How do we stay human in a technocratic age? How do we live rooted lives —spiritually and otherwise — in an unsettled time? How do we make sense of life in the modern world?
English writer Paul Kingsnorth has been exploring these questions for decades. Since his conversion to Christianity in 2020 (recounted in “The Cross and the Machine” at First Things), he has deepened his reckoning with our moment at his Substack, The Abbey of Misrule. Through a series of essays over the past year, he has been examining this age’s “Great Unsettling,” and the influence of the Machine on our lives.
The rebellion against God manifested itself in a rebellion against creation, against all nature, human and wild. We would remake Earth, down to the last nanoparticle, to suit our desires, which we now called “needs.” Our new world would be globalized, uniform, interconnected, digitized, hyper-real, monitored, always-on. We were building a machine to replace God. …
Out in the world, the rebellion against God has become a rebellion against everything: roots, culture, community, families, biology itself. Machine progress — the triumph of the Nietzschean will—dissolves the glue that once held us.
Kingsnorth has also explored these questions through poetry and fiction. His Buckmaster Trilogy of novels begins with The Wake, a tale of the Norman invasion through the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon landholder; continues with Beast, a story of spiritual reckoning set in contemporary times; and concludes with Alexandria, set during a future apocalypse.
His short stories have also appeared in several outlets such as Emergence (“The Basilisk,” 2020) and Dark Mountain (“The Light in the Trees,” 2020).
In his 2003 book One No, Many Yeses, he reported on local movements resisting globalism across the world. His Real England: The Battle Against the Bland (2008) gives an account of the erosion of local cultures in England. Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (2017) collects powerful pieces on Google Glass, scything, and the sacred. His memoir-essay Savage Gods (2019) explores “what does it mean to belong,” and which “sacrifices must be made in order to truly inhabit a life?” He’s published two books of poetry, Kidland and Other Poems (2011) and Songs from the Blue River (2018). In 2017, he edited and introduced The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry.
In 2022, he released an ebook, The Vaccine Moment: Covid, Control and the Machine, that seeks “to understand the stories we tell to make sense of the Covid era.”
“We have always been offered the same choice,” Kingsnorth writes. “Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine.”
A former environmentalist and journalist, and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project, he now works and lives on a smallholding in Ireland with his family.
I talked with Paul Kingsnorth on February 10, 2022.
Small Plots, Big Solutionism
TC: What’s going on at your smallholding right now? What’s it look like this time of the season?
PK: Spring is trying to arrive. We’ve had a very mild winter actually. Often the winters are — it’s never too cold in Ireland, but often you get a lot of storms in the winter, a lot of frost. It’s been a very mild winter, very calm and strangely warm — well, perhaps it isn’t so strange anymore for the winter to be warm. At the moment things are starting to slowly wake up: the birds are starting to sing to each other, the crocus bulbs are coming up, so it’s moving towards spring. Which always makes me slightly panic because it means an absolute ton of work outside is going to appear, and I need to balance that with taking the children to school and trying to write things. So when winter arrives it’s always a bit of a relief because you get a few months off. At the same time, spring is always gorgeous over here. It’s always great when the land wakes up again.
TC: You need that time when you can tell sagas over the fire until it’s time to get up and go outside again.
PK: It’s interesting — since we’ve lived here, you really get to know what the rhythm of the land is, and the way it always would have guided people’s lives, except for most of my life I didn’t live by it at all. If you live in a city or a town, you don’t have to slow down in the winter and you don’t have to stay inside when it rains because you’re staying inside anyway. And just a small thing, like moving to the country and having a bit of land, retunes your sensibility to something much more natural, and you realize what you’ve been missing for most of your life. It’s quite interesting.
TC: You’ve written about “Real England,” but it was in Ireland where you could start a smallholding. When were you most in tune with the seasons in England?
PK: Well, I never lived from the land until I moved here. We moved to Ireland because we couldn’t practically afford to live in England, if we wanted to have a tiny house and a bit of land, because it’s ludicrously expensive and overcrowded, alas. We did try to see if we could make it work there, but we just couldn’t, especially if my wife was going to stop working as a doctor, as she was doing before, and homeschool the kids, which was what we wanted to do. So that’s why we ended up moving here.
But I had an allotment when I was in England, and I grew vegetables on that. And when I was young I used to go on a lot of mountain walks with my dad. I don’t know if I was in tune with the seasons so much, because I would only go in summer usually, but I always had that sense, that sensibility, that that’s the natural way to live. And I think it’s in the human body, and I think we know it’s there. Even if we don’t know what makes us itch when we’re stuck inside a city under artificial light all day, we know that it doesn’t feel right. Otherwise we’d all be happy — we’d all be living in paradise, and we’re not.
So we sort of know it, and even here I’ve got my computer and my electric light bulb, so I’m living a modern life in that sense. But if you have a little patch of land and you have to go and tend it — it doesn’t have to be much, you don’t have to have a big farm — it takes you outside yourself, and it takes you into the wider rhythm of things. And you realize you were always supposed to be a part of that pattern, and that you’ve broken off from that. Not through your own choice, because we grow up like that, most of us. We don’t know what the pattern is anymore.
And that’s part of the crisis we’re in, I think. It doesn’t get talked about much —the severing of all of us from our animal natures. I mean, there are kids growing up in London who have absolutely no idea what anything is at all that grows in the countryside. They don’t even know what a nettle is, or an oak tree. They don’t know where the food comes from — no idea that milk comes from a cow —basic stuff like that. And there’s no reason they would know, because they’ve never seen it, and they’ve never been taught it. And so it’s not their fault, is it? They don’t have an option.
But if you walk on concrete all day, and you’re under electric light all day, even at night outside, and you don’t know any of that, and you see nothing that’s real, you can’t even see the stars, then you’ve already become part of this Machine that surrounds us. As more and more of the world gets urban — most of the world is urban now — more of us are living like that. And the more of us are living like that, the less we’re able, firstly, to notice what’s going on with nature, but also to care about it. And we’ve been given this environmental politics where we’re all supposed to talk about things like climate change in a very abstract way, but that’s not a substitute for actually having a relationship with a piece of land— because that’s what really makes you care about it. If you notice that the birds are disappearing in your neighborhood, that’s what’s going to turn you into an environmentalist, not getting a lecture about climate change from Greta Thunberg or anybody else. It’s a real tragedy, actually, that we just get that animal part of our nature sliced away from us. I suppose we were just trying to reconnect a little bit to it by coming out here.
TC: It strikes me that a lot of the connections that people used to have are not that far off in time. My dad grew up on a farm, a small-scale farm where they milked cows, raised fruit and vegetables, and didn’t use the bigger machinery, and the farm is still there. And then all my grandparents had the usual plot of land, but they had a garden and chickens and such, and that was just normal. You were close enough to see where your food came from, and now it’s interesting how a lot of people panic at questions like the one that Wendell Berry gets asked:“Are you saying everyone should be a farmer?” And the answer is: Well, no, but maybe more than 2% of people should be farmers, and we shouldn’t be so disconnected and helpless as we are.
I’d be curious to hear more of your thoughts on the way we think about that sort of thing — the idea that we either have to do this big thing or this other big thing. It seems the hard critique of that is to say, well, that’s the whole problem: It’s not this big top-down thing where you all just become farmers, and it will all be okay.
PK: Yeah, there’s a kind of top-down solutionism that intellectuals like particularly. What’s the big plan — I mean, you get asked this all the time — what’s the solution, what’s the solution, when you talk about any of the problems that the world faces. And of course there isn’t a solution — there might be a series of small solutions to some things, but some things are just not solvable. The bigger framework is that people are seeing the world like a math puzzle. Here is the world and here is the problem —what is the solution? And then you end up inevitably with a technological response.
Climate change is a great example of that. It’s really interesting to me that we talk about climate change as if it were somehow disconnected from all the other things that are happening to the planet. The industrial economy’s assault on the earth, which has been going on for a couple hundred years, has basically wrecked the health of the planet in all sorts of different ways. And there are a lot of things happening — large rates of extinction, soil erosion, ocean pollution, a changing climate, all sorts of smaller, subtler things as well — but it’s climate change that’s just a one-off, almost self-contained phenomenon that has somehow grabbed the headlines and has become this enormous thing that we somehow have to stop. That’s the problem, so what’s the solution? And the solution inevitably is always technological, because nobody can think about anything else. That’s the way we think in our culture: we’ve created the problem with technology, so we must have to solve it with technology. So the issue has boiled down to, the wrong kind of gas is going up into the atmosphere, so we need a fuel technology that doesn’t put it up there, as if that were the problem, rather than the way we’re living our lives, the entirety of the economy, the value system that it’s based on. It’s the kind of notion that we’re extractive individuals and we just live in a market system. All of these complex things have happened over the last hundred years where we’ve completely retooled the way we live — we’ve disconnected ourselves from nature and culture and community, and we’ve made ourselves consumer individuals living in a machine. And the problem then is seen as, the Machine is using the wrong fuel, so let’s do something else. It’s not going to work, anyway, but even if it did work, what would the solution look like? Is that the world we want to be living in? Are the values correct? Is our disconnection okay as long as it doesn’t pollute the atmosphere? Is it okay to live in this kind of radical individualistic machine world as long as we’re not putting carbon up into the air?
It’s very difficult to ask the bigger questions because, as you say, relentlessly, as soon as you do, there’s an immediate backlash, which usually comes in completely familiar clichéd language —“So you’re saying we should go back and live in caves?” etc. And there’s not really much you can do with that.
I have a friend, Mark Boyle, who’s an Irish writer — he lives near me — he once spent two years living without money, and he wrote a book called The Moneyless Man. He’s been exploring all his life the reason for our disconnection, as have I, and having lived without money for two years he decided he was going to live permanently without modern technology as much as he could. So he built himself a hut in the woods not so far from me. And he just lives there — he doesn’t have electricity, he doesn’t have running water, he never uses the internet, doesn’t have a phone, doesn’t have a car. So he’s living as simply as he can. And he wrote a series of articles about this for The Guardian a few years back, which were not political at all — they were just talking about his lifestyle and what things he discovered — and the comments from a lot of people were really interestingly angry and defensive, as if they felt personally attacked by this. They’d say, “What would you do if you had to go to hospital?” “I bet you use the dentist!” and “All the rest of us have to pay our taxes so you can live like this —everybody can’t live like that.” And all this stuff. It was very interesting because he wasn’t writing pieces suggesting that anybody else should live like this. It wasn’t a political project he was doing; he was just exploring what it’s like to live without technology. But people felt really threatened by it — really threatened, and they felt they needed to go on the attack, as if everything that they valued was being attacked in itself, and as if somehow they must have felt — I don’t know what they felt. Did they feel guilty, or did they feel attacked, or did they feel like he was right, or what were they feeling like? There’s a defensiveness where people end up defending the very system that’s cut them off from life. So when they see somebody else living differently, it just makes them inexplicably angry.
There’s something I read the other day, I was reading some Orthodox Christian writing, and there was a similar statement about how some people when they see a holy man will just be furious. He just has to be walking past, he doesn’t have to be evangelizing them, but the notion of seeing somebody holy, who is living the way we actually know we ought to be living — it just triggers something in a lot of people, and that was what happened with Mark, and sometimes it happens with me. And so like you say, people get very, very defensive and can’t hear. You see this in the movement of people pretending climate change doesn’t exist and attacking the environmentalists day after day, coming up with ludicrous theories about how the whole thing’s a fake. It’s just denial that the system we live in is actually catastrophic, and I think at some level a lot of us know that it is. Because we’ve grown up associating with it and identifying with it, we can’t afford to say this whole thing is a disaster, because we’re psychologically almost tied into it. It’s a common thing to see. I don’t really know what to do about it.
Technology and the Church
TC: Speaking of Mark Boyle, I really enjoyed his The Way Home, the one about life without technology. One thing that struck me about his story was how the breakdown of community was wrapped up in his search — the pubs are closing because the young people are leaving, and it used to be people would gather round and heat up drinks around the fire, but now we can do it separately. And that’s why it’s such a lonely thing sometimes, to live without technology, because sometimes the community that used to be there isn’t anymore.
Another thing that struck me in his book and also in your work — your essays around the Dark Mountain Project, up through Savage Gods — is this sensitivity to what is fake. I remember Mark Boyle mentioning someone talking about artificial uteruses — that everything will be okay once this could be invented. And he was just like, but that’s the Machine. It’s similar to your realization of, Wait a minute, I’m in it too much, the thing that I’m objecting against, and then you search for the real thing.
You’ve compared your story to C.S. Lewis’s conversion story, being similarly reluctant. I actually read Savage Gods right around the time I read The Pilgrim’s Regress, and I was struck by another similarity where there’s this sense, even if you don’t know where the real thing is, you see that this isn’t it — this is fake, this is not getting there. Maybe it’s showing you something about the true and the real and the good that you’re on your way to hopefully discovering, but at the very least, you’re distinguishing between what is fake and what is the real thing. And I think that sensitivity is rare to see. It’s hard, because all of us are so ensconced in the world of systems, as Illich says, and how do we step out of that?
Once coming into Orthodox Christianity, do you see peculiar temptations for a Christian to step into machine thinking?
PK: I suppose the thing with the question of the Church is to go back to that original distinction between the Church and the world. Because the Machine rises in the world; the Machine is a thing of Caesar, it’s not a thing of God. And it always seems to me that the Church needs to be separate from the world. Obviously it’s engaged with the world —clearly we’re all living in the world and most of us are not monastics, so we’re in the world, we’re in the Machine, if you like. So the church, whatever church it is, always has this kind of dance of having one foot in the world and one foot in the kingdom, if you like. That’s what it’s supposed to be doing, anyway. But if the Church becomes too worldly, it’s basically lost, as far as I can see.
I certainly seem to get that impression from American Christianity — that it’s very much more political than it is over here. Not all of it, I’m sure, but there’s a very particular type of conservative Christianity and then there’s a liberal Christianity. As soon as you’re doing that, it seems to me that you’ve just immersed yourself in worldly things. In fact, I have an Episcopalian friend, who said — and he’s pretty much a man of the left, I would say — but he said, look, one of my problems with liberal Christianity in America is that it acts as a kind of funnel for political leftism. It kind of brings people in and it says, Jesus would want you to be a social justice activist. And he’s a priest! I imagine he knows what he’s talking about. And then obviously there’s the conservative strain.
So I suppose there’s always that temptation. One of the attractions of Orthodoxy to me is that it’s been the church which has been most resistant to modernity — not necessarily even in a political sense, but it just hasn’t changed, or it’s changed very little, in about a thousand years at least. It hasn’t changed its liturgy, it hasn’t changed its rules, it hasn’t changed its moral teachings, it hasn’t changed its structures, really. I mean, things have changed here and there — calendars have changed, and there have been various innovations, but nothing like you’ve seen in Catholicism and certainly nothing like you’ve seen in the Protestant churches. Because of that, it’s ended up being a place where you can go where the Machine is least present, I would say, amongst all the other churches I’ve ever been to. The process of machine modernity is not there in the same way, at least in the services and in the attitudes.
And there’s a kind of robustness in Orthodoxy as well. If I ask a priest what the resurrection means, I’m going to get more or less the same answer from all of them, whereas if I ask an Anglican priest, I’m not guaranteed to find that he even believes in the resurrection, to be honest, at this point. Certainly in England it’s got to that point. He’d probably tell me it’s a metaphor.
But more broadly, though, the technological question is the interesting one to me now, because although the Orthodox Church has been resistant to modernity in many ways, it also is dealing with modern people. Everyone in the church has got a smartphone; everyone in the church is driving there, including me. So the question is where that goes, and I’m quite interested to see, because I’m quite passionate in a quite fanatical way about the fact that technology is quite demonic at this point— I mean in a literal sense. Things are coming through these screens that are not good things. And you can see that particularly when you see the way that children are addicted to technology — but not just children, so are their parents. You can see the stuff that pornography is doing to kids, and indeed adults.
This is quite dark stuff, and it is quite literally from realms we shouldn’t be messing with, in a Christian sense, I would say. So what’s the Church going to do about that? What’s the Church’s attitude, and what is generally Christianity’s attitude? Because it’s not just an Orthodox question, it’s a Christian question. What is Christianity’s attitude to this quite Luciferic technological web that we have around us now, that tempts us with all these good things and then corrupts our soul in really significant ways?
I think a lot of the madness in our culture has come directly from social media, it’s come directly through people’s smartphones. We wouldn’t have this kind of insane culture war that we’ve got going on if it wasn’t for smartphones — guaranteed, it would not be there, or at least it would be there at a much lower level. It wouldn’t be anything like as crazy as it is now.
And we wouldn’t have some of this really dangerous stuff going into the heads of children. Children in this generation are so confused — they don’t know what their gender is, they don’t know what they’re supposed to think about anything, they have access to all sorts of stuff that they should absolutely not be seeing on phones. My kids don’t have [smart]phones, and neither do I, and you know, and if there’s one thing a Christian could do to resist the trend it would be to throw their smartphone in the river. Although that would not be good for the river, so maybe just burn it or something.
You know, it’s a serious point. I think that that’s the question for me now: What are churches going to do, what are Christians going to do about where technology is going to take us? What do we start doing when artificial intelligence really comes online, and the metaverse becomes a bigger thing than it is now? What do we do about that? What’s the spiritual attitude, what does that represent symbolically in Christian mythology? Is that just okay? Is that just the wonders of science? Because it seems to me it’s like eating the apple all over again every day. It’s following what the serpent tells you; it’s Cain rather than Abel. As I say, it’s quite demonic. And I don’t really know what to do about that. But there’s a sense, in my mind, that if anybody’s got it right, the Amish have got it right, in their intelligent attitude to technology — not that I’m an expert on the Amish, but just from what I know of them, that kind of critical attitude. And you mentioned Wendell Berry — he’s probably the best example of a Christian thinker who knows about this stuff. He’s thought about it for a long time, and so had Ivan Illich, so had Jacques Ellul, whom I’ve written about recently as well. So it might be time to start rediscovering these people, because it’s not like this critique hasn’t been made, but it’s getting more urgent now. And I think that’s the big challenge for Christians so that they don’t get sucked into this dark thing pretending to be light.
TC: Well, I completely agree. And I do not feel threatened by the fact that you do not have a phone, because I do have a phone, but it’s a dumb phone.
PK: Yeah, me too, I have the same thing.
TC: There you go. It’s interesting because this question has become a divider, in a way. It’s something that I didn’t think I would have to think about when I was raising kids. You want to find a good community to raise your kids in, and having grown up working on my grandfather’s farm, so I want my kids to have the farm experience — we might not have a farm [ourselves], but they need that experience as part of their education. But if we’re homeschooling right now, and if we send them to school later on, I’ve realized that, more than a statement of faith, if I’m looking for a Christian school, it’s what you do about technology that will tell me what you actually think. And there are schools not too far from here where the parents have made a pact of no smartphones for their teenagers.
PK: That’s good.
TC: So I would send my kid there, and even locally here, there is a group of families who have made a pact — no smartphones, no social media for the kids, and we make this pact to be human together and get to know each other in traditional ways. So they’re hosting a Scottish folk dance soon — because they’re not on their smartphones, so you gotta go dance. I love it.
I am struck by, in the American context, there’s the mixing up of Christianity with America — there’s those things that you grow up with and you have to distinguish the culture from Christianity, and ask what’s the thing that should be influencing what. But with modern technology — I think I remember reading this somewhere, that pornographers and evangelists have been at the cutting edge of internet stuff. Because they both have their reasons, right? And there’s a lot of talk of redeeming anything that comes along. But there comes a point when you need to ask what technology can you just simply not redeem, that you actually have to destroy? And that is terrifying for some people — like, can’t we redeem everything?
PK: Well, there’s always this incredibly naive attitude to technology, which is that technology is a neutral thing. People are always saying this, Well, technology is just neutral, it’s what you do with it that matters, which is obviously not true. It’s not true of a nuclear weapon — it’s not neutral technology, it’s only designed for one thing. A gun only does one thing. But a smartphone is not neutral technology. If you use that thing, you are going to get addicted to that thing, you’re going to be taken into a certain way of life, you’re going to be acting in a certain way, you’re undoubtedly going to have your brain rewired by your use of it. Yeah, sure, you could be using it to promote organic farming rather than pornography, but you’re still on your phone all day, and so is everybody else who has to do that, and you’re still pumping carbon into the atmosphere — but more to the point, you rewire your whole life. Nobody has time to go folk dancing when they’re on their phone all the time. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned you are.
So you can always look at any technology and say, Oh,but this, this, and this is positive about it, and yeah, sure, of course it is — here we are talking on Zoom! — but at what point do you have to say, No, I’m not doing this, forget the positives, I’m not doing it. Which was Mark’s decision. You know, Mark is very puritanical, he’s very Amish about it. He just won’t touch technology, and the reason he won’t touch it is that he knows that if he starts touching it again he’s going to go right back down the rabbit hole. Which is one reason I don’t have a smartphone. I know that if I had a smartphone I’d be checking my email all the time and looking up websites when I should be looking at my children. I’m just as likely to get addicted as anyone else, so I’m just not going to do it.
This is the reason that Christians have a moral structure — this is the reason why we have the notion of the sins and the passions and the things we’re not supposed to do. You know, why is lust bad in Christianity? Not because sex is bad, but because we know damn well that if we just chase after every lust we have, then we’re ruined, and so are lots of other people. Christianity imposes limits on people, and so does every other faith, because they know that you have to operate within those limits. Otherwise you just get dragged down into your addictions, rather than focusing on God.
And the same is true of technology. If you don’t impose limits, then it’s going to control you. And I think there is a point at which you end up having to say, Yeah, I have to give up the advantages of this as well as the disadvantages. And smartphones are a great example of that. I think if everybody could do one thing, it would be to get rid of their smartphone, and that would immensely improve the world, and their life. I mean, there would have been no vaccine passports and mandates without the smartphone either, by the way, if you happen to feel strongly about that, which I do. That’s an example of a control system. And even if you thought that was justified, there are other control systems coming along, and if the state wants total control of you, well, it can get it easily because it’s got all your information and it’s got your little QR code and it’s got all the other stuff that you’ve been mandated to have.
People do forget that this is a monitoring device. It’s designed to be a monitoring device, and you can be tracked wherever you are, and all of your activity can be followed all the time. And people want to do it. And people are very naive about that. They still don’t understand that companies like Google exist to harvest you, and to sell your information rather than to provide you a lovely free service for nothing.
And so we’ve been trapped in this spider web, and I think it’s quite an interesting thing to think about — dealing with technology the way we might deal with any other passion that could take us away from ourselves, perhaps. Yeah? I’m thinking aloud.
TC: Yeah, it’s all good, and it’s good to hear.
The Scouring of the Shire
I listened to the conversation you had with Charles Eisenstein recently and Lord of the Rings was brought up, the Ring being kind of a metaphor for a kind of technology. A friend of ours, Michael Toscano, wrote an essay about Lord of the Rings recently where — and it was the first time I’d really thought about Lord of the Rings in this way — he talked about how that there are other rings of power in mythology and legend, but there is nothing like this one. This particular Ring of power could not have existed if not for the modern age, so that kind of power, it is a machine power. The way the Ring controls someone, and the kind of power it wields, or that the Rring-Bearer can wield, is a particular power that came with modernity.
This is one reason that I am increasingly convinced that Lord of the Rings is the epic for modern times.
PK: I think that might be true, actually. I think that might be true. It’s endlessly fascinating, this. I think the film versions of Lord of the Rings are particularly good at conveying it. It’s really the battle between industrial modernity and the kind of rooted life — really that’s what it is. And you’re right about the Ring, the way that Saruman surrenders himself to the Ring and destroys the forest and creates these great hideous machine-like creatures to destroy the landscape, and he’s just addicted to the power of the technology.
I was always really fascinated by the distinction between Gandalf and Saruman. Gandalf knows that he can’t even touch this ring, because he knows what’s going to happen to him if he does, because he knows he’s not strong enough to avoid being corrupted by it. Saruman doesn’t; Saruman thinks he can control it, and somehow he can use it to manipulate Sauron. And of course he’s corrupted and destroyed by that. And so this ring is absolutely the power of technology. It’s kind of modernity around your finger. The other thing that happens is that whenever you let this ring near humans; they always want to take it. The humans are always corrupted. He has to give to a Hobbit who’s so innocent he might be able to get away with carrying it, but he can’t let a human touch it. Boromir wants it to save his people, and he’s all very well-intentioned, but we know what will happen if he gets it. The Nazgûl, the Black Riders, are all corrupted kings who thought they could use the rings as a power but actually got corrupted by them. Because the ring is controlled by an evil force — all of these rings, they’re monitoring devices, funnily enough. The other rings of power are given to all of the dwarves and the humans, and they all think, Oh, great, I’ve got a ring of power, but Sauron’s using all of them. It’s exactly what he’s up to; he’s sitting there in Silicon Valley, watching all of their behavior.
And what do you have to do to the ring? You have to destroy it. You can’t use it for good. You have to destroy it; there’s no other way. You’ve got to take it back to where it came from. You have to destroy it, and it’s the only way, and it’s a very risky business. But there’s no other choice. So, yeah, you’re right, I think it really is an epic for the times.
TC: There’s this speech that Tolkien made— where, unfortunately, I think he was right as well — where he says, Okay, we destroyed Sauron, but now there are all these little Sarumans running around. And “The Scouring of the Shire” chapter— in some ways it’s the hardest chapter because we’ve just defeated Sauron, everything’s great, but then we go home, and everything’s gray, the green things have been dug up, and now in the homeland you were fighting for, the cozy English village that you wanted to return to and just get away from it all — now it’s come to your home. And it’s very banal evil, and the Hobbits have to fight it. Sam has to replant things, and then get married. But Frodo can’t get married —he’s been spent, he can’t really live a normal life after this. And that’s a question — because it’s not over, and it’s closer to home, how do you deal with that, when it’s not just the orcs — those are clearly evil — but how do you deal with evil in the Shire?
PK: Yeah, that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it. I’ve seen interviews that Tolkien gave about this as well when he said, Look, you have to not see the Shire as this kind of everlasting rural paradise that you can return to, because it isn’t, it’s a temporary place. And even in the books I remember the Elves saying to Frodo at one point, because Frodo says something about how the Shire is eternal, and the Elves say, No, there were people there before you, and there are going to be people there after you as well. You just have to be there at the moment.
So there’s nowhere to hide — which is horrible to hear, because you want there to be somewhere to hide, but it’s also true. It’s like today — you can’t hide from the Machine. You can come out here to the countryside, everyone’s still got a smartphone, and they’re all driving about, cutting the hedges down with tractor flails. Because the Machine is in you, you carry it around with you.
So the Shire can get as infected, and the Shire only survived for so long because it was on the edge and no one noticed it, and Gandalf was protecting it, and it wasn’t threatening anybody. So as soon as it became threatening, in comes the Machine — well, as soon as it becomes profitable, in comes the Machine. So there’s nowhere to hide from it, which is horrible, but also necessary to hear.
It’s tempting to want to go off and flee to the hills, and run to the forests. And that’s not a bad thing to do — it’s a good idea. But it’s just that, if you do it, there’s no guarantee that that’s going to last very long, because the thing you’re running from now is everywhere. It’s the satellites in the sky and it’s the internet cables and it’s the 5G networks, and there’s no getting away from these things. Even in the Arctic they’re there.
In the world we were in fifty years ago, there were places you could just go. Even when I was a kid when I went walking in the mountains with my dad — you go up into the hills for a few days, you don’t see anyone, you couldn’t phone anybody. We could phone my mum if we found a phone box in a village, but that was it. You went up into the mountains — even in England, which is a small country — and it would be pretty wild. You might see some other people up there, but there was a danger of you falling off a cliff, dying without being able to phone anybody, and no one was taking selfies on top of the mountain.
You can’t do that now. You can’t go off and live in a farm in the country and get away from the city because the city is there. And everyone’s got their phones, so you might as well be in the center of London in some sense. So, yeah, there’s no Shire, there’s no Shire anymore. We’re all being scoured.
TC: That’s the task right now — to regrow roots in an uprooted time, but you have to remember the nature of things, and that humans are yet pilgrims, and the ultimate thing in which we should be rooted is spiritual.
It’s an interesting tension, especially because Christianity is an incarnational religion, and the material world — there is a sense in which it’s sacramental, and it does matter. At the very least, we’re embodied beings and not brains on a stick.
There’s this strange undervaluing of the material world in some Christian ways of thinking, where you’re saying, Well, that’s not really what’s important anyway, so let’s not build for the generations and not build beautiful things because it’s all going to be burnt to ashes anyway. And on the other hand, you have, The material world doesn’t really matter because we’re going to escape it anyway, we’re going to transcend it, we’re going to make something better out of it, and go to Alexandria.
PK: Yeah, I know what you mean. There is that tension, isn’t there. I’ve been reading about this recently in the Orthodox tradition, and what I like about the Eastern tradition of Christianity which is a bit less prevalent in the West is the idea that God is both immanent and transcendent, so there’s a phrase in one of the Orthodox prayers that God is “everywhere present and fills all things.” So there’s a notion that the Creator is not simply outside time and space but is in creation all the time. And that’s the difference between the essence and the energy of God in the Orthodox tradition as well. The essence of God is the part of God that we can never understand or relate to, because it’s so distant and above us, but the energy of God is what you experience in nature all the time. It’s what you see in other people, it’s the living part of God. So there’s always a bit of a Gnostic temptation in Christianity sometimes, this notion that, Yeah, you’re going to die and go off somewhere else so it doesn’t really matter what happens here. I mean, that’s not Christian teaching, it’s a bit more Platonic or a bit more Gnostic, and if you look again at the original, obviously the faith for all Christians is a final resurrection — a re-incarnation if you like. It’s not that we’re fleeing the world and going somewhere else, but the world gets remade. Which I’m really interested in, because maybe a way through that tension is that, this is creation, it’s just fallen, it’s broken, it’s messed up, but it will be repaired. And Christ is already starting to repair it through us — that’s the idea — but then fundamentally there’s a final repair. But the final rebirth of creation at some point down the line is not when this place gets destroyed and we go somewhere else. It’s the earth that’s remade into something that works, something that it was supposed to be —we return to the Edenic state.
But in the meantime, it’s still creation, and if you think it’s creation, you ought to be nurturing it. And you’re right, one of the problems with Christianity has always been a lack of creation care amongst some Christians. Not all of them, but it’s definitely not a central part of the tradition, although there have been obviously Christian traditions and Christian saints and teachers who have emphasized it.
I think maybe that’s part of Christianity being entangled with the Machine again as well — that we can take a sort of modern consumer capitalist attitude to nature and use our Christianity as an excuse for it. It’s like, Oh, it doesn’t matter if we change the climate, because as long as we’re following the Way, we’re all going to be rescued anyway, or whatever. It’s a kind of irresponsibility.
I think that loving your neighbor means loving all of your neighbors, whether they’re human or not. But I don’t think that that’s very central in the tradition. And maybe that’s another thing that we need to think about, as we go into the Machine age. It’s kind of embedded Christianity: it’s embedded in creation, in the human body. If we’re mandated to love other people and to help the poor and heal the sick, then we should be doing the same with everything else that’s alive as well, not just people. And if Jesus is telling us to do all those things, then obviously caring for created things matters, rather than just hoping that after we die we go somewhere better. Because this is where we are, and we must be here for a reason. There’s got to be something going on that we’re supposed to be engaged in, rather than just hoping we’re saved for the future.
TC: Yeah, Christians were not untouched by modernity. Especially when there’s more uprootedness — I suspect it’s easier to treat things like machines if you are used to living amongst machines. And if you’re used to taking care of a piece of land, where you have to treat it as a living thing in some sense, even if you don’t think of it as a living thing, that’s just what you have to do, because there’s a living relationship amongst the animals and the land and the people. You see that and live that, and you see the reality of it— the cycle of life and death, how manure brings life. If you’re in the city, you can have your image of how the natural world is instead of the reality. And there’s the danger of sentimentality, when we have disconnected ourselves from the land such that we think we can decide what’s good for the land without even knowing it, without knowing the people, let alone this specific piece of land, these animals and these plants.
Language, Myth, and the Buckmaster Trilogy
I’d like to talk about the Buckmaster Trilogy a bit, and I’d love to hear more about the idea of rewilding and how your thinking of rewilding has developed. In The Wake, I love the world you weave through the words: You make this shadow language and help us enter into that world. Can you talk a bit about how the myth of Weyland developed for you? How did that myth become a central one for those books?
PK: It’s a good question, actually. “I don’t really know,” is the answer, strangely enough. The Wake was a book that kind of emerged; it went through a lot of planned versions of what it could be, and it ended up being something in some ways quite different to what I intended it to be. The original notion of that book was to tell Buccmaster’s story, to tell the story of this farmer who is resisting the [Norman] Conquest, because I wanted to tell the story of resistance to the Conquest, because not many people know it, and I find it fascinating.
But the angle in there of him being a sort of Anglo-Saxon pagan who is part of the last of his tradition resisting the coming of Christianity wasn’t something that I planned when I was writing it, actually. It was something that occurred to me, something that came up, and Weyland —he’s always been a figure I’ve been interested in, I suppose, from mythology— his voice started appearing. And this notion that Weyland is kind of goading Buccmaster on and that Buccmaster thinks he’s chosen by the old gods —again, that was something that just developed.
I actually had a weird dream where I saw a very strange figure, and I wondered what the hell it was, and it ended up being described in the book when he describes Weyland. It’s very odd. So this voice just appeared, and I had to sort of follow it along, which is also what happened with Buccmaster himself. You know, he was the easiest character I’ve ever written because he was just there, and his voice was very distinctive, and he’s just this bloody-minded guy, and it wasn’t difficult to write him, in a way, once I’d got the language right.
So this tension between him and Weyland, again, as I say, it wasn’t planned. Although the most interesting stuff in novels is never planned. It’s just what emerges in the writing. When you think you know what you’re doing — well, you realize after a while that something else is writing a book through you, especially a novel, and you don’t really have much control. You have to do your best, but I didn’t intend to write that, to have that great spiritual clash at the heart of the book when I started writing, but that was what happened. And Weyland just emerged, and then emerged again in the third book, because I wondered what I could do with him and what he could represent there.
TC: Yeah, that makes sense. I’m interested more in the process too, in the language you use. In The Wake of course you use older terms that kind of come back in Alexandria, like “holt” for woods, and Beast is in contemporary language but the prose breaks down, depending on what’s going on with the character. What word-hoards are at your disposal, especially in Alexandria — it’s in the future, but it’s like the language of the people who are still caring for the earth is more earth-like. It’s not archaic as much as re-focused, I suppose, instead of the “normal” language that K speaks.
PK: No, it is, and what I’m trying to do with those people in Alexandria is effectively create a future indigeneity. What these people are is really an indigenous group of people living in—well, it’s not England, but it’s the same landscape. They are effectively a tribe, they’re indigenous people, and their language comes from the earth, which I think all language does, actually, real language. All across the world, groups that have been indigenous to a place, whatever culture they are, their language relates to that place.
Very true here in Ireland, if you study the Irish language, which I don’t really, but if you just read about it, you can see that the language that the Irish people spoke, first it was very regional. There wasn’t even such a thing as “Irish” really; it was very different in different parts of the country. They had words which were extremely expressive of the place. They had words for things like “the feeling of standing in a field on an autumn evening,” this kind of thing. Very, very, very rooted in the place.
And that’s true of all indigenous peoples, and it was true of English, Old English too, when the English people, the Anglo-Saxons, were living in that way. It’s kind of everybody’s birthright, but K very specifically speaks modern English because modern English is a machine language. It relates to Old English, but it’s been cleaned up; it’s not regionalized. Even in England a lot of English dialects are constantly being overlaid by a sort of official machine, which is now very Americanized as well, but then it doesn’t take account of American regional dialects either, so it’s a kind of global-speak that everybody knows how to do in a sort of mid-Atlantic accent wherever they come from. And it’s the language of the machine, and that’s the language that K speaks. It’s not rooted at all, it doesn’t have a place, it doesn’t have a history behind it. It just happens to be the language that everyone in the world speaks now.
And it’s not real. It’s the language that you’d expect from an artificial intelligence. It’s not the language that you’d expect from somebody who’s grubbing around in the soil. So that’s what I’m trying to do there. In all the books, I’m using language to relate people to place, and also to show up to some degree the artifice of language. Language is all we’ve got, but it’s also not good enough really to talk about the real things.
PK: Which is why all the really holy people never say much. They’re just praying quietly, they’re not going on about things, because they don’t need to. It’s people like me who talk too much. You know, that’s a sign of our disconnection.
So, yeah, I’ve always tried to break down language and see what’s on the other side of it.
TC: What are some of the poets you go back to continually or maybe that initially really shaped you?
PK: Yeah, well, luckily I’m sitting next to my shelf of poetry books. You’ve put me on the spot, but I can answer it. I used to write about Robinson Jeffers all the time when I was working on the Dark Mountain Project, and he was a huge influence on me. He’s a very bleak poet, very anti-machine poet, but really incredibly powerful in his no-nonsense writing about the stupidity of modern humanity and also our smallness. But the way he writes about wild places as well— from the cliffs of California back when they were wild — it’s quite something. I mean, he’s a really incredibly bracing poet, and that’s the reason that no one studies him anymore and hardly anyone’s heard of him, because he’s far too much of a challenge. Jeffers is a real radical poet, he’s not one of these fake radical poets who says tame radical things for a metropolitan audience. He’s not fucking around, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, so he’s always inspirational.
Yeats has always been an inspiration. Actually, I’m a great fan of Robert Bly, whose poetry I discovered a few years back, but he writes really good stuff, very good, funny but also very sharp, mythological poetry, as you would expect from Bly, and it’s really very good, some of his best stuff.
Another poet I really like but not many people have heard of is Jack Gilbert, who is an American poet who spent a lot of time living in Greece, and wasn’t really well known in his lifetime, but his stuff is beautiful. Wendell Berry, obviously —goes without saying, I suppose. R.S. Thomas, he was an influence on me. Again, a very bleak kind of poet; he was an admirer of Jeffers, actually. A very bleak figure, but quite a humorous one too. And he was, obviously, a priest; he wrestled with God in his poetry.
I suppose those would be some formative names. When I was sixteen the first poet I really loved was Wordsworth, actually, because we had to study him in school and I didn’t think I really liked poetry very much, but Wordsworth was speaking about experiences I’d had up on the mountains, and these great spiritual experiences he’d had in nature, and I didn’t know anyone else that had them at the time. I got very much into the Romantic poets for quite a long time. I’m still really a Romantic at heart, as you can probably tell. But yeah, those would be some of the poets I think that would probably be most important to me.
TC: It’s interesting that you mention Wordsworth writing about things that you recognize. I’ve thought of that being one challenge of writing poetry today —not only there being less knowledge of what things are named (one of my self-appointed tasks is to learn with my children what the names of things are, the names of plants and such), but also, how to write about certain things when there are experiences you can’t rely on someone having had? For instance, if a kid has never seen something sprout from the ground, they’ve never really seen that and noticed it, how can you allude to that? To read the best poetry or the best anything, without having lived in the world first, you’re not going to get it, I don’t think, in the way that you should. So then, how do you write?
PK: That’s the challenge, and I think all you can do is write. All you can do is write from your experience, see who gets it. You can never plan who you think’s going to read your stuff or who you would like to read it. But you’re right about that. I mean, poetry today is just —I don’t know even what poetry is. Certainly in Britain it’s a tiny little kind of elite thing that middle-class people do to each other — they all just read each other’s poetry books, and they’ve all grown up in the cities, there’s no space at all for nature poetry or Romantic poetry or anything so reactionary and dire as that. And there certainly isn’t any space for anything spiritual in any serious sense either, because I think poets have been swallowed by the Machine, unfortunately.
Yeah, you just have to write, you just have to write from the margins, I suppose, and then you see who picks it up. That’s all you can ever do. All the best writers and all the best artists and creative people are always operating on the margins, and half of the people we now think of as the greats of classical literature were despised or unknown in their lifetime. From William Blake to Shelley, many of the people that are regarded as great figures today were not known at the time. So you just have to do your work on the edges, I think. And there will always be some people who get it. But you’re right, there’s only so much you can say to people who just don’t understand the experience you’ve had, of course, especially in poetry, because the experience you’re trying to convey is especially intense, so you’re never going to be able to get that across to somebody who’s never seen a sunset on a mountain. They don’t know what you’re talking about. But I suppose you just write for whoever can hear it.
TC: My other strategy is to do all the things with my kids — decide, okay, we’re going to experience the things, we’re going to read the things.
PK: Yeah, yeah, no, that’s what we do as well. I mean, you just have to, like you say, you have to give them the things that you think they need, and then they’ve got those to take with them out to the world with them. That’s all you can do. And then it’s up to them to find out what they’re going to do with it.
TC: I did want to ask, have you read any of David Jones’s poetry?
TC: I would be very curious to hear your thoughts on The Anathemata in particular. It’s a book-length poem. The whole poem basically takes place in about seven seconds of someone at a Latin mass, but tons of things happen in those seven seconds. One thing it is, is the weaving of all these myths that find their fruition in Christianity — but that is a really simplistic way to put it.
I think you’d find it really interesting. But one thing he is trying to do is, he’s using Welsh, he’s using these different dialects, he’s really playing with language to experience myth, the kind of myth that participates in reality. In his introduction he talks about the challenge of signs, what happens when a sign doesn’t signify what it’s supposed to signify, or when you don’t have that shared knowledge of the signs. And then he goes ahead and writes a poem that’s pretty obscure, but it’s absolutely fascinating, and like all poetry, it needs to be read aloud, but even more so.
Anyway, I commend it to you, and I’d love to hear what you’d think of it.
PK: I’ll have a look at that.
TC: Yeah, see what you think. And speaking of, can you talk more about Wild Christianity, and what’s your vision for that? And I guess that’s partly the project of rewilding language?
PK: Well, I don’t know if it’s a project, it’s just literally a discussion I seem to have started having with a few people, especially if you read my essays on Substack. But I also have a good friend named Martin Shaw who is a storyteller and a mythologist, who I’ve worked with for years. He’s always been a pagan kind of a chap, but he’s recently become Christian.
PK: His father was a preacher, so he grew up in a Christian household. He’s had a long and winding journey like mine. So as somebody who’s been a storyteller from all traditions and somebody who is very interested in rewilding words, he’s very interested as well into looking into what it means to — I hate to use the world “rewild” really because it’s so overused now, but there is a sense that Christianity has been quite tamed. Obviously it’s been tamed in the West for a long time by its alliance with power, and especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it became a very middle-class, respectable thing to be a Christian. You almost had to be a Christian really in Britain and America a century or so ago, or at least pretend to be, in order to get anywhere.
So it became a [comfortable] kind of faith, while actually at its heart it’s quite wild and challenging — well, very wild and challenging actually, and Christ is a wild and challenging figure. He really is; he’s very much a marginal character in every way, and his whole life and death is marginal deliberately. And the people he spends time with are marginal. And that’s how God acts in the world, it turns out. There’s a wildness to Christ, he never has any place to lay his head, and he does the things he’s not really supposed to do and talks to the people he’s not supposed to talk to, and he surrenders when he’s not supposed to and he fights when he’s not supposed to, and he tells you to turn against your own parents, but he also tells you to love everybody, and it’s full of paradoxes and strangeness. It’s disturbing, in a way, the things that Christ is talking about. He’s not a comfortable figure, and he’s not telling you to have 2.4 children and to go to church on Sunday. And he’s not telling you to become a nice well-behaved liberal social justice activist either. He’s kind of not telling anyone to operate in society at all. But at the same time, his is not a political challenge, it’s a spiritual challenge. It’s not even necessarily about what you’re doing in society, it’s almost like, You just leave society over there, leave Caesar what is Caesar’s, that’s what he does, that’s fine, that’s the world. I’m calling you out to something else, and there’s a wildness in that which we’ve lost. And it seems to me that we could find it again.
The tradition in Orthodoxy that attracts me so much is always the mystical tradition, and also the tradition of the monks and the hermits, who are still out there on Mount Athos living in caves and praying all day. And then I live in Ireland, and in Ireland in the early centuries of Christianity the monks would go out to the woods and live in caves. They would go out to places like Skellig Michael and live wild on rocks, and build these incredible monasteries. They were going into what they’d call the green desert, the Irish version of what the desert fathers were doing. And then the desert fathers themselves, and the desert mothers, the beginning of Christianity, going out and sort of burning off everything unnecessary in the desert — that is the part of Christianity, that sort of wild, challenging part that strips everything away, that interests me. That stuff has always interested me, long before I became a Christian. You’ve read Beast, so that’s kind of what’s happening there, really. That’s a man going up to a moor to search for God even though he doesn’t know it, and getting everything stripped away from him, even though he doesn’t necessarily know what he’s looking for. But he gets what he needs.
In a world that’s coming apart, Christianity can’t afford to be a comfortable religion of empire. It can’t afford to be a comfortable faith that upholds the systems that are crumbling down. It has to go back to the margins again, which is where it came from. And that’s just an instinct, it’s not a manifesto, really. But there’s other people who I talk to who find it interesting too, and it also is a way of reweaving us back into the landscape, and into nature. Which again, the early Christians were doing, not because they were pagan nature worshippers, but because they were just taking themselves to the edges. And you have wonderful Orthodox saints like Saint Seraphim of Sarov who went into the forest and lived with the bears and learned to talk to them. Obviously you have the likes of Saint Francis in the West, so these people have been there, and some of them are still there. It’s part of the Christian tradition, actually. It’s one that really fascinates me; it’s got a future to it.
What would happen if we did our liturgies outside in the woods, you know? That’s a question that really interests me as a Christian, and that’s not about compromising the faith or changing the form or anything like that. It’s simply, what would happen if you took all the icons and the altar into the woods and did it there, instead of into a building, sometimes? That would have a very different feel to it. I don’t know, it wouldn’t be better or worse, but it would be a part of the faith that isn’t there at the moment. And it would just be interesting to me. Yeah, I’m thinking aloud. But that seems to be a path I’m attracted to.
TC: It’s interesting because there’s the narrative that, by the time the Romantic poets come along, the industrial age, or at least the first part of it, has come, and so they’re starting to feel the disconnection from nature, and they’re trying to hearken back to it and see the beauty in wilderness, but wilderness starts to not mean the same thing as it does in Grimms’ fairy tales, for instance: Like when you’re in the wilderness, that’s a terrifying place. So there’s this truth and this desire for recovery and for connection in the Romantics. And I think it’s interesting because in a way we’ve never lost that sense that there is something really to be afraid of with the wilderness, and that’s why we’re always trying to control it. On the other hand, we can’t control creation, ultimately, but neither can we control the Creator. Rather we are supposed to be transformed. I feel like there’s that interesting tension where we’re drawn to the wild but we’re also afraid of it, and there’s this parallel with the holy and the divine, where we’re drawn to it, but also we might have to change. We might die! We might die in the wilderness — we might die and have to be resurrected, but we have to die first. So, yeah, I don’t know. I find that interesting.
And Martin Shaw, I read his book Cinderbiter, those retellings of the Celtic poems, and absolutely loved it, and I’m really going to be following his work now as well.
PK: Yeah, he’s very good. If you ever get a chance to see him in person, as it were, he’s an amazing storyteller. But no, I think what you just said is very interesting, that sort of fear we have of Creator and creation — I hadn’t thought of that before. But that seems quite true, doesn’t it? They’re both kind of nurturing and threatening at the same time, so it’s easier to turn away from either of them.
You know, C.S. Lewis talked about the Tao as the way of God, and the Tao being the thing which runs through the world, it runs through the natural world, and your work is to align yourself with it, which is also aligning yourself with what God wants for you, and you can find that more easily in a forest than a city for sure. So there’s got to be something there. But you’re right, it’s having to face up to what you don’t want to see, having to go into the dark wood because you don’t know what will happen when you get in there. It’s an interesting way of looking at it.
But that’s what we have to do as a society. We’re going to have to go into the dark wood whether we like it or not, because all the things that we based our assumptions on are coming apart. We have to go into the wilderness, so maybe we can either go voluntarily or be dragged there. There’s a big difference between an involuntary trip to the desert, which might kill you, and a voluntary choice to go there and transform yourself, like you were saying. Either way is hard, but you’re doing something very different.
Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. I’d like to keep thinking about it. But I think there’s something important in it.
I mean, it feels to me our whole culture is going into the wilderness at this point, you know, is going into the desert. So we’re going to be there whether we like it or not, and there’s no point in trying to hark back to what it was, even if you want to, because you can’t. When the Israelites leave Egypt, they have to go to the desert for forty years before they get home. And they don’t just leave slavery and go home to the Promised Land; they have to go to the desert, and Moses doesn’t even get there. And then they’re obviously losing their faith and worshipping idols and arguing with him and arguing with each other and then changing their mind and then leaving God and then coming back again — you know, having to get themselves straight before they’re allowed in the Promised Land. Which is maybe what we have to do. Maybe that’s where we are.
TC: That story of Israel wandering in the desert and the story of Israel in general, recently has struck me when I think of how the Church is affected by the world— well, so was Israel. We’re in the world, but there’s always the challenge of truly being as we ought to be in it. That has not gone away since Israel’s wandering in the desert, and even once they arrived, they didn’t quite arrive yet, because that wasn’t the ultimate place.
How Shall We Then Work?
Considering that we are creatures and considering all the tensions of how do we live well with integrity — if we grant that there might be some redemptive technology but there’s a lot of demonic technology as well — how ought we to think of vocation, of our work in the world, and what are some of the challenges, especially in a world where we’re so disconnected from not only nature but just doing things with our hands? How do we think of work in the everyday, and how should those considerations shape our thinking of work?
PK: It’s a good question. I suppose you should probably just read a lot of Wendell Berry and he’ll answer all those questions for you.
TC: There you go!
PK: It’s hard, it’s a difficult balance. I suppose you have to know how your work aligns with what you imagine God wants for you, or what you think God wants for you, which is always very hard to know. I suppose also that, at the same time, you know when your energies are being used well, you know when you’re doing what you think is true, whatever that is, and it’s different for everybody. And you also know when you’ve been captured, and sent somewhere that you don’t want to be. I’ve always been quite uncompromising about it: I am not going to do anything that I think is really wrong, or that takes me in the wrong direction, at least for not any longer than I have to. I’ve had to do lots of terrible jobs, I’ve had to earn a living like we all do — but I’ve always had a sense that I’m not going to spend my life doing something that is meaningless and destructive. I’d rather be poor than do that.
I was going to say there’s always a way out, but it depends on where you come from and how lucky you are in life, but you have to make your choices. It’s like with the smartphone — you can have your phone, you can have your technology, and you’re going to lose things if you get rid of it. But how strongly do you feel about this? How serious are you? That’s the question you have to ask yourself, I suppose. How serious are you about living well, in the way that you think you ought to live as a Christian, or just as a human in the world? And how far can you go, doing that? And it might not be as far as you’d like to go. But you could do something about it. If you feel that the Machine is as tragic as I do, then you have to resist it in some way. And that’s not necessarily a kind of head-on fight, but it is about living in a way that aligns you with God and aligns you with nature and with other humans, rather than aligning you with the Machine.
So what is that, and how many compromises are you prepared to make? Do you want to be like Mark Boyle? I mean, not many people do, but it’s an option at one end of the spectrum, you know? And then there’s all the other options along the way, depending on the life that we have.
I perpetually would like to get the internet out of my house, but then I wouldn’t be able to earn a penny, so I can’t. So there it is! So we have to make these choices. I would genuinely like to live without the internet, but I have no idea how I would feed my children, so I can’t at the moment. So there it is. But you know, maybe it’s just the process of drawing lines, like it is with anything else. You just say, okay, I’m not going over this line. It’s just a thing I’m not going to do. So I’ve said for a long time I’m not having a smartphone. I’m just not going to have one. And I don’t care what that means. It’s inconvenient for me in all sorts of ways, but I’m just not going to do it, so that’s that. I don’t have to think about it. And that’s one of my lines. There are things I’m just not going to do, that I’m not going to compromise on, and then there are other things I go, Well, okay, I have to do that because we’re all living in the world. So I think that’s probably the way to think about it.
I could come back to the Amish again, and that’s pretty much what they do. They say, is this piece of machinery going to negatively affect our community, and our spiritual life? Because if it is, we’re just not having it. We don’t care how convenient it is; we’re not having it. We’ll have this one here because this one seems to enhance what we do without destroying the community, but we’re not having anything that is going to negatively affect the central reason that we’re here, which is to have a certain type of really rooted community and to worship God. That’s what we do. And that seems to be a good way of looking at it. What are you going to have in your life, and what are you not going to have in your life? How much of the machine are you going to put up with, and how much are you going to say, “No, this is demonic, this is dangerous, I’m not having this here, I don’t care how much pressure I get”? It’s that kind of thing. So I think, as I’ve said in some of my essays recently, what happened with the vaccine mandates and the vaccine passports around Covid was a really useful example of that for me personally, because I thought, Well, okay, there are some things that I’m okay with going along with but there are some things I’m going to draw the line at. I’m not going to deal with mandatory vaccination. I’m lucky I didn’t have to do that in our country. That was a red line for me — not because of the vaccination but because of the mandate. So that was a personal choice. But these kinds of things bring things into real focus for you. And I think there’s going to be more of this as time goes on, because we’re just going to have more and more pressure to technologize all of our lives and to put chips into everything and get smart televisions and smart cars and smart this, that, and the other, because the future is the internet of bodies and the internet of things, as we’re regularly told. And that’s another place I’m not going to go to. At that point if you’re really going to start standing up against that, then you’re going to have to deal with being marginalized and exiled to some degree. But again, Christians ought to be good at that, you know? We’ve got a long history of being marginal and exiled. We’ve just forgotten it. We’re going to have to go back to that place where we live on the edges as the weirdoes in society and aren’t prepared to put up with what Rome is trying to do to us.
TC: We were listening once to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talk about this, saying, You Christians need to learn how to be a creative minority.
PK: That’s a really good way of putting it. Yeah, exactly.
TC: But I really like that way of thinking. And if you think about calling — what ought you to do with your life — you’re also asking, “what are you going to say no to? What are the limits you’re going to draw so that you can fulfill that calling?” And that’s going to be different for all the callings one has, as a parent and writer, and whatever else. What are your bonds and duties in those things, and what are they calling you to step away from, as well as step toward.
PK: Yeah, I would say so. Limits is what it’s all going to come down to. And I like the idea of being a creative minority. I think it’s going to be really healthy for Christians not to be at the heart of society. I know people get very upset about America de-Christianizing and the rest of it, but you know, I’m European, that happened to us ages ago, and we’re still here. Because this is how you reinvent yourself — again, not by compromising the faith or inventing a new version of it, but just going back to the bare bones of what it is and saying, What’s this for? This religion doesn’t exist to prop up empire, it doesn’t exist to prop up the Machine. It’s an antidote to it, actually. It’s an alternative to it. So that’s where it is. I think it will do us good as Christians to be pushed out to the margins and probably mocked and despised a bit like we were centuries ago rather than being the guys in the palaces with the emperors. It’s not a bad thing, because that’s where it comes from. That’s where Christ was. There’s something there about walking with bare feet out into the world with nowhere to lay your head.
And that’s how God chose to manifest on earth — not as an emperor, not as a king, not as a general, not as a businessman, but as an itinerant rabbi. So there’s something to that. It’s not a machine religion, Christianity, or it shouldn’t be, I think. So maybe that’s where we go.
TC: Well, here’s maybe a novel that needs to be written, then: When Eugene Vodolazkin wrote Laurus he wanted to write about a holy fool, and he just couldn’t do it in modern times; he had to set in the Middle Ages. Maybe he’ll still write that, or someone else needs to write that — of what a holy fool in this time could look like. What are some other writers that have inspired you in the past few years?
PK: That’s a good question, again. You mentioned Vodolazkin — I think his Laurus is such a good book. I found that very inspiring, actually. It’s hard to find contemporary sort of Christian art or literature that’s any good and that isn’t just a bit cringy. So you go back to Dostoyevsky or something, and Tolkien, people who are writing in some ways obviously Christian books that aren’t in other ways obviously Christian at all. They’re not Christian in an outward sense very often, and even when they are, like The Brothers Karamazov, it’s nuanced and interesting enough that all the debates that are going on in there —you don’t have to imagine that you’re a Christian to read it. And there’s something about that. In terms of fiction, there’s very little around now [like that]. And yeah, that is the challenge, isn’t it? That’s the challenge for the future, to see what we can communicate through that kind of method. I mean, apart from Vodolazkin and Dostoyevsky, both of whom are Russian…That’s what I’m saying, the Russians know how to do it, you see! I don’t know why that is, but they do, and that’s the kind of thing — if I ever write a novel again, I would aspire to write something like that.
It’s always good to aspire to be Dostoyevsky, you know, but that kind of thoughtful, creative and readable exploration of the depth of things — it’s very rare. You don’t get much writing like that now. People are skating around on the surface. There’s a lot of nonfiction Orthodox writers that I find interesting, but fiction is much less common.
TC: I try to keep a running list of fiction and other forms of art that help the reader become a porous self instead of a buffered self, in Charles Taylor’s terms —where the buffered self is the modern self, where there is this screen, this buffer, between you and the world; whereas for the porous self, there is a spiritual world that can affect you — the world is enchanted, is one way to put it —but you can be affected by it, there’s not a screen between you and it. And Laurus gets into a porous world, where things are alive and time is not linear, and I think The Wake does that as well. And it’s strikingly different from most historical fiction (insert pretty much any period movie), which is just like, Okay, I’m going to enter this other world — actually I’m not, it’s going to be moderns saying modern things in period garb, it’s going to be cosplay. And you have a lot of clichés to deal with in fiction that you’re kind of like, let’s get beyond that.…If you set something in a historical time period the heroine has to be “ahead of her time,” whatever that means.
PK: Yeah, yeah, exactly, yes.
TC: But I want her to be in her time!
PK: No, exactly, I don’t want to see modern people with impeccable attitudes, as you say, in period costume. Yeah, that was exactly what I didn’t want to do with The Wake. It’s the one of the reasons I used that language, because if you use a version of an old language you’ve immediately taken people out of their present assumptions and into a stranger place. And it’s easier then to make the people different. But the past is so interesting precisely because the people were so different. I’m not interested in reading feminists in the 1500s; it’s not interesting to me. I actually want to know what a woman’s life was like in the 1500s, not what a modern filmmaker thinks they’d like it to be like it. It’s much less interesting just to see, Oh, well I know what this story is going to be telling me, immediately.
Again, maybe people are afraid of the past in the way that they’re afraid of God and afraid of nature, because it also sort of blows up the progressive mythos. If we can find things in the past that were good that have been lost, we can’t have that, because the story we have to tell ourselves is that things are always getting better and it used to be awful. And if that turns out not to be true, at least in every area, then the story of progress goes out of the window. So it’s easier to have the woman ahead of her time fighting the patriarchy, etc., because that tells us what we want to hear about how much better off we are now because of what our ruling class is doing.
TC: But she’s also not just in T-shirt and jeans, and there’s more wild land and nature undisturbed behind her, so it’s beautiful — but also, thank goodness we’ve got beyond that time.
PK: Yes, luckily! Luckily, we have our filmmaking class to thank for that, so that’s all good. And obviously we’ve left behind stupid and primitive things like religion so that we can all be good secular people.
There’s a kind of terror at the heart of the whole mythology of modernity that actually it might not be true, and you can see that, in the more populist rebellions and ecological collapses you get, the more the ruling elite is getting obviously nervous about the possibility that this might not be working. And so it seems to me we’re getting so much propaganda in literature and filmmaking now because it’s like they want to just shove down our throats the story that we ought to be hearing, rather than having the confidence to actually tell stories. I mean, if you compare Hollywood today to Hollywood in the Seventies, when they used to make really great films, today absolutely everything they make is either a remake of a superhero franchise again, or it’s something that gives us a lot of progressive pieties, and, as you say, just set in whatever era, telling us all exactly the same things about race and gender that we all ought to be learning. And like they’re just saying, This is how you need to think — we don’t even know how to tell stories anymore, we’re just going to tell you the opinions you should have through the mouths of these characters. And it’s so poor and lazy and boring. There’s a kind of collapse in confidence in the ruling class or the creative class when they’re so narrow that they’ll only write like that, and they haven’t got the imagination or the courage to say, Well, this is what people would actually have thought five hundred years ago, so let’s go with that and see where it leads.
TC: Comparing this thought with how writing develops, you know, how this came to you as you were writing, this character develops…. It is such a mysterious process that, if you have an artist who is truly listening, they’re going to make good art no matter if they’re spouting slogans in their real life. It’s kind of like, there’s an actual reality that you can tell stories about and tap into, but if you’re afraid of that, if you’re afraid of where that’s going to take you, then you’re going to make the clichéd art and make sure that the right message is coming across, rather than going with something that might challenge you in the writing of it, in even trying to create it.
PK: Yeah, people are just terrified of that now. The cultural landscape is so hideous that people know that if they say the wrong thing or express the wrong attitude, they’re going to be immediately canceled all over social media. And so people who want to make a career in the arts — and I see this amongst novelists all the time — they just play it safe, and they know what boundaries they’re supposed to operate in, what they’re allowed to say and what they’re not allowed to say. And so as those boundaries narrow and narrow all the time, the art just dies, if you’re not courageous enough to step outside it and say, “Look, bollocks to that, I’m going to write what I need to write.” And that’s not a political attitude, it’s just a sense of “I’m just going to follow this story, and it will probably take me to some interesting places, and they may be not things you want to hear, but that’s what the story is and that’s what characters do, because they’re human, and they’re not just robots spouting the correct slogans.”
We’re in a very weird place with that, so again, the only place to do interesting stuff is on the margins, really. The center has just become jammed up.
TC: One filmmaker I do find an honest artist and a bright light in all this is Terrence Malick.
PK: He did Badlands, didn’t he? I love Badlands. Haven’t seen it for years, though. What else has he done?
TC: Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, Tree of Life, A Hidden Life?
PK: No, I haven’t seen those actually, but I have heard things about him recently so I should probably watch them, shouldn’t I?
TC: Well, here’s the sell: For one of his films, for one of the scenes he told one of his actresses, “Just read this passage of Dostoyevsky, then we’ll shoot the scene.” So, yeah, Tree of Life and A Hidden Life. Tree of Life is I think a really interesting piece of film — it’s playing with the art form in an interesting way, and it’s just beautifully done. A Hidden Life is similarly just beautiful, but it’s also devastating, and that one tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, who was the Austrian farmer who was recruited into the Nazi army but he refused to fight. It’s really beautifully done, but it’s also interesting on the level we’ve talked about, where there’s the tension of whether the local church is going to support this guy who’s actually being courageous, and also what is his family going to do, and what are the challenges when the war comes home to his village.
Recovering the Home
You describe yourself as a home educator in some of your bios. What are some things that have struck you about that transition for your family, of basing education more in the home?
PK: Yeah, we’ve been doing it for so long now I don’t really remember doing it before. My daughter, my teenage daughter, has actually started going to school this year. She’s going to a Steiner school which is not so far from us, which is rather a quite nice little place in the woods. She was getting to the point where it was good for her to go out and meet some more people. She’s quite enjoying it actually, but she was homeschooled until then, and she’s still doing a bit of home stuff on the side as well. My son’s eleven, and so we’re still homeschooling him.
I think it’s really just another one of these manifestations of sovereignty. The alternative to machine control is sovereignty, so it comes down to what you’re prepared to take back, and that’s what it comes down to being, really. And I think schools are really a manifestation of a kind of machine society where the children are being trained in a certain way. Particularly now, — they’re being sort of pumped into STEM subjects, and there’s as much technology and science and computer game programming as possible, and I don’t want them to learn that. I wanted our children to learn to spend as much time outside as possible, and keep their feet on the ground and learn some practical skills as well as some intellectual ones. Again, it’s a sort of manifestation of taking back control, if you like, taking some sovereignty over your life. It’s been very rich. I’ve been very lucky to do it, actually. And the children really seem to have benefited from it.
And again, if you don’t send your children to school, the pressure on them to get a smartphone and wear what everyone else is wearing is much less; in fact it’s not there. You’ve got more chance of bringing up independent-minded children than you have if you send them off to have the Machine educate them. So yeah, it’s been a really nice thing to do. I can’t imagine not doing it now, actually. If my son decides he wants to go to school as well, then it’ll be very quiet around here. It’s very quiet when they leave home anyway, which always happens quicker than you think it’s going to.
TC: I’ve been reading a lot of the educator Charlotte Mason, and she’s writing in G.K. Chesterton’s time, so early 1900s, when the question was, “Is there a system that can churn out the right kind of educated citizen?” And she argues against that, and says, “It’s not a system, it’s a philosophy.” She starts with, “What is a human being?” First of all, every child is born a person, and not a blank slate, not a machine, not all these other things, not this thing that we can mold to what we want it to be, but a person with dignity that is ultimately meant for union with God, and that’s our responsibility, to prepare them for that. It’s interesting reading her, because if I had so much technology in my kids’ life that is deemed normal now, I could not do this well —and for children up to age six, she says six hours outside a day is good, and instead of reading about something in a book, have kids find out about it themselves, like have them notice this tree in every season, and describe it to you, and then you can tell them the name and such. It’s interesting because it’s revolutionary, it’s countercultural in our time.
PK: Yeah, that’s the counterculture now, isn’t it?
TC: What have been some of the stories that your family has centered around, maybe stories you’ve read together, stories you have returned to, whether in film or books?
PK: My son is just reading Lord of the Rings actually; he’s eleven, so he loves that. The Hobbit was always one of their favorites. Well, when they were younger, my daughter was a big fan of Heidi, they would read The Wind in the Willows.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most with my children is just making up stories for them. We’ve got a number of different versions of different stories with different characters, and I still do it for them sometimes. I used to read them bedtime stories but also just make them, and we have great fun. There have been characters we’ve been telling stories about for years, and that’s actually the most enjoyable thing. It’s almost one of the things I might remember most about their childhood — just the fun of making up silly stories. Again, it’s one of those things we’ve forgotten how to do, but it’s very easy to do — you just sit down and start inventing something silly, and anyone can do it! Then it takes on a life of its own. It’s one of the best things to do for children actually — you know, reading to kids is great, but making up stories for them is really good too. So I’ve probably enjoy that most. And as a kind of serious writer it also gives me a chance to be silly when no one else is looking, which is great. Should do more of that.
TC: One needs that. Yeah, I think about keeping an oral tradition. My husband makes up more stories with my kids right now. I’ve thought a lot about family stories too—you know, what do I need to be telling my kids, what do I want my dad to be telling my kids, and passing those things on, and the difference between someone telling that story and it being written down.
I have a question of advice. I’m considering organizing a seminar for high schoolers and adults where we read literature on the Machine, and you’ve mentioned this idea in other interviews. So reading Illich, reading E.M. Forster, R.S. Thomas.…I kind of want to read Lord of the Rings too. What are some other texts on the Machine that have struck you, or that you’d recommend be read alongside Illich, etc.?
PK: Good question. Probably the best thing to do is go through my essays online actually because the stuff I’ve been writing over the last year is absolutely full of books on this—Jacques Ellul’s book The Technological Society comes to mind—a bit big, very thick; so is Lewis Mumford’s book on the machine, actually two volumes on that—it’s enormous, but The Myth of the Machine by Lewis Mumford, it’s very good. I’m trying to think of what else—Neil Postman’s book Amusing Ourselves to Death is very good; it’s quite old now.
TC: There is this course I’ve heard of, I think Patrick Deneen taught it to his college students, and they read all these utopias/dystopias, as well as a Wendell Berry book. I wouldn’t call Wendell Berry’s books utopian, but they are to a lot of people. I know I’ve talked to people who are like, “This isn’t real, it doesn’t feel real to me,” and I’ve sometimes wondered whether that’s because it’s so other from one’s experience? Although for me it’s not as other—I haven’t grown up on a farm, but I know some farm people.
But at the end of the course Deneen asked the students, which world would you like to live in? And that was probably the scariest question, because not everyone picked Wendell Berry! Some picked a dystopia, an actual dystopia, like Brave New World and such. Thinking about that problem — you can’t see the Machine if you’re so much in it and you don’t know what else is there, unless you just feel that something’s off — you can’t name it until you see the alternate vision of something.
PK: Yeah, I think that’s right. You have to experience the kind of life that Wendell Berry’s writing about, which most of us haven’t, then it can seem kind of fantastical, but then there are still places like that. And when you experience them, then you know what you’ve lost, which is painful, so it’s easy to avoid it sometimes than to deal with it, I suppose, because it’s hard to know how to get it back again.
TC: Yeah, it’s an imperfect community but — I guess that’s another story I am tired of, when there is a movie or play about some small village, there’s always something really evil lurking underneath.
PK: Yeah, it always has to be, can’t ever have a good rural community. It’s got to be demonized, literally.
TC: Yeah, it’s sad. It’s easier to portray real evil than real goodness.