13 Crises: “Here Be Monsters”
George Monbiot has an article in today’s Guardian entitled “The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces” and I can’t resist commenting on it this morning, especially for the underlying paradox that subtly frames it.
Actually, George refers to this as “multiheaded” crisis, invoking thereby, perhaps unwittingly, the ancient image and meaning of the Lernaean Hydra. The hydra (and that name is associated with water) was a many-headed serpent. If you chopped off one head, it just grew more heads — the image of futility in that respect that recalls King Canute’s attacking the ocean with his sword, or the hubris of Xerxes who ordered the Bosphorus to be whipped when its turbulence impeded the passage of his army. Although Monbiot doesn’t say so explicitly, his essay on our “13 crises” is very much about the predicament of trying to slay the Lernaean Hydra, which is also associated with the gateway to Hell.
Monbiot’s essay ends on a despondent note, and also a contradictory one, which I think is quite revealing about the conscious attitude today. He concludes the following,
“One of the peculiarities of this complex, multiheaded crisis is that there appears to be no “other side” on to which we might emerge. It is hard to imagine a realistic scenario in which governments lose the capacity for total surveillance and drone strikes; in which billionaires forget how to manipulate public opinion; in which a broken EU reconvenes; in which climate breakdown unhappens, species return from extinction and the soil comes back to the land. These are not momentary crises, but appear to presage permanent collapse.”
And yet, in the very last line of the essay he writes,
“I write this not to depress you, though I know it will have that effect, but to concentrate our minds on the scale of the task.”
Yet, if there is no “out”, and no “other side” to our struggle with the Hydra of multiheaded crisis, it’s rather contradictory to suggest we “concentrate our minds on the scale of the task” in sorting it out. What “task” would that be that offered no exit and no promise of emerging on “the other side”? He sounds like Xerxes ordering the Bosphorus to be whipped, or closer to home, like King Canute attacking the ocean with his sword. There’s another parallel that I find quite endearing, when don Juan described Castaneda’s efforts to master sorcery by thinking as being like “attacking a lion with your farts”.
Attacking a lion with our farts is a pretty apt description of our merely rational efforts to squirm our way out of the predicament of Late Modernity. Monbiot has discovered the “ears of the wolf” dilemma and paradox and also can’t seem to handle the contradiction — there is no “other side” to chaotic transition/the crisis. It’s definitive and final as collapse. Yet, at the same time, we must apply ourselves to the task as if there were no finality to it, and that there was indeed hope of “the other side” and of reasoning our way out of Hell.
And, of course, there are many others who deny that we are in a predicament at all, or a dilemma, or a dichotomy, or stuck between a rock and a hard place — damned if you do and damned if you don’t — or between Scylla and Charybdis. I think we know why. To be stuck on the horns of the dilemma, or holding the ears of the wolf, can be very stressful, like trying to slay the Hydra, too, and induces deep stress and anxiety. In those terms, denialism becomes a form of self-defence, even if it means clinging to lies, illusions and the delusional. And that’s pretty much the truth about “post-truth society”.
What we see in Monbiot’s apparent contradiction is the paralysis of logic and reason, or “mind at the end of its tether”, and the ears of the wolf dilemma is the image of that paralysis of logic. On the old medieval maps of the world, beyond the known world was inscribed the words “Here Be Monsters”, and beyond the limits of logic and rationality are inscribed the same words, ironically, only the “monsters” are monsters of paradox, self-contradiction, futility, and Nemesis.
Attacking a lion with your farts, or presuming to slay the Hydra, are both metaphors for the limits of logic, rationality, and the intelligible. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no “other side” to the disintegration of the Modern Era and its consciousness structure. We can’t avert that. We can only “outrun” it. That’s the theme, in any case, of Rosenstock-Huessy and Jean Gebser, too — how to outrun the breakdown of the “modern mind”. Like Rumi’s statement that “the cure for the disease is in the disease”, Rosenstock and Gebser embrace the tension of the paradoxical rather than seek to “resolve” it. The embrace of the paradoxical is called by Rosenstock “metanoia” and by Jean Gebser “the arational“.
The idea here is to “let happen” rather than “make happen”. The paradoxical is the transformative process itself. “Where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving power also” is the poet Hölderlin’s description of this, as well as Nietzsche’s “live dangerously!”. An example of this how certain creative people gravitate to earthquake zones. Many of the most intensely creative areas of the globe are connected with seismic activity — the Mediterranean, the West Coast of North America, or Japan. Nietzsche himself claimed that his own creativity and paradoxical wisdom came from having one foot in the grave and the other foot in life — from the polarity of eros and thanatos. And how much greater is the potential today when the whole world altogether now has one foot in the grave and the other in life?
For Nietzsche and Gebser, it is precisely this tension of the coincidence of opposites that provides the “spring” necessary for the “leap” — der Sprung. And the most vital and creative periods of human history, when there were such great leaps were also periods where the paradoxical and the coincidence of opposites were prominent.