This is the dominant received theory of the origins of the human mind. The bones, the spears are phallic weapons, and they inspire phallic stories of conflict and conquest. These stories permeate our vision of the world. In her alternative to this origin story, her ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Human Evolution’, anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher has it that hunter gatherers mostly gathered, and in picking the fruits and roots, thought to themselves wouldn’t it be useful to have a thing to gather more and fill the larder? In this case, the very first tool was not a weapon, but instead a vestibule for bringing things home: a bag or net of some sorts. What alternative form of story does this bring into being? A bowl-like leaf; a container; a yonic story.
When writing fiction, I think again and again of how Ursula K. Le Guin applied this theory to the novel, in her essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ (I think about Le Guin on writing an awful lot). She suggested that the novel should also be considered as a container into which we put useful or sacred things. A novel is a medicine bundle, she said, holding things in particular powerful relation to one another. She suggests this as an alternative way of storying within the novel, pitted against the dominant phallic form of arcs and ends that she finds in the Western novel: the progressive arc of a narrative, beginning, middle, end, a conflict overcome.
The Ascent of Man is a tale about Men, disguised as a story about all genders and human conditions. The novel is the key repository for our written interior worlds in the West. It gives prevalence, Le Guin suggests, to a dominantly white male interiority, canonised as the human condition too. And with all the heavy hegemony of this condition of ‘Man’, lumping all possible human subjectivities into one, comes inherently the suffocation of any more-than-other, any nonhuman ‘worldings’ (the term used by multispecies feminist theorist Donna Haraway for interspecies interaction and consequent ‘world-making’), adding brashly to the insistence that the human mind is centre of all things. I think Le Guin’s insights have particular importance when building narratives of the Anthropocene.
The concept of the Anthropocene often induces paralysis and defeatism, and avoidance in the novel; it is eerily absent from contemporary narratives despite being perhaps the defining feature of our contemporary condition. The Anthropocene is too vast to write into a novel as an event, and so it gets relegated to the too-big, the abstract. The Anthropocene is, Amitav Ghosh has told us, a crisis of the imagination.
This perhaps has to do with it being so difficult to conceptualise as a hyperobject, what Timothy Morton calls a thing too vast in temporal and spatial dimensions as to fit into structures we understand. So expansive and creeping that event, that by our human timescales we become accustomed to its effects, in what ecologists are calling shifting baseline syndrome; whereby incremental drift away from natural conditions is taken as a norm by each superseding generation, the intact forests of your grandparents’ generation forgotten for the heavily mediated paths through wooded parks of your childhood.
It Matters What Stories Tell Stories
Who gets to feature in Le Guin’s yonic stories? Contemporary scientific wisdoms say we aren’t any more the singular lonely organism at the helm of personhood, elevated from the unthinking beasts and their domain of instinctual anarchy, so the Anthropocene novel shouldn’t continue to say we are. We are tied into this messy, damaged world by ecological balance, symbiosis, integral bonds of more-than-human kinship. We wouldn’t just be lonely without our kin; we would lose a sense of ourselves. There is a shard of yourself to be found in every exceptional creature; the image of what you are not reminding you of what you are. The stories we tell about ourselves must reflect this newer understanding of the human condition, to encompass nonhuman personhood.
In Staying With the Trouble, Donna Haraway says it’s imperative to try to word these worlds of symbioses. She calls this process ‘becoming-with’, which is an attempt to identify with other states of being: to enter, imaginatively at least, a world of ‘sheer not-one-selfness’. The moral objective is to try to make the best of any collaborative survival, to instigate and clamour for any ongoingness of the world, however damaged or partial. It is a way to stay with the trouble, rather than the game-is-over of sublime despair that the defeatist phallic story encourages.
The new stories must call upon all of the stage props and passive chorus actors from the phallic story, must animate the ‘other’; that’s women and marginalised individuals, but also the rocks the trees and the moss and the lichen, called to leading roles. That’s no longer giving precedence to stories that are singularly male, white and western; of which there are enough. No more godtricks, no omniscience, loud voice from the clouds, speaking of everything from nowhere. Instead making way for the howling, grunting, squawking, wordless chorus, asserting our own true place in things, down in the mud.
Haraway would rather call this moment the chthulucene, owing to its rambunctious, queer, multispecies tanglement, throwing eggs at the human claiming centre stage of the anthrop. Because stories shape paradigms, and we need to story away from human exceptionalism.
It is crucial to broaden our imaginations past the limits of an anthropocentric narrative, and so the novel must try truly to reflect a wider encompassing of contemporary conditions. We need to claim ground back from the shifted baseline, and the way to tackle too-big stories, Haraway suggests, when the too-big stories lend themselves to cynicism, defeatism, and cognitive dissonance, is to try instead with multiplicitous stories that are big-enough. Perhaps we could put them in Le Guin’s sack, and see what new ways of being they can initiate, back in the mess of ongoingness.
Wilderness is Where the Pastoral Hasn’t Arrived Yet
The attitudes of defeatism and dissonance are pervasively preserved by the othering of nature in our dominant writing traditions. There is a tendency to the Pastoral in traditional British ‘nature’ writing, contrasting with conceptions of Wilderness in the US, Canada and Australia, based on differences in our relations to the ‘natural world’. In the US, Canada and Australia, we are presented with a blinkered colonial fantasy of vast, uninhabited plains, pristine mountains, rivers running far enough away from people to distil themselves to purity, where the animals self-regulate their autonomous domain, in peaceful anarchy. These images lend themselves to an enduring, albeit vastly diminishing, state of refuge from human impact. Hence the tendency to conceptualise these spaces as ‘wilderness’; seemingly edenic places set apart from humans.
The concept of Wilderness is problematic, because it reinforces a dichotomy of where humans are, and where humans aren’t, instilling the idea that ‘nature’ is a place outside of us. Aldo Leopold would proselytise that wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow. Once the frontier of Wilderness is crossed, it becomes corrupted, undone, its ‘virginity’ taken (with all the patriarchal undertones this entails). A corruption of its purity then entails its demise; it is no longer integral (which is another too-big story, and another excuse).
In Britain, our too-small island, wilderness has been saturated by human impact. It seems we have lost the capacity for regeneration; there are no animal councils getting along nicely without us, and we no longer have the refuge space to reintroduce our keystone species. We live a case of vastly shifted baseline syndrome; we forget our poverty. When we eulogise the Pastoral (scene: lowing beasts of burden, chewing on young saplings that could become great trees, dotted on rolling green fields, distant patchworks of monoculture crops, and as an overlay, a hazy, pollen-heavy orange tint that tugs at the nostalgia of lost summers), we idealise an impoverished natural world, because the countryside is all we have to contrast to the city. Both traditions are oversimplifications of the multiplicities of ‘nature’, both posit ‘it’ as civilisation’s opposite, and structure it apart.
We are tied into this messy, damaged world by ecological balance, symbiosis, integral bonds of more-than-human kinship. We wouldn’t just be lonely without our kin; we would lose a sense of ourselves.
In the messy, tangled chthulucene, boundaries between human/animal, culture/nature are transgressed; we are hosts to bacteria, there are mites in our eyelashes, and dogs live in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl – thriving, radioactive, descendants of the abandoned pets of disaster.
To weave a narrative that speaks these truths is not to deny the concurrent reality that refuges can collapse, that there are brinks beyond which there is no return. There will be mourning in the chthulu-narrative; the Anthropocene is distinguished by mass extinctions, by loss and ongoing losing, and the incrementally burdening weight of our own responsibility, the tragedy of surviving to witness the catastrophe unravel. Bearing witness means taking on the burden of grief. But the weight of sorrow is not a good enough reason to let the net go dragging over into the abyss.
Because in the chthulucene, without the false dichotomies of them and us, of purity and corruption, the ‘too-bigness’ finality of collapse, is offered instead the possibility for renewal and rewilding, of at least partial re-flourishing. Where all is not lost at once, not worth the effort of clamour; instead each loss is significant and each gain worth every exertion. Here, we bear witness to the huff of the last black rhino, but also the return of a fierce small body, to the arms of trees that have been lonely of lynx for six hundred years.
Rewilding is a big-enough story; it can be understood as the withdrawal of the human from the ‘wild’, to allow the refuge space to recuperate to its uncultivated state, and return to a semblance of wilderness. But the truest admission of rewilding is a queering of nature that does away with the dichotomies of purity and corruption entailed in the concept of Wilderness or nature as ‘other’. Because rewilding often means getting our sticky fingers on, means intervention, rather than giving-nature-back-to-itself. It can be a collaboration between the human and the nonhuman, and collateral with letting the nonhuman flourish, it means letting also the rewilded human realise its uncivilised self. And so too, perhaps, with ‘rewilding’ the novel: undoing dichotomies and hierarchies of the master language, making new stories from down in the mud.
Britain is well primed for rewilding the novel because of the diminishment of its refuge states, its anthropogenic landscape. Maybe then, in Britain, we live closer to the truth of relationality, of entanglement, are readily confronted with our blame in the destruction of our living planet. Haraway asks us to think of chthulu-narratives as sites of compost, places of nourishment from decay. In Britain we are well and truly in the compost. We can speak from our position in the centre of the storm as a warning; we are well placed to testify to the after-effects of human exceptionalism.
New Tools: A Bag and a Body
What then would this this rewilded novel look like? I’m not sure. It would undoubtedly cascade into myriad forms: growling, snorting, joyfully feral kinds of stories. The form as well as the content would open up multiplicitous worldings, enter into nonhuman, uncivilised logics, and bring these together. I am in no way placed to suggest an answer to how, but would like to pose perhaps some starting points of thought towards method, that I am trying to apply to my own writing, always in mind of Le Guin’s bag and Haraway’s chthulucene -worldings; a bag and embodiment (a body), as tools.
If we must take ourselves off our thrones as deep ecologists task us, how do we decentre the human in the novel? How do we go about asking what time and space and relationality mean to a flurry of geese, carried down a river in cohort, giving up their will to the serendipity of the water? The chthulu-novel, the rewilded novel, would be the perfect place to window into other subjectivities, over other art forms, because the novel allows for such interiority.
It is an uncomfortable task; there is the problematic history of gaze, and the usurping danger of anthropomorphism (the final colonial conclusion). But we must attempt to overcome this conundrum of approaching other worlds without homogenising ontologies. I think of Adrienne Rich saying this is the oppressor’s language/ yet I need to talk to you; such a phrase feels pertinently humanising, and this is important. Because we must know the nonhuman other in order to widen our circle of compassion, to be compelled to enact care, and to place ourselves within complex positions of relation.
If we are to yoke multiplicitous subjectivities together in a novel that attempts a tangled worlding, how then to avoid the stealing of voice? The shouting over, once again? As a site that makes space for other voices, it would seem paramount for the rewilded novel to carefully bring both voice and gaze into question; a singular and unmediated voice in a narrative must be viewed with suspicion. The question of appropriation is particularly pertinent when approaching the voice of the nonhuman. Other humans can speak for themselves, if they are given space and means, but the nonhuman can’t, not in the novel, not without some attempt at interspecies translation.
We must do more than translate the animal to human (anthropomorphism) or put on the animal mantle (appropriation). In The Peregrine, J.A. Baker imagines the interior world of the falcon, wonderfully, uncannily; he excavates space for an alternate subjectivity. But perhaps he tries too hard; a man can’t become a bird, can’t ever fully know that subjectivity. Baker knew this, he was disgusted by the human stench he caught on himself as he thought himself most falcon-like. The desolation at the heart of The Peregrine comes from this failure to be or know the falcon; Baker speaks from the chasm between subjectivities in despair. But this space between, this frontier, is the only place we can occupy. In trying to meet the nonhuman other, perhaps one does not try to become it, but touches on something else, something big-enough, somewhere in the middle between other and self. Perhaps this is the place of the chthulu-novel.
The Word For World is Still Forest is a collected homage to Le Guin, (which riffs off Le Guin’s title for her novel The Word for World is Forest). In it Pedro Neves Marques talks about confrontational alteriority; the way we are changed, and our seeing changed, by being seen by another, or our appearance before others. In the rewilded novel, we occupy this space between, to notice the refracting lights of alteriority, the prisms of light and their productive collisions.
This puts me in mind of the dynamic space of an oral storytelling, the interaction of teller and listener, in the space around a campfire. Chthulu instead calls for interactive tellings, embodied events of communication, and uncertainty (the sure voice is a suspicious one) in its multiplicitous voices (no more disembodied voices from the clouds). The rewilded novel would mimic this dynamism, building worlds out of the refractions, using mediations as fodder. The rewilded novel could be a space for the sharing-with and the being-changed-by, rather than colonial, imperial approaches to knowing the other. The aim should not be the impossible inhabitation of nonhuman worlds, but to assert our place in the web of things, and share what it looks like from there, what it feels like to receive the gaze of the nonhuman other, and to witness without understanding, a nonhuman logic. To express the feeling of embodiment that comes with being witnessed by another.
The rewilded novel should make something of the failure of translation instead of shying away from it (or like Baker, being disgusted by it). Like two people who speak very little of each other’s language and can’t fully understand each other, but still must attempt to communicate; we must form a pidgin language with the other animals. This language would not be a neat transferal of meaning, but a product of collision, a thing worthy of an inquiry of its own: the domain of the rewilded novel.
There is a moral necessity to this endeavour, and a hope in it that is not inherent but is imperative. In order to reshape the paradigm dominated by narratives of the white male human, to disrupt His homogenising gaze, we must try. And the new narratives we build can change the way we relate to the world. These stories are attempts at reconciliation, and a commitment to ongoingness. Rewilding the novel is an approach to considering relations between embodied beings, the many species and interiorities that exist on Earth, to try holding the shards of glass up to the sun. The rewilded novel is a medicine bundle, sacred and good for healing, a counter to dominant phallic story. It is a space for ourselves with other subjects, and for our particular, powerful relations.
Graffiti artwork by Phlegm
Our ‘Rewilding the Novel’ series continues next week with an essay by Richard Smyth.