The Lingering Echo of Rousseau

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Martin LeFevre

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, despite or because of our cynical age, retains a powerful hold on the post-modern mind. Nowhere is that fact more apparent than with Western notions of indigenous people and their relevance for the 21st century.

A good example of the lingering echo of Rousseauian romanticism is the Global Oneness film, “A Thousand Suns.” It’s “the story of the Gamo Highlands of the African Rift Valley and the unique worldview held by the people of the region.”

That sounds anthropologically interesting, but the trailer contains a worldview of its own, packed into a single sentence: “Shot in Ethiopia, New York and Kenya, the film explores the modern world’s untenable sense of separation from and superiority over nature and how the interconnected worldview of the Gamo people is fundamental in achieving long-term sustainability, both in the region and beyond.”

In philosophy, this is what’s known as making unexamined and unsupported claims. How is the Gamo people’s interconnected worldview fundamental for the modern world achieving long-term sustainability? Do we really understand the causes of our “untenable sense of separation from and superiority over nature?”

And doesn’t the worldview that divides the modern world from the indigenous people also betray an untenable sense of separation?

On one hand, “A Thousand Suns” gives eloquent testimony to an ancient way of life. Anyone with any feeling for the Earth cannot help but be moved when one of the farmers in the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia, who have been tending the same soil for ten thousand years, says, “People think the air is not speaking, the soil is not speaking…there is a kind of spirituality when the sky is roaring with thunderstorms and the rain is coming…”

The problem arises with the modern interpretation of such an attitude. The indigenous feeling gets lost in translation, and becomes a sentiment and an ideal. When an ecologist in the film talks about “how little the landscape has been touched by the past century,” she is holding up the Gamo people as an example of how humans could live in harmony with the Earth.

But that isn’t possible, and it’s at this point that indigenousness idealization becomes dangerous, both to industrialized peoples, and to the indigenous people themselves.

On one hand, modern and especially ‘post-modern’ people like to complicate things, because complexity provides a ready-made excuse for inaction, for remaining in one’s pattern. On the other hand, hearkening back to a simpler time, and imagining that indigenous people can show us how to live in the age of computers and cell phones, provides the kind of emotional warmth that even digitalized humans still need, although it’s as manufactured as a virtual reality video game.

The simple truth is that we cannot go back. What indigenous people can do, by providing a window in man’s past, is spur humankind forward in conscious transmutation. They can only do so however, to the degree that they remind us of what we have lost as humans and stand to lose as human beings.

Duality is all the more pernicious when it purports to unify what cannot be unified. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the coherent and cohesive world of stories, myths, and cosmologies of indigenous people, and the eroded and empty inner world of digital man. Cultures once grew organically in a geographical context, and they pertained only to a whole people. Not anymore.

We can no more go back to cultures of all-encompassing symbolic and spiritual meaning than we can step back in time. We are here, and what few indigenous peoples remain are dying, like the Earth itself at the hands of man. The more we hold them up as an ideal the quicker we extinguish these last pockets of man’s past of relative harmony with nature.

A theologian is quoted in the short film: “Religious cosmologies have helped ground humans in this immense universe, and give us the tremendous sensibility of aliveness of the natural world…starting of course with indigenous cultures, who knew this in very fundamental ways.”

Such grounding is no longer possible for humans, and human beings don’t desire it. Stories, myths, and cosmologies still have their place in the digital age, but once humans left the Garden, metaphorically speaking, we lost the embrace of the old ways.

Neither countries nor cultures really matter anymore. We cannot go back to a Rousseauian past, however viable it was, and may still be for a few. The way ahead is transmutation.

Martin LeFevre