What is it that makes such an argument so difficult to make? If what we want is the beautiful, why do we feel that our most persuasive arguments will be made by scientists, environmental engineers, regional planners, and sustainability economists? In part, it is the fact that we have been intimidated by all those who would say that such thinking is “unrealistic,” by which they really mean “does not concede the brutal fact of the enduring triumph of the Barbaric Heart.” By this measure, to be realistic is to say, “We plan to win by conceding the game to our adversaries before the contest has even begun.”
Second perhaps only to toxic landscapes, the most thoroughly degraded aspect of our culture is its art. This is so obvious that it hardly needs comment. One has simply to say “television.” Nevertheless, it is art, or the aesthetic, that prohibits the temptation to mourn the death of the world we were born into. Art is not a call to passive contemplation (a trip to the museum) but to the activity of human creation. It is this that should replace Adam Smith’s famous “division of labor,” the work that promises only tedium and despair and passivity in the face of destruction. Environmentalism should be about a return to the aesthetic, and I don’t mean the beauties of a mountain vista. I mean a resistance to the Barbaric Heart through a daily insistence on the Beautiful within individual lives, within communities, and in our relation to the natural world.
In Virgil’s Aeneid, when Aeneas and the faithful Trojan remnant sail from Troy for the shores of Italy, they, in a sense, never leave Troy. They are never not Trojans because they take with them their “household gods,” those figures and myths that provide them with identity. And when they land in Latium and begin to set up a new home, they do not feel themselves on strange shores. They are always at home. They bring the fullness of the past to meet the fullness of the present in productive beauty. By contrast, we’re not even at home at home. We’re strangers on our own shores, thanks to the way in which corporations and their franchises have colonized our cities and towns, turning them into one big McSame.
Historians often wonder what it was like for the Romans to live under the rule of the Goths in the sixth century. Barbarians in the Senate, barbarians in the market, barbarians in the temple, barbarians in the countryside. The constant presence of the violently alien. Well, perhaps it was like living with Best Buy and Costco and Barnes and Noble, in our Big Box world. In both the ancient world and the present, it is like living, in Nietzsche’s mordant phrase, “estranged from house and home in the service of malignant dwarfs.” But somehow when we look on the ugliness that this reality brings, we see a “high standard of living.” Those enchanted by the malignant dwarfs (CEOs? MBAs?) do not think to ask, “What makes life worth living?” The answer is obvious: “The high standards, of course!” A very strange conclusion for a people who are the living witnesses of so much permanent destruction.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that there is no need for environmentalism. Environmentalism has no victories to win. The very notion of environmentalism is not much more than a way of isolating a problem from its true context. The crisis of a degraded natural world is a part of the larger problem of the crisis of thought, the crisis of faith, and the crisis of the relation of human beings to Being (or God, if you prefer). What is called for is the discovery or invention of our own “household gods” that might speak powerfully to us. “Gods” that will keep us in touch with a sense of the depth of our own past and call us creatively to what we might call our primordial aesthetic passion: our deep desire to be the creators of our own world.
We ought to discover that there is something superior to the Barbaric Heart, a Universal that is not only Nature but human capacity and creativity as well. We ought to discover that we are a part of this One, an animal among animals. Ours should be a Dionysian world that refuses the cold comfort of both the capitalist manager and the ecologist technician. The Dionysian does not so much refuse these worlds as laugh in dismissal. Its world is indulgent and ecstatic and curiously impersonal. It is not an animal lover; it is simply happy among animals. It is not a nature lover; it is nature. It doesn’t pity the plight of the polar bear; it romps in the snow. It is a thoughtful and beautiful animal, but it is an animal. The Dionysian fucks, eats, looks for the ecstasy of transcendence, and worships the same gods that the animals worship. Not the God that gives laws, but the gods that encourage living things to thrive.
We are that strange and wonderful animal that has the metaphysical comfort of knowing that she is part of the tragic chorus of natural beings. We are members of that faith that knows that life is indestructibly powerful and pleasurable. And the mark that we will leave upon the world will not be the mark of brute force clothed in the false virtues of the barbarian but the mark of the ultimate realist, he who makes his own world, demanding the impossible and calling it Beautiful.
[Curtis White is a novelist and social critic living in Normal, Illinois. Among his recent books are Requiem, The Middle Mind, and The Spirit of Disobedience. He is also a frequent contributor to Harper’s Magazine, Orion, and Playboy. He is a Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University.]
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