There’s a lot of talk about resistance right now. All kinds of people telling us what we must do, what we must not do, how to act, how we’re bad if we don’t act, how to make a radical act, how to be an activist, how to be the right kind of activist (their kind of activist), how to resist, resist, resist …
Maybe I’m no different, now. I’ve stayed quiet about all this for a good while, but I’m beginning to be disturbed by some of the value judgements I’ve seen thrown out on social media. I’m disturbed mostly because I’ve seen a few angry words directed by people at their ‘friends’ who dare to wonder whether maybe there are other ways of resisting than the creation of civil unrest. Not necessarily better ways – just the thought that other ways might be valid, too, and might still deserve to fall into the category of ‘resistance’. But the webwaves seem suddenly to be filled with people who, whilst spouting words like ‘love’ and ‘solidarity’ and ‘oneness’, seem nevertheless to dismiss the ideas of anyone who isn’t immediately taking to the streets, joining in marches and protests wherever and whenever they happen, signing an endless stream of online petitions, calling their senators and representatives, calling for revolution.
Understand this before reading on: I think marches and protests can be a very fine thing (though as many political theorists have pointed out in recent days, they do carry inherent dangers and run the risk of escalating the very processes they hope to fight). Putting pressure on the individuals who have been elected to represent the people is essential. (I’m not so sure about online petitions.) But the whole tenor of the response to Trump has got me thinking a little more deeply about resistance. About what it is, about all of the things it can be – because there is no perfect one way to resist, just as there is no perfect one way for the world to unfold, or for a person to become. There are many ways of resistance, and each of us has to choose the path that we are best fitted for. The path that speaks to our calling, to our own unique path with heart. The path that recognises who we are, and what gifts we bring to the world.
Anyone who insists that I follow a single path to resistance which cannot accommodate that notion, is no-one I want to be listening to right now. And I offer you this out of the wisdom of five and a half decades spent on this planet: always, always beware of anyone who seems to suggest that there is just one true way to be in this world, or one true way to respond to any particular event. That is dogma; it’s religion. It’s everything that myth is not. There is no one true way to be. There is only ever the way that is true for you to be. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Forgive the folklorics, but there’s wisdom in the old sayings.
Here is the one truth I know about resistance: resistance has many faces. But when I look at what’s happening out there right now, I find myself reminded of that age-old split between mythos and logos. As a brief aside for anyone who might have missed out on the relevance of these words: mythos and logos are terms which originally were used to describe the transition in ancient Greek thought from a reliance on stories with religious, symbolic significance to explain the truth of existence, to a later reliance on scientific rationalism and empirical methodology. It’s not, and was never intended to be, a perfect distinction, but sometimes it’s a useful way of differentiating between certain modes of looking at, and being in, the world.
It seems to me that the people who insist on a path to resistance which is founded on activism, on doing, on marching, on saying, are acting from the path of logos. But understand this, too, before we go any further: it might be fashionable these days to attack logos as the source of all of the problems of Western civilisation, but as a trained scientist as well as a mythologist, I’m not going to go there. We need both logos and mythos. The trick is to have them in balance. But the problem is that we don’t have them in balance. We live in a civilisation that values logos to the exclusion of all else. And so the dominant view of resistance is perhaps inevitably founded on the notion that it must always be about a particular kind of doing. Anything else might be labelled ‘passive resistance’ at best, but is not usually much admired.
So if that’s a path to resistance based on logos, which is all very fine for the people so inclined to it, what does a path to resistance based on mythos look like, for those of us who are not? I think I understand that path, because it’s one that I am better fitted to take. But let me stress this again in case there’s any doubt: I admire the people who adhere to active resistance. The world needs the marchers who will take to the streets. It needs the placards which will make us laugh or make us weep. It needs the soundbites and the tweeters. It needs the lawyers who will snatch up their laptops and run to the airports to file the sub poenas to prevent the deportations. It absolutely needs the human rights activists, the animal rights activists, the environmental activists. It needs everyone who raises awareness of all of the crises that are facing us, as a civilisation.
But the world needs something more, too. It needs the people who can lead by a different kind of example. It needs those of us who are better designed to live by mythos than logos And who live that way not necessarily by active choice, but simply because that’s who we are. It’s the authentic truth of our existence; it’s the only way we know how to be. We are the ones who embody a different but equally necessary path to resistance. We are the people who are focused on different ways of being in the world. Different ways of living. Some of us are artists, or writers. Some of us are permaculturalists, or herbalists, or hermits in the woods. We are the people who have stepped back – a little way back, or a long way back – from the ugliness of consumerism, who refuse to play the game, who refuse to succumb to the blandishments, who reject the values espoused by a sick civilisation, who make different choices about how to live and be in the world, who choose instead to go their own way.
An article on the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt was published this morning in the Guardian. Arendt, you may remember, is famous for her work on the Holocaust, and for coining the iconic term, in a book about Adolf Eichmann, ‘the banality of evil’. Apparently her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism has become a surprise bestseller on Amazon in the past week. But an expert on her work, and on the development of social and political thought, had this to say about what she might have made of the recent response to Trump:
‘Certainly, I think there is a lot to be gained from people gathering together to show solidarity. But in a world where the institutions that we’re protesting in front of are losing their legitimacy and their power, I’m not sure that this has the impact that it once did. If we think of evil as this one person, this one big event, then we tend to want to match that with one big display of resistance. But actually, if evil is banal – a set of ordinary, mundane decisions day by day – then maybe we have to start living differently day by day.’
Living differently day by day. Don’t ever let anyone tell you this isn’t resistance. I’m talking about the people who make us believe that it is possible to live differently, precisely because they themselves live differently. Because we see them doing just that. And look at them – aren’t they thriving? Thriving without all the trappings. Thriving without the slavery, without the attachment to stuff. The ones who decide for themselves what they will hold dear, and who go on to cherish, protect, witness in their own powerful ways. The ones who say – no, this is not about giving up. It’s about refocusing. It’s not about a discrete set of actions: it’s about being alive. It’s about turning your back on ‘reality TV’ and turning instead to the reality of what the mountain has to say.
This is another way of resistance, and it’s a resistance based on mythos. For those of us who live this way, it’s almost always based on a sense of individual calling, on a need to follow our own integrity and authenticity, on an inability to pretend to be what we are not. It might be a quieter form of resistance – though yes, from time to time we’ll come out of the forest and join the marches and add our voices to the voices of our brothers and sisters who have different skills and gifts.
But here is our gift to the world: when the battle is finished and the enemies are quietened but the placards are broken and the houses have burned to the ground – we are the ones who will show you, stone by sharp-edged stone, how to build them up again from the foundations. We are the keepers of wisdom, the carriers of stories, the apprentices of the old crafts. When the blackbirds gather, we know what they are saying. It’s what we do; it’s who we are. We carry the resistance forward in our hearts and in our hands.
Together, we can change the world. Mythos and logos, the actors and the holders, a perfect and beautiful balance. Each of us fighting that good fight in the only true way we can: the way that each of us was designed to fight. Each of us respecting and valuing the unique energy and special focus of the other’s gift.
In thinking about all of this over the past couple of days, I turned again to a passage I scribbled down in a notebook a good few years ago now. It’s from an essay by Freya Mathews, an Australian philosopher whose work has focused (among other related subjects) on the ways in which we might reclaim a panpsychic worldview today. In this passage she is writing about what happens when a student of Western philosophy rejects the determinedly materialistic, rationalistic worldview which has prevailed now for so many centuries, and instead begins to look to the world around her for answers. For me, it’s been a kind of personal manifesto for a good while now. Print it out, and stick it somewhere where you can see it every day. Because this too is the resistance. And it’s a mythical resistance, for sure.
‘Once the philosopher has embarked on philosophy in this new key, she will never be the same again. She will, for a start, be increasingly reluctant to return to the office. Her sources of insight are now beyond the walls. She is drawn to places of revelation … she is disposed to teach in place, mediating the wisdom of a communicative world through the particularities of a given place. The metatext of her message is that wisdom is not the province of human thought alone, but of human consciousness in conversation with the world.
In order to optimise her receptivity to possible communiques, she will find herself in flight from the distractions of a materialistic civilisation. Her way of life will become materially simplified. Absorbed in her subtle concourse with a larger, responsive world, she will be inattentive to the crass blandishments of a consumer society. In time she may no longer fit the respectable mold of the middle-class professional, but may find herself reverting to the ancient mode of the sage, roaming the countryside or dwelling in place, constituting in her very person a challenge to the complacencies of middle-class somnolence, whether that of the professional or that of the dedicated consumer.
Alive to oracular signs and poetic emanations, mightn’t she evolve into the kind of figure who, ‘flashing-eyed and floating-haired’,* could point the way out of modern insentience? Weave a circle around her thrice indeed, for where might she lure us? Into the embrace that, as moderns, we have taken such trouble to flee? Isn’t this embrace – that dissolves our discursive blinders and enables us to hear the imperatives to which we have so long blocked our ears – the embrace of the real?
Where will these imperatives lead, if not underground, into a cathedral of innerness vaster by far than the plain theatres of existence we can at present conceive?”
Freya Mathews, Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture. State University of New York Press, 2005
*The reference is to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, ‘Kubla Khan’.
Featured image: Andrea Kowch ‘The Blackbirds Are Gathering’ http://www.andreakowch.com