21st Century Animism

Why would I qualify the timeless, ever-renewing relationship of animism with a modern, calendrical, millennial marker? Why might a person, wanting to create more life in the modern world, use the phrase “21st century animism”?

In my continuing discovery of Christopher Alexander’s work, from his books the Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, published three decades ago, to ones published in the 21st century, the Nature of Order, and Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets, I’ve had a growing sense of the important, even vital, contribution Alexander has made to what I call the Rewilding Renaissance.

For a long time now, I’ve felt dissatisfied by the “sack-cloth and ashes” approach to redeeming ourselves in the community of life, and finding once again a place where we belong. I’ve seen many folks I work with in outdoor education, disappear into clothing of muted earthtones – muddy browns, grays, fading greens and blacks.

This way of dressing says a lot to me now; for now I believe that in order to survive, and thrive, as a human people, we must learn to make beauty. That, in the most real and practical sense imaginable, survival means beauty. I don’t mean ‘pretty’; I mean deep feeling of profound beauty, a ‘rusty beauty’ of the depth of everyday life. Look around you at the forest, at the seashore. Everyone you see has arrived at their beauty – the waves, the wind, the dry grass, the call of birds – because they have survived, because they have fit in and adapted to the natural demand that we all live a beautiful life, or perish.

Some of the folks I worked with would object when I’d bring up the idea of a “renaissance” of Rewilding. To them, it made them think of paintings, sculpture, music, rather than primitive skills and wilderness survival. I would always respond to this by jumping up and shouting “exactly!”.

In this spirit, I have the first of a series of quotes from Christopher Alexander to share, that I think further flesh out what it means to have a Rewilding Renaissance.

From Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets:

I have become convinced that a [woven] carpet [as having reached their pinnacle in early Turkish village carpet weaving], when it is a good one, reverberates with some kind of primitive and archetypal force, that it has in it some kind of being, that it connects with some primitive, almost animistic “soul of the world” — and that the carpet must be judged, in the end, according to the degree to which t does, or it does not, make a connection with this force.

In this sense, it is in its power, very much like the great bronze castings of the Chinese Shang dynasty, which establish an almost magic force, by establishing themselves as beings, in some realm, which connects us to itself, to which we are connected, which is an absolute realm of beings, and whose functioning is almost entirely animal-like, spirit-like, not matter-like, almost conscious — it is as if the thing, the bronze, or the carpet, establishes itself in my own belly, as a voice, speaks with my own voice, exists with my own force, and forces my awareness of an ultimate mother, or an ultimate creature of which I am a part — and which exists in me.

This nearly animistic view of carpets is consistent with the recent discoveries, already mentioned, that have centered around the tradition of prehistoric art in Central Anatolia. The essence of the view which lies behind these discoveries, is that what we naively call beauty, and what we experience as artistic force, lies in the creation of an object which speaks directly with my own inner voice, that there is, at the heart of all things, a single voice of universal blackness and thickness and light, that speaks in all tongues, and that holds all force into itself.

A carpet, when it holds the almost magical force which all carpet lovers recognize, holds this force, because, to some degree, it embodies this original voice, lets us see this original animal force that exists in ourselves. I believe the same is true, of every artifact. As a builder, I am trying, every time I make a building, to reach a connection with this force, and to make a thing, which fills us, with this animal and animistic force. The force, though primitive, and almost alien, is that underbelly of ourselves, which makes us human. Though unrecognizable, and almost taboo, because it is by turns violent, lustful, peaceful, and absurd, is nevertheless that thing which, to the degree it comes to life in us, makes us live innocently as people in the world.

Written by Willem