Denying Death its Due: Ecological Discourse, Technology & the Unconscious
In these sterile plains, nothing will ever grow that could be useful to man; not a single grain would ripen into corn among its stony furrows. Every living thing is born fully formed, struggles briefly from its first to its last breath and then dies, without knowing youth or old age and without resignation. Nothing here is latent; everything simply is, all at once. But even though there is no hope, yet there is beauty, fleetingly miraculous and eternally dazzling. Deserts are places of beauty, pointless but irreplaceable. Their only crops are flowers that have but a day or two in which to germinate, bloom, and vanish. Yet their sudden sprays of multicolored poppies and campanulas are resplendent even as they fade and die. Some plants wait a full ten years before flowering. Then they blossom and disappear in a single day. (Camus, 1954, 942)
Well over a decade ago, I took a five-day solo excursion through the Hoover Wilderness, located east of the central Sierra Nevada crest in California and north of the Yosemite high country. It is a stark, somewhat forbidding and isolated area filled with numerous glacial lakes and an abundance of hemlock, aspen, pine and cottonwood nestled within folds of ancient granite. Black bears, mountain lions, coyote, bobcats, and rapidly changing and extreme weather patterns feature prominently as does the almost total absence of human activity.
As can be expected, the glowing scenery, the multitude of ecstatic fragrances, and the gentle yet resplendent wild music that greeted me at each step of my trek provided a veritable feast for my soul. What a magnificent time to reflect, to enjoy, and to simply be! And while some of that did happen, I found a great deal of my time in the wilderness to be exceptionally, and unexpectedly difficult, almost crazily so.
The physical aspect of my sojourn was quite demanding, but I was in generally good shape and I found my strength growing over the course of the trip. The emotional side of the excursion was another matter altogether. I found myself depressed a great deal of the time. Not sad, but melancholic. The distinction between the two, as Freud noted in Mourning & Melancholia, making all the difference (1917).
At the time, I came to realize that the manner in which I had built up my defenses required other humans to be around. For me to hide behind the myriad number of masks I had engineered over the years, I needed others to play their assigned roles as well; their Montague to my Capulet as it were. In other words, I came to understand that there is a relational component to ego-defenses. So without others there, I felt largely defenseless. And so all I could do was fall back on a familiar and basic posture towards the world, namely melancholia. Not grief, not mourning, not sadness, but the stuck, half-life, twilight and thoroughly narcissistic world of depression. Importantly, the depression lifted the moment I got back to my car parked at the entrance to the Wilderness. I felt guilty and confused. This was not the way it was supposed to be. Shouldn’t it have been the other way around?
Much has happened and changed since that time. Now I have come to carefully cherish the feeling of being alive that is afforded to me by a less armored orientation to my life and the world. Similar wilderness excursions in recent years have brought a rich mixture of emotions and considerations. Often present members of that coterie of feelings are sadness and grief. For what, though, and why?
As I think back to my time in the Hoover Wilderness, I have come to realize that much of what I was defending myself against was death, the ever-present prospect and actualization of the eclipse of life that wild nature most inevitably marks. I have often questioned why it is that wilderness feels so vital, so alive. I believe it is due to one simple fact: in nature death is always present, always happening or about to happen. Death makes life live. And so perhaps our contemporary sensibilities, anaesthetized as they are by the fantastical sense of power and infinitude that is resultant of our continual and intense interaction with the many technologies we surround ourselves with, cannot bear the specter of finitude and demise that is so paradoxically alive in nature. And so while it pains us at one level to lose a primeval forest to the bulldozer, we unconsciously delight in the excitement of seeing it die, because the ever present prospect of death dies with it as well. As I arrived at my car, with its assurance of escape from a realm of existence made too garishly alive by the immanent and actual loss of life I had been privy to, I rejoiced inside. Take me to my many screens, to my straight lines, to my world where I fancy myself having dominion over how things happen, how and when they start, and when they end if they ever do. Take me to cultures that are replete with the absence of death.
Of course, death exists outside of the wilderness, but we have so many glorious machines and each other to keep ourselves from thinking about it for too long. “It’s out there,” we declare. “It won’t happen for a long time,” we might announce aloud, with a bit of cynicism on our tongue knowing full well that we desperately want to believe our own words. Or some of us might think that we’ll somehow manage to escape, “for I am special after all”. And it works, or works well enough that we keep on believing the lie, until death comes home to roost in some fashion or another.
This insistent quality of our unrelenting disavowal of death should not be taken lightly. Latter-day Western culture’s persistent refutation of the end of life exists as a fundamental trope, implicit in so much of what we regard as familiar, desirable and even just. And yet, in a time in which we seemingly have become the rulers of very nearly everything, there is a feature of existence that looms as the ultimate nonnegotiable; that which cannot be bought or driven away by fantasy or subjugated to our fetishized will. Death comes no matter what. And while technology facilitates our unremitting abjuration of the inescapable reckoning with death that each of us must undergo, our entanglement with the rest of nature only makes death all the more flagrantly alive.
No wonder then that the environmental exhortations of our times fall on deaf ears. Is there really anything else that should be done to get people to notice that we are progressively snuffing out the possibility of our own existence on this planet, not to mention the 8.7 million species that inhabit the earth alongside us? The images are there, the narratives of ecological collapse from around the globe are readily available, and we ourselves in the quotidian intimacy of our daily lives notice the changes. And yet, we keep on buying, we keep on polluting, we keep on driving, we keep on living without death. Why?
I believe that to answer that now timeworn and tired question, we have to come to terms with the truth that to be in wilderness, while glorious and astonishing in certain respects, is to live with death in a way that we are no longer accustomed to, if we ever really were. It is to live in its maw, for it is precisely that nearness to finitude that affords nature its vibrancy and grave power. Western (and even more-than-Western) civilization’s crowning achievement, much more than any material or cultural artifact it has managed to produce, has been to trick us into believing that it has killed off death. And for that we are forever grateful and willing to sacrifice everything for, including the little wilderness we have left, either internally or externally. Of course we don’t really want to do anything about the wholesale decimation of the oceans, or the melting of the polar ice caps, or the dying off of countless species due to habitat destruction. It’s not just, as the argument goes, that the ecological crisis is “overwhelming” and hence engenders apathy, or alternatively, that people don’t see how they can do something about it, or the ever-popular explanation that everyday folks just don’t have the necessary information. It is also that we all secretly rejoice at the eradication of the last little remnants of what so insistently and continuously reminds us of our eventual demise. For wilderness, nature, the undomesticated, or whatever you choose to call it, is all about death and the more we can push it out to the horizon and out of our sight, the more real our seemingly death-less/techno-enlivened existence can remain.
When describing his experience of filming the movie Fitzcarraldo (1982) deep in the loins of the Amazon basin, Werner Herzog notes,
(Klaus) Kinski always says its full of erotic elements. I don’t see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just – Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and… growing and… just rotting away. Of course, there’s a lot of misery. But it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they – they sing. They just screech in pain….Taking a close look at – at what’s around us here – there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of… overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle – Uh, we in comparison to that enormous articulation – we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban… novel… a cheap novel. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication… overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the – the stars up here in the – in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this in full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it, I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment. (Blank, 1982).
I would hasten to add that it is precisely because he is able to acknowledge the ferocity and “obscenity” of the wild that he is able to more fully engage with it. He meets the wild on its terms (as he understands that) and not his own and he encourages us to do the same. Herzog had the courage to speak the truth as he saw it. Nature is not all joy, repose and harmony as so much of our absurdly humanizing environmentalist discourse tends to paint it as. It is often (at least from our vantage point as humans) vicious, unkind, and outright ugly. But interestingly, so are we.
But what if we weren’t so invested in denying the fact of death? What if we welcomed this unsymbolizable, nonnegotiable feature of life into our hearts? Would we be more able to engage with the wild on its terms as opposed to forcing it to fit the mold of our human arc of sensibility? And in that position, might we not be more reticent to pave it over, screen it and make it follow the straight line of our automatous yearnings, and in turn be enlivened by its harsh power?
And what of those of us who profess to engage in ecological discourses? What if we, as wilderness-minded folk spoke truthfully about our feelings and thoughts regarding wilderness? What would happen if we gave death its due? Yes, most certainly time spent in the wilderness is quickening, sublime, and evocative in ways that go beyond language. And if we approach it in its fullness, it is also exceedingly daunting and murderous. It signals finitude and the eclipse of things, and elicits our fears and anxieties in the face of that void. Might it not behoove us to speak about this aspect of our encounter with wilderness alongside the ecstasy and beauty that is all too common a feature of our discourse? Doing so may well afford us the humility and grace needed to touch the hearts of the very people we are trying to reach. And we do it by speaking directly and honestly to the negated, secret and unconscious wishes and considerations we all hold in common yet singular ways. The kind of speaking that is the sine qua non of psychoanalysis, the practice of which gave birth to this text. I would offer that the broadening of ecological discourse to include these less than savory aspects of wilderness and our unspoken and often unconscious reactions to them might allow us to finally reach and bring into engagement the silent majority who has been seemingly immune to the appeals of ecologists, environmentalists, and ecopsychologists for generations. What I am saying is that we can choose to speak truthfully about our own fears, wishes and deadly desires vis-à-vis nature understood in its full and dark complexity. For it is in that kind of truth speaking that we may finally be heard.