In her award-winning examination of the nature of war, A Chorus of Stones, critically acclaimed author and feminist Susan Griffin showed new ways of thinking about society and war, about private and public lives. In The Eros of Everyday Life, she once again takes readers on a startling journey, showing the profound connections between religion and philosophy, science and nature, Western thought and the role of women, and the supremacy of abstract thought over the forces of life. Featuring the brilliant original title essay that is nothing less than an intellectual and emotional exploration of the nature of Western society itself, as well as Susan Griffin's best previously published essays of the past decade, The Eros of Everyday Life combines the beautiful lyricism and sensibility of a poet with the intellectual rigor of one of the finest and most original minds writing today.
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About the Author
The author of more than 20 books, Susan Griffin has won dozens of awards for her work as a poet, feminist writer, essayist, playwright, and filmmaker. Her book A Chorus of Stones was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The recipient of an Emmy, a MacArthur Grant, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is a frequent contributor to Ms. magazine, the New York Times Book Review, and numerous other publications. She lives in Berkeley, California.
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The Eros of Everyday Life
Essays on Ecology, Gender and Society
By Susan Griffin
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Susan Griffin
All rights reserved.
Sometimes It Is Named
So this is how the world was made flesh,
though surely the word came after
the sublime idea, after the sea's
withdrawal and the island's emergence
with first birds and giant lizards
carrying their young into the pampas.
— Lynn McMahon, "Poems at Christmastime"
Clever, but schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers — not the defined.
— Toni Morrison, Beloved
Sometimes it is named. Sometimes not. A movement, a ripple moving through the social body, a new shape in the shared thought of a society. This time it is a meeting. Distinct visions are coming together: the understanding that nature is a source of meaning encounters the hope for a just society. There is no simple name for what is occurring. But certainly a familiar habit of mind, already frayed, is dissolving.
To describe this shift in consciousness, a phenomenon which is still unraveling, one must include the presence of the less defined too, that which one cannot easily discern from what we mistakenly call background. Because to know the texture, the full complexity, or the wanderings of this latest form of social change, is to witness a phenomenon that cannot be found in one place alone. Its genesis, as with the genesis of any authentic movement in thought, is not located in any single book, essay, or even conversation. It arrived as if in a congregation, in a confluence of events, thoughts, words. The union took place, and is still taking place, through meetings between social forces, ideas of spirit, gender, equality, empire, progress, democracy, events such as the building of factories, the invention of machineries and technologies in cooperation or collision with natural existence, great bodies of water or the needs of the mammalian body, forests or the earth's atmosphere, the life cycle of salmon, the hieroglyphs of DNA.
The change proceeds in so many directions I cannot be its narrator. I am instead immersed in the atmosphere of this motion myself, my own thought changing even as I write. But I can speak of a philosophical shift I am witnessing in my thinking, a shift that is beginning to occur in the political, social and religious assumptions which I have inherited and which persist in Western culture today.
These old assumptions are as much the focus of this essay as is another kind of thought just emerging. Yet because the assumptions that belong to a culture are often invisible in their fullest dimensions and consequences, one must make them visible before discerning change. The very process of seeing the structure of thought is itself a crucial kind of change and genesis.
Much of what I write about here, the fragmented identities which also divide society by injustice and conflict, an equally divisive and hence alienated approach to knowledge, the spoiling of nature, the building of empires, warfare, has been written about before. But there is a thread that connects all these, a psychology and a sad destructive logic common among them which one senses yet has remained in many ways revealed.
I would like to report that the growth of another way of thinking is inevitable, an approach that posits consciousness as part of nature, an experience of knowledge as intimacy rather than power. But there is no foregone conclusion. The domination of Western thought expands even now throughout the world. Because the subject of this work is thought, the mood may be reflective. Yet this is the reflection of an intelligent animal, searching for solutions to what may be a catastrophe in the making. I write with a sense of urgency. If my thought is part of a larger and continual evolution of thought that is still partly incipient, at the same time that it is cracked open here and there by a few words, it is also a response to a crisis that is yet unfolding too, and still unrevealed in its full dimension.
The activities of highly industrialized human society threaten the ability of the earth to sustain life. This is a staggering observation, difficult to take in: human society is destroying life on earth. Yet the condition is palpable. Air grows thinner, and death becomes more common among species. Here where I live, the last stand of the oldest redwoods on the face of the earth is threatened. I was born in California. I know the feel of the bark, have watched so much of the old terrain vanish.
And yet another terrain seems to vanish too, if not the fact of land, of a certain orientation, a map of the world, stories of creation, histories, and, along with this, ways in which the world made sense and heaven and earth were connected into one pattern of meaning. If somewhere a shift in consciousness occurs which promises to open up new possibilities to the imagination, this is not the pervasive mood. One senses instead a kind of disintegration, a fragmentation of meaning as an older order which once unified and explained experience fails.
Even the popularity of fundamentalism, which on the surface might belie meaninglessness, can be read as a symptom of a fundamental lack of meaning. The grasp seems too tenacious, as if the intent were to rescue something that has already been lost. The very rigidity of belief signals an inward collapse, as if any fuller vision might reveal faults in the vision. What is no longer present in these doctrines is that quality of motion which identifies life. If the appearance of stability is the principal virtue of such a philosophy, still such an inflexibility has a quality close to death. And this can only bring despair, the kind of desperation that leads to violence.
But at this moment desperation has a wider provenance. One feels it at the core of contemporary sensibility. Coming of age as I did after two world wars, one is wary of belief. The difficulty deepens, as so many utopias fail, and ideals are betrayed even by their own achievements. At times the only meaning that seems possible is meaningless itself. That over the last two decades deconstruction has permeated almost every form of inquiry with doubt is only part of this larger mood of unraveling. In Race Matters, Cornel West writes about the "cultural decay and moral disintegration of poor black communities." This is a disintegration one encounters everywhere, among the most and least privileged. Children murdered, or murdering each other, a panoply of violence, warfare, rape, abuse, and the widening gap between rich and poor, hunger, deprivation etched in too many human lives. This is our social landscape.
It is in this atmosphere that I write. My thought, shaped by this particular place in time, California near the end of the twentieth century, resonates to these crises, both social and environmental. To an old, and perhaps not entirely perceptible, habit of mind, these two deteriorations, that of nature and society, are scarcely related. For centuries the European culture into which I was born has pitted the necessities of nature against the requirements of society. In this culture, the guiding paradigm of action has as its goal a mastery of nature. And one still thinks along these old lines. If there are not enough jobs, if there is not enough food on the table, not enough money for schools and medicine, society cannot afford to worry about preserving a forest, or one species of owl, a certain kind of fish. Instead, the habitual response has been to extend the length and breadth of human control over natural process.
Yet, writing now, I do not find the loss of forests, the loss of a way to make a living, and a sense of meaninglessness unconnected. There is a resemblance in the look and feel of a field that has been polluted with chemical waste, a neighborhood devastated by poverty and injustice, a battlefield. And this resemblance is not coincidental. The alienation of human society from nature has led to many different kinds of destruction, not the least of which has been the fragmentation of consciousness.
Still, at this moment, many different movements come together in my mind. In the small city where I live a protest continues against the careless storage of radioactive waste in the green hills that I see even now out my window to the east, a region seasonally threatened by fire, prone to earthquake. In my thoughts this protest mingles with stories I hear from a friend about successful efforts to clean the Ganges River in India, and these mingle with what I know of movements for the survival of first peoples, the Sami of Scandinavia, the Mbuti Pygmies of Zaire, the Karen of Thailand. And I do not separate any of these movements from efforts to democratize American society, to understand the consequences of rape and abuse, the causes of war, prejudice, injustice.
I am not alone as I try here to trace these attempts at change to a shift in the deepest levels of meaning we share. An early, still fragile meeting in consciousness between the care for nature and a care for human society offers a glimpse of a possibility redolent with promise. If human consciousness can be rejoined not only with the human body but with the body of earth, what seems incipient in the reunion is the recovery of meaning within existence that will infuse every kind of meeting between self and the universe, even in the most daily acts, with an eros, a palpable love, that is also sacred.
But this is not an easy juncture; it requires more than simple addition. By the science of ecology it has been established that all phenomena in nature, including human beings, are interconnected. And in the modern social world the interdependency of human beings and human societies with each other as well as with nature is in some ways beginning to be better understood now. Yet to act in concert with these insights or, even more crucial, to cultivate states of being and ways of living which are located in this knowledge is not simple.
When fundamentalists say that the problem of contemporary society is that no one believes in anything anymore, this is only partly true. The problem lies also with what is believed. Underneath almost every identifiable social problem we share, a powerful way of ordering the world can be detected, one we have inherited from European culture and that alienates consciousness both from nature and from being. Even as I write, the progression of words, sentences, ideas are social, and arise from history, a history that burdens perception at the same time that it enables vision. In my own life, whenever I have sought change I have had to reexamine certain assumptions in my thought. And even if I have come to see again and again that when I strip away the old structure it is not simply chaos that I find but another order of meaning, implicit in my own experience and in the life of the earth, this is a fearsome process.
Since my earliest childhood, I have witnessed a slow and complex process of change, sometimes hardly visible, often contradictory, by which an old idea of the cosmos disintegrates and another vision emerges. Though the collaboration has often been subterranean and has involved far-flung, disparate, even divergent minds, the effort is social. "History," as John Edgar Wideman has written, "is driven by mind in the same sense a flock of migratory birds, its configuration, destination, purpose, destiny, are propelled, guided by the collective mind of the immediate flock and also the species, all kindred birds past and present inhabiting Great Time." The motion of this change does not have that air of historical inevitability that has been claimed by other social movements in this century. It is filled instead with conflicts, reversals, ambiguities, ambivalences, false paths, and above all that abiding fear which, however great the need and hope for transformation, must of necessity accompany a shift that is so deep and momentous in its potential, a fear that at times makes consciousness appear to be rigid and unchanging even in the midst of motion.
I came of age in a time of intellectual confinement. These were the middle years of the twentieth century which followed in the wake of terrifying violence. The Second World War ended eight months after my third birthday. This history has shaped my moral imagination. Good had won over bad; democracy had triumphed, or so it seemed. But the celebration was shadowed. Almost immediately, a war of a different kind began, one with atomic bombs, then missiles, then nuclear warheads that were tested, paraded, stockpiled, or used to threaten. And the intellectual atmosphere was mobilized, too. One was schooled in a new wartime rhetoric. The enemy was close. Certain ideas entered the realm of the forbidden.
Though my grandfather was a Republican who sat on the edge of his seat while he watched the televised Senate hearings, cheering as Joseph McCarthy conducted his interrogations, by the time I reached fifteen years of age, I was a radical. In my second year in college, I was even investigated by the FBI for my own activities in a growing student movement. I had attended meetings of a Marxist discussion group. Members of the Communist Party were there, perhaps hoping to find new recruits. They were what my father would have called nice guys, but I slept through the meetings. A few years earlier I had read my first socialist literature, including Marx, and been strongly influenced. I believed in economic equality, and the Marxist insistence on the material causes of history was crucial to the development of my own thought. But for reasons which were only vague to me then, I found this talk of the proletariat class and the means of production somehow fusty.
It would take me years to understand my boredom. The Cold War had divided thought by the most rigid moral categories. From the establishment's perspective one was either an anti-Communist or un-American. Radicals and liberals who defended free speech were publicly shamed, marginalized, informed and spied upon, hounded from jobs, forced into unemployment and poverty, driven to despair and even suicide. And the Rosenbergs had been executed.
The ambience of the divide was stifling. The effect was to polarize the social imagination. Dissident thinkers of every kind found it difficult to criticize either China, the Soviet Union, or Marxist theory for fear of being used in any fashion to aid or abet the witch hunt. One way or another rigidity came to characterize thought on both sides of the partition.
I was not aware then how much my own thinking had been foreshortened by the habits of this polemic. In a decade captivated by a false grin, what was crucial was simply to be able to speak the unspeakable, to break the silence. Families praying together on billboards, shiny new cars, dozens of housing tracts, built just yesterday, but all for tomorrow. Progress is our most important product, was the slogan, uttered before a yawning refrigerator door, a metaphor beamed by electronic waves into millions of homes across the country.
I was born in the City of Angels Hospital in a Los Angeles already so filled with asphalt and highways that the shape of the place, a wide bowl between several ranges of mountains, skirted by the Pacific Ocean, was scarcely visible any longer. That my mother was anesthetized during my delivery, or that she fed me according to her doctor's instructions, by a statistically devised schedule, instead of my own hunger, seemed somehow to be part of this altered landscape. As I grew up the city increased its sprawl with tracts of boxlike structures. Here was an architecture based on efficiency that yielded to no other human or natural impulse. Taken together, the look of the city ran against the grain of consciousness, of any connectedness between one person and another, to place or history.
I went to high school in the San Fernando Valley. When I lived there before as a five-year-old child, in a small tract house, we were situated at the end of the block, near an orchard where my sister and I spent hours together. In my mind this is still a rich, almost mythic place. At the other end of the block there was an open field with an old barn at its center. I liked to go there simply to stand and gaze at the field. At six I moved back to the city. By the time I returned several years later, there was hardly any sign of such places having existed. One evening when my friends and I were gathered together drinking a few cans of forbidden beer one of our group appeared to announce that he had something amazing to show us. Eight of us crowded into his small car. He drove us on an intricate route out to and through the latest housing developments. We were not headed in the direction of Topanga Canyon, or the Hollywood Hills, but to a little patch in the center of the valley, wedged between developments that had somehow survived. It was a small hollow, intensely green after a new rain. At the bottom of it, where we got out of the car, all you could see was green. No wires, no houses, no other cars. And you could feel the wet, dark soil. It was nothing more than that, a small valley. I had seen the dramatic mountains of Yosemite, camped in the High Sierras, driven with my father along the steep cliffs of the Northern coast, walked in the desert as it began to bloom, but for years I remembered this valley and the astonishing contrast it offered to the larger valley where it was hidden, that flat, unredeemed place with its quietly deadening ground.
Excerpted from The Eros of Everyday Life by Susan Griffin. Copyright © 1995 Susan Griffin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI THE EROS OF EVERYDAY LIFE,
1 Sometimes It Is Named,
2 A Collaborative Intelligence,
6 The Eros of Everyday Life,
II ESSAYS, 1980–1990,
Where No One Dwells,
Inside the Door,
The Uncharted Body,
Canaries in the Mine,
The Internal Athlete,
Walking Through Amsterdam,
In the Path of the Ideal,
Ideologies of Madness,
Inheritance of Absence,
Something Wants to Be Seen: on the Art of Lenke Rothman,
A Biography of Susan Griffin,