Apophatic animism

One objection that eco-extremist thought gets over and over again is that it lapses into mysticism / superstition as if it were some New Age fad, this time with bombs. To tell the truth, grappling with eco-extremist writings both as a translator and a thinker myself, I have to admit that I too have problems at times with this newfound “spirituality” of certain eco-extremist writings. For example, I am going to cite a passage from an untranslated article that is a sort of “self-criticism” for having taken seriously the communiques of a group called “Guamera Eco-extremist War.” After having shown that their over-the-top communiques were most likely the result of “trolling”, they then cast this curse:

“We shit on their lies, we cast bloody fluids on their suspicious intentions, and we curse their bodies and minds with all of our deities.

May the dark Mesoamerican lords Tlacotecolotl and Miclantecutli torment them and devour them alive!

May the pagan curses take away their sleep and destroy these impostors!


The modern person of course can’t help but roll their eyes at that, and I have the same temptation. I don’t because, while the good anarchist or leftist may condemn “superstition” because they think that they know history, I know history even better so I think twice about doing it. Hegel wrote somewhere that, while ancient Greeks could bow to idols, modern man no longer can. That is because he has made an idol of himself, of his scientific achievement and understanding of the world. While I will go further than many “anti-civilization” advocates in my appreciation of modern science and technology (mainly because of what they do, not for what they stand for), I know full well that they too are a product of a certain form of religious thinking, of a genealogy that goes back past Einstein and Newton and into the Renaissance magic, Neoplatonism, Scholasticism, Aristotle, the Pre-Socratics, etc. To refuse the “mystification” of Nature based purely on Enlightenment rationality seems to stop well short of the historical origins of “rationality” in the West. I don’t see secular thinking as anything other than a minor deviation from all of those trends. 

That might be a good point on the abstract level, but in concrete terms, modern people are radically separated from “spirituality” as anything other than a consumer choice. Eco-extremism itself has made this point, as in Halputta Hadjo’s long essay, “The Calusa: A Savage Kingdom?“:

Before discussing Calusa religion and the Spaniards’ opposition to it, I feel that it is appropriate to discuss briefly the schism in the modern mind between religion and knowledge. To get immediately to the point, religion for the vast majority of its existence has been an eminently practical thing. That is, how people believed and how they knew were one in the same. That is because human beings usually do not have the luxury to make leaps of faith, hoping against hope. “Blessed art they who have not seen, yet believe,” would have been an unfathomable premise to any “primitive” person, and this was most likely the case with the Calusa. Their spirits and their environment were one, their religious practice and their way of life were one, and there was no reason to doubt them because they were based on the things that constituted their daily reality. The Calusa believed in a world full of gods, something that we cannot possibly conceive of in our very Western and very secularized mentality. Thus, challenging their beliefs was challenging their way of life. Out of most of the peoples of their region, it was the Calusa who held out the longest in their beliefs. They were never conquered, but rather disappeared gradually, along with the spiritual world which they inhabited.

In the modern West, we don’t see that it is our spirits, or rather the Earth, that feed us. Civilization feeds us, technology clothes us, morality protects us, etc. Thus, it is no surprise that even the most “radical” of hyper-civilized ideologues looks back at past systems of approaching the world and finds them wanting. He feels no connection to them, he might respect them, but he isn’t going to subjugate himself to any numinous entity, or pretend that he’s its messenger, etc.

How then does one approach the idea of “paganism / animism” (yeah, there’s a difference, but I don’t care at this point)? How does one recover “gods”, is it even necessary, desirable, etc.? I feel Halputta Hadjo in his essay already addressed that point at the end of that work, but I will provide my own approach. The following is my own (half-assed) attempt to be an animist in the 21st century, with all of the contradictions in thought and none of the cool rituals. It’s my attitude, and mainly my realization that I will probably never have what I need, because feeling that I “need” it is the problem in the first place.

My own coming into the anti-civilization critique comes from a sense of place. Indeed, influential books for me in the past few years have not been about theory, but about where I plant my feet now and where I have planted them. For example, I took great pleasure in translating ITS’s Sixteenth Communique from the city of Torreón, Coahuila. This is the city my grandparents are from, and my mother was raised in a small village on its outskirts. I often went there as a child for the holidays, and my one sense was always that it was ugly and unappealing. A desert with not much to look at, smelling of farm animals and dilapidated adobe buildings, I did not look forward to my visits there. Indeed, I’ve sort of blotted out the memory of the landscape from my head. So this part of the communique rang true for me:

Wild Nature has been destroyed, the ideal future is so grey and inert. We attack from this reality. We are individualists waging a war of revenge. We do so in the name of the mountain that was destroyed to make a super-highway, for the flora and fauna destroyed in the name of progress. In our being we hold the essence of the river that disappeared when they built the great dam…

Torreón and its citizens deserve it, those who in practice collaborated with the spread of techno-industrial civilization. You look to the horizon and you see the black artificial hill created by the “socially responsible” Peñoles Corporation, as well as poisoned water, contaminated air, and flora and fauna annihilated by the ceaseless expansion of the city. For all of that… three dead seems very little.

Now, I am not the greatest fan of the histrionic prose. I hold my nose and do my best to translate that stuff. But the sentiment is not far from what I feel. While I am the first one to admit that nature changes and changes often, what modern humans do to their environment is still repulsive and maddening. It’s not the change that’s the issue, it is the rate of change plus the hubris behind it, the shortsightedness, the failure to stop hurting our surroundings that is merely an extension of our hurting and alienating each other. I came to the conclusion some years ago that if you can’t love your surroundings, the water, the trees, the air you breath, etc. you will love nothing. And yes, for me, in that world, ITS makes sense. Call me a psychopath or whatever, I don’t care.

Like the eco-extremists of the Laguna, I look at that place so distant now in my childhood memories, but also to the place where I grew up, to the rivers and swamps that dried up when the water was used to irrigate fields and support thirsty livestock. I look to the rivers around here that the old timers say used to be clear when they were growing up; you could see to the bottom of them, but now they are now grey and opaque. I look to the baby pines and cypresses, and to the few great cypresses, thick and wise, knotted with age and fierceness: the remaining old growth trees that weren’t cut down to make the Great City I can see across Ok’wata. The eco-modernist and progressivist will tell me to let Wild Nature go,, to not mourn but to look forward. I refuse this, I refuse it with all my being. While the other hyper-civilized see nothing but strip-malls and parks, I see a crime scene, indeed, the scene of the only crime worth addressing. My existence and the existence of those I love is based on a lie, a social order that has no right to be here. Or it does have a “right”, but it doesn’t deserve my respect or loyalty. Not one ounce of it.

I admit that I can’t be an animist like primitive peoples were animists. I know that stars are just dead balls of gas, that the moon is a cold rock orbiting the Earth, that illness is the result of microbes and viruses and not of a powerful shaman three villages away casting spells, and so on. I know these things, but why I know them is the problem. I know them because of a system for which I am a means and not an end. I know them because of a system that is rational when it addresses things, inanimate matter that it can manipulate, but has no idea how to organize and control actual human animals in many circumstances. I know them because of a system that endangers the Earth for the sake of dollars or dumb ideologies. My adherence to an “animism” is my preferring not to have known them. That is of course not possible now, I can’t give myself a lobotomy regarding modern knowledge. But I can be well aware of the price, and state that it still isn’t worth it.

I have an exceptional theological / spiritual formation, though it is in my ancestral Catholicism and some other spiritual paths I have investigated haphazardly. I have to admit that an adherence to “animism” leaves me cold because I know too much about ritual and dogmas to go about concocting my own. I am never going to be able to conjure up Mesoamerican gods and curse people with a straight face. But neither am I going to be able to condemn people who do, quite the contrary. I may not be able to bring myself to believe that the trees, the rocks, the deer, the alligators, the bayous, etc. all have spirits, and all are suffering due to our afflicting the planet with our carelessness and greed, but I acknowledge that I would like to do so. Still, I have those moments of attentiveness, those moments of awe and wonder that all of us should have before Wild Nature, and that is enough for me I suppose.

Apophaticism is the theological school of thought that states that we can only approach the Divine or Transcendent through negation. That is, we know the Divine not through what it is, but through what it isn’t. My own belief in animism is that all human ideologies fall flat, all are the result of turning in to one’s own head, towards one’s ideas and certainties, rather than turning out. Eyes are meant to see things, ears to hear them, tongues to taste them, etc. Things are primary, not those faculties of ours that perceive and process them. My true being is outside of myself, and the meaning of man is outside of his own history… I can’t conclude this reflection better than by citing Robinson Jeffers’ poem, “Credo,” in its entirety:

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young blue-gum

And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting

The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual

Appalling presence, the power of the waters.

He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my blood

Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.

Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only

The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;

The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The mind

Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;

The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty

Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.


2 thoughts on “Apophatic animism

  1. “While I am the first one to admit that nature changes and changes often, what modern humans do to their environment is still repulsive and maddening. It’s not the change that’s the issue, it is the rate of change plus the hubris behind it, the shortsightedness, the failure to stop hurting our surroundings that is merely an extension of our hurting and alienating each other. I came to the conclusion some years ago that if you can’t love your surroundings, the water, the trees, the air you breath, etc. you will love nothing.”



  2. Weren’t the ancestors of conquerors animists and spiritual believers as well? They were. So why is your mesoamerican spirituality more true and righteous, or just less dangerous than theirs? Did you ever consider that believing in such things might be one of the many factors that led us to destroying the Earth as we have?


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