Every third Saturday of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This time I am sharing “On Pilgrims and Aliens,” from Dreamtigers and Silent Skies. It was verbose for any blog, let along for a tumblr. Still, I like some of what I did in the middle of that piece, so I will bring it to your attention.
As with most of my earlier attempts to understand people like Northrop Frye and H. P. Lovecraft, I think part of my problem with this sort of thinking is that what W. Paul Jones would call World One runs exactly opposite to my intuitions. In the past I had difficulty sympathizing with people who saw the natural world as indifferent or Other and therefore disliked it, since the world’s Otherness is one of the things I like most about it. I am better, now, at sympathizing with this worldview… but I still see a connection between that way of seeing things and hostility to cultural or ethnic Others, and I feel that it is worthwhile to explore that connection further.
If I were to write this again, I would probably try to use more nuance with the term “alien,” considering how it is politicized today in citizenship debates and considering how these attitudes of demonizing Others contributes to those politics.
This post is way too long for Tumblr, but I said I’d talk about some of this stuff again—especially H.P. Lovecraft’s racism, and what it has to do with his cosmicism—and anyway I might just as well get this out there. Pace yourselves, I guess. There are three sections.
For Christmas I asked for and received Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking; based on the jacket, I assumed it would be an intellectually rigorous examination of the role walking played in the thought of philosophers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Kant, and Gandhi, but it turned out to be an overly generalizing and mostly unsubstantiated hymn to walking. It has been a disappointment. I wrote a thing elsewhere raging about how it ignores the role community, revision, conversation, and argument play in good thinking; Gros repeatedly sneers about books written in the light of other books, saying they smell of mildew and are heavy, cluttered, stuffed with citations and references and annotations. He prefers books composed after a good walk, formed from contact between the foot and the solid earth, in the fresh clean outdoor air. But those last books are composed alone, without contact with the history of thought, without checking in that his own assumptions aren’t mistaken, that other people’s experiences don’t contradict his generalizations. I wrote that thing, but let’s not share it here; I want to talk about something else. Let’s talk about pilgrims, and let’s talk about the great alien world.
In his chapter called “Pilgrimage,” Gros writes, “The primary meaning of peregrinus is foreigner or exile. The pilgrim, originally, is not one who is heading somewhere (Rome, Jerusalem, etc.), but essentially one who is not at home where he is walking.” And then, “We are all, say the Church Fathers, fleetingly on this earth, passing through, and so we ought always to provide a night’s shelter in our dwellings, to see our possessions as a disposable burden, and our friends as people met by the wayside.”
Gros introduces me to two new words: gyrovagues and xenateia. Gyrovagues were itinerant monks, who went from one monastery to another, calling none home: in their wandering, they signified the pilgrimage that is mortal life. Xenateia, which I assume is Greek, is “the condition of foreignness to the world.” We all share xenateia; we do not all admit it. Xenateia implies another phrase which I have discovered in this book: peregrination perpetua, the eternal pilgrimage.
This following passage shows some of the overgeneralization I found disappointing:
You walk to have done with it all and purge yourself: to have done with the world’s clamour, the accumulation of tasks, the wear and tear. And there’s nothing better than forgetting, for not being here anymore, than the great boredom of the roads, the limitless monotony of forest paths. Walk, cut yourself off, depart, leave.
Not everyone walks this way. Not all walks do this for me. But, I must admit, there is in this passage some of the appeal the natural world has for me: it gets me out of myself, it clears away all the concern I have with how I appear to others. That is indeed a reason for me to walk: to clarify, to clear myself out of myself.
(The word ecstasy means being or standing outside of oneself.)
When he writes diatribes against conversation, Gros is perhaps rejecting the habit of writing without living, or thought without reference to lived experiences. That is indeed a hazard of academy; there is lots of good scholarship which is grounded in both conversation and experience, but there is also bad scholarship which is not grounded in experience at all. There are indeed reputation games, speculation that seems detached from life; writing can be cramped, can lack dynamism and life. Perhaps Gros exaggerates to shock us out of poor writing. Still, Gros goes too far, rejects all conversation. But as walking is one way of engaging the Other, so is conversation, so is mixing with other people, delving into the world of citation and annotation and reference, of chatter and talk, the school and the town. The gyrovague goes from monastery to monastery, but he does not spend all his time between them; he stays with the other monks, too. And the pilgrim comes home, or to the home-on-this-earth, bringing that experience back to others; or the pilgrim sets out in company, travels in communitas, the community on the road. Go out, walk, clear your head; then bring your clear head back to us.
The other side of an alien world is that we are aliens in the world. If there is a gulf between us and the world, in its strange Otherness, its apparent indifference to us, its lack of clear meaning, then are we the same to it? Maybe not; often we are nothing to it; maybe it has no perspective. But sometimes there are animals that seem mystified by us; closer to home, we are often mystified by each other.
What does it mean to imagine ourselves as eternal pilgrims, as foreign here? To the early church, it meant that we “are in the world, but not of the world”: that was a metaphysical and a moral statement. Metaphysically, we were made for Eden, in the image of God, but the whole world had Fallen with us, and in our mortal lives we were alien to our own natures and to the broken wreck of the universe around us; at the end of things, the final reconciliation, we and the world would be redeemed and brought back into God’s design, and then we would be home again. Morally, we must act as though we are citizens of Heaven and not citizens of the world’s nations; we must live here, and we must not remove ourselves from the world—in the world—but we must live according to the rules of our true allegiance—but not of the world. We must fully engage with the world’s suffering, we must not turn our backs on sinners and victims, but at the same time we should live according to the will of God. (Indeed, being in the world is the same as not being of it when we take care of the stranger.) We do not need to accept Genesis’s metaphysics to see the moral interpretation’s strength:xenateia means that we do not need to live entirely by the world’s crueler laws, that we can live by a standard more than that of survival, or celebrity, or comfortable conformity.
But are we not of the world? Our bodies and brains are made of its stuff. Our actions affect it; our waste lies in it. To imagine ourselves as separate from the world might in one sense be a tremendous arrogance, almost a crime. This world might be different from us, alien, but we and it are bound together, enmeshed; our actions can doom the world, and if we doom it we doom ourselves. We sustain ourselves of the earth. It is our mother: a cold, distant mother, maybe, which leaves us to fend for ourselves, but nonetheless it is from the earth that we get all our sustenance. Thus we can only say that we are not of the world in a particular sense; we must also remember that in another sense we are of the earth, that this is our home, whatever that might mean.
But I want to offer another way of looking at this: most life on this earth is bent on survival. Plants, protists, fungi; they are brutal competitors. They strive. Animals sometimes show more than a mere drive to exist; they can have community, joy, affection, even when it is not in service of their genetic imperative. But mostly the world is cruel, and its people are cruel, and all they do is survive and thrive. Our human consumption, production, pollution are artifacts of this; when we damage the world, we are acting according to the laws of the world. Nature is efficient and tribalist and thoughtless, and when we are these things we are not aliens to it. So, perhaps, it is when we try to take care of the earth, act as its custodians, sacrifice in order to sustain or at least not harm it further, perhaps that is when we are most alien to it; perhaps that is when we are in the world but not of it.
The alien is tired and confused and often alone, but the alien is also free. The alien can be more than its place of exile.
The trouble with living in the world is that other people are not like us. We do not always understand them; their ways are strange to us.
Gros only understands this as a bad thing. He repeatedly makes generalizations which might be true of him but are not true of everyone. For the most part, he does not attempt to see the world with their eyes. (Why would he? He has nothing to learn from them, he might say, since they are cluttered with convention, society, books written in the shadow of books written in the shadow of libraries.) But in places Gros’s indifference to other people’s views begins to approach outright racism and ageism. Consider this paragraph:
Among the sources of morning, we find the West. The East is where our memory resides: the East is culture and books, history and old defeats. There is nothing to be learned from the past, because learning from that means repeating former errors. That is why one shouldn’t put one’s trust in old people, or settle for their so-called experience which is nothing but the weighty mass of their repeated mistakes. One should trust only confidence itself: youth. The sources of the future lie in the West.
It might seem a stretch to say that the East is meant to be Asia, but consider what he associates with it: culture, history, books, the past, respect for elders. Are these not the orientalist stereotypes of China and Japan? The West, meanwhile, is the opposite: youth, the future, and, in a later paragraph, the wilderness and the frontier. The West is America. And of course mere experience is no guarantee of wisdom, and so neither is age, but this too is a strange irony: Gros’s entire project is founded on the primacy of experience, and how should his experience be any better? The old were once young, too.
As previously discussed, H. P. Lovecraft saw the world as radically Other, and he reacted with horror; he also saw non-white people and uneducated people as radically Other, and he reacted to them with horror. His cosmicism—the view that we are insignificant in the strange Otherness of the world—is inseparable from his racism. Northrop Frye, whose high view of literature and society comes from a deep fear of the natural world and its apparent indifference to us, had little attention for non-Western literature; I suspect that he suffers from the same sense of the Other, but he reacts by ignoring or delegitimizing, rather than despising, those people whose experiences are too different than his own. In rejecting the Other, both reject people. I wonder—but no more than wonder—whether Gros suffers a fate much like this; he rejects the Other, but misidentifies the natural world as his, owned by the mere fact that he walks into the forest, strains against the wind, drinks from a stream with his hands; in his book he frequently writes that the one who walks owns all that he sees. When Gros does recognize the Other in people he doesn’t quite understand, he rejects them, dismisses them, pities them, at times despises them. And in so doing these men make themselves more alone than they could otherwise be: if they are alienated from society, they seem to alienate themselves.
But if we are pilgrims, there is another way of doing this: gather together, tell stories, try to remember that even while people are Other in some respects—many, fundamental respects—they are also people, with their own integrities and logic and inner spinning worlds. Make a people out of the alienated, an alien-nation. Find those places of connection, use those connections to start understanding how we are different, allow ourselves to be changed by that difference, and, in the end, learn to accept that everyone, always, will be a little bit unknowable.