[Two Dollar Radio; 2019]
Pastoral nostalgia seldom gives rise to a radical temperament. In the English tradition, the tranquillity of the countryside has tended to inspire an equally placid response, artistically speaking, despite providing ‘the better soil’, in Wordsworth’s words, ‘for the essential passions of the heart’. Perhaps this is why, nearly two centuries after the death of Wordsworth and the Romantic movement as a whole, Paul Kingsnorth’s vision is both so compelling and so completely one-of-a-kind. In all his writing, which ranges from poetry and historical fiction to essays and treatises on politics and environmentalism, Kingsnorth has striven in some way to continue — if not revive — those literary traditions that were steamrollered into oblivion by the unrelenting engine of The Machine (to borrow Kingsnorth’s handy appellation for modernity, industrialism, capitalism, and everything in between). His latest book, Savage Gods, which is neither fiction nor poetry nor essay but a bitter concoction of the above, is also – if one is to detect another ingredient in the aftertaste — something of a throwback to the romantic cultures of a pre-modern world, and a lesson in what happens when those old gods are exhumed in an age when Nature becomes slave to Man, when customs give way to chaos, and the words we use to make sense of it all have lost their meanings.
Language, and English specifically, is the subject of Savage Gods. As the book explains, in its spare yet meandering way, Kingsnorth has led a varied and adventurous life, from joining environmental movements during his studies at Oxford and publishing works across a gamut of genres, to campaigning for the independence of the Papuan tribes and relocating with his family from Cumbria to a house in a field in west Ireland. But, as Kingsnorth tells us, if there is any common denominator to all this, a constant companion in all his travels, it is language. Unlike the abstract forces of global capitalism, of which Kingsnorth is a staunch critic, or nature and the environment, for which he is an avowed defender, language has always been to Kingsnorth both a friend and a foe, a light in the darkness as well as a black mark on the clarity of his conscience. He writes:
Words, for me, have always been everything. They overlay everything I see and walk through, like a set of grid lines which make sense of and measure a landscape. They are my means of understanding the scale of what I am looking at. My mind responds not to images, sounds, even emotions, but to words…I read a poem, and nobody needs to explain it to me. I write a book and everything is explained.
Like much of Savage Gods, this will be familiar ground for most readers. After all, there is little writers like to do more than to praise the act of writing. But what makes Savage Gods interesting is that Kingsnorth’s love for his vocation is tempered with a sense of shame, so that writing itself becomes a painful dilemma. It is language which has come to define Kingsnorth’s life, given him a career many would dream of, and provided an outlet for his ideas and imagination — of which this book is one ironic example. It has also, according to Kingsnorth, engendered his greatest crises, making him both helplessly dependent and the victim of a lifelong deception. The words which had previously protected Kingsnorth’s ideas with the inviolable veneer of certainty began to crack open from within when he moved to the rural hinterlands. His words began “to fragment,” as Kingsnorth puts it, “because the kind of words you create to speak to the urban crowds of the alienated West don’t come from places like this.” Where the act of writing could formerly explain, contain and satisfy, it no longer provides any kind of solution, furnishing only a natural image in place of a rational answer. “What does a writer do when his words stop working?” he asks. “I don’t know. All I know is that I am churning inside and everything I knew is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale.”
Savage Gods is, from this angle, the story of what happens when a writer’s tools finally fail — if not outright betray — him. ‘I set them to run in some direction’, writes Kingsnorth, “and they veer off course, jump the fences, make joyfully for the ocean. They have broken their chains, at last. Not this time! they laugh as they run. We’re in charge now!” Reading the book, one cannot help but notice the mischievousness of Kingsnorth’s words. The evasive sentences are rife with ambiguities and unanswered questions, and there is little in the way of a discernible order. “[T]his is an organic book,” we are told. “It has grown, piece by piece, stone by stone, like a vernacular cottage.” Unlike his other works, Kingsnorth wrote this one at night, he tells us, on scraps of paper, which explains the chopped up, syncopated structure, reminiscent of Nietzsche’s aphorisms (one-hundred-and-thirty-two pages are divided into eighty “chapters,” comprised of isolated paragraphs, as though the sentences themselves are suspicious of one another).
There is a degree, of course, to which Kingsnorth has always been uncomfortable with language. His first novel, The Wake, a story about indigenous resistance to the Norman Conquest of England, is perhaps best known for being written in “a shadowtongue,” an imaginary, heavily Saxonized, capital letter-less dialect which is nonetheless comprehensible to English speakers. Beast, a spiritual sequel of sorts, follows the story of Buckmaster, a descendant of The Wake’s protagonist, in his hermetic life on the contemporary English moors, yet employs a peculiar directness of expression which almost recalls the linguistic innovations of high modernism. In contrast, Savage Gods feels less sure of itself, as if the very words seem to slip through the fingers whenever they confront a potential answer to Kingsnorth’s woes. Understandably this may put off some readers; but it is, at the same time, a sacrifice that Kingsnorth must make to relay effectively his crisis of faith.
The question, then, is this: Why should we care? There are greater evils at large in the world than one man’s case of writer’s block, as Kingsnorth, a lifelong environmentalist, is well aware. And yet, as he explains in his 2017 book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, it was Kingsnorth’s despair at his own powerlessness to combat the onslaught of environmental destruction worldwide, as well as the ineffectiveness of his fellow activists, that led him to a smaller, more manageable politics. “I kept moving the goalposts,” he writes,
widening my search so that I had an excuse to spend time with people like the Papuans, or landless Brazilian farmers, or indigenous people in Southern Mexico. The middle class Europeans blockading summits and waffling about Negri and Fanon bored me to tears. They were rootless; they were as lost as me.
Rootedness, not travel and exploration, was, in Kingsnorth’s view, and to the chagrin of his cosmopolitan commentators, the answer to the political and environmental problems of the world. But this, too, proved to be more complex than that. Kingsnorth’s decision to relocate to a field in Ireland was his chance to look after a slice of land that was under his control, that belonged to him, and that he in turn could belong to. Writing, too, should have survived this journey intact, even when so many other technologies must be sacrificed in the pursuit of “prim-curiosity” (the term Kignsnorth uses to define his own state. His friend, who is fully “primitive,” we learn, has thrown away his phone and his laptop, and lives off the grid, in a cabin without water or electricity). But words, like nature, can never truly be our own – when they do not belong to others, they belong in the last analysis to themselves. And so it is easy to sympathize with Kingsnorth when his words and sentences express the pain and grisliness of their own conception. Easier still when they are beautiful, a solemn reminder of what will soon be lost.
Savage Gods is a reluctant book, an aporia of sorts, and is often miserable in its struggle against itself. But perhaps most alarming of all is the subtle question with which the book ends: will Kingsnorth write again? Or will he finally take that leap into the dark, through the net of human language and into the world outside? Even Kingsnorth himself cannot give us the answer, but he alludes to other writers who might. There is D.H. Lawrence, who kept writing through the obscenity trials and the critical condemnation. There is also Rainer Maria Rilke, by whom Kingsnorth quotes the following: “Must I write? If there is an affirmative reply, if you can simply and starkly answer ‘I must’ to that grave question, then you will need to construct your life according to that necessity.” Incidentally, this same quotation opens the self-proclaimed “last novel” of another writer, Gerald Murnane, who does not appear in Savage Gods,but who in his shameless parochialism and daring originality mirrors the idiosyncrasies of Kingsnorth.But Murnane went on to write another two books; more may yet follow. For some writers, the pull of the craft is too strong, too entrenched, a blade lodged deep within the heart. Let us hope for the sake of Paul Kingsnorth’s conscience that he is not among their ranks. But let us hope for the sake of his readers that he is.
Josh Allan lives in Oxford, where he received his MSt in World Literature. His work has appeared in The Oxford Review of Books, Eunoia Review, Undercurrent Philosophy and World Literature Today.