Sunday, November 07, 2010

Jay Griffiths – ‘Wild: An Elemental Journey’

William Beebe ‘brought the underwater world right into the public
consciousness with his invention of the bathysphere’ (p. 188)
Appropriately I suppose, this book, an element-themed account* of arduous travels amongst the communities and landscapes of the world’s least western-civilised countries, was a struggle to get through. For several hundred pages in the middle I actively disliked its righteous / chummy style, which seemed needlessly egocentric. It felt a little like a bad Everett True book – just as his tendency to write about music only by writing about himself grates as often as it inspires (and it does inspire, of course), Griffiths’ highly personal take on what she calls ‘wildness’ relies heavily on having the reader onside as she combines sex, land, time, culture, language and religion into one tightly wound didactic ball. For instance:
While the untamed have ears for poetry – all kinds of poetic voices – the tame are trained only to hear the voice of the tamer, having ears only for command. The tamed know only the plumpness of convenienced asexuality: wild creatures smoulder in the groin, thighs slippery with juice, raw hormones, pheromones glowing in the dark. But the Christian god will never win, for still, still proudly anarchic, in thunder and cunt, cock and lightening, the raw core of our human spirit is still untamed, full of will, eloquent, kinetic and fleetly wild. (p. 376)
The good: wildness, poetry, exciting sex, exciting weather, spirit, polytheistic indigenous religion. The bad: tameness, the tamer, Christianity, complacency, dull sex. By implication, too, comes Griffiths’ central argument about the importance of a strong connection between a people and their land. How do you separate thunder and cunt, cock and lightening? You build walls and a ceiling, you put in double glazing and central heating. You move away from the land and you no longer understand the land, and then you exploit it in order to maintain your lifestyle. Alienation is a necessary result of western-style civilisation. The carrots in my fridge are there because I bought them from a supermarket, which I was able to do because I went and sat in an office all week. I could hardly be further from the carrots, and the land in which they grew. Or the land which somehow produced and continues to power the fridge.

Though couched in western terms, Wild is 100% anti western, or at least 100% anti western expansionism. There is no bright side to this, in its narrative. An Inuit elder may admit that life was harder before the arrival of capitalism, but this is in the context of the younger generation’s utter loss of knowledge, motivation, peace of mind, way to be, as a result of buildings, jobs, shops, schools. Modern home comforts may be OK if your character is already formed, is the implication, but if not, they will prevent it from developing. Western culture is male, linear, unbending and obsessed with conquest, which Griffiths explicitly links to the taking of virginity. It wants to measure, quantify, lock everything to the clock, the map and the calendar. Wildness is female, cyclical:
Women’s conversation ‘rambles’. We don’t get to ‘the point’. We don’t ‘think straight’. We make excursions off the subject, digress, think circuitously, and our free linguistic nomadism infuriates the overmasculine mind. (p. 306)
Perhaps this is the closest she comes to stating that in positive terms:
The purpose of indigenous law throughout the world is essentially to ensure that the natural world remains the same. (p. 276)
The first quote is from a section called ‘Nomads All’, in which nomadism is identified as the pet hate of European men, ‘heterosexual, Christian and adult’ (p. 305) – you can almost hear her spit here. Surprisingly, given many of the literary reference points (e.g. Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew – you can probably guess the uses they’re put to) and the frequent excursions into etymology, Griffiths is also anti-literacy, because it ‘profoundly alters people’s relationship with the wild world’ (p. 334) (and because the west ‘refuses to recognize indigenous wisdom even as it steals it’ (p. 98) – so, introducing literacy in no way complements the knowledge that is already there). This is a book to which it isn’t really possible to have a calm reaction. It is not new to disparage colonialism, but it is hard to imagine a book throwing its ongoing negative consequences in your face to quite the extent that Wild does. It is not subtle, but it is coherent and heartfelt and it gets under your skin. I’m glad I read it.

* Not real elements. Section titles are, ‘Wild Earth’, ‘Wild Ice’, ‘Wild Water’, ‘Wild Fire’, ‘Wild Air’ and ‘Wild Mind’.

Update: post edited 23/12/10 after a comment left and then deleted, by, so it said (and I have no reason to doubt it) the author of the book. She made several objections, and I have removed a paragraph and a quotation because I agree with most of them. One point puzzled me – the rebuttal of the charge of anti-literacy on the basis of oral traditions. I should clarify that by ‘literacy’ I meant reading and writing, not literature. Apologies for any misrepresentation – these are the impressions I picked up from the book, and are not based on any other background knowledge or reading.

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