When asked your nationality, do not say you are a citizen of Athens or Syracuse, but say you are a citizen of the world.
- Diogenes of Sinope (attrib.)
We categorize literature by the author’s nationality, region, language, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, neurology, etc. These have to do with identities that are (mostly) foisted upon one at birth. Sometimes they are sources of rich subject-matter and a generalized sense of belonging or pride; but often they are created by a shared history of oppression and exploitation. Some embrace categories, some have categories thrust upon them. Or both.
In any event, one result of such demographic categories is a built-in audience. Many protagonists in novels or speakers in poems have a lot of the author in them – or at least, the author’s experience has informed them. And if you can relate to a character’s or speaker’s experience, you are more likely to want to read a book. If you are a member of a marginalized or oppressed group, such work can be liberating, affirming, edifying. If you are a member of a hegemonic group within a particular society, you might read some books to find out more about people whose lives may be both different from yours and invisible to you, or to signal your solidarity with (or sympathy for) the marginalized communities represented by those works.
Add in the global climate disaster, and things get more complicated. The Bangladeshi author probably will perceive global heating very differently than someone in the midwestern U.S. The person who grew up in the big house on the hill may see things differently than the poor folks living in the bottoms. These differences naturally (or unnaturally) will affect a writer’s product, directly or indirectly.
There have been a lot of works of literature about Katrina, many with the category tag “African-American studies” or “-poetry,” etc. That hurricane was a disaster – beyond disaster – for the African-American community of New Orleans. But I think there is a tendency, esp. among white Americans, to see it purely as an African-American disaster. While it’s true that there is a correlation between the wealth and clout of the community and the hardness of the infrastructure, and while “climate apartheid” is real, those in the high rent district should not rest easy – just ask the folks in Pacific Palisades. In fact, the climate disaster is a Texas disaster, a disaster for the northeast, a Miami Beach disaster, a disaster for the “redneck Riviera,” a disaster for Japan as well as Bangladesh.
Most “climate activists” in the global north are white and middle-class in origin – it’s hard to deny those demographics. To the extent that there is a built-in audience for climate fiction or poems dealing with the Anthropocene extinction, that would be it. Maybe these books should have “Environmental studies/White studies” on the back cover. But that would be equally short-sighted. Publishers, editors, professors may just add the word “climate studies” to labels denoting nationality, region, language, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, neurology, etc., when classifying books – as though the global climate were a niche. Indeed, the hardships being induced by climate chaos are dividing people – causing wars, in fact. It can cause everyone to hunker down, shelter in place, circle the wagons (Omar El-Akkad’s book American War, for instance, is one scenario where this happens).
The problem is that (a.) anthropogenic climate change affects everyone on the planet; (b.) it affects some sooner, more frequently, and more catastrophically than others; (c.) that disparity prevents the privileged from taking it personally. But there is no “human studies”* or “entire-population-of-planet-earth fiction.” It’s too big a topic. It wouldn’t sell anyway – it would try to appeal to everyone, which means readers would not be able to identify with it. And this is the big problem: humans can’t really think in terms of humanity. We think in terms of the facts on the ground – our ground, whatever that may mean.
The most that we can hope from literary writers is that they become aware, not only of what the climate crisis is doing to their community, but what the same trends are doing to other parts of the world. Indeed, writers have explored the ways that colonialism, writ large, has affected people across borders; more recently, others have registered the effects of neoliberal political economy, how it connects the part of the world they are writing about with others, and the local to the global. Imaginative literature can on occasion link the local and specific to the global and more abstract, when expository writing doesn’t do the trick. And that is what the climate crisis demands of us.
“Cosmopolitanism” was an in-thing in academia a few years ago. But it’s a rather general concept, not sexy enough to go viral. I think the most that we can hope for from “creative” writers is some awareness of what a hotter, more chaotic atmosphere and oceans are doing to their characters, communities, and concerns, and at least a vague awareness that it affects others as well – in some cases, at least as severely, if not more so.
* Unless one considers anthropology as such. But how much anthropological drama and poetry is out there?
ha! I knew we were exempt!
turns out there’s a “global warming
hole” over the corn belt –
from ks. to ohio and n. to wisc. –
while the rest of you were warming
we were cooling off – in fact,
that’s why there is a “corn belt”:
cooler, wetter weather meant
5-10% increased yields per year, vs.
5-10% decreased yields,
were we out of the “hole.”
so: we’re golden!
but not too much
wetness and cooling, please. like,
this winter storm in fall, or
yesterday’s hi 37, normal 64?
(anchorage was 54, while in utah,
nationwide oct. cold record, - 37 c)
or “missouri river flooding
could last all winter” –
rivers still hi, soil super-saturated,
levees busted – so
fields & yards that turned to lakes
in spring, turn to skating rinks,
wet winter predicted, followed by
2020 spring floods. it’s a cycle
of nature. “we’re just
tired,” the farmer sez. “we’ve
been beat up so much. we’re
but uh o –
then there’s this there then:
“mid-21st century temps in
the central U.S. will increase
by up to 4.1 degrees,
& summer precip. may decrease
by approximately 10 percent.”
well . . . rats. there’s no letting us
off the hook, no respite, no rest spot,
no hole to hide in.
& while it rains, sleets, and snows
here, the coast burns: so that
if your drought goes on long enough,
a “tree branch falling on a power line”
can burn hundreds of sq. miles,
plunge millions of californians
into darkness, as they cut the juice:
an x-treme red-flag warning,
as the rich folks in the l.a. hills
scurry down the flats, & some
not-so-rich trailer-park residents
in sonoma have to run from the fire . . .
but it could be worse. it could always
be worse. e.g., in w. cameroon,
where 34 people at least are
underneath a landslide, after heavy
rains past the rainy season flood;
"my wife was expecting a baby,
was very tired when she went
to sleep while I was still in
my shop last night. i
have not seen her."
the kids in the neighborhood
were sleeping, too, many
& 28k homeless
from floods in central african rep. –
in bangui, mud-brick homes
dissolve in the rising drink, tho
"drinking water is lacking. there are
problems with latrines, mosquitos,
cold, and the risk of
epidemics such as cholera";
& a village submerged in somalia;
182,000 human beings homeless there;
10’s of 1000’s in nigeria, where
100s of villages are islands now;
in saudi arabia, more floods +
hail as big as yr fist, which
killed 7, injured 11 more.
meanwhile, farther south in
zambia, it’s in the 100s (f) –
prolonged drought + flash floods =
2.3 million humans in “severe
food insecurity,” humans
& livestock having to drink
from the same watering holes;
& s. africa’s rationing water (again);
& in karnataka, in india?
most of the state “either reeling
under drought or affected by
the worst flooding in
more than a century”
& cetera & cetera
(the point being not o
those poor third-world folks, but
this could happen in missouri or iowa
if things keep on the way they are)
& the things you don’t think of:
in japan, the problem becomes
what to do with all the crap
rendered useless in flooded houses;
in sonoma, a woman powers
her cell & tablet from the
neighbor’s generator to keep
her kids occupied w/shows.
everything is relative.
here’s hoping your relatives
prove understanding when
you show up at their door.
“trick or treat.”
* a regular feature of this planet.
I used to love watching movies. That’s how this story begins. My husband and I watched several movies each week, rented from the local video store, attended screenings and film festivals. It was our favorite hobby. For years, I had avoided watching films with violence because it bothered me too much, stuck with me too long. Then I discovered the 80s action movie. The plots were outlandish enough, the characters archetypal enough, that I could distance myself enough to enjoy the booming explosions and ridiculous dialogue. One spring we watched every movie Arnold Schwarzenegger had starred in. Now, every movie is the apocalypse. I can’t watch. Even the Predator believes we’re doomed.
Or, this story begins with me on the couch, holding my sleeping newborn. I explain that she’s perfect, because she truly is. I write that out of a thousand babies at the Baby Store, I would have picked her. I examine how intense and immediate the change in my life has been, linking my story with the stories of so many mothers, parents, ancestors. And I confess that now that I have the family of my dreams, I think of nothing but it all being taken from me by flood, fire, or famine.
Except that this story begins with the night, which I have dreaded since childhood. My evening worrying would lead to insomnia. I couldn’t fall asleep, or worse, I would sleep a little and wake from a night terror. Stormy nights were preferable, providing a viable excuse to bring my mother to my room for comfort. What I wanted was to tell her what I dreamed. When I aged out of that, I turned to books, sometimes reading an entire horse-themed novel before the faint morning light provided an illusion of safety. Then I could sleep. And now, in the middle of every night, holding my nursing baby in my arms, I play a game of marking how many minutes pass between my waking and my first thought of climate change. So far, the longest has been nine minutes.
No matter how this story begins, it ends the same way: My greatest wish is for everyone to live; my smallest wish is to live long enough for my daughter to tell me what she dreams.
Kate Lorenz is a writer and editor living in Kansas. She is a co-organizer of the Lawrence hub of the Sunrise Movement. To connect for climate action, visit: www.facebook.com/sunrisemvmtlawrence
my friends in healdsburg
aren’t in healdsburg
they’re headed to stay with friends
in oregon, fleeing the californian
flames, two of the 180k evac’d –
hurricane-force winds + wildfire =
firestorm less contained than yesterday;
85 sq. mi. burned so far;
another 2.7 m w/o power;
this the 3rd “diablo wind” this week –
something weather service fore-
casters in the region said they
“have no memory of” occurring before:
well, duh – none of this has
to anyone before –
had never occurred to anyone
that it could happen –
but angelinos’ commute disrupted
by smoke on their freeways?!
& lebron evac’d!! what is going on??
(human remains in the ashes
in the hills . . . )
crop yields are above avg.
in douglas co.! despite the floods;
our temps have been near norm
(60s hi, 40s lo) – tho
coldstorm moving in, with hi’s in 40s
lo’s in lower 30s (what is it they say?
winter is coming? no, they say
what the hell is going on), w/ jet stream
carrying tropical warmth, swings
up thru the arctic, heating it up, then
barrels straight down rockies w/cold,
as far as so. cal. (no wonder
the winds are bad), then
a sharp left, blasting the midwest
and northeast – not a “vortex”
but a maelstrom
a bad storm –
76 on sat. in denver; 18 this a.m.
meanwhile, japan pummeled by
another tropical storm, more rain,
more dead (10): “i’ve had
enough of this, and i need a break,"
sez one chiba resident, as elsewhere
people swept away, landslide-buried
("there was enormous noise and impact,
'boom' like an earthquake, so
i went outside. then look what happened.
i was terrified. . . . rain more intense
elsewhere, it’s summer, & volunteers
truck water into queensland stix
where they’ve almost run out;
indonesia records hottest temp ever;
& in s. africa, “almost a million people
w/o water . . . eastern cape a disaster zone,
reducing farmers to penury and despair,
sending food prices soaring...”;
& pakistani farmers seek
a declaration of emergency, as their
cotton, rice, corn wither, get eaten
floods in dry places: saudi arabia (7
dead); tanzania (44 dead); spain (8);
egypt (11 people dead);
floods displace 900 k persons
in s. sudan, w/ “extreme levels of
acute malnutrion” caused by
floods since july, & “diseases
spreading w/ contaminated water.
access to hygiene and sanitation limited,
especially for women and girls.”
& this right here
might be the only monument to
the destruction of the week, as folks
need to run or fight, not write, as
the angel of history blows outa here,
facing us, blowing us a kiss, saying,
“so long, suckers!”
Our guest blogger this coming Tuesday will be Kate Lorenz, fiction writer, editor of the storied Parcel magazine, and organizer for the Lawrence, Kansas hub of the Sunrise Movement. She's an excellent writer who knows whereof she speaks. And a new mom, which, as you will see, puts a whole different spin on things. Tune in!
Those of us who try to remind people of the overwhelming consensus on climate science – and the probable effects – are often accused of being Cassandras.* But there’s another prophet to take into account, not least in the U.S.
The “Jeremiad” is a time-honored genre in American literature. It’s named after the prophet Jeremiah, who was known for weeping over the wicked ways of the children of Israel for forsaking the path of the Lord and calling upon them to return thereto. So, as you might imagine, it’s a denunciation of a community for abandoning their principles, combined with a call to return to them. As an example, Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?” comes to mind; so do most of Thoreau’s writings. Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again” could be seen as an ironic, or at least poignant, revision of the Jeremiad. “Make America Great Again” is perhaps the Jeremiad’s most recent, unironic, and unselfconscious manifestation.
But the Puritans were the ones who got it going, in North America at least. John Winthrop compared the fledgling Massachusetts Bay Colony to “a city on a hill”: if they failed, everyone would see them fail, and laugh. Ronald Reagan put a more positive spin on the metaphor in his farewell address – which, notably, also emphasized America as the land that welcomed striving immigrants.
When it comes to the American carbon economy & our wastrel ways, it’s hard to know what we’d be going back to. The Puritans started out with a reading of the Bible that definitively separated God from the physical world, emphasized original sin, and saw the Creation as only worthwhile when “improved” by humans (hence, they didn’t count the Indigenous North Americans within that category, since they were perceived – incorrectly – as purely nomadic and non-agricultural).
By the time the United States came into being, the figure of the citizen as bodiless, abstract subject was firmly established. Homo economicus was the subject of industrial capitalism, which was growing apace. Coal fired the US economy throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, as immigration swelled the population. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that greenhouse emissions hit the handle of the hockey-stick graph, here as well as globally.
In other words, it’s hard to articulate mitigation of, or adaptation to, climate catastrophe in terms of any established USAmerican narrative. We’re all about individuality, independence, freedom to do whatever the hell you want, if it’s your property you’re doing it with (that is, if you stole it fair and square). We’re this weird amalgam of desire for creature comforts and accumulation of wealth on the one hand; and intense moralistic religiosity on the other (cf. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. II).
The New Deal is the oldest historical touchstone US climate critics can manage (as in “Green New Deal”); or maybe the Marshall Plan. Because, in a very real sense, the United States may not have invented climate chaos, but we sure did popularize it. And it was in our cultural DNA all along. So, “reinventing the economy” in a very real sense means reinventing ourselves. It might mean looking to, say, Indigenous cultures for inspiration. Or the “rugged individualism,” minus the individualism (rugged communitarianism? or communalism?).
Louise Erdrich’s novel Future Home of the Living God might not be a bad place to start. The heroine is a young Ojibwe woman, raised in a white household, who is pregnant. There is something going on. The permafrost is melting and . . . well, we’re never quite sure what’s might have bubbled forth and what it might have done. The biosphere seems to be . . . regressing, devolving . . . and maybe humans, too. And in the meantime, a theocratic authoritarianism has triumphed (in Minnesota, at least). She meets her birth mother and stepfather and spends time on the rez, and then . . . Well, let’s just say that, like some of Erdrich’s other work, it’s an interesting mix of Indigenous lifeways and serious Catholicism. No easy answers. But a good reminder that, since the apocalypse (or at least Armageddon) has already happened for native peoples, one might consider how they have coped.
In our present fix, any Jeremiad leads straight downhill – fast forward from Lamentations to Revelations. A new narrative is needed, one that involves courage, cooperation, and a broader conception of justice. Such a narrative may not stave off devastation. But it may prepare us to live with it.
So – get busy!
* Or that other literary character, Chicken Little, who was a prophet manqué.
so it’s not just me:
other teachers report students’ feeling
exceptionally depressed, anxious,
melting down more
than ever before, than last year,
or lashing out at peers, at profs,
at whomever is handy.
apocalyptic thinking, i know i know –
the wailing and gnashing of teeth
part of the program. but debt,
budget cuts, shitty jobs (and lots of ‘em),
more course hours than
human(e)ly possible, pressure to
extracurricularize, peer pressure to
do whatever, tuition hikes, election
looming, president tweeting
civil war . . .
and o yeah
the world is coming to an end
(or worse, will just keep going
the way it’s going til
the end of time
or capitalism, whichever
comes first or they are
both the same thing).
on such a lovely fall day!
a moment of “normal” to cherish
forever. if you live
where i do, right now.
floods in central nigeria (18 dead)
floods in karnataka (12 dead)
floods in cairo (≥ 8 dead, 4 kids)
flash floods in kenya (4 kids dead –
the bulldozer with the girl’s body)
floods in the pyrenees (1 dead)
hagibis death toll in japan at 84
& 1/3 of pakistan’s cotton crop is toast;
& water level historically ↓ in jiangxi;
& in australia, the darling river (their
mississippi) is running dry, “reduced
to a string of stagnant mustard-
coloured pools, fouled in places
with pesticide runoff and stinking
with the rotting carcasses of cattle and fish”;
while along our mississippi, more rain
more rain, and more flooded corn crops;
heatwave in miami, heatwave in l.a.
(disneyland hotter than death valley);
heatwave in zimbabwe, in the 100s f,
& elephants dying from drought, as you know,
humans not far behind . . .
& honolulu had 213
record-breaking or -tying hi’s
since april, no end in sight;
that tornado in dallas
costs insurance co.’s $2 billion;
& researchers say 1 in 4 u.s. bridges’
expansion joints will fail with
higher temps; moreover, scombroid
poisoning from fish in alaska
(heart palpitations, headaches,
blurry vision, gastrointestinal distress):
“it was pretty warm this summer,
maybe people had a harder time
keeping their fish cold” up in alaska;
& sonoma co., calif. burns again:
10k acres + no containment:
it’s starting again. meanwhile,
power companies cut the juice
again, to almost ½ million,
to prevent more igniting.
“it’s scary for a lot of people,” sez
healdsburg mayor david hagele.
“my daughter was scared this morning.”
we all need to get
used to more scared kids
and grandkids, and college students,
b/c it’s not going to get
less scary from here on out.
so don’t just stand there do something.
some young folks join sunrise,
some shout people down or self-destruct
somewhere in the collective climate
unconscious, a voice is telling us we may not
do anything we don’t want to do
but we will have to do
things we do not want to do in a while.
andrew yang says people aren’t thinking
about climate change, they’re thinking
about bread & butter; maybe he’s not
thinking about climate change b/c
maybe millionaire he
doesn’t have to worry about
bread & butter or
floods & droughts
I’ve written (and occasionally add to) a series of posthumous poems. No, this blog is not an ectoplasmic emanation. Rather, the poems are part of a very old experiment.
The “live each day as though it were your last” thing never really worked for me. For one thing, if it really were my last, I’d probably be tethered to IVs, monitors, etc., which would limit mobility. And people would get tired of my saying goodbye to them all the time. Plus, the intellectual understanding that we will die is hard to translate into immediate affective response: our brains are wired to believe we will live forever and that bad things will happen to other people, not us. On a macro scale, this is precisely why the climate crisis is carrying us headlong over a cliff, with minimal efforts to stop it.
So instead of all that, I’m following a practice described by Marcus Aurelius and various other of the Stoics: imagine that you have already died. You’ve used up your last chance – or wasted it. You’ve said goodbye to your loved ones for the last time. If you didn’t realize what was important in life, it’s too late now.
Or is it? The other part of the exercise: imagine further that, in spite of your death, you are somehow able to walk the earth, observe, communicate, do things. You have some kind of reprieve. You don’t know how long this “after-life” will last. But however long it is, you can do things you wanted to do, but didn’t, while alive.* (For Marcus, that meant living virtuously and contemplating the cosmos. Maybe for you that means occupying senatorial offices and demanding a climate adaptation plan)
When I was a kid, I (and some of my friends and cousins) were really into Casper the Friendly Ghost. Walking through walls was awesome! I also have a vague memory of seeing the TV series version of Topper, though I only saw the movie as an adult (wasn’t there a TV show based on it, in the 60s?). Anyway, Marcus Aurelius is essentially imagining an existence like George’s and Marion’s: ghosts who are agents. You can still do stuff (including good stuff). They can neither see nor hear you (unless you want them to). You can observe without being scrutinized; you can take time to assess; you can see things differently; you can do some good or try to undo some bad.
As a post-vivified person, you don’t have to worry about all the things the living worry about: what other people think of them, trivial things they “have to” do, their reputation, career, appearance, bank account. None of that can touch you. So: What would one do with such freedom? How would you write?
In fact, you can’t do anything about those things anyway, even while alive. What other people do and say, how chance weights the dice, are ultimately beyond one’s control: people will say whatever they want about you (true or false); your career can be scuttled by a schemer’s professional jealousies; you can save money all your life, but your bank can still go bust. Looking back from beyond the tomb, all this seems obvious. It may seem obvious to someone with a terminal illness, or someone who’s just lost everything. But in the thick of what we think of as “normal” life, we feel like we can and must control everything. And our motivations for doing so are often trivial, if not a little nauseating.
Most of the writers I know are middle class professionals or are striving to be middle class professionals. Home ownership, raising a family, schmoozing gatekeepers, always craving that brass ring that always seems to re-appear ahead of us. And little or no time for political activities – besides writing and teaching, of course, which are, of course, our jobs. The result is that some things happen and some don’t – and it’s often difficult to gauge the relative importance of any given goal or action – including what, how, and how much we write.
The global climate meltdown that’s currently underway brings all this into stark relief. A lot of people are dying (or having their lives destroyed) because of it, and their numbers show no sign of decreasing. In fact, it’s a pretty sure thing that those of us in the USAmerican middle class will be among them within a generation, unless all the political and business leaders in the world are struck dumb by a divine apparition within, oh, about the next twenty minutes or so. We certainly have something to lose; but we’re deluding ourselves about how long we will get to keep it – whether “it” is our stuff or our lives. It’s hard to believe that, with storms increasing in intensity, repetition, and duration; with droughts that are longer and more frequent; with displacements of people due to food shortages and rising sea levels – that with all this, the economy will keep chugging along, and life will not become radically different. Alas, dear reader, it will.
So: long live posthumous literature! Take charge and write some, before it’s too late.
* Variation: imagine you were condemned to die but got an indefinite reprieve at the last minute – same principle.
Dallas, Sunday night:
at all hours often blows
in these parts – but not for days
at a time, full-blast, making the house
crick & crack at the seams.
the leaves are turning.
wild douglas county sez this week
brings the usual first freeze:
not this year, sez the weather-
person, not this week.
a birder friend tells me the woods
at chicken creek, home of ovenbird
& pileated woodpecker, were
flattened by the may tornado –
the loss of the woods
a little thing we’ll survive, but
a little less.
dallas gets a tornado of its own,
but fortunately they didn’t
interrupt the cowboys game
to issue the tornado warning. and,
“considering the path the storm
took, it went across a pretty
densely populated part of town,
we should consider ourselves
fortunate we didn’t lose any lives”;
several tornadoes in france, too, &
s.e. of country flooding; and
floods force 23 k people out of homes,
villages underwater, in s.e. niger;
also deadly floods in e. libya;
violent inundations in n. italy
("it will make our hearts weep
when we count up all the damage”);
torrential gullywashers causing
“bedlam” in scotland,
closing stores, cancelling shows;
hail wiped out the potato crop
in cyprus, while hail fell in the u.a.e.,
& so did lots and lots of rain;
& it’s still raining in tokyo; typhoon
hagibis cost 70 billion yen in
agriculture losses, they think.
speaking of which
in australia, kellogg’s
raises their prices: "due to the
unprecedented drought conditions,
the cost of our core ingredients –
like corn, wheat, oats and rice –
has increased significantly . . .
unfortunately we've not be able
to offset all of the increased costs”;
& meat prices going up 5%; all b/c
worst drought in 400 yrs
down yonder –
& winter wheat ain’t looking good
as n.s.w. runs out of water
(starved flying foxes
fall from the sky).
but they’re winning the battle to save
rich folk’s mansions from brushfires
near l.a.; also getting ready
for more power shutoffs:
“calif. power outages could
go on for a decade, top
pg&e executive says”
(yeah, if they’re lucky);
& poor siberia: more flooding:
15 dead & 13 missing in collapsed
gold mine; & turns out the tundra
now emits more net CO2
than the plants absorb; and
we could talk about what’s coming
out of european peat bogs, or
what meltwater is doing to salinity
in the oceans, but that’s
not my remit. we shall
talk around such things –
i have to go teach a class on
poetry, and take in the fall beauty
in case winter comes again
Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977) is a ceremony. The cycle of the novel itself, going through the story, accomplishes the task of the ritual in the story. Tayo is a guide for the reader, a double, and for indigenous people, maybe an embodiment. It is a ceremony that involves everyone, that involves creepy plutonian radioactive waste and unchecked white acquisitiveness – indeed, all the evil seeping over the world, which, in the novel, comes to be known as “the Witchery.”* The novel is a counter to that. It is speaking a new reality into being. This process is present in all of Silko’s earlier work (Almanac of the Dead would take it to new and baroque heights): big shifts in the world are happening via the words.
Likewise, the book-length poem Trilogy, by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) is a rite of transformation, transmogrification, a rebirth from the rubble of blitzed-out London. One can recite it, enact it. As with her subsequent work, Helen in Egypt, it is high majic.**
In the context of a world threatened by blitzkreig or nuclear holocaust, it made sense to turn to majic as a defense and way through. It is said that Gerald Gardner, thought by many to be the founder of modern-day Wicca, led celebrants in majical rites during World War II, designed to contribute to the defeat of the Nazis. And why not, if one wasn’t allowed to enlist? Things had gotten so bad and big by 1942 that metaphysical forces surely were at work; things weren’t normal; and while a military response was indicated, so, perhaps, was a paranormal one.
The same may be true of the current global climate emergency. Anything global is out of the control of any person, state, or firm. To deal with it, we have to imagine a kind of species – or trans-species – agency that is outside the ambit of human history or psychology. And in such a situation, if you are optimistic enough to think that what one imagines can be brought about it the physical world, it is a short hop to majic.
Majic is, I think, different than magical thinking. The latter is not dissimilar to hope: the belief that one’s desires will be fulfilled, more or less without a plan. Majic, by contrast, is a concentrated form of prayer, crossed with intense human intentionality. It’s the kind of thing that can soak up the back of one’s mind and seep out into things that you do with your hands and your feet. It is shifting reality using hands, feet, voice, and objects. That is also what politics is about, come to think of it. So, it is natural to combine political action with majical action. Levitating the Pentagon was a kind of lighthearted, publicity-stunt version. Marching widdershins around a red-state capitol while chanting might be another.
In any case, literature seems an entirely appropriate place for ritual, for majic, as does dance, theater, visual art. Sharing an article on Facebook in the wan hope that it will incite people to action is a low-level form of majic, and how many people do that? Why not go on a streetcorner with a piece of posterboard on which is written: “What is outside of the clouds?”
Poetry probably started as the verbal, rhythmic part of some type of religious activity – at least that’s a compelling origin story. Paleolithic people seem to have genuinely believed that by painting their quarry on the wall of a cave, and then painting an impression of their hands over those pictures (to signify, one supposes, the effective laying-hands-upon the animals), they would kill or capture them – or induce them to allow themselves to be killed or captured. Many tribal people do rites today that are not dissimilar. And they seem to work – people survive, at any rate. Why not expand that process into art?
Granted, nothing short of living like paleolithic people is going to curtail global heating (after a century or two, anyway). But nothing short of majic is going to get people to think that’s a good idea. Why not direct any poem you read, any performance in which you participate, towards the world beyond our human bodies? Why not sing it into shape.
* In Silko’s Laguna Pueblo culture, a “witch” is a being that in Eurogenic cultures might be termed a “sorcerer” or even “demon.” This is obviously very different than the meaning of “witch” in Wicca or amongst those who have attempted to redeem and reclaim the term.
** I follow H.D. in using the spelling “majic” to denote a metaphysical practice, as opposed to “magic,” which designates a physical (sleight-of-hand) practice. On the relation between the two, and to the more-than-human world, see David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous.
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.