Thursday, May 1, 2014
Review of A Language Older Than Words by Derrick Jensen
I was worried when I began the book about how he seemed like he was going to tie his own experiences of being a victim of childhood abuse(his father raped and beat him and his siblings and their mother) to the larger issue of the destruction of the planet and indigenous people. I felt myself backpedaling and wanting to say "Uh dude, I don’t think they are connected. I think that what happened to you has made you think of the world in this way."
Alas, I was wrong.
Derrik Jensen's A Language Other Than Words is not just a chronicle of his childhood abuse, how he carried the scars with him and what it has taken for him to heal. It is rather, and amazingly so, an investigation into why Civilization and Abuse seem so closely connected to each other.
He draws parallels between what his father had done and the father's justifications: to make you stronger, you made me do it, etc, and our culture's justifications for what it does to the planet and general population. If one looks at our culture writ large, and the damage done on a daily basis by corporate entities who deforest, pollute and use up without a single shred of guilt, remorse, or in any way shape or form concern over what their actions are doing to the planet, then it is hard not to see his father's justifications tied into some mentality that arises in civilization.
In essence then the book becomes more an examination of not so much abuse as of use. The idea and mentality that has arisen in our history of just using the world around us, the people around us, all to further goals and ends that benefit the few. This idea that it is ok to disregard entire species and populations in order that a select group thrives, is something he looks at closely. He sees it everywhere civilization "thrives."
And it’s the idea that what has happened is that civilization itself seems to have a chronic lack of awareness regarding what it does that the book's argument truly hinges on.
In a section I found particularly disturbing(which, after all, is what he plans to do), perhaps because of my philosophy interests, he takes on Descartes famous claim to subjectivity "I think, therefore I am," as one of the starting grounds for this sickness of use. The idea that since I know I exist, but don't know if you do, its ok for me to act as though you don't exist. And when you do that, he warns, you become dangerous. From that simple philosophic declaration its easy to start the culture of use/abuse.
When an author announces that Civilization is doomed my inner ear shuts down and I stop listening even though I may keep reading. But there is a difference here.
In the preface he states that he wanted to write a feel good book, about his experiences with coyotes. But then question led to question and before he knew it these questions led him down some dark paths and he was questioning the whole basis for civilization. Why does it seem, he writes, to stem from this crazy impulse to control and regulate, and in essence abuse our environment.
And that journey is disturbing, profound and thought provoking. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but for sheer skill and force with which he makes you look at these questions from an entirely fresh angle, the experience is not to be missed.
In another of his books which I took to heart, Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution, he states his number one writing mantra, and the message he tries to teach his writing students, is DON’T BORE THE READER.
Be prepared not to be bored. Outraged. Shocked. Disturbed. Forced to have thoughts you'd rather not have at 3 am, but most certainly not bored.