Unsouling from the Wilderness
The mesmerizing void that is modern life tries to appease us with simulated pleasures.
Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that one
Black Elk, Black Elk Speaks
Modern man, I dutifully noted, is in search of a soul, and the age is an age of longing.
Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends
Perhaps the reason some of us are feeling a sense of loss and longing is that we are, as Black Elk informs us, living in the shadow world. Our reality on this side may only be the fleeting ghosts of a place that is more real somewhere else. On this side we have broken our commitment to the earth and have unsouled ourselves from the wilderness. By the first century CE, the essayist Plutarch was asking, “Why is it that the gods are no longer speaking to us?”
For a long time now, we have been trying to create a new and different image of ourselves. It is an image where modern humanity is placed at the center of its own universe. We learn by observing, probing, experimenting, and finally dissecting and destroying the dynamic world we live within. From this, the modern mind started to develop a new reality for itself.
The collective reality in which we now reside does not take kindly to opposing perspectives. We have inherited an alienated consciousness that views the world as an outside entity — a world of objects that move in mechanical motion. This alienated consciousness has substituted the enchantment and mystery of living within a dynamic and animated world with a dream of the artificial, the unreal. The modern landscape is now more scattered with administration than adventure. The central image of our modern age has been that of consumerism: the ability of the average person to buy the material goods they require in order to have a decent standard of living. A standard of living albeit promoted to us through our mainstream media and glamorous propaganda.
Only recently have some of us come to realize that consumerism has now become a contemporary form of crash therapy for unsatisfied people wanting to buy their way into happiness to escape from the very system they are simultaneously supporting. The easy acquisition of things has become more about trying to cover up anxiety as a substitute for contentment.
The modern history of the West has been about the removal of mystery, mind, and magic from the world around us. In the past there were realms of wilderness that existed outside of the social order, and each culture had these ‘wild zones’ where people danced with the little folk in the woods, undertook initiations in caves, circles, and hard-to-find corners. There were pagan rituals, crazy ecstasies, and unknown zones where primal energies were released. These were the places of wilderness, where dreamtime reigned, and clock-time was banned. And now these wild places are fewer and fewer as a new ‘reality order’ becomes the manifesto of the day. Now it is many of us who are feeling haunted. We have lost the presence of the ‘transcendent’ within our modern societies.
We must now recognize that something has happened — a break, a mutation, has occurred that has placed us in an ‘intermediate’ stage between eras. Modern life is being not so much rewritten as reconfigured. We are seeing odd things occurring in relation to time, speed, and distance. It’s as if right now the clock, and our sense of timing, is malfunctioning. This ahistorical period is out of time, until it resets itself. And here, the possibility of transcendence lingers like a phantasma.
We are in a time of carnivalesque distortion where ‘fast food’ is a parody of our normal food preparation and consumption; mediatized sport is a spectacle of its original form; and the music industry is one huge commercial carnival that mocks genuine creativity. In the pop music industry, the spectacle, the live show — the ‘carnival performance’ — is often more important than the actual merit of the song (even when the performer mimes, as they often do). We are in a different world right now — or at least a seemingly different reality.
In this new world of different relations, symbols, and meanings we have become unmoored from our harbors. We are talking about the fractal, the quantum, the molecular, the nano, the bots, artificial intelligence, and the singularity — yet we find we have no soulful connection with any of these terms or their significances. Perhaps we have entered a void-time.
The Sense of the Void
With human life having lost its reference to transcendence and the notion of the sacred, there is the ever-present danger that we may descend to a form of human morality that lacks any real meaning or higher principles. It is not hard to believe that a degree of inertia has crept into our modern societies. The result is that many of us may now be finding ourselves with a hollow space inside. This space becomes the perfect seedbed for the consuming desires, distractions, and attractions of modernity’s excesses. Within such an environment we wonder whether we may find ourselves waking up to a world where the dream is still dreaming itself and we can no longer distinguish what is real.
An age of the quantifiable has been ushered in and everyone, and everything, gets given a mark or a measurement. Ever since the industrial age brought in the points system — the marking scores — into mass education we’ve been carrying numbers around with us. Before then, students were known as apprentices and they spent time embedded in their discipline learning its skills. They either learnt great skills or they didn’t; now they get an 85, a 78, a 66, or a 45. Now all modern institutions think in numbers and our social status is quantified by such numbers, or grades, that allow us into other specialized zones — such as the members clubs, the elite institutions, or even into the ‘good credit’ rating books. The organic nature and capacity of a person has been stripped down to the quantifiable, and this measures the worth of an individual according to such grades. These associated numbers then follow the person around for the rest of their lives, influencing their careers, associations, and social freedoms. Society is now painting-by-numbers.
The mesmerizing void that is modern life tries to appease us with simulated pleasures. Through our unsouling from the greater transcendent wilderness we have become all too easily appeased by seeking inadequate answers to life’s meaning. By not seeking for the essential, we cannot hope to be anything other than temporary. Within the past century millions of people in developed parts of the world have distanced and divorced themselves from nature. We are negotiating how to adapt to a world structured within an increasingly artificial environment. The mutational shift is well underway, and new arrangements will need to be sought.
A potential lack of understanding can disconnect us from a world that is at the same time becoming increasingly connected. For thousands of years our ancestors lived alongside natural forces, learning from environmental cycles, and reading the world around them. This uncoupling from the wilderness is not only in favor of urban settings but eventually artificially constructed settings that will soon be made ‘smart.’ The profusion of what are called ‘mega-cities’ are set to implement ‘smart’ technologies which will be a combination of connected information and communication infrastructures.
A Moment of Reflection
We are, it is said, the most highly-developed and articulate species on planet Earth, and yet we live in a world of reflections. We are doomed never to be able to see directly our own faces. Our face, as well as our ‘true face’ as they say, is non-visible to us; and so we are guided by reflections and their appearances.
There is a short-story from Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges entitled ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ that tells of a time during the reign of the Yellow Emperor when the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, like today, cut off from one another.[i] Both kingdoms lived in harmony and each could come and go through the mirrors. Yet one night the mirror people invaded the earth and a mighty battle ensued until finally the magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. The mirror people were pushed back and imprisoned into their mirrors, and punished by being forced to repeat, as if in a dream, all the actions of the world of men. They were stripped of their power and their forms and reduced to mere reflections. A day will come, however, when the magic spell will be broken and little by little these reflections will awaken and will slowly differ from us. Then they will stop imitating the world of humans and eventually they will break through the glass once again to enter the earth.
They say that life imitates art far more than art imitates life. Upon reflection, every culture and society claim a portion of our private psyche as its own. With the narrowing of our sensibilities comes not only a much-diminished reality but also a contracted perspective whereby this condensed form of perception and visibility becomes as hyperreality to us. If it’s true that modern life has muffled the call of transcendental mystery, then it is equally true that it has made transcendence both a more needed and yet more difficult promise. The cry for the ‘death of the soul’ and the unsouling from the wilderness has helped to pave the slippery path toward a simplified hyperreality that is now stealing the show.
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of Bardo Times: hyperreality, high-velocity, simulation, automation, mutation — a hoax?& Healing the Wounded Mind: The Psychosis of the Modern World and the Search for the Self and other books. Visit his website — http://www.kingsleydennis.com/
Visit his YouTube site — https://www.youtube.com/user/shems99
[i] See his short-story collection The Book of Imaginary Beings.