Today Via Negativa is seven years old: an anniversary of little significance to anyone but me and a few of my long-time readers (Hi, Mom!). But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, like so many of the bloggers I read, I began online journaling the year the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq. I remember how outraged and helpless I felt as even the most massive anti-war demonstrations received little notice in the mainstream media… and then my growing delight as I discovered how easy it was to share thoughts online and began to meet like-minded people through their own blogs and websites, people whose motto — if we believed in mottoes — might’ve been, “Make art, not war.”
So why didn’t we all become political bloggers? By choosing to focus on small moments, ordinary observations and our aesthetic responses to the world, weren’t we kind of abdicating our responsibility as citizens and intellectuals to fully engage in the political life of the nation? I don’t know. For me, the boundary between politics and culture has always seemed arbitrary. Radical questioning shouldn’t stop short of a reexamination of our society’s dominant worldview: hence (at first) Via Negativa. What is it in our thinking, I wondered, that so compels us to devalue the here and now, licensing the destruction of this world in our quest for others? Capitalism, commodification and industrial warfare are symptoms of a deeper malaise, I thought. Here’s something from my late, not-so-lamented Geocities site that I wrote in June 2003, three months after the invasion of Iraq and six months before I started this blog.
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St. Brendan’s Isle. Antilla. The Fountain of Youth. New Jerusalem. It is a commonplace of historiography to note that European explorers from the 15th century on were after more than gold and spices; many were driven by a literal quest for paradise. Though long tradition had placed the Biblical Eden somewhere in the marshlands of southern Iraq, the restless European imagination kept moving it farther and farther east, until — influenced by the widespread recognition that the earth is round — paradise met and merged with the long-rumored Isles in the west.
Christopher Columbus set the pattern, wandering around the Caribbean voyage after voyage in search of something that now strikes us as more than a little bizarre. He wrote, “I have come to another conclusion respecting the earth, namely, that it is not round as they describe, but of the form of a pear… or like a round ball, upon one part of which is a prominence like a woman’s nipple, this protrusion being the highest and nearest the sky” (Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, translated by R. H. Major). Fruitlessly the Admiral of the Ocean Sea sought to navigate uphill to storm the gates of paradise.
With the benefit of 500 years’ hindsight, it now appears that the most valuable discovery from that era — what was truly epoch-making about the New World — was the realization that people could live in orderly societies without kings or potentates. Reports of the relatively peaceful, prosperous conditions of many decentralized native communities in the Americas provided an essential objective correlative for European constitutional theorists and utopian thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries.
For many immigrants, of course, the Americas had and continue to have a utopian allure. But which came first, the dream or its realization? A new book on the making of the King James Bible (Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicholson) has attracted attention for its claim that our very conception of Eden may bear the stamp of New World revelations. Hebrew scholar John Layfield, one of the 50 scholars appointed to King James’ translation committee, “had been chaplain to an expedition to Puerto Rico and was enchanted by its exotic landscape and its natives, his narrative of the journey notably lacking in either cynicism or prejudice.” (See the review in The Guardian.) Nicholson speculates that this experience influenced Layfield’s description of the Biblical Eden in the 2nd chapter of Genesis, unchanged by the seasons, planted with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.”
Is it any wonder, then, that the United States of America — according to its founding mythos, Columbus’ true legacy — still seeks to storm paradise? Our mission to the Red Planet evokes the twin pillars of Manifest Destiny, missionary zeal and capitalist free enterprise, in the names of the two robotic explorers, Spirit and Opportunity. Oddly, these names originated through an essay contest sponsored by the Danish Lego Corporation. The winner was a third-grade immigrant from Siberia, Sofi Collins, who charmed NASA officials with her Horatio Alger optimism: “I used to live in an orphanage. It was dark and cold and lonely. At night, I looked up at the sparkly sky and felt better. I dreamed I could fly there. In America, I can make all my dreams come true. Thank you for the ‘Spirit’ and the ‘Opportunity.'” (link)
The search for life on Mars is Quixotic in the truest sense of the word, Cervantes’ Don Quixote having been, in part, a send-up of the conquistadors, according to the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (Memory of Fire: Genesis). No doubt, any actual discovery that life had once flourished on this now-dead world would prove as epoch-making as the New World conquest. On-going desertification and a growing water crisis on earth would gain an invaluable objective correlative.
Here, too, the language of the King James Bible has had a strong if subtle influence on the way we think. The word “desert” originally meant simply a place unoccupied by humans (“deserted”). But over time, the mental associations of the King James Version have taken hold, and the parched lands of Sinai and the Negev became the archetypal deserts.
Thus we tend to idealize the desert as a primordial condition of nature: the other side of the coin from paradise. And just as Edenic conceptions of the New World have often served as a fig leaf for genocidal conquest, so too an idealized image of the desert has licensed a pervasive myopia about the role of humans in fostering desert conditions. Few tourists in Arizona and New Mexico, for instance, are aware that some of the barren landscapes they find so spiritually energizing are in fact unnatural and relatively recent, the result of only a few years of catastrophic overgrazing in the late 19th century. And the picturesque, light-flooded landscapes of the Mediterranean rim derive from centuries of deforestation and over-browsing by goats.
But of course not all ecocide is accidental: witness Saddam Hussein’s draining of the marshlands in southern Iraq, part of a genocidal campaign against the Marsh Arabs. Barring a concerted, international effort to restore the marshlands — unlikely in the current climate of fear and hostility engendered by the Anglo-American occupation — this original template for the Garden of Eden may turn into desert in a few more years. (Update: “The revival of the marshes remains uncertain.”)
With the same kind of casual, uncomprehending brutality that distinguished Columbus, Iraq’s new conquerors are simply too busy to worry about safeguarding lives, libraries, museums or natural treasures. Like Columbus, we’ve got better things to think about. “Black gold,” for instance. But oil is only the means to an end: the glorious future that awaits us beyond the sky. As the Air Force recruitment ads suggest, we must forever Aim High.
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I was born too late to be a flower child, but of all the images of the 60s, the most powerful for me remain the anti-Goldwater TV ad with the girl pulling petals off a daisy as a voice counts down to nuclear Armageddon, and its counter-cultural mirror-image: that famous gesture of the Yippies, gathered in subversive absurdity to levitate the Pentagon, placing flowers in the ends of rifles. Yes, I still believe in flower power! The sexual partnership between plants and their pollinators is the single most powerful Creation myth evolution ever invented, I think, on a par with the stories about plate tectonics and the sun that had to die to give birth to the complex elements of which we are made. Unlike the fables proferred by religious and political institutions, however, these myths are true, and internalizing their lessons can make us better citizens of the planet. This is why I write.