An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 331-334.
My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilisation
By Chellis Glendinning (Shambhala Publications, 1994)
Paperback/240pp/US$13.00/ISBN 0 87773 996 X
In the midst of fighting all the battles against civilisation's advance, we also struggle with trying to comprehend the 'nature of the beast.' The anti-civilisation perspective has developed an ever more coherent and acute awareness, and is beginning to find its way into the thinking and actions of an increasing number of people.
But when we think about the vast, interconnected and entrenched reality of what we are confronting, and how we are so thoroughly trapped in it, the mind balks at finding its way into the centre of the madness to help us find a point of clarity from which our actions are truly concerted and aimed at deconstructing or destroying this maze of civilisation and at freeing ourselves from its corrosive influence. What Chellis Glendinning gives us in this book is an account of her own personal journey into the place where the human being confronts the damage that has been done to its very nature, and how that connects to the ongoing onslaught against all of wild, original nature. And in the process it is a step towards what it means to 'de-civilise' ourselves.
As I see it, the book's basic premise is that we can't just fight against civilisation, but that we also need to work on individually and collectively healing the traumas and wounds that it has inflicted upon us in a myriad of painful and destructive ways. This healing process, and the healing power that it draws upon, has its roots in what she calls the 'primal matrix', described as, "the state of a healthy, wholly functioning psyche in full-bodied participation with a healthy, fully-functioning Earth." Like other anti-civilisation writers and thinkers, from Thoreau to Stanley Diamond, Paul Shepard and John Zerzan, she then links this perspective of the natural individual to what she refers to as 'nature-based peoples.' Those who, she says, inhabit the territory which, "may offer the clearest access we have to the last remaining vestiges of our primal matrix," through their "psychological knowledge, social practices, spiritual understandings, and ecological awareness."
Most of the first part of the book, entitled 'Roots', is devoted to exploring what to many will be familiar territory - the evolution of humans into relatively small, tightly knit hunter-gatherer bands, and the ways that they have lived in, nurtured and fostered the primal matrix. The second part, 'Domestication and its Discontents' describes their undoing through the long, dislocating and traumatic process of domestication, and its advanced stage which she calls 'techno-addiction.' The final two sections are more in-depth explorations of her view of the healing process.
Throughout the work, Glendinning draws out, "a relationship between the deluge of psychological dysfunctions among us and the ecological crisis besieging our planet." As a practising psychotherapist, she brings this approach to bear in her work with those damaged by the "psychopathology of daily life" under the regime of civilisation. But to get to the point where she could help others heal, she had to go through her own painful and painstaking healing ordeal.
Like Derrick Jensen, whose writings and talks have also achieved a growing amount of attention among eco-activists, anarchists and others, Glendinning was the victim of sexual abuse as a child. The need to confront and deal with the scars and psychological blocks left by those experiences became a powerful motivation to find a deeper and more integrated wholeness in her life, and world in general. Like Jensen, she sees her own personal abuse and traumas as inextricably linked with the abuse perpetrated over countless generations within and by families, societies, classes, races, nations, corporations and other institutions which perpetuate civilisation. She draws upon pioneering studies of post-traumatic stress syndrome to inform us that "when the traumatic experience is left unhealed and dissociated from consciousness... traumatised people can re-enact their pain by unconsciously performing aberrant or abusive behaviours that then affect their children and so on down through the generations, or that affect other people and so on down through history."
Central to Glendinning's approach is this notion of trauma, which she sees as inherent in civilised life. At some point in our collective and individual histories, she says, "something unnatural happened to us." What could this something be, she asks?
"Because we are creatures who were born to live in vital participation with the natural world, the violation of this participation forms the basis of our original trauma. This is the systemic removal of our lives from our previously assumed elliptical participation in nature's world - from the tendrils of earthy textures, the seasons of sun and stars, carrying our babies across rivers, hunting the sacred game, the power of the life force. It is a severance that in the western world was initiated slowly and subtly at first with the domestication of plants and animals, grew in intensity with the emergence of large-scale civilisations, and has developed to pathological proportion with mass technological society - until today you and I can actually live for a week or a month without smelling a tree, witnessing the passage of the moon, or meeting an animal in the wild, much less knowing the spirits of these beings or fathoming the interconnections between their destinies and our own. Original trauma is the disorientation we experience, however consciously or unconsciously, because we do not live in the natural world. It is the psychic displacement, the exile, that is inherent in civilised life. It is our homelessness."
Glendinning reflects at length on the devastating psychic effect of our loss of contact with wild nature. "As the wilderness came to be divided up and sculpted for human use," she writes, "people lost the very context that had originally served the development of personal integrity." Another of the social and psychic losses she explores in some depth is "our long-standing ability to enter into nature-induced non-ordinary states of consciousness for the purpose of healing, revelation, and connectedness with the natural world." With all of these losses, the sense of belonging that we had when part of the primal matrix has been replaced by an intense feeling of fragmentation and destruction which permeates civilisation. For Glendinning, the only answer is restoration of the primal matrix, and in the later chapters she turns her attention to how this might be done.
Again, the author draws on her own path of healing, recounting the breakthrough experiences that she and two friends had, at very different stages of their lives, of coming "to feel at home in the natural world" despite growing up in this rationalised, technological society. Glendinning also draws on the healing rituals and ceremonies of the Native American culture, which help the individual and the community to recover a direct, unmediated participation in the 'more-than-human' world or cosmos. By beginning to break down the dualism of the 'Western' mindset and the illusion of the isolated 'self' we can start to reclaim our natural birthright from the lockstep of civilised rationalism, by becoming attuned to our psychic connections to people and other living beings and to everything around us.
Certainly, it is a lot more difficult for those who grow up outside such a traditionally nature-based culture to find these healing paths back to the primal matrix. There are, however, non-indigenous people and communities that have been both borrowing on (hopefully in a respectful and thoughtful way) indigenous ways and/or developing their own practices of these types, and a number of these people and communities have gained strength and insight for their activism.
Earth First! and sister groups and movements in the US have also seen a significant convergence of American Indian struggles and eco-defence in the past 15-20 years, often over the protection of Native sacred sites, which have been and remain places of natural and spiritual power, places to renew one's grounding in the primal matrix. This is not by chance.
And it is also no accident that people like Chellis, and a growing number of others, have based their activist work and writings on insights gained from personal experience with the natural world, confronting their own traumas and conditioning and our collective history, as well as from deep connections and friendships with indigenous people. And I'm sure they would agree that this is an essential part of our confronting the spread of civilisation around the planet, whether we call it healing, decolonisation, anti-globalisation or the anarchic destruction of civilisation.
Glendinning goes into these issues at length in the last two sections of the book, 'Hunting, Gathering and Healing.' and 'Primal Matrix Re-Arising.' She delves deeply into our European/American civilised legacy and how it relates to both the indigenous cultures it destroyed, displaced or radically impacted, to our own pre-civilised roots and how we go on from here. In the chapter, 'All My Relations,' she also takes on the difficult subject of our relationship with our own ancestors, which for most of us is quite problematic due to all the dislocations, migrations and loss of inter-generational memory. And for those of us who are descendants of coloniser peoples and nations, many of our ancestors actively participated in and contributed to the civilising and colonising process, so we may feel there is nothing useful in reclaiming a connection with them. "Every indigenous people on Earth," she points out, "takes strength and direction from its lineage." So what are we less-than-indigenous people to do? As Glendinning puts it, the "question that arises from such an unprecedented predicament is this: how can we reclaim, and honor, a lineage so fraught with abuse, injustice, and pain?" For her, once again, the urgent need to deal with the effects of inter-generational trauma in her own life led her to directly confront this question.
She was compelled to trace her father's abusive and deranged behaviour back through his own experiences of abuse, and back on through the generations, finally coming to revelations that led her to the early period of American colonisation, and the realisation that her ancestors actively participated, even led in, the brutal wars against Indian peoples. However, the moment of release crystallised for her in one early morning on awaking, when she; "...felt the unnameable flow of life that links me all my way back to the moment of Creation through my ancestors - through the ugly rapings and the musket shots and tattered flesh... the witch burnings, the scientific theories... back through the cave paintings and the animal furs... the hairy beasts, the shore creatures, seaweed and plankton, lightning; me, all the way back to Creation... What had previously prevented me from embracing my lineage - the inherent uprootedness of my people, the lack of tradition passed down to me, my righteous sense of disgust at history, the violence my father had perpetrated - fell into a new place, subsumed now by the vast flow of life... The spirits of my ancestors had called out to me; I had heard them."
What Glendinning is talking about here, what she felt in the core of her being, is a radical wholeness, cutting through the fragmentation and amnesia and illusions of separateness that gives power to the civilisational complex. "Healing," she says near the end of the book, "is a process of rounding up all the fragments and reconciling them."
Part of the healing for Glendinning clearly also involves finding a way to break down the barriers between different struggles, activists and movements. And she finds this common ground in the anti-civilisation perspective reflected in her book.
Speaking in Eugene with Ward Churchill, she stated that "the struggle against globalisation is a continuation of the struggle for decolonisation." Both the civil rights/Black Power and the American Indian sovereignty movements in the United States were also inspired by and part of the global decolonisation movements, just as the many indigenous autonomy struggles being waged now around the globe are the current cutting edge of this same process.
Europe and European descended people have a long way to go in confronting the traumatic results of their history and its continuing cycles of expansion and warfare. Especially now, with the 'American Empire' declaring total war and many Europeans (and Americans) questioning, protesting and actively resisting civilisation's most extreme pathological form, it is urgent for Europeans and Americans (North, Central and South), especially, to try to confront together this legacy. Just as Franz Fanon talked of the need to decolonise one's mind as a fundamental step towards actual decolonisation for Africans and African-descended peoples My Name is Chellis is an honest and helpful attempt to do something similar for Europeans and European-descended peoples. And in some ways it goes even farther, into the realm of 'decivilisation.'
It goes to the heart of how our isolated and alienated civilised 'selves' are for the most part a dim and distorted reflection of what we as natural human beings once were and can still be in a healthy relationship within primal human grouping and with the rest of life and natural forces. Glendinning compellingly demonstrates how 'internally' overcoming the conditioning and mostly unconscious psychic patterns and disturbances imposed by civilisation can't be separated from 'externally' fighting the technological, political, military, ideological and commercial forces of civilisation and the ecological disturbances and devastation they wreak.
Some might feel this is an elitist approach, given the despicable living, working, police state and war-besieged conditions of so many people throughout the world. But if the anti-civilisation perspective really has the truthfulness and power many of us feel it has and is to grow as a movement (if it can be called that), from all the dispersed points of resistance where it takes root and action, it needs to have the strongest possible grounding in the very uncontrolled, free-flowing psychic and evolutionary dynamics that civilisation seeks to dominate and suppress. Glendinning's book is one effort towards finding that grounding..