Simone Weil and the need for roots
A wonderful start Paul.
I am a suburban-raised, American Gen X'er. My grandparents lived in a small town in Western Pennsylvania. Their life in the 1970s and '80s was a throwback even then. One of the first things I would do upon arriving was to raise up a yell from their front yard to hear it echo in the hills. Once, when walking with my grandfather we came upon a spring bubbling fresh water up from the ground -- it was like magic to me! My grandfather grew corn and hunted deer to eat. Their lives weren't centered around the TV, though mine was. In the late 90s, I visited Ireland a few times. There was still a sense there of a similarly rooted sanity (whatever one might otherwise say about Ireland, and people do, I loved it). These experiences haunt me. Though if I talk about them too enthusiastically now it seems like I am breaking a taboo. That to desire roots and a love of place and a deeper connection to the people around you is akin to incipient Fascism (as noted above). I have lived instead shuttling between the parking lots of the endless shopping mall. Working mindless jobs to pay for it. Most of my friends have moved away looking for something else -- who knows what? Nobody's fault but my own, I guess, that this is how it is. Still, I would rather have been suckled in a creed outworn...
Thank you so much for this - it made me reflect.
There was a computer programmer called Terry Davis. Not a lot of people have heard of him, but Terry suffered with schizophrenia, and he wrote an operating system called TempleOS. It was a technical achievement, and was remarkable because Terry said that God had told him to build it as the third temple, for God himself to live within. What was unique about the system was that it held fast to design principles from the 1980s, when Terry had been a boy, growing up. God had commanded him to stick to those design parameters. When I think about TempleOS, I feel that somewhere inside there was a little boy trapped in a prison of a mind that he couldn't understand and couldn't control, and Temple was the only place that he felt safe.
And that's where I think we all find ourselves now, and have done for a long time. We have this instinct, as humans, to find the things which made us safe in our youth, and reassert them in adulthood, perpetuating tradition and continuing to build something that lasts across generations. But modern culture overwrites tradition in children and replaces it with other things, and so the natural drive to tradition is replaced by grown men fetishising old computers, steam trains, Star Wars, comics, and Pokemon.
In as much as man is made in God's image, the drive to tradition, which is obviously a natural impulse, is a reflection of the nature of God. So in as much as that must be true, it must also be true that the perversion of that instinct into the unnatural channels that we see today are de facto evil.
Perhaps the job of "rewilding" humans is discovering authentic expressions of our instincts. And perhaps they can be found by identifying these aberrant behaviours that we associate with modern life and understanding what they once were, that they can be rebuilt, not just as a regressive return to savagery but in a new and greater form.
I love this and yet it also pings me in several ways. What is, or ever was, home to many African-Americans living in America? You’ve spoken of the ideas being exported from the states so I hope it’s fair to speak from a US pov.
To African-Americans “Home” is something in the future, something that has not yet been achieved. To many Caucasian Americans “Home” is in the past just after World War II when the US had “saved the world” and enjoyed a long period of growth with limited global competition. That period has become synonymous with “the American Dream” for much of white Americans, but it was a blip in history and by definition temporary.
To many white Americans the past is rich and there is so much worthy of preservation and renewal. To Africans who were forced to this country or immigrated the past is mostly something to escape. Political polarization makes it near impossible to present that both of these realities are simultaneously true.
In a culture that cannot admit it has a gun problem due to how the wealth generated by weapon sales can influence politics, how can we possibly negotiate racial cohesion when doing so necessitates acknowledging a need for a mass wealth transfer that will take away from the wealthy?
“In all the time I have spent with people who live in genuinely rooted cultures - rooted in time, place and spirit - whether that be here in the remnants of rural Ireland, in indigenous communities in Mexico…I have been struck by one fact: people don’t tend to talk much about their ‘identity’ unless it is under threat.”
Perhaps we need to cultivate both our rootedness in time, place and spirit, as well as our “identity”? I mean “identity” not in the narrow or political sense, but as an abiding awareness of why we are cultivating our rootedness.
I am not fond of the term “intentional living”, but I think this is sometimes used to express a balance between these polarities: being embedded in a meaningful pattern of life, and knowing why one has chosen this life. Perhaps another way to say this (thinking of the end of Paul’s essay) is that one needs to be both a Romantic and a Luddite; capable of floating aloft, yet being drawn to things one can tangibly grasp.
Is there a historical precedent for this? I imagine that monasteries, at a certain time, managed this balance, being places where tradition and knowledge (the lofty) and the workaday world (the Luddite) lived in an intermingled manner. In our times, the Benedict Option seems to propose a similar balance: networks of people or communities who concretely structure their familial, educational, and spiritual lives, on the basis of some well-articulated purpose and understanding of reality.
It is not clear to me that achieving this balance is sufficient to escape, or evade, the progress of the Machine. Balances are precarious; they can tip to extremes or just fall apart. And maybe “balance” is the wrong concept? Maybe there are certain ways of life in which a self-aware rootedness inheres more strongly - and strongly enough to jam the teeth of the Machine when it tries to plough through us?
Do we have or need a patron saint?
Well, it's hard, I think, to remain rooted when you have become an invasive species that simply takes up too much space. There's not enough land out there for all the roots we think we have a right to set down. We battle it out even with our own kind, not to mention non-human species. So I don't think it's so much a question of being uprooted as it is of being rootbound. There are too many of us, and the pot is too small.
Thanks, Paul. Looking forward to seeing your thoughts expounded this year. NB - you misquoted Lewis above - it was not "books" that were barren. I hope that's not a Freudian slip - that barrenness seems an important inter-related component of, or perhaps consequence of, the Machine
Thankyou Mr. Kingsnorth for this , it gets my imagination stirring. As my folks would say your " carrying the fire". Cant wait to read more, hope to meet you on the other side brother.
Thanks, Paul, for these good and provocative thoughts. Alan Jacobs has a great book on Christian writers in 1943 trying to imagine the shape of the post-war world. He includes a chapter on Weil. It's well worth a read.
Thanks for your insights. I can only offer my observations from a land devoid of any sense of rootedness. My parents' families moved to California after WWII. California rightly holds a reputation for un-rootedness. I've lived here my whole life and can honestly say I have no interest in or sense of belonging to the suburb in which I grew up. Today, my wife and I live in a community limited to those over 55 years. It is shocking to note the number of elderly people living here who have family locally, but who have only rare contact with their own children and grandchildren. The residents may have a tenuous connection to a faith community, but that is about all. The pandemic has truly laid bare the lie that "we are all in this together" as the marketing agencies have been assuring us for the past year of imposed isolation.
I am intrigued by our fascination with "home" and whether it is as important as we imagine. Reading Strange Gods got me thinking about your frequent use of "belonging". If humans are nomadic animals, which it could be argued we are, especially in our hunter-gatherer days, what does home or belonging feel like for a creature always on the move? Maybe it's interesting to explore less our relationship to a particular place but more how we relate or "dwell" where ever we are? Morris Berman's fascinating (and hackle raising!!) book The Wandering God suggests that when we stopped moving and became settled it changed our experience of the earth and how we make meaning. He argues that when we become stationary it shifts us away from our horizontal relationships with the rest of the earth. We then create vertical "sacred authority complexes" to make sense of things whether they be religious systems, political systems, ideologies, metanarratives, paradigms, etc. which appeal to something outside of the "What is. I am curious about whether a sense of being grounded is more about ways of relating to things (that the Machine takes us away from) than a sense of belonging with a specific place (unless, to contradict myself, the place is very distributed like Songlines). Anyway, just a thought.
Very good, made me think of the still intact small farm, small town agrarian Midwest culture I was raised in back in the 1960’s. It began to dissolve in the 1970’s and a mere shell remains.
Thanks, Paul. Good stuff. And a few random thoughts as I think about your essay:
- This dovetails with some thinking I've been doing about placeless and footloose people and a goal of the machine, at least, it seems like a goal to me, to peel us away from our communities, tribes, families, turn us all into isolated individuals wholly dependent on the machine. Reminds me a bit of how wolves hunt, separating an animal from the security of the herd, and then bringing it down. Are we being hunted by the machine? Maybe.
- I suppose I long for Eden. I think it is one of the reasons I love the mountains so much. I've watched the sun drop behind the Hurwell Divide from a campsite on the edge of Ice Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness and wept because I had never, never seen anything so beautiful. Maybe Eden's been a dream haunting our species since we were booted from the garden?
- I come from a rootless people. They left Scotland, Ireland, and Norway, made their way to this country, washing ashore along the East Coast of the US and within a few generations, their children and grandchildren had crossed the continent and bumped into the Pacific Ocean. But that impulse wasn't unique to my people - it seems intertwined with who we are as a species. What drove the early Polynesians to leave paradise and make their way east across thousands of miles of open ocean to Hawaii? No maps, GPS...nothing but the stars and some impulse? Hope? A vision? What was it? Or the Vikings? What pushed them out of the north. Or the thousands of tribes that populated Europe and Asia that washed back and forth across the land before it all ossified into kingdoms and states? Was it just a lack of resources, or seeking refuge and safety from predatory tribes, or was a deeper impulse a play? Maybe they were looking for Eden, too?
- We spent a few weeks in the desert southeast, and I was struck by all the isolated RVS (caravans, I think you call 'em), dotting the desert between Phoenix and Tucson. I asked my sister about it and she said, "oh yeah, they're everywhere. Most head north when it gets to hot." She mentioned that there's a new movie about these placeless people: "Nomadland" - https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9770150/ . I suppose all the folks living in this "park" where we stayed with friends for few days are also Nomads, though a regular supply of water means they're a bit more well off than the folks camped in the desert. Everyone we met in this park was from somewhere else. And I found that disconcerting. Like tapping a bell and finding it slightly out of tune. Where are you from? Toledo. Bong. And you? Michigan. Bong.
"We turned away from a mythic, rooted understanding of the world, and turned away from the divine, in order to look at ourselves reflected in the little black mirrors in our hands. Some people are quite happy with this, and have no time for Romantic Luddites like myself when we lament it."
Not only quite happy about this but it's regarded by many as "freedom". Rootlessness as an ideal. Brave New World as heaven on earth. Commitment to land and a community means being tied down and enslaved. We must remove all limitations to be free. Nothing should stand in the way of instant gratification. And yet rates of anxiety/depression tell a different story. But not to worry, with advances in antidepressants and tranquilizers, the sense that all is not well is medicated away. Utopia!
Weil ought to have known about rootlessness — she was herself tragically rootless. First of all, she was Jewish, so denied by birth the sense of deep dwelling or rootedness that she could pick up on — even as it was being eradicated — in rural France. But she was furthermore a Jew who had lost or renounced her religion (for 1900 years a religion rooted in text and liturgy and prayer rather than sacred place, but rooted nonetheless), adding another layer or kind of dispossession to her experience. And then the war, and exile. I think a lot of the attraction she felt for Catholicism came from her perception of the way its traditions could really sink into a place, sanctify it, put down roots.
The aspect of Weil, though, that I have seen the most people react to most strongly has been her stark asceticism, which is another strand of Catholicism that attracted her. People (academic types), I have found, very much dislike her asceticism, just as they get uneasy about her religious inclinations. We all do at some level, probably, and it’s no wonder. Nothing strikes so deep a wound in the zeitgeist than voluntary self-restraint and even, dare I say it, what in the bad old days of western Christianity was called ‘mortification of the flesh,’ or what in eastern Christian terms is I believe more commonly termed ‘taming the passions.’
There is a correlation, I think, between rootedness and the asceticism proposed by all the major religious traditions. To really dwell anywhere properly requires precisely the recognition and even celebration of limits.