RSS Feed

Walking: Pt 1

Posted on

by Henry David Thoreau

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society. I wish to make an extreme statement, if so I may make an emphatic one, for there are enough champions of civilization: the minister and the school committee and every one of you will take care of that.

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre,” to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.

It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man—then you are ready for a walk.

To come down to my own experience, my companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The Chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker—not the Knight, but Walker, Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.

We have felt that we almost alone hereabouts practiced this noble art; though, to tell the truth, at least if their own assertions are to be received, most of my townsmen would fain walk sometimes, as I do, but they cannot. No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession. It comes only by the grace of God. It requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit. Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.

         "When he came to grene wode,
            In a mery mornynge,
          There he herde the notes small
            Of byrdes mery syngynge.

         "It is ferre gone, sayd Robyn,
            That I was last here;
          Me Lyste a lytell for to shote
            At the donne dere.

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. You may safely say, A penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for,—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of—sitting there now at three o’clock in the afternoon, as if it were three o’clock in the morning. Bonaparte may talk of the three-o’clock-in-the-morning courage, but it is nothing to the courage which can sit down cheerfully at this hour in the afternoon over against one’s self whom you have known all the morning, to starve out a garrison to whom you are bound by such strong ties of sympathy. I wonder that about this time, or say between four and five o’clock in the afternoon, too late for the morning papers and too early for the evening ones, there is not a general explosion heard up and down the street, scattering a legion of antiquated and house-bred notions and whims to the four winds for an airing-and so the evil cure itself.

How womankind, who are confined to the house still more than men, stand it I do not know; but I have ground to suspect that most of them do not STAND it at all. When, early in a summer afternoon, we have been shaking the dust of the village from the skirts of our garments, making haste past those houses with purely Doric or Gothic fronts, which have such an air of repose about them, my companion whispers that probably about these times their occupants are all gone to bed. Then it is that I appreciate the beauty and the glory of architecture, which itself never turns in, but forever stands out and erect, keeping watch over the slumberers.

No doubt temperament, and, above all, age, have a good deal to do with it. As a man grows older, his ability to sit still and follow indoor occupations increases. He grows vespertinal in his habits as the evening of life approaches, till at last he comes forth only just before sundown, and gets all the walk that he requires in half an hour.

But the walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours—as the Swinging of dumb-bells or chairs; but is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day. If you would get exercise, go in search of the springs of life. Think of a man’s swinging dumbbells for his health, when those springs are bubbling up in far-off pastures unsought by him!

Moreover, you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”

Living much out of doors, in the sun and wind, will no doubt produce a certain roughness of character—will cause a thicker cuticle to grow over some of the finer qualities of our nature, as on the face and hands, or as severe manual labor robs the hands of some of their delicacy of touch. So staying in the house, on the other hand, may produce a softness and smoothness, not to say thinness of skin, accompanied by an increased sensibility to certain impressions. Perhaps we should be more susceptible to some influences important to our intellectual and moral growth, if the sun had shone and the wind blown on us a little less; and no doubt it is a nice matter to proportion rightly the thick and thin skin. But methinks that is a scurf that will fall off fast enough—that the natural remedy is to be found in the proportion which the night bears to the day, the winter to the summer, thought to experience. There will be so much the more air and sunshine in our thoughts. The callous palms of the laborer are conversant with finer tissues of self-respect and heroism, whose touch thrills the heart, than the languid fingers of idleness. That is mere sentimentality that lies abed by day and thinks itself white, far from the tan and callus of experience.

When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Even some sects of philosophers have felt the necessity of importing the woods to themselves, since they did not go to the woods. “They planted groves and walks of Platanes,” where they took subdiales ambulationes in porticos open to the air. Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to Society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works—for this may sometimes happen.

My vicinity affords many good walks; and though for so many years I have walked almost every day, and sometimes for several days together, I have not yet exhausted them. An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey. There is in fact a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles’ radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life. It will never become quite familiar to you.

Nowadays almost all man’s improvements, so called, as the building of houses and the cutting down of the forest and of all large trees, simply deform the landscape, and make it more and more tame and cheap. A people who would begin by burning the fences and let the forest stand! I saw the fences half consumed, their ends lost in the middle of the prairie, and some worldly miser with a surveyor looking after his bounds, while heaven had taken place around him, and he did not see the angels going to and fro, but was looking for an old post-hole in the midst of paradise. I looked again, and saw him standing in the middle of a boggy Stygian fen, surrounded by devils, and he had found his bounds without a doubt, three little stones, where a stake had been driven, and looking nearer, I saw that the Prince of Darkness was his surveyor.

I can easily walk ten, fifteen, twenty, any number of miles, commencing at my own door, without going by any house, without crossing a road except where the fox and the mink do: first along by the river, and then the brook, and then the meadow and the woodside. There are square miles in my vicinity which have no inhabitant. From many a hill I can see civilization and the abodes of man afar. The farmers and their works are scarcely more obvious than woodchucks and their burrows. Man and his affairs, church and state and school, trade and commerce, and manufactures and agriculture even politics, the most alarming of them all—I am pleased to see how little space they occupy in the landscape. Politics is but a narrow field, and that still narrower highway yonder leads to it. I sometimes direct the traveler thither. If you would go to the political world, follow the great road—follow that market-man, keep his dust in your eyes, and it will lead you straight to it; for it, too, has its place merely, and does not occupy all space. I pass from it as from a bean field into the forest, and it is forgotten. In one half-hour I can walk off to some portion of the earth’s surface where a man does not stand from one year’s end to another, and there, consequently, politics are not, for they are but as the cigar-smoke of a man.

The village is the place to which the roads tend, a sort of expansion of the highway, as a lake of a river. It is the body of which roads are the arms and legs—a trivial or quadrivial place, the thoroughfare and ordinary of travelers. The word is from the Latin villa which together with via, a way, or more anciently ved and vella, Varro derives from veho, to carry, because the villa is the place to and from which things are carried. They who got their living by teaming were said vellaturam facere. Hence, too, the Latin word vilis and our vile, also villain. This suggests what kind of degeneracy villagers are liable to. They are wayworn by the travel that goes by and over them, without traveling themselves.

Some do not walk at all; others walk in the highways; a few walk across lots. Roads are made for horses and men of business. I do not travel in them much, comparatively, because I am not in a hurry to get to any tavern or grocery or livery-stable or depot to which they lead. I am a good horse to travel, but not from choice a roadster. The landscape-painter uses the figures of men to mark a road. He would not make that use of my figure. I walk out into a nature such as the old prophets and poets, Menu, Moses, Homer, Chaucer, walked in. You may name it America, but it is not America; neither Americus Vespueius, nor Columbus, nor the rest were the discoverers of it. There is a truer amount of it in mythology than in any history of America, so called, that I have seen.

However, there are a few old roads that may be trodden with profit, as if they led somewhere now that they are nearly discontinued. There is the Old Marlborough Road, which does not go to Marlborough now, me-thinks, unless that is Marlborough where it carries me. I am the bolder to speak of it here, because I presume that there are one or two such roads in every town.


        Where they once dug for money,
        But never found any;
        Where sometimes Martial Miles
        Singly files,
        And Elijah Wood,
        I fear for no good:
        No other man,
        Save Elisha Dugan—
        O man of wild habits,
        Partridges and rabbits
        Who hast no cares
        Only to set snares,
        Who liv'st all alone,
        Close to the bone
        And where life is sweetest
        Constantly eatest.
     When the spring stirs my blood
      With the instinct to travel,
      I can get enough gravel
     On the Old Marlborough Road.
        Nobody repairs it,
        For nobody wears it;
        It is a living way,
        As the Christians say.
     Not many there be
      Who enter therein,
     Only the guests of the
      Irishman Quin.
     What is it, what is it
      But a direction out there,
     And the bare possibility
        Of going somewhere?
        Great guide-boards of stone,
        But travelers none;
        Cenotaphs of the towns
        Named on their crowns.
        It is worth going to see

        Where you MIGHT be.
        What king
        Did the thing,
        I am still wondering;
        Set up how or when,
        By what selectmen,
        Gourgas or Lee,
        Clark or Darby?
        They're a great endeavor
        To be something forever;
        Blank tablets of stone,
        Where a traveler might groan,
        And in one sentence
        Grave all that is known
        Which another might read,
        In his extreme need.
        I know one or two
        Lines that would do,
        Literature that might stand
        All over the land
        Which a man could remember
        Till next December,
        And read again in the spring,
        After the thawing.
     If with fancy unfurled
      You leave your abode,
     You may go round the world
      By the Old Marlborough Road.
"When he came to grene wode,
            In a mery mornynge,
          There he herde the notes small
            Of byrdes mery syngynge.

         "It is ferre gone, sayd Robyn,
            That I was last here;
          Me Lyste a lytell for to shote
            At the donne dere."


Posted on

What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
I enter water. Who am I to split
The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
Of the river above me upside down very clear
What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
know me and name me to each other have they
seen me before, do I fit in their world? I seem
separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
I seem to have been given the freedom
of this place what am I then? And picking
bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
me and doing that have coincided very queerly
But what shall I be called am I the first
have I an owner what shape am I what
shape am I am I huge if I go
to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
for the moment if I sit still how everything
stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
but there’s all this what is it roots
roots roots roots and here’s the water
again very queer but I’ll go on looking

Ted Hughes

illustration by Warren Draper


Posted on

…makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite…. What I tried to do then is something a bit different. Since you cannot get the desert into a book anymore than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his net, I have tried to create a world of words in which the desert figures more as a  medium than a material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal[.]

[T]hrough naming comes knowing; we grasp an object mentally, by giving it a name — hension, prehension, apprehension.

And thus through language create a whole world, corresponding to the other world out there … And so in the end the world is lost again. No, the world remains … and it is we who are lost. Again. Round and round, through the endless labyrinth of thought — the maze.

Edward Abbey

Pan Emergent: A Dream in the Shadow of the Dark Mountain

Posted on

There are some truths which can only be glimpsed by firelight.

Shadows hold the secret of the void.

Scalpels of light reveal nothing of the darkness;

She must be embraced to be understood.


Through the smoke, and embers, and the sting of burning green ash

I see him.

Goat. God. Man.

His odour is my fear; midwife to my prayers:

“Oh Prophet of the pastures. Prince of Arcadia. Lord of the lingam.

Hairy, hoary, horny, piper at the gate.

Deliver us from these crowded places, and return to us your sweet ahuman dreams.”

The Glamour of Money: Part 2

Posted on

The following important work can (and indeed, should…) be read in conjunction with the previous piece by Peter Lamborn Wilson which I posted as ‘The Glamour of Money‘. Both works have featured on the Reality Sandwich website and I believe both offer a vital contribution to those of us who anticipate (and indeed welcome…) the forthcoming post-capital age…

The Twilight of Money


This article originally appeared on The Archdruid Report

One of the least constructive habits of contemporary thought is its insistence on the uniqueness of the modern experience. It’s true, of course, that fossil fuels have allowed the world’s industrial societies to pursue their follies on a more grandiose scale than any past empire has managed, but the follies themselves closely parallel those of previous societies, and tracking the trajectories of these past examples is one of our few useful sources of guidance if we want to know where the current versions are headed.

The metastasis of money through every aspect of life in the modern industrial world is a good example. While no past society, as far as we know, took this process as far as we have, the replacement of wealth with its own abstract representations is no new thing. As Giambattista Vico pointed out back in the 18th century, complex societies move from the concrete to the abstract over their life cycles, and this influences economic life as much as anything else. Just as political power begins with raw violence and evolves toward progressively more subtle means of suasion, economic activity begins with the direct exchange of real wealth and evolves through a similar process of abstraction: first, one prized commodity becomes the standard measure for all other kinds of wealth; then, receipts that can be exchanged for some fixed sum of that commodity become a unit of exchange; finally, promises to pay some amount of these receipts on demand, or at a fixed point in the future, enter into circulation, and these may end up largely replacing the receipts themselves.

This movement toward abstraction has important advantages for complex societies, because abstractions can be deployed with a much smaller investment of resources than it takes to mobilize the concrete realities that back them up. We could have resolved last year’s debate about who should rule the United States the old-fashioned way, by having McCain and Obama call their supporters to arms, march to war, and settle the matter in battle amid a hail of bullets and cannon shot on a fine September day on some Iowa prairie. Still, the cost in lives, money, and collateral damage would have been far in excess of those involved in an election. In much the same way, the complexities involved in paying office workers in kind, or even in cash, make an economy of abstractions much less cumbersome for all concerned.

At the same time, there’s a trap hidden in the convenience of abstractions: the further you get from the concrete realities, the larger the chance becomes that the concrete realities may not actually be there when needed. History is littered with the corpses of regimes that let their power become so abstract that they could no longer counter a challenge on the fundamental level of raw violence; it’s been said of Chinese history, and could be said of any other civilization, that its basic rhythm is the tramp of hobnailed boots going up stairs, followed by the whisper of silk slippers going back down. In the same way, economic abstractions keep functioning only so long as actual goods and services exist to be bought and sold, and it’s only in the pipe dreams of economists that the abstractions guarantee the presence of the goods and services. Vico argued that this trap is a central driving force behind the decline and fall of civilizations; the movement toward abstraction goes so far that the concrete realities are neglected. In the end the realities trickle away unnoticed, until a shock of some kind strikes the tower of abstractions built atop the void the realities once filled, and the whole structure tumbles to the ground.

We are uncomfortably close to such a possibility just now, especially in our economic affairs. Over the last century, with the assistance of the economic hypercomplexity made possible by fossil fuels, the world’s industrial nations have taken the process of economic abstraction further than any previous civilization. On top of the usual levels of abstraction — a commodity used to measure value (gold), receipts that could be exchanged for that commodity (paper money), and promises to pay the receipts (checks and other financial paper) — contemporary societies have built an extraordinary pyramid of additional abstractions. Unlike the pyramids of Egypt, furthermore, this one has its narrow end on the ground, in the realm of actual goods and services, and widens as it goes up.

The consequence of all this pyramid building is that there are not enough goods and services on Earth to equal, at current prices, more than a small percentage of the face value of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other fiscal exotica now in circulation. The vast majority of economic activity in today’s world consists purely of exchanges among these representations of representations of representations of wealth. This is why the real economy of goods and services can go into a freefall like the one now under way, without having more than a modest impact so far on an increasingly hallucinatory economy of fiscal abstractions.

Yet an impact it will have, if the freefall proceeds far enough. This is Vico’s point, and it’s a possibility that has been taken far too lightly both by the political classes of today’s industrial societies and by their critics on either end of the political spectrum. An economy of hallucinated wealth depends utterly on the willingness of all participants to pretend that the hallucinations have real value. When that willingness slackens, the pretense can evaporate in record time. This is how financial bubbles turn into financial panics: the collective fantasy of value that surrounds tulip bulbs, or stocks, or suburban tract housing, or any other speculative vehicle, dissolves into a mad rush for the exits. That rush has been peaceful to date; but it need not always be.

I’ve argued in previous articles that the industrial age is in some sense the ultimate speculative bubble, a three-century-long binge driven by the fantasy of infinite economic growth on a finite planet with even more finite supplies of cheap abundant energy. Still, I am coming to think that this megabubble has spawned a second bubble on nearly the same scale. The vehicle for this secondary megabubble is money — meaning here the entire contents of what I’ve called the tertiary economy, the profusion of abstract representations of wealth that dominate our economic life and have all but smothered the real economy of goods and services, to say nothing of the primary economy of natural systems that keeps all of us alive.

Speculative bubbles are defined in various ways, but classic examples — the 1929 stock binge, say, or the late housing bubble — have certain standard features in common. First, the value of whatever item is at the center of the bubble shows a sustained rise in price not justified by changes in the wider economy, or in any concrete value the item might have. A speculative bubble in money functions a bit differently than other bubbles, because the speculative vehicle is also the measure of value; instead of one dollar increasing in value until it’s worth two, one dollar becomes two. Where stocks or tract houses go zooming up in price when a bubble focuses on them, then, what climbs in a money bubble is the total amount of paper wealth in circulation. That’s certainly happened in recent decades.

A second standard feature of speculative bubbles is that they absorb most of the fictive value they create, rather than spilling it back into the rest of the economy. In a stock bubble, for example, a majority of the money that comes from stock sales goes right back into the market; without this feedback loop, a bubble can’t sustain itself for long. In a money bubble, this same rule holds good; most of the paper earnings generated by the bubble end up being reinvested in some other form of paper wealth. Here again, this has certainly happened; the only reason we haven’t see thousand-percent inflation as a result of the vast manufacture of paper wealth in recent decades is that most of it has been used solely to buy even more newly manufactured paper wealth.

A third standard feature of speculative bubbles is that the number of people involved in them climbs steadily as the bubble proceeds. In 1929, the stock market was deluged by amateur investors who had never before bought a share of anything; in 2006, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who previously thought of houses only as something to live in came to think of them as a ticket to overnight wealth, and sank their net worth in real estate as a result. The metastasis of the money economy discussed in previous posts here is another example of the same process at work.

Finally, of course, bubbles always pop. When that happens, the speculative vehicle du jour comes crashing back to earth, losing the great majority of its assumed value, and the mass of amateur investors, having lost anything they made and usually a great deal more, trickle away from the market. This has not yet happened to the current money bubble. It might be a good idea to start thinking about what might happen if it does so.

The effects of a money panic would be focused uncomfortably close to home, I suspect, because the bulk of the hyperexpansion of money in recent decades has focused on a single currency, the US dollar. That bomb might have been defused if last year’s collapse of the housing bubble had been allowed to run its course, because this would have eliminated no small amount of the dollar-denominated abstractions generated by the excesses of recent years. Unfortunately the US government chose instead to try to reinflate the bubble economy by spending money it doesn’t have through an orgy of borrowing and some very dubious fiscal gimmickry. A great many foreign governments are accordingly becoming reluctant to lend the US more money, and at least one rising power — China — has been quietly cashing in its dollar reserves for commodities and other forms of far less abstract wealth.

Up until now, it has been in the best interests of other industrial nations to prop up the United States with a steady stream of credit, so that it can bankrupt itself filling its self-imposed role as global policeman. It’s been a very comfortable arrangement, since other nations haven’t had to shoulder more than a tiny fraction of the costs of dealing with rogue states, keeping the Middle East divided against itself, or maintaining economic hegemony over an increasingly restive Third World, while receiving the benefits of all these policies. The end of the age of cheap fossil fuel, however, has thrown a wild card into the game. As world petroleum production falters, it must have occurred to the leaders of other nations that if the United States no longer consumed roughly a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel supply, there would be a great deal more for everyone else to share out. The possibility that other nations might decide that this potential gain outweighs the advantages of keeping the United States solvent may make the next decade or so interesting, in the sense of the famous Chinese curse.

Over the longer term, on the other hand, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of paper assets now in circulation, whatever the currency in which they’re denominated, will lose essentially all their value. This might happen quickly, or it might unfold over decades, but the world’s supply of abstract representations of wealth is so much vaster than its supply of concrete wealth that something has to give sooner or later. Future economic growth won’t make up the difference; the end of the age of cheap fossil fuel makes growth in the real economy of goods and services a thing of the past, outside of rare and self-limiting situations. As the limits to growth tighten, and become first barriers to growth and then drivers of contraction, shrinkage in the real economy will become the rule, heightening the mismatch between money and wealth and increasing the pressure toward depreciation of the real value of paper assets.

Once again, though, all this has happened before. Just as increasing economic abstraction is a common feature of the history of complex societies, the unraveling of that abstraction is a common feature of their decline and fall. The desperate expedients now being pursued to expand the American money supply in a rapidly contracting economy have exact equivalents in, say, the equally desperate measures taken by the Roman Empire in its last years to expand its own money supply by debasing its coinage. The Roman economy achieved very high levels of complexity and an international reach; its moneylenders – we would call them financiers today – were a major economic force, and credit played a sizeable role in everyday economic life. In the decline and fall of the empire, all this went away. The farmers who pastured their sheep in the ruins of Rome’s forum during the Dark Ages lived in an economy of barter and feudal custom, in which coins were rare items more often used as jewelry than as a medium of exchange.

A similar trajectory almost certainly waits in the future of our own economic system, though what use the shepherds who pasture their flocks on the Mall in the ruins of a future Washington DC will find for vast stacks of Treasury bills is not exactly clear. How the trajectory will unfold is anyone’s guess, but the possibility that we may soon see sharp declines in the value of the dollar, and of dollar-denominated paper assets, probably should not be ignored, and cashing in abstract representations of wealth for things of more enduring value might well belong high on the list of sensible preparations for the future.

Image by herval, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

The Glamour of Money

Posted on

An Army of Jacks to Fight the Power

Peter Lamborn Wilson


In fairy tales, humans can possess exterior souls, things magically containing or embodying individual life force — stone, egg, ring, bird or animal, etc. If the thing is destroyed, the human dies. But while the thing persists, the human enjoys a kind of immortality or at least invulnerability.

Money could be seen as such an exteriorized soul. Humans created it, in some sense, in order to hide their souls in things that could be locked away (in tower or cave) and hidden so their bodies would acquire magical invulnerability — wealth, health, the victoriousness of enjoyment, power over enemies — even over fate.

But these exterior souls need not be hidden away — they can be divided almost indefinitely and circulated, exchanged for desire, passed on to heirs like an immortal virus, or, rather like a dead thing that magically contains life and “begets” itself endlessly in usury. It constitutes humanity’s one really totally successful experiment in magic: no one calls the bluff and after 6000 years, it seems like Nature. (In fact, an old Chinese cosmogonic text claimed the two basic principles of the universe are Water and Money.)

It’s worth noting that in marchen, folk tales, the characters with external souls are often the villains. Clearly, the practice must appear uncanny to any normal society — in which magic (call it collective consciousness in active mode) is channeled through ritual and custom to the life of all — not the aggrandizement of one against all (black magic or witchcraft). In the form of money, the exterior soul, shattered into fragments, so to speak, can be put into circulation but also stolen, monopolized, guarded by dragons, so that some unlucky humans can be stripped of all soul, while others gorge or hoard up soul-bits of ancestors and victims in their goulish caves or “banks,” etc.

The beloved in the tale may also have an exterior soul. It falls into the grasp of the evil sorcerer or dragon and must be rescued. In other words, desire, which is alienated in the form of a symbolic object (reified, fetishized), can only be restored to its true fate (love) by re-appropriation from the expropriator, stealing it back from the wizard. The task falls to “Jack,” the third and youngest, sometimes an orphan or disinherited, possibly a fool, a peasant with more heart than any prince, generous, bold, and lucky.

Exactly the same story can be seen acted out in every honest ethnographic report on the introduction of money into some pre-monetary tribal economy. Even without the usual means of force, terror, oppression, colonialist imperialism or missionary zeal, money alone destroys every normal culture it touches.

Cargo Cults and Ghost Dances

Interestingly, in nearly every case, some sort of messianic movement Cargo Cult, or Ghost Dance type resistance movement springs up within a generation or two after first alien contact. These cults invariably make appeal to spirits (or even demons when circumstances really begin to deteriorate) for the power to overcome money, to “provide good things” without recourse to the black magic of money, the vampirization of other peoples’ external souls — the malignancy of wealth that is not shared.

This is a major trope in all the tales. Jack gives away part of his last loaf precisely to the power-animal or shaman or old lady with the very gift he’ll need in his quest, but he gives unwittingly, not in expectation of exchange. Jack always stands for what Polanyi and Mauss call the Economy of the Gift.

A great many fairy tales must have originated in “folk memories” of earlier non-hierarchal social structures, embodied in narrative (myth) and ritual, and given focus during the period when this ancient polity was threatened and finally overcome by later or alien systems — particularly by money, by the coins that always appear in these tales.

Proudhon believed that money had originally been invented by the People as a means to pry loose and force into circulation the hoarded wealth of the “dragon,” the oppressor class. This idea has interesting resonances.

It points to the fact that for “the people,” money in hand represents not oppression but pleasure, gratified desire. Money may not be the root of all evil, but given the existence of money, “love of money” is quite natural. Alchemy epitomizes this jouissance of money in the fairy-tale concept of transmutation, production of gold without labor as a free gift of Nature to her lovers: Jove’s body as shower of golden coins.

As “the people” in person, Jack wins the treasure, but in doing so removes its curse, its dragonish malignancy, because in him the treasure finds its rightful end in happiness (i.e., free distribution, the Gift). Hence, the great feast that ends so many tales and the wedding between peasant lad and princess that levels distinctions and restores external souls to their bodies.

But Proudhon’s notion is contradicted by myth which attributes the invention of coins to a king — not Croesus of Lydia, who actually did invent coins (7th century BC), but Midas, who choked on magical gold, his externalized soul. Dionysus and Silenus gave him his wish an then saved him by revoking it, allowing him to vomit all the gold into the river Pactolus in Phrygia.

The historical Midas lived in the 8th century BC, and Phrygia is not far from Lydia, where rivers also ran with gold and electrum and coins first appeared as temple tokens. Coins may seem to regain their innocence when they are spent rather than hoarded but, but: in fact just at this moment they betray us by leaving us and never returning. In the end, all coins end up in the usurer’s vault. Money is already debt. It says so on the US $1 bill, that encyclopedia of Hermetic imagery and secret doctrine of money.

Jack never really wins

Jack’s triumph lies not in the “ever after,” but only in a moment that is forever remembered and invoked as lost. Obviously Jack never really wins, otherwise we wouldn’t call these stories fairy tales and relegate them to the nursery, the savage pre-monetary world of mere childhood. The idea that marchen contain esoteric teachings on economics will probably sound ridiculous, but only to those who’ve never really read them with Polanyi’s or Mauss’s economic anthropology in mind.

The old Russian cycle (Jack = Ivan) strikes me as particularly sensitive to this aspect of the material, almost as if socialism had a subconscious pre-echo in the great Russian fairy tale collections of the early 1900s.

Among the uniquely Slavic motifs of this cycle, everyone loves the tales of Baba Yaga, the little house on great chicken legs that walks and moves wherever the wicked witch desires. The image’s power involves implications that Baba Yaga functions not only as the witch’s house, but also as external soul. It is both shield and weapon, space and motion, cave and magic carpet. I can’t help thinking of it as a symbol of Capital itself, especially in its purely magical end phase in the Global era. The Baba Yaga might be an offshore bank ready to pull up stakes and flee to some freer market or a shoe factory on its way to Mexico.

Speaking of Mexico reminds me of a story about the Mexican Revolution: Around 1910, thousands of North American anarchists, Wobblies, and adventurers crossed the border under false generic names to join Pancho Villa or the Magonistas and thus came to be called the “Army of Smiths.”

Given the proliferation and gigantism of Baba Yaga in our times, perhaps what we need is an Army of Jacks.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Fifth Estate, and I, in turn, lifted it from Reality Sandwich.

First Image by Daryl Sim, courtesy of Creative commons license.

The Anarchist Animist or The Animist Anarchist

Posted on

The following is a short essay made  up from pieces of and interview with Alan Moore conducted by Magpie (it is this interview which ultimately inspired my commitment to magic and the creation of this blog). The full interview can be read here and can also be enjoyed in Magpie’s magnificent book ‘Mythmakers & Lawbreakers‘.

[A]narchy is […] the only political position that is actually possible. I believe that all other political states are in fact variations or outgrowths of a basic state of anarchy; after all, when you mention the idea of anarchy to most people they will tell you what a bad idea it is because the biggest gang would just take over. Which is pretty much how I see contemporary society. We live in a badly developed anarchist situation in which the biggest gang has taken over and have declared that it is not an anarchist situation—that it is a capitalist or a communist situation. But I tend to think that anarchy is the most natural form of politics for a human being to actually practice. All it means, the word, is no leaders. An-archon. No leaders.

And I think that if we actually look at nature without prejudice, we find that this is the state of affairs that usually pertains. I mean, previous naturalists have looked at groups of animals and have said: “ah yes this animal is the alpha male, so he is the leader of the group.” Whereas later research tends to suggest that this is simply the researcher projecting his own social visions onto a group of animals, and that if you observe them more closely you will find out that, yes there is this big tough male that seems to handle most of the fights, but that the most important member of the herd is probably this female at the back that everybody seems to gather around during any conflict. There are other animals within the herd that might have an importance in terms of finding new territory. In fact the herd does not actually structure itself in terms of hierarchies; every animal seems to have its own position within the herd.

And actually, if you look at most natural human groupings of people, such as a family or a group of friends, you will find that again, we don’t have leaders. Unless you’re talking about some incredibly rigid Victorian family, there is nobody that could be said to be the leader of the family; everybody has their own function. And it seems to me that anarchy is the state that most naturally obtains when you’re talking about ordinary human beings living their lives in a natural way. Its only when you get these fairly alien structures of order that are represented by our major political schools of thought, that you start to get these terrible problems arising—problems regarding our status within the hierarchy, the uncertainties and insecurities that are the result of that. You get these jealousies, these power struggles, which by and large, don’t really afflict the rest of the animal kingdom. It seems to me that the idea of leaders is an unnatural one that was probably thought up by a leader at some point in antiquity; leaders have been brutally enforcing that idea ever since, to the point where most people cannot conceive of an alternative.

This is one of the things about anarchy: if we were to take out all the leaders tomorrow, and put them up against a wall and shoot them— and it’s a lovely thought, so let me just dwell on that for a moment before I dismiss it—but if we were to do that, society would probably collapse, because the majority of people have had thousands of years of being conditioned to depend upon leadership from a source outside themselves. That has become a crutch to an awful lot of people, and if you were to simply kick it away, then those people would simply fall over and take society with them. In order for any workable and realistic state of anarchy to be achieved, you will obviously have to educate people—and educate them massively—towards a state where they could actually take responsibility for their own actions and simultaneously be aware that they are acting in a wider group: that they must allow other people within that group to take responsibility for their own actions. Which on a small scale, as it works in families or in groups of friends, doesn’t seem to be that implausible, but it would take an awful lot of education to get people to think about living their lives in that way. And obviously, no government, no state, is ever going to educate people to the point where the state itself would become irrelevant. So if people are going to be educated to the point where they can take responsibility for their own laws and their own actions and become, to my mind, fully actualized human beings, then it will have to come from some source other than the state or government.

I don’t believe that a violent revolution is ever going to work, simply on the grounds that it never has in the past. I mean, speaking as a resident of Northampton, during the English civil war we backed Cromwell—we provided all the boots for his army—and we were a center of antiroyalist sentiment. Incidentally, we provided all the boots to the Confederates as well, so obviously we know how to pick a winner. Cromwell’s revolution? I guess it succeeded. The king was beheaded, which was quite early in the day for beheading; amongst the European monarchy, I think we can claim to have kicked off that trend. But give it another ten years; as it turned out, Cromwell himself was a monster. He was every bit the monster that Charles I had been. In some ways he was worse. When Cromwell died, the restoration happened. Charles II came to power and was so pissed off with the people of Northampton that he pulled down our castle. And the status quo was restored. I really don’t think that a violent revolution is ever going to provide a long-term solution to the problems of the ordinary person. I think that is something that we had best handle ourselves, and which we are most likely to achieve by the simple evolution of western society. But that might take quite a while, and whether we have that amount of time is, of course, open to debate.

[C]apitalism and communism [are] not the two poles around which the whole of political thinking revolve. [T]wo much more representative extremes [are] to be found in fascism and anarchy.

Fascism is a complete abdication of personal responsibility. You are surrendering all responsibility for your own actions to the state on the belief that in unity there is strength, which was the definition of fascism represented by the original roman symbol of the bundle of bound twigs. Yes, it is a very persuasive argument: “In unity there is strength.” But inevitably people tend to come to a conclusion that the bundle of bound twigs will be much stronger if all the twigs are of a uniform size and shape, that there aren’t any oddly shaped or bent twigs that are disturbing the bundle. So it goes from “in unity there is strength” to “in uniformity there is strength” and from there it proceeds to the excesses of fascism as we’ve seen them exercised throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

Now anarchy, on the other hand, is almost starting from the principle that “in diversity, there is strength,” which makes much more sense from the point of view of looking at the natural world. Nature, and the forces of evolution—if you happen to be living in a country where they still believe in the forces of evolution, of course —did not really see fit to follow that “in unity and in uniformity there is strength” idea. If you want to talk about successful species, then you’re talking about bats and beetles; there are thousands of different varieties of different bat and beetle. Certain sorts of tree and bush have diversified so splendidly that there are now thousands of different examples of this basic species. Now you contrast that to something like horses or humans, where there’s one basic type of human, and two maybe three basic types of horses. In terms of the evolutionary tree, we are very bare, denuded branches. The whole program of evolution seems to be to diversify, because in diversity there is strength.

And if you apply that on a social level, then you get something like anarchy. Everybody is recognized as having their own abilities, their own particular agendas, and everybody has their own need to work cooperatively with other people. So it’s conceivable that the same kind of circumstances that obtain in a small human grouping, like a family or like a collection of friends, could be made to obtain in a wider human grouping like a civilization.

Mutual Aid

With relation to the magic, I can remember one the last conversations I had with my very dear and much missed friend, the writer Kathy Acker. This was very soon after I had just become interested and involved with magic. I was saying to her how the way I was then seeing things was that basically magic was about the last and best bastion of revolution. The political revolution, the sexual revolution, these things had their part and had their limits, whereas the idea of a magical revolution would revolve around actually changing people’s consciousnesses, which is to say, actually changing the nature of perceived reality. Kathy agreed with that completely—it sort of followed on some of her own experiences—and I still think that that is true. In some ways, magic is the most political of all of the areas that I’m involved with.

[With regard to…] anarchy and fascism being the two poles of politics. On one hand you’ve got fascism, with the bound bundle of twigs, the idea that in unity and uniformity there is strength; on the other you have anarchy, which is completely determined by the individual, and where the individual determines his or her own life. Now if you move that into the spiritual domain, then in religion, I find very much the spiritual equivalent of fascism. The word “religion” comes from the root word ligare, which is the same root word as ligature, and ligament, and basically means “bound together in one belief.” It’s basically the same as the idea behind fascism; there’s not even necessarily a spiritual component it. Everything from the Republican Party to the Girl Guides could be seen as a religion, in that they are bound together in one belief. So to me, like I said, religion becomes very much the spiritual equivalent of fascism. And by the same token, magic becomes the spiritual equivalent of anarchy, in that it is purely about self-determination, with the magician simply a human being writ large, and in more dramatic terms, standing at the center of his or her own universe. Which I think is a kind of a spiritual statement of the basic anarchist position. I find an awful lot in common between anarchist politics and the pursuit of magic, that there’s a great sympathy there.