Robinson Jeffers as a Shaman
From Chris Wayan's journal 1996/7/28
I just read "Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems" (Vintage, 1965). He resembles Loren Eiseley, to my surprise--the geological perspective, the gangly language verging on prose. But where Eiseley is a quiet man, a bone-hunter gentle with his fragile finds, Jeffers is a hurt hawk screaming. Genuine vision beyond human scale, but so stripped down, so harsh--just lava rock, like an island too young for trees... or Yeats plus ecology--but minus kindness.
Later in the day, I stumble on an interview in a back issue of CoEvolutionary Quarterly that's all about Jeffers! Ursula Le Guin says he influenced her deeply. A problematic mentor--his vision so violent, yet with a deep love and identification with animals and natural forces. He truly gets inside them. "Even when I was young I knew he saw California true."
So what's my problem with him? Jeffers underestimates people, and maybe nature, and certainly the spirit world. His political prophecy was better than most in his time, yet not fully accurate. Despite my country's sad decay as the parasitic wasps (inc.), bleed freedom away, still, owners and dictators around the world have much to fear. The ideals of common people have brought down regimes and elites built to last, and threaten more. Humanity is not as morally bankrupt as Jeffers says. Even if the biosphere's crippled for a million years, the worst-case picture now (though it may get worse, as technology hands more god-powers to apes playing alphamale status games), still, healers and reformers have to be honored. People have died for trees and rocks and lab rats, not just (just?) for human freedom.
Jeffers's cynicism bothers me most in "The Inquisitors," in which Azevedo, a lone rider in Big Sur one night, sees three giant earth-spirits, living hills, vivisect some humans, idly tearing them apart like bugs, having heard these little creatures have a Bomb that could damage Life. They can't find anything special.
It's an effective shocker of a poem, but it troubles me morally. Spirits without empathy exist, certainly some humans manage it--but the stronger they are, the less likely to lack this sense. I want to know if Jeffers saw/dreamed this himself, heard it from a real guy named Azevedo, or made it up just to annoy us. If it's his own, did he just witness? Seems to be his style. Doubt I could just hide and watch their casual mayhem without stepping in, trying to save their victims and answer their questions. Dangerous, but though I'm no hero I do feel SOME responsibility for others--for these three gods as well as the people they kill. They need to be taught what they're doing. A few whacks might explain pain, and teach them the rudiments of empathy. Better to bruise them now than let them go on in their illusion that they're immune. Humans (with or sans Bomb) can "torture the very hills." That doesn't mean they should, right? So why should the hills get to torture us either? Increasingly, in MY shamanic dreams, I challenge gods and nature-spirits that act like human jerks. Why not?
I think Jeffers and his whole generation, drunk on Darwin and drowned in the new depths of time and space, romanticized this view of an indifferent, even cruel nature, where awareness (which they still saw as a human monopoly) is ephemeral and irrelevant. Candle in a storm. A certain comfort to think of oneself as irrelevant! Jeffers swims in a cold current--soothingly numb. He's adapted to the ice, like a polar bear. In my world he'd droop--too warm and fuzzy. And full--full of awareness. Eager to burst into life.
My own dreaming, and those of other modern shamans, show a different picture of such gods, such natural forces: as empathetic earth-spirits, just maddened miserable and stung; WE'RE the indifferent, the torturers--we're still like Jeffers' dawn men, roasting the trapped mammoth alive.
I'm still embarrassed--surely like a REAL grown-up shaman (or prophet or whatever) would quit trying to Disnefy this cruel cruel world. I easily buy into Jeffers' picture of the universe as harsh, indifferent, grand--he convinces me it's immature to dissent. Oh, and I'm ashamed of my selfish desire to find a mate! The hills are killing this girl, so let's rescue her. That's bound to impress her! A selfish teenage rescue fantasy, and I judge myself for it.
Yet... though Jeffers TALKS like a lone prophet, he built his rock nest, and had a career, and found a mate who could stand his claws, and had kids who take care of his literary legacy. He did the human thing. I'm the one who really stood apart. Twenty years among the spirits! Yet I dismiss those decades of learning as childish! Yet these poems of his old age don't offer much constructive advice--to poets or shamans. Or humans.
Sympathy's no problem if it serves you--only when you serve it. I've done it--niceness can be a pitfall. But empathy's not always a sentimental blurring of the truth! As if truth's so weak.
In the end I have to stick to my own experience. Most of the spirits I meet just aren't like his Inquisitors, or their big mean cousin in the Old Testament. I meet ones more like the Yurok legend of the Inland Whale (read Theodora Kroeber's The Inland Whale: California Indian Tales): spirits with their own concerns, certainly not human-centric guardian angels, but still decent empathetic neighbors.
Guess we all tend to meet kindred, uh, spirits. And live in a kindred universe, by kindred rules. Jeffers' world isn't the whole story, and his impressive word-skills don't make it so.
An uncomfortable fact to recall the next time I soar too high on my own rhetorical wings...
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