U.S. Intellectual History Blog

As Deep A Question As Ever (Guest Post by Anthony Chaney)

[Editor’s Note: This post is the first of six guest posts from Anthony Chaney that will be appearing every other Saturday.  Anthony teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas. He is the author of Runaway: Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness due out on October 2 from The University of North Carolina Press. His research interests are environmental thought and history, and the contents and methods of environmental humanities. He’s also been a fairly frequent guest blogger for us in the past.– Ben Alpers]

Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) and Allen Ginsberg (David Cross) considering deep questions in Todd Haynes’s I’M NOT THERE (2007)

Allen Ginsberg first heard about global warming during the Summer of Love. He spent the bulk of the summer of 1967 not in San Francisco but overseas. In Swinging London, he partied with the Beatles and the Stones. This must have been a heady experience. Ginsberg had charisma but not like these pop stars did. Nor was he as young, as handsome, or as lithe. Ginsberg was a half generation older, balding with horn-rimmed glasses, a rabbi’s thick beard, and still something leftover in his body from the fifties of the sexually-repressed, neurotic New Yorker. Part of Ginsberg’s charm was that he carried these physical attributes unashamedly. Film clips of him at the Human Be-in, held in January of that year in Golden Gate Park, cement a particular image of him as a Sixties icon: white kurta, finger-cymbals, ecstatic smile. It’s the image played by David Cross in his turn as Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’ brilliant Dylan meditation, I’m Not There. Here’s my point: by the end of July, he had less reason to smile.

Ginsberg spent most of July attending a gathering in London called the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation. Organized by the “anti-psychiatrist” R. D. Laing and his colleagues, this forum brought together radical writers, artists, social scientists, and political theorists, including Herbert Marcuse; Paul Goodman, the author of Growing Up Absurd; and civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, who’d spent the previous year stirring up audiences on the topic of Black Power. The US involvement in Vietnam was then almost two years in escalation, urban riots were in progress in Newark and Detroit, and the crowds attending the Congress’s many programs featured a large American contingent. They were drawn, at least partly, by the big-name speakers, but also by the goals Laing and his colleagues had advertised for their event: “to demystify human violence in all its forms” and “to explore new forms of action.”

The cultural moment, however, called for a somewhat different agenda, and the gathering in London became a site for the age-old debate over the nature of revolution. Dissent was surging. New Left activists and members of the self-described “spiritual generation” were coming together in new coalitions. What would be their program for change? Would it be built around love consciousness, or was it about power–claiming it and taking it through militant struggle, “by all means necessary”?

The debate was activated to some degree by Stokely Carmichael in an incendiary speech on the gathering’s second day. Drawing on Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Carmichael spoke of institutional racism and called for a politics of racial identity. He told of how he’d dreamed as a child in Trinidad of coming to London to burn it down. On the following Saturday, at the Congress’s marquee event, Carmichael again took the stage as part of a panel that included Laing, Emmett Grogan of the San Francisco Diggers, and Ginsberg. Carmichael dominated, baiting the hippies in attendance without mercy. “People of color” in US cities, in Vietnam, and elsewhere were fighting for their lives, Carmichael said. The “white boys” were only playing at revolution and would soon return to their middle class lives. People could talk all they wanted about “leaving the money wheel,” as Ginsberg put it, but real revolution was no game. The pragmatic message articulated by Carmichael and others won the day at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, and it put representatives of the spiritual generation, Ginsberg prominent among them, on the defensive.

The debate over the nature of revolution was fraught and agonized, and the news about global warming came as an intervention upon it. That news came from Gregory Bateson, a 63-year-old British-born anthropologist and systems theorist then based in Hawaii. Bateson had given a talk on the Congress’s first day, and during the question and answer session, he mentioned “the greenhouse effect.” The phenomenon had been a concern of atmospheric scientists since the late 1950s. More recently it had received a brief mention in Barry Commoner’s first book, Science and Survival, published the previous year. A June article in the journal, Science, had used the term. Bateson’s talk at the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, however, may well be the first instance of climate change being discussed before a lay audience.

During the last days of the Congress in London, when Ginsberg made a speech of his own, it was Bateson and the greenhouse effect that was topmost in his mind. Bateson had impressed him, Ginsberg said, by articulating “the scientifical apocalyptic aspect of the anxiety syndrome that we’re suffering from.” Humankind’s large-scale burning of fossil fuels threatened a change in the earth’s climate, a melting of the polar ice caps, and a rising of sea levels worldwide. Comparing “White Power,” “Black Power,” and “Porpoise Power,” he speculated that it might be inevitable and indeed, the best possible outcome for the latter to prevail: “The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling for the continuance of its own life.”

Ginsberg’s comments were posthumanist gestures of a kind that would soon become more widespread. They strain for a glibness that is familiar, too—a typical mode of heading off unpleasant information. But I think it’s important to pause and appreciate their pathos. The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling, our outsized numbers, our mountains of waste, our brazen and continuous predation of its resources and of each other. Who hasn’t felt what Ginsberg felt at least once in their lives? I daresay many of us feel it at our shoulder all the time, this nagging consciousness as Americans of our utter dependency upon our environment coupled with the recognition of ecological profligacy as a cultural default position. Ginsberg’s emotional response was such that he immediately moved to first principles. This was, he said:

‘To be or not to be?’ which is as deep a question as ever, you know, do you want ‘to be’ or not? I don’t know, sometimes I don’t want to; I don’t give a shit, I’m going to die anyway. Which everybody feels occasionally, from Shakespeare on down to the lowest chimney sweep in Blake.

Ginsberg should be commended for putting it so plainly. Just as importantly, however, he doesn’t entertain the question for long. He bounces back, as from a trampoline. He hastens on as if the answer was self-evident: “So, assuming that we’re willing to suffer more and continue our existence on the planet, on to more pragmatic things.” This is understandable. Half of the mission of the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation was to “explore new forms of action.” Ginsberg knew that the surging youth nation was tiring quickly of platitudes. Their minds were right. Now they needed a program. The one Ginsberg offered in his talk was little different from that which he’d articulated throughout his career: Moral purpose had its endpoint in atonement, in “unitive experience,” and the “friendly extension of self outwards.” To achieve that Ginsberg recommended aesthetic craft, Eastern religious practice, and experimentation in the routines and rituals of “tribal wisdom.” In fact, Ginsberg practiced what he preached and followed up the next month with the production of one of his most anthologized poems, “Wales Visitation.” The poem came, Ginsberg explained later, from a new “ecological perspective” Gregory Bateson had triggered in him.

But I want to stay for a moment with the speed at which Ginsberg bounces back. That’s understandable—it’s the most human thing. Hopelessness isn’t pretty. It’s disturbing. It might be described as rude. We keep up hope for each other’s sake, and if one of us abandons it, they let the rest of us down. It’s as if we have an obligation to hope, especially when hope seems least justified. The calculation is paradoxical and aptly applied, as in Ginsberg’s case, to runaway climate change. Brave and clear-eyed writers wade into this material, reflect on it, summarize it, and share their findings in books. These books usually end on notes of hope. Being otherwise so grim, how could they not?

These are some of the books I’m thinking of: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything; Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement; Christian Parenti’s Climate of Chaos–just to name a few. It would be an interesting inquiry to closely read the endings of these books and compare the ways they craft their obligatory notes of hope.

A writer whose mode is more narrative than analytical can more easily disguise the obligation. I’m thinking of George Packer’s The Great Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award. This is a book about the failure of postindustrial capitalism, which also makes it a book about climate change. Packer traces the stories of numerous characters at various levels of society, but he begins and ends with Dean Price, a déclassé North Carolinian entrepreneur driven by ideas and a belief in his own destiny. Hurricane Katrina is a “come to Jesus moment” for him; later he’s persuaded by the concept of “peak oil.” His passion becomes the production and marketing of biodiesels. After suffering the vagaries of economic instability, political dogmatism, unreliable partners, and finally, the Great Recession, he’s reduced to driving around in a rusty old Honda, trying to convince local restaurant owners to sell him their used cooking oil. His new business model includes a funding stream directed to neighborhood schools. Price remains an individualist and an entrepreneur, but his definition of success has evolved. It has become recursive and communal and hinges on a decentralized politics. He’s at odds with the reigning paradigm, but he still has hope. By implication, so should we.

In the way I admire Packer’s nuance and indirection, I admire, too, those writers who stave off the obligatory note of hope until the last possible moment. Annie Proulx’s long novel, Barkskins, tells a tale of the ruthless destruction of North America’s forests through multiple generations of two logging families, one of management and the other of labor. In the book’s final pages, an ecologist, descendant of a 17th-century French peasant woodsman and a Mi’kmaq healer, views in horror a collapsing pit of melting polar ice. She has dedicated her life to repairing the ailing forest, to planting trees and restoring soil, but this sight makes her so dizzy with despair that she wonders whether her efforts are in vain, whether it wasn’t “already too late when the first hominid rose up and stared at the world.” The universe doesn’t need our exorable yowling. Proulx then ends her book with a series of nature images, absent the human, and finally of sea swells “lifting … toward the light.”

Numerous comments at an online reader’s site expressed an objection to the abstract character of this ending. They loved the book but found the last few paragraphs puzzling. To my mind, Proulx’s gesture was obvious. The polar ice experience that she gave her last character forced her, as Ginsberg was forced, back to first principles. To answer as deep a question as ever—and to answer it in the hopeful way that is called for–she takes recourse in the moon and the tides. If the move smacks just a bit of desperation, given the parade of destruction that Proulx has led her readers through, it’s a desperation well-earned.

Still, there’s a formalist, maybe even a kneejerk quality to all this. What would happen if we simply refused to heed the obligation to hope? What if we took on the unpleasantness that would follow? When the wizards and witches in the Harry Potter series want to protect something valuable, they put some scary monster in front of it as a guard. What if the hopelessness we dare not for a moment entertain was one of those monsters protecting something of value to us now? After witnessing the melting polar ice, Proulx’s ecologist reaches out to a former lover for encouragement. He offers none, saying, “Some broken things can’t be fixed.” I have a feeling Proulx might have preferred to end here, or that maybe I misread her note of hope. It reminds me of the ending of Manchester by the Sea when the character played by Casey Affleck admits to his failure to conquer his grief. How un-American! The movie was bracing; it was a bummer; it hurt. It does not bounce back; it “stays with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway has advised. This may be the sort of thing we need.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This an incredibly fascinating post, and I’m glad you wrote it for us! I think it’s interesting to think about the history of thinking about climate change to the high point of revolutionary fervor in the 1960s–considering where the various strains of left-wing thought have gone since then (with forays into environmentalism, identity politics, etc.) it’s almost a harbinger of things to come.

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