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The Blizzard of the World
Letter from America, part two
I was flying into Salt Lake City this morning, and as I looked down at the horizonless grid laid out across the once-empty desert, it struck me how much a modern city resembles the mind of a computer:
Or, to put it another way, for the majority of us today, ‘living inside the Machine’ is more than just a metaphor:
For years I didn’t fly. Now, sometimes, I do, though I still feel a bit guilty about it. Beginning a piece of writing with the words ‘I was flying into …’ still makes me feel slightly sick about myself. The guilt is pointless though. Most people don’t share it, anymore than they share much concern about the impact of the phones and screens before their faces at every terminal and cafe table. We fly over the Machine, we live in the Machine and at every opportunity, we drink from the Machine. We seem to like it. We are not separate from this thing any more. We were never separate from anything.
An airport is a condensed symbol of modernity. The hangar-like shops, the brushed aluminium, the expensive cafes. The masks, the screens, the robot checkouts; all the galloping mechanisms of dehumanisation. Everyone is passing through, nothing originates here, nothing is indigenous to the place. Nothing grows that is not planted and occasionally checked by sniffer dogs. Sniffer dogs are the only animals. Everything has a price. The wifi is free.
Once airports excited me, then they frustrated me, now I just try to look on them coolly, and on my own participation as well. I am writing this on a plane, which I have never done before. I am around 30,000 feet above the ground. The Internet still works. The words ‘I am writing this on a plane’ are absurd. They point to something we might want to see as miraculous, but which, within just a few years, has become mundane. Maybe living under a bubble on Mars will be mundane one day. We can make anything mundane if we try hard enough. We got bored with Eden quickly enough.
So here I am, sealed into a machine, flying over mountains, writing about the Machine. It is all ridiculous, but there is no point in whining about it. Here we all are: cooked barbarians, most of us. You will never hear from the raw, at least not on this medium, and this is how it should be. But we cooked individuals have our own dilemmas. There are many ways to cook food, after all. I’ve been in America’s Mountain West for nearly three weeks, and apart from finally finding out, at the age of 51, what ‘eggs over easy’ actually means, I have sampled just about every kind of meat the region can offer. Beef, bison, antelope, pronghorn deer; sausages, steaks, sandwiches, pies. It’s meat all the way down in those parts. But you can take your steak rare, medium or well done. The same must be true of a barbarian. What kind of dissident are you?
After my time in Madison, Wisconsin, with the good people of Front Porch Republic, I headed west with a different tribe. My family and I were picked up and driven through the plains and interstates and prairies and gas stations and other such Springsteeny landscapes of Wisconsin and South Dakota, down to the mountains of Wyoming, where the snow was coming down hard. There we gathered in the Wagon Box inn, whose walls are bedecked with portraits of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Simone Weil, and where an epic floor-to-ceiling library replaces big screen TV and jukeboxes, for an invite-only conference on what it means to remain human in a machine age.
If the Porchers were mostly cooked, the Wyoming crew between them offered a wide range of flavours and culinary styles, from well done to properly raw. Homesteaders, rebel truckers, hobo poets, train-jumpers, urban organisers, Washington intellectuals, former policymakers, military officers, anarchists, ecologists, recovering journalists, Christian farmers; all of them - us - in search of the key to remaining human. Everyone there could see what was coming as the Machine bore down: the only real question was what form it would take, and how to respond. These are the questions I have been writing about, and my readers have been debating, here at the Abbey for the past two years.
They are also the questions I had addressed in my keynote address to the Front Porch crew back in Wisconsin. Drawing on an array of voices - René Guenon, Oswald Spengler, Leonard Cohen, Philip Larkin, Eric Voegelin, Simone Weil, Leszek Kołakowski and a few more - I explored how to stand up to the headwinds of what, to quote old Leonard, I called ‘the blizzard of the world’. Longtime readers will be familiar, and perhaps entirely bored, with my argument by now: that the turmoil we are living through represents a spiritual crisis, and that the response therefore needs to look to the construction of a new spiritual culture. After years of exhaustive thinking, reading and living, this is the conclusion I have reached, despite sometimes wanting not to. I can’t see any other picture now.
Writing in 1927 in his short book The Crisis of the Modern World, Guénon explained in simple terms where we were headed. It is the destination at which we have now arrived:
Those who unchain the brute forces of matter will perish, crushed by those same forces, of which they will no longer be masters; once having imprudently set them in motion, they cannot hope to hold their fatal course indefinitely in check. It is of little consequence whether it be the forces of nature or the forces of the human mob, or both together; in any case it is the laws of matter that are called into play and that inexorably destroy him who has aspired to dominate them …
Guénon suggested, as I said in Wisconsin, that as this process unfolded we would witness a shift from one phase of culture to another. The old world would collapse but the new would take time to be born. He called this period ‘the darkness between worlds.’ That, I believe, is where we are now living. We are children of that darkness. It is why we are fumbling around for answers and understanding.
What is the work in times like this? There are always plenty of ways to be useful, but what I talked about, after analysing the current crisis of meaning, is what it would mean to begin rebuilding a sacred culture in the ruins of the world the Machine has made. This, I believe, is multi-generational work. It requires patience, and we have very little of that. I haven’t, anyway. Still, there is nothing for it but to get started. All of the best work is small work, after all.
You can watch the talk in full here:
I’m going to press ‘send’ in a moment, and the yellow circuitboard is going to somehow fire these pixels from my little machine into yours, and you will be able to read the complaints about the technological society which I wrote at 30,000 feet. The whole situation is absurd, and so am I. Still, what else can we do? Laugh, perhaps: at the Machine and at ourselves. Laugh and live; but hold on all the same to the essence of our humanity. It’s going to be challenged like never before in the years ahead.
After both of the events I attended in the US were over, my family and I spent nearly ten days as tourists in Montana, making new friends who we all hope will be permanent. Maybe the highlight of that week - though there were so many it’s hard to choose - was the time we spent in Yellowstone National Park. Blanketed with snow and virtually empty of people, the Park’s beartooth crags and geyser basins presented a deeply magical landscape. To a European, these ‘parks’, some of them as big as our smallest nations, contain a degree of wildness that we rarely see. A herd of bison fording a river in the snow, with no human habitation in sight, stirs something in the soul that can’t be typed out on a plane. Explorer Beryl Markham tried to put it in words a century or so ago:
To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told - that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.
The Machine can do its worst. Wherever we are, we have our own work to do, and we might as well do it with good cheer. The world remains beautiful, after all. Old Ed Abbey again, in his essay ‘Shadows from the Big Woods’,1 nailed the story we are all living through as well as any of us could - and nailed the correct response to it too:
The Machine may seem omnipotent, but it is not. Human bodies and human wit, active here, there, everywhere, united in purpose, independent in action, can still face that machine and stop it and take it apart and reassemble it - if we wish - on lines entirely new. There is, after all, a better way to live. The poets and the prophets have been trying to tell us about it for three thousand years.
Amen to that.
This can be found in Abbey’s essay collection The Journey Home, published by Plume in 1991. It’s a great introduction to his work.