Dersu Uzala was a Siberian nomadic hunter whose friendship with Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev inspired a book and two films. The films combine Dersu's wilderness lore and animistic cosmology with nostalgia over the inevitable arrival of modernity, which will destroy his world.
The best-known version of the story must be Akira Kurosawa's 'Dersu Uzala' (1975), produced in the Soviet Union on epic 70mm widescreen. It tells of Captain Arsenyev's expedition to the easternmost part of Siberia in the early 1900s and their chance meeting with the hunter Dersu Uzala, who becomes their guide in the wilderness. Adopting a meditative pace, the film devotes much attention to their daily survival in the taiga, while the stunning nature photography emphasizes how the small hiking party is enveloped in and merges with the landscape.
The heart of the film, however, is the endearing character of Dersu, whose survival skills and simple wisdom continue to amaze the Russian soldiers. He teaches them what Gary Snyder, in 'The Practice of the Wild', called the "etiquette of the wild world", which combines skill and spirituality in an unbroken whole. Though Snyder's own experience was more of North-American wilderness cultures, his description fits Dersu perfectly:
People of wilderness cultures rarely seek out adventures. If they deliberately risk themselves, it is for spiritual rather than economic reasons. Ultimately all such journeys are done for the sake of the whole, not as some private quest. The quiet dignity that characterizes so many so-called primitives is a reflection of that.
Thus in Dersu's worldview there are people all around them: the wild animals, the water, wind and fire, to him all are people. Now the word may be an imperfect English translation of Dersu's imperfect Russian, but it's clear what he means: men, animals as well as the elements are spirited beings which must be respected in order to survive. Part of the film's power is in the matter-of-fact way it illustrates this animistic philosophy with Dersu's actions along the way.
Most spectacular is the scene where Dersu and Arsenyev get lost on an icy plain and are forced to spend the night there. Dersu manages to save them by building a makeshift hut of reeds. But equally memorable is the small gesture he makes of leaving a bundle of food, wood and matches in a cabin where they have stopped, not because he plans to come back but because "Others come this way. Find dry wood there. Food to eat. People no die."
The other, earlier film version, 'Dersu Uzala' (1961) directed by Agasi Babayan, tells much the same story yet is also strangely at odds with Kurosawa's version. It follows the same narrative structure, though more condensed (the film is only 80 minutes long, against Kurosawa's 140). It tells many of the same anecdotes about Dersu, and adds a number of spectacular scenes involving a forest fire, a bear fighting with a bee hive and a sable hunting a deer.
About halfway through, however, the film takes a bizarre turn, in what looks like an effort to incorporate Communist doctrine in the story. It happens when Captain Arsenyev finds a coal seam, which he marks on his map as "easy to dig" before explaining with sudden feverish excitement:
Someday, people will come here, build houses, factories... The city will grow. And all that, thanks to this coal here.
To which Dersu, who can't understand the excitement about this "black rock", replies with genuine concern:
Captain, you are a little sick. You need to rest for a while. And the sickness will go away.
But of course the sickness will not go away. With this scene the film - probably unintentionally - voices all of modernity's civilatory zeal and ideals of progress, which were just as strongly part of socialist as capitalist ideology. To be sure, Kurosawa's film contains this ideology as well. It is implied in Arsenyev's very mission: to survey uncharted territory and thus prepare the way for people, houses, factories.
But Kurosawa inserts this tension much more slily, and fully intentionally. As in a classic tragedy, the theme is introduced in the opening scene. Arsenyev is looking for Dersu's grave amidst the construction work of a new village. As he remembers it, "there were huge trees here, a cedar and a fir". A local thinks they were probably chopped down to build the settlement. And Arsenyev is unable to locate the grave.
It sets an elegiac tone for the rest of the film, which recounts in a long flashback Arsenyev's memories of Dersu, and their adventures in the wilderness. The tension between wilderness culture and encroaching civilization only resurfaces towards the end of the film. Dersu is getting old, his eyesight is failing, and Arsenyev has taken him to live with his family in town. Dersu is unable to adapt to 'civilized' life, complaining he "can't understand how people can live in a box". The divide between their two ways of life becomes painfully clear when Arsenyev, misunderstanding Dersu's complaint, suggests redecorating the room, "change the wallpaper, make it more comfortable".
In the end Dersu returns to the wilderness, where soon after he is murdered over the new rifle Arsenyev gave him as a present. This in itself a sign that the old "etiquette of the wild" is disappearing.
The final scene shows Arsenyev at Dersu's burial, marking his grave with a forked stick in a pristine landscape of falling snow. Just three years later people, houses, factories have appeared, Dersu's grave is gone and the land has become part of the Soviet frontier.
To conclude with Snyder, whose description of the American frontier is universal:
A frontier is a burning edge, a frazzle, a strange market zone between two utterly different worlds. It is a strip where there are pelts and tongues and tits for the taking. There is an almost visible line that a person of the invading culture could walk across: out of history and into a perpetual present, a way of life attuned to the slower and steadier processes of nature. The possibility of passage into that myth-time world had been all but forgotten in Europe. Its rediscovery - the unsettling vision of a natural self - has haunted the Euro-American peoples as they continually cleared and roaded the many wild corners of the North American continent.
In a Eurasian context especially, the story of Dersu is a rare and memorable example of such a "passage into the myth-time world". But told in flashback, as of a possibility of the past.
Just south of Leuven, the Meerdaalwoud along with the adjacent Heverleebos makes up the largest woodland of Flemish Belgium. The area is more varied than the Sonian Forest, with not just beech but fir and oak.
The two forests are said to have once been part of one continuous woodland, and interestingly the Flemish forestry department dreams of connecting them in a national park.
In 'The Practice of the Wild' (1990) Gary Snyder observes how:
Wild is largely defined in our dictionaries by what - from a human standpoint - it is not. It cannot be seen by this approach for what it is. Turn it the other way:
Of animals - free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems.
Of plants - self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities.
Of land - a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine.
Of foodcrops - food supplies made available and sustainable by the natural excess and exuberance of wild plants in their growth and in the production of quantities of fruit or seeds.
Of societies - societies whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation. Primary cultures, which consider themselves the original and eternal inhabitants of their territory. Societies which resist economic and political domination by civilization. Societies whose economic system is in a close and sustainable relation to the local ecosystem.
Of individuals - following local custom, style, and etiquette without concern for the standards of the metropolis or nearest trading post. Unintimidated, self-reliant, independent. "Proud and free."
Of behavior - fiercely resisting any oppression, confinement, or exploitation. Far-out, outrageous, "bad," admirable.
Of behavior - artless, free, spontaneous, unconditioned. Expressive, physical, openly sexual, ecstatic.
Most of the senses in this [positive] set of definitions come very close to being how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases we might call it sacred.
Snyder, Beat poet who brought both ecological sensitivity and Buddhist hermits to the mix. (In Beat lore, he was the one who arranged for Kerouac's mountaintop fire lookout job, described in 'The Dharma Bums'.) 'The Practice of the Wild' collects a number of his essays from the 1970s and '80s, on wilderness and ecology, branching out to the indigenous cultures of Turtle Island (aka North-America) and Buddhist philosophy.
Grounded in practical experience, his unsentimental yet fundamental concern for the natural world has been a major inspiration for the deep ecology movement. Even Snyder doesn't manage to completely extricate himself from the contradictions of consumer culture, as when he enthusiastically describes buying mangoes in a 24/7, airplane-supplied supermarket in the middle of Alaska. Then again, he already warned about global warming back in the 1980s.
At its best his poetic writing indeed attains the kind of wild, earthy spirituality of early Chinese Daoism - with all the adjectives cited above.
The wild - often dismissed as savage and chaotic by "civilized" thinkers, is actually impartially, relentlessly, and beautifully formal and free. Its expression - the richness of plant and animal life on the globe including us, the rainstorms, windstorms, and calm spring mornings - is the real world, to which we belong.
'Landscapes of Belgium' in Brussels' Museum of Ixelles offers "a new vision of landscapes in Belgian art from 1830 to the present day". Its thematic setup is comparable to last summer's 'Sky in Dutch Art since 1850' in Haarlem, mirrored here in Magritte's 'La Malédiction'.
But as that title hints at, Belgian landscapes tend to be darker, earthier, more ominous and mysterious - as exemplified by the nocturnal landscapes of William Degouve de Nuncques, like 'Paysage, Effet de Nuit' and 'La Forêt' (both 1896).
Next, skipping the entire twentieth century in an exhibition full of highlights, two modern works that appear to reinvent the magical realism of a century ago.
In the case of photography duo Felten-Massinger this means reapplying an old technique, the camera obscura, which they use in the form of a camper painted black on the inside, with no lense, just a tiny aperture, and exposure times of hours! The result, as they explain (in French), has been compared with the dark light of a solar eclipse as well as with Sugimoto's eternal Seascapes. It gives the Flemish landscape of 'Puttebos' (2002) - best seen at wall-covering size - its eerie atmosphere of time passing, light lingering in a still image.
The charcoal drawings of Charles-Henry Sommelette, like the untitled garden fence 'Sans Titre' (2013), feel even more explicitly magical-realist. Both painstakingly realistic and romantically fairytalish, at once very modern (you'd almost expect a little G4S logo attached to the gate) and completely timeless, as if this gate might open to the mythical estate of 'Le Grand Meaulnes'. Needless to say its dark stormy textures are also best experienced at full, live size.
One other work needs to be mentioned, not part of the exhibition but in the Museum of Ixelles's permanent collection: James Ensor's 'Christ Calming the Storm' ('Christus bedaart de storm', ca. 1900). A great swirling shock of light and color, it counters my above Belgian landscape clichés with a completely different way of conveying the mysteries of the natural world.
Note how ambiguously Ensor depicts the miracle, an eye of white light in the midst of a storm still in full horizon-effacing force. As if the storm might yet prevail...
Watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory regularly organizes a "citizen's tour of corporate power in Brussels". It reveals how entrenched corporate lobbying has become in today's politics.
The tour itself is a kind of safari of the EU quarter, the small Brussels neighborhood that houses the European Union's most important institutions as well as offices of virtually every multinational company, a plethora of trade associations, mercenary think tanks and astroturfed advocacy groups. With some 30,000 professional lobbyists, most of them representing big business, Brussels is second only to Washington DC in sheer amount of pressure exerted to influence politics.
Safari-wise, of course, all this remains very abstract, with only shiny copper plaques hinting at the activities behind the glass facades. The most exciting moment might be when the people in suits go out to lunch, or even, on Fridays, for a beer.
But the problem, as CEO explains in a crash-course video, is far-reaching. It has to do with balance and transparency, more than with the practice of lobbying itself (NGOs are lobbyists too). Balance, as corporate interests simply outspend all other, civil society voices. But also as they have overwhelming priviledged access to policymakers, partly as a result of the infamous revolving door. And transparency, as the EU's policymaking processes still display a shocking lack of accountability.
(To distinguish this from my recent discussion of Han's 'The Transparent Society', transparency here is not an end in itself but a means of guaranteeing political integrity. Han doesn't really address this dimension.)
Recent examples - this is just last week - include the way fossil fuel companies "undermined EU renewable energy targets and subsidies in favour of gas as a climate fix" (The Guardian). And the way the pharmaceutical industry has captured the debate, to the extent that the EU now speaks "pharmish" (CEO Big Pharma study).
The list goes on to cover all major policy battlefields, from climate to copyright to chemicals, and of course TTIP. In virtually every case the industry's strategy turns out to be a variation on the one pioneered by the tobacco industry in the 1950s: manufacturing doubt.
The documentary 'Endocrination' (2014), for instance, offers a detailed reconstruction of how this strategy, with its invariable appeal to "sound science", succesfully derailed EU policymaking. One observer wrily comments how "the current generation of policymakers are for the most part not aware of where it comes from, i.e. a PR strategy from the tobacco industry".
The term post-democratic has been used over the past years to describe the EU, especially in its handling of the financial, Euro and Greek crises. But pre-democratic would be more to the point: as the work of groups like CEO shows, if anything the EU needs stronger democratic institutions capable of withstanding the torrents of corporate disinformation.
Pre-democratic, by emphasizing the goal of the EU project, may also help deal with the disheartening sense of déjà vu in these lobby battles.
See also CEO's guide 'Lobby Planet' (pdf). The current edition is from 2011 (before the American tech companies became some of the biggest spenders in town), so hopefully they'll put out an updated edition soon.
In his essays 'The Burnout Society' ('Müdigkeitsgesellschaft', 2010) and 'The Transparency Society' ('Transparenzgesellschaft', 2012), Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han rethinks Michel Foucault's account of the workings of control for the digital age.
Han has long been a colleague of Peter Sloterdijk, but his books are slimmer and his prose more concise. What they do have in common is that in English translation their German fondness of concept-stringing-together creates some awkwardnesses.
Today's society of control possesses a distinct panoptic structure. In contrast to the occupants of the Benthamian panopticon, who are isolated from each other, the inhabitants of today's panopticon network and communicate with each other intensively. Not lonesomeness through isolation, but hypercommunication guarantees transparency. Above all, the particularity of the digital panopticon is that its inhabitants actively collaborate in its construction and maintenance by putting themselves on display and baring themselves. They display themselves on the panoptic market. Pornographic putting-on-display and panoptic control complement each other. Exhibitionism and voyeurism feed the net as a digital panopticon. The society of control achieves perfection when subjects bare themselves not through outer constraint but through self-generated need, that is, when the fear of having to abandon one's private and intimate sphere yields to the need to put oneself on display without shame.
This new and aperspectival panopticon makes no distinction between center and periphery: everything and everyone is equally illuminated by the colorless radiation of transparency. Crucially, in Han's symbolism, transparency is different from light. The old adage 'sunlight is the best disinfectant' doesn't apply to transparency, because whereas light also produces shadows - the positivity of exposure and definition is balanced by the negativity of concealment, vagueness, mystery - today's transparency seeks to be total, disrupting everything equally to create an obscene hypervisibility.
Transparency, fed by hyperinformation and hypercommunication, thus creates a new Gleichschaltung - or as Han also calls it, a "hell of sameness". In this respect it exacerbates the effect money has in a globalized, neoliberal economy. (Except of course for those who can, as Scott Fitzgerald put it, "retreat into their money", and remain invisible. The flattening effect of money seems to run into paradox when applied to the new global class of superrich.)
But the burnout society (or fatigue society, a more direct translation of 'Müdigkeitsgesellschaft') also mirrors the transparency society in another way: both follow this strange new logic of self-control and self-exploitation. Foucault's discipline and punish are still there, except that everyone now works as their own prison guard, or self-manager.
The society of transparency obeys the logic of the society of achievement [Leistungsgesellschaft] entirely. The achievement-subject [Leistungssubjekt] operates independently of external domination forcing it to work and exploiting it. One is the master and entrepeneur of oneself. However, the disappearance of the instance of domination does not lead to real freedom or the absence of constraint, for the achievement-subject exploits itself. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim collapse into one. Auto-exploitation proves more efficient than allo-exploitation because a feeling of freedom attends it. The achievement-subject subjects itself to freely willed, self-generated constraint. This dialectic of freedom also underlies the society of control. Utter auto-illumination functions more efficiently than utter allo-illumination because it is attended by the sensation of freedom.
In a third essay, 'Agonie des Eros' (2012 - not available in English), Han explores possible ways out. They hinge on his concept of positivity, which combines the neoliberal 'yes we can' mentality and the very 'definedness' (HD! 3D!) of the information age. In other words, a tyrrany of exhibition value.
What we need is more negativity, Han argues, in the sense of contrast, creating pairs of opposites instead of vast, distanceless sameness - more ambiguity and less definition, more theory and less data, more alterity and less self.
If that sounds too abstract, Han's example of ultimate alterity is the approaching planet in Lars von Trier's 'Melancholia'. A "dialectic of disaster" to save us from the hell of sameness.
Labeling music political seems to have become faintly distasteful, but Steve Mason (formerly of the Beta Band) aims straight for it on 'Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time' (2013).
It's a sprawling concept album that develops from fragile childhood memories ('Lie Awake') to articulated political outrage ('Fire!', 'Fight Them Back'). It also continues the Beta Band's vintage 'future-folk' sound, mixing and matching anything from gospel ('Oh My Lord') to dub and rap ('More Money, More Fire', a concise explanation of the 2011 London riots).
On top of that songs are interspersed with voice samples, including a grim excerpt from Dante's 'Inferno' and a maddeningly smug Tony Blair. Oh, and some Brazilian Formula One commentary ('The Last of the Heroes'). At first the sound bytes seem to illustrate the album title - a Buddhist expression for an easily distracted mind - but the whole thing ends up tying together surprisingly well.
Monkey minds also hint at a root cause of today's disheartening apoliticality: people are just in a constant state of distraction. As Mason argued in an interview:
I don't know anyone who's attempting to really say anything in music today. I think, generally, the disappointing thing is the lack of any sort of expression about anything other than what Rhianna wore to the MTV awards. You see people talking about that in interviews as if it were a valid thing to talk about but it's just a way of keeping everyone behind the closed curtains. They know that if people got behind the curtain then – hopefully – some kind of change would happen, once they saw the filthy, disgusting, beast that's running the world!
A small area of urban wilderness on an abandoned railway embankment in Rotterdam Spangen.
In 'The Story of My Heart' (1883) Richard Jefferies coined the term ultra-humanity to describe how
...a great part, perhaps the whole, of nature and of the universe is distinctly anti-human. The term inhuman does not express my meaning, anti-human is better; outre-human, in the sense of beyond, outside, almost grotesque in its attitude towards, would nearly convey it.
John Fowles paid homage to it in 'The Tree' to explain human uneasiness with wilderness, and our impulse to domesticate or destroy it. "It may sound paradoxical," he wrote, "but we shall not cease to be alienated - by our knowledge, by our greed, by our vanity - from nature until we grant it its unconscious alienation from us."
'The Story of My Heart' is a strange book. It could be called a spiritual autobiography, part nature mysticism, part homegrown philosophy - or what Jefferies himself calls "soul-thought". The beginning especially reads like an English 'Walden', but by a writer whose illness made him obsessed with vigor (he even attempts to reason mankind to immortality). The youthful exuberance of novels like 'Bevis' has here become a defiant vitalism, like a tragic character in D.H. Lawrence or Knut Hamsun.
The book contains reminiscences of his experiences in the country and the human "vortex" of London, as well as several chapters of metaphysical speculation. Though these are less surefooted, it's fascinating to follow his struggle with putting the ineffable into words.
For Jefferies the idea of ultra-humanity is connected with the lack of design he perceives in nature, in a universe ruled by chance. Hence it also implies the absence of a god. From this atheist position, however, he looks for some controlling instance that is
...not force in the sense of electricity, nor a deity as god, nor a spirit, not even an intelligence, but a power quite different to anything yet imagined.
Here he clearly runs into the limit of expressibility. (This happens several times in the book, until the claim that what he means is "quite different to anything yet imagined" starts sounding a bit childish.) But it's almost as if he wants to deify the physical laws of the universe. Again, he imagines
...a force without a mind. I wish to indicate something more subtle than electricity, but absolutely devoid of consciousness, and with no more feeling than the force which lifts the tides.
His attempt to find a new balance of abstract divinity ultimately fails, simply because the moment he gives his idea any attributes it topples over to one of either sides, physical or divine. For instance when he describes it as "something better than a god. There is something superior, higher, more good" - without realizing this would threaten an infinite regress of "deities all the way up", instead of "turtles all the way down".
'The Story of My Heart' confirmed Jefferies' reputation as both an atheist and a mystic - no doubt equally scandalous in Victorian England. Evelyn Underhill, in her work on mysticism, later reproved him for what he "apprehended in these moments of insight, yet somehow contrived to miss". But his attempt to express his intuitions in his own terms, completely outside the Christian mystical vocabulary, anno 1883, is still heroic.
The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.
With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye...
Woodcut illustration by Gertrude Hermes (from an aging Penguin).
They started. Mark lifted his spear, Bevis his bow. A deep, low, and slow sound, like thunder, toned from its many mutterings to a mighty sob, filled their ears for a moment. It might have been very distant thunder, or a cannon in the forts far away. It was one of those mysterious sounds that are heard in summer when the sky is clear and the wind soft, and the midsummer hum is loud. They listened, but it did not come again.
"What was that?" said Mark at last.
"I don't know; of course it was something magic."
Richard Jefferies' novel 'Bevis' (1882) has long been a childhood classic, though its unique depiction of the world of boyhood is more about than for children. It also contains some of Jefferies' most lyrical descriptions of nature.
A large part of the book's charm lies in the way Jefferies inhabits the imagination of its heroes, Bevis (named after the medieval hero Sir Bevis of Hampton) and his friend Mark. As they explore the English countryside in a great voyage of exploration that takes them to the New Nile and New Formosa (a little islet in a pond) where savages, tigers and water monsters roam, as well as kangaroos (rabbits), Jefferies faithfully follows the boys' naming and fantasizing of their world.
The only other book to carry this through with such realism and conviction might be the Dutch 'Kees de jongen' (1923) by Theo Thijssen, which is also set in the late 19th century. Though that takes place in an urban environment (Amsterdam's Jordaan) while 'Bevis' is quintessentially about the natural world (Coate, Swindon).
This immersion in the world of children also means the boys often behave amorally (in the sense of premoral, not immoral), and their treatment of animals and children is at times callous to the point of cruelty. In fact, for modern readers the book's Victorian social strictures as well as the boys' hunting sprees, which has them basically shooting at anything that moves, may make for some cringing reading.
But Jefferies, who in other works revealed himself an eccentric nature mystic, clearly loves the rural scenery and wildlife he describes. (It's just that he is from the age when observing and shooting were seemingly synonymous. As he wrote elsewhere, "woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun".)
And while he stays with the boys' perspective throughout, the adult author now and then takes over to wax lyrical on matters of the cosmos.
They listened: the wood was still; so still, they could hear a moth or a chafer entangled in the leaves of the oak overhead, and trying to get out. Looking up there, the sky was blue and clear, and the sunlight fell brightly on the open space by the streamlet. There was nothing but the hum. The long, long summer days seem gradually to dispose the mind to expect something unusual. Out of such an expanse of light, when the earth is tangibly in the midst of a vast illumined space, what may not come? - perhaps something more than is common to the senses. The mind opens with the enlarging day.
The hum is "the loud midsummer hum in the sky" - not the modern hum of distant highways or overhead jets, but perhaps something like the insect ambiance of Yeats' "bee-loud glade". It recurs throughout the book, most of which takes place over the course of a summer, and often signals moments of heightened awareness. Moments when the boys pause in their activities to look and listen, and the midsummer, midday sun seems to suspend time in a motionless now where only sound continues.
Though there was not a breath of wind under the boughs, yet the sound of the fall now rose, and now declined, as the water ran swifter or with less speed. Sometimes it was like a tinkling; sometimes it laughed; sometimes it was like voices far away. It ran out from the woods with a message, and hastening to tell it, became confused.
The forget-me-nots and the hart's-tongue, the beeches and the firs, listened to the singing. Something that had gone by, and something that was to come, came out of the music and made this moment sweeter. This moment of the singing held a thousand years that had gone by, and the thousand years that are to come. For the woods and the waters are very old, that is the past; if you look up into the sky you know that a thousand years hence will be nothing to it, that is the future. But the forget-me-nots, the hart's-tongue, and the beeches, did not think of the ages gone, or the azure to come. They were there now, the sunshine and the wind above, the shadow and the water and the spray beneath, that was all in all. Bevis and Mark were there now, listening to the singing, that was all in all.