It’s like every conversation has to be about Covid-19, which in this digital age means the viral has gone viral. So what’s the ecomythic angle? What would we hear if we heard Nature Calling, if we tuned into the stories that are arising out of the earth, communicating to us about how we live on this planet? How we live as human animals, but also beyond the limited consciousness of the mortal; in the body, but also from the imagination, which flies beneath, below and above the physical frame, from the stars to the embers, as cosmic consciousness embodied here and now …
Well, think of it like this. What do you call an invisible enemy, which attacks your life support system from within, can be contracted by touching a surface that shows no sign of the infection, either stops you breathing altogether or merely gives you a dry cough, mutates occasionally as it crosses hosts, appears and disappears without a trace, sometimes not even showing up for the diagnosis, even with the best of modern medicine at hand? And what about when it creates total chaos around the world, shuts down the capitalist system, keeps nearly everyone cooped up at home and inspires panic buying of essentials like toilet paper, even when it can’t be seen?
Covid-19 has been talked about in terms of its symbolic potential (eg by Charles Eisenstein), and most importantly its ‘meaning’ in terms of the ecological crisis, but what about its ecomythic spirit? What kind of creature is this, that appears out of nowhere and has such powerful effects, completely rearranging human life almost overnight? A superstitious witness to such events would want to know what demonic spirit let this evil force loose upon the world, as well as what the victims did do to deserve it. This touches on the karma of the situation too, which points us back to the rise of the various plagues that have afflicted humanity over time. An objective observer would have to ask – has this got something to do with the way humans treat animals; seeing as living in close contact with them has something to do with it, and you’re doing this in order to eat them, skin them and trade them?
The existential level of questioning gets pretty brutal pretty quickly, but this is appropriate if you want to look the truth in the face (or as closely as you can get to this before you feel the need to look away). Joseph Campbell pointed out that compared to the human ego, the mythic universe is ‘adamantine’ in its challenge – harder than a diamond and as unflinching as nature when it comes to dishing out just rewards. If the human race is about to reap what it’s sown, over millennia of ecocidal abuse, then we should prepare for a near future of disastrously epic proportions. This looks like apocalyptic sci-fi on steroids, as the oceans begin to repel excess carbon and heat (its time of being a passive soak for our bad behaviour is effectively over). The only reason we can’t face the reality of this situation is because it is too horrible to digest; such a truth would make a mockery of all our plans, our love for our children and grandchildren, our hopes for the beautiful life this planet supports. But now that climate scientists have taken the gloves off, having admitted they’ve been too polite for too long, it’s time to face the future and its ecomythic power – to upset our dream of never-ending human glory, as even conservative commentators are now admitting (even if sometimes begrudgingly).
The dream of endless growth is closely associated with fantasies of immortality and these can be tracked across the history of human myth. Although such wishes exist in every culture, the dream of living in everlasting peace with an ultimate power (for example a Christian God) or in a field of deathless energy (such as the Buddha’s nirvana) seem like harmless fantasies compared to the scale of what modern, technologically developed societies do with the human lust for immortality. Because our modern world rejects both Gods and the liberation offered us by a mythically-informed depth psychology, we make our desires manifest instead, in desacralised rites of consumption.
That’s right folks, if we can’t have eternal afterlife we’ll just fill up right here, thanks. The sensual thrill of satisfying appetite – of fancy foodstuffs, of cars and hotel rooms and exotic holidays and sofas and sex & drugs & rock ‘n roll and electric light and everything – fills in for the spiritual paradigm we lost on the path to our materialistic paradise. This one, which is costing us the earth. Ironic, no? But wait, there’s more …
The paradox of ephemeral satisfaction – of feeling we have overcome the limits of life in the body, life on earth, in a materialistic orgy of consumption – is an ‘all feast, no famine’ deal we made with technology. It comes as a historical result of the agricultural myth (from around 10,000 years ago), that we can profit from the earth and not pay the ultimate cost, which is then dialled up by the machine age of the industrial revolution (starting around 250 years ago), then made global by colonisation, then exponentially skyrocketing over recent decades, as digital technologies concentrate our dream of being both primate and god at once. How about that? The more worldly and less seemingly religious we have become, the more the great spiritual ideal of living free and forever has taken hold of our imagination, like a feverish dream.
This is the karmic law of Covid-19. It’s not just that we reap what we sow, that we deserve to die en masse for treating the earth and its other animals like disposable resources for our profit. It’s also an Oedipal paradox: as we try to escape the traditional versions of our subliminal desires (for God/Nirvana), they revisit us in exotic new forms, from behind and below, in our dreams, when we’re not looking. We treat the earth like dirt and it gives birth to new lifeforms, some of which threaten to wipe us out in its name. It’s viral karma, joining the unprecedented bushfires and magnified superstorms and every other fury unleashed by the earth we thought we’d controlled for our own purposes.
Just as Freud saw, the primal desire of ‘man’ (if not all men) to consume the mother’s body in a pervasive rite of carnal satisfaction cannot often be fulfilled by the individual male at large in society; but we can find myriad other ways to feel filled up on mind-blowing power, to feel fully nourished and filled with love, warmth and self-fulfilment. Sadly, many of these ways are not so wholesome or respectful of ‘the other’ that is required to satiate our desires. Many of the ways a patriarchal capitalist framework like ours offers to satisfy our inner needs are very far from being kind to others, or to our planet.
We cannot help wanting stuff, as embodied beings, but we have a choice as to how we satisfy our desires. Sure, if we are born (or ‘fated’, as the ancients would say) to be a certain type of person, to want certain things as a way of feeling satisfied, it can seem almost impossible to change that. Put another way, we are coded towards certain predispositions, both as a race and as individuals. We seek nourishment, shelter, company, as a species; and perhaps lust, intoxication, the thrill of the gamble, any other sin to any degree, or none of them – perhaps the quiet life, a simple family existence, escapism or hard work. In any number of ways, we have a program from birth, a personality type, things we can change and things we cannot. As the old saying goes, wisdom is the capacity to discern which is which, to try and change what we can for the better and to accept what we cannot. The aim of a wisdom tradition is to offer guidance so that we don’t get lost in the labyrinth of our own desires, so that we come through the darkness of our challenges and find new light, integrating what we learn from our weaknesses and foibles and expanding our sense of self, so that we become greater and more spiritually generous, not giving in to our base desires and becoming more mean and selfish.
By contrast, contemporary capitalist society is 360 degrees of influence aimed at exactly the opposite outcome. It directs you to your cheapest thrill, your most immediate appetite, offering to satisfy it so long as you play the game. Likewise, modern politics – especially since the rise of the ‘Big Man’ era [find link?] – is designed to appeal to your fear of the other, to target difference as the problem, to become more judgemental and aggressive about your opinions. It’s only a small step from fighting over toilet paper to supporting war, and the same drive informs both – we are right, they are wrong, and we have a lot to profit from beating them. War is the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, riding across the horizon, following the Fires, Plague and Floods let loose by anthropogenic climate change. And all of this acts as a reflection and a logical result of how large-scale, colonising, capitalising societies like the West and China have been treating nature for millennia. Only now do we see what our unleashed power looks like, in the mirror of the world, as it unravels to reveal the hidden desire beneath those ads on television, that screen you’re reading this on, the constant news of the destruction of our world: the horrible irony that we have unleashed the demons of death by trying to run away from them. Only this time, according to the global power of unrestrained corporate greed and the military industrial complex (as we used to call it), the death we wanted to avoid is revisiting us on a planetary scale.
Oedipus was warned he would kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he ran to escape his fate, thereby making sure it happened, just as the seer predicted it would. We were warned too, by the sober deliberations of climate science, yet rushed headlong to our collective demise in the rush to satisfy the gamut of our desires, as if there were no limit. Ultimately, the ancient Greek tragedy has its redemptive aspect; Oedipus ends up a lot wiser and even has a sacred place named after him. It’s unlikely, short of a miracle of transformation, that our esteemed leaders will be afforded any such respect by future generations, if they are even to appear.
Oedipus is “filled with an inner strength as his fate nears” – he stands and walks (long after his horrible fate, having killed his father and married his mother).
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