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THE SPLITTING OF HUMAN NATURE


In D.H. Lawrence's novel, The Rainbow (1915), written when he was only thirty years old, his narrator observes Brangwen, the main character, reluctantly answering questions from his young daughter Anna about his relationship to his wife. As the narrator blandly remarks, "He did not want to have things dragged into consciousness." The line startled me. I thought everything that could be dredged up out of the dark was the goal of what Aristotle called "the examined life," the only one worth living. The Greeks had invented a wall between conscious and unconscious existence, thereby distinguishing humanity from the rest of nature.

They explained this split in human nature with the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, the musician, lost his wife to the underworld and was granted a favor from Zeus -- he could retrieve her if he could trust her to follow him up the windings steps back to the living. Near the mouth of the cave he could not hear her footsteps and turned around to see if she was there. She was snatched back into the darkness forever. It is a story about how imagination lies in the dark of the soul, out of reach. Freud made his living attempting to understand this realm that sometimes caused a person to go mad.

If the Renaissance gave us anything, it was the belief that everything on earth could be explained, by reason, analysis, common sense. Da Vinci was the prime example of a man who could take apart any strange phenomenon and figure out its parts, make a copy of it, and hold it up to humanity as a new invention. Things could fly, if you knew how to install the right propeller; art could mirror nature so well that you would rub your eyes at the miracle of perspective. It was impossible not to think of man as the new god of the age, the primum mobile. The Church tried to root out this spirit and used all its Savonarolas to immolate as many heretics as it could before giving ground to the humanists, the man-worshippers of the 17th century. Christianity had split in two, and was now at war with itself, denying priests the power to intercede for God, and Catholics rejecting the notion that reading the Bible was sufficient to reach salvation. Science was laying the groundwork for a knowable universe, one that had no transcendent powers, just molecules rubbing against each other to create the galaxies and, by Darwin's time, man himself.

Industrialism simply finished off the argument that there were no gods in nature, just raw materials for constructing the city of man. By the 18th century, coal mining was supplying the energy for the new vision, whose collieries and ore trucks D.H. Lawrence knew as a child growing up in the English Midlands, the son of a man who labored his entire life underground and who became brutish and coarse in the process. Like other miners, he drank up his paycheck at week's end, and staggered home to dry out before returning to the darkness by Monday. The dark had become a slave to the mind, and by devouring its opaque contents one could light dwellings and towns and continue the work of science and rationality. Such was the plight of the whale as well, a creature of the ocean deeps whose blubber was rendered into lamp oil, as Melville showed in Moby Dick.

This is why Brangwen's refusal to explain his feelings to his daughter struck me as illuminating. He was going backward in time, picking up attitudes that had lain idle for centuries. Lawrence's language betrays his dread of the industrial age when he says his character did not want to drag everything into consciousness, as if feeling and instinct were the coal inside the body, to be hauled to furnaces to be burned into fleeting brilliance. I am reminded of what James Hillman says in Healing Fiction, that Christianity's banishment of polytheism ended the era of having many voices in one's soul, to turn to for consolation. The moment monotheism replaced pagan belief marks the dawn of mental illness, the isolation of the ego from all its unexplained resources in the banished dark of the unconscious.

The lonely soul of the 19th century, caught in the gloom and poverty of the mechanical city, is portrayed in Blake's poems, in the pining for the green woods in Wordsworth's lyrics, in the escape from rationality in De Quincy's Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in Baudelaire's sketches of night-time Paris in The Flowers of Evil, and of tormented minds in Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle. The nineteenth century's artistic output was a critique of humanism that grew into the protests of 20th century movements from Dada to Abstract Expressionism and to the embrace of drugs into the cultural mainstream.

Brangwen did not say he wanted to ignore the urgings of his unconscious, just that he did not want to articulate them, and thereby destroy them with an imposed logic that did not perceive nature but rather wished to master it. Isn't this what the German sociologist Max Horkheimer meant by "instrumental reason," in Eclipse of Reason, which is not the analysis Aristotle employed to parse phenomena, but the jaws of a devouring logic looting nature for human use? It does not enrich our understanding of the relation between man and the wild, but acts rather like Cargill does today, bulldozing the Brazilian rain forest to grow genetically modified grain crops.

The Renaissance was a brilliant first act of a human tragedy, which the West proudly owns as its legacy. The promises of man knowing his world by fiat of his rational prowess has turned into a nightmare of destruction. We tremble at the thought that our future is now a combination of nuclear threats and a world so deranged by pollution and exploitation that it no longer functions to sustain the life that grows on it. The darkness has been mined down to its granite caries; hardly anywhere remains untouched by the toxins of Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, by acid rain, by land mines, sarin gas, by ethnic cleansing and wide-scale genocide. Man is a mad animal, Peter Weiss says in his play, Marat-Sade, a creature deranged by hubris, destroying the realm of secrets and unexplained events lying in the dark of the mind like so much loam, fertile with seeds not yet germinated. We have squandered something precious and regenerative within us, thinking it was some awful zone of evil ruled by witches and mandrakes.

You know we were on the wrong path to the future when humanism had hardly found its voice than the great forests of Europe were being felled, and after them, the immense pine belt of America, stretching from Maine to Mexico. The tree came to be associated with the rival power of nature to hold back man, and the more they were cut down, the better for man's construction of an empire in the wounded world. Now we look for other Edens unblemished by the hand of man in outer space, with Enceladus, the sixth moon of Saturn, beginning to look like a possible new home. Saturn is the Roman god of agriculture, and stands for the power of earth to govern itself through its infinite fertility.

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