A few months ago, when Brian Willson, the author of Blood on the Tracks, addressed the Eastside Democratic Club, I had the opportunity to introduce him; I spoke of Brian’s advocacy of permaculture, growing food in a sustainable, as opposed to an exploitative, way; and mentioned his motto, that we have to return to life in a “neolithic village.”
Since his recently-published autobiography is concerned primarily with Brian’s anti-war advocacy since his service during the Vietnam War, and the murderous response by the government of the United States in response to that advocacy, however, he chose not to discuss his views on primitivism on that occasion, and I am the poorer for it.
But last Thursday Cascadia Chapter member Scott Green told me of his re-enrollment in the graduate school of government at Portland State University, and loaned me a couple of books which he looks forward to reading in addition to his course work. The most highly recommended was the just-published Future Primitive Revisited, by one John Zerzan (of whom I had never heard until that moment) and published by an outfit in the State of Washington called “Feral House.” Wild, eh?
Mr Zerzan opposes authoritarian rule, as do many progressives, but goes considerably further than most. He’s well-known in large measure for the essay “Future Primitive,” and the reason this collection of his essays is that topic “revisited” is because the essay, which first appeared in 1994, is reprinted right at the front of this collection, and followed by more recent cogitations on similar issues. The essay cites at least two hundred — that’s a lower bound, I didn’t really count them all — sources, but you have to take the author and the publisher’s word that the citations are accurate, for the footnotes are omitted in the reprinting (although the citations for the more recent essays are included, and they’re quite formidable).
Authoritarian rule comes with the onset of civilization; in order to build a city somebody has to give the orders and others have to follow. Feminists usually date the imposition of strict gender roles with the onset of civilization as well; they don’t put a lot of emphasis on the fact that most early civilizations honor the Great Mother as the primary deity, and relegate male deities to supportive positions. Zerzan, however, points out that all of civilization has been unsustainable, and has approached the business of obtaining food as an exploitative process. You might use fertilizers, or not; or enslave the peasants, or not; or set up colleges of agriculture based on land grants by the federal government, or not; but you will have to bend nature to your will in order to produce a crop.
Domestication of plants, domestication of animals, and subordination of what the Romans called the misera plebs contribuens (roughly, the poor working stiffs) all comes from the same process, indicates Zerzan. The abstraction that lays out the field in the first place, and plants the seed at the proper time for germination — that’s part of the very same process as well. Measures of space and measures of time ineluctably accompany the exploitative approach to the environment.
So Zerzan calls for the abolition, not only of authoritarian rule and gender roles, but of the use of mathematics at all. A large part of the essay “Future Primitive” is devoted to the documentation that the Middle Paleolithic, that is, time at least 150,000 years before the present back until almost a million years before the present, was much more pleasant that you might think. People were pretty intelligently making use, in a non-violent way, of the food resources available to them; they were living longer and had healthier, stronger bodies than the agricultural folk who succeeded them; there is little evidence of confining rituals or division of labor.
You can see that Zerzan is more pessimistic than Brian Willson. We will be using the stone hand-ax as our only tool, and it’s unlikely that we’ll live in villages. We will have no written, and not a lot of spoken, language — we’ll have to use a set of expressive grunts.
In exchange we will be at one with our environment. We will have abolished anxiety by ceasing to think.
I have comments at two levels to Mr Zerzan’s rather breath-taking views. At the level of a scholar, I very much doubt that we know as much as Mr Zerzan believes we know about the quality of life in the stone age. He cites authorities who say that there is evidence of this or that; fine. We really cannot say. It has also been my experience that the autodidact, the self-taught investigator, tends toward uncritical use of sources: if they say this, it must be true, as it were. Despite Mr Zerzan’s assurances of a recent re-evaluation by anthropologists and archaeologists of the charms of stone-age existence, I believe that a thorough survey would turn up a considerable number of qualified students of those sciences who believe life to have been the canonical “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (to quote Thomas Hobbes).
But beyond that, I would like to recall the story that Voltaire tells, which I found in The Portable Voltaire [I used the 1977 paperback edition; the first edition came out in 1949 and the editor, Ben Redman, died long ago], dating from the 1730s. A Brahmin living by the Ganges River cannot, recounts Voltaire, escape his own doubts:
“I have been studying forty years, and that is forty years wasted. I teach others and myself am filled with ignorance of everything. . . . I was born in Time, I live in Time, and yet I do not know what Time is. I am at a point between two eternities, and yet I have no conception of eternity. I am composed of matter: I think, but I have never been able to learn what produces my thought. . . Not only is the cause of my thought unknown to me, the cause of my actions is equally a mystery. I do not know why I exist, and yet every day people ask me questions on all these points. . . .
“I talk to my companions: some answer me that we must enjoy life and make a game of mankind; others think they know a lot and lose themselves in a maze of wild ideas. Everything increases my anguish. I am ready sometimes to despair when I think that after all my seeking I do not know whence I came, whither I go, what I am nor what I shall become.”
Voltaire went next door to the Brahmin’s house and found an old, ignorant woman living there — she was quite happy with her life, never reflected on any of the questions that so troubled the Brahmin, nor could even understand the questions when asked.
Returning to his ‘wretched philosopher,’ Voltaire asked him, “Are you not ashamed to be unhappy when at your very door there lives an old automaton who thinks about nothing, yet lives contentedly?”
“I have told myself a hundred times,” replied the holy man, “that I should be happy if I were as brainless as my neighbor, and yet I do not desire such happiness.”
Voltaire wasn’t willing to make the trade either, nor could he find anyone else so inclined. I should like to introduce him to John Zerzan.