The ground has un-frozen and all manner of cheery notions float their way up to the surface with the change of seasons and time.
For the past twelve months, the subject in this excerpt has been the single largest idea on my mind, occupying my thoughts and experienced by my body.
Every passing day further convinces me that we have missed something extremely fundamental and important when we hitched certain notions of ‘evolution’ to mercantile capitalism and its attendant industrial revolution.
I find the whole concept far too complex and resistant to inquiry through a modern lens to just blab about it without having yet discerned the common thread that weaves it all together. This piece it seems, may in fact be a good starting point.
I have also come to the point that it is necessary to recognize some ideas and stories are not cut and dried. Nor are they possible to be explained in a few short well placed words or reference.
I am copying the entire text for you to read yourself as I believe it to be fundamental and important in it’s own right regardless of what I might have to draw from it.
It’s likely to be that I will resort to this more often in the coming months. In part because of the severity of the current crisis facing our species. In part because the unexamined life is not worth living.
We are under threat. Mostly by ourselves. And we don’t possess even a reasonable understanding and admission of who and what we are. This makes grappling with our potential nigh impossible.
Please stay safe. Please actively participate in your future. Please take part in all this life has to offer
Orion Magazine | How to Be Animal
By Melanie Challenger 12-16 minutes
The following is an excerpt from How to Be Animal
(Penguin Random House, March 2021).
THE IDEA IS THAT we were not human and then we became human. And when we became fully human, we could no longer be understood as animals. This idea gained popularity in the decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species. As evidence of our early ancestors was found, thinkers and scientists started to focus their energies on defining the moment when we became human as we understand it today. The desire was for unique biological characteristics that could be dated after the emergence of our species.
By the early twentieth century it was widely considered among scholars that around 40,000 years ago, in an era referred to as the Upper Paleolithic, a cognitive leap occurred whereby groups of Homo sapiens in Western Europe began acting and behaving in a way that marked them out as human. The “Human Revolution,” as it became known, was talked about as an almost miraculous span of time in which a suite of skills such as abstract thinking, sophisticated tool use, language, and symbolic image-making arose among men and women, transforming people in an extraordinarily short timescale from an ape to a superbeing. If God hadn’t brought forth humans in a state of completeness, at least evolution had very nearly done so. But this source of reassurance soon hit difficulties.
If it was biological proofs of difference that mattered, how could we separate out biology from cultural behavior? In an age of smartphones, it is obvious to most of us now that cultural innovations can accumulate suddenly without any physical change to the people inventing them. It’s perfectly plausible that there was no human revolution, only some phases of rapid evolution and many phases of slow evolution. It’s also possible that the underlying cognitive abilities that gave rise to the cultural manifestations we’ve since labelled as “human modernity” were present tens of thousands of years before the speciation of Homo sapiens, let alone the arrival of the Neolithic era. As American archaeologist Sally McBrearty has since said: “The search for revolutions in Western thought has been, in part, a search for the soul, for the inventive spark that distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.”
Alfred Wallace, who arrived at his own theories of evolution at more or less the same time as Darwin, understood the advantages of this for human psychological wellbeing. To revive our hopes for salvation, we could explain away the body as a natural event, but single out some essence that is the source of “a higher intelligence.” It is because of notions like this that modern secular individuals don’t need a unique soul. It is enough to believe that our elaborate cognition sets the boundary. The boundary in this sense is not between an immortal being and its physical body but consists of the superior qualities of human rationality. Human mental life consists of a range of capabilities that lift us out of nature.
This was particularly appealing to those who had inherited humanist ideas, sometimes of deeply compassionate intent, to place the interests of human persons at the center of judgement. According to secular humanism, perhaps other animals are sentient, even conscious by some measures, but they lack a sense of self, any knowledge of right or wrong. They lack a soulful mind. Experiences like pleasure were to be given intrinsic value, so that we could point to the duties that arise from this. In practice, all this did was to isolate human things and then use this to argue we only have duties to humans. It was a neat trick. Humanists had carved our statue and hidden the chisels with which it was made. While Enlightenment humanism did much to argue for science as the true expression of human power, science in its pursuit of minutiae has refused to toe the line. The evidence from science has continued to tell us that there’s no such thing as a human in this sense. The traits and appearances that define animals come about through processes. They’re neither an end point nor a scale. Most of the capacities we prize evolved gradually and would have been at least partially present in ancestors that today we would consider as without any special status whatsoever.
Ian Tattersall, a veteran taxonomist and curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History, is acutely aware that “biology doesn’t permit neat boundaries.” Yet history has proven many of us to be “reluctant to admit diversity.” It is more than possible that biological architecture can come before the behavior kicks in. Take language, for instance. For humanists, language is often held up as one aspect of the unique essence that makes us more than animal. Yet there’s great disagreement about the origins of language. Some of this comes down to how we define language. Among language specialists, Derek Bickerton sees true language as something that only emerged in Homo sapiens and as a “catastrophic event.” Tim Crow argues it was a speciation event, and Richard Klein that it may have come even later. But American linguist Ray Jackendoff is among a group of scholars that believe language developed incrementally, beginning around two million years ago at the onset of the Homo evolutionary branch.
For a long time, it was also presumed that other hominin species like Neanderthals died out because they didn’t possess skills like human language. Yet in I983 a hyoid bone was discovered among Neanderthal remains. The hyoid bone is a funny little horseshoe-shaped bit of our anatomy believed to be essential for complex speech. Some have argued that the bone might have come in handy for singing rather than speaking. But others believe the evidence points to speech. If possessing language is that which justifies our special status, then we must at least acknowledge it now looks likely that this wasn’t a Homo sapiens thing but a hominin thing. This is much more confusing. It may place the evolution of language back to a common ancestor. Recent analysis on dental specimens suggests that the two species diverged at least 800,000 years ago. Although gene flow continued between the two species, it muddies the waters if we hope for a pure source of exception. If we were to travel back in time to observe the first of our ancestors chatting together around a fire, we might see a bunch of hairy, heavily browed animals.
And there would probably be more humanlike animals than historians have cared to admit. In 20I9, a complete hominin cranium was recovered from Woranso-Mille in Ethiopia by African anthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie. It caused upset because, up to this point, it had been assumed that modern humans evolved in a direct line from Australopithecus anamensis and then Australopithecus afarensis. Yet the specimen revealed the likelihood that these two intelligent, upright primates overlapped with each other as separate species. Human evolution appears to be highly branched, not a straight arrow of descent. Haile-Selassie and others see this as evidence that our ancestors belonged to more general evolutionary trends to adapt to changes in climate and shortages of food. The same year, Russell Ciochon’s team successfully dated skeletal remains of Homo erectus in Ngandong in Java to around I08–II7,000 years ago. A human ancestor once thought to be a direct ancestor now looks to have overlapped with our own species too.
Nobody knows the full story yet, but the idea of revolutions softens a reality that is strange and disturbing to us. If language, as argued by someone like prehistorian Robert Bednarik, evolved gradually throughout the Pleistocene period, when did we suddenly cross some unbreachable line between us and other animals? Most of what we can see in the fossil record points to the slow stages that have led to everything we esteem in ourselves. The controversial jasperite cobble is a small piece of rock that looks like a human face. What makes it of interest is that it was found with the bones of an Australopithecus africanus individual in a cave in South Africa. It isn’t evidence for art, and we can’t prove it was deliberately in this animal’s possession. But how else did it get there? Jasperite isn’t found anywhere near this region. What if it was noticed by a being that wasn’t in the Homo branch of primates, and what if it was an object that meant something to this creature: a treasure?
This piece of jasperite is millions of years old. But by at least 800,000 years ago, it looks like hominins were discriminating between ordinary items and more exciting ones, like crystals. At this time, there are also possible signs of the symbolic use of pigment. Another compelling but uncertain object is the Tan Tan figurine from around half a million years ago. This seems to exploit visual ambiguity. A semi-weathered bit of a stone, it looks like a voluptuous woman. The shape is natural, but those who have studied it believe there’s evidence that the grooves that give it a human form were artificially exaggerated.
Photo: Ekkehart Malotki
The least controversial of such early indications of a more assertive consciousness comes from the creation of cupules around the world in the Lower Paleolithic. These are depressions in a rock surface, as if a small bowl has been set into it. They are made deliberately by percussion, using a hard object. Some specimens in the Kalahari Desert date from more than 400,000 years ago. Some may be even earlier. They are widely regarded by specialists in rock art as among the first efforts made by animals to express themselves symbolically. Often there are hundreds of them grouped together, like a close-up of the skin of a strawberry. A single cupule might require thousands of blows to make on hard rock. Pounding on stone takes time and energy. Why on earth did these beings do it?
Art historian Ellen Dissanayake believes these ritual marks stimulated the opioids in the brain that produce feelings of trust and security among small groups of individuals. Did the hammering sound like thunder or the hooves of a stampede? Did our ancestors sing along with the rhythm? Nobody knows. But these creatures would not only have been powerful predators themselves; they would also have been prey. Although they were not modern humans, whatever kind of mind they had was supple enough to begin ritual.
These glimmers of a complex truth matter. They matter because they show us that we are part of a gradual metamorphic act of life. The search for revolutions or for natural traits that belong exclusively to Homo sapiens is certainly of interest. But it is also a compulsion among those who need a solution to Darwinism. Gradualism makes morality less absolute, weakening the confident basis of our exclusive moral status. That the generations after Darwin hunted for signal markers so assiduously only exposes a deeper psychological basis to the search.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t answer to the specific capacities of humans as we are today. In whatever way it was that we evolved, humans are remarkable and it seems right that we should respond to our particular needs. But why doesn’t it follow for the needs of other species too? How often do we dismiss the culture or language in other species as diverse as scrub jays and bottlenose dolphins? The work of evolutionary biologists like Andrew Whiten has revealed the extent to which other animals use social learning to mitigate nutritional stress. Chimpanzees, who have been known to use over thirty different kinds of tools, exploit natural hammer materials when their fruit diet is depleted in the dry season. Orangutans use a look-and-learn method between mothers and their children to pass along important survival tools, like using stems for getting at termites. Chimpanzees also fish for termites and have been seen donating tools to teach less able youths in their group, at a cost to themselves.
Photo: Mark Higgins
This is worth bearing in mind given that more than 60 per cent of primates are endangered because of our behavior. Since the I960s, populations of chimpanzees have dropped by a half. In the end, we do little to halt these losses because we believe in an absolute border between us and them. Their deaths are but a candle snuffed out. We forget that the recent ancestors to whom we owe our life would be dismissed by the same measures today.
Melanie Challenger works as a researcher on the history of humanity and the natural world, and on environmental philosophy. She is the author of On Extinction: How We Became Estranged from Nature (Counterpoint). She received a Darwin Now Award for her research among Canadian Inuit and the Arts Council International Fellowship with the British Antarctic Survey for her work on the history of whaling. She lives with her family in England.
I am going to just jump in midstream as I begin to re-establish this blog. Long explanations aside, a few things caught my eye over the past year that bear another look and I will be catching up as I restore this blog and continue ahead.
Mahatma Ghandhi and John Ruskin have underpinned much of my attitude towards life for nearly half a century now. Reading this is as fresh an experience as the first time I came across it in 1997.
Cheers and stay tuned.
Gandhi Against Modernity – by Rex Ambler
| 20-25 minutes
This essay first appeared in ‘Gandhi and the Contemporary World’, edited by Antony Copley and George Paxton, published by the Indo-British Historical Society in 1997.
Gandhi wrote only one book, strictly speaking: Hind Swaraj, or Indian Home Rule. He wanted to clarify what he meant by swaraj, a word that had come to mean a number of different things in the Indian political scene of that time (1909). Was it ‘self-rule’ in the sense that the Irish were then seeking it, a take-over of political power? Or was it something more profound and personal?
Gandhi approached these questions by asking another, what was it that Indians specifically needed to be liberated from? He came to the conclusion that it was not British rule as such, but something deeper and more pervasive. It was modern civilization. This was a relatively new and somewhat shocking idea in an Indian context, and Gandhi clearly needed to justify it. But his justification of the claim was, if anything, more shocking than the claim itself. He argued that modern civilization, as presented in the West and more specifically in Britain, was an evil force that was entirely opposed to the true interests of human beings, thus
‘The tendency of… the western civilization is to propagate immorality’(1)
The very things it boasts of, its medicine, its legal system, its parliamentary democracy, are in fact destructive and degrading: far from establishing health and justice, they perpetuate immoral practice and deprive people of the self-knowledge and self-sufficiency to cope with the problems that face them.
‘Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin’ (2) lawyers have ‘enslaved India’ (3) ‘That which you consider to be the Mother of Parliaments is like a sterile woman and a prostitute’ (4)
And so with every practice and institution that can claim to be modern.
This wholescale condemnation dismayed many of his friends and admirers. His own political guru, Ghokale, according to Mahadev Desai, ‘thought it so crude and hastily conceived that he prophesied that Gandhiji himself would destroy it after spending a year in India’ (5) But Gandhiji didn’t. On the contrary, he publicly reaffirmed its ideas on many occasions afterwards, even as late as 1945, 36 years on, when he said,
‘I withdraw nothing except one word of it, and that in deference to a lady friend’ (6)
the friend in question being Annie Besant.
What was going on? Why this vehement attack? And what exactly was he trying to say? Gandhi was not normally given to such vehement condemnation. He was usually balanced, judicious, ready to see the good in those things which he opposed. And in this particular case we may think he had particular reason to appreciate the civilization in which he himself had trained as a lawyer, learned to think through his philosophy (with the aid of such thinkers as Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau) and discovered the power of organized campaigns for achieving justice (from such as Bradlaugh and Besant). Was he being entirely honest? Or had he taken on more than he could properly comprehend?
It could easily be argued that Gandhi had two lines of thought which are essentially quite different, and only tenuously related. There is the shrewd thinking of the lawyer and politician on the one hand, and the idealistic and faddish thinking of the religious seeker on the other. Both appear in Hind Swaraj, it could be said, which explains its muddle and extremism. He is shrewd about tactics and PR, but hopelessly idealistic and simplistic about history and civilization, where unfortunately he allows his religious and moral intensity to colour his judgments about the condition of the world.
But this won’t do. it helps us to dispose of (what for us in the west may be) the difficult side of Gandhi, but it fails to come to terms with Gandhi’s own account of his intention. It may be that the dualism of our own (modern western) thinking prevents us from seeing how politics and spirituality, analysis and morality can be woven into a whole.
Look at the context to start with. He was returning from London on a leisurely sea trip with two disappointments on his mind: the failure to win support from the British government for the Indian cause in South Africa, and the new threat of violence in the Indian Home Rule movement. He wrote a letter the following year (1910) to a Mr Wybergh of the Transvaal Legislative Assembly to explain why he had written the book in the way he had.
‘The choice lay between allowing the readers of Indian Opinion (for whom it was originally intended), anxious though they were for guidance, to drift away in the matter of the insane violence that is now going on in India, or giving them, no matter how humble, a lead that they were asking for. The only way I saw of mitigating violence was the one sketched in the pamphlet”. (7)
He knew that violence would not have achieved what these youthful anarchists had in mind and which Gandhi largely had in mind too. The British were too powerful to be removed in this way, as Gandhi had been learning from his contacts in London with the Irish Home Rule movement. But how could Indians be persuaded to struggle without the violence that would surely let them down? And what precisely would they have to be struggling for? India was not South Africa with its very obvious injustice. It is evident that in setting himself to write such a book Gandhi had a difficult and sensitive task in hand.
Gandhi contrived his book as a dialogue between himself as ‘editor’ (of Indian Opinion) and the youthful but misguided revolutionary as ‘reader’, reflecting, he later claimed, the actual conversations he had in London that year (9). He pointed out to his anarchist partner, among other things, the contradiction in using the weapons of the British to eject the British. Means and ends were not so easily separable. It was also naive to suppose that in getting rid of the British they would have got rid of the problems that had dogged them for 300 years.
The oppression was not simply political: it was also, and more fundamentally, economic and ideological. If these youthful nationalists wanted to serve the true interests of India they should first identify her real enemy, which was not the British rule in India, but the civilization that the British had brought with them and had begun to impose on the nation. He wrote some two months later in Indian Opinion:
‘We saw in Hind Swaraj, that it is not so much from British rule that we have to save ourselves as from Western civilization.’ (10)
This might at first appear to to have increased what was already a near impossible task, but as Gandhi presented it the task was made easier. For Indians already had their own economic order, morality and culture — their own civilization in fact. So to oppose western civilization quite vigorously, as Gandhi did here, was, at the very least, tactically prudent.
It was also therapeutic, given the despondency and weakness of the Indian masses. This is evident from the continual emphasis in the book on the need for Indians to recover their moral strength and to find Swaraj for themselves. It is clarified by a letter he wrote to his friend and co-worker, Henry Polak, just before writing the book:
‘If you agree with me, it will be your duty to tell the revolutionaries and everybody else that the freedom they want, or they think they want, is not to be obtained by killing people or doing violence, but by setting themselves right, and by becoming and remaining truly Indian. Then the British rulers will be servants and not masters. They will be trustees and not tyrants, and they will live in perfect peace with the whole of the inhabitants of India. The future, therefore, lies not with the British race, but with the Indians themselves, and if they have sufficient self-abnegation and abstemiousness, they can make themselves free this very moment’ (11)
If we think of Hind Swaraj in these therapeutic terms, as helping Indians to ‘set themselves right’, we can see it as an psychological exercise in confidence building: it would be aimed, negatively, at liberating his fellow countrymen from paranoia (in relation to the British), a collective inferiority complex, and over-dependency; and it would be aimed, positively, at enhancing their self-confidence, maturity of outlook and freedom of thought and action. Swaraj could be defined precisely as personal freedom and maturity.
‘We can see that if we become free, India is free. And in this thought you have a definition of Swaraj. It is Swaraj when we learn to rule ourselves. It is, therefore, in the palm of our hands’ (12)
In that respect Gandhi’s therapy is very close to Freud’s, which was being developed at the same time. But Gandhi’s depended on a polarisation of good and bad that would have given Freud some qualms. Indian civilization was not only better than the English, it was ‘far superior to yours’, he tells the English (13) it is ‘unquestionably the best’ (14) ‘not to be beaten in the world’ (15) and, indeed, ‘has nothing to learn from anybody else’ (16).The polarization is sharpened in his preface to the English translation of 1910:
‘The British government in India constitutes a struggle between the Modern Civilization, which is the Kingdom of Satan, and the Ancient Civilization, which is the Kingdom of God. The one is the God of War, the other is the God of Love’ (17)
Is this delusion of grandeur, a compensation for a sense of powerlessness? Again,
‘Control over the mind is alone necessary, and when that is attained, man is free like the king of the forest and his very glance withers the enemy” ( 18 )
Freud has cited ‘the withering glance’ as an example of a self-deception designed to make up for feelings of weakness. But perhaps in the context of Gandhi’s concern the compensation was part of the process of therapy that would end in a well-grounded self-confidence which was capable also of appreciating others. Gandhi gives a hint of this longer-term goal in his address to the English:
‘Only on condition of our demands being fully satisfied may you remain in India; and if you remain under those conditions, we shall learn several things from you and you will learn many from us. So doing we shall benefit each other and the world’ (19)
Polarization of good and bad also helped the actual struggle against the British, since it gave motivation to fight and at the same time gave some justification for the use of the very unorthodox weapons Gandhi had tried and tested in South Africa. Nonviolent resistance needed to be seen as worthy and powerful if it was to be effective in practice: it could not be a mere technique.
At this point the politics and the spirituality coincide exactly: the effectiveness of the political movement for Indian independence, relying on those resources that were peculiar to India and in which India had an advantage, depended precisely on spiritual values which enabled them to look beyond the politically expedient. For Gandhi himself, after all, Swaraj was always more than a political objective, though, as he admitted himself, he had little success in persuading others about this. He wrote of the book in 1921:
‘I would warn the reader against thinking that I am today aiming at the swaraj described therein. I know that India is not ripe for it. It may seem an impertinence to say so. But such is my conviction. I am individually working for the self-rule pictured therein. But today my corporate activity is undoubtedly devoted to the attainment of parliamentary Swaraj in accordance with the wishes of the people of India’ (20)
The commitment to both personal self-rule and political independence was not a conflict for Gandhi, however, since the two belonged together, and the one grew out of the other. Struggling for political freedom with nonviolent means would develop spiritual aspirations as well. His problem was only that India was not yet ‘ripe’.
Part of the intention of Hind Swaraj, then, was to develop the spiritual awareness of his Indian readers so that they would not judge their situation in narrowly pragmatic or material terms. This in turn required a further criticism of the West since, on his understanding, it had rejected spiritual values in everything but matters of private life, Its tendency was all the other way, towards purely material welfare, and even then with the very crude notion that more material things meant greater human welfare. As he summarizes his view elsewhere,
‘Western civilization is material, frankly material. It assures progress by the progress of matter – railways, conquest of disease, conquest of the air. These are the triumphs of civilization according to Western measure. No one says, “Now the people are more truthful or more humble” (21)
In addition to the politician, therapist and tactician in Hind Swaraj we also hear the prophet. He is outraged by what modernity has done to the world, in unemployment, tedium and war. It has a rhetoric of justice and equality, and some individuals who live up to these deals, but its basic dynamic ensures that these things cannot be achieved. On the contrary, its primary commitment to money through control of the market (‘Money is their God’(22)) ensures that large numbers of people are kept in poverty. Its primary relation to India is also precisely that. The English
‘hold whatever dominions they have for the sake of their commerce…. They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods,’ (23)
This perspective helps us to see more precisely what he understands by modern civilization. He is thinking of the way of life that came into being with capitalism and the industrial revolution. He is not thinking of the culture of the west in general, much of which of course he admired and even drew upon in the elaboration of his critique. It is modernity as such that worries him. And it worries him because of its devastating effect on human beings. This welcome refinement of the argument was made clearer in a speech of 1925:
‘Do not for one moment consider that I condemn all that is Western. For the time being I am dealing with the predominant character of modern civilization, do not call it Western civilization, and the predominant character of modern civilization is the exploitation of the weaker races of the earth’ (24)
He therefore wants to ask moral questions of it. ‘Is the world any the better for those quick instruments of locomotion?’, for example. ‘How do these instruments advance man’s spiritual progress? ‘Do they not in the last resort hamper it? And is there any limit to man’s ambition?… And what is all this worry and fateful hurry for? To what end?’ (25) It is therefore on moral criteria that he finally condemns it. ‘The key to understanding Hind Swaraj’, he wrote in the 1914 preface, ‘lies in the idea that worldy pursuits should give way to ethical living’ (26). He demands that ethics be given the first consideration in public life, not the last. In this he followed some western critics, like Tolstoy, Ruskin and Emerson (27).
There was also an Indian ingredient to the critique: the idea that ‘commitment to material progress was an intoxication, a moha (as in Arjuna’s account of Krishna’s state of mind in the Gita (28)), or an illusion, maya. This in fact seems to provide the backbone to his reasoning. Note the crucial passage in the section on ‘Civilization’:
‘Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it, and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man, while he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep’ (29)
Perhaps some of the vehemence of Gandhi’s language was intended to shake people out of a sleep, out of a state of intoxication. For only by seeing the truth, behind the glamorous illusion, would they be able to resist its hold on them. Gandhi wrote to Maganlal at about this time,
‘Modern tyranny is a trap of temptation and therefore does greater mischief’ (30)
Gandhi’s talk, like that of a guru, was to help his disciples to wake up. When they did so they would naturally do the right thing. Part of the (potential) subtlety of this analysis is that it saved Gandhi from writing off the English as morally despicable. His attitude is rather that of sadness and pity.
‘They rather deserve our sympathy. They are a shrewd nation and I therefore believe that they will cast off the evil. They are enterprising and industrious, and their mode of thought is not inherently immoral. Neither are they bad at heart. I therefore respect them’ (31)
The polarization is aimed at civilization, not people, which provides another important reason for not resorting to violence. It also provides the basis of Gandhi’s boundless optimism, which can envisage not only the liberation of India from the illusions of this world, but also, through India, the liberation of the world!
However, it was not so important for Gandhi that this vision would ever be real ized. It seemed to he enough that it was possible, for it then motivated the struggle to realize it and set the horizon for one’s individual quest for liberation.
Even so, we might still wish to conclude, after considering this rationale of Gandhi, that he was caught in the trap of his own utopianism (32). He can oppose modern civilization so totally only because he can seriously believe that its idealistic alternative is possible and feasible. But, it might be said, since the alternative is constructed on the basis of a purely spiritual understanding of the human and historical situation it cannot even begin to be feasible. (Gandhi’s jibe about ‘merely material’ civilization might he redirected to him as ‘merely spiritual’).
Further, because he judged western civilization on the basis of its worst effects he was bound to judge it a total failure. In a revealing comment towards the end of Hind Swaraj he said: ‘I cannot recall a single good point in connection with machinery’ (p.96), not even the ship he was sailing on at the time, or the glasses he was wearing when he wrote those words.
This is an example of the psychological polarization I spoke of earlier, which was as much a part of his personal mind-set as it was of the political and cultural struggle he led in India. In its original context of struggle, as I hope I have shown, it was justifiable and relevant (33). Away from that context it is less secure: we need to introduce again categories of ambiguity and compromise which recognize that our ideals for society cannot be embodied in the world in a pure and unsullied form. But I am aware, in suggesting this, that I am reintroducing categories of analysis which are distinctly western, which admit of a tension, if not an opposition, between the worldly and the spiritual, the political and the personal. Our thinking in the west has undoubtedly been chastened by the modern experience of both astonishing success and appalling failure.
The question remains, however, whether the society Gandhi envisaged was, and is, ultimately possible, and whether modern society as he knew it was, and is, unsustainable. If the answer to both is affirmative, then it would make sense after all to oppose modern society in the name of something that can genuinely transcend it.
Notes and References
1. Hind Swaraj (hereafter HS), Navajivan Press, Ahmeclabad, rev.ed. 1939, p. 63.
2. HS, p.59
3. HS, p.54
4. HS, p.31
5. Desai’ s preface to HS, p.14
6. HS, p.14
7. Letter to Mr. Wybergh, May 10, 1910, in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, (hereafter Writings) ed. Raghavan Iyer, The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986, vol I, pp.297f.
8. See the discussion of this background in Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, pp.364-376
9. HS, p.18
10. Writings, I, p.333
11. Writings, I, p.295
12. HS, p.65
13. HS, p.99
14. HS, p.64
15. HS, p.60
16. HS, p.61
17. Writings, I, p.272
18. HS, p.82
19. HS, pp. 100f.
20. Writings, I, p.279
21. In an interview for The Friend, 11 December 1931, reprinted in Writings, 1, 328.
22. HS, p.40
23. HS, p.40f
24. Speech to Meccano Club, Calcutta, 1925, in Writings, I, p345. On the later ‘refinement’ of his thinking on civilization see Madhuri Wadwa, Gandhi between Tradition and Modernity, Deep and Deep Publications, New Delhi, 1991, pp.65f. 89f.
25. An interview of 1926, in Writings, I, pp.281f.
26. Writings, I, p.27
27. Cf. the 1910 preface in Writings, I, pp.271f.
28. I owe this insight to Bhikhu Parekh, Gandhi’s Political Philosophy, Macmillan, London, 1989, pp.16f.
30. A letter to Maganlal Gandhi, 2 April 1910, in Writings, T, P.3,17. Cf. the Calcutta speech referred to: ‘The glamour of European civilization does not dazzle us. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find there very little to choose’, Writings, I, p.345.
31. HS, p.38
32. Cf. Judith Brown, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope, Yale UP, Newhaven and London,
33. Cf. Chandran Devanesan, The Making of the Mahatma, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, 1969, ch 6.
The one thing people forget. Chiclets and Wrigley’s were designed in many ways to get saliva into the mouths of 2nd WW soldiers going into battle and in the field. Mouthwatering is a constant thing with humans. So is the dry mouth of fear.
But more poignant a memory is that it provided lubricant. On the spot. Anywhere. Anytime. And girls who went out on a date with a stick of gum were always good to go. Even better if they met you with a cheeky smile casually chewing gum, head tilted to the side and their mouth open just enough to see their tongue work that wad. They always had the most hilarious laugh because it was so completely in your face and they knew it. Brazen and alive, Linda Lee, Paloma, Bunny Frazier they were all really good at it. True artists. Studied professionals of the sisterhood. These are the same kind of champions you find at Roller Derbys. They birthed a movement.
There is nothing like a full on righteous-feminist war against the mother at the front of the room. She was our state parent after all.
But the one thing she did not like were these girls and their gum. Their ‘Gum Chewing’ …It was satanic …most likely.
Gum had something to do with comic books, dark unlit places, and the lower classes.
It was communism. The whole lot of it. Red Commie Crap & Everything That Goes Along With It! Ever since that hulabaloo in Russia …Well that and teen music. But let me tell you right now mister. This is going to stop and it’s going to stop right here! right now! Those gum chewing little sluts. We’ll show them.
God they were intense.
And here we are.
I’m going to try and explain this the best way I know how so forgive me..
I am not perfect, I don’t expect to be any time soon, but I have come to know this at a very very high price.
The love you are feeling is pure and natural and yes overwhelming. It is not for nothing that when people encountered god or his angels they buried their head in the sand and yelled for it to go away. God stopped appearing to people.
My brother said something to me a couple of months ago about his current journey.
He said “I felt all this love. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was immense and I wanted to share this love I had. And then I learned it was not my love at all”.
“I learned that it was just flowing through me like wind blowing through me like november maple trees creaking and strong and bare of leaves. I learned love was a force. An intimate force that flowed everywhere and I learned how to channel that love I felt. I learned to be a conduit. I learned to let it flow through me as a channel. Powerful, good, strong, clear. I could feel that love and wasn’t scared of it any more. It carried me along and I gave it a place in my life where it coulld live”.
“And then one day. while all of that love was flowing through me. Channeled through me by the grace of god. Some one took away the conduit. And it was magical. This tube I had been living in. Feeling this powerful love flowing through. It was gone. There was no wall. And I immediately knew that this love was flowing through the entire world. The entire universe. With the same force it had flowed through my channel only now I was surrounded in it. Bathed in it. It was there the entire time waiting for me. God is love. This is the message we were asked to remember”.
I know this is really cryptic ..but it concerns the foundation of ‘why’ art.
Alex Coleville once said that the only value of a piece of art was in understanding that it may have taken the artist twenty-five, thirty, forty years of constant concentration and meditation on an idea before he can actually grapple with it as a subject. Personally the expression wrestling with angels would not be an understatement.
He does the absolute best his soul can muster from absolutely everything from his core and depths of his inheritance, culture, antiquity, acumen and skill. To discern properly is what it is about. To discern from all the other possibilities that it is in fact this clear. That it can be represented. That it can be brought into the world and exist.
And the artists struggles with this in the wilderness as a shepherd watches over flocks in remote fields. It is appropriate. And then he returns to the marketplace. And he sells his goods. They are valuable.
[What has changed is the next bit. And it is everything…. ]
The person takes the piece home and lives with it not knowing they have purchased a ticking time bomb. A grenade with the pin pulled waiting to go off.
They will live with it for years and years and years. In a hallway, over breakfast, in a kitchen or somewhere common. Somewhere unubtrusive and common but in constant sight.
And then, just like the artist. Often years and years later. One day they will look at the painting and it will go off like a bomb. All of a sudden they will get exactly what this painting is about.
And like a crashing symphony, for a brief period, our world comes crashing down while we try and reorganize and understand this massive shift in what we thought to be common and everyday.
Exhilarating, frightening, shocking, liberating, sensual, passionate, often hypnotic and absorbing. It is a disturbing experience to come to realizations about ones selve and this world. Who we are and our place in it.
It is something the artist struggles with from the moment they are born. And as Picasso said. The best they can do in their sojourn into the wilderness is to plant a way-sign here and there to say we have been here before and give hopeful and meager comfort to one another engaged in this journey.
We can make our pieces, our little homilies, exhortations and prayers and cast them upon the wind. And through our work we may be able to hammer just one more plank onto the struggling raft of life.
I don’t apologize for putting it this way nor for paraphrasing the words of my brother, picasso or alex coleville. All heroes and well known to me.
Everywhere I went this morning, the burdock and chicory were in full bloom.
Just a Short Note: To all of you who have been following over the years. Thank you!
It has been an extremely difficult year and I appreciate everyone’s patience. I have sorely missed my work here and on the Incowrimo page. I have til the end of the month to find a suitable place to live longer term and hopefully re-obtain a permanent address which will allow me access to municipal and regional services.
There is a great deal to fill in. All in good time. Thanks again to everyone.
There’s something to be said about having two or three hours behind you and another ten or so ahead. Sade cranked up way too loud in the overheated cab.
The window’s still wide open beside your head. With a constant wet hiss from the road, you can almost tast the salt and heavily sanded moisture in the air.
No particular rush to get there. You’re making good time and the light’s still good..
You settle down and crank up the window. Leaving it open a crack.
Something to be said for days like this.