Three years previously I started to write a series of nature posts using the wonderful Ladybird ‘What to look for’ books as inspiration. Other work took over and the project stalled, as things often do. This post marked a temporary return to the series and the last of the Autumn pictures.
My original intent was to reflect on changes in the countryside, to face the losses in the unbearably short time since the books were made. Even since I started writing the circumstances of our lives have worsened. We live in times devoid of leadership, allowing ourselves to be controlled by corporate power and toxic media. In our passivity and delusion, we seem happy to accept the spread of mediocrity and loss of agency. I believe it behoves us all to take back whatever small powers we can, to spread the warning messages far and wide, to say again and again that our blind addiction to wanton consumption is not just unsustainable, but insane.
If you would like to read the earlier Autumn posts, you can find them here:
‘Harvest’: part 1 – naming autumn, a ploughed field, wild harvest, hop pickers, flight of the swallow
‘Fruit’: part 2 – a hayrick, wild berries, hazel coppice, Sydenham Hill Wood
As I write this in late November, the autumn colours of the English landscape (at their best a week earlier) are disappearing in cold winds. The dynamic mixture of colours reminded me of the dioramas of childhood, where dyed reindeer lichen stood in for trees and shrubs. Now yellow leaves blow along like manic butterflies, the ironic counterpoint of Spring. Frost and ice begin to slow things down – except in city worlds, which know no seasons and barely pause for sleep.
Hearts of Oak
Reflecting on the ridiculous English vs. Spanish bluebell war, Richard Mabey wrote that the Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) and the Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) have been regularly hybridising for millennia, yet there is no sign of either original species dying out. There may be specific reasons for this resilience, but the comment serves to highlight the rigidity in some nature conservation.
Native trees and shrubs support a multitude of species and none more so than the Oak (I wrote a separate piece on the extraordinary ancient oak ‘Majesty’ here). Unfortunately, the dance between host, predator and parasite has been rudely interrupted by ignorant human behaviour. Pollution, agricultural nitrates and the traffic in live plants have created massive problems for trees. The virulent form of Dutch Elm Disease that completely altered the English landscape came from imported Canadian logs (the Elm itself is non-native). The fungus that causes Ash dieback also came from imported trees, probably from Asia. Even oaks are now at risk from Acute Oak Decline and Sudden Oak Death.
Opinions vary, but oaks support around 300 insect species and a similar number of lichens. Compare this to the sterility of imported species in the table above. Our towns and cities have been largely populated with alien species. In the country, massive conifer plantations, inimical to local wildlife, have effectively depopulated whole tracts of land. All this change has taken place very quickly in the context of historical deforestation.
Consider first the population of the UK. Very slow historical population growth suddenly leapt after the enclosures and clearances, and the spasm of the Industrial Revolution.
But afforestation in the UK has been low for centuries. Successive needs, starting with fuel and building, and the expense of imported timber meant that forests in the UK suffered more than those in mainland Europe.
Overlaying the population chart with a line for the percentage of UK afforestation shows (as far as one can tell without accurate records) that tree cover reached its nadir in the early nineteenth century and has improved considerably since. However, the improvement includes conifer plantations and many other non-native trees planted for economic and aesthetic reasons. Look again at the table to see that the trees originally native to the UK are also the most important for other wildlife. One-third of the rest of Europe is under forest, so the UK is still lagging behind.
Survival of the Commons
I expected to find that the practice of feeding pigs on acorns would have died out in the UK. To my surprise, I discovered that it is alive in the New Forest with the custom known as the Common of Mast. The New Forest Commons are of Pasture, Fuelwood, Mast and – historically – Marl (lime-rich clay) and Turbary (peat turves for fuel). Sustainable Commons, both physical and figurative, will become more important once again, as the economy begun by the Industrial Revolution convulses.
The ‘Fairy Ring’ of myth and folklore can be caused by a number of species, but probably the most usual is Marasmius oreades, the Fairy Ring Champignon.
With the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which has effectively displaced the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) from the UK, we once more encounter the prejudicial word ‘invasive’, a word always used against species introduced by humans that have gone on to prosper. There are few more hypocritical terms than this one.
If our woods were as diverse as once they were, Pine Martens (Martes martes) would quickly bring the Grey population down, to the benefit of the Reds. But Pine Martens are only present in England in tiny numbers, so the spread of the Grey Squirrel goes unchecked. The smaller size of the Red Squirrel apparently gives it the edge over Greys when it comes to avoiding martens. Evidence of this also comes from the reintroduction of the Pine Marten into the Irish Midlands.
The Grey Squirrel also carries parapoxvirus, lethal to Reds. According to the Independent newspaper, parapoxvirus from Greys has all but destroyed a Red population in the Lake District. Grey Squirrels, unlike Reds, strip bark from trees, rendering them vulnerable to fungal attack. Human arrogance is responsible for the spread of the Grey Squirrel, a spread so damagingthat the animal is regarded by some as a biological weapon (presumably homo sapiens is the most effective such weapon). The answer lies not with expensive and inefficient culling (or in novelty beer bottle holders) but in increasing diversity. Unfortunately, we are very bad at it. Our monolithic culture pays lip service to diversity while failing to engage with it except in the form of tokenism, or in the conservation of relict populations.
Tunnicliffe’s illustration of the False Death Cap (Amanita citrina) looks a little stylised. Although this mushroom is edible in small quantities, its similarity to other (highly poisonous) Amanita species renders it unappealing. The excellent nature site http://www.first-nature.com, describing the true Deathcap, writes of “the repulsive smell that, to anyone with a nose, should betray the evil within a mature Deathcap”. Such an interesting slip to describe poison as ‘evil’: it could be put to evil use, but in itself is not.
Eels and greed
Of the species mentioned in the next image, only the Long-tailed Tit exists in decent numbers. Water companies have substantially reduced the very habitat depicted. Agricultural run-off has poisoned most of the rest. The Kingfisher is on the decline and is on the UK Amber List for birds. Luckily for the Kingfisher, eels are unlikely to be a part of its diet. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla), once a staple food, is now critically endangered. Eels are victims of not only ‘environmental factors’ (code for human habitat destruction), but a roaring trade in eels smuggled to Asia.
The consequence of this shocking greed is that the number of eels in the UK has dropped by a staggering 95% since the 1970s. Eels, as this article makes very clear, have become the ivory of Europe. The image of the stream full of eels was accurate. Rivers, particularly those emptying into the Atlantic, would turn silver with the numbers of migrating eels. This is a sight that is almost certainly lost forever.
The Sargasso Sea, to which mature silver eels travel to spawn and die, has a high concentration of plastic waste. The huge North Atlantic Garbage Patch is there. As we know now, plastic absorbs pollutants, making it poisonous to anything that eats it.
Bonfire of the vanities
The Tawny Owl is also on the Amber list after declines in population and breeding range. The illustration is prescient. The owl sits aloof, as if in judgment, high above the spectacle of the bonfire. It is a suitable image for our hot ferocious destruction of the world about us.
It is also notable that Tunnicliffe has shown the Scots Pine, the only conifer (other than Yew and Juniper) native to the UK.
It is time to write once more about the thing I am forced to describe as ‘depression’. I have written about aspects of depression before. The first piece examined the medieval metaphor of Saturn and the slowing and distance of depression. It suggested that to see through depression we need to honour it, not attack it. Another piece concerned suicide explicitly, exploring nature and a sense of place as aids to survival. In this third article, building on the first two pieces, I examine the absence of ecstasy and how this lack of ecstatic experience is leading to widespread depression, which in turn is leading to our destruction of this planet.
Any discussion of depression and medication has become more sensitive since the appearance of ‘pill shaming’, and the understandable response of those who feel their acceptance of medication is being criticised, or who believe that their symptoms are being marginalised. Although this piece is critical of medication, I do not mean to add to that shame, especially since I took medication myself for over twenty years (and I doubt that I would be here without it). However, the sheer scale of medication worldwide, and that of deaths from addiction, strongly suggests a desperate need for more radical action than any currently available.
The Industry of Despair
In the globalised hospitalisation of the soul, Existential Dread shares a ward with Melancholia, rubs shoulders with Bitter Disappointment, collects a paltry lunch tray with Trauma and sits waiting for the therapist beside Bereavement and Shame. Those with money can sometimes divert these dismal characters, but without – then they are inclined to wander the identical lifeless corridors of market culture with increasing noise and desperation.
A search for ‘depression’ online offers the following trifecta of the flat season:
Sadness and lack of enjoyment (emotional)
Tiredness and headaches (physical)
Indecisiveness and difficulty problem solving (cognitive)
These ‘symptoms’ come courtesy of the website rethinkingdepression.com, a vehicle of the Danish pharmaceutical company H. Lundbeck A/S. This is the company that until recently supplied US prisons with pentobarbital, one of the ingredients of the ‘cocktail’ of drugs used in lethal injections. In 2013 the EC fined Lundbeck €93.8m for hindering the market release of cheaper generic versions of Lundbeck’s SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Citalopram by offering competing companies kickbacks. Their list is simplistic and unhelpful. Sadness, tiredness and slow thinking are all felt in the body. Birdsong, once joyful, becomes plaintive and melancholy. Lifting an arm is Sisyphean. Waves of lassitude break like oil on dark beaches of despair.
But still, Lundbeck wants you to believe that it can help you, and tells you that you are strong to reach out for help from the GP who will push its pills on you. Lundbeck offers only the binary opposition of ‘depression and wellbeing’ and warns against the ‘slippery slope of relapse’ as if depression is either addiction, moral failure, or worse. This company, and others like it, seek to create causes that can be ‘treated’ reductively with drugs. The consequence, as James Hillman pointed out in The Souls’ Code, is drugged behaviour.
Even the UK charity MIND can only arrive at two possible ‘treatments’ (note again the connection to illness and disease): medication (they supply a list of possibilities) and talking therapy. It’s important to acknowledge that many people say that they have been helped by medication – the combination of therapy and medication seems particularly popular. Is this because medicine often works as a placebo, or that people are sometimes so frightened and economically challenged by their ‘depression’ that they desperately need the pills to work? There are people who owe their lives to the sedation of antipsychotics, but others so insulated with Lithium that they barely exist. There is a cogent argument for sedation in chronic cases, for when the world is screaming at you and all you want is death, then some form of peace – even the drugged variety – is welcome.
Unfortunately, the idea that ‘low Serotonin’ causes depression is false. It has not been empirically demonstrated that Serotonin has anything to do with depression, nor does anyone know how SSRIs work (allowing that they do, which I don’t) – and there is evidence that they are actually harmful. In my own experience of depression, I have no doubt whatsoever that it is a response in the body to factors outside it, but the target of medication, my poor brain, is as indivisible a part of my body as my heart, my stomach or my skin.
This culture of opposites regularly demotes the brain to a computational device on the one hand and elevates it to a God on the other. The brain is split out of the body and rendered doubly schizoid – it is simultaneously an advanced (and error-prone) calculator and the root of all wisdom. But wisdom, like the soul, is found outside the body in the world, of which the body is a part. Depression is a response to fear without fight, repetition without ritual, and work without worth. It is a response to the deep disconnection that happens when intuitive response meets the plastic empathy of the powerful, and when the intelligence of one’s own body is held captive in a cognitive straitjacket. Extrovert competitiveness has become socially normative – yet conformity within that frame is crucial.
My heart quails to meet the kind of person our psychopathic culture breeds: the android behavioural therapist, sans compassion, sans soul; the beery jerk whose booming voice dominates a room; the entitled oaf whose paltry patronage is sometimes the only way to survive in work. My eyes scrunch up against the flicker of strip lighting, the cracked littered earth of the park, the itchy grey dust of verminous pigeons, and the hideous architecture of inward investment. A non-stop roar of traffic assaults my ears, while I am assailed by the chipper blandishments of telephone marketeers and the dismal whine of air conditioning. My stomach heaves at the stink of lunches eaten at the desk, the rancid fats of battery food and the fug of exhaust. My skin prickles with the sting of coloured gloop that passes for washing liquid, and I jump at the sharp shock and blue crack of acrylic carpet and escalator.
Experience has become customer experience – reduced to cost per click. An impression is never a liminal sensory response but merely a numerical function of advertising reach. I am not alone in feeling these things.
Work and shame
The government and its useful fools say that if you are well enough to look after your depression then you are well enough to work. In surgeries around the country, GPs tell patients that they are better served by being on Jobseekers Allowance, colluding with the government myth that work cures all. Qualified Health Professionals (government-speak for minimally trained clinicians) deem the company of one’s passive-aggressive co-workers better than the ‘isolation’ of being ill at home. The possibility of beginning a different life with new work and different friends is a concept alien to the state. It is deaf to the notion that depression is necessary to life, that it allows the individual the time to draw together the threads, to consider the future, to make gentle inroads into expression. Along with the ‘epidemics’ of opioid and alcohol abuse, the levels of depression and anxiety in the world are good arguments for Universal Basic Income.
The hierarchy dreads the idea of people being creative or working fewer hours. The prevailing ideology supports ‘hard work’ until retirement and then (following a period of active consumption that keeps hotels, cruise ships and garden centres in business) a quick illness-free death. It is an ideology that most people have swallowed hook, line and sinker.
The Titan called ‘the Market’ must have access to a pliable grateful workforce that will ‘produce’ the toxic rubbish that the Market needs to survive. But, through the innovation of the gig economy, the Market has created the conditions of its own death. The old-fashioned manipulative and puritanical view of work at least offered security and structure. But now the Market holds work in contempt while simultaneously trying to make it mandatory. One only has to witness the anger constellated in reactionary groups at any mention of UBI to understand how immanent it has become. Sadly, the prevailing ideology is as dangerous and as difficult to remove as a tick in the skin, and the likely reality of UBI would not mean freedom from poverty, but rather Universal Credit by another name. As this article explains, the ‘social position of the boss would be undermined’ by any truly radical thinking. Yet the use of industrial robots is growing at around 16% every year.
For now, the population is mostly quiescent, in thrall to consumption and debt. But linked to capitalism is shame. The puritan ideology of work makes it shameful to be unemployed, and the policy of destroying the poor through the withdrawal and reduction of ‘benefits’ is one aspect of this narrative of shame controlled by the media. But capitalism has a secret introvert shame of itself that it cannot bear, hence it projects its own shame onto anyone at the margins of its influence.
It serves capitalism very well to have an underclass. The threat of poverty is used as a threat to the young, and workers of any age. It also – conveniently – holds, and dies with, the shame of the rich. Every year some new scandal breaks, in which politicians and media luminaries are discovered indulging in drugs, sex, hypocrisy, violence and bigotry. Strangely, people continue to express shock and outrage. Scapegoats are sent into the wilderness for a while, then there is business as usual.
When the magic field of projection weakens and it becomes possible to glimpse the reality of the natural world, then elements start to stir in protest. This is the point at which laws become more draconian and police forces start to become more aggressive. Simultaneously, embattled powers raise fears of job loss and immigration. Humans long for the intimacy of company but simultaneously fear its threatening otherness. It is easy to manipulate and widen such a chronic split.
Voices of the dead
When I was a young man I suffered from the most terrifying and debilitating symptoms – symptoms that were later rolled up and flattened into the inconsequential sounding ‘panic attack’. After a preliminary period (during which I was either ignored, blamed or prescribed SSRIs and anti-psychotics) I survived for the next twenty years on a daily diet of Diazepam (Valium), its big brother Lorazepam, the beta blocker Propranolol, and occasional further dalliances with Citalopram, Paroxetine and Fluoxetine. Throughout this period, I also heavily self-medicated with alcohol and nicotine. And I was intensely relieved to have my pills because they enabled me to half function in a highly stressful and inimical work environment.
Who is to say how I got that way? There are things I can identify easily: the dysfunction of my family; lack of love; emotional and physical abuse. I also suspect genetic sensitivity, a predisposition to anxiety, and trans-generational trauma. Perhaps even the ten years of my childhood spent living next to an electricity sub-station. I also identify with that wound that has been inflicted by the dramatic reduction in biodiversity. The important thing is that not one person, not doctor, friend or relation, ever took my hands, looked through my drugged behaviour and said: “You have met the great god Pan, he has sent you this fear as a message, and I can help you understand its meaning.” Nor was I aware, in my excessive drinking and habitual use of opiate substitutes, that I was in the archetypal realm of Dionysus.
It would have taken more, of course. I would not have listened because I was too frightened and angry. Which one of us honestly wants to hear that everything we believe about the world is suspect at best, fundamentally wrong at worst? Which politician, on record with a hundred strident speeches and a thousand platitudinous sound bites can turn on a sixpence and say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry I lied”. Could the Conservative Party say “We’re sorry about austerity, the thousands who killed themselves needlessly because they had no support, no money – we can’t change that but we can start again, with care, with love, with respect”?
I don’t panic as much now, even when things are awful – though fear, anxiety, and depression have formed a poisonous skein running through my life to this day. But the world itself is suffering a panic attack. Trump, a grotesque orange baby-titan, thumps across the planet threatening, roaring and destroying, the puppet of an out-of-control military-industrial elite. The underlying similarity of the main political parties in the West goes barely challenged. Education has been reduced to intellectual parroting, and so-called knowledge itself is heavily biased to a white middle-class male perspective. Climate change, included and then removed from curricula, is a hostage to power rather than the single most critical issue in the history of our species (not to mention the history of countless others).
In the US, at war with drugs, and with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, there is an epidemic of opioid abuse. There is now so much money spent on lobbying that the manufacturers and pushers have even been able to render the DEA powerless. In the UK, austerity is driving a record number of children into ‘care’. It is difficult to reflect on the state of the world without concluding that something is driving people quite insane. It is the revenge of Dionysus: mad god, vegetable god, twice-born god, immigrant god, the god of sexual ambiguity. Dionysus: the irrational, the inebriate, the ecstatic, the blessing, the curse. He represents everything that our culture fears and holds in contempt.
Dismembered by Titans
Dionysus the Liberator was born of the lust of his father Zeus for the mortal woman Semele. Enraged and jealous, Hera lured Dionysus with toys. When he was sufficiently distracted, furious Titans came from the Underworld and tore the child into seven pieces that they first boiled, then roasted on seven spits and ate. But they neglected the heart, which Zeus retrieved and sewed into his thigh so that Dionysus could be born again.
The story of Dionysus, one of the most potent of ancient myths, offers the optimistic hope of rebirth after catastrophic death. And how poignantly relevant to our times! We are like infants ourselves distracted by toys. Jealous Hera gave Dionysus dice, a ball, a spinning top, golden apples, a bullroarer and wool. When the Titans came for him, their furious faces disguised with chalk, Dionysus was looking at himself in a mirror, enchanted with his soul image. It seems that our sensate and intuitive selves become easily obsessed with toys, ever more self-regarding, and incapable of seeing through the disguise of the Titans.
The orgiastic worship of the reborn Dionysus gave birth to drama, particularly Tragedy. But it seems Carl Jung was right when he wrote that the gods have returned to us in our diseases. When the Romans corrupted the psychology of Dionysus (making him jolly old Bacchus, a leering boozer surrounded by tumescent satyrs and simpering nymphs), they turned archetype into stereotype. The consequence is that the Greek concept of pathos – meaning emotion – has gone missing from pathology. Instead, emotion has become a disease. In an extraordinarily retrograde move, the World Health Organisation describes depression as ‘the leading cause of disability worldwide, and […] a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.’ At a time when even mainstream psychology is moving away from diagnosis, it is an unfortunate conclusion at best.
What images come to mind in relation to the word ‘drugs’? One might go first to the substances that create an ecstatic and entranced state of being – the illegal drugs – bringers of torture, mutilation and countless violent deaths. Then the legal variety: the dampeners, the flatteners, Mother’s little helper, the drugs that make pharmaceutical companies rich. Third, the panoply of semi-legal uppers and downers: alcohol, nicotine, ‘legal highs’, khat and marijuana. Perhaps the hidden drugs: shopping, sport, sex, religion, social media likes.
If you’re not on one drug, it’s likely you’re on another. Perhaps all of them. Few would credit the number of people who regularly use drugs. That nice friendly guy in the office? Smokes weed most evenings. That live wire boss of yours, who is always on the go? Cocaine addict. We actively defend against any depressive feeling just to survive. The addict and the depressive unwillingly hold feeling for the culture. We can witness the evidence of this every hour in social media. Trolling and outright nastiness are symptoms of unexpressed feeling – fear, grief, vulnerability.
In the US, the ‘war on drugs’ is a convenient euphemism for both imperialist regime change and the civil war that the US is conducting against its own black and Hispanic citizens. At another level, it is a war against Dionysus, a fundamentalist assault on ecstatic being. Addiction is a spiritual emergency. The ‘acting out’ as Jay Griffiths says in her book Tristimania, is ‘a way of literalising a profoundly metaphoric experience’. She also elects to call the madness of which she writes ‘manic depression’ rather than ‘bipolar disorder’. Precisely.
For mystics in the Christian tradition, the peak experience took the form of a light coming out of a void, an illumination or revelation, the result of a very one-sided attitude. Some scholars have called this attitude the antithesis of God; through ascesis, the mystic was able to wait until the visio Dei appeared. The Dionysiac adept, in contrast, seems to fall into a sudden possession by the god; it was an emotional experience that happened in the body.
Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael. Dionysus in exile. Chiron Publications, 2000
The Christian mystic would take the ‘spiritual bypass’ by starving himself into a hallucinatory state. Nowadays the modern psychotherapist takes the place of God, colluding with the patient’s need to make an epiphanic self-discovery. For who can afford (at £75 for fifty minutes) the slow moist incubation of Dionysus, the emotional expression that is the counterpart of the cold depression of Saturn? We humans need ecstatic experiences of one kind or another. The woman who froths at the mouth about ‘drug addicts’ will fix her feelings with binge drink, shop until she drops, then collapse in bed, sated with four hours of Netflix and chocolate. So long as she can go to work and pay tax, that’s just fine.
Then there are the value judgments found in addiction itself. The heroin user will often consider the alcoholic to be a lesser species, weak-willed rather than a true hardcore addict because the heroin user is more likely to be breaking the law to get his gear than the alcoholic. Similarly, the alcoholic will look askance at the cocaine user. All this literal thinking obscures the nature of Dionysian being, and how essential it is to healthy human existence.
The philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote of the unity of opposites, revealed the mystery of Dionysus in a fragment (there is also wordplay in the original that does not translate):
If it were not Dionysus for whom they march in procession and chant the hymn to the phallus, their action would be most shameless. But Hades and Dionysus are the same, him for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia.”
This syzygy between two such opposite archetypes becomes apparent if we consider the ‘death’ of the addict to the world, the ‘rock-bottom’ of the 12-step fellowships, the ‘death-in-life’ of chronic depression, and la petite mort, the loss of full consciousness after orgasm, or after some particularly traumatic event. One of Dionysus’ many surnames was Chthonios, the subterranean, and Hades became known as Ploutodótēs, the wealth-giver. There are literal interpretations of these names, but the psychological connection belongs to the rich world of the soul. Death is held in as much contempt today as ecstasy (compare our modern cults of childhood and youth, and our treatment of the elderly, to see the truth of this).
The New Reformation
Prior to the G20 meeting of governments and bankers in July 2017, hundreds of ‘zombies’ appeared in Hamburg, shuffling together until one shook off her grey clay caked clothes to reveal the colourful person beneath. The group 1000 Gestalten wanted to show how rigid thinking makes zombies of us all, that it can be cast off to reveal the colourful multiplicity beneath.
One of the most insidious mind-fucks of our time is found in the correctness of speech. We are ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ at the Job Centre. When a ‘client’ is sanctioned for some trivial failure, and her ‘benefits’ withdrawn, she can rest easy knowing that she has been treated fairly according to a mealy-mouthed charter. The men and women who kill themselves after being found ‘fit for work’ are unfortunate statistics, but the government has done everything correctly. Victims are regrettable. The choice is illusory.
Systems men created the order required for ‘blameless wholesome lives’, idiotic pap that resembles the indoctrination of a Sunday School preparing a child for a life of unwitting dedication, not to the Abrahamic god, but the financial betterment of others. Systems men (those that made, as Hillman noted, the gulag and KZ Lager possible) fear diversity more than anything else.
It is interesting to note the ways in which the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century prefigured the modern systems thinking that I associate with neoliberalism. The Reformation was a response to the corruption of the Catholic Church, the selling of indulgences, and the cults of the saints. It is not much of a stretch to see the modern equivalent in the reaction against the ‘elite’ technocrats of the EU and Washington. In both cases, the weapon is modern technology. In the fifteenth century, the invention of movable type began a revolution of literacy. This article claims that, within thirteen years, reformers had circulated ten million publications.
In the twentieth century, the invention of the internet brought the possibility of unlimited learning and information to the individual. But the reality was different in both cases. Just as the leaders of the Reformation used the press to print propaganda, so neoliberals have manipulated social media. The Protestant Reformation believed in the predestination of divine grace. God, they argued, had already decided who would be saved, and who not. Therefore, it did not matter if one performed good works in life or not, since the only requirement was faith in Jesus Christ. Even if one slipped away from this faith there would be a divine chastening to bring the appointed back into the fold. Since no one knew if they were predestined or not, hard work and frugality became the visible signs of the elect, in contrast to the Catholic focus on confession and sacrament.
It is easy to see how the Reformation was inspirational to European peasantry, offering an end to superstition, and good riddance to wealthy powerful priests – or so they believed. It would be simplistic to replace, for instance, ‘Reformer’ with ‘Brexiteer’, but there are similarities. In both cases, there is a genuine move towards democracy, away from powerful and unaccountable forces. Both favour market forces. Both believe in frugality (though now we know it as austerity). But, certain that the die had already been cast, Reformers had permission to behave as awfully as they liked. The Church of Neoliberalism does not need to play theological games, but it does require unwavering belief in its unitary God, the Market.
To oppose the Market is to declare oneself a heretic, a saboteur, and to become apostate. In ditching Catholicism, the Reformers lost not only the plurality of the saints, but also the medieval delight in carnival and revelry. Most of the world has accepted some form of the Protestant ethic. In Spain, there have been moves to ban the siesta. The reason given is that it is problematic for Spain to work different hours to the rest of Europe. The real reason is lies in the creeping tide of spiritual austerity. Note that Christmas and Thanksgiving have extended seasons. In the UK, the risible festival of Guy Fawkes now lasts for weeks. Rather than happening for one night, the bangs and hisses of fireworks last for weeks either side of the day itself, terrorising pets and wildlife. I see in this behaviour the unconscious need for ecstasy.
Nature and ecstasy
I am critical of pundits paid for describing failure alone, rather than offering any answers. It is the journalistic equivalent of the terrible failure of psychotherapy to offer rescue when it is needed. While there is wisdom in the via negativa, this is a time to imaginatively construct alternatives. At some level, the state knows that poverty and depression destroy this capacity. Just as the soulless culture of power reduces our human agency, and turns us into ‘clients’, with all the dependency that the word implies, it also creates depression. It becomes difficult to think for oneself and easy to believe the propaganda. Because I see the ways in which my agency has been reduced, I can at least see through this flattening effect. Many cannot, or are unwilling to take the red pill, preferring to believe the easy myths and ‘statistics’.
So what is to be done? When psychotherapists refuse to ‘rescue’ a patient, the excuse offered is that he will be better off finding his own power. That might work well when someone is open to exploration. At other times it is indefensible. In the name of the tired clichés of ‘boundaries’, therapists take great power and then abdicate responsibility for that power. Faced with a patient on the edge, some will say that the proper course of action is a referral. Woe betide the counsellor who tries to engage with a ‘serious mental health problem’. The reason for this reluctance is not, in my view, based on any particular principles, but rather the fear of expulsion from the professional bodies – organisations whose response to the spectre of state regulation is to become even more regulatory.
Many authors write that the answer lies in a renewal of our connection with nature – I’ve said the same myself. But caution is needed with nature. Jay Griffiths says this:
The sheer goodness of nature for the sick psyche is incomparable; there in green one is not judged, one is accepted, with consolation and company. Nature gives you the exalted, tender ordinary – as of right”
Griffiths, Jay. Tristimania. Penguin Books, 2017
I cannot entirely agree. Nature does not automatically give (which is the consumerist expectation) but must be asked. Because nature loves to hide, one has to be well enough to be open to what might be revealed. Even then, nature can expel us from a sense of place, as the conservationist Matthew Oates expresses perfectly in his book In Pursuit of Butterflies. Indeed, forgetting place is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.
Too much woo? We are still obsessed with the rational. Twenty years ago Candace Pert (who discovered the brain’s opiate receptor) described how consciousness operates at a cellular level, and how white blood cells are like ‘bits of the brain floating around the body’ (forget your brain, your body doesn’t lie). In 2014 John O’Keefe, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered ‘place cells’ – neurons that respond to particular places. It seems likely that neuroscience is just beginning to understand our complex and subtle responses to the world, and that in doing so it may begin to uncover the response of the world to us.
In this piece profiling the work of neuroscientist Matthew Walker, poor sleep is linked to early death and dementia. There’s a lot to like here, for example Walker holds that dreams cannot be analysed, and he suggests that poor sleep is linked with shame in the developed world. To benefit from sleep we should keep regular hours, avoid stimulants, switch off electronic devices. The problem with all this good advice is that many of us are rendered sleepless by the mad tyranny that has overtaken the world (according to the American Psychological Association, nearly two thirds of Americans admit to being stressed about the future of the nation).
At night the lorries full of plastic shit that roar down the road outside my bedroom keep me awake. Donald Trump keeps me awake. So does institutional violence and climate change. The way things are going, the sensitive people of the world will die out, leaving the rational and violent alphas to kill themselves in total war – assuming the planet hasn’t done the job already. Nature cannot be expected to solve our problems for us. Most people have lost their connection so profoundly that it may never return, and it is unreasonable to expect the urban poor to go on frequent trips into the country. Nor does the contemplation of a dandelion in the gutter give as much joy as the nature writers would have us believe.
But ecstasy must be expressed. In his late play The Bacchae, the Greek tragedian Euripides tells the story of a Trump figure, Pentheus, who bans the worship of Dionysus – in other words he tries to ban the irrational. In revenge, Dionysus sends Pentheus’ mother and aunts away in a mad bacchic frenzy. Then he persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman (hair just so, dress falling nicely, standing in the right way) so that Pentheus can spy on (what he believes will be) an orgy. But Pentheus’ mother Agave discovers him and, believing him to be an animal, tears him to pieces, limb from limb, just as Dionysus was pulled apart by the Titans as a child. Whether this practice of Sparagmos happened or not, it can be read figuratively. Titanic behaviour will be mirrored. The angriest and most masculine of kings will repress his sexuality.
The future of ecstasy
Many people believe that humankind will save itself through interplanetary colonisation. Not content with his hyperbolic dreams of a Mars colony, Elon Musk has started The Boring Company. Not, as one might imagine, a company that produces analytics of actuarial rates, but one dedicated to developing high speed drilling. Both fantasies completely miss hitting the psychological pay dirt. The colony, the outpost, is the start of doing things differently. Drilling and tunnelling is the work required to develop the outpost, but not in the literal sense. Musk, by literalising the concept of colonisation and tunnelling has, like Trump, become a Titan.
The mind-boggling cost of interplanetary travel, not to mention the Brobdingnagian quantity of resources required, make it obvious to all but the most obsessed that it is not a project likely to get off the ground. Rather than amongst the stars, our future lies on the ground and under the sea. It is in the depths of psychological death to an outworn style of being, the acceptance of difference, and the embrace of the passionate. If space opera and science fiction teaches anything, it is that nemesis follows hubris, as in the ancestral science fiction tale of Daedalus and Icarus. In this narcissistic era, it is popular to commend Icarus for his attempt to reach the sun, missing the point of the story.
The spaceships of television and film started as fantasies of clean glittering asepsis, like the USS Enterprise of Star Trek fame. Each episode seemed to be a battle to restore order, as pristine asepsis was routinely compromised by tribbles, hostile aliens, or any number of virulent infestations. When the fantasy became conscious, septic starships started to appear – such as the Nostromo in the film Alien. With sepsis also comes conscious sexual intrusion and – sometimes more terrifying than any monster – ambivalence.
As a boy, I dreamed of turning an old wardrobe into a Tardis. I would be able to lock myself safely in the darkness, turn on my flickering screens, and navigate to a better place. In my fantasy, I had the safe dark womb that was missing in the real world, and I had the power. It is no accident that the consulting room of the therapist is a womb-like chamber, a place that should expect and welcome intrusion, but which all too often rejects it – the unwelcome expression promptly ejected through the airlock. The psychodynamic tradition of psychotherapy also prefers an aseptic chamber, ostensibly to remove the possibility of unhelpful projection, displacement and deflection. I can barely think of a method that annoys me more, except manualised CBT.
It might be revealing to analyse the content of space operas and post-apocalyptic video games for varieties of intrusion. I have a fancy that most are organic in origin, inherited from the chthonic fears of the Age of Enlightenment. Might the sexually inquisitive tendrils and tentacles of space opera reflect a terrible fear of nature’s abundance, a loathing of messy fecundity?
The principles of Permaculture invite benign chaos. A vegetable bed overflows with squash, beans, tomatoes, basil, marigolds, and rocket. Another bed heaves with kale, chard, radish, beetroot, nasturtiums, carrots and parsnips. The plants spill over one another in a glorious mess of leaves, flowers and fruit. Humans sow and harvest. Toads and ducks patrol for slugs. Birds snatch caterpillars. Bees and flies pollinate. Everything is in relation to everything else. This isn’t ‘balance’ or ‘competition’ – it’s riot, free association, cornucopia. There are losses, there are gains.
Andrew Marvell’s famous fifth stanza from ‘A Garden’ is supposedly an Edenic fantasy, the use of ‘insnared’ and ‘fall’ a dark reminder of the biblical fall. Perhaps – but this most sensuous of verses might be the anthem for the permaculture movement.
What wondrous life is this I lead! Ripe apples drop about my head; The luscious clusters of the vine The nectarine, and curious peach, Into my hands themselves do reach; Stumbling on melons as I pass, Insnared with flow’rs, I fall on grass.
‘Invasive’ plants, such as Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the Kudzu vine pictured here, are plants that humans have cultivated away from their origins, so they have no natural predation. Ashamed of ourselves, we brand them ‘noxious weeds’, when they are doing nothing except expressing themselves fully. I wonder if the beginning to the problem of ecstasy is an understanding of expression in all its forms. I have written before about the idea of an Imaginarium on every high street, a place with rooms to craft, dance, shout, cry, and sit.
A world defined by its qualities, and perceived as having qualities, requires the same richness of its observers. Like knows like. If the world is a messy many, then the definition of consciousness follows one proposed early in the twentieth century by the French philosopher Henri Bergson: “qualitative multiplicity.”
We would conceive of consciousness to be as multitudinous as the world, a microcosm of the macrocosm: as without, so within. Rather than made in the image of a single transcendent God, we would imagine ourselves made like the multiple images of the world.”
Hillman, James. The Force of Character. Random House, 1999
There are some who see the rise of depression as a consequence of individualism and the market culture. I don’t entirely agree. The rise of group think is worse. If people were truly held in a community they would feel empowered to be creative, and not to be in thrall to the censure of group think.
I have done what I can to provide an introduction, a middle and a conclusion to this piece, but it is too long and at times I probably ramble. Form and structure do not come easily to me: they are in some ways the antithesis of ecstasy. I find, in my depressed way, that I struggle daily with the expected methods of expression. The word ‘ramble’ comes, perhaps, from the word romen, “to walk, go”. But there is an association with the Dutch word rammen, meaning to copulate, “used of the night wanderings of the amorous cat”. I cannot think of a more apt reversal of a modern meaning.
The war against ecstasy is not only a consequence of our rupture from nature. It is the product of inflated rationalism. The feast of the Great Dionysia was open to all. I would like to think that, one day soon, we will recover the lost truth, because to take back ecstasy is to throw open the windows on the first day of Spring, to hear the birds afresh, to feel the chill receding in the warmth of the new sun. It is to welcome the true world.
Down the hill I walk to silence, To where the Mother And the Father lie, To where they lie in ruin.
Sometimes a stream runs quietly by, Running light through wet black woods, Beside barbed wire that guards, That holds and bars the dull green farms, The fields that yield the lurid meat, Pallid oats and poisoned wheat, The fattened profits of deceit.
Yet sometimes, in my fancy, I see sparks, as if the Father woke To prod a glowing log. I follow them, I laugh, I dance, I dance beneath a melting moon, But then I’m back upon the hill, The silence of the afternoon, The empty trees, the dust Of ruined soil, The vapid monuments to oil.
Although they tell us not to need a home, To live instead inside ourselves, I crave a cottage by the sea, Paint peeling from a door of green, Alexanders in the spring. Then fennel growing through the stones, Sea-sand blown on quarried floors, Wood twisted, bleached and bored by worms, That pokes like bones through drifts of kale. Here too some dismal asters grow, And fronds and thongs of pungent weed, Tossed by westering waves and wind, Which blows the seed in holes and cracks To burst, astonished, into gaudy bloom. All these will make our marvellous living room.
For there, in every echoed cave, the Mother lies, There the Father swims, in every shining wave, There you and I can build a fire, And cook a pot of roots and herbs. We’ll give a mug to all who come, We’ll sit together with the sea, The turquoise band that splits the sky and earth, Not thinking what things might be worth, But sipping slowly on our broth, Braced in wind, our faces wet with rain.
Then the sun again, that chases ragged clouds. The Mother and the Father dream once more, And so with them We spend our days and nights. With books and paints we play, We play to crabs, and crowds of shining rocks, We sing to saints of earth and sky. No one here will pay a tithe To see the slippery conger writhe Below the pier, Or see the murmurous starlings wheel as one Against the orange sun.
Come away, come away. Forsake your days of toil and fear, Come with me, Down to the bay, Down to the sea.
This is a piece about melancholy. These days we call so much psychological suffering depression, losing subtlety and even accuracy. Melancholy deserves to be restored as something of importance. But this culture holds sadness in contempt.
For perspective, some time back I wrote a piece about depression (you can read it here). In it, I suggested that by being in nature we can honour our depression rather than attacking it. This isn’t about ‘cure’, or a moral injunction (“go and have a good walk, that’ll do you good”), it’s about valuing oneself in different ways. Once again James Hillman is our reliable psychopomp:
Depression tends to make you focus on yourself. The very focus on oneself that we do in therapy is, per se, a depressive move. Therapy could be causing depression as much as curing it, because the classic symptoms of depression are remorse, a concentration on oneself, repetition – “What’s wrong with me? How did it get this way? I shouldn’t have done that.”
Feeling broke and poor and without energy – in other words, a withdrawal of libido from the world. The moment you’re focusing back on the world as dysfunctional, you’re drawing attention to the world. That’s not depressing.
James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, 1993
Hillman suggests focusing on small tasks, just as a volunteer will clean the foreshore of plastic rubbish. The story of the forest fire and the hummingbird told by Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Muta Maathai is a great illustration of this.
Social media is full of highly defended advice for the depressed to get out and get active, go running or kayaking or whatever. Even going for a walk is sometimes impossible. But I believe the first step back from melancholy is to recognise that Saturn’s perspective (“What’s wrong with me? How did it get this way? I shouldn’t have done that.”) is just one of many. Here are Hillman and Ventura in dialogue from the same wonderful book I quoted from above:
Ventura: […] all this dysfunction doesn’t personally depress me because it gives me a lot of room to maneuver in, an awful lot of room to maneuver in.
Hillman: Right. It says, off the bat, “I’m not neurotic.” That’s a huge relief.
Ventura: “I’m not neurotic, this is not my fault, and it’s not my family’s fault either.”
Hillman: “the world-soul’s sickness is announcing its despair through me.”
Ventura: “But I’m not a victim, because this is the sweep of history and I’m a participant.”
Hillman: Which also means, “I’m also not the healer.”
Ventura: “Putting it all right is not my job” – which is another lightening of the weight, more room to maneuver in.
James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – and the World’s Getting Worse, 1993
So it’s possible to put down much of the weight of the dysfunction, but without giving up. That leaves us with the personal. Sometimes you can’t do anything for yourself, nothing works. The key is acceptance, to allow the weight to almost crush. Go to bed, cover up, whatever feels safe, but hold in your heart the idea of the world-soul, that it’s there and waiting for you, and even if we have made it sick it is still powerful. What follows is a moment, an expression, of honouring melancholy. It is not a recipe or a template.
A melancholy meander through Battersea Park
Today I took a walk because the sun invited me. At other times I might refuse the invitation: I might be busy or unwell or just not feel like it. Today I accepted: it felt right. The place is Battersea Park by the Thames in London, a mid-Victorian amenity, once quite famous, now rather shabby at the edges. It used to host a supervised adventure playground that was demolished by Wandsworth council, but not before it was occupied and became, briefly, famous once more.
My purpose today though was political in the broader sense, to connect with the world-soul, and here I invite you to keep me company.
I don’t want to walk down a main road so I take the bus for a few stops and enter through the north western gate. On the lawn of the gatekeeper’s cottage there are yellow crocuses. They don’t look too bad – normally I don’t care for them much, they are so prone to damage from rain/wind/dogs, but these shine in the sun.
The vegetable garden
I’m in the vegetable garden now, Thrive run it. There’s a robin singing on a tree as I enter, an announcement and a warning. This is its tree, and its call is echoed by another robin nearby. I won’t see many species this morning because there are other people here. A few days back I stood very still by the decking area, and watched as birds darted back and forth to feed on seeds that had been left under the walnut tree. Long-tailed tits perched above my head. A nuthatch, sleek and slate grey elegant, decided that my presence was an acceptable risk. That’s pretty much all one has the right to expect of other animals.
The vegetable beds are prepared for the Spring. They are composted, mostly bare except for some onions, but dug beautifully and pregnant with purpose. I want to grab a big double handful of that good earth and press my face into it. I examine the asparagus bed, decorated with a few spindly brown fronds from last year. The first spears won’t start to poke up their heads until April, but it gives me such pleasure to see the dormant mound, a reminder of the ‘Battersea Bunches’ that were grown when market gardens were here, on land ‘reclaimed’ from the Thames. Wait, there’s something new here, a new space penetrates the bed of plants for women’s health. Is the ‘path’ a figure? A keyhole? A vagina? Now I’ll be able to see the plants more clearly. A wren appears, flicks its tail, disappears into cracks in the fence, hunting for spiders.
The ‘Old English’ garden
A short walk takes me to the Old English Garden. The pond has been emptied for cleaning and the isolated water lily pots look vulnerable and forlorn. A mound of green blanket weed has been heaped to the side. I look at the wisteria and notice the trunk for the first time. It seems to writhe and twist around a youth carrying a bundle of rushes, and I think of how we stand in the field of each other’s projections, rarely connecting with the other. I see the heads of monsters and damned souls, but when do I see the plant, its age, its struggle to the light?
A rustle, a darting shape, jittery, pecking – it’s a hedge sparrow. It is generally described in bird books as ‘promiscuous’ in its mating habits. It is as if the authors were entirely unconscious of ascribing their own values to a different species. This little brown and grey bird is so beautiful. Because of its colouring, it is rarely seen – but the vegetative cover that conceals it for most of the year has not yet grown. And the song is a delight, the rapid modulation impossible to follow.
I stand and listen, half-awake, conscious of two homeless people who have slept here. I see many of the homeless in Battersea with suitcases now, as if they are stopping for a rest after getting the train back from Gatwick. Perhaps that is sometimes true, the last fifty quid spent on an Easyjet break. Things might seem better outside the trattoria, a glass of water with the coffee, sipping Cynar, feeling as if good things might happen. Then the return, the locks changed, the hope gone. The suitcase suggests a temporary homelessness. The surroundings an embarrassment, as if we should understand that the sleeper is really at work. “Just off for the corporate bonding weekend in Bergamo.” How transient our pleasures are these days. I have been to this park and walked for an hour and in that time I have seen not one person walking for the sake of it, but dozens either with dogs or running (sometimes running with dogs).
Delighted by the hedge sparrows (also called dunnocks), I start to think of house sparrows (the dunnock is an Accentor). Twenty years ago, the sparrows seemed to disappear from London almost overnight. About ten years later I went to Guernsey and found two trees in St. Peter Port full of sparrows. It seemed as if every squabbling sparrow in London had fled to these two magical trees, and there they stayed in conference until quite recently, safe by the sea. And I am reminded of how sparrows are connected to Aphrodite, because of their supposedly lascivious nature, and how we continue to split mind and instinct, to deny the erotic in nature.
The dog walkers
I walk towards the strange relics of the Festival of Britain, surprised as always that they are still there and not blown away. At the coffee kiosk, women and dogs sit together, humans and canines about as different in their respective physiologies as possible. I get the feeling that none of the dogs looks happy, nor do their owners. Dolorous hounds sit next to twitching chihuahuas. A neurotic Pomeranian scratches a flea bite with a bony hind leg like a chicken wing. Does its silly dainty face dream of loping through the snow with the wolf pack, nostrils full of the smell of fat and warm fur?
A miniature pug has escaped and is in hiding. A large woman calls for it, but it stands there trembling slightly, its red lead trailing behind it like blood. “There you are. You little tinker,” she says indulgently as she gathers up the trail of blood. The pug snuffles: I wonder what it feels as it looks up at her with its black eyes, perhaps the half-formed desire to run and hunt mixed with fear of the giant world, and the pull of the warm carpet and this comfortable woman shaking the packet of dog biscuits, teasing, holding the power. I buy coffee and sit in the sun with it, away from the scratching bickering dogs, my face held back, feeling the warmth, wrapped in my comfortable fleece, dreaming of my own running and the fears that keep me enslaved.
The melancholy of abandoned clothes
A family arrive. Mum, dad, two girls and a boy. They’re looking for something, talking in a language I don’t recognise, one of the Baltic languages perhaps. The girls sound bored and whiny. The father doesn’t smile I notice, though the mother does, nervously. Someone has impaled a woolly hat on the railings and this appears to be one of the lost items. One of the girls takes it and holds it to her as if it is a thing immeasurably soft and comforting. They look for a few minutes unsuccessfully and the father asks at the coffee kiosk if anything has been handed in. Disappointed, they sit down to coffee and drinks, with much argument and the grating of metal chair legs.
The peace is broken, I finish my coffee and leave. But didn’t I see some clothing by the fountain lake? I walk back and sure enough, there is a child’s coat on the ground. Returning to the family I ask them if they have lost a child’s coat, dark blue I tell them, puffy. “With silver?” the father asks. I tell him I didn’t see any silver but offer to show him. “We come yesterday, have coffee, forget clothes”, he explains. “Easily done”, I reply. I suppose it is, the warmth of the sun after many weeks of winter, taking off the layers that we habitually wear, casting them aside, taking risks. Have coffee, forget clothes. Then the guilty remembrance of the protection that we’ll need, the abandoned parts of ourselves, stolen or sodden with rain. Not looked after.
No wonder the girl held the woolly hat so close: when she pulled it over her ears she felt warmer, and the screams of the sirens were muted.
I point out the abandoned coat, lying by the pond like a small twisted corpse, and wondering how it had moved so far. The father grunts thanks and walks towards it with purpose. He still hasn’t smiled. I take a different direction but, looking back, I see him holding the coat as if it might get angry and bite him. Was it the lost garment? Or did it just look to be a good enough replacement? I will never know, but writing about it now it seems important. Would the girl put on the coat with relief and the sigh of contentment that betrays the habitual, the comforting? Or would she reject it, disown it? Would the unsmiling Daddy demand that she take it, the comfort of another? All this I consider as I walk towards the bandstand.
Preparing the beds
A heap of manure stands in the path. Council workmen are carting it into smaller piles on the flower beds. I remember spreading compost, my back aching, the wheelbarrow handles becoming heavier to lift. I also recall the pleasure as the big mound shrinks and how good the beds look with their brown blankets, the pleasure of spreading the compost, the warm mushroom smell of it. “At least we don’t have to walk so far today,” says one of the workers. In a moment I would have traded places with him. By the end of each day I would be tired, my back stiff and painful, but I could walk away, a job done and the earth nurtured, back to my own nourishment and bed, a gestalt.
Past the bowling green (‘flat shoes only’ a sign says, and for a moment I imagine a group of glam rockers in platform boots, arguing over the rules) and there is the Pump House, now a gallery. I note that there is a new exhibition and as always I hope for something I can relate to. And here is a tree that often seems to be a natural depiction of pain and melancholy. This is the tree I thought of when I wrote this haiku:
Because we’re so fast We can’t see how a tree writhes. We think we’re alone.
At the ornamental lake the warmth of the late winter sun surrounds me, I’m enveloped in a faint glow and the branches are gilded. I see pochard and tufted duck. There are the resident pair of swans. Not long ago I watched one of their nine almost full-grown cygnets fly up as if it had a fancy to roost in a tree, like one of the rose-ringed parakeets that live here now. At the top of its ascent, it lost control and fell out of the sky like a sack of cement, hitting the concrete path with a horrible slap. It was bruised and clearly shocked, but nothing seemed broken. I remember how hard it was to walk away.
I pass the big hybrid Arbutus and admire the chestnut colour of its bark, and later I see two chestnut spaniels sparring. They lunge and feint at each other, and I am overjoyed to see dogs that are alive, playful and shining. To feel that joy does not mean that my melancholy is ‘cured’. It means that by staying with my felt sense I have allowed other responses, and this is one of them. I hope the importance of allowing melancholy rather than attacking it is clear.
I walk back, passing more crocuses, and these for once are perfect. Leaving the park, my senses heightened, I spot campanula dribbling down the crack in a brick wall.
And here is ornamental quince, the white variety, in delicious bud. This walk was blessed. I was able to see beyond the managed urban space to the life beneath, to carry this out with me for a while, to recognise that the world of our creation is more melancholy than I am, and to feel energised for another day.
The inner fire
Wandsworth ‘council’ had approved an application for Formula E racing in the park. This is how we are sinking, we cannot keep a space in any way sacred. No one walks, and it’s OK to race cars around a park where birds are feeding their young. We are unable to repair the split between Eros and Psyche, our cultural contempt and fear of instinct has caused rupture and disturbance in our behaviour. Let us resolve to change this. As I write these words it is not surprising that I recall Rilke’s unequivocal demand, and just as he saw change to be the purpose of Art, so I see the need to change is here around us in the soul of the world. I close this piece with words more beautiful and immediate than any of mine.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso is still suffused with brilliance from inside, like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs to that dark centre where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.
The dreadful sound of shuffling feet, and the hideous rattling groans, announce the arrival of the cultural phenomenon of zombie films and games, rich hunting grounds for psychological discovery. In this piece, with my crossbow to hand, I attempt to explore some of the possible figurative responses to the epidemic of zombies in Western culture.
To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature. The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists, there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity, a part of no whole; a freak without a place. If he cannot hold on to his reason, then he is lost indeed; most utterly, most fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse.
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
At the simplest level, the zombie infestation of popular media deals with two main implicit themes, dissociation and consumerism.
The Neolithic bargain
Humans are a gregarious species that came together because it was easier and safer to hunt and live as a group. By so doing, we began to lose our freedom and wildness. The body psychotherapist Nick Totton called this the neolithic bargain. In dissociative behaviour, we witness the loss of this group connection. We lose the small signs of acceptance that bind us together, our language, our desire, our compassion. The consumerist theme is political, it is a reflection on the plague of mindless consumers that is a response to late capitalism (witness the UK rioting of 2011). Watching media coverage of looting, legal or otherwise, we are reminded of zombie attacks. “Look at them, they’re not human,” we say, watching the flat-screen TV that we have looted more respectably.
By iterating the principle features of zombie-related films and games, as represented in this instance by the first three seasons of AMC’s enormously popular television series The Walking Dead, other aspects appear. But first a warning: if you have any intention of watching the series you might want to stop now: there are spoilers ahead!
Key features of The Walking Dead
There is a very sudden and highly contagious infection after which ‘normal’ life quickly breaks down.
The characters regularly evidence symptoms of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are correctly shown as non-linear. There are also symptoms of trauma and dissociation.
The zombies are ubiquitous and relentless in their need to devour the flesh of the living.
The explicit narrative is the need for water, food and safety. These are the physiological building blocks of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Sometimes the living dead compromise these needs. Sometimes it is the living who are to blame.
There is an implicit need for salvation, the hope for which is also regularly dashed.
There is considerable tension between the competing requirements of safety on the one hand, and retaining the human capacity to love and belong on the other.
Choices in opposition abound. Take this or that? Include these people or exclude them? Trust her or not? Save her life or abandon him?
Moments of extremely graphic violence featuring dismemberment, decapitation and disembowelment punctuate each episode.
Let’s look at these features in the light of contemporary events.
The destruction of ‘Normal’ life: ideology and managed care
It is clear that life, as experienced by current adult generations, has changed dramatically in the last seventy years. This change is mostly a consequence of the development of computing power. In the last thirty years, there has also been a shift towards what is described as neoliberalism. This means deregulation of markets, an increase in privatisation and a reduction in government oversight. These changes have effectively polarised global cultures.
C. G. Jung developed Heraclitus’ concept of enantiodromia (literally, counter running) to explain the tendency in us to manifest the undesirable ‘shadow’ aspects of our parents. So out of a desire for peace and equality comes a surge of aggression, inequality and slavery. The American therapist Cliff Bostock described the physical loss of voice that attended his attempt to lecture from an entrenched position, signalling an urgent need to recognise the compensatory opposite.
Bostock referenced James Hillman, as do I in these pages, because Hillman recognised that the path we are on excludes the anima mundi, the soul of the world. Hillman argued that psychotherapy has protected sensitive adults from taking action in the world, that their fears and fantasies have become ‘managed’ rather than given expression through action and protest. Moreover, dissent is now effectively psychopathologised and ‘education’ teaches compliance (more on this at a later date).
Crisis? What crisis?
In the absence of care for the outer world, it has become toxic with crisis. There is financial crisis, economic crisis, crisis in education, housing crisis, fuel crisis and environmental crisis. Myopically, we have climate ‘change’. Small wonder then that the rapacious, tyrannical power of the few has created a world that feels broken and desperate, and that existence has become precarious. In the West, this is the world of the Food Bank, the last resort before begging. It is close to the anarchy of doing a ‘run’ to the abandoned convenience store for supplies. Much as survivors risk the bite of the zombie, the impoverished urban dweller will dash to the supermarket, ever wary of the bailiff.
It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that “it can’t happen here” — that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids
‘Disorder’ as Symptom
And what of our minds? The psychiatrists’ bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) describes lived experience as disorder. The volume has generated much criticism: first, ‘disorders’ are not diseases as this article makes clear; second (as this piece explains) the ‘treatment of’ so-called disorders makes money. The sale of antipsychotic drugs alone is worth billions. Telling isn’t it?
The opposite of ‘Disorder’ is ‘Order’ but, as Bostock points out, trying to create balance opens the door to chaos. On the churning sea, desperate to survive, we run to one end of the lifeboat to prevent it capsizing. In doing so we start an opposite disaster. We run to the middle, but balance is too difficult to achieve, we never seem to get it right. Perhaps only by dancing between the peaks and trouighs can we keep from capsizing.
Our ‘dis-orders’ and ‘dis-eases’ are also symptomatic of the toxicity prevailing in the culture. We project blame onto those of us who are merely displaying the symptoms of the true malaise. This leads to a further paucity of imagination and monolithic, monomaniac behaviour.
In my work as a therapist, I saw a rising incidence of difficulty with anger, anxiety and ‘depression’. Many visitors were in denial of those feelings. Peopled believe that they choose their mechanical lifestyles – or else that there are no options. This is the absence of imagination again. But it is not of the trapped individual so much as the larger society. There is a terrible cost. Anxiety and depression are medicated, anger is managed. Zombies only want living flesh, they are driven to it, they have no options, not even binary options.
Zombies as a symbol of greed and loss
It has been almost 50 years since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her five stages of grieving. She worked with people dying of a terminal illness rather than the bereaved. Subsequent researchers have taken a more expansive view of grieving. Others have denied the five stages entirely, preferring a model of stoic resilience, and setting these two states in opposition. In this piece, the psychiatrist Steven Schlozman writes of the trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in The Walking Dead. He writes that the phenotype is different between characters, but his examples strike me as rather literal. And here it is argued that the series is a critique of individualism. But I see the tendency of troubled characters to go out alone as a dramatic staple of the horror genre (no, don’t go down into the cellar with just a candle and a scared look!).
The dominator culture
Nick Totton references the anthropologist Richard Sorenson:
[His] work suggests that once dominator culture arises it spreads like a plague: cooperative, liminal, wild humans are profoundly vulnerable to humans who are closed and aggressive. They literally cannot bear to be around them.
Nick Totton, Wild Therapy, 2011
Another pair of opposites perhaps, but one that is well illustrated by the competing camps of The Walking Dead. There is one notable difference: the cooperative humans are prevented from being in the wild. How similar to current society. There are so few ways to escape from the dominator culture, and it is this that we desperately need.
Loss of land
If I am right in my opinion about the prevalence of anxiety, depression and anger in Western culture, we can relate these symptoms to the oppression of the dominator class. We can also connect them to loss. So what might be lost? According to Jay Griffiths in her book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape the loss is environmental. She writes that since the enclosures, peasants were funnelled into industry away from the land. The idea that this rescued a brutish rural population from the miseries of subsistence farming is a myth created by landowners and industrialists. Griffiths too sometimes inhabits the land of opposites. She compares the evils of the modern world to an Arcadian fantasy. But her Romantic passion lights up the heart. One wants to be in the cool streams and secret dens of her imagination.
The Sixth Great Extinction
Ecopsychologists suggest that we are all grieving for the other than human, the countless species and the sheer numbers lost. We face the sixth extinction, a wiping out of life on a massive scale. Impossible? Remember the fate of the Passenger Pigeon? Billions of birds were made extinct in 40 years through hunting and deforestation. More recently, the Pyrenean Ibex: extinct in 2000. The Saint Helena olive: extinct in 2003. The Bramble Cay melomys: extinct in 2016. And not just species, but unimaginable numbers of individuals wiped out through human agency. Now scientists are talking of ‘de-extinction’, of reanimating these species from their DNA.
I think that we carry the knowledge of what we have done as a terrible shame. The zombie herds of The Walking Dead reflect our continuing predations on the natural world. They push their way through everything in their need for the flesh of the living, just as we bulldoze our way through the Earth in our need for its resources.
Et in Arcadia ego
In the first two series of the Walking Dead, the farms and lush countryside of Georgia shimmer in the heat of high Summer. Sweat drips sadly from the noses of protagonists. Winter is mentioned but avoided, and soon we are back in a verdant Spring – but here there is still danger. Behind every tree, a zombie may lurk. Down at the stream zombies are stuck in the mud. A child’s den is a place to hide in terror from the awful groaning outside.
In the third season, the irony is signposted in block capitals. Our heroes set up home in a bleak grey prison that has to be regularly cleared of the undead. Outside, zombies congregate at the prison fences, groping for a way through. The group struggles between the ‘freedom’ of the prison and the ‘safety’ of a ‘community’ run autocratically by the ‘Governor’. To what extent do these set pieces reflect our lives? Here we are in opposites again. The fearful grey fortresses of the heart stand in for Independence, while the phoney veneer of the Governor’s colony is Dependence. Neither option is attractive and the ground between them, the beautiful forest, is rendered toxic and uninhabitable.
John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is the prototype here in so many ways, from the hospitalised hero waking to a world turned insane, to the competing camps of survivors. But instead of what Brian Aldiss described as ‘cosy catastrophe’ (the barely conscious wish for the slate to be wiped clean so that we might create Arcadia) there is next to no comfort, or the comfort is soon violently removed.
Zombies as political metaphor
In the years since George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), the number of films and video games that feature zombies in one form or another has increased in a way that suggests something has been touched in the collective unconscious.
While certainly not the first film to feature the shuffling horrors, Night of the Living Dead was perhaps the first to capture the popular imagination, hinting at a social commentary of the Vietnam War and of racism in America. In the chart above I have brought together Wikipedia’s lists of zombie-themed films and video games, including the television episodes of The Walking Dead to date (2014 is incomplete).
One might have expected to see zombies make an appearance in the eighties, the time of the Thatcher/Reagan axis. But the scale of the infestation twenty years later is surely not accidental, as the consequence of their policies wreaks havoc across the world. We are fascinated with our power, appalled and awed at our ability to destroy without remorse, sickened with our own unconscious mania. Fundamentalism can never be far from our minds, whether of the East or West, whether of the vile massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar by the Taliban or the institutionalised shooting of black people by the police in America.
Zombies as religious projection
In the narrative of The Walking Dead, there is a significant issue (massive spoiler ahead), the philosophical implications of which seem to have gone largely unexplored. The infection (cause unknown, but initially believed to be communicated by being bitten by a zombie) is, in fact, present in the living, so all those who die become reanimated. This is hugely suggestive of the concept of Original Sin. Much of the zombie oeuvre can be seen as the visitation of a biblical plague on to the sinning masses (the word ‘plague’ is used often in the series). This underpins the tension between pragmatism and idealism. In another sense, the knowledge of infection keeps the living and the undead connected – all opposites need to be similar so that they can be compared.
Depth and Light
Religious anxiety also hides within the explicit narrative (none too well). In the second season, the Christian farmer Hershel tells Rick, our heroic ego, that the plague is a ‘correction’, but attributes it to nature, unwilling to task his god with responsibility. He keeps his undead family members and erstwhile employees in a hay barn, triggering a particularly violent denouement in which Shane (apparently Rick’s shadow self) opens the barn door and, with assistance, destroys the emerging zombies in a hail of gunfire. The last zombie to emerge is Sophia, the girl who the group has been trying to find in the forest for almost the entire season, suggesting that corrupted innocence has been in their hearts all along, just as the infection has been in their living bodies.
Sophia is the ‘Light of God’ of Gnosticism, the final phase of Jung’s anima development, the name that means Wisdom. I wonder if this is unconscious synchronicity or deliberate choice. The zombies, particularly the undead children, represent our fear of the devil, the resurrection of the dead as damnation, hell on earth, the apocalypse, in the form of Satan’s daemons. As Hillman remarks, Christianity removed the depth of the Underworld from our psyche, and the possibility of descent and return. Is the character going down alone to the cellar (or the prison basement in this case) a faint remnant of this?
Hatred of the flesh
Zombies invariably look diseased and rotten. Limbs can be wrenched from the undead (otherwise shown as very strong) with mystifying ease. Penetration of zombies with bullets or melee weapons results in a fragmentation of flesh and bone that is invariably accompanied with a vile spurt of dark ichor. In particular, we note that the only way to end a zombie’s undead existence is by destroying the brain. Zombies are shot in the head with bullets, bolts and arrows. They are impaled through eye sockets with steel pipes; skewered with knives and swords, up into the throat and through the soft palate. Zombies on the ground have their heads stomped in violent outbursts of disgust, hatred and grief.
The resurrection defiled
The rotten flesh of zombies is reviled: a lucky living human who has been bitten may have the infected limb severed so as to prevent ‘turning’. Other humans regularly fight with each other, suffering physical trauma, bruising and wounding, even if they are not killed outright. The flesh of the living is almost as tormented as that of the undead. Surely this says more than just a love of the ‘gross’, more than a schoolboy’s delighted disgust at the cartoon popping of an eyeball? For me, it represents a hatred of the flesh that is fully consistent with the idea of a corrupt resurrection, the acknowledgement that (as Jung suggested) resurrection is a fantasy, a defence against death. But this is confused with the idea in Christianity of the corruption of the flesh, the blood that is left behind as we resurrect, and that souls become spirit.
Hearts and minds
Additionally, there is the destruction of the brain, the part of us confused with thinking, as if we think only with our brains, not our hearts or stomachs. Does this sublime organ have to carry the can for all our mistakes? Psychotherapy insists that we feel everything, placing our sensory perceptions into opposition with our thinking. If we think at all it is supposed to be with our Right Brain, not the sinister Leftie (another opposition and a false one at that, as neuroscience has emphatically proven). Therapists are often trained like this, in the good-natured but mistaken belief that if only their ‘clients’ stopped thinking then everything would be well with them. Some therapists work with Mind/Body/Spirit, and despite a possible fantasy of holism, this feels more like dancing.
There is another very important piece of evidence. Here’s author Robert Kirkman talking to Entertainment Weekly about the absence of a sex scene: “That’s more of a comment on America as a whole and television’s standards and practices than it is on us. It is kind of absurd that in an episode where you see the inside of a bloated, water-logged corpse, you can’t see so much as a butt cheek. That’s the world we’re living in.” This show, that so revels in the realistic depiction of blood and viscera, can only imply human sexual relationships.
Perhaps America fears that sex in the apocalypse would be so primal, so aggressive, that we would see something too uncomfortable for us to bear. We can cheerfully witness the dismemberment of our shadow selves, the rapacious zombie hordes, but we might faint at the first sniff of our own musky animal sexuality. This is surely a reflection on the spiritual transformation so dear to the fundamentalist West. We want to change so badly – it makes us hate the earth. We despise the fleshy and ‘corruptible’: Not so long ago these are things that would be celebrated, not abhorred.
The End of Days
This is where we find ourselves in the twenty-first century. Our comforts are temporary and often delusional, moments of respite in the bleak struggle for survival. Must we destroy the brains of the zombies – the bankers, politicians and oligarchs – when they pose a threat? Or are we too busy fighting each other? It’s just TV you say. Look again at the chart, and perhaps watch the series. Sitting in a café the other day I overheard two women in earnest conversation. One was telling the other about her business selling ‘critical and strategic thinking skills’. She mentioned a colleague, saying, “Her cognitive processing is somewhat impaired… she is very controlling of her environment.”
Breaking out of the zombie prison
We are all in Rick’s crew now, bunkered in our prison anticipating nothing better than either the next attack of the zombies, or the wrath of the ‘Governor’. We live in a superficially ordered community that is ruled by fear. It is a society without imagination, without choice. I would like to believe that through ritual and a new pantheism we will find better ways to hold our need for control and power. Will we eventually see through our need to consume at all costs? Perhaps it is too late.
And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.
A short piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds. Angel wing and rats are just two of them.
Why do we feed birds if they have sufficient natural food available? Perhaps it is not entirely far-fetched to wonder if feeding birds might sometimes be connected to a dislike and fear of the wild. If we want to feed our leftovers, food we don’t want to eat ourselves or food that is, in any case, unsuitable, what does this say? What thoughtlessness (at best) or contempt (at worst) does it betray?
Or perhaps feeding represents some propitiation of the wild, a throwback to a forgotten ritual in which future bounty is secured by offering part of the harvest to the spirits, the daimones that take the form of birds, lest they strip the crops in retaliation. Later comes the Victorian sentimentality that depicts the starving robin pecking at the frosty window, our hearts finally moved by need.
Since one of the intentions of these pages is to celebrate the natural world, a piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds would seem contrary. It is not. The entreaty is simple: please do not feed white bread or other processed food to birds. White bread is highly denatured food. It is full of additives and optical enhancers. It is not good for us, much less for birds. In any case, birds have different digestive systems to humans. I’ll be honest, I do like toasted white bread from time to time.
Here’s an example of the lack of reflection that I am addressing. I was walking around Leg o’Mutton reservoir, now a nature reserve in Barnes, London. There was a woman walking her two dogs, both of which were off the leash. Already we have a threat to wildlife. She was throwing white bread left and right on to the ground (you would have to throw a long way to hit the water).
The woman guessed my disapproval I think because she had a sour and pugnacious look on her face already prepared for me. I suggested her bread would be food for rats not birds. She very reasonably pointed out that rats were wildlife too. I explained that throwing bread would help the rats breed and the consequence would be a reduction in birds since the rats would eat the eggs (among the aquatic species to be found here you will regularly see Swans, Tufted duck, Mallard, Pochard, Shoveler, Moorhen and Coot). Her reply was, “Everyone does it.”
I was too angry at this blanket defence to engage further, and I stalked off seething. It was a mistake: good humour and openness might have won her over. As I walked away I heard her shout after me, “It’s for the robins and the owls… ” but there was something about the angry way she threw the bread that suggested she was throwing away the unacceptable part of herself, and that by having the birds eat it she would feel better. We can see associated behaviour in young children who pitch whole bread rolls into the water like depth charges.
Birds, like all the animals and plants on the planet, are at risk. Unsustainable agriculture, deforestation, fisheries bycatch, the spread of ‘alien’ species, pollution, exploitation and climate breakdown (all consequences of human action/inaction) are reducing biodiversity alarmingly. According to this link, up to one in four bird species will be functionally extinct by 2100: so surely it falls to us change our habitual ways. I know that some people might call me self-righteous. I agree – it’s easy to project our failings on to others. But I try to take what responsibility I can. “Everyone does it…” is not an excuse.
Let’s look at the likely consequence of feeding white bread to birds – even assuming they eat it. First, the bread is dry: it will swell upon contact with water leaving birds vulnerable to attack by predators. Remember the woman’s dogs were off the leash? Dogs frequently attack birds, just a few years ago the goslings of a pair of Egyptian geese were allegedly killed by a dog in this very place. Second, although not entirely proven, it seems likely that a high protein and carbohydrate diet is the cause of ‘angel wing’ in (mostly) aquatic birds. It is a condition in which the last joint of the wing becomes twisted and the wing feathers stick out. Spend any amount of time at your local pond or reservoir and you’ll see it.
So feeding white bread to ducks and geese may be physiologically harmful and will, in any case, increase the rat population – but there’s no need to stop feeding birds, just take some care about what you feed them with.
If you found this piece interesting, you might want to read my article about pheasant breeding.