The Great Forgetting
by Calvin Luther Martin
I find the elements of beautiful writing to include crispness, clarity and brevity of language; and it must be provocative in some way. It must emote a passion of thinking or feeling that capture my attention and spiral me deeper into Life, into my own being.
A new book, The Great Forgetting by Calvin Luther Martin, accomplishes all these. Each sentence is potent with power and is presented in a beautiful artistic format that supports the drive of the writing.
I call it a book and it is. It was however, originally published as the foreword to another book, Elephants on the Edge: What Elephants Teach Us about Humanity (Yale University Press, 2009). K-Selected Books has taken Martin’s worthy hymn of thinking and repackaged it as a powerful and artfully designed little book.
I first encountered Martin’s writing in his book, The Way of the Human Being (Yale University Press, 1999). That reading of years ago led me enthusiastically to agree to review a copy of The Great Forgetting. This question, of “What is it to be human?” runs through both books and is as critical to and as shaping of our future as is the question, “Who am I?”
Our responses to these questions weave themselves into the personal and collective stories of our lives like threads weaving the garments of identity we wear into the world. The threads of these potent stories thus clothe even our worldviews of the cosmos, our perceptions of the house finch at the water dish and also of our very self. We unconsciously, for the most part, hang our identities upon the answering of these questions.
Yet it is this question of identity that Martin continues to write to in this new book, not toward an answer of resolution but toward a mystery worth living into: What does it mean to be human?
Are we truly the apex of evolution and cosmic intelligence? Is our highest identity ruling the beasts of the field and fowl of the air for our own pleasures? Calvin answers with an echoing and haunting, “No!” In so doing he invites us to consider breakdowns or turning points in the lives of greats such as Nietzsche, Descartes, Jung, Melville, Thoreau, Faulkner and even Jesus. Like Moses before them, encountering a burning bush in the desert and discovering he already stood on holy ground, each of these too were changed and responded in their own way to an encounter with mystery, with primal ‘First World’ life forces.
Only after a primal encounter, lasting 40 days and nights in the desert alone, did Jesus say, “I and the Father are one.”
I, and Life are…one! For this heretical story of identity Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, so the telling goes. Such a story and identity were theological and cultural blasphemy. His words announced him as ‘undomesticated’. Yes, he was Wild!
And who can say where such wildness might lead if left unchecked? Yet is not this identity of oneness with Life also the very thread woven into the mythologies and worldviews of indigenous people throughout the world? Is it not also the thread from which the world’s wisdom traditions and now even modern science are woven?
And still, even in our modern civilized era, to touch such wildness as this is to be changed. Forever. It is, as Thoreau and Martin describe it: “Contact!”
Martin’s own “inevitable” contact, his “breakdown” or “crackup”, the dissolution of a civilized or a prescribed and domesticated identity, occurred through an encounter with a deeper, cleaner, stronger, more primal and ancient identity than his own. It came through the simple passing of a note from an Yup’ik Eskimo man in a prison in Alaska, and it is a story best left to Martin’s telling.
My own inevitable crackups arrived to a self too small and rigid; Life demanded that I loosen my hold on a constricted human identity and embrace instead an identity at one with all of Life. They were each a death and a birth and each a cairn on a spiraling decent into embracing the beasts and the gods within as who… yes, as who I am too.
This is not the civilized ‘I’. It is not the identity culture pays us to cultivate that we might become proper patriotic consumers. No. In fact, renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow tells us, “What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.”
Interestingly, organizational consultants Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers write of the nature of systems change in A Simpler Way: “A self changes when it changes its consciousness of itself…. It is essential to remember that all change originates when we change our awareness of who we are.”
Correspondingly, the emerging field of Restoration Ecology tells us that if we want to help restore an ecosystem to health, the principle is to help it reconnect to its ‘wholeness’. Thus we restore fire to western forests and grasslands and wolves to Yellowstone and…. In essence we work at the level of identity, reconnecting a diminished self to more of its ‘wholeness.’
This is the drive I read in Martin’s writing, in The Great Forgetting. There, in meditative brevity he provocatively invites us to consider and witness what it is to be human, fully and wholly human, absent the wall of separation from Life. He is playing with our identity, with our awareness of what it means to be human. He would have us remember our wholeness, to live into its unanswerable mystery.
Read it at your own risk. And read it again, and again. It is the kind of participatory reading that deepens with each contact. Give it as a gift to yourself, or a loved one.