The Corona Condition is a last gentle warning from the gods
Aseem Shrivastava | 01 May, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise
invisibly in us?—Is that not your dream,
to be invisible, one day?—Earth! Invisible!
What is your urgent command if not
— Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘Duino Elegies’
WITHOUT NATURE, WE are not. Rilke, in common with the Romantics of a much earlier era, believed that nature was invisible spirit and spirit was invisible nature. It is in this sense that the earth wishes ‘to rise invisibly in us’. This is why by the end of his Ninth Elegy, the poet finds an ‘excess of being’ welling up in his heart.
But this is not all. It appears that in the process of arising within us, the earth has dreams for us! In a gentle defiance of the European Enlightenment vision, let us seriously consider the possibility that Rilke is right, that perhaps the Earth does have dreams for us, in the manner that a mother has dreams for her children. And like a mother’s dreams for her children, the earth’s hopes for us must have power, if anything infinitely more power than the dreams of a mother.
If this is true, might we be accursed fools to seek the fulfilment of our own small dreams, when it might be truer to believe that we ourselves are perhaps being dreamt by enormously powerful mysterious forces, not merely from the belly of the earth, as Rilke’s poem suggests, but perhaps as much from the cosmos which appears to us merely as a benign sky? Might we be part of Brahma’s sleep, dreamt by the Creator in three dimensions, just so we could occasionally pretend to be God ourselves? Might we ourselves be utterances of the Divine, the God gone astray in the flesh, as the French poet Paul Valéry once said of human language?
In her uniquely insightful book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt observes that from the oneness and wholeness of earth and sky, we have been reduced by a worldview ruled by science, to man versus the universe. Thanks to the scientific revolution since the 17th century, consolidated materially in the industrial revolution from the century that followed, we seem to be held, often inadvertently, in an antagonistic relationship with the natural world and the cosmos, not excluding our very own, very natural human bodies. We remember the true happiness of our bodies but occasionally now, surrendering normally to an age of appetites unleashed by galloping markets and their media.
It is the cognitive hegemony of this view of the world that the Corona Condition represents. It is this antagonistic view that the insignificant virus challenges. We have never been more alienated from the earth. As many around the world have divined, the virus is a messenger, a goblin, an imp who issues a last gentle warning from the gods. There is even a debate among virologists as to whether a virus is dead or alive. To an amateur like myself it seems like an innocent denizen from that primitive twilight zone between matter and life about which who can know anything without a powerful electron microscope? If that…
For now, the virus rules the street. It has driven all the privileged among us into our digital burrows almost indefinitely, a condition which would have been widely (if not universally) regarded as insane just a month ago. The poor in the hundreds of millions have been squeezed under the global conceptual arm of the lockdown. Some have walked 500 km to reach home in seven days. Others have cycled 2,000 km to ride to their village, bribing policemen where they could not evade them. Yet others have fallen on the way home. Ghar wapasi is not always pleasant or easy.
For so much of the educated segments of the living human race to try to suspend all of life in order to fight a common enemy, to believe that we are all on the same battlefield and to go after such an insignificant, invisible thing all guns blazing is more a monument to the state of global idiocy, as fearful as it is fearsome, that we have long lived with than a tribute to our knowledge and awareness. Idiocy derives from the Greek ‘idion’, referring to that which is exclusively one’s own, in contrast to ‘koinon’, that which is shared. Those trying to privatise the planet may take note.
If Rainer Maria Rilke were alive today, would he not ask the earth, ‘What is your urgent command if not transformation?’
As totalitarian technocracies continue to imagine they are in control, surely the micro-organisms are having a quiet laugh at our expense.
Though indigenous and traditional cultures have typically held Mother Earth to be sacred, mainstream modernity is not even accustomed to thinking of the earth as living, let alone having hopes and dreams for us.
We are led to seriously consider the conditions on which life is given to humanity. I say ‘given’, since none of us ever asked to be here.
If my students’ anxieties are any index, this is a question which can no longer be postponed even for a second. It has become ever more urgent to unlearn pride, recognise humility, unlearn knowledge, recognise ignorance, unlearn habit, recognise wonder and miracle.
So far as I can tell, these are the moral imperatives of the Corona Condition.
I teach at Ashoka University something called ‘ecosophy’. I once found myself describing it to a colleague as the truant child of ecology and philosophy, congenitally disloyal to both parents, often absconding from them, listening idly to birds in a meadow or taking long aimless walks through Himalayan oak forests. It is not scientific enough to draw the regard in which ecology is held. Nor is it arcane enough to command the customary respect of philosophy. Sometimes, I rather think it is much too simple for someone who has gone through decades of modern education and upbringing. The unlettered, on the other hand, perhaps instinctively know what I refer too much too well to even be able to articulate it in words.
I follow the Spanish-Indian philosopher-theologian Raimon Panikkar who very gently and gracefully defines ecosophy as the “wisdom of the earth”. He carefully clarifies that “it is the earth’s wisdom of which Man is the interpreter, more than our ‘human’ wisdom about the earth”. (For, that would be some sort of science.) “We need to listen to the earth and learn from her,” he says. “Ask the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field, and they will teach you,” he says, quoting the Bible.
Such a quest must have been elusive enough in biblical times. In an age ruled by the church of technology, ever so remote from the living geography of the earth, where the globe’s cloud elites wish to ‘build a smarter planet’ and millions wish to do ‘business @ the speed of thought’, an enterprise like ecosophy is more likely to perish for fear of highbrow intellectual ridicule. That is, when it finds any room to breathe through the cracks in the vast manmade artifice we inhabit now.
Though indigenous and traditional cultures have typically held Mother Earth to be sacred, mainstream modernity is not even accustomed to thinking of the earth as living. Let alone having hopes and dreams for us
Ecosophy looks askance at the metropolitan imagination which accompanies such an artifice. It contemplates the manmade global hardware and software of modernity. It examines closely the enormity of the violent estrangement from nature that the edifice, built assiduously over intelligent centuries, entails. It tries to study with love the alienation and nihilism which stalks modern consciousness. It explores the hypothesis if this alienation is the consequence of the denial of nature all humanity suffers now.
However, ecosophy does not stop there. It proceeds to renew its sensuous and spiritual experience of the natural world, humanity’s origins in it and our inevitable destiny towards it. Most importantly, it seeks the Eternal that elusively glances at us through the shadows of time, always dancing in the midst of nature and the cosmos. This is what Panikkar refers to as ‘the Divine dimension’ of human experience, in the absence of which he believes it impossible for any environmentalism to be adequate to the challenge of the evergrowing planetary ecological crisis that has faced all humanity for much more than a generation now, threatening to draw us into the abyss of the future, into terminal climate chaos, unless…
Up until a month ago, the juggernaut of globally structured greed—of which mortal fear and terror must be the inevitable concomitant in consciousness—was continuing its accelerating journey after the scare of the Great Financial Crash of 2008. And then the virus struck. The highest authorities have warned that the GDP in the wealthiest nations on earth may collapse by up to a quarter to one-half percentage, unemployment rising to upwards of 20-25 per cent. It is being referred to as ‘a greater depression’, the biggest ever slump in the history of industrial societies over the last quarter of a millennium. A few days back the International Labour Organization reported that 400 million Indians could fall back into poverty. In other words, all the gains in the reduction of poverty from a generation of globalisation could be entirely wiped out this year itself. Especially if farmers lose the motivation to harvest the grain.
The virus has given us pause, albeit a terribly uneasy one. It is succeeding in doing what those of us involved with education so often fail to do: making everyone think.
The skies are falling. How are we to live now? Before we think of getting out of the ditch, we must ask: How did we get here? How could we ever be led to believe—as virtually all modern political thought holds—that humanity could ever find its freedom and joy independent of nature in the first place? Who can live without trees and animals, mountains and oceans?
There are deep material roots to the ecological crisis. Ecosophy does not ignore them. It only tries to correct the imbalance by drawing simultaneous attention to the cognitive roots of the crisis. After all, every one of us bases our lives on a certain view of the world. It is then crucial to critically scrutinise and dissect it when it is so evidently falling apart.
Intellectual modernity owes its early lineage to three key 17th century thinkers who pre-date the European Enlightenment: The grandfather of modern science Francis Bacon spoke of ‘the conquest of nature’. He spoke of ‘binding her to our service, of making her our slave’. The father of modern philosophy René Descartes promised that using modern scientific methods of investigation we will one day become ‘the lords and possessors of nature’. And perhaps most ironically, Thomas Hobbes cast a dark cloud of suspicion not merely on nature, but also on human nature, when he said that in ‘a state of nature’ the life of man is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Wonder what our Adivasis or the Amazon communities would have to say about that. For Hobbes, the state of nature would inevitably become a ‘state of war’ or even a war of ‘all against all’. To prevent such an inevitable catastrophe, Hobbes argued for an artificial monster that he called ‘Leviathan’, which would ensure order in an otherwise chaotic universe. These are the anxious origins of the modern state. Not coincidentally, Hobbes wrote Leviathan just after the English Civil War. The enormous irony of Hobbesian bad faith should be noted, given what a ‘war of all against all’ has been unleashed precisely in a world of powerful states. Is this war because of the state or despite it?
How far all this is from a culture which should have been heir to the eternal values of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’!
We can now see why neither Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj nor Tagore’s Sadhana are taught in our schools and colleges. The colonisation of the mind must be sustained for the ruthless forces of competitive industrial modernity to be acceptable to human society. Ideas like vasudhaiva kutumbakam are too dangerous especially for today’s rapidly modernising Hindus!
What is true for individuals is as true of societies: a serious crisis reveals us. While some risk life and limb to heal the sick, others spend precious time seeking the racial or religious origins of the virus. What we need to know is that the sickness outside is merely a mirror of the sickness within. If our hearts are barbarised and our diets are corrupted and we go poking around remote ecosystems with our battery-operated equipment, not even letting the seabed rest in peace, should we be surprised if Mother Nature releases strange new pathogens from the era of the dinosaurs to defend the primeval aquatic life of the oceans?
Greed is the original tyrant, the inner termite which destroys a civilisation from within. It breeds a terrible restlessness, which the environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert has called ‘Fasutian’. Today, its prime vehicle is the inescapable smartphone.
Over a month ago, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. The world has been unveiled for us in this short time, a view not normally available. The curtains have parted ever so briefly to reveal the nature of human reality. We do not know how long they shall remain parted and we must make skilful and opportune use of this opportunity to learn all we can about what we have been living, about what we have been asked and made to live for a very long time, stretching back at least a generation to the dawn of digitised globalisation.
We can see why Rabindranath Tagore’s sadhana is not taught in our schools and colleges. The colonization of the mind must be sustained for the ruthless forces of competitive industrial modernity to be acceptable to human society
Even now, we are so slow to learn. Is this a war? To a permanently militarised imagination, it seems that fear is a much more available source of motivation than love or compassion. Modern consciousness is ever primed for war, especially in the recent digital era. Of one thing I am sure. If we think of this as a war, we are bound to ultimately lose it, for this is neither the first nor the last of the devastating crisis that global modernity will face. If you disagree with me, I will gift you a copy of Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Let us be absolutely clear that war is not the way to peace. There is no way to peace. Peace is the way. And it is the way to health—as much for each of us as for our beloved earth.
Mother earth is our only home. Are we ready to abandon her for the greener pastures of another planet that the space fantasists never fail to promise us?
Everyone knows that time is running out for us. The corona moment is perhaps our last reasonable opportunity as a species, a window of opportunity before we are permanently locked out. What we will do—and more importantly, unlearn and undo—in the next few years will decide our species destiny, whether we will rise to the occasion and abandon fear for love, or sink forever like evolutionary mutants into the sea of oblivion. I remember thinking the same thought on the evening of 9/11.
If Rilke were alive today, would he not ask the earth, ‘What is your urgent command if not transformation?’
The best one can do at a fierce moment of civilisational trial like this is to remind ourselves of the old virtues and verities: faith and patience, kindness and compassion, forbearance and truthfulness (for which it is not necessary to know the truth, only important not to lie, cheat, deceive or deny). Raimon Panikkar counselled the Greek practice of metanoia—a profound feeling of regret and atonement, tantamount to a radical change of heart, a spiritual revolution. Among friends, one finds the courage to renew one’s deepest commitments and refresh ancient hopes.