That passage came back to me, in a wistful moment, reflecting on the experience of writing for, editing, publishing and promoting this latest Dark Mountain book. The way we work, any member of the editorial team will find themselves, at times, shouldering a stack of different roles. It was ever thus, no doubt, for those foolish enough to run a small journal with big ideas – the editors of the little magazines of the early 20th century may be remembered as modernist poets, but their editorials are full of prosaic appeals for funds.
Anyway, as we reach the end of this series introducing our twelfth book, before I rejoice and collapse, it seems worth reflecting on a few of the unusual aspects of this book – and the response which it has so far generated – before I give the final word to Steve Wheeler, my co-editor, whose idea it was in the first place to devote an issue to ‘the sacred’.
The first thing to say about the response is that it has been huge. In the two weeks following its publication, the number of orders and subscriptions coming in has been more than twice what we’ve seen for previous special issues. Much of that interest seems to have been generated by Thomas Keyes’ introduction the artwork and Sylvia Linsteadt’s reflections on creating the marginalia that runs through the book.
We’ve also had a small number of regular readers who reacted against this particular issue – and while I’d guess that there were those who found an issue dedicated to poems and poetics (Autumn 2016) or craft and technology (Autumn 2015) didn’t light their fire the way they look to Dark Mountain to do, I doubt that those themes generated reactions of the same intensity. Having lived with this book intensely, through the months of its making, I’ve found much to think about among those reactions.
One point that seems worth underlining is that the departures we made in this book do not represent the new direction of Dark Mountain, but the adventure of this particular special issue. We began publishing two issues a year in 2014 and soon realised that this called for something other than a doubling of the volume of the familiar anthologies, with their range of essays, poetry, art, stories and conversations. So we hit upon the rhythm by which each autumn, one or more editors strikes out in a direction with a special issue whose form and content can vary widely, while each spring we return to the heart of our work with a book that belongs recognisably within a continuous line stretching back to Issue 1, which Paul and I edited in the spring of 2010. The hope is that this rhythm allows us to stay alive and adventurous, to surprise our readers and ourselves, without losing hold of what matters to people about our books.
This year’s special issue was a larger-format, full-colour book, made up of long-form non-fiction, of various flavours, woven around with a set of artistic collaborations and a fictional commentary from a 3000-year-old prophetess. The only thing I can tell you about next year’s special issue is that it is unlikely to be any of the above. Meanwhile, in April, we will be back with a book whose format and mix of content will feel familiar to many.
For me, personally, this issue was a return to the editor’s chair for the first time since 2014. Paul and I edited five issues of Dark Mountain together, joined by a growing team of fellow editors. Then I stepped down, in order to cope with the less visible parts of the running of the project which had become my responsibility – and with Issue 6, Steve Wheeler took my place on the editorial team. When that issue arrived, it was a strange sensation to open the book and read it from cover to cover, rather than already knowing its contents inside out.
Six books later, Steve and I finally got the chance to work together, and we took on the challenge of this book with a determination to stretch the boundaries of Dark Mountain as wide as possible – not as a model for what future special issues ought to be, but to open up a space that would allow their editors to be as adventurous as Paul and I envisaged in our earliest conversations about starting a journal.
The work on this book began as I was reaching the end of two years as leader of artistic development for Riksteatern, Sweden’s touring national theatre. That role gave me plenty of chance to reflect on what ‘artistic development’ actually means. How does an artwork – especially one as collaborative as a piece of theatre – come into being and come alive? What conditions and processes make that possible? As Steve and I hatched the plan for SANCTUM, and began conversations with Thomas and Sylvia about the collaborations they went on to develop as lead artist and ‘marginalian’, I realised that this was the first time I’d experienced the making of a Dark Mountain book as an artistic project, rather than an editorial project.
To make a book about ‘the sacred’ is to get tangled up with the history of religion – and among the responses came the suggestion that a project which started with a manifesto called Uncivilisation had no business with religion, except to attack it. If you’ve read this book, you’ll know that the voices it contains come mostly from the edges and, where they do relate to institutionalised religion, this relationship tends to be complex. You won’t find much proselytising in these pages. But a couple of things seem worth saying, all the same.
For one thing, the first issue of Dark Mountain led off with an article by an Archdruid and featured contributions from a Hindu clergyman and a Quaker activist, so there’s clearly something about this project which has drawn the engagement of people grounded within various religious traditions from the start.
Beyond this, it’s worth recalling what Paul and I actually wrote in the manifesto. About ‘the myth of civilisation’, we said:
It has led the human race to achieve what it has achieved; and has led the planet into the age of ecocide. The two are intimately linked. We believe they must be decoupled if anything is to remain.
This is stark language, but it is not a call for an attack on a thing called civilisation – it’s a call to challenge the story we tell about the existence of such a thing. It urges a process of decoupling, disentangling the things which that story insists on linking together. Four years on, writing the FAQs for this website, we underlined that we did not have in mind ‘a call to destroy civilisation’. And while there’s always been room within the Dark Mountain conversation for ‘anti-civ’ thinkers like Derrick Jensen and John Zerzan, our first issue also contained Ran Prieur’s essay, ‘Beyond Civilised and Primitive’, with its emphasis on the power and the limitations of such binary thinking. This project has always had more of the trickster about it – as Steve observes, in his essay for the current book, ‘we are not here to take sides.’ And it is in that spirit that we made this venture among the ruins and the relics of the many different ways in which humans have made sense of the sacred.
But if this is part of the territory in which Dark Mountain travels, it is only one of many parts – and with the end of this series, the focus moves on. Other themes will come to the fore on the blog in the weeks and months ahead. And, in the background, we’ll be working on our new online publication.
We are not quite finished with the theme of Issue 12, however. When the new site launches, it will include a one-off online edition with new writing to complement the work published in SANCTUM. We look forward to making a couple of announcements in the near future about an event in Cambridge in the spring – and a further development of the artistic collaboration around this book! And meanwhile, we warmly invite you to join Steve, Thomas and several of the book’s contributors for an afternoon of workshops followed by an evening launch at Dartington Hall, Devon on Saturday 9th December.
At which point, all that remains for me is to hand over to Steve, whose idea it was to do this book in the first place…
It seems a long time ago that I first suggested a themed anthology on the subject of ‘the sacred’. It felt like something we’d been circling around for a long time, but always been just a little too coy to address directly. We would use some of the language of the sacred in describing our relationship to nature or art; we would employ some of the ‘religious tech’ of ritual and incantation in festivals and performances; and, in pieces like Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘In the Black Chamber’ or Dougald’s conversation with David Abram on animism and the sensuous, perspectives were discussed that, if not overtly spiritual, had nevertheless stepped a long way out into the world of metaphysics.
But there still seemed a certain reticence in taking this aspect of the human experience seriously. Perhaps through an awareness that plenty of our colleagues, friends and potential readers were resolutely rationalist, or a distaste of our own for the various flavours of superstition and idiocy that travel under the flag of religion, we tended to shy away from outright contact with ‘the sacred’. Yet the more I looked around, the more I noticed that the people involved in Dark Mountain were drawing their inspiration from something that operated outside the usual circle of rationalist ideology. There was no shared dogma or creed – indeed many would strenuously disavow any relationship to ‘the sacred’ or ‘the spiritual’ – yet there was a common grounding in something other to the mechanistic, pseudo-objective, Enlightenment version of reality. And the further we went in our creative and intellectual exploration of the issues concerning civilisation, the more we found ourselves back on this ground.
We have featured such voices and themes before, of course, and will do so again. But it seemed there was merit in looking directly at this theme – not to suggest a particular programme of belief, of course (could anything be less appropriate to the anarchic polyphony that is the Dark Mountain ‘voice’?), but to explore this area with tact, sincerity and an open mind. It quickly became clear to us that the singularity of the subject matter required a singular response – something that departed from our usual format, that exhibited a thematic and aesthetic unity appropriate to the subject matter and that sought to embody this feeling of otherness in its very being.
Creating this book has been a long, strange dance. It loomed ahead for years, slowly approaching like some distant mountain. The climb itself, over the past six months, was at times gruelling, at times exhilarating. And now we stand at the summit, having released the book into the wild only a few weeks ago, there is certainly a sense of accomplishment. I’m convinced that it is the most beautiful book we have yet published.
In many religions, the condensed intricacy of illuminations, icons or mandalas is itself symbolic – a sign of the energy that has been poured into a task for no purpose other than glorification of the divine. There is something of that feeling in this book – but, without a shared agreement on the nature, or existence, of ‘the divine’ amongst the contributors, that energy seems to lead us somewhere else – towards a sense of hope, perhaps, that something new and beautiful can still be kindled amongst the gathering shadows.
We brought the makers of this book together with a call that referenced the ‘devil’s door’, and it feels like a kind of portal; into thirteen very different takes on ‘the sacred’, but also into a new chapter of Dark Mountain publications. More mischievously, a part of me enjoys the idea of breaking the neat row of Dark Mountain anthologies on the bookshelf. As someone who is a little too attached to owning ‘the complete collection’ of books – gazing at them lined up on the bookshelf with a sense of satisfaction that is entirely out of place in an age when all the old certainties and securities of the material world are shifting – the complete collection of Dark Mountain books now begins to look a little like a graph of the last decade, tracking the increasing disruption and variance in the world as the books become increasingly wild and unruly in their shape, size and format.
In the same spirit, we’re looking to do something a bit different with the launch event for the book. There will be an afternoon workshop with myself and Thomas Keyes, Art Editor and lead artist for SANCTUM, whose work graces the front cover as well as in many places within. We’ll be discussing what it means to draw on sacred traditions while making art that speaks to the secular realities of our current global predicament.
Then the evening event, the launch proper, will take things a little further. Alongside readings from the book by some of its contributors, there will be live music from David Osbiston and Blythe Pepino, video from across the world, and some very special theatrical performances. It should be a memorable evening, and a perfect way to mark the completion of a long, strange journey.