A conversation with Paul Kingsnorth for the just published tenth anniversary edition of Dark Mountain about writing in times of catastrophe, decolonising language and how you build a culture that can speak with the land.
In 2008, Paul Kingsnorth was working on two seismic texts. One was a small red pamphlet, engineered with fellow ex-journalist Dougald Hine, that laid down the tracks for what would become The Dark Mountain Project; the other was a post-apocalyptic novel written in a ‘shadow tongue’, the first in a trilogy of books that follows the fate of a man on the brink of collapse in different millennia. Both make strong demands on the reader. Uncivilisation challenges a world view conventionally shaped by progress, technology and human exceptionalism; The Wake, our linguistic skills and capacity to step into the mindset of someone whose land, culture and sense of being in control is taken away by a force outside their known boundaries.
In 2019, I am sitting opposite the writer who has for the last decade wrestled with these crises in essays, fiction and poetry; who has shaped anthologies, directed festivals and writing courses and brought together a collection of writers and artists to pay attention to the ecological and social collapse we all inevitably face. I realise that despite having worked alongside each other during these years, we have never spoken about our mutual craft, and that now is the moment. We are in a coffee shop in the bookish town of Hay-on-Wye. It’s midsummer, a golden day in the Golden Valley. In his just-published non-fiction work, Savage Gods, he challenges himself: on his quest to find a place to belong on the Earth, and on his true worth as a wielder of words. Finally he is thrown the gauntlet by the mischievous god Loki, who, swiping a beer from his fridge, tells him to ‘shut up’ entirely.
Luckily for you and me, this only refers to writing…
CHARLOTTE DU CANN Looking back at the decade, from the time of the manifesto to now, what strikes you as most significant in terms of the zeitgeist?
PAUL KINGSNORTH Perhaps the most significant fact about the last decade is how much was said in the manifesto that has become pretty much widely accepted. In terms of the culture, it was quite a wild thing to be saying: that it is not possible to stop the collapse and that we need to write about the situation for real.
Now the kind of things we were publishing in the first books you can find in the New York Times and the Guardian; in the fact that Extinction Rebellion are called Extinction Rebellion. Most people are saying: we are in the catastrophe now, ecologically speaking. Which is a shame because it would have been nice if we had been entirely wrong.
CDC The manifesto threw down a gauntlet for writers and artists to respond to this catastrophe. How successful do you think that has been?
PK Funnily enough, I think that might be the least successful part of Dark Mountain. I had this idea originally that I could found a writer’s group like C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, sitting around in the pub talking about orcs, and we would have a little journal. It was Dougald’s idea to publish a manifesto so people would know what we were talking about, and he knew all about crowdfunding, which was new at the time.
For me it was a literary project partly because I wanted to get away from being an activist. I largely failed to do that, because I couldn’t stop writing about the failure of activism and detach myself from the political conversation. Like George Orwell, I was being constantly pulled between: ‘I want to be a literary writer’ and ‘I’ve got to get involved in the world I’m in’.
CDC In these ten years, the responses to the manifesto have attracted a certain kind of writing that you wouldn’t necessarily call literary…
PK The difference between Uncivilisation and, say, the modernist manifestos which partly inspired it, is that we weren’t suggesting people should write in a certain way. We were talking about tackling a certain set of themes, particularly demolishing the myth of progress and stepping outside our humanness, taking the crisis seriously and understanding where we are.
The most significant thing turned out to be the non-fiction and maybe the events, and the creation of a group of people who share that perspective.
CDC Maybe the function of writing now is that it can address a territory that activism never really looks at, which is the existential crisis that we’re in.
PK In some ways it’s not a time for literature. What we call literature is completely inadequate, particularly metropolitan, middle-class British literature that is utterly unconcerned with the great existential issues of our time. That’s one of the things that motivated me to write Savage Gods: what kind of writing would you produce in this time if you took this seriously? It’s not just a question about subject matter, it’s a question about form. And it’s also a question about why you would even write anything.
CDC So where does that leave the role of the writer, do you suppose?
PK When we wrote the manifesto, I believed very strongly in the writer as an agent of change. And I’m not sure I do anymore. That’s part of the crisis that led me to Savage Gods: writing about losing faith in the written word. And that’s because for me, direct experience is becoming more and more important than experience filtered through writing.
I don’t have the same belief that I had ten years ago in the idea that a literary movement of people could produce world-changing stuff. Partly because society is so big and so complex, and when I look back at the manifesto now, I was approaching literature from quite an activist-y mindset. You know, We will use writing to change the future!
CDC I really enjoyed the references in Savage Gods to people who would definitely be considered writers of literature, such as Yeats or Kavanagh or DH Lawrence. Those writers appear like touchstones, like a lineage. Would you describe it like that?
PK I didn’t really consciously think about that when I was younger, but I do now. Who would be in my lineage? Yeats would be in my lineage, and Ted Hughes, Jeffers and DH Lawrence, Emily Bronte, Wordsworth, and basically all the great dark Romantics. But also others like Orwell, Chesterton, Huxley. There’s a certain strain of English radicalism that appeals to me which is quite particular. Now that I’ve said that, I’ll contradict it by talking about lots of American writers…
CDC Robinson Jeffers is not very English…
PK Yes, there’s that great American wilderness tradition: Jeffers, but also Thoreau, Edward Abbey. And other writers like Wendell Berry… There’s something about American writing about nature and place which appeals to me much more than the kind of polite, middle-class, Oxbridge-y English nature writing which I find tiresome. I would much rather read someone with this great eagle’s perspective on the world.
CDC That is dictated by the land itself, I think.
PK I think it is. Because it’s a very small, very old part of the country here in Britain. Whereas in America you can still stride out, and maybe get killed by a bear, and have a non-human experience at scale.
So if I had a lineage, there’s a certain English radical Romantic tradition and there’s an American wild landscape tradition. And then also politically, I think of someone like, say, Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, who was a massive influence on me. Someone who came out of the city and decided to learn about what it meant to be indigenous, to belong to a place and become a revolutionary leader of a very different kind. Firstly, one who’s directed by the people themselves. And secondly, one who’s coming from a sense of place and culture, which is not a kind of unchanging, reactionary sort of everything-was-viable-in-the-old-days-and-we’ll-keep-it-like-that notion. Quite the opposite: the Zapatistas want change. But it’s entirely untheoretical.
CDC There seems to be a thread throughout all these writers from Marcos to Wendell Berry: that their work comes out of knowing places, it doesn’t come out of the mind.
PK Yes, this something I come back to again and again in all of my writing. The fact that the global machine which is destroying the Earth flourishes by destroying all cultures, all peoples, all places — like grubbing up an orchard. As it ploughs through the world everybody is pulled into the engine to feed the growth machine. And so the process of rooting becomes a radical act but also a difficult one. Because what does that mean when everyone is moving around, if I don’t belong anywhere?
The best places I’ve been in the world in my view have been the most rooted places, where cultures are very old and people have a strong kind of solidity to them, like old trees. And they know their land, and they know it’s where their ancestors are buried and where they’re going to be buried. Compare that to the kind of weird rootlessness of the modern West, of which I’m a part, and there’s no comparison, in terms of the way that people live well.
Most of us aren’t living like that. I’m not living like that. And there are more and more people moving around all the time, and migrating and being displaced, some of them voluntarily and some of them not. That’s what we’re all doing all the time, internally and externally. How do you get from here to there is the question.
CDC And it’s not just a matter of finding your place. It’s a matter of having a relationship with that place, whether you ‘own’ it or not.
PK The reality is that people need to belong across space and time. We need to have a sense of who we are as a people, whatever that means to us, and who our ancestors are. Otherwise we’re just individualists. We need a sense of being part of something across time. And we also need a sense of being able to say ‘This is my home.’ It doesn’t have to be where you’ve come from, but it’s the place you are, where you’ve said, ‘This is where I’ve put my feet down.’
If you look at that from a non-human perspective, it starts to make a lot more sense. Because you’re not just saying, ‘Where is my human culture? Who are my people?’, arguing about all that endless identity stuff that everybody kills each other about all day. You’re saying, ‘I don’t even necessarily need to be from the place I’m in, but I can pay attention’, to what Aldo Leopold called the biotic community of the place you’re in.
So I don’t come from where I live at the moment, but as a family we have managed to find a couple of acres to put down roots in and paid lots of attention to everything that lives there. And the community is not just the people.
As you say, you put your feet down in a place, and then you look around and you see what lives here and find out what it needs. You can do that anywhere. It seems to me that if there’s an imperative for writers, it is to ask: ‘What does it mean to be human, in a landscape, at this time? And what can you do to serve the wider community of everything that lives in it?’
CDC And that’s a task as well.
PK There’s always an enormous pulling inside you as a writer. In a pre-modern culture, creators would create as part of a tradition bigger than themselves. So a storyteller will tell a story that’s part of their culture; or if you’re a religious teacher, you’ve got a big tradition that you’re working in. We’re people with no tradition, because that’s what modernity has done. It’s made us all into little individuals. So the story we tell, we have to come up with ourselves. And then we’re endlessly in pain, because we’re always driven to try and work everything out. Because we’re not supported by ancestry, we’re not supported by a culture. The bargain of modernity is we have no tradition to hold us back, but we also have no tradition to support us. So all the storytellers have to come up with their own vision which is why writers end up shooting themselves, or drinking themselves to death…
CDC Or rediscovering old myths, old texts…
PK Yes. And what Dark Mountain ended up doing quite a lot of: talking about myths, folk tales and religious stories. Almost unconsciously, Dark Mountain ended up as a place where you could start looking for old stories. One of the things we got wrong in the manifesto was this notion that we need a new story, when we needed to rediscover the old ones. Martin Shaw was one of the people who really made me focus on that, because he said, ‘Look, the stories are already here, it’s just that we don’t know them anymore.’
CDC There’s something else contained in these old stories which no new narrative would probably say, which is that you have to go through a process of transformation or on an underworld journey in order to be properly human. So where do you feel that those stories have a place now?
PK The underworld journey and the alchemical transformation is the story at the heart of every religion I’ve ever come across. An individual has to be broken open in some way, has to go through the fire and come out the other side. That’s what our culture is doing at the moment. And all of the official stories that we tell ourselves don’t involve undergoing the underworld journey. The green narrative that we can fix everything and it will be alright, is now actually giving way to a more traditional structure in which we all have to go through the fire, and then we’ll come out completely transformed into something else.
But we don’t like that as a culture. We don’t like transformation.
CDC It hurts and you end up in a state of crisis.
PK And you have to go through that… The other thing that religions teach is that you get wisdom through suffering. It isn’t popular but life is suffering and how you manage it and what you learn from it must be the lesson of life. We have created a culture which tells us that progress will prevent us from suffering. We like that story because no-one wants to suffer but it’s not working, it’s just delayed lots of suffering that we’re going to have to go through now.
So the heart of the story that interests me now is what it means to go to the Underworld and come back marked, but with some wisdom. You know, Odin has to be hung on the tree for nine nights, and then he has to lose his eye, before he gets the vision that’s given to him in the runes.
CDC There’s a story cited by Derrida via Plato about the invention of writing. Thoth, the Egyptian god of medicine and magic, tells the king he has created a method that will help the people remember and be wise. But the king tells him: the people will put all their wisdom in the writing and forget to hold it themselves. Eventually he agrees, with the warning that henceforth writing will be both a poison and a remedy. He calls it the pharmakon.
It seems to me that writers often embody the medicine of the pharmakon themselves and that your journey as a writer, and in Savage Gods in particular, relates to the holding of these contradictory forces.
PK Yes, the question at the heart of that book is: how much in these words is so divorced from the thing they’re pointing at that they are useless or damaging?
In the book I talk about being torn between this notion of sitting around a campfire with my tribe and wanting to be part of that long lineage tradition. And then wanting to sit up on the mountain and look down at the campfire and go, ‘Look at all those idiots just being comfortable around their fire instead of coming out here and exploring what might be possible.’
That’s the human condition. We’re all around the campfire and on the mountain. As a writer, you’re never going to be content with either. And that’s OK, so long as you can hold that as your work.
I’m very content in my personal life. But existentially and culturally and ecologically, no. If you do the kind of writing that happens in Dark Mountain, if you don’t think the world is going in the right direction, or the culture has got it right, or the stuff that surrounds us is the stuff that we should be surrounded by, you have to carry that contradiction all the time. And I’m better at carrying contradictions now than I was ten years ago. You just have to carry it and not be eaten by it.
CDC The writer, within the frame of the story, is also a rememberer of a certain kind of wisdom, whether it’s remembering how to be with the land or remembering the old stories, bringing them back into the field of attention or acting as a bridge to the non-human world.
PK That’s the big story for me now. How can you possibly tell the story of the world that isn’t human? How do you build a culture which sees the world as a living, sacred community of which you are part? Because you can either do that, or burn. And out of the ashes of this whole machine will have to come a re-attending.
CDC And do you think words are part of that?
PK I had a conversation with the writer Charles Foster recently at the launch of Savage Gods, and the conclusion we both came to is that if words have a value that’s the value they have. Can words come out of a bigger tradition that carries them, that is not just about you as a person, torn between your various desires, but as part of a grand, living tradition?
What happens if you go to a place and try and write it? In a way that carries the stories of that place, that sees that place as a living, functional network that’s watching you at the same time as you watch it. How would you write if you were trying to write that? And the answer is: entirely differently. And I don’t know whether you can do it in prose.
CDC A lot of poets get close to it.
PK I wonder if it’s still something that poetry does that prose almost can’t do. I did an event in New York in 2017 with Amitav Ghosh, who wrote The Great Derangement. And we had a conversation about what would it look like if you were trying to write the non-human world. And he said in some of the old Indian stories it’s totally natural to have the land speaking. It’s true of the old fairy tales of Europe as well: you get speaking trees, you get magical things happening in woods. And it’s all completely standard. It’s just assumed that if you go into the forest, everything’s alive and weird things are going to happen. So, it’s not magical realism, it’s just realism.
CDC One of the things that’s so difficult is that the planet doesn’t speak rationally, so you have to learn another language.
PK I think it probably doesn’t speak in modern English prose, if it speaks any human language. It certainly doesn’t speak in the kind of literary prose that I thought I had to write. The act of paying attention somehow creates a different kind of writing – analytically, intellectually. It’s all experiential.
Most humans throughout history have not spoken or communicated in literary, analytical prose with each other. Or rational, modern conceptual language… Every language is obviously very particular, and we’re talking a slightly bleached version of English that’s become the language of the global machine. You talk to Irish people, and they say that the words that you would use to represent a certain feeling or a sense of place or time, are very different from those the English came and imposed upon the people.
And that’s why empires, including the British Empire, want to wipe out indigenous languages: you people speak English, because that’s the rational, modern language of industry, the language of the civilised people. You get rid of all of the words that allow you to relate to your places and your culture and your ancestors, because that’s the way we destroy a people. We take their language away.
CDC So how do we decolonise, to use a very modern term, our own words?
PK For those of us who are English, or who speak English, it’s almost a harder task, because, you know, if you’re Irish you can at least relearn your original language, whereas what’s our original language?
CDC In some ways with The Wake you went back to something like this…
PK Well, one of the things I was trying to do was to explore one version of the original language of the people of that place. Regional languages might be another answer, all the dialects that have been wiped out all across England, by this southeast BBC English that I was brought up to think was the way you were supposed to speak if you wanted to get on.
CDC But when we are stuck in this imperial language, we also fail to see that other, particularly indigenous, people outside Europe have a different way of looking at reality.
PK Absolutely. Because that’s what language is. It’s a way of looking at reality. So if everybody speaks the same language, they all look at reality in the same way. That’s the purpose of it, that’s why it’s an imperial language. You eliminate all of those different ways of seeing and relating and you say everyone should speak this one, which happens to be the language of mechanism and progress and machine-thinking and individuality…
It’s very Orwellian: if you can create a language which you can impose upon people, it will be literally impossible for them to think incorrect thoughts because the words aren’t there. That’s the theory behind newspeak.
The minute there’s an orthodoxy of language and an orthodoxy of thought, which we all feel we have to stay within otherwise we’re going to get punished, or cancelled, then that’s the end of expression, that’s the end of any attempt to explore outside the boundaries. It’s what every orthodoxy from fascism to communism to theocracy tries to impose on the people to purify the culture, by forcing out anyone who thinks or speaks incorrectly.
CDC You’ve just completed the final book of the trilogy, and then you’re going to take some time off…
PK Until the end of the year, I’m not writing anything, not one word. I’ve just written this novel set a thousand years in the future called Alexandria…
CDC After the library?
PK Yes. At least partly… the great repository of all human knowledge. And the project of that book, at least part of which is also written in another language, is exactly this question of what does language look like when it comes from a non-human place, and how does the Earth speak when it’s sentient? So it is ambitious and possibly insane, and disastrous, but it was fun to write and to push yourself forward a thousand years to what the world could be like…
CDC There still is a world?
PK There’s still a world. I was really taken with that question about landscape that speaks, sentient landscape, how people have relationships with and communicate with things that aren’t human, that’s really central to the book. The narrative of the human body and how it relates to the body of the Earth.
If you were looking to the next ten years of Dark Mountain I would say that’s the big question. If the Earth doesn’t speak in prose, what does it speak in? How can you hear it? And how can you possibly represent it in words. How do you get this burden of machine English off your shoulders and start to plunge into something messier? Almost like taking the language back a thousand years, or forward a thousand years…
CDC Which is what you’ve done…
PK So, if you want to see things differently, you have to have different words to see them through, or different words to express. This language, as it’s currently spoken, certainly written in prose, is not remotely adequate to represent what you can actually see and feel when you go into a forest – it’s the opposite of indigeneity.
CDC The roots must be there though. Orwell advised writers to use Anglo-Saxon words, and avoid the abstract Roman or Greek ones, because they are based on things that you can touch.
PK They have to be there, yes. All the languages must have been earthy and indigenous and rooted once. This culture was just as indigenous and rooted as any other one before it became modern. So the question is: how do you get through to it, how do you get through to the root of things?
Feature image: Reading Dark Mountain by Kit Boyd