I like reading books that blur the line between the human and the animal. Things like Watership Down, or Call of the Wild. Or the current book I’m reading, Royal Assassin (book 2 of the Farseer trilogy). Watership Down and Call of the Wild are both written from the point of view of the animal, personified enough to have a narrative view point. The main character of the Farseer trilogy, Fitz, has the ability to share thoughts and senses with animals.
In every single book I’ve read where animals have a voice, there’s a marked disdain for civilisation. There’s the recurring idea that our society and cities are unnatural, that our way of life is stilted and artificial, that what we need to do is tear away the veneer of civilisation, of polite society, and get back to the basics of eat, sleep, kill, survive. That those are the only truths in life and we humans smother them in manners and concrete.
There’s a fairly new movement out there called Uncivilisation. They believe that our current society is unsustainable and deeply damaging both to us, and to the ecosystem we live in. Both beliefs I share. However, there’s also a strong current in the Uncivilised movement of ‘civilisation bad, wild good’. There’s the same mantras of unnatural cities and societies, of the only truth being in eat, sleep, kill.
I’ve been reading the Tao Ti Ching over the last few months. (It’s taking me a while to get through, because I read a couple of pages and then have to think about them for a few weeks.) The basic thrust seems to be that the entire world is an illusion, and you need to learn to look past it to understand the truth of the Tao (the way, or path). It makes a lot of sense: once you start saying, ‘x is good’, then there must be ‘y is bad’ otherwise ‘good’ is a meaningless term. Because the basic definition of ‘good’ is ‘not bad’, and the basic definition of bad is, ‘not good’, both concepts are entirely circular, so both are illusionary and can be discarded. Human beings are microcosms of the universe, and so the Tao is inside us. We simply have to be still, and listen.
I don’t know about the Tao, but ruminating on the Tao Ti Ching and poking the illusion that is what we normally call reality has made me more aware of what’s inside me. Under all the thoughts and angst and narratives I’ve internalised. Once we have found the Tao, we must work with it. Like working with the grain of wood when carving something. So I’ve been trying to work with the grain of me.
And so I’ve been thinking about this, ‘wild good, civilisation bad’ thing.
First of all, I’m not sure animals would be quite as disdainful of our civilised lifestyles as these authors imagine. “What? So… you sit around all day, and someone else kills your food and brings it to you, someone else builds your shelters and your beds, you don’t have to worry about weather, or famine, or being ill, you don’t have to kill to keep your children safe, you don’t even have to walk anywhere… And all you have to do is obey a few silly social rules? Dude, that sounds fucking awesome!”
Secondly, human brains are incredibly plastic. They are designed to re-wire themselves to best exploit the environment they are in–and ‘environment’ also includes the bodies that they’re in. Society and circumstance change our brains on a biological level. So it’s impossible to describe any human tendency as ‘innate’. By the time time we’ve been out the womb three months, it’s already impossible to separate nature from nurture. We are Nature’s wild cards.
However. We do seem to have a definite tendency to form complex societies. We form groups, and those groups adopt customs, beliefs and expectations. Those groups tell stories, share experiences, share crafts, create art, acquire and record knowledge.
Society, if not ‘civilisation’, seems to be part of the grain of humanity. All that stuff which keeps us away from eat, sleep, kill is the stuff which makes us human. While we deny part of ourselves, there will always be a lingering sense of dissatisfaction.
So this, ‘let’s get back to the wild! Get back to honest living! Eat, sleep, kill!’ isn’t a solution. The wild/civilised dichotomy is a false one: part of the human ‘wildness’ is civilisation. A return to a beast-life is no more a solution than eating nothing at all is a solution to not liking broccoli. ‘Wild’ is defined as ‘not civilised’, and ‘civilised’ as ‘not wild’…
So what is the solution? Find out what needs our civilisation leaving so unfulfilled that there’s this repeating desire to throw out the baby with the bathwater and run around the wood howling at the moon. The Uncivilised movement is having a fair crack at that, or at least parts of it are. And me? Of course I’ve got to do the same thing. Macro and micro are illusions and doing one without the other is like making a cake with half the ingredients.