Friday, June 3, 2011

A Wounded Crow

I'm a boy in Chalmers, Indiana, in my neighbor's tree-house, looking across cornfields at an approaching storm. As I watching, a phalanx of black clouds begins to turn upon itself. The rain, no longer falling, circulates. A tearing sky howls.

Abruptly, the horizon disappears behind a rising wall of earth. With a roar, storm is consuming the world.


The Greek gods didn't reflect the Law but the world's wildness. Nature, to the Greek eye, literally embodied the Divine; to be divine was, fundamentally, to be wild.

In response to the mystery of wildness, Greek art invented tragedy and comedy, which turned wildness into an aesthetic principle. Through the alchemy of poetry, wildness became fate—which is to say: it became beautiful.

Surrounded, then, by beautiful gods, humanity occupied a place within the world that was, for many centuries, both dignified and jocular.


Over time, however, nature's gods disappeared, driven away—humiliated—by the One God of the Book. Nature no longer embodied divinity but was subject to it. Man (who invents and then mimics his saviors) was not longer natural—no longer wild—but master of nature and servant of God. The purpose of life was not to live beautifully but to live obediently, productively: to save oneself, in other words, from wildness.

The world's transition from a pantheon of wild gods to a single, law-giving God made possible the triumph of metaphysics and the emergence of civilized life, with its hopefulness, its (relative) tranquility, its quests for meaning, its devotion to abstractions. Of course all these ambitions, before the infinite silence of the stars, are absurd: the universe does not hope, or quest, or sprout seeds of goodness. The only invention that could disguise the absurdity of ideas was an even greater absurdity: the omniscient, omnipresent, all-powerful Father of monotheism. God justifies the absurdity of hope (for example) by rendering all existence absurd. God's absurdity displaced Zeus's wildness and made possible the majesty of history.


To use the word "absurd"—to call, for instance, the God of the Bible "absurd"—seems like a provocation. But I mean it as a tribute. Absurdity is, after all, the only conceivable response to wildness. Faced with nature's intractable, incontrovertible, non-negotiable wildness, we build the Great Wall of the Absurd, which is every bit as intractable, incontrovertible, and non-negotiable. By this means we survive. Thanks, for instance, to the absurdity of a crucified God, we acquire the immortality that the Greeks once acquired through song.

In this regard, absurdity is compassionate. Absurdity repudiates the amoral, raging, mute cruelty of the natural world with the moral, communicative, attentive compassion of God.


Death, not wildness, made God necessary. Death is neither absurd nor wild; it has no value; it abides beyond language, beyond sense. Against its awesome valuelessness both wildness and absurdity come into relief. Death proves that existence is real.

Death is to life what the zero is to mathematics. By standing outside of mathematics, the zero makes mathematics possible. Death does the same for life.


If you appreciate justice, equality, hope, compassion, pity, order, the idea of evil—in short, if you are a meta-physician—then you are a disciple of the absurd. Absurdity is humanity's great triumph, its highest invention.

But it's human, all too human, and despite its momentous consolations, absurdity does not attract us. We find it repellent. We appreciate its significance; we depend upon its stability to counter the world's ongoing wildness; but fundamentally we do not desire it. We desire wildness.

Thoreau understood the essence of desire when he wrote, "In literature, it is only the wild that attracts us."

What's true of literature is true of everything. Only wildness attracts, ever.

Thoreau is properly understood as the father of modern environmentalism; "Walking" is the modern era's first yearning for the wild gods' return to the world.


The God of the Book has never truly been worshiped. Monotheism requires violent coercion because it demands that we desire the undesirable, that we worship the absurd. An executed God asks us to sacrifice what we most love—wildness—in order to live forever.

As we approach death—real, valueless death—this sacrifice appears to make sense. In this regard, monotheism is the revenge of death upon life.


Now, after 2000 years, we are crushed by the Law. We're tired of monotheism's coercions. We're tired of the tamed world's ugliness. We miss the gods—with Thoreau, we yearn for their wildness. We want god-embodying nature back.

Kafka saw this yearning before anyone else: Absurdity, once our Great Wall, has become our prison. Absurdity's immortality is no longer worth its cost; immortality without wildness isn't salvation but murder.


Yesterday, driving along Homestead Ave in Sunnyvale, I saw a wounded crow bouncing its way across the road. It could no longer fly. Two cars passed over it without killing it. Flailing its wings, it hopped up onto the sidewalk and into the grass. Quickly it disappeared into some bushes under a tree.

Again, Thoreau: "In Wildness is the preservation of the world."

The best way to summon the gods back to the world is to love what embodies them. A worshipful attitude toward our planet must be, upon pain of extinction, the essence of our religious lives.

Yes, absurdity rescued us from the banality of death. But we now must rescue ourselves from our rescuer, replacing the good with the beautiful, the law with a song.

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