Monthly Archives: August 2019

What Greta Means To Me

The tension between reason, reduction, technology and industry on the one hand, and feeling, holism, intuition, empathy, compassion and light-touch living on the other, has long haunted us. It continues to smoulder in the friction between environmental movements, such as Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike, and the powers of business as usual. It became obvious once the ideas of the Franco-Scottish Enlightenment were absorbed, monetarised and weaponised by the English to create the Industrial Revolution. But one suspects that these very different ways of thinking have much deeper roots, since there is so clearly a tendency for simple, close-to-nature lifeways, with their shamanic beliefs and spiritual art-forms, to be ploughed under from time to time by more rational and better-armed cultures, who live to exploit and destroy everything that cannot be used.

One such model in Europe is the Ancient Roman Empire – a notably harsh and invasive cultural system that shaped so many of our values – but even here there is tension between this heritage and the non-Roman parts of Europe, notably that of the German peoples. This, based on federation among equal local societies, was later given expression through the (confusingly mis-named) ‘Holy Roman Empire’, the Reformation and the European Union. By contrast, the Roman model itself gave us the Roman Catholic Church and a tendency towards hierarchy and centralisation. But this is all wildly complex, as the various influences swirled and settled in different places, and then influenced one another. It may be decipherable one day, if we can ask the right questions and reconstruct enough social history and folklore, but meanwhile we are left with tensions between just-discernible tendencies and ways of doing things that seem to be associated with different local histories, languages, myths and political traditions.

Trying to make sense of some of this, in my 2008 book Water: Life in Every Drop, I built on the many lines of evidence that support the idea of humanity having both a fully terrestrial and a semi-aquatic heritage, and extended the idea from anatomy to behaviour. I observed that “humans seem equally adept at living in either of two alternative and contrasting models of society: one militaristic, controlling, male-dominated and hierarchical; the other peaceful, accepting and egalitarian. It seems we can do either, depending on circumstances.” So I argued that our minds must be inclined, and have the capacity to think, in two contradictory ways, which I called a ‘hard’ way, which I associated with the Confucian tradition in China: top-down, mechanistic, reductionist, the thinking of a terrestrial ape; and a ‘soft’ way, which I linked to Taoism: bottom-up, organic, holistic, the thinking of an aquatic ape. And I claimed that “Their different implications are expressed sometimes this way, sometimes that, in response to social context, lessons learned in upbringing, and the observations, reasoning and self-discipline of which people are capable during their long lives.”

Now, from Tim Flannery’s 2018 book Europe: The First 100 Million Years, we learn that the invention of truly spectacular cave art – at Lascaux in France and El Castillo in Spain – and the carving of works such as the Löwenmensch (Lion-man) figurine of Hohlenstein-Stadel – and the domestication of dogs, can all be dated to about 35,000 years ago, and may have resulted from hybridisation between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens in the Danube Corridor, which is known to have occurred at about the same time. Flannery argues that neither parent species showed much sign of artistic-religious creativity or the kind of empathy needed to domesticate animals before then, and that some kind of ‘hybrid vigour’ induced it. The hybrid element in our gene pool was later swamped by subsequent invasions of ‘unimproved’ humans from Asia, leaving the ‘neanderthal’ component as a tiny fraction among our genes.

There is very much still unknown about the flow of humanity across the world, the human-like species with which we interacted and interbred – including Homo denisova, whose genes are now so widespread in Australasia, and Homo erectus or its descendent species which persisted among the Indonesian islands until very recently – and the nature of the various actors and their habitats, so firm conclusions cannot yet be drawn. But the suspicion is there again in Flannery’s work that a tension exists in modern humanity between an artistic, creative, pacific side, and a mechanistic, analytical, warlike side, which may be traced to distinct and ancient heritages.

And we find a similar pattern in Wendell Berry’s 2002 essay ‘Two Minds’, in The World-Ending Fire. Here he nails the difference and tension between what he calls the ‘Rational Mind’ and the ‘Sympathetic Mind’. As Berry summarises it: “The Rational Mind is objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling. Its ideal products are the proven fact, the accurate prediction, and the ‘informed decision’. It is, you might say, the official mind of science, industry, and government. The Sympathetic Mind differs from the Rational Mind, not by being unreasonable, but by refusing to limit knowledge or reality to the scope of reason or factuality or experimentation, and by making reason the servant of things it considers precedent and higher. The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out. The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.” (pages 181-182).

So what light, if any, does all this shed on the current environmental movement and the reaction of its participants to the eruption of Greta Thunberg onto the scene in 2018? To simplify slightly, let’s consider only the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Greta’s Climate Strike for the Future, which arose together in late 2018 (Greta spoke at the launch of XR in London on 31 October), and have been growing in global influence, in dialogue and in parallel, ever since.

Participants in the XR movement call for official truth-telling and declarations of climate and ecological emergency, urgent action against GHG emissions with an early goal of zero net carbon, and governance reforms built on citizens’ assemblies to provide leadership and participation at all levels of society. These participants are a very mixed bag of people, all of whom share a fear of impending climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, and frustration over official denial and inaction over the decades since the dimensions of the crisis became known. The culture of the movement is determinedly non-violent, inclusive, egalitarian, tolerant, welcoming, transparent and regenerative through mutual support. It is also highly respectful of art – and wonderful art has been a hallmark from its beginning – spirit, healing and the ecological and climate sciences, and practitioners of all these traditions are highly valued. Everyone else is seen as persuadable through the logic of environmental truth, the feeling of shared nature and humanity, and the recognition that we are all equally terrified by reality but can help one another through ‘existential nausea’ to a better, more accepting and more determined frame of mind.

This is all both benign and electrifying. There are no great ideological tomes to read – if only because, as yet, there is no theory of governance to promote. There is only the manifest truth that all is very far from all right, that we have been lied to, and that it might be possible to build a better world if we can only summon enough spiritual energy and collective goodwill. There is, however, a deep and potent back-story: the history of life on Earth as told by palaentologists and planetary ecologists; the inexorable decline of the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice towards zero in about 2030, and what this means for runaway global heating; mass extinction at a level that may be as high as a million species annually; the processes of human separation from nature and the pretence of human ascendancy over the rules of ecology; and the consequences of that separation in broken societies and broken ecosystems. These consequences, it is understood, may soon include total breakdown: mass starvation, desperate migration, unconstrained war, and the wholesale end of the biosphere that we as a species have known for ever.

Since all this is well-founded in consilient knowledge (i.e. ‘science’), the question and frustration arises over why it has not been acted upon. Clearly, the science has been ignored, and it isn’t hard to make a list of reasons for this: it’s complicated, difficult, expensive to do anything, and it’s much easier to rationalise denial and delay, using whatever entitlement myths may be to hand – religious, racist, nationalist or neoconservative. From an English perspective we might cite two contributions by the folk hero Winston Churchill: the ‘ten year rule’ for not doing anything about a threat until it can no longer be pretended to be more than ten years away; and the aphorism that ‘scientists should be on tap – not on top’. These traditions of English conservatism can stand for a whole raft of reasons why the establishment is reluctant to respond to the urgings of science, and specifically ecological science whose practitioners have been pilloried as ‘tree-huggers’ since the 1960s when ecology first came to political prominence.

Well, that’s the problem – or part of it, since in addition to ecology there’s also the whole set of other things in XR, including the art, shamanism and anarchism, the purple-bearded men and the children and young mums with their naïve hand-made posters. Greta’s School Strike adds to the mix a million or two disobedient adolescents. This lot is virtually guaranteed to activate hostile feelings among more conventional thinkers, or Rational Minds, or Confucian officials. In this sense, as it has been since the ancestral environmental movements of the 1960s, ecology can be seen as a pseudo-scientific front for the anarchist left, easy to ’other’, easy to ignore and isolate, and, like the rest of the ‘hippies’ and ‘subversives’, if push comes to shove, easy to do away with. Which is frustrating for all concerned, and especially for ecologists.

But this brings us back to Greta Thunberg, and what her advent may mean. To me it is very clear. Greta activates a potent archetype: the virgin girl-child inspired by divinity, speaking truth to power, taking on the world. These figures are recognisable throughout history, and are powerful because they spark a deep response in our collective minds, summoning us to great out-pourings of spiritual energy which often have the effect of changing history. Since we need a great outpouring of spiritual energy to overcome resistance to change, and we need to change history very urgently, this is all as it should be. Whatever is going on in Greta’s mind, and for all I know in the mind of God in communion with her, it is necessary and welcome.

But the other thing here is that Greta’s message, essentially is: “Everyone and everything needs to change. Make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy. We must start today. We have no more excuses.” (from No One is Too Small to Make a Difference). The sailing yacht on which she is now crossing the Atlantic Ocean bears the slogan ‘Unite behind the science!’ on every boom and spar. The call is for policy and action on climate chaos to be based on scientific realism (i.e. what is needed) rather than political convenience (i.e. what is cheap and easy). That’s the message, and that is the green line that runs through the XR and Climate Strike movements, that holds them to the truth, that validates the knowledge we need for change, and that provides us with the indicators we need to measure real progress.

By uniting in one person deep respect for consilient knowledge, open-mindedness, creativity, compassion and social union, Greta symbolises everything important that we have been trying to say for decades, and quite possibly for millennia. As a girl-child/eco-warrior/hero-archetype she’s impressive and necessary enough, and one important thing is that she may summon our energies to change what needs to be changed, as a matter of deep and immediate urgency. But another important thing is that she may succeed finally in inspiring us to unify the divided mind of our species. This attempt seems to me utterly worthy of passionate engagement.

© Julian Caldecott


Rusalka: an ancient warning for modern times

An opening night at the opera, Glyndebourne, 29 June 2019

In 1899 the Bohemian Czech Jaroslav Kvapil finished writing the storyline and lyrics for the drama Rusalka, as the libretto for an opera, and began looking for someone to compose the music for it. He drew on ancient fairy-tales, but in his mind were great questions of governance, power and accountability. This was an era of decaying multi-national empires, including the Habsburg of which Bohemia was a part, where tensions between the rights of local peoples and the rights of over-arching authority were in everyone’s minds. A few years later, Kvapil was to sign the Manifesto of Czech Writers, which expressed the yearning of a self-aware people to be free. Meanwhile, though, he was exploring similar themes by unearthing shimmering veins of meaning in the rich loam of folklore and faerie. And those themes are ours today, as much as his then, because they are everyone’s everywhere.

A glance at Aboriginal Australia makes this clear, for the Dreaming Law created tens of millennia ago contains the same principles of autonomy that peoples still strive to articulate and defend (see: Dingo Makes Us Human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture, by Deborah Bird Rose, Cambridge, 1992: 45-55). Here no species, group, or country can command another, since each adheres to its own Law; to be a centre is not to dominate, but to have one’s own perspective; there are no orders from above because there is no above; and in each country the Law manifests an eternal, stable relationship between nature and humanity. Each part of every system shares responsibility for sustaining itself, for learning to understand, for paying attention, and for balancing every other part. The processes of ecology weave themselves through these countries, as rivers, evolutionary relationships, mountains, aquifers, migrating birds and breeding crocodiles, and are represented by the adventures of Dreamtime creation beings that are shared by all peoples, unifying them. This symbolic, ecological universe was being ruined by Europeans in Australia while Kvapil wrote his libretto, just as the land of faerie was being oppressed by modernity in Europe itself.

All this is reflected in Kvapil’s choice of myth and the characters to represent classes of beings and relationships in Rusalka. There is Vodník (Alexander Roslavets), the ruling spirit of a lake: absolute monarch of that one ecosystem of aquatic water-nymphs or naiads, co-equal with the ruling beings of all other natural spheres, and relating on those terms to a vaster natural ecosystem of witches and wood-nymphs or dryads. There is Rusalka (Sally Matthews) herself, his daughter who pines for a different, mortal, human life. And there is Ježibaba (Patricia Bardon), the witch. These names are all personified symbols: in Czech, vodník means ‘shape-shifting water spirit-creature’ (or something like the Loch Ness monster, say, in our terms), just as rusalka means ‘water-sprite’ (or perhaps mermaid) and ježibaba means ‘witch’ (or any figure that the Christian tradition uses to demonise female knowledge and power outside Church control). Against these mythical materials, Kvapil opposes others, all numinous but all refracted through the distorting lens of human Christian thought.

Thus the Prince (Evan LeRoy Johnson), representing an utterly different idea of universal relative status, blunders into Vodník’s world, hunting and killing his way into the forest with a party of humans. They understand nothing of where they are, or why they should care, or what’s up with their Prince, who seems to be searching for something that only he can sense the existence of. Seeing him, Rusalka projects her own yearning onto him, and bewitches herself, just as he will presently do in response to her. This is the moment when the ecosystem breaks, when Law falls into madness.

Kvapil found in Antonín Dvořák a composer skilled and subtle enough to illuminate this story with the most sublime, powerful and sensitive music. Between them, and the fabulous singers in this production, they articulate the whole bitter tale in a way that is a painful joy to experience. For Rusalka becomes obsessed, begging Ježibaba to help her abandon her own nature, as well as Nature and Law, so that she can experience a human life instead. The witch pretends reluctance, but it is her role to facilitate transformations – as witches do, presiding over the generations, initiations and transmutations of life, most of which are female, horrible, painful, and necessary. After Rusalka’s obsession proves immune to the dire warnings of Vodník, the witch and her sisters summon the powers of change, warping the very fabric of the ecosystem (represented on stage by the toppling of its trees, like a collapsing pine forest over melting permafrost), and ripping the hearts, eye-balls, wings and other organs from its quivering wildlife. These sacrifices are stirred into a boiling iron womb, into which Rusalka is also eventually fed. She will emerge, bereft of swimming tail, unsteady on her new feet, and not possessing human speech, to meet her new destiny as a bewildered, yearning woman in the arms of a bewildered, yearning Prince.

For the audience, these terrible sights are leavened by a champagne-break amid the flowering paradise of the Glyndebourne gardens. We can imagine what Rusalka went through no more than we can sense what went on in the pupae that broke open to release the bees and butterflies who are around us in the summer afternoon. Also, we don’t yet know how badly it will turn out. But back in the auditorium, the forest lake has been transformed into a castle kitchen. Humans are drawing and quartering wildlife, and chatting among themselves as they work. The castle gamekeeper (Colin Judson) marches in, unslinging a cross-bow and handing out dead animals for butchering. He and his niece (Alix Le Saux) sing about the strange, silent creature that the Prince has brought back from the forest, and that he intends to possess through the sacrament of marriage. Meanwhile, the aristocratic guests of imperial Bohemia gather behind and around them for the wedding party.

The kitchen table duly becomes a banquet hall, a runway for the fashionable dance-guests of the wedding ball, a marriage bed strewn with the red roses of lust and blood. Rusalka, looking more bewildered and yearning than any human ever has before, is trying to wear heels and a misshapen white wedding dress, is trying to learn how to dance like everyone else, is trying to convey her feelings to the Prince, and is utterly confused by every signal, as is the Prince himself. Rusalka becomes more and more desperate, the Prince more and more impatient, the guests more and more patronising. Prince and Rusalka are locked into a binary orbit the unbearable tension of which is almost resolved as Rusalka sheds her panties in a desperate effort at communication and bonding. But a glamorous foreign Princess (Zoya Tsererina) intervenes and makes a pass at the Prince, who is briefly distracted by the thought of a relationship that he can at least understand.

Nothing can last, because the Law is in ruins. Rusalka flutters around the candle-flame of her human love. Vodník manifests to observe the ball, which under his gaze is held in slow-motion ordinary time while he mourns for his daughter in faerie time, before taking her away, back to the forest and the lake. The foreign princess, sensing that the Prince is already broken by madness, spits him out with shrill curses. And so the second Act ends in smoking ruins, with the trembling audience retreating to the picnic gardens to try to make sense of it all, perhaps more sensitive than before to brief movements in the undergrowth as they forage among the crystals, patés and cheeses. They gather their energies for whatever lies ahead.

There, Kvapil and Dvořák have laid a most intricate trap. We knew it would go ill for nature, but here comes Rusalka to greet her sister naiads, with their writhing tails dangling from the water surface high above, who reject her utterly and for ever. Here is a damaged, charred Rusalka begging restoration from Ježibaba, who offers her relief only at the price of hot human blood freed by the dagger that she offers, which Rusalka cannot accept. Here are the gamekeeper and his niece, come to seek Ježibaba’s help to heal their Prince of his madness, but they are spurned by the witches and are taken instead by the wood-nymphs, who strip with them, dance with them, and bloodily consume the gamekeeper’s heart. Here the imagery and music pass beyond understanding, as the wild-haired conductor (Robin Ticciati) dances in the pit with the instruments of pain and pleasure. Somehow, the idea is conveyed that the great virtue of being mortal is the opportunity to die, to bring suffering to an end and to participate in furthering the endless cycles of life.

And so before long … here runs a beautiful exhausted doe, her tall ears rotating as the human hunters approach, until she dies at last, reflecting the fall of Rusalka herself who has vanished deep into a corner of the lake. There she contemplates eternity as a will-o-wisp, one of the swamp stars fired by the methane of decay that lure men to their deaths by night. And here comes the Prince, blundering and staggering, demented and exalted. He sings of his guilt and of his loss. Humanity self-pityingly recognising that his actions have ruined Nature, begging forgiveness, knowing that she can never again be the sustaining all-mother that she was while the Law still held. And Rusalka responds from the muddy depths, gradually emerging, beautiful, hopeless, broken, understanding. She can only offer humanity death as a release from guilt, and the Prince gratefully accepts her gift, dying with a kiss in her arms.

Rusalka then, neither lawful sprite nor human, considers the constellation of swamp-stars among which she will rot for ever, and plods off to join them. The music seals the tale with perfection, and we are left to think: how unnecessary the quest, how pitiful the outcome, how foolish the choices that brought us to this insane, unlawful result where nothing will ever be whole again. For make no mistake: whether or not it was once about empires crushing the indigenous peoples and lifeways of mediaeval Europe, this whole story is nowabout modern humanity destroying the living world in arrogance and greed, reckless of our own vulnerability and dependency upon nature. We have broken every law, polluted the oceans and atmosphere, driven a million wild species a year into extinction, ignored all warnings, and are at last starting to realise that we have lost what we most pretended to love. We are now blundering around in anger, and will soon start snivelling. But Nature is now too damaged to offer us anything more than the kiss of death, before she plods off to exist as best she can amid the methane fires of the melted Arctic.

The second viewing (20 July 2019)

Everything worked just a bit better with practice and tweaking. Excellent on the opening night, three weeks later Rusalkawas fascinating, moving and brilliant. What I wrote before can stand, but I saw more detail: how the sacrificial animals were torn from the wood nymphs like vivisected daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials; the cursing of the Prince by Vodník at the end of the ball; the doe as a guide between human and faerie. Above all, the acting of Rusalka herself, struck dumb by metamorphosis, had reached a new level of heart-breaking perfection. Half the audience were crying by the end, including us. The lady on the door murmured her sympathy as we filed out. The talk around us was all of beauty and despair. We couldn’t resist joining some conversations. In one, a shaken observer noted that the music was so expressive that it drove the story-telling to a sublime ending “that left us to meditate on what we had just witnessed”, and that the performance was one of those very rare moments “when an opera is a true combination of acting and theatre and text and music all together and not separately”. I can vouch for that. It was far more emotionally potent than before. I suspect that other operas will feel like light entertainment after this. So I think I’ll get back to my day job now: fighting climate chaos, mass extinction, and the brutalisation of nature and ourselves. Viva Greta!

© Julian Caldecott