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.