Friday, February 23, 2007


Humanism, in the literary arts, is the idea that "man is the measure of all things." This is a viewpoint that has been in the philosophical ascendant for centuries now, to the point where most people simply take it for granted as natural law. In fact, it's an illusion, a solipsistic illusion, and a particularly self-absorbed, culturally-egotistic one. The arrogance comes in primarily when human writing is framed as natural writing: the only natural text worth discussing.

This is worth examining in detail. Gary Snyder writes about humanism and posthumanism is his long essay Tawny Grammar, collected in his book of essays, The Practice of the Wild, published by North Point Press. Snyder is worth quoting from at length:

One of the formal criteria of humanist scholarship is that it be concerned with the scrutiny of texts. A text is information stored through time. The stratigraphy of rocks, layers of pollen in swamps, the outward expanding circles in the truck of a tree, can be seen as texts. The calligraphy of rivers winding back and forth over the land, leaving layer upon layer of traces of previous riverbeds is text. The layers of history in language become a text of language itself. . . .

Euro-American humanism has been a story of writers and scholars who were deeply moved and transformed by their immersion in earlier histories and literatures. Their writings have provided useful cultural—rather than theological or biological—perspectives on the human situation. The Periclean Greeks digested the Homeric lore, which went back to the Bronze Age and before. The Romans enlarged themselves by their study of Greece. Renaissance seekers nourished themselves on Greece and Rome. Today a new breed of posthumanists is investigating and experiencing the diverse little nations of the planet, coming to appreciate the "primitive," and finding prehistory to be an ever-expanding field of richness. We get a glimmering of the depth of our ultimately single human root. Wild nature is inextricably in the weave of self and culture. The "post" in the term posthumanism is on account of the word human. The dialogue to open next would be among all beings, toward a rhetoric of ecological relationships. This is not to put down the human: the "proper study of mankind" is what it means to be human. It's enough to be shown in school that we're kin to all the rest: we have to feel it all the way through. Then we can also be uniquely "human" with no sense of special privilege. . . .

When humans know themselves, the rest of nature is right there.
(pp. 66–68)

I find this to be remarkably similar to what Robinson Jeffers said about his ideas of Inhumanism. The parallels are striking, although the language is very different. Jeffers wrote, in his preface to The Double Axe (1948):

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, as of some previous work of mine, is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence. It seems time that our race began to think as an adult does, rather than like an egocentric baby or insane person. This manner of thought and feeling is neither misanthropic nor pessimist, though two or three people have said so and may again. It involves no falsehoods, and is a means of maintaining sanity in slippery times; it has objective truth and human value. It offers a reasonable detachment as rule of conduct, instead of love, hate and envy. It neutralizes fanaticism and wild hopes; but it provides magnificence for the religious instinct, and satisfies our need to admire greatness and rejoice in beauty.

Snyder speaks in a gentle, Buddhist-inflected voice, while Jeffers speaks more harshly, more directly, in his Calvinist-raised voice. Yet I believe they are essentially saying the same thing; and they are statements that I agree with strongly, both as a poet and as a human. Having visited or lived among many of the landscapes that Jeffers and Snyder have inhabited and written about, I find myself caring deeply about preserving the natural beauty of those places.

In retrospect, it is ironic that Jeffers was often misunderstood to be misanthropic or bitterly anti-human. In fact, both Snyder and Jeffers explicitly state that their philosophies are not anti-human, misanthropic, or pessimistic. That they have been perceived to be just that, is an indictment of the self-same human-centered solipsism that they are presenting an alternative to, to bring humanism into balance with those natural forces that are part of us, and also much larger than us.

In Western thought, we seem to need to continually be reminded of these ideas; they keep getting lost in recurrent waves of theoretical navel-gazing. But it is instructive to remember how many great Western thinkers have written attempts to redress the imbalance. Man's proper place in nature, as part of nature, was what Henry David Thoreau wrote about in much of his work, notably in Walden. I also am reminded of part of W.H. Auden's argument in his essay book on poetics, The Enchaféd Flood, wherein Auden reminds us that we are part of nature: nature is all around us, and in us, and the division between "City" and "Wilderness," as represented by desert and ocean, is a purely mental division, not an actual one. As Snyder writes, Wild nature is inextricably in the weave of self and culture. I read an article recently about how wild species have made comfortable homes for themselves within our major cities: peregrine falcons nest on our skyscrapers; bald eagles fly along the Mississippi River through downtown Minneapolis; there are thriving packs of coyotes living in Chicago and Boston and Denver.

Recently, I have been noting a new rise of environmentalist rhetoric, this time emerging from within the Biblical fundamentalist community (not a group I've ever considered very rigorous or logical in their theology, which often has little to do with actual Biblical scholarship). It's amazing to find allies about environmental issues coming forward from many surprising directions; regardless of any other differences, it is a hopeful sign, since the Christian evangelical community has traditionally been hostile to environmental issues.

All of these writers and poets, and their ideas about our proper place in the natural world, are converging on a point that the "primitive" (pre-Euro-American climax civilization) cultures knew quite well: we are not the lords of creation, we are part of the created. We seem to be living at last, now, in a posthumanist era, where we are being continually brought up against reminders that we're not separate from nature, or from each other, and also that we are not "in dominion over nature," one of the most grievous interpretations of Biblical theology, but rather that we must exist in partnership with nature, or die.

So, in our poetry, it is perhaps time to seek out a posthumanist poetry: a genuine antidote to the current dominance of the navel-gazing confessional lyric, and furthermore an antidote to the solipsistic self-referential hermeticism of the New York School and Language Poetry. A posthumanist poetry that does not exclude humanity, but also does not put humanity into high relief in opposition to nature, but in balanced, reverential, embodied partnership with nature.

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