passing away and destroying, which is the decisive feature of a Dionysian philosophy; saying Yes to opposition and war; becoming along with a radical repudiation of the very concept of being—all this is clearly closely related to me than anything else thought to date. The doctrine of the ‘eternal recurrence’, that is of the unconditional and infinitely repeated cyclical course of all things, this doctrine of Zarathustra might in the end have been already taught by Heraclitus. At least the Stoa has traces of it, and the Stoics inherited almost all of their principle notions from Heraclitus” (Ecce Homo quoted in Lukacher 7).

 

Nietzsche traced the eternal recurrence back through the stoics to Heraclitus, and his sense of the world eventually ending in a great conflagration, the ekpyrosis. In Heraclitus 45: “This kosmos, the same for all, none of gods nor humans made, but it was always and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindled in measures and extinguished in measures” (Curd 45). Life, fire, destruction, continual becoming are interlinked, indissolubly (as in ever-lasting: àeízöon, composed of zoe and aei, eternity). Stoic allegorists saw that the ever-living survives by dying, and Chrysippus said, “that all gods die in the last conflagration of the world, except for Jupiter” (Lukacher 10), we may hear an echo in the Norse Ragnarok. But for Nietzsche the god who survives the end of the cycle of the great year is named Dionysos. Regeneration in fire would always be world renewing. And Nietzsche theorized in 1883 that the Mysteries taught such eternal recurrence. Many die too late and a few die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: “Die at the right time!”…I want to die myself that you, my friends, may love the earth more for my sake; and to earth I want to return that I may find rest in her who gave birth to me.

 

Like Heraclitus, Nietzsche did not see Being and Appearance as an opposition. There was no static Being but an ever-continuing coming to be and passing away without any closure of resolution. Like for Heraclitus, the strife of the world was not negative but something creative, in fact an overfullness, like a pregnancy near term (Ullers 9). Life is a process of renewal though its own destruction, something essentially Dionysian. The phenomena rise and pass endlessly, the forms broken like the tragic hero, the pathos of the will of the Heraklitean joinedness of opposites, of suffering and ecstasy at the heart of nature, an insight captured in the Dionysian theater, in the intoxicated god. (see Ulfers)

A Dionysian theology/philosophy can be discerned in this pain and ecstasy of becoming, one that has much potential as an alternative to the Neo-Platonist ones that have so much popularity these days, one rooted in pre-Socratic insight and the immanence of unlimited life and with potential for various polytheisms.

 

 

 

 

 

References

Curd, Patricia. Ed. A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia. 2nd Ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011.

Kerenyi, Karl. Dionysos: Archteypal Image of Eternal Life. Princeton, 1976.

Köhler, Joachim. Zarathustra’s Secret: The Interior Life of Friedrich Nietzsche. trans. Ronald Taylor. New Haven: Yale, 2002.

Lukacher, Ned. Time-Fetishes: The Secret History of Eternal Recurrences. Durham: Duke University, 1998.

Ulfers, Frierich. “Introduction.” The Dionysian Vision of the World. Minneapolis: Univocal, 2013.

 

*Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche became a notorious racist, fascist, and anti-Semite.

Walls, Taxonomies, Spills

Boundaries are often good things, walls sometimes, sometimes not. Walls are much in the US news of late, with a would be demagogue loudly proclaiming the need to build a wall between the US and Mexico, and another would be president imbecile saying it’s worthwhile to explore building one between the US and Canada. Which leads to the thought if the inhabitants were completely walled in, wouldn’t that be a prison?

Staking out claims, carving out territory, specifically for those whose theological stance is definitely polytheist has been and continues to be a necessary action, when larger communities have proven so often that they want to redefine our polytheist stances into their own—or to disregard ours completely. But it works both ways, an obsession for taxonomy doesn’t necessarily lead to a healthy practice. It easily leads to this is the ‘right and true way’ to do Polytheism.

One aspect of this makes me at times feel like I’m caught in one of those awful European tortures of centuries past (drawing and quartering), being pulled in more than one direction. This is the notion that Paganism (that poorly defined rain protection device) has various ‘centers’. These are said to be the Gods, Nature, the Self (not the ego), and Community. I orient in a general way within the Druidic Three Kindreds practice. That is the Gods, the Spirits (conceived as spirits of land, sea, sky, that is lowercase nature) and the Ancestors. That my practice is largely deity-driven and focused doesn’t in any way preclude my animism, devotion to the spirits, seen and unseen. And all of these drew me to paganism in the first place.

I agree with John Beckett that it is very important to have that vocabulary of fishes (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2015/08/fish-is-not-just-fish.html); if I want mahi-mahi I certainly don’t want to end up with a plate of perch. But I might want to order that seafood medley the next time around (I still want to know what’s in there but the grouping might offend your taxonomy, though*). Boundaries and definitions (and they are very important in a time when people want to make words mean whatever they feel like—like the Atheopagans now saying they have a ‘theology’ and a ‘creed’), yes, but let’s note we are setting our taxonomies up, they weren’t cargo dropped from the Sky by the gods, and we need to be careful we don’t set up high walls that only keep us in—or worse dismember our bodies and minds. My core tradition (Irish) is full of overflows, spills, gushes, after all. Defining things needs to be strategic and conscious and strategies have to be able to be changed. Walls can be undermined, or bored through or overflown. Nomads have much to teach. And we oughtn’t forget walls/borders are built across indigenous territories in colonial architectures devised to divide and rule.

My religion includes trees, gods, stones, demigods, ancestors, lakes, creeks, ancestors, more gods, animals, heroes, the sun and the moon, deified humans, the stars… and if it’s not clear, I will say it: all are persons with agency.

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*An obsession with taxonomy can be found in the Book of Leviticus.

Becoming Placed, Part I

Some asked me to put my notes from my presentation at Many Gods West up, so here you go. This text is something I talked from.

I have to preface this with a note that since the conference I have seen some bloggers (let’s just call them humanists) using disenchantment in a diluted metaphoric way, specifically making claims like ‘enchantment does not require gods, spirits, magic’ and the like. The word enchantment literally means using song/chant to magic. Let’s not lose this term, which has a long history in pagan and polytheist discourse and a key role in historical studies of the transition from feudal Europe to early modern Europe and the radical change in social/economic relations called capitalism. Sociologists and historians specifically used the word because of the people of western European countries losing their ‘beliefs’ and relations with non-human others, certainly including of the ‘invisible’ kinds: fairies, hobs, trolls, demons, and a myriad more, and was part of the process of making the modern world of objectified resources, all freed for exploiting. This is a case where reenchant/disenchant/enchant do have a vital core meaning.

Becoming Placed: Imagination and Reenchantment

Part I: Disenchantment or How We Became Unplaced

As this is a huge topic, I’m focusing a lot on one key player in the western history of disenchantment: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) because of the enormous impact he had and central role in the development of science.

To understand Bacon and his thinking it’s necessary to understand his historical context, including religious struggle, his Puritan sympathies, the backdrop of technical skills, poor laws, etc. His father had benefitted in the great upheavals of the closing of the monasteries and the seizing and redistribution of the vast lands of the Church under the Protestant monarchs. This was a time of enclosures of common lands and resistance against them. As the subsistence economy of feudal times began to be disrupted and broken up large numbers of displaced people were on the roads, the vagabonds. This is the world he grew up in, what Max Weber called the Protestant Revolution and the birth of capitalism. Bacon flourished and was in government under James I (James VI of Scotland) who in his younger years was paranoid of being harmed by witches, and even thought he had almost been drowned by them during a voyage with his bride from Norway to Britain. The king wrote a famous tract on diabolical witchcraft, the Demonomanie. Bacon was very aware of the investigations and procedures that were used at the time on the bodies of women in witchcraft investigations, and the rhetoric of that will permeate his scientific work.

Bacon had some of the strongest influence on the development of modern science, and his rhetoric is especially revealing of his disdain for the natural world and how it must be violently interrogated. He also saw himself very much at odds with the Renaissance magus or with the alchemist. And his rhetoric also shows his acute awareness of witchcraft interrogations and torture.

A few quotes from the ‘great man’:

“The magus was wrong in thinking his effort was to assist nature.”

James I, his patron and book on witches referenced below:

“For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lea and drive her afterward to the same place again…..Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object—as your majesty has shown in your own example” (Merchant 168).

“For like as a man’s disposition is never well known or proved till he be crossed, nor Proteus ever changed shapes till he was straitened and held fast, so nature exhibits herself more clearly under the trials and vexations of art (mechanical devices) than when left to herself.” His rhetoric of the womb is particularly revealing: “There is therefore much ground for hoping that there are still laid up in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use having no affinity or parallelism with anything that is now known…only by the method which we are not treating can they be speedily and suddenly and simultaneously presented and anticipated.”

Bacon believed man could recover the power over nature that had been lost when Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden (Merchant 170).

More thoughts on female Nature:

“She is either free and follows her ordinary course of development as in the heaven, in the animal and vegetable creation, and in the general array of the universe; or she is driven out of her ordinary course by the perverseness, insolence, and forcedness of mater and violence of impediments, as in the case of monsters; or lastly, she is put in constraint, modeled, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man; as in things artificial. 170

Nature would not come on her own—she had to be bound and forced. Miners and smiths Bacon thought were the pioneers. People should forsake “Minerva and the Muses as barren virgins, to rely upon Vulcan” (171). Alchemists should throw out their books. Go completely empirical and material, in other words.

The new system of investigation, that is modern science, would combine mechanical technology and the new method of science, a “New Organon”. It aimed “to endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe’. Bacon believed this was a divine bequest to man.

And so a new objectivity was made: the role of observing. As Ran Priur, a green anarchist has written: “To observe something is to perceive it while distancing oneself emotionally and physically, to have a one-way channel of “information” moving from the observer thing to “self”, which is defined as not being part of that thing” (Green Anarchy 59).

And so Bacon’s most ambitious book was New Atlantis published in 1627, a year after his death. Here he envisions a utopia with research facilities that eerily foreshadow contemporary laboratories. A highly scientific and Christian (Protestant, of course) culture is revealed in the remoteness of the southern reaches of the Pacific, a small continent named Bensalem. It is governed by a patriarchal scientific body called Solomon’s House. The narrator of this fiction was on a ship that had been traveling from Peru to Asia but became adrift in the infamous doldrums—and for such a long time that its stocks ran perilously low. But at the time of their direst need they saw clouds piling up on the horizon, a sign of land. Soon it turns out that they have been sighted and a small boat comes up to them and escorts them into the harbor of this land. There they are quarantined. The oddest think about this scientific nation is that they are unknown to Europe and Asia and the rest of the world but they know about every nation, having been surveilling them for centuries, basically. They are aware of current events as well as the history of the various nations. Solomon’s House practitioners seem to know all, casting a scientific gaze across the planet. Its agents have long disguised themselves as members of various cultures and passed among them incognito. Then they return with their reports and surveys. The governor who visits the sequestered men from the ship questions their selected elite and some questions but not all and reveals the history of this hidden nation. Long ago their nation had been better known and they reveal the tale of how Bensalem had converted to Christianity via the descent of a mysterious pillar of light which rotated on the nearby sea, and which revealed a box containing the Bible. In the ensuing years a blend of science and religion had proliferated; the eye of Bensalem, as the country was called seems like a colossal and haunting eye that is able to veil itself (some mythic resonance there!). A vision of science as invisible itself, yet always gazing on a world that it has penetrated, is a trope that would play out tremendously in centuries to come.

Nineteen hundred years previously, this Atlantis of the Pacific was governed by a kind of Platonic philosopher king named Solomon who founded the Institute, called both Solomon’s House and the College of the Six Days’ Works. The governor related to the men that the House was named for the Hebrew king and that it held the book of Natural History written by that wise king—a work that had been lost to the rest of the world, and that through familiarity with this text and cataloguing the Biblical God’s works had come the other name of the College. This shows the heart of Bacon’s ideology, that namely the earth had been created for Man, and that it was time that men learned how to use all of the resources that god had provided that lay in wait; in utilitarian fashion all species and aspects of the planet inherently existed for human exploitation and with the new scientific method were ripe for the taking.

“The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things, and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible”.

The governor goes onto describe Solomon’s House and some of its key projects: it is an amazing document with Bacon being quite prescient about many things to come. There are deep underground mines and chambers where various experiments are carried out as well as high towers up to half a mile in height with observatories. There are establishments which sound remarkably like places for genetic engineering. “We have means to make…diverse new plants, differing from the vulgar. “By art likewise, we make them greater or taller than their kind is, and contrariwise barren and no generative; also we make them different in color, shape, activity—many new kinds….We make a number of serpents, worms, flies, fishes, of putrefaction, whereas some are advanced(in effect) to be perfect creatures, like beasts or birds, and have sexes, and do propagate. Neither do we do this by chance, but we know beforehand, of what matter and commixture, what kind of those creatures will arise.” Sounds like a manifesto for Monsanto! Bensalem’s shadow could be the plastic continent now arising in the eastern Pacific, the so-called Great Garbage Patch.

From such vision the laboratory science of Robert Boyle could be grounded later in the century (which has set the tone for lab science all the way to today). This new science would be stamped with a Protestant character…sober and chaste as technoscience remains. Science historian and theorist, Donna Haraway writes of the knowledge produced that was, “constructed to have the ground-breaking capacity to ground social order objectively, literally. This separation of expert knowledge from mere opinion as the legitimating knowledge for ways of life, without appeals to transcendent authority or to abstract uncertainty of any kind, is a founding gesture of what we call modernity.” Immeasurable violence was required for its founding.

A breather: there was so much resistance to the enclosures, the draining of wetlands and loss of common lands, the deprival of rights to use woods for sustenance, etc. at the times. Some inspiring examples of this comes from the Fen Dwellers of East Anglia, whose tavern protest songs display a life lived in deep relationality, and heart-breaking loss as early agribusiness interests drained the fens. Here is a song:

Fen song

 Come brethren of the water, let us all assemble,

To treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble

For we shall rue it, if’t be true, that Fens be undertaken,

And where we feed in fen and reed, they’ll feed both Beef and Bacon.

The feathered Fowls have wings to fly to other nations;

but we have no such things, to help our transportations;

We must give place (oh grievous case) to horned beast and cattle

Except that we canal agree to drive them out by battle (Merchant 60).

 

Newton and Descartes on Space

 

Descartes was most interested in measurability. For him, place was a subordinate feature of matter and space, parasitic on res extensa. For Newton place becomes nothing but a means of measurement. Place is dissolved into absolute space, place at best becomes a marker. Places are conceived as mere parts of space; the geometrizing of space that occurs there belongs properly to mechanics, that is to laws governing material bodies at rest, or in motion….the aim of Newtonian geometry is measurement. “Therefore, geometry is founded in mechanical practice,” says Newton, and is “nothing but the part of universal mechanics which accurately proposes and demonstrates the art of measuring.” But the basis of measuring is precisely the regularity, the homogeneity of the space to be measured. In this way, too, the triumph of space over place is assured, given that implacement, moving into place asks merely to be experienced or perceived, not to be measured…” (Casey 147).

This radical predominance of Space occurs in the zeitgeist (and its corollary of measurability) of the early capitalism of the times….It can hardly be accidental as a new economic orientation, capitalist relations for which everything was resource to be used, measured, sold for profit that the absolutism of space which dissolved all places reigned. All while place after place was being conquered, and peoples decimated and enslaved in vast new worlds, whose wealth needed to be measured and sent to Europe. Even those illimitable regions of the sea were lined with longitude and latitude. All must be measured, quantified and made open, after being stripped of qualities.

 

After having just transited through three airports I brought up airports as de-placed spaces. Edward Casey quotes philosopher Lassiter on such interchangeability that has become ubiquitous in modern life: “for the modern self, all places are essentially the same: in the uniform, homogenous space of the Euclidean-Newtonian grid, all places are essentially interchangeable. Our homes, even our places for homes are defined by objective measures.” And flying is the quintessential modern activity. Great point was brought up by an attendee: airports, and these other deplaced sites can be mythologized as the sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard did brilliantly.

The ocean is also for the westerner (but not at all for the Polynesian, or Micronesian for example), a nearly endless emptied out SPACE, devoid of place, an abstraction of the Newtonian world.

In consideration of all this I keep wondering why do Pagans always talk about SPACE, creating sacred space and so on, but not much about PLACE?

References

Francis Bacon. New Atlantis.                                                                                        Edward Casey. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History.                                   Donna Haraway. Modest_Witness @ Second_Millennium.                                 Carolyn Merchant. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution.                                                                                                                  Uncivilized: The Best of Green Anarchy.               

 Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism.