It might only be remembered by certain academics and a handful of literary enthusiasts that Western civilization is haunted by a fear of language. Or really, the fear that we’ve forgotten the original “true” language that was one and the same with the universe, such as the names that Adam gave the animals. Stranded here in our postlapsarian world, we mutter words that are meaningless, or worse, lies—a shell game that connects “nothing with nothing,” as Eliot writes. We fear that modern language, in its odd sort of sophistication, serves mainly to separate us from the world with an ironic distance. This is what Schiller meant by distinguishing between naive and sentimental poetry. And this is the price we feel we pay for unnecessarily complicating our minds with abstraction. Surprisingly, these same concerns happen to be the focus of the environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth’s latest book, Savage Gods.
I call Kingsnorth an environmentalist for convenience’s sake. He’s much more complex, and infinitely more interesting, than your average political partisan. For one, he’s successfully made the move from mainstream journalist to offbeat novelist (with The Wake and The Beast, novels about the aftermath of the Norman invasion of England and a contemporary Londoner fleeing the shackles of civilization, respectively), poet, and publisher of the journal Dark Mountain, which runs stories “that can help us make sense of a time of disruption and uncertainty.”
Regardless of whether you share Kingsnorth’s dark view of the future, his voice is unique and his moral obligations taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that he feels the existential imperative to make the words he writes cohere to the life he lives. A few years ago, he purchased a tract of land in Western Ireland where he homesteads with his family, living as simple and unencumbered a life as possible. They grow their food, homeschool their children, keep animals, and dispose of their own waste. It’s a life that might strike some as idyllic or beautifully simple. But of course, as Kingsnorth explores in the book, those are just words, and we know how slippery those can be. Savage Gods is a deeply felt, searching account of yearning to live an authentic life in the modern world. It would be a tall order for anyone, but for a language-addicted writer, the task is doubly difficult.
Something quite appealing about Savage Gods is that it defies conventional political categories. And necessarily so, one would imagine, if your goal is to cut through the “noise” of the moment. What makes Kingsnorth at least notionally conservative is that he understands, as he puts it, that “culture comes from places.” The word itself, derived in part from the Latin cultus, or “care,” and French colere, “to till,” implies that we create meaning in our lives by tending to the specificity of our surroundings. Knowing this, Kingsnorth has decided to root himself in a specific place and tend to it. He’s staked all his chips on this traditional notion of human flourishing.
As a writer, though, this means that he’s placed himself in a somewhat precarious position. As he writes in the book: “I realized, after a while, that anything I have ever written in the past which has even approached being any good at all has been written from some place of desperation. It has been written from the edges: from the dark slope of the mountain, not the warmth of the campfire.”
Kingsnorth’s image of a writer necessarily being apart, watching those around the campfire from the dark slope of the mountain, is an apt metaphor for the distance that we fear language places between us and an authentic life. But Kingsnorth seems not to consider the possibility that to be human is to be both on the mountain and around the fire, at the same time.
The Italian writer Roberto Calasso explains in his book Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India that the Hindu Vedas say the Tree of Knowledge and Tree of Life “look like a single tree.” On two different branches, two birds sit at exactly the same height. One eats a berry while the other watches. Both are aspects of self, and both are necessary, the eating and the watching. As Calasso writes, affirming Kingsnorth’s initial perception while rejecting his conclusions, “Consciousness slowly strangles life. But life exists—or is perceived to exist—only to the extent that it allows the parasite of consciousness to grow upon it.” One is reminded here of how William Burroughs called language the “word virus.” But what traditional and religious wisdom tells us is that the virus must necessarily be kept in harmony with our animal selves in order for us to spiritually flourish.
So too when Kingsnorth writes things such as: “None of this is real. The Scots pine is real, it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the Earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive…. What if I just shut up?”
The force of his language disproves his intended meaning. Of course the words are real. Of course they’re alive, burning with the ardor of human consciousness. What devalues them is the same force that devalues the existence of the natural world that Kingsnorth lavishes with so much lyrical praise: the nihilism of contemporary culture. And so we get the sense that what Kingsnorth is actually trying to escape is not the empty promise of language—that’s just a tool for human consciousness to express the skrim of a deeper reality. What he’s trying to escape from is the deadening touch of our culture itself, emptying language of its significance with the same efficiency as denuding an English wood.
The eponymous “beast” of Kingsnorth’s most recent novel might be read as the culture the protagonist can’t quite escape, stalking him and hoping to eat him alive. Reading Savage Gods, one senses the same beast following Kingsnorth himself, who is in a constant state of fleeing the heavy footfalls of his pursuer. But does he flee well? It’s true, he doesn’t quite use all of the tools at his disposal. He might quote liberally from D.H. Lawrence and Annie Dillard. He even has a sense of the mythic that seems to be influenced in no small part by Robert Bly. But Kingsnorth has completely abandoned any hope of finding salvation in Western religion, or even organized religion generally, it seems. For all his reverence towards traditional modes of living, he doesn’t seem to draw meaning from any living traditions. For instance, he writes, “I walk the world looking for something to belong to, but there is nothing to belong to because there is no culture for us anymore, only civilization, and they are not the same thing. There is no connection between the wild and the tame, the human and the beyond-human, the sacred and the profane.” Billions of people around the world would be surprised to hear that.
But what ultimately makes Savage Gods a success is Kingsnorth’s passion. His honest probing of himself is the real strength of this book. He is a man bearing everything. And for all the confessional memoirs so popular at the moment, this is the real deal. He’s honest about his pain and confusion. He writes about becoming disillusioned with college, and then with his chosen profession. There’s a particularly moving passage where he talks about his father’s suicide. But what strikes me as particularly rare in our current ecosystem of pithy confessionals that always seem to wrap up nicely or dissolve into an au courant political takeaway is how comfortable Kingsnorth is with settling on remaining unsettled:
In the end, you can only ever live with the things which make you. There’s no guarantee that you will ever understand them. Life is not a puzzle to be solved…. We live through it, and then it lives through us and none of it makes for a story with a comfortable moral thread or any consistent characters at all.
As Kingsnorth suggests, language isn’t the world itself. And as Wittgenstein suggested, there are indeed things that are inexpressible. But words can do great things. They can honor and denounce. They can remind us and encourage us. They can heal us. They can become the surface on which the transcendent intimates itself. They can bind us together. And they can help us to love one another. And so, in a sense, this book undermines its own thesis, which is its ultimate success.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.