On the summer solstice eve in 1997 I was in The Red Lion pub in Avebury, getting drunk with friends and poring over the latest Towards 2012, my journal which had just arrived from the printers. A friend introduced me to Matthew Watkins, who not only turned out to be someone also fascinated by Terence McKenna’s predictions about 2012, but someone who had just the previous year presented McKenna with his objection to the mathematics underlying his predictions.
In any case, Matthew and I had loads to talk about, and it’s perhaps odd that we’ve only bumped into each other sporadically since then. Recently he’s been running a site called The Reality Report, posting long video conversations with friends and strangers about anything and everything cosmic, bizarre, psychedelic, and generally fascinating.
A few weeks ago — 20 years after we met! — he invited me over to his caravan home just outside Canterbury, to do an interview. It was a beautiful sunny day, and after exploring the stunning location where his home is located, we settled down to shoot the cosmic shit. The first part of the resulting video is now online. We discuss the ’90s, underground zine culture, 2012, McKenna, and the I Ching. I’m posting here because in subsequent parts of this interview we get deep into the territory covered by North: cosmology, hunter-gatherer anthropology, decentring, and the Copernican Revolution. I’ll not post subsequent episodes here, please keep posted at the Reality Report, or via Dreamflesh on Facebook or Twitter.
At the end of last year, chance found me moving to southeast London. Crossing the Thames is something Londoners are often reluctant to do, even for a night out, let alone shifting residence. But after 17 years of living in the North, I moved South.
It seems fitting that just after arriving, a book was posted to me out of the blue: now-fellow South London resident Merlin Coverley sent me, in polar solidarity, his new book, South.
It counts as some of the most gratifying feedback for North that I’ve had, in that Merlin was influenced in his research by my work, citing it numerous times and placing a quote from it at the start of the introduction. As Lemuel Johnstone once said, ‘I rather like those books where each chapter begins with a quotation.’ To have one of those quotations be me is a little milestone.
It’s a further pleasure to find that South is a cracking read. It overlaps with (or better, mirrors) some of the terrain I found so fascinating researching North: the imaginative draw of the poles, and the way in which they carried an ancient sense of mystery into the modern world. It’s more of a survey of the modern experience of the South than a full history; but of course, herein lies the most significant imbalance between the hemispheres. The global North has been a far more prolific site of historical unfolding and density. So while the North Celestial Pole accreted myths due to the scope and dominance of the cultures who gazed upon it, the South has figured more as an empty netherworld.
I found especially fascinating the history of the lure of the Mediterranean for northern Europeans. James Hillman has described venturing south as a journey for psychological explorers, beyond cool confines — he mentions both Freud and Jung experiencing minor breakdowns as they travelled to Athens and Rome respectively, on pilgrimages to their intellectual and psychological roots in these ancient centres.1 Coverley tracks the origins of this journey, beginning with the tradition of the Grand Tour that emerged from the Renaissance. Nietzsche acts as a crucial pivot: heading south partly out of the lure of ancient culture, partly as a remedy for his poor health, and partly out of sheer sensation-seeking. There’s a significant gap between Nietzsche’s philosophical love for Mediterranean vitality and the bland sun worship of the twentieth century tourist, but the connection is interesting.
Coverley presses on through the South Seas of Captain Cook and Gauguin (often, as per the Grand Tour, a thinly-disguised form of sex tourism), the ‘Magic South’ of the Beat journeys to Mexico and Borges’ Buenos Aires, and the polar fantasies of Coleridge, Poe, Lovecraft, and hollow earth theories. Finishing with a return to his ever-changing home territory in South London, it’s a fascinating journey. It’s available here.
I should also mention here Elizabeth Leane’s excellent 2012 book Antartica in Fiction: Imaginative Narratives of the Far South.
Leane’s essay on Antarctic ‘aliens buried in the ice’ narratives2 was instrumental in my reading of these tales in North, and its shrewd analysis forms the core of a chapter here titled ‘Bodies, Boundaries and the Antarctic Gothic’. Other chapters survey further fantastical southern flights of the imagination, as well as creative accounts of the ‘heroic era’ of Antarctic exploration. The full range of Antarctic fiction is accounted for, a range that has extended so far now as to include a Mills and Boon romance. Another essential tome for appreciated the imaginal lure of the South — available here.
To a large extent, North is an attack on hierarchy. Or to be more precise, it’s an attack on the image of hierarchy. Its cosmological history uncovers the ways in which certain facets of the appearance of the world — especially the elevated centrality of the north pole star — are seized, amplified, embellished, and used to justify and naturalise social hierarchies.
North readers and fans of sweeping histories of our species may be interested in my review of Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent 2011 account of our biological and social development, Sapiens — over at dreamflesh.com.
Another reminder that dreamflesh.com — my main web outlet for nearly fifteen years now — has been revamped and rebooted. I’ll still occasionally post North-related goodies here, but most of my energies will be devoted to blogging and posting essays, reviews and interviews over there.
There’s a new interview with me online over at The Thinker’s Garden blog. Discussion ranges over the experiences in Yorkshire that formed the roots of the book North, animism, the Arctic, art, and the dreamflesh.com revamp. (For readers not familiar with Dreamflesh, this would be a good starting point. I’ve just relaunched the blog there and while I’ll still be posting occasionally on matters cosmological and polar here, dreamflesh.com will be my favoured outlet for thinking. Please do pop by!)
The first chapter of North opens with this quote, from philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s 1938 book The Psychoanalysis of Fire:
We are almost certain that fire is precisely the first object, the first phenomenon, on which the human mind reflected … No doubt it has often been stated that the conquest of fire definitely separated man from the animal, but perhaps it has not been noticed that the mind in its primitive state, together with its poetry and its knowledge, had been developed in meditation before a fire.
Looks like science is starting to catch up with this shrewd poetic observation. Of course, the natural backdrop to the campfire is the night sky, meaning the stars would have always been woven into our fireside ruminations.
But sparking the rise of civilisation? Certainly it set something in motion which eventually led to large-scale city-based societies after many millennia. But civilisation was probably more to do with abandoning the campfire – a royal or civic hearth taking its place, becoming a focus for power rather than society, and the grand narratives of sky deities displacing the tangled tales of stars and spirits…
I’m doing a talk about animism at From the Woods: A Night on Animism and the Environment. Part of the Light and Shadow salon at the wonderful Horse Hospital near Russell Square in London, Thursday 27 October (7pm for a 7.30 start, £5 on the door). Hosted by Chiara Ambrosio, I’ll be appearing alongside art from Raksha Patel and Simon Mullen, and sound performance from Rot of the Stars (aka Jo Roberts and Mark Pilkington). My talk will evolve the ideas in North, discussing the psychology of animism and artificial intelligence, ranging widely over indigenous spirituality, the Jungian anima, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Join us!
It’s a shame this piece doesn’t acknowledge the pioneering work done by William B. Gibbon in the ’60s.1 Gibbon traced the Cosmic Hunt mythical motif – especially the formation of the constellation Ursa Major – from Palaeolithic Siberia, across the Bering Strait into the Americas. This detailed computer-aided phylogenetic analysis is useful and fascinating, but in some sense it also makes the ‘manual’ labour of people such as Gibbon – who seems to be decisively vindicated here – even more impressive. Still, the broadening and deepening of the path beaten by previously sidelined scholarship is very welcome.
Also of interest here is a link drawn between the Palaeolithic cave art in Europe and the Cosmic Hunt motif across the northern hemisphere. It seems to give some credence to my speculation (based on Clayton Eshleman’s work2 ) that these caves forms ‘a hallucinatory analogue of the sky’ (see ‘The Cave and the Sky’).
Marshall Sahlins is one of the most respected living anthropologists. His 1972 essay ‘The Original Affluent Society’ was seminal in beginning to shift our ideas of hunter-gatherer cultures away from the naive perspective typified by Thomas Hobbes: that their lives were ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’1 Sahlins lived in Paris during the late ’60s, absorbing the radical ambience of the May ’68 protests, and back in the States became one of the academics to take a bold stand against the Vietnam war. During the ’70s, he began an ongoing defence of the importance and complexity of culture as a formative force, against the rising and seductive influence of over-simplistic sociobiological theories. Learning that he was to deliver the inaugural lecture for the Centre for Ethnographic Theory at SOAS here in London (on 29 April 2016), I was both excited to catch him in the flesh, and a bit apprehensive – since the core idea of this eminent figure’s talk on ‘The Original Political Society’ directly undermined one of the core ideas of my North. Armed with my notebook and open mind, I headed to SOAS to see how it went.
This is an article I wrote to promote NorthinWatkins’ Mind Body Spiritmagazine, Winter 2015-2016. It may be the most concise summary of the book I’ll ever manage.
The foundations of our spirit, say the ancients, lie above us in the stars. Jewish tradition pictures us as upside-down trees with roots in heaven. Celestial bodies form waymarks for the soul, guiding it back to its source in the divine centre, which in many mystical traditions is suggested by the northern pole star, motionless and regal above us all.
The upheavals of the modern world broke many threads of tradition, but the shattering of this cosmos underlies it all. During the Copernican Revolution in the seventeenth century, the ethereal heavens were refigured as part of the same fabric of matter as lowly Earth. And the circles traced by the heavens, which seem to place us at the centre, were revealed to be an illusion caused by the spinning of our lonely planet. No wonder Nietzsche’s madman, who preached the death of God, spoke in a post-Copernican panic: “Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?”
But what if this apparent catastrophe for the spiritual imagination is only part of the story? Writer Daniel Quinn speaks of a Great Forgetting at the roots of our civilisation: a forgetting of the fact that for most of our existence, humans lived as hunter-gatherers, foragers. We forget the impact of the transition to agriculture and cities. At the same time, we’re transfixed by the more recent transition to industry and the global village. We’re blind to the fact that in some senses we have more in common with pharaonic Egypt than we have with foraging.
Foragers are sensitive observers, and tell stories about the heavens they see. But they tend not to systematise them into a neat cosmos. Orientating themselves while travelling, landscape features such as rivers and hills form their waymarks. As anthropologist Hugh Brody noted, it’s ironic that settled civilisations (which often involve long migrations) have more need of the landscape-independent sky for orientation than nomadic foragers (who wander within an intimately known area). This contrast between different ways of navigating—one looking up, the other looking around—seems to be reflected in other aspects of life. Civilised religions tend to focus gravely on sky deities who send laws down from on high. But animistic foragers tend to see the world as a community of spirits, constantly negotiating with each other. Sometimes they joke about spirits, even make fun of their own beliefs.
No coincidence, then, that hunter-gatherer societies are often strongly egalitarian. In the same way, it’s no coincidence that societies governed top-down by a monarch usually believe in an almighty God above. Often this situation is justified by an appeal to the primacy of the spirit. “Look above! Our society simply follows the pattern of the divine world!” Well, as William Burroughs once shrewdly noted, “all control systems claim to reflect the immutable laws of the universe”. There are sacred insights to be gained meditating on the natural patterns around us. And in the selective use of these patterns there are great excuses for all-too-human injustices. The separation of Heaven and Earth is a motif which forms the bedrock of many civilised creation myths. But viewed with the foragers on the other side of the Great Forgetting in mind, it looks very much like a coded veil for the relatively recent origins of a great split in society: between the haves above, and the have-nots below.
Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer recently wrote in a candid article addressed to his fellow billionaires, “The folks like us at the top have always told those at the bottom that our respective positions are righteous and good for all. Historically, we called that divine right. Today we have trickle-down economics.” Like pharaohs before them, our modern-day masters assure us that this is the way of the world. But it’s merely the way of a recently created world. And we are called to remember the cosmos we’ve forgotten: a world where our foundations are not in the stars above, and we are not beholden to overlords. A world where our foundations are in the places we walk through, and in each other.