December 24, 2009
Rooting for the Rhizome
Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality
By Morris Berman
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000
In four years of research, I’ve rarely come across a book with a thesis so similar to my theory of the “tyranny of the prefrontal cortex (pfc)” than Morris Berman’s Wandering God. So why did I find the book so difficult to read at times? Maybe it’s because I’m in such strong agreement with much of what Berman writes that the disagreements become all the more painful.
Let me begin with the points of agreement. Berman’s main thesis is that in our transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and beyond, humanity has entered into a mode of thinking that he calls the “sacred authority complex” (SAC). This mode emphasizes transcendence – rising above the here-and-now to a realm of spiritual heights, immortality, wealth and authority – and in doing so, it leaves behind the quality of existing fully in the present, material world. This matches closely with my own view of the pfc’s rise to power in our consciousness manifested in the agricultural-based values which then developed into Platonic dualism.
When Berman contrasts the hunter-gatherer (HG) mode of consciousness favorably with our SAC mode, it sounds a lot like the “democracy of consciousness” that I believe we need to move towards, as in the following:
HG life was more congruent with the multiple aspects of human Being – spiritual, political, somatic, environmental, and sexual (and perhaps even intellectual) – than the civilized form of life that followed it. The irony of civilization is that the SAC promises a better life yet delivers one that is probably worse.
Much of Berman’s book is spent tracing the steps in which the SAC took over from HG consciousness, and again I find myself in agreement with many of his interpretations. He emphasizes, for example, that it was the shift from nomadic to sedentary hunter-gatherer culture that was the most significant step, even more than the shift to agriculture. That’s because, once you’re sedentary, you begin to accumulate possessions, stake out land, and initiate the cycle of ownership, desire and power that leads inevitably to the SAC culture.
Berman shows how early civilizations merged notions of power, fertility and agriculture into a gigantic thought constellation, quoting powerfully from the Mesopotamian poem, The Marriage of Inanna and Dumuzi, where the bride, Inanna astonishingly asks:
As for me, my vulva, … Me – the maid, who will plow it for me? My vulva, the watered ground – for me, Me the Queen, who will station the ox there?
Also, I’m in complete agreement with Berman when he sees Zoroaster as an important source in the universalization of concepts of good and evil, describing how “the moral dualism of the Gathas is in fact the universalization of a concrete political and social situation… The entire cosmos is now seen as defined by the conflict between the True and the False.”
I part company with Berman in a couple of interpretive areas, such as his attacks on Mircea Eliade (see my recent review of Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return) and on the “Kurgan hypothesis” for the source of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language. But my problem with Berman in these areas is not just a difference in interpretation, but rather the vehemence with which he goes after his prey, calling Eliade’s methodology “flawed to the core.” Here’s another example:
To my mind, writers such as Jung, Campbell, and Eliade are themselves exemplars of Neolithic distortion, in which what is simply naturalistic and secular has to be inflated with vertical sacrality so that they can feel life is meaningful. That life might be meaningful without all of this symbolic hoopla appears to have escaped their understanding.
I think that Berman, in his sarcasm, rides roughshod over a subtle, but important, point. I’m sure it’s true that early humans felt life was meaningful without making a fuss about it. I’m certain that no early tribesman said to himself “It’s time to act out the myth of the eternal return now.” But we modern humans no longer have access to that way of thinking, and at times it may take some “symbolic hoopla” to try to re-conceive in modern language what an early human perceived without a moment’s self-consciousness. Even though Berman may be correct in pointing out some factual errors in Eliade’s scholarship, that doesn’t invalidate the attempts by him and his co-thinkers to try to recreate some of the underlying constructs of thought in bygone cultures.
Similarly, on the controversial issue of the source of PIE language, I think Berman does a disservice to the subject by claiming that the “Kurgan hypothesis”, with which he disagrees, “has fallen apart under closer scrutiny”, and calling the respected PIE scholar J.P. Mallory a “disciple” of Marija Gimbutas. Personally, I support the “Kurgan hypothesis” (see my review of Mallory’s book), but the point is, well-respected scholars support both viewpoints, both of which have difficulties, but neither of which has been invalidated. It wouldn’t hurt Berman’s arguments to allow some respect to his opponents’ positions.
These are, for the most part, technical or tonal issues. But I have a much bigger problem with Berman’s position when he comes out swinging against the modern systems approach to science:
That branch of holistic thinking known as systems theory … is really an attempt to dress up what Aldous Huxley called the ‘perennial philosophy’ in a kind of scientific garb, to sneak religion (or self-transcendence) in through the back door, as it were, which is why its proponents are typically zealots and why the theory … is heavily caught up in a game of smoke and mirrors.
Systems theory is a very big field, spanning decades of research and thousands of books. To dismiss it in this way is especially unfortunate since I believe, if Berman were to open up to some of the best writers in this area, he might find that his own views are well represented. For example, I think he’s utterly wrong to link systems theory with self-transcendence. I do agree with him that Huxley’s “perennial philosophy” is all about self-transcendence, but I believe that systems theory leads one inexorably to a realization of immanence rather than transcendence.
Berman comes close to this place himself when he offers the metaphor of the rhizome for “nomadic thinking”, contrasting it with the SAC “oak tree” metaphor:
The oak tree, of course, conjures up grand images; it is heroic. Rhizomes, with their lateral and circular taproot systems, are a lot less romantic: potatoes, weeds, crabgrass. But their power lies precisely in being anti-Platonic, anti-Jungian, nontranscendent, for the heart of rhizomatic patterning is immediate interconnection and heterogeneity… And whereas the tree, which has dominated Western thought, is about transcendence, the rhizome, the steppe, is about immanence.
Just like the rhizome metaphor, systems theory at its best offers a worldview composed of patterns, interconnections and dynamic relationships, eschewing the hierarchical, dualistic approaches provided by traditional Western thought.
Assuming you follow Berman’s arguments to the very end, I’m afraid he leaves you hanging there. Yes, I agree that the HG, nomadic thought pattern was desirable in many ways. But we’re not hunter-gatherers, and we can’t simply shed our SAC thought constructs and become nomadic thinkers again.
There are, however, paths we can follow to undo what I call the “tyranny” that the pfc-mediated thought traditions have imposed on our consciousness. In my view, the traditions of Taoism and Buddhism offer us productive avenues, which naturally link up with some of the thought patterns arising from the systems theories that Berman dismisses. Berman is rightly suspicious of faddish “Big Ideas” to fix the problems of our civilization, writing:
As long as political hierarchy or ‘religious’ tendencies are present… we move within the orbit of power, and this will perpetuate the same mindset and structures of agricultural civilization. There also has to be an avoidance of large-scale organization, the sort of bureaucratization that encourages vertical outlooks.
I agree with him entirely, but so do many other people who have chosen, for example, to explore Buddhist practices in response to the hierarchies of consciousness that are instilled into our Western minds. Berman does offer a partial solution to our current mindset, writing:
On the individual level, there are two things that strike me as integral to HG civilization that we moderns can adopt, though the process of making these things a part of our lives would be a slow and difficult one. The first is the cultivation of silent spaces; the second, the radical acceptance of death.
He then describes a beautiful epiphany he experienced while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. But how many of us in the modern world have the luxury to spend more than a moment in that place, even if we’re lucky enough ever to get there?
On the other hand, meditation practices offer anyone the opportunity to cultivate the most important silent space that exists: the one that’s within you. Which is why, I guess, I found Berman’s book so difficult to read at times, even while I profoundly agree with so much of it. I felt that it arrives at a dead end, leaving the reader with an unnecessarily negative outlook on our modern predicament.
Berman has spent decades offering unique and radical insights into our Western ways of thinking, and has clearly explored many different paths to arrive at his own assessment of our human condition. His book ends with a challenge: “Somebody has to live the message; maybe – you?” Perhaps Berman believes the only valid way for someone to reach the “nomadic” mindset is to arrive there yourself, rather than being told how to get there. And perhaps he’s right. But I do think there are thought traditions available to us that can make these explorations easier, and I guess that’s what I found missing from Berman’s otherwise brilliant book.
 For an excellent exploration of some of the philosophical implications of systems theory, see Evan Thompson’s Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind.