2016: year of the serpent

2016 has been a year of turbulence, change and revolt, especially in the West. Starting this week, Dark Mountain will be publishing seven blogs by seven different writers, reflecting on the significance of what these changes might mean. The series begins this week with Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth.

snake

We take almost all of the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious.
– W. G. Sebald

Last weekend, I was sitting in a packed room in the middle of a wild and wet Dartmoor listening to the mythologist Martin Shaw tell an old northern European story called The Lindworm. It is a tale about an unhappy kingdom. The king and queen want a child, but no child will come. An old wise woman tells the queen what she must do to conceive. She must breathe her desires into a glass and place it on the ground. From that ground, two flowers will grow: one red, one white. The queen must eat the white flower; under no circumstances must she eat the red one. Then she will bear a healthy child.

Of course, the queen is unable to resist eating the red flower too, despite all the warnings. The king and queen agree to tell no-one of the transgression, and the queen duly falls pregnant, but at the birth something terrible happens. The queen gives birth to a black serpent, which is immediately caught and flung in horror through the window and into the forest. People act as if nothing has happened, and the serpent is quickly followed by a healthy baby boy. But when the boy becomes a man, he meets his serpent brother again in the wood, and the huge black snake comes back into the kingdom to wreak terrible damage.

It’s a strange and disturbing story, and if it contains a lesson, it is, suggests Martin, that what you exile will come back to bite you, three times as big and twice as angry. What you push away will eventually return, and you will have to deal with the consequences.

2016, in the West, feels like the year the exiled serpent returned. Many things that were banned from the public conversation – many feelings, ideas and worldviews which were pushed under, thrown into the forest, deemed taboo, cast out of the public realm – have slithered back into the castle, angry at their rejection. Some people thought they were dead, but it doesn’t work like that. Dark twins can’t be destroyed; terms must be met, agreements made. The serpent must be accommodated.

And so some people’s idea of history, and its direction, comes down upon their heads, and those people flail, screaming, pointing fingers, blaming everyone else for the appearance of the monster. In the New Yorker magazine last month, editor David Remnick, friend and champion of outgoing president Barack Obama, tries to get his head around the rise of Donald Trump. How did this serpent get into the palace? Unable to deal with the possibility that the authorities themselves opened the doors – that royalty ate the flower which created the snake – Remnick comforts himself with the notion that the arc of the moral universe, in the words of Martin Luther King, bends towards justice; by which he means towards his notions of justice. ‘History does not move in straight lines’, he writes; ‘sometimes it goes sideways, sometimes it goes backward.’

History goes backward. It’s an almost comical notion. History, of course, does nothing of the sort: it is just the story of things happening, one after another. But Remnick is using the word in an eschatological sense: history to him is the continuing, inevitable path towards goals which he and his fellow ‘progressives’ consider to be just: the dissolution of the nation state, global human equality, a cosmopolitan world civilisation, fair and free trade, the spread of personal liberty and secular democracy to all corners of the globe. These goals are so obviously desirable that it is inconceivable that we should ever stop progressing towards them. Their triumph is tied in to the very fabric of time itself. The election of Donald Trump, who opposes at least some of them, thus represents a kind of anti-history. Not the real thing; an aberration which can’t last. Like a dammed river bursting its banks, progress will inevitably resume its natural course, sooner or later.

This unashamedly Whiggish view of history has been the standard worldview amongst the opinion-formers of the Western democracies since 1989, but it is now crashing, with a terrible screeching of metal and gears, directly into other notions about how the past feeds into the present. Looked at from a longer-term perspective, as a conservative would patiently explain, there is no moral arc bending in any particular direction. The elites of ancient Rome or the Indus Valley civilisation or Ur of Chaldees doubtless believed that the arc of justice was bending towards their own worldview, too, but it didn’t, in the end.

When I look at the state of the world right now, I see an arc bending towards something that dwarfs any parochial concerns about particular presidential elections or political arrangements between human nations, and which should put those events into deep perspective. I see a grand planetary shift that has not been seen for millions of years. I see that half the world’s wildlife has gone, and half the world’s forests, and half the world’s topsoil. I see that we have perhaps two generations of food left before we wear out the rest of that topsoil. I see 10 billion people needing to be fed. I see the highest concentration of carbon in the atmosphere since humans evolved. I see coming waves of political and cultural turmoil resulting from all of this, which makes me fear for my children, and sometimes for myself.

2016, from a small, localised perspective here in the wealthy democracies of the Western hemisphere, can look like the year that everything changed. But it isn’t, not really. This is not the year that the queen gave birth to the serpent, and it certainly isn’t the year that she first ate the flower. That happened a long time ago. This is the year that the serpent came back out of the forest and into the kingdom, and we got a look at its face. This is the year when we were finally forced to acknowledge what we have exiled.

Anyone who has tried to talk to someone with different opinions about the election of Donald Trump, or the British exit from the European Union, or climate change for that matter, will know that there is a madness in the air right now which goes far beyond the facts of any particular case, and which engulfs them until they are lost in the fog. When people argue about Brexit, they are not really arguing about Brexit. When they fight about Donald Trump, they are not really fighting about Donald Trump. These things have become symbols, archetypes of the kind of future we want and don’t want, the kind of people we think we are and the kind of people we think others are. It’s as if we are fighting over myths, stories, representations of the world as it is and as we want it to be.

This is an easy time to take sides, and that is why it’s a good time not to. I am a writer, and Dark Mountain began life as a writers’ project; which, at the core of its being, it remains. In times of great change, when shifts occur, when cracks appear, the public role of the writer, in my view, becomes very hard to ignore. But what should that role be? Some will join battle; many do. But I think that the terms offered are too narrow. What if neither army represents your – our – true interests? What if the battle is a distraction from the deeper malaise?

Our stories are cracking: the things we have pretended to believe about the world have turned out not to be true. And the serpent has a lot more damage to do yet. In such times, we write to make sense of things, and to examine our stories in their proper perspective. We write new stories because the old ones are half-dead now. We turn from the heat of the anger before it burns us, we let the names fall away, we walk up the mountain, sit down at the summit, breathe – and pay attention.

I think we could make a case that most of the world’s great religions, philosophies, artforms, even political systems and ideologies were initiated by marginal figures. There is a reason for that: sometimes you have to go to the edges to get some perspective on the turmoil at the heart of things. Doing so is not an abnegation of public responsibility: it is a form of it. In the old stories, people from the edges of things brought ideas and understandings from the forest back in to the kingdom which the kingdom could not generate by itself.

In the story of the Lindworm, it is not the king or the queen, nor a heroic knight on a white charger, who finally draw the serpent’s threat like poison from a wound. It is a young woman from the margin of the woods, who brings new weapons, and new cunning, into the court, and does the job which the owners of the kingdom had no idea how to do. But she does not kill the serpent. Instead, she reveals its true nature, and in doing so she changes it and everything around it. She forces the court to confront its past, and as a result, the serpent is enfolded again back into the kingdom.

Paul Kingsnorth is co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project. His latest book, Beast, is published by Faber and Faber. His personal website is here.

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31 thoughts on “2016: year of the serpent

  1. Beautiful, Paul. Yes, at least the mask is down, and now we can see the beast.

    One of the hidden tragedies of Obama’s climate efforts, is that his import/export bank funded so many overseas “development” projects, LNG plants and the like, that his effort to phase coal out of the US power grid was rendered nil. From the standpoint of the non-human, the serpent has been in the castle all along, hidden in plain sight.

    Sometimes I have almost felt a relief at all this, as if at last we can stop chasing chimeras.

    At Standing Rock Trump’s election was strangely bearable, felt in the context of a greater reality. As the Native Americans there would say, “we’ve survived all your presidents. We’ll survive this one too.”

    But the black snake, and the potential of oil in their water, and the desecration of their sacred lands, that could not be allowed. They were clear about where the real threat lies.

  2. I find your comment this is a time when it is easy to take side and so it is a good time not to, so interesting. I have been encouraging this in my community, that we set about listening, making contact, that that be our primary work now. It is so interesting to hear you say it again from a different angle. Thank you for this.

  3. It should be good to do as the young woman did, to sit quietly and watch the Lindworm until it becomes something other than a hurdle on the hope-filled plotlines of our storybooks. We watch the Lindworm not to color it with the colors of our pet villains, but to learn from it, to see that it is an outgrowth of our own selves. We might find that the Lindworm is as much of a serpent as we think ourselves to be.

  4. I have a slightly different take on the myth. The snake is a symbol of the feminine energy western culture has repressed hence our disconnection from the sacredness of the natural world, from the divine mother. The myth beautifully conveys the power of the wild where the serpent resides. IThe serpent represents the wrath of kKali. Interesting that a woman tamed her. It has been suggested by many including the Dalai Lama that our current crises call for feminine resolutions.

  5. Interesting story in its applicability to the year’s events. In Chinese astrology, however, for what its worth, 2013 and 2025 are the years of the Serpent, 2016 the year of the monkey, full of shifts and tipping points, revelations and mysterious turns. We struggle to understand these, characterizing and interpreting, searching for precedents, analogies, and allegories, all to put wise words around the emptiness that the cracked old stories have left behind. Maybe it is the actual forces of change that constitute one of the new stories, bringing with them continuing uncertainty and insecurity, requirements of a new way of being.

  6. A wise commentary….. especially in terms of reserving judgement and eschewing hysteria.

    I live in the forest mostly… I visit Kingdoms with traditional norms and cultural views at once locally engrained as absolute truths and yet diametrically opposite to those in the Kingdom/s on the other side of the forest.

    And frequently therefore I live on more than one forest edge. While within the forest, My education was mostly from your Kingdom and historical cultural background too. But fortunate I am to have been allowed a clearer mind to see perspective…

    The calmed nature of your piece lends serenity for a while to those who are indeed in a state of panic from your Kingdom. Good. But it demonstrates again to we edge-dwellers how far out of touch so many of you Western Europe / North American commentators are with the real world… The real world representing 90% of its people and half it current wealth and 80% of its natural resources. ….. the people of your Kingdom think that all Kingdoms are alike and all peoples are alike…. and all are alike to you.

    The Trump and Brexit and Putin panics are localised to your Kingdom.

    You need to get out more……

    And yes for your Kingdom the Dark Serpent is real…. its called the silent majority; tiring as they are of being shamed into what to say and believe by a leftist, myopic minority in control of the media. That silent majority consists of people who are a lot more like people of other Kingdoms.

    If you push a basket ball ever deeper under water, when it escapes your hand’s pressure (as it inevitability does) it will not return quietly and calmly to the surface equilibrium. … The reaction is an over correction into the air… one as unsustainable in the natural order as the underwater repression …

    The ball has only just been released. ..
    It has not even broken surface yet. It will go a lot higher. Enjoy the spectacle and return to sanity.

    That’s the view from the edges. The Native Americans saw it correctly.

    • I’d be a little careful with the generalisations here. ‘The people of your Kingdom think that all Kingdoms are alike and all peoples are alike…. and all are alike to you.’ Some of them, perhaps, but certainly not all; hopefully the irony of your comment does not escape you.

      But I tend to agree about the ‘silent majority’ and its similarity to most people in most places. The Western ‘progressive’ worldview is very much a global and historical outlier; an outgrowth of the fossil fuel age, which it will probably not outlast.

      • The term “silent majority” sounds like a mirror of “the people of your kingdom”: a virtuous generalisation opposes a contemptuous one. Personally I’m a person not a people, I’m a person who likes silence, a position I’ve never found put me in a majority in a gathering of more than two (except in a monastery).

    • “tiring as they are of being shamed into what to say and believe by a leftist, myopic minority in control of the media”

      That well known leftist cabal; Rupert Murdoch, The Barclay brothers, Paul Dacre – just as well we’ve now got Brietbart here in the UK to provide some much needed balance.

  7. Brilliant Paul. Thank you. Thank you for helping us to make sense of what’s happening to us and our world, and how to prepare for a future.

  8. When I think of the situation that we are in I think of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah who correctly predicted the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Jeremiah passed on three things that have contributed to the enduring resilience of Judaism: 1. the Deuteronomic ideology of God’s chosen people which gave them a strong sense of enduring identity,
    2. the idea of an “inner covenant” between every observant Jew and God. This led to a more personal relationship and did away with the necessity of a central temple for sacrifice.
    3. The daily recitation of the Shema, a prayer which basically reinforced the previous two ideas.

    What made Jeremiah a great prophet is how he changed his purpose once he realized the inevitability of the Babylonian Conquest. He abandoned his insistence on centralized worship in Jerusalem and developed the idea of the “inner covenant”. Thus, he opted for resilience rather than purity. I go into this in more depth in this post: http://rupertjeremiah.blogspot.ca/2014/07/jeremiah-and-resilience.html

    Now, I am neither a Jew nor a Christian. The reason that Jeremiah’s story is important to me is because I think it illustrates what it takes to survive a catastrophe: a strong sense of group identity, that is communicated by an ideology, together with a way of life that is flexible enough to work almost anywhere. I certainly do not agree with the Deuteronomic ideology. The story of the European 18th Century Enlightenment is the story of the refutation of this pernicious idea that disaster follows abandoning God and good things happen to those who worship God in the right way. It may have worked two thousand years ago, but it has no place in today’s world.

    Nevertheless, the more the situation becomes a crisis the more that people will be irresistibly drawn to ideologies. We are presently seeing a resurgence of forms of Authoritarianism and Fascism. We must preserve the freedom of inquiry, the ability to accumulate knowledge through the use of evidence and explanation. This is what allows us to learn from our mistakes. Without this freedom scientific knowledge will die and ignorance and superstition will take its place and seal our fate.

  9. Paul, thanks for such a perceptive interpretation of the myth. Just shows we shouldn’t take our eye off the Lindworm. And now he’s here and we are to be cracked open. It’s illuminating that through a myth, a story – we can see our society reflected back to us like a landscape or a film. When it’s played back to us with this degree of perception I feel both scared and disturbed that there’s a challenge to be met, a wake up call which I would rather other people took up. But in fact I see I’ll have to step up – observe what’s happening to our world and write about it with clarity. To pay attention in fact.

  10. I am fairly confident the intellectuals commenting on this will find my response ignorant and reactionary, but it doesn’t make my reaction invalid. I just find this damn depressing. Is the point to add to the hopelessness and despair that is rising up? Everything is completely shitty, we deserve it and may the black snake destroy everything from within. If there happens to be some stray, marginal wise person left in the end…well…Burn the world down now I say! I feel rather done with it all.

  11. http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/05/22/the-lindworm/

    I found this expanded version of the Lind worm tale in the above link. The ending felt more complete – to me anyway.
    The woman whips the snake fiercely, forcing it to shed its skin several times – then cleanses it in a fiery lye bath. To me, this suggests that the snake had to get scorched by Kali before it could be fully integrated into the Kingdom – at which point, its hidden face was revealed.

    And the two – forest woman and the former snake -became one in a blissful marital embrace.
    If the snake is all of us, and our collective historical shadow is shoving itself into the light, my hope would be that the dross would dissolve in the purgation- just as it does when an ancient memory erupts into the light of your awareness. Maybe it does that cuz’ the intense charge is asking to be released and transformed.

    The forest woman in this version of the tale releases the “caged bird” inside the snake. But not without first inflicting a wound. Maybe the sacred wound heals – while appeasement flatters and a placated wound festers.
    I like the idea that the snake just didn’t get to forever have his cruel way with everyone!

  12. I’ve been rather discouraged by our current global crises, but, this myth and Paul’s thoughts about it, give me hope. Thank you, Paul.

    Besides being a great metaphor for our current situation, like most myths, it offers us guidance. At its core, it shares a universal and ancient teaching: now that the “worm has turned” – now that the darkness, the shadow of our poor choices is fully manifesting – what can we do as a species to change, evolve and survive without destroying that which enables us to exist?

    As Paul says, the myth teaches us the path to a possible new way of being will be one that comes from the edges, from a different source than the traditional institutions that are deteriorating, destructive – barren! Institutions which often make poor choices (eating the red rose.)

    If we are wise, this time can usher in a new way of being – and as the myth shows us (and as all indicators seem to be saying to many of us who are listening) this new path might manifest primarily through the feminine.

    Discernment, honesty, cleverness, altruism, and willing sacrifice: those are the attributes of heroines and heroes of mythology that we tend to embrace and admire the most, yes? The myths have the answers for us. In order to evolve, we need to develop and foster these attributes in ourselves right now.

    For example, for every one of us who right bemoan the “black snake” that is threatening those protectors at Standing Rock, consider these questions:

    How does my own lifestyle sustain and uphold the black snake? In other words, can I be discerning and honest about the amount of petroleum products I personally use to live? Can I come up with or seek clever, innovative ways to rid myself of more/most of my dependence on petroleum products? Can I make sacrifices that will help create positive changes for our planet – can I altruistically sacrifice something for the greater good? Can I be a heroine or a hero in this small way? Can I as an individual, evolve?

    I think it’s possible. As Tolkien wrote and believed in his own great myth of good vs. evil: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

  13. The snake can be your only salvation because of its ability to unwind the depths of time. To undo all that has been done and to apply serpent pressure to those that suppress us. And to deliver new rising energy to the universe with earthy and spiritual awareness and growth. Serpentine energy is the most powerful and enlightening there is also a very beautiful dance. With love,light and with the rise of kundalini to mankind and beyond.

  14. Read your “Brexit Reconsidered” article at counterpunch. I was riveted by the concept of Culture of Progress and Culture of Survival, fascinating. I never considered the value of the C of S as much more than backwardness. I’ve always considered the C of P as necessary for the survival of humanity, but you’ve sparked deep 2nd thoughts in me about the C of S, that the durable peasant/indigenous way is a viable strategy for survival; it certainly has a very long track record to speak for it. On second thought, I’m not so sure it was ONLY your article that opened up my eyes. I believe in such things as ZeitGeists, as if they were Ministering Angels who wave a magic wand, and cause a new kind of idea to be thought,and human activity takes a different course. We may be experiencing a “Change of ZeitGeist”, and a new Chapter is begun, in THE STORY (whatever that may be…it probably isn’t of human authorship. We are the actors in IT).
    One thing I’m fairly sure of, is that it’s wrong for either culture to try and negate the other. I envision something like a quite contained and smallish “SpacePort City” ( involved in the Mars Project) of minimal “footprint”, living a very modern and cosmopolitan life within its’ encircling, gated, chain link fence, while outside goes by a caravan of pack mules, traveling from one settlement of cottages and tepees to another delivering surplus food and craft items, supplemented by necessaries supplied free gratis from SpacePort City’s automated factories, as they are members of the same community, convenanted by a universal obligation to promote the general welfare and well being of all.

  15. Stories: Power is concentrated and corrupting. Inequality grows extreme. Technological change drives. Complexity increases. Separation from Nature widens. Issues and challenges are globalised. Identities are blurred and lost. It is all inevitable. There are no limits. There are people to be blamed. Walls must be built to keep out the “other”. Collapse is inevitable. Natural systems become more turbulent and chaotic.

    Other stories: Kindness matters. Nature matters. Humans can shape their future. Limits must be accepted.

    Continuing to lable “sides” as Left or Right is pointless as these terms have lost any meaning. But there are concentrations of power and ignorance. How can “sides” not be taken?

  16. Mr. Kingsnorth,
    Thank you for the wonderful essay. I just finished reading it aloud to my wife. She also enjoyed it & sends her compliments. It reminded me, in parts, of this quote from Dr. McPherson’s blog by another excellent writer, Daniel Drumwright:

    “Blaming others simply makes us feel better. It’s empowering. It keeps us warm at night. Blaming otherness allows us to imagine we’ve set ourselves apart from whatever the other might be, and affords the belief that we are ultimately better than they. It doesn’t matter if ‘better’ means, we’re kinder, gentler, simpler, wiser, poorer, smarter, more generous or less consumptive, blaming allows us to detach and rise above the act of being fucked.”

  17. Very interesting – but I think there are some things missed out in both the analysis and the comments. In the original story, it is the creation and consumption of the red and white flowers which initiate the change of circumstances which cause all the trouble (before the creation of the troublesome serpent). And it seems to be the “old woman” that has esoteric knowledge about how the flowers are created and what the flowers will do that again catalyses the beginning of the troubles…. Who was she and where did she get her knowledge….? If you study the world situation enough, you will find equivalents of the “old woman” and the flowers….

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