A Language Older Than Words
By Derrick Jensen (Souvenir Press, 2000)
Paperback/400pp/£12.99/ISBN 0 285 63624 3
Of all the recent writings to appear from an anti-civilisation perspective, A Language Older Than Words is probably the most compelling. Jensen's personal and lucid style make it very engaging, whilst his well-researched arguments concerning the insidious psychopathology of Western Civilisation are not only persuasive, but leave the reader really feeling the depths to which it has devastated and denied our natural selves.
I picked this book up a year and a half ago after hearing outstanding reviews of it from various sources. Having an inherent scepticism I proceeded with caution, but within a few pages I began to understand just why this book was finding such affinity with people from within radical circles. The book differs from the majority of 'political' texts because of Jensen's incredibly personal style of writing, and the fact that he is attempting to understand his past, and the culture that has shaped his experiences. Many anti-civilisation critiques often leave a cold sensation that has more in line with the failed dogmas of deep ecology and misanthropy - both of which evoke the Christian ideology that humans are somehow inherently idiotic and need redeeming. Yet this book seeks to ask different questions about why the majority of humankind are destroying themselves and the world in which we live.
Jensen asks these questions through recounting his own life experiences and explaining how he has come to feel the way he does about the world he is a part of. He tries to work out the origin of the trauma he has been subjected to, and how this reflects on our culture as a whole. Identifying and trying to explaining trauma - such as the horrific child abuse Jensen suffered at the hands of his father - is not the most comforting of practices, but through Jensen's personal voyage of discovery it is possible to begin to understand why ruptures of the self can run so deep in people's characters.
Jensen reflects on the uncomfortable reality that sexual abuse of children, such as he suffered, is in fact normal in Western Civilisation in the sense that we allow it to happen and blind and silence ourselves to the terrible realisation that it is endemic to our culture.
Equally endemic is the destruction of nature, the denigration of women, and violence against anything perceived to be under our control. Jensen traces this tendency to the Enlightenment era, which provided the rationale for controlling, dominating and reproducing nature so it effectively became completely separate from culture. Thinkers such as Descartes and Bacon were at the forefront of a philosophical and practical quest to rid the planet of all things uncontrollable - including 'the native'.
Jensen gives many shocking examples of how tribal people were annihilated throughout the course of the last 200 years. (And there is no doubt that the dominant culture has been an active participant in this for the last 10,000 years.) Jensen makes the link that it takes the same degree of 'normality' (denial and silent complicity) for one group of people to wipe out another, as it does for a father to rape his children, or a multinational company to tear down acres of ancient forest.
Jensen reminds us that what we are missing in our lives is genuine relationships with people, and unmediated interactions with nature. Although previous attempts at re-linking nature and culture have often smacked of inverted imperialism and idealised native culture, Jensen avoids this simplistic tendency. He is not trying to suggest that we seek authenticity in another culture, but rather that we carefully re-examine our own relationship to the matrix of life in which we are embedded. He believes we must attune ourselves to 'the language older than words' which connects all living things, and in this way realise the equality of our kinship with other human beings and other species.
The question that remains for the reader is what to do with the information and insights of the book. Jensen himself grapples with this question - is it more useful for the world that he go on writing, or that he engages himself in struggle against the genocide and ecocide he sees, "every morning I wake up and ask myself whether I should write a book or blow up a dam... every day I tell myself I should continue to write. Yet I'm not always convinced I'm making the right decision." For the time being he has chosen writing, seeking to inspire us to see in our own lives the difference we can create by rejecting the culture which has mis-shaped us.
This review doesn't really do justice to the contents of this radical, incisive, and moving book. Possibly the only way I can really describe what this book is about, and what its underlying intentions are, is in Jensen's own words: "There is a language older by far and deeper than words. It is the language of bodies, of body on body, wind on snow, rain on trees, wave on stone. It is the language of dream, gesture, symbol, memory. We have forgotten this language. We do not even remember that it exists."