The Danish anthropologist Knud Rasmussen and his Greenlandic Inuit companions Miteq and Arnarulunguaq embarked on the Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–24) in order to “attack the great primary problem of the origin of the Eskimo race,” an immense project that required trekking via dog sled across the vast Arctic expanse that stretches from northern Greenland to the Chukchi Peninsula. When their epic expedition drew to a close on the shores of the Bering Sea, the adventurers could at last begin their return journey, sailing from Nome back to Copenhagen with an extraordinary haul of some 15,000 ethnographic and archaeological objects in tow. It was during a brief stopover in Seattle that Arnarulunguaq looked out the window of her hotel chamber and expressed sheer astonishment at the scale of the cityscape surrounding her. Nothing in her native Thule or her recent polar peregrinations could possibly have prepared her for the high-rises and skyscrapers that loomed overhead — structures like the Pioneer Building, the Alaska Building, the Home Building, and Smith Tower. “It is strange that people never mimic the large animals like polar bears,” she wryly observed, “but always the small animals like lemmings.” Later, in the “stony desert of New York,” Arnarulunguaq admitted, “I see things more than my mind can grasp; and the only way to save oneself from madness is to suppose that we have all died suddenly before we knew, and that this is part of another life.”
Arnarulunguaq’s characterization of urban life as a sort of eldritch alternate reality was apropos, but her comparison of modern city-dwellers to lemmings was not entirely fair. Lemmings are, after all, winsome creatures who spend their days nibbling on moss and berries and dwell in cozy burrows outfitted with toilet facilities, nesting rooms, and rest areas, all delicately lined with feathers and muskox wool — a sort of rodential hygge — whereas the urban life of our species is increasingly defined by what Léon Krier has called “the generalized barbarity of the machine that colonises cities and landscapes with mediocre dwellings and boxes.” And while lemmings have occasionally been known to suffer mass casualties as a result of misjudged migration routes, they do not actually commit collective suicide, whereas it is hardly uncommon, as we know, for panicked human beings to head full tilt in the direction of the nearest (usually metaphorical) cliff.
The Inuit, Yupik, and Chukchi peoples, for their part, could hardly be accused of living like lemmings, understanding as they always have that, in the words of the great angakoq (shaman) Igjugarjuk, “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of men, in the great solitudes; and it can only be attained through suffering. Suffering and privation are the only things that can open the mind of man to that which is hidden from his fellows.” By dint of inhabiting the most inhospitable landscape our planet has to offer, they have closely familiarized themselves with suffering and privation. Knud Rasmussen, writing in The People of the Polar North, found that as a result
When living this primitive life, one develops a quite extraordinary feeling of well-being in the heavy, dozing satisfaction that leads to sleep and dreams. You take your rest when it offers itself, and you take it thoroughly, and drink it in deep draughts; that storm and misfortune must be slept through, is the sound principle of the Eskimos. Then, they can take a brush [i.e. a blow], when necessary, and there are few of us civilised men who have as much staying power. The chance and hazard of existence brings many surprises, and you soon learn to seize and enjoy what life offers.
Inuit maligait (natural laws), atuagat (cultural laws), and piqujangit (communal laws) are predicated on this “staying power,” on individual and collective resilience, tenacity, and the maintenance of “protective factors” like traditional activities, languages, healing practices, and spirituality, alongside the principle of qanuqtuurniq, “being innovative and resourceful in seeking solutions.” Right now I imagine there are a great many Qallunaat (non-Inuit) who would envy such prodigious staying power amidst the chance and hazard of our times.
One of the last places I happened to visit before the generalized lockdown went into effect was the Dennos Museum in Traverse City, home to one of the more extensive collections of Inuit art and artifacts in the country, where one can take in works from such luminaries as Kenojuak Ashevak, Kananginak Pootoogook, and Pitseolak Ashoona. There is one piece by the Cape Dorset-born Soroseelutu Ashoona, granddaughter of Pootoogook and daughter-in-law of Pitseolak Ashoona, that is of particular interest: a 1976 stonecut print entitled Woman of the Sea, depicting Nuliajuk, Mother of the Sea and Ruler of All Beasts, the Most Terrible of All Spirits, to Whom Nothing is Impossible. In it Nuliajuk is portrayed as a mermaid with schools of fish bursting out of her orifices, blending Princess Ariel with some kind of Lovecraftian Dagon Worshipper. Woman of the Sea succeeds admirably in being both entirely natural and decidedly unnatural at the same time.
The origin story of the Most Terrible of All Spirits is relevant for our purposes here, and Rasmussen recorded it thusly: During a time of terrible famine, all of the inhabitants of an Inuit village set off for virgin hunting grounds, leaving an orphan girl (and extra mouth to feed) by the name of Nuliajuk behind. She clamored onto the villagers’ raft as it left the shoreline, but they hurled her back into the water. In desperation she clutched the edge of a kayak, but the unfeeling villagers hacked off her fingers, which were promptly transformed into seals. The poor orphan drifted down to the ocean floor, where she was surprised to find herself metamorphosed into a water spirit and deified as the Ruler of All Beasts on Land and Sea.
There she lives in her house under the waters
and keeps track of everything we do,
and when we break taboos she punishes us
by hiding the animals. Then hunting is bad
and people starve. That is why
she is the most feared of all the gods.
Nuliajuk gave seals to mankind, it is true,
but she is not friendly to people
for they had no pity on her when she lived on earth,
throwing her into the sea like that to drown.
So naturally she would like mankind to perish too.
That is why we do our best
to be as good as we can
and make Nuliajuk think kindly of us.
Nuliajuk’s jurisdiction is total, her grievances entirely justified. She reminds us that, as the angakoq Uvavnuk said, we are all “adrift” in a dangerous world, and “move as a weed in a river” with the “arch of the sky and mightiness of storms” encompassing us.
There was a time when even we Qallunaat understood our place in the Great Chain of Being, and our place in the Kalachakra, the Great Wheel of History. We used to understand, as Syme did in The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, that the “secret of the whole world” is that “we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If only we could get round in front.” We used to possess a far better capacity for perspective-taking. The bacteriologist Hans Zinsser, in his magisterial 1935 Rats, Lice, and History, acknowledged that
Swords and lances, arrows, machine guns, and even high explosives have had far less power over the fates of nations than the typhus louse, the plague flea, and the yellow-fever mosquito. Civilizations have retreated from the plasmodium of malaria, and armies have crumbled into rabbles under the onslaught of cholera spirilla, or of dysentery and typhoid bacilli. Huge areas have been devastated by the trypanosome that travels on the wings of the tsetse fly, and generations have been harassed by the syphilis of the courtier. War and conquest and that herd existence which is an accompaniment of what we call civilization have merely set the stage for these more powerful agents of human tragedy.
But something happened along the way. Scholars like David Herbert Donald started preaching the “irrelevance of history,” that the lessons of the past are “not merely irrelevant but dangerous.” Indeed, per Francis Fukuyama, neoliberalism with its “universalization of Western liberal democracy” was supposed to have taken us to the end point of history itself. Meanwhile, those like Jane Jacobs conceived of cities not as mortality sinks but as “great disease conquerors,” ignoring not only the health challenges population density invariably creates, particularly during pestilential outbreaks, but also the pressure those cities put on wet markets and factory farms, which in turn can result in novel zoonoses. (It is thought that certain extant highly pathogenic avian flu strains, like H7N9 and H5N1, have the ability to make SARS-CoV-2 look relatively benign in comparison, should full-scale conversion events occur.) As the Austrian-born economist and jurist Leopold Kohr, that inveterate opponent of the “cult of bigness,” memorably put it, “wherever something is wrong, something is too big,” but we have become too “diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy” — in a word, modernity — to realize it.
Fyodor Dostoevsky attributed modern mankind’s breathtaking hubris to the influx of -isms that accompanied the industrial age: idealism, utilitarianism, rationalism, socialism, materialism, and atheism, among others. In his excellent essay on Dostoevsky’s Demons, Richard Pevear put it this way: “the assertion of human autonomy is finally a revolt against God; it is also the final lie, the mystification behind all the demystifying critiques of modern times.” Yet what Dostoevsky called the “seed of the idea of destruction,” the revolt against God, “amounts to a declaration of the absurdity and meaningless of history, of historical reality as the unfolding of God’s will in time, but also as the lived life of mankind — that is, to a separation from the historical body of mankind. Reality itself, physical reality, begins to drain out of this radical ‘idea,’ leaving only the drab abstraction of materialism.” In Demons, the revolutionary Alexei Nilych Kirillov and the moderate Anton Lavrentyevich G—v attempt to flesh all this out:
K: “Then history will divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God, and from the destruction of God to … ”
G: “To the gorilla?”
K: “ … to the physical changing of the earth and man. Man will be God and will change physically. And the world will change, and deeds will change, and thoughts, and all feelings.”
The end result of these foolhardy changes has not been salubrious, producing as it does what Dostoevsky called “the nervous, tormented, and divided nature of people in our time.” Matters have certainly not improved over the last century and a half. Our collective balance sheet will show a great many technological advancements, it is true, but those are offset by what Hamish Miles rightly described as the “staleness and lethargy of our etiolated modern minds.”
Christopher Lasch, in his unbelievably prescient 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, described our “new narcissism as a third great awakening,” one which abandoned the “sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future,” while jettisoning any notion of the self as “part of a great biological stream.” As Tom Wolfe observed, “most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, ‘I have only one life to live.’ Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives.” When we largely abandoned this all-pervading sense of historical continuity, we lost a great deal more than we realized. In a fascinating conversation with Julien Hervier, Ernst Jünger meditated 0n the undeniable decline of culture:
How was culture born? It was born with the cult of the dead, with the religious worship of ancestors; that began with the pyramids and with the tumuli built by prehistoric men, with their caves and grottoes. All these things are vanishing and are even extinct. I focused on these burial issues because I regard the disappearance of ancestor worship as a characteristic of present-day decadence. When I stroll through a cemetery, I am struck by the sadness, which is aroused not by the unfortunate deceased, but by the dreadfully uniform way in which people think about them.
As Jünger concluded, “when a man is dead, people believe that he is gone forever. According to that logic, there can be no art. For art offers more than pure presence, it offers transcendence. If the cult of the dead were to reappear, it would be a sign that culture can take root again.”
The southern agro-pastoral clans of Somalia with whom I work have from time immemorial regarded death as a transformation, and have been known to keep the corpses of the departed well-clothed and their graves stocked with victuals. Periodically the tombs are swept, and further gifts of clothing and food are given in response to dreams: “I dreamt that my father showed me his torn clothes. Here are some clothes, let him take them,” or “I have given my dead mother an ox, now my father is thin and hungry and wants something to fatten him. Here is another ox, let him come and take it.” Do we keep our own dead clothed? Do we fatten them? No, for secular culture has a keen distaste for sacrifice, unless we are sacrificing the past (or the unborn à la Moloch, one is tempted to add). These days we prefer to topple statues, exhume bodies, and indulge in what Dietrich von Hildebrand derided as that “special pride in the idolatry of one’s epoch,” which “produced a spirit of irreverence toward all tradition” and “destroys philosophical inquiry because the notion of truth is replaced by that of ‘up-to-dateness.’ ” Without “protective factors” like those inculcated by the Inuit and others, such predilections will necessarily prove highly destructive, resulting in what Lasch recognized as the “poverty of the narcissist’s inner life” caused by the “cultural devaluation of the past.”
Of course, if your ideal society is a technocratic dystopia in which public gardens are systematically leveled to discourage visitors, in which “pandemic drones” (doubtless assembled by Uyghur slave laborers) buzz overhead taking biometric readings while those below brandish their “immunity certificates” (routinely updated for various rapidly evolving serotypes, naturally), then I suppose you are in luck. Perhaps the unfettered ability to, say, endlessly stream TikTok videos of choreographed dancing nurses and Netflix documentaries about perverts abusing wild animals will make up for any downsides. But one must wonder whether all of this might be a bit shortsighted, whether all of this might just be indicative of a civilization no longer part of the historical or biological stream.
Consider the words of the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa, who rejected the “mixed-up talk” of “what they call politics” for a calm of life in the beauty of the forest:
White people call us ignorant because we are other people than they are. But their thought is short and obscure. It does not succeed in spreading and rising because they prefer to ignore death. They are prey to dizziness because they constantly eat the meat of their domestic animals who are sons-in-law of Hayakoari, the tapir-like being who makes people turn other. They constantly drink cachaça and beer that overheats their chests and fills them with fumes. This is why their words become so bad and muddled. We do not want to hear them anymore. For us, politics is something else. It is the words of [the demiurge] Omama and those of the xapiri [spirits] that he gave us. These are the words that we listen to during the time of dream and that we prefer because they are truly ours. The white people, they do not dream as far as we do. They sleep a lot but only dream of themselves. Their thought remains blocked, and they slumber like tapirs or turtles. This is why they are unable to understand our words.
We may not all have the same access to the xapiri that Kopenawa possesses, but we would do well to heed his words, and to be more suspicious of the mixed-up politics, muddled words, and short and obscure thinking of our supposedly enlightened epoch. Our narcissistic society dreams only of itself, but “if one cannot find a value that transcends oneself,” as Yukio Mishima maintained, “life itself, in a spiritual sense, is rendered meaningless.”
The Inuit traditionally considered Nuliajuk to be the most terrible of all spirits, for she “would like mankind to perish,” yet in many ways the West has managed to conjure up far worse forces then her, viz. the many -isms Dostoevsky castigated in his brilliant novel Demons. Materialism, utilitarianism, collectivism, atheism, et al. have birthed an inhuman(e) world in which people are directed to live in the dust, cling to the dust, and choke on the dust, rather than shining and running to and fro “like sparks among the stubble.” Consumerism, with its attendant “whirlpool of technological religion,” has produced an ever-growing accumulation of garbage, with the Pacific trash vortex — 1.8 trillion pieces strong, some say — all too often mirrored in our own collective consciousness. It is tempting indeed to avoid madness by supposing, as Arnarulunguaq did a century ago, that “we have all died suddenly before we knew, and that this is part of another life.” But that’s not what’s happened, not exactly, though physical reality has indeed been drained out of our lives in favor of the “drab abstraction of materialism.” All we can do now is follow the rule laid down by Nuliajuk, Mother of the Sea and Ruler of All Beasts, the Most Terrible of All Spirits, to Whom Nothing is Impossible: we simply ought “to do our best to be as good as we can.” From that starting point perhaps we can proceed, more in tune with nature and with history, rather like weeds in a river, floating beneath the arch of the sky, weathering the mightiness of the storms that surround us.