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.
The urge to ground magical practice in the depths of time is surely venerable. During the Renaissance, the concept of a prisca theologia – a pure common origin for all religions – fired the imagination of Hermeticists such as Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno. Not only did their belief in the great antiquity of the Corpus Hermeticum promise unifying hope in the face of the religious conflicts of their time, it also tapped into the great potency that the aura of antiquity bestows. All the evidence from ethnography and archaeology indicates that this aura probably held power all the way to the Upper Palaeolithic, where cave painting traditions bound us back to the intensities of the animal world we were slowly drifting away from.1
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.
North is in many ways a very partial book. I fully intended to include all the major caveats, alternate views, and complexities. But if there was one clear theme to the feedback I got from drafts, it was: ‘Find your through-line, and cut down on the caveats.’ I guess if you’re foolish enough to take on a history that starts in Africa 200,000 years ago and ends with the Apollo missions to the moon, you have to accept that you’re not going to be able to satisfy all your discursive urges.
So I thought it would be interesting to write a series of posts here balancing things out a bit. Compensating for the distortions created by emphatic rhetoric, and hopefully enriching the discourse around the book.
First up is something that’s perhaps an easy target: abstraction.