The Natural Landscape of Death in "God's world"

This first blog series began with a thought-provoking collage by Mary Barnes called “The Evanescent and the Eternal.” The intention was to initiate a discussion on aging and mortality. For me this immediately brought up Jung’s image of the rhizome and the ever-enduring pursuit of the eternal beneath or within the continual flux of the appearances.

This rich subject, especially as it relates to mortality, also reminded me of another passage from Jung’s Memories, Dreams Reflections where Jung expresses a deep appreciation for nature and growing up close to nature in the country. This memorable passage occurs in the second chapter on his school years, while he is grappling with No.1 and No. 2 personalities, as he calls them. It was just after his teacher wrongly accuses him of plagiarizing an essay:

It was some months after the incident just described that my schoolmates hung the nickname "Father Abraham" on me. No. 1 could not understand why, and thought it silly and ridiculous. Yet somewhere in the background I felt that the name had hit the mark. All allusions to this background were painful to me, for the more I read and the more familiar I became with city life, the stronger grew my impression that what I was now getting to know as reality belonged to an order of things different from the view of the world I had grown up with in the country, among rivers and woods, among men and animals in a small village bathed in sunlight, with the winds and the clouds moving over it, and encompassed by dark night in which uncertain things happened. It was no mere locality on the map, but "God's world," so ordered by Him and filled with secret meaning. But apparently men did not know this, and even the animals had somehow lost the senses to perceive it. That was evident, for example, in the sorrowful, lost look of the cows, and in the resigned eyes of horses, in the devotion of dogs, who clung so desperately to human beings, and even in the self assured step of the cats who had chosen house and barn as their residence and hunting ground. People were like the animals, and seemed as unconscious as they. They looked down upon the ground or up into the trees in order to see what could be put to use, and for what purpose; like animals they herded, paired, and fought, but did not see that they dwelt in a unified cosmos, in God's world, in an eternity where everything is already born and everything has already died.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Vintage Press, 1989), pg. 66-67

As an inveterate city-dweller, born and bred, these words struck me with some regret, when I first read them, for not growing up in closer relationship with nature. As a boy, I only remember brief distracted visits to the zoo which, in hindsight, tend more towards our separation from nature than our integration. I do remember, however, a couple of instances at the aquarium where I was left alone briefly in front of huge tanks of slowly wandering fish, big and small, and the lively and joyous activities of the penguins were particularly memorable. For the most part, these few visits served more to reinforce our detached urban culture than to nurture any kind of real connection with nature.

A few months ago, when I desperately needed some fiction after completing my MA degree, my dear partner who is a great fan of Laurens van der Post, suggested I read A Story Like the Wind. I had been aware of the close friendship between van der Post and Jung but I had not had the opportunity to read his fiction while being consumed by other things. Jung's influence and ideas became obvious at once as van der Post contrasts the mentality of the white colonialists with the ancient wisdom of nature, the bush or veld, and how this wisdom expresses itself through the indigenous culture as it is taught from one generation to the next. As I read I marked many passages worthy of reflection, but the following in particular stands out, especially for this blog series on aging and mortality.

At this point in the novel, the central character, François, is on the brink of manhood with a seriously ailing father when his uncle and guiding mentor, Mopani, gives the boy his intuitions about the immanent sad fate of the boy's father:

Mopani, of course, was right. No imagination has yet been great enough to invent improvements to the truth. Truth, however terrible, carried within itself its own strange comfort for the misery it is so often compelled to inflict on behalf of life. Sooner or later it is not pretence but the truth which gives back with both hands what it has taken away with one. Indeed, unaided and alone it will pick up the fragments of the reality it has shattered and piece them together again in the shape of more immediate meaning than the one in which they had been previously contained. Yet one must hasten to admit that even that was not the whole of the matter.

The boy's appreciation of his uncle's insight is supported by the cultural wisdom that surrounded him as he grew up among indigenous workers on the family ranch and their leader, 'Bamuthi, another great influence on the boy's education. I find this following passage remarkable in its contrast with the modernist mentality, as Edward Goldsmith calls it:

Like Mopani, François had the natural life of the bush to aid him in this moment of truth. Young as he was, death was no stranger to him. He could hardly remember, had he found it necessary to give so routine a matter a thought, a single day in his life in which he had not witnessed the death of some living thing. For instance, he had seen animals he had known personally as it were at Hunter's Drift, killed daily for food. He had learned to make his peace with the fact because it was death inflicted in a cause of life. He had been encouraged in this acceptance of this aspect of reality by seeing the same law at work in the life of animals, birds, insects and even plants. Moreover, he himself had been forced to be an instrument of death, by helping to shoot from an early age for food. He had also on several occasions seen people dying what men call a natural death. Lammie and Ouwa (his mother & father) both insisted, when any of their friends or servants were dying, that they all should rally to their side and stand around them so that they should know that they were not left to face that great departure alone in their little beehive huts. It was utterly impossible, therefore, young as he was, for him to think of death as the outrage which it is increasingly becoming in the view of metropolitan man, who keeps himself and his young as far as he can from witnessing death of any kind and so allows all the natural aids life has built into man for facing death to crumble by neglect and default. Death was as much part of the natural landscape of the spirit for François as that of the physical world. It was always near. One crossed the Amanzim-tetse river at one's peril from crocodiles and hippopotami. One entered daily the great bush so full of danger that from time to time men vanished into it, never to return. Nature, one's instinct informed one, was the example one neglected at peril to one's progress through life, was perhaps the world of the spirit made manifest without so that one could recognize it from within.

A Story Like the Wind (Penguin Books, 1974), pg. 174-75.

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