The Voice Of The Earth
Book Rreview By David Sparenberg
11 December, 2009
THE VOICE OF THE EARTH, A Exploration of Ecopsychology by Theodore Roszak, Phanes Press, paperback, 337 pp, $19.95 usd – review by David Sparenberg
Theodore Roszak’s THE VOICE OF THE EARTH is a big book. Big not only in actual volume, chapter to chapter, page by page, but big in scope and containing a largess, as in abundant wealth; for THE VOICE is rich in perspective and reflective depth.
Professor Roszak’s work comes at the onset with a foretelling recommendation from Nobel Prize recipient and former US Vice President Al Gore, who writes: “Powerful, compelling, extraordinary… We need urgently to heal our relationship with our life-giving planet and feel the intimate connection with nature Roszak so beautifully describes.” I second this evaluation, placing emphasis on the term “extraordinary. Considering other writings; from Metzer’s GREEN PSYCHOLOGY and John Hays’ IN DEFENSE OF NATURE, to Shephard’s NATURE AND MADNESS and Andy Fisher’s RADICAL ECOPSYCHOLOGY; Roszak’s book stands out even from such important contributions in the field of eco-consciousness and the new science of ecopsychology. Our author is never content with the dispensation of information alone, howsoever insightful, but he continuously relates readers to the mandala-universe (Gary Synder) or dynamic gestalt of the Earth as a living system through establishing relationships of contemplation and inter-connective experience. Due to this interconnecting process, beyond all else, THE VOICE is a vital addition toward establishing what Deep Ecology founder Arne Ness called upon future generations to awaken within and live by, namely “an emotional philosophy” of the biotic plenum of our miraculously metamorphic and evolutionary Earth.
Part One of THE VOICE OF THE EARTH Roszak labels Psychology and it runs through such topics as The Boundaries of the Ego and Psyche and the Biosphere, to The Sacramental Real and Ecological Madness. On page 90 one reads the following: “Long before modern biology formulated its theories about the descent of man, traditional therapies were instinctively drawing upon an evolutionary priority older than family and society, rooted in the foundations of life itself: the claim of the nurturing planet upon our loyalty. Where our society tries to gain security by domination and conquest, tribal societies have relied on trust, expecting their loyalty to be fairly requited. Whether we, in the long run, will prove to be the more justified in our expectations than they have been in there is yet to be seen. If our greedy and heedless industrial culture should meet the bad end some ecologists predict, then our choice will have been a foolish one that brought us neither peace of mind nor long term prosperity.”
Roszak names Part Two Cosmology and leads us through chapters and subtopics which include Anima Mundi, The Alchemical Mistress, Deep Systems and Imigo Mundi. On page 137 there is this: “Myths like the anima mundi never die. They have the immortality of the phoenix. Reduced to ashes, they undergo miraculous transformations, returning to life with their essence intact. They might be described as a sort of ethereal gene passed from mind to mind across the centuries, mingling along the way, as all genetic traits do, with other cultural strains and intellectual mutations. Some myths have sufficient vitality to transcend the boundaries of history and ethnicity, finally to become the common property of the human family. These are perhaps what Jung called archetypes, the ageless furniture of the collective unconscious.
“In the case of the anima mundi, we may be dealing with one of the oldest experiences of mankind, the spontaneous sense of dread and wonder primitive humans once felt in the presence of the Earth’s majestic power. When we were no more than the first few representatives of a timid, scurrying new species in the world, these early humans must have greeted the immense creativity of nature with an awe that has since been lost to all but the poetic minority among us in the modern world. The Earth does go so powerfully and completely about her work, bringing forth the crops, ushering in the seasons, nurturing the many species that find their home in her vast body. She can, of course, also be a menacing giant: that too is remembered in myth and folklore. Many of the oldest rituals are acts of propitiation offered to a sometimes fierce and punishing divinity, an Earth who can be an angry mother as well as a beautiful one.”
Throughout Roszak weaves a foretelling and cautionary cross-referencing of new sciences, creation spirituality and the imagination, as can be found on pages 158-159: “If the Earth is a self-adjusting organism, its adaptive power may be that of a metabolic system: efficient, impersonal, crushingly powerful. That is frequently the picture I get when I try to give some mythical embodiment to the Gaia hypothesis. If there is an integrating intelligence at work in the planet all around me, I sense it is not a human intelligence. It is at once something greater and more primal: a wisdom like that of the body in its stubborn will to pursue the tasks that physical survival demands. In the classical metaphysical use of the word, this is what soul meant: the principle of bodily life that only God could create, but which functioned at some lower level than the demands of mind or spirit. In Latin anima suggests a stronger connection with animality (instinct) than intellect.
“That may be what Gaia, the World Soul, is in her relationship to her most highly evolved creation. If so, in her brute determination to defend the variety and quantity of life she carries, she may at some point decide that this so-clever human species is too troublesome a hazard to maintain. The adjustment she may then see fit to make will be far from gentle.”
Moving ahead to pages 202-203, in the sub-chapter Imago Mundi (Image of the World, or Image of Creation), the dire warning gives way to an aesthetic imagery that served certain of our ancestors as a sublime centering symbol of integral and harmoniously purposive energies and entities. “Through the seventeenth century, in the Western World, there existed an artistic genre that combined cosmology and psychology. It was the art of the microcosm, the little cosmos at it might be graphically depicted. Until the universe came to be seen as a mathematical artifact best understood by numbers and formulas, natural philosophers freely employed religious symbols, myths and poetic metaphors to depict and explain the world they lived in. The depiction was the explanation….
“Invariably human beings and the Earth found their place at the center of the imago mundi, richly surrounded by all the stuff of nature and culture. Through deep self-knowledge, human beings might each ideally become microcosms in their own right, distillations in body, mind and spirit of all the universe around them. In this sense, a microcosm was a sort of mandala, the symbolic circle used in Eastern cultures to concentrate the mind during meditation. The microcosm, like the mandala, is a contemplative domain where the soul finds its proper place.”
Part Three is Theo Roszak’s final division and appropriate to such a study it is called Ecology wherein again we encounter movement through enticingly titled topics: The Madness of Cities, The Dream of Savage Wisdom, Deep Systems, Toward an Ecological Ego, The Enchanted Child and The Ecological Unconscious. Here we might justifiably say, the plot thickens as our planetary crisis moves toward critical mass.
On pages 301-302 the reader comes upon these lines: “Of all the theoretical approaches we inherit from mainstream modern psychology, Jung’s often elusive and always controversial notion of a collective unconscious may prove to be the most serviceable in the creation of an ecopsychology. Like the Freudian Id, the collective unconscious is meant to be an essentially conservative entity, a sort of psychic ballast filled with residue of formative experience. In the original formulation, Jung intended it to be a repository for the compounded evolutionary history of our species. Just as the body has its evolutionary stages, so too does the psyche. In the reading of some analysts, it extends beyond the human farther back into the past.”
Then after sifting through a few Jungian and Freudian counter perspectives, Professor Roszak arrives at a somewhat conclusion to his own impressive research, unfolding the following thoughts into words on pages 304-305: “All psychologies turn to the unconscious to find the root of neurosis, as well as the powers that will heal the troubled psyche…. Only the Gestalt school has introduced a larger, more fully biological context for therapy that seeks to unite figure with ground, organism with environment; it is the only school that uses the concept of ecology in its theories. What I propose here builds on that beginning. The collective unconscious, at its deepest level, shelters the compacted ecological intelligence of our species, the source form which culture finally unfolds as the self-conscious reflection of nature’s own steadily emergent mindlikeness. The survival of life and of our species would not have been possible without such a self-adjusting, system-building wisdom. It was there to guide that development by trial and error, selection and extinction, as it was there in the instant of the Big Band to congeal the first flash of radiation into the rudiments of durable matter. It is this Id with which the ego must unite if we are to become a sane species capable of greater evolutionary adventures.”
This foregoing is as good an explanation as I have yet to come upon for the phrase “primitive sanity, which I first heard more than twenty years ago spoken by international law scholar Richard Falk. Although perhaps through Roszak we should link primitive sanity with primal sanity and primitive wisdom with primordial? Yet again, to draw toward a close here, let me quote THE VOICE OF THE EARTH once more, this time from a chapter entitled Attending the Planet and found on pages 306-307.
“Psychology, like theology, must eventually come to terms with original sin. Both madness and sin presuppose a preexisting state of grace. At some point, the healthy animals we once were, if only for some split second of prenatal or postnatal time, lost that primal sanity and grew up to become bad mothers and bad fathers who made all the bad institutions. Within the framework of an ecopsychology, we raise the question: How did the psyche that was once symbiotically rooted in the planetary ecosystem produce the environmental crisis we now confront?
“Blaming the trauma on parents or on society in general is no real answer. It simply moves the problem a step farther back. Systems Theory, especially the work of Ilya Prigogine, which plays so great a role in Deep Ecology, may offer a better answer. Prigogine focuses on those systems that elude entropy by oscillating through and out of equilibrium. There order is not that of dead rest but of constant fluctuation, a sort of dialectic of dissipative structures. Their episodic oscillations are as natural as the compensatory equilibrium toward which they tend to return. All organisms—and in the case of human beings, the social structures they create—are examples of such nonequilibrium thermodynamics. Evolution through symmetry breaking is their normal mode….
“This approach to our ecological condition possesses a rich ambivalence. In our tiny slice of cosmic time that represents the history of human life on Earth, we may imagine consciousness evolving through a series of creative oscillations. Various distortions and exaggerations occur. With hindsight, we can now identity these as various cultural systoles of the past playing in and around the equilibrium of sanity. The balance point would be the perfect environment understood as a state of solid harmony with our habitat, the sort of unquestioning stasis that prehuman organisms have presumably attained. But we are the species uniquely capable of becoming unbalanced; the capacity to flirt with imbalance makes us such an interesting experiment. Following Prigogine, we might assign, if only metaphorically, an intriguing new thermodynamic meaning to this familiar term for madness. Human intelligence oscillates like every open system. Developed far beyond what competitive advantage requires, it takes off on flights of creative fancy, high art, religious and scientific speculation. It has created a universe within the universe, a world of wild, spinning and magnificent ideas that, from time to time, take hold of entire populations and become a culture. The tension between neurotic distortion and sane equilibrium is what we call history.”
Ending on a hopeful note (pg. 308), this mantra: “The Earth hurts, and we hurt with it. If we can accept the imagery of a Mother Earth, we might say that the planet’s umbilical cord links us at the root to the unconscious mind.” If that link is between the present, the primitive, primal and primordial, then we might, in an experiential reversal of a renown line from Shakespeare’s King Lear, begin to believe that “that way sanity (not madness) lies.”