Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Civilization Weakens Us

One thing I miss the most being in Australia is mountains. It still beats Houston’s pancake landscape, but the luxury to hop on a plane and go summit a peak isn’t here. I recently read Peter Jenkins’s AWalk Across America, in which he famously walks his way across the US with his dog in the 70’s from Connecticut down to Texas and up to Oregon over 6 years. Peter comes across a man named Homer, who lives and breathes mountains alone in a cabin after having an epiphany that he wasn’t cut out to succumb to domestic life. After spending a few days with Homer eating food caught with his own hands and reflecting on conversations which you could only describe as primeval and real, (i.e unclouded by civilization and its pretentious ignorance), Homer warns Peter he would be back because “once you get a taste of mountains, it’s in your soul.”

Last year in Colorado I lost myself in the mountains attempting to scale Mount Elbert on my own. I veered off the path for 2 hours only to realize the faint path I was on completely faded and I was on the wrong face of a mountain in bush 7 feet high and sizeable shit I could only assume belonged to a bear. It took me another 4 hours of fear-induced exploration to find the path again, but it was revealing and forced me to tap all of my resources to do so. I had to mentally trace my path out, conserve my energy without any food left, ration my water and use a compass to get my bearings to find my way back before it got dark. While I wouldn’t wish that situation necessarily upon myself again, it was the highlight of my trip to utilize survival skills and find my way out of a hairy situation. It felt natural to explore and avoid a potential predator like our ancestors have always done.

Civilization and its comforts make us weak. Processed food, temperature regulation, soft beds, hand sanitizer and a means to relieve any form of suffering can be mitigated too easily. Accompanying ailments as a result of such lifestyles are diabetes and depression, just to shortlist a few. Last year my friend and I passed through the Redwood Forests of Northern California only to find abandoned souvenir shops, desolate roads and abysmal crowds surrounding the largest trees in the world. People are no longer getting in touch with their evolutionary desire for nature and instead sitting couped up switching from monitors to television screens, worrying about Netflix queues. The US, which makes up approximately 4% of the world’s population, consumes 25% of its resources. It goes in hand with the fact that we have some of the fattest, sickest and unhappiest people as well.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues the same. He advocates that civilization makes us unhappy because we’re forced to subdue our primal instincts to comply with laws and extend the utility of civilization as an object, not as something composed of beings. He theorizes the human desire to maximize happiness by increasing modes of pleasure while minimizing harm initially led to the advent of civilization, allowing us to survive amongst one another with strong community bonds. As civilization has progressed, however, our animalistic selves haven’t, leading Freud to conclude our ability to be happy has diminished and continues to do so (counterintuitive to its original aim). The beings therefore suffer on behalf of extending the perversion of civilization with more money and power. But money and power are inanimate. Striving for it feeds the beast of civilization, which as Freud states, makes us unhappy. Freud doesn’t seem intent on solving this issue, which is evident in the shortness of the work, but he wants to inform us of civilization’s shortfalls and its ability to cause unhappiness.

Our fears of Mother Nature and death have more or less been overcome with the building of shelter and creation of religion, respectively. What haven’t been quelled, however, are our natural primal and aggressive drives, which civilization cannot allow running rampant or it would lose its grip on its citizens. It does, however, wage wars on other countries and feel animosity toward neighbours as an outlet for this aggression. Religions can be classified in its own category for doing the same by alienating other faiths through mass violence (The Crusades, anti-Semitism). By living our lives in such civilized manners without recognizing it and finding the wrong outlets, we develop compensatory mechanisms such as guilt, extreme order and cleanliness and consumerism to temper these drives and comply with the bleakness of domestic life. Eat a myriad of food, work like a monkey, follow routines, church, birthday dinners, drunken nights, get sick, buy crap we don’t need, repeat.

So if you’re driving and feel aggression to the person driving too slowly or you feel like beating on ignorant people, don’t kick yourself in the head and think something is wrong with you. Your primal outlet is speaking out naturally and balancing the civilized things you have to do the majority of your time to comply with stringent standards. By finding ways to sublimate your aggression (without retorting to violence or abuse), you can balance your civilized life without developing neuroses. I’m not trying to advocate a life of seclusion on a mountainside, but on my giant quest for truth through scepticism of all things taken at face value by the majority, it’s my hunch that too much of what we’re doing and striving for is unnatural to our evolutionary roots. We need to temper our primal instincts with time away from it all and practice self-sufficiency – my Achilles heel being mountains.

Ishmael describes this feeling beautifully at the beginning of Moby Dick, where he lays out a typical setting in New York City where men gather around on their days off contemplating the ocean and dreaming of a life at sea. He explains this as the reason he goes to find the elusive whale because like these men, he feels emptiness in his soul which he knows could only be quenched with adventure. The rest of the novel follows in tow and is a reason it’s still a timeless book. That idea is so pervasive and can’t be contained within man too long without dire consequences. So go explore!


The Blind said...
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Christine said...

What about Buddhist monks? I'd say they have been able to abandon their animalistic instincts while remaining pacifistic and not outwardly, at least, aggressive.

Danimal said...

I don't know enough about monks or Buddhism for that matter to comment accurately.. just assume. What makes it more confusing is Freud argues all the aggression is a manifestation of the libido so add a monk's celibacy to the equation and it confuses the issue more. But Freud argues a big way primal instincts are sublimated is through the development of a guilty conscience via the super ego so a lot of the violent aggression doesn't happen anyway. (Which is why violence and S&M happens fairly rarely in the scheme of all daily interactions) So they could be some remorseful, unhappy, guilty feeling bald folks. You could also argue they're not as exposed to the rules of western civilization to the standards we are.