Welcome to the May 2014 edition of the Animist Blog Carnival! For this month’s theme, the ABC hosts its first-ever virtual book club — exploring the work of renowned animist and Druid author, Emma Restall Orr.
Last summer when I first picked up Orr’s The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, I was anticipating a memoir-like book rich with the poetry and storytelling that has come to characterize much of her work. By its outward appearance, The Wakeful World is a slim book with a beautifully minimalist cover. I’d tossed it into my suitcase as I packed for vacation, thinking I’d squeeze in some light reading between our morning hikes and afternoons by the pool.
Boy was I wrong! I ended up reading this book out loud with my partner every evening that week — and for almost a month afterwards — during which we found ourselves constantly setting the book aside to discuss the nuances of Orr’s complex and fascinating ideas. Despite its unassuming appearance, The Wakeful World is no lightweight. It takes up tricky topics such as the nature of consciousness and mind-body dualism, and carefully examines them from every angle, drawing on the insights of some of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western philosophy.
In the year or so since I first read it, I’ve returned to this book again and again. (The pages of my copy are now worn and bent, the margins thick with notes — the highest compliment I can give to a writer!) But what I’ve enjoyed most about the book are the endless discussions it’s provoked. There is so much to chew on, and plenty to disagree with and debate. When grappling with questions about the mind, the soul and existence itself, every reader will inevitably bring their own unique perspectives and experiences to the discussion. This wonderful variety is reflected in this month’s ABC. So without further ado, let’s get to it!
Our first review comes from Brian Taylor, who welcomes Orr’s contribution to the growing plurality of ideas about modern animism. In his post “An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr,” he writes:
In a talk posted on her website she tells us that she finds animism exciting and dangerous because it offers an alternative to Western consumer capitalist culture’s objectification and exploitation of many human beings, other animals, forests, and so forth. In Wakeful World she wanted to hone a definition of animism that would stand its ground against other world views, and help us deconstruct self-sabotaging assumptions in the process.
As a confirmed pluralist I welcome this book. We need a range of perspectives. I like the way in which Restall Orr develops her thesis, step by step, throughout the book. The research behind her most recent offering has clearly been a labour of love, and there’s much of interest here, not least an extended consideration of the mindedness of nature.
Brian also points to an aspect of Orr’s book that falls somewhat short, in being primarily a philosophical work less concerned about how these ideas might have personal, spiritual relevance for the individual animist. Weaving his review of the book into a reflection on the power of astrology and divination, Brian raises some important questions about the bleakness of some of Orr’s theories about purpose and beauty:
Emma Restall Orr’s ideas are certainly interesting, but, despite her assurances to the contrary she sometimes writes as though defining a singular animism, and speaking for all animists. Responding to Whitehead’s teleological God, who guides the universe towards the production of beauty, for example, she writes ‘there are no such benevolent gods in the pantheon of the animist’. Well, no single teleological god, perhaps – but no benevolent gods, guiding us towards beauty? There is a bleakness in this omission that, once again, I’m uncomfortable with. I know about ‘brutality’, but the beauty I’m surrounded by feels more fundamental and enduring. There’s bleakness too in the statement that ‘as no more than a flow of percepts, of changing contextual data, the self actually has no purpose, no meaning at all‘. If that were so, how could ‘we’ enter into long term relationships with other (meaningless) selves? Why would ‘I’ want to ‘create a sustainable and peaceful world’? Why would I find that the pattern of the planets consistently reflects the capacities, challenges, and intimate concerns of individual human, or other-than-human lives? Why would any of this matter?
In his post “The Mind of a Rock: Musings on Orr’s ‘Wakeful World’,” Jeff Lilly draws on his professional background in linguistics and computer engineering to dig into the implications of Orr’s theory of “minded nature” for a modern society where the lines between technology and biology, man and machine, are increasingly blurred:
Orr’s take [on the mind-body paradox] not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind. […]
Orr’s work leads us to a very different conception of mind: one in which humans are no longer at the top of a great chain of mental being, no longer kings of cognition, but simply possessed of a brain that is very well adapted to our needs — not too constrained, not too free, not too malleable, nor too rigid, for our ecological niche and social natures. Just as Copernicus dislodged humanity from the physical center of the universe, this reading of Orr dislodges us from our psychic pinnacle. Instead we’re part of an ecology of mind, one in which the tiny brightly lit mind of the beetle is as valuable and miraculous as the vast dark mind of Mt. Ranier.
Over on the Naturalistic Pantheist blog Nature is Sacred, Matt shares a review of The Wakeful World that explores how Orr’s animism can offer a solid foundation for theories of panpsychism and panexperientialism, two important concepts in his own philosophy. He details the overlap between these concepts in his post “Everything Experiences!“:
One of the Yule/ Christmas presents my partner gave me this year was a book called “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature” by Emma Restall Orr. It is a fascinating book yet I have found a lot of it very difficult to understand and am still trying to get my head around the concepts explained in it. Much of the book is made up of looking at different philosophies and building a theory of metaphysics to explain the world as an Animist sees it. This post isn’t exactly a review of the book, but it will use a lot of the information from the book to explain the idea of Panexperientialism/ Panpsychism and what it offers to Naturalistic Pantheists. […]
I have come to the conclusion that an Animism based on the theories of Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism is a valid, reasonable and ethical worldview that can bring many benefits for Naturalistic Pantheists who choose to incorporate it into their life. It answers the Mind-Body problem and gives a foundation for Animistic Ethics of treating the world and all life with respect, reverence and honour.
In a beautiful embodiment of the power of animistic experience, the “Dad Who Writes” Gabriel M. Clarke shares his personal reflections on Orr’s book one cold night at yoga camp, in his post “Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World“:
You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.
Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held. […]
The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?
I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.
Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read [Orr’s] book.
In the introduction to The Wakeful World, Emma Restall Orr notes that the book can be considered a prequel to Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics, developing some of the philosophical ideas that were first proposed in her earlier work. While most of our ABC bloggers this month focused on Orr’s more recent text, Chas Clifton shared a review of Living with Honour he wrote in 2009 that can give some context to the on-going development of Orr’s ideas:
She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This “nature” is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: “The *Pagan acceptance of nature’s destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence.” You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.
Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition! […] The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of “hard polytheists” to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the “honor the gods and do your duty” attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life–even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system. Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?
[…] Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics–I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what “nature religion” is–I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.
For readers like Chas, The Wakeful World will answer a good number of these criticisms, though not all of them. Orr continues to develop her conception of nature as grounded in the “planetary” even as her discussion reaches beyond this understanding of the natural world to include the “cosmic” and ontological. But as a modern animist grappling with the legacy of such eminent and influential thinkers as Kant and Whitehead, Orr’s approach to Pagan and animistic thought remains thoroughly rooted in more recent developments of the Western philosophical tradition, taking ancient Greek and Roman thinkers as a foundation but not limiting her discussion to them.
Finally, for my own contribution to the ABC, I offer a recklessly ambitious, two-for-the-price-of-one review of The Wakeful World by bringing it into conversation with Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science to place Emma Restall Orr’s work in a broader cultural context. In my post “The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 2)“, I continue my on-going exploration of anthropocentrism in Pagan theology and ritual by considering how Orr’s systematic and speculative approaches to animistic philosophy are rooted in the evolutionary insights of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors:
Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. […] Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.
Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths.
There is so much more to say about The Wakeful World, and I have no doubt it will become a cornerstone of modern animist thought, provoking discussion and debate for many years to come. Thank you to all who participated in this month’s Animist Blog Carnival!