Walker Percy on Modern Life

The homogenized, globalized, sterilized world we’ve created is no place for a healthy human. In his book Lost in the Cosmos, Southern writer Walker Percy argued that depression is a rational response in such a world. Like a wild animal in a cage, we’re trapped in an environment that denies the essentials for living the way we were meant to live:

Because modern life is enough to depress anybody? Any person, man, woman, or child, who is not depressed by the nuclear arms race, by the modern city, by family life in the exurb, suburb, apartment, villa, and later in a retirement home, is himself deranged.

Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption. Assume that you are quite right.

You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth—and who are luckily exempt from depression—would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

 
So all the Prozac in the world can’t treat the underlying problem, which is not in the head of the depressed, but in the world he inhabits. How does one break out of such a world? Step one is to recognize there’s a problem. What happens next begins with an exercise of the imagination

A Dreamer Out of Time: Nicholas Roerich

Roerich

Over at the Imaginative Conservative, Benjamin Welton has a great article on a neglected Russian painter whose central theme was the re-imagining and refinement of Russian mythology. Nicholas Roerich’s mission, says Welton, was analogous to what Tolkien aimed for in TLOTR. And it turns out that Roerich also inspired none other than Lovecraft:

The American pulp writer H.P. Lovecraft spoke often of his appreciation for Roerich and once wrote to his friend James F. Morton that “there is something in his [Roerich’s] handling of perspective and atmosphere which to me suggests other dimensions and alien orders of being – or at least, the gateways to such.” Notably, Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was influenced by Roerich’s renderings of Tibet’s glacial precipices.

Mens sana in corpore sano

The central theme in my writing is the struggle to live an authentically human life in a world that is globalized, homogenized, and ground down to airy abstractions. There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of modern afflictions, from depression to diabetes, is the result of an artificial lifestyle that disdains the physical and idolizes the abstract.

We are told to dedicate our lives to economic success and despise non-material fulfillment. Homo economicus wanders the earth in a body that is little more than the minds’s chassis.

So I was pleased to see this recent article in the Johns Hopkins Newsletter discussing the expanding chasm between human needs and the ill-fitting lifestyle we have allowed to overwhelm and warp our lives:

Almost all aspects of our modern lives that wouldn’t be included under the “Paleolithic” lifestyle are inherently bad for us. Studies have shown that even artificial lights interfere with melatonin production and alter our circadian rhythms. Our sedentary lifestyles present some grave health complications for bodies sculpted by millions of years of evolution to be able to handle insane amounts of physical exertion. For most of human history, sitting in a chair for nine hours a day and surviving would have been mutually exclusive concepts. We just haven’t been built to do it. We are completely out of our element in this world of sensory excess. And it’s not looking like we’ll ever adapt to it while modern medicine and societal norms effectively prevent the barbaric natural selection process from occuring. So because we will not adapt to these new conditions, the only thing we can do is adapt our individual lifestyles.

How can we salvage our humanity in such a world? The author suggests what I believe is a pretty good start:

I suggest that we should all let out our inner Homo erectus as much as possible. In an ideal world this means coming downstairs and spending time talking with your housemates or roommates instead of watching Netflix in your room. This means eating more nutrient-rich food that hasn’t been designed in a lab. This means cutting Internet porn out of your life. This means reading more books in print. This means taking on that huge project. This means getting sweaty on a regular basis. This means living life in the manner that millions of years of natural selection designed you to. You just might find that if you’re cognizant of the needs and health of your inner paleolithic cave-dwelling hominid, he or she will fight tooth and nail to get you ahead in life.

Yes. Not a bad start.

Jonathan Barrett, the protagonist of my novella Aztec Midnight, is passionate about many things, including his wife, Aztec history, the memory of his father, and the lore of ancient weapons he learned from Robert Horse, the elderly Mescalero Apache who befriended the young Barrett in his native Texas. Barrett is what the ancient Romans venerated, a man who has achieved mens sana in corpore sano — a sound mind in a healthy body.

Yukio Mishima relates his journey toward achieving that ideal in his highly readable Sun and Steel, which you can read at Google docs.

And for a glimpse of what could happen if society staggers too far down the road of a globalized, abstracted world, you can read my flash fiction piece Snake Heart.

Let’s go Paleo!

It’s not easy living like a human in an artificial world. An even greater challenge than getting enough exercise is that of eating right. There’s a lot of crap in the grocery stores posing as food.

What author Charlene Spretnak would call the Resurgence of the Real is evident in renewed interest in proper diet and exercise. What’s being touted as the “Paleo lifestyle” is pretty much how I was raised: fresh meat (and lots of it!); raw milk from moo cows; local, fresh vegetables (collards, turnip greens, squash, and tomatoes from our garden); and lots of exercise in the form of pulling, handing, and laying up tobacco on my grandfather’s farm.

Stephanie Eusebi has a great blog featuring Paleo recipes.

Also known as the “Caveman lifestyle,” the “Paleo” stresses that our bodies weren’t designed for sitting at a desk and stuffing high-carb foods down our gullets. While I’ve been pretty good about getting exercise for the last 30 years, I had lapsed into consuming breads, taters, and manufactured snacks. In the four years since I’ve gone “Paleo,” I’ve gone from a 40 to a 34 pants size, and lost (and have kept off!) thirty pounds. I’ve never felt better.

This reminds me of what Gerald of Wales, a priest to the English king Henry II, wrote about the Welsh in 1185: “The Welsh do not live in towns, villages, or castles. They love music, and are skillful at it. They eat plenty of meat, but little bread. They are hospitable, and gregarious.”

Real food, music, country living, and many friends. Now that’s living.