A Language Older Than Words

Posted: January 28, 2012 in Books, Environment, Reviews

Several years ago, the last time I was in Moab, Utah, I visited the renowned Back of Beyond Bookstore and picked up a volume by Derrick Jensen called A Language Older Than Words.  When I got home it got put on the bookshelf where it’s sat until a few days ago when something prompted me to take a look at it.  The last thing I need now is more depressing environmental or apocalyptic style reading, but something (perhaps Tom’s recent videos) made reference to this book and I realized that it had been sitting in my library unread since I bought it.  There are, actually, a lot of those.  Back of Beyond Books is steeped in the Earth First tradition.  It’s where I picked up my copy of Ecodefence (which is an eco-terrorism handbook) and learned a lot about Edward Abbey.

I have to say that the first five pages of the book just blew me away with both its content and its style.  I was amazed that so much could be communicated in just a few, short pages.

Jensen, his siblings and his mother were horribly physically and sexually abused by a violent father, and yet this is only the backdrop for his writing.  The only way he could survive his ordeals as a child was to build a wall of denial, forcing himself to believe that the events never happened.  He gives examples where he witnessed beatings but kept eating his dinner, feeling that if he didn’t do anything he would be spared.

What he continues to say is that this is exactly the same condition that most of us have with regard to the state of the Earth and the world.  He says that we go to bed every night knowing that we are systematically causing the extinction of whole species in a form of xenocide, that we know that one third of the world goes to bed hungry, that we know that millions of children live in a state of exploitative slavery, and that pollution is slowly but surely wreaking our biosphere.  We have created a wall of silence where other species, whether plant or animal, have no sentience, no feelings, don’t live in communities and mourn their dead.  They are objects to be used by humans.

“In order for us to maintain our way of living, we must in a broad sense, tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves.  It is not necessary that the lies be particularly believable.  The lies act as barriers to truth.  These barriers to truth are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities.  Truth must at all costs be avoided.”

The book is written in a powerful voice, a poetry of despair.  It reminds me of the same apocalyptic poetry found in The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

“This silencing is central to the workings of our culture.  The staunch refusal to hear the voices of those we exploit is crucial to the domination of them.”

It is a long time since I’ve been hooked so strongly by a work of non-fiction.  I look forward to reading the rest, although some friends have told me that the book leads down some dark paths.  After a beginning like this, how could it do otherwise?


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