Breaking the Spell IV: the Village Philosopher

I asked myself again today…why call this series of essays “breaking the spell”? And what do you know, but I did indeed have answer, possibly more subtle than a reader might at first assume.

The first reason to call it “breaking the spell” more obviously comes from the need for us all to shake off the hypnosis perpetrated by our all-too-powerful culture, involving ideas of success, what we call meaningful, how we relate to each other, etc. Not that it differs from any other culture in its ability to hold its members under a memetic sway…only, this culture (seeing it broadly, as the world-devouring machine that spans the planet) gets credit as the first human culture against which the majority of its members needed to defend themselves to achieve any happiness or heart’s-ease. Imagine that.

The second reason comes from a possibly thornier issue, the problem of this culture’s conception of reason, common sense, logic, and symbolic thought.

In my past writings, I’ve tried to loosen its ownership of such things, enough to allow the possibility of not just what apologists and supporters of indigenous peoples call “other ways of knowing”, but of an entire other sphere and culture of inquiry. Not, “modern science plus intuition”, but instead a seamless whole, that I call Tracking, but one can also call “animist inquiry”.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this site talking also about animist language, the very semantics (“meaning”) and syntax (structure) of thought. In other words, how you speak controls how you think. If you use a language that differentiates between two objects, you will tend to see them as separate things. In Russian, “rukey” means hand. “Rukey” also means arm. In fact, it means hand-arm. The language deals with the foot/leg similarly. Fun fact: if you’ve read Tolkien’s book the Hobbit, you’ll know that Hobbits, a fictional race, have hairy feet. In russian translations of the hobbit, the (russian) illustrator drew hobbits as having hairy legs and feet. Not just feet. And not just one russian illustrator did this, but all the ones I’ve seen. Yet illustrators from other countries (and languages) consistently drew only hairy feet.

Does this mean Russians cannot discriminate between two parts of the human anatomy? Obviously not. It does mean that on some level, their language impedes their ability to discriminate in certain areas, as with all languages. Much like with English and its various controlling constructions (like the verb “to be”), we can talk around the handicaps of our language, and struggle (and succeed) to describe nondual phenomenon like quantum events, but in the end we still dwell in a language-world that pushes us towards dualism, that fundamentally biases us.

You can also imagine what Science then does to a human heart, a science that assumes a dead mechanical world, however coldly beautiful to the technician.

All this to say, “breaking the spell”, to me, addresses spell in its origins of “spelling”, having to do with the building blocks of language and symbolic thought. Literacy has acquired such a towering influence over us that many people think that “if someone wrote it, it must ‘be’ true”. Nothing could lie further from the truth…if someone wrote it, it doesn’t match reality, though it may have some use as a model of reality. But then, we’d have to go out and test it, to see.

Nothing spoken, written, or recorded in any fashion can do anything more than point to a line of inquiry, which we then have the choice whether to follow up on.

This culture keeps us occupied by supplying us with so many dead-end lines of inquiry, that many will never test anyway (but instead simply take on faith), that we hardly ever reach the opportunity to test something that actually works well. We spend most of our time mitigating the experiments and lines of inquiry that have wounded us (9 to 5 jobs, poorly matched or maintained relationshiops, unsatisfying models of success, the cult of authority/expertise/accreditation, etc.).

I read a book not too long ago called the Village Herbalist, which advocated the renewal of old traditions of herbalism, having an herbalist in each home who could deal with day-to-day needs, one in each village who could deal with the rarer and more acute medical needs, and one in each region who dealt with the most rare and most subtle of medical dilemmas. None of the different herbalists had more “expertise” than another, they in fact simply had different needs that they served.

I’d like to encourage the same with animist inquiry. We have to relearn how to think, relearn how to observe. We have to rewild our philosophies. We have to take back authority over our bodyminds away from our domineering culture, in order that we can build lives (and a new culture) that actually works well for us. A Village Philosopher could act as a cheerleader, an inspiration for such a difficult and (let’s face it) intimidating act. Sometimes people just need a role-model to accelerate positive change in their own lives.

In the next post, I’d like to talk about an underdeveloped skill, in modern days, that a village philosopher would need to revive.

Written by Willem