Chris Minchin considers if the idea of Wilderness can transform us from a false performance of identity to performing reality or truth.
I was interested in your proposition that there is a link between nostalgia and wilderness. I wonder what is the nature of the relationship between the two. Dialectic? Parasitic? Cancel each other out?:
I think the link between nostalgia and wilderness is paradoxical, as it should be; I think of wilderness as the place of revelation, it is the place where you leave behind your identity, and are left with nothing but your own existence. Truth is revealed and moments of transformation come from this, then identity, institution, and nostalgia is formed upon these moments (revelation brings reformation, which then becomes the status quo until that is no longer satisfactory, another revelation, another reformation). Just this weekend I was watching some documentary about Doctor Who and when it was cancelled for 20 years, these were known as the wilderness years, but actually it was a time of burgeoning creativity from fans who wrote/recorded/drew their own fan fiction, and many of the fans developed creative careers from the experiences that they learned during this time. This creativity eventually resulted in the return of the series. Wilderness and nostalgia are opposites, but paradoxically they form each other.
Simone Weil, a 20th century philosopher and mystic, talks about how paradox or ‘contradictories’ are a sign of truth, of reality. If we come up against two things that contradict, and we know both to be fact, then we must accept the contradiction as a reality and transform our perception. For example Weil argues that God both does and does not exist:
“A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist. Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure that my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.”
Essentially it is a call to perceive things as they are, not as we wish them to be. Weil loves God, but everything she thinks of when she says ‘God’ builds an image of it rather than allows for the truth of it. This is where nostalgia starts – the building of an image based on truths we have perceived. This is inevitable, the image will eventually become so opaque until it obscures the truth that formed it. However, the contemplative practices – asceticism, mysticism, art, poetry – constantly return to the wilderness, constantly disrupt, look beyond, and find the cracks within the image of things, to see them as they really are. Once one trusts in the image of a thing over its reality, then it becomes a problem, a rotting facade really. Like waving flags and posters of “keep calm and carry on” in the face of economic recession. Or saying marriage can’t be gay because you can’t redefine a word.
I also think of our great wildernesses, places like Yellowstone, the Serengeti, Mongolian Steppes, the Australian Bush, and I wonder how these places can escape nostalgia. The ‘wilderness of our souls’ is not exempt from the touch of nostalgia either?:
I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘great’ wilderness, only wilderness, it is ever shifting and relative. Wilderness is not a landscape, figuratively it can be – it is what we have cultivated civilisation out of – but really it is just the place that doesn’t value us in the way we value or selves. It is disruptive, revelatory and transformative. The ‘great wildernesses’, are nostalgic in themselves; it is a colonialist attitude when we see somewhere as a place to be conquered, controlled, maintained. By nature it is no longer a wilderness once it is known and controlled, you don’t conquer wilderness, you survive it. And maybe it’s the same attitude when we try to conquer our souls, to present an image of ourselves as in control and form a confident identity.
Perhaps your invocation of the ‘earnest’ provides a light. It seems to me that urgency is the antithesis of nostalgia!
I think you’re right. Earnestness comes from need. I think it’s at the heart of activism. Nostalgia is what we want, earnestness disrupts this by declaring what we need.