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Et in Arcadia Ego

A Christian reflects on Aaron Sachs's unique history of American utopianism.

Contrary to what most will likely glean from this book, and probably unbeknownst to the author himself, Arcadian America is one of the profoundest arguments made in favor of a revival of public religion in fifty years. Indeed, Aaron Sachs is arguing for that the seeds of religion once again be sown on American soil and grow to both encase and define the public sphere. Sachs could have spent his time on a predictable diatribe against rampant industrialism and savage all of the intellectual and spiritual traditions that he supposes bolster that movement, but instead he chose to write about death. Sachs’s experience with death is at the center of his vision of repose. It is what makes his book not only honest, but profound, important, and religious.

The importance of Sachs’s perspective is instantly recognizable from the introduction.  “American environmentalism has traditionally reinforced…separateness by emphasizing the preservation of particular awe-inspiring landscapes.”  Sachs wants a return to a dappled vision of man’s relationship to nature, one that mixes the binary between City and Nature.  He wants to bring nature back into common life with wending pathways through cemeteries, city parks, and places that invite a spirit of repose:  nature put to spiritual use.  But instead of producing a dusty history of American romanticism, Sachs has written Arcadian America as an affecting hybrid of history and memoir.

His heroes–Hawthorne, Thoreau, Irving, and less celebrated painters like George Inness and Thomas Cole–are saints that speak into his own present struggles as a son, father,  professor and human being.  He cuts to the heart of religious desire in stingingly familiar questions about human mortality: “There can never be a simple formula for such situations, but couldn’t there be some guidelines? What do you say to someone who has terminal cancer? What do you say to his parents?” The issue of the denial of death is familiar to any denizen of the modern age. I feel it in the inhuman sterility of airports and pre-takeoff safety briefings. I have an irrational fear of flying, one that certainly seems baseless given the statistical data that supports flying as the safest form of travel. It’s not the odds that frighten me, nor even the unsettling sensation of barreling through the air at 500 mph, it’s the smugness of it all, the stifling sense of normalcy, the willful denial of the possibility that the day will hold anything other than an uneventful takeoff and arrival. “In the unlikely event of an emergency, a row of lights on the floor of the cabin will guide you to the nearest exit.” Having never been in an airplane crash, I suppose I cannot accurately critique this, but I feel fairly confident that exit row lights are much help in such a mid-air emergency. Why do we spend our time on such fruitless gestures?

Compare this attitude of unbending normalcy to the fears of passengers preparing to cross the Atlantic in the 19th Century. Their fate was so uncertain in that era of sea travel, that they were able to take proper account of the gravity of their journey and consider their own mortality. It drove them to write honest, heart-wrenching letters to their families, seek out priests and prepare their souls for the voyage ahead as well as the greater voyage beyond the veil of death. I don’t think I would trade a trip to France on Delta for one on the USS New York, but I would trade the unthinking complacency of air travel for a proper sense of reverence. Sachs has an answer to these modern maladies, or the beginnings of one. Taking inspiration from 19th Century American reformers and romantics, he proposes to change in the American landscape, literally. The Arcadian vision of melding human society and the wildness of nature sets a rhythm of life that is capable of dealing with questions of the meaning of death, suffering, and life itself. It is this desire, to incorporate death into everyday life, that makes Arcadian America explicitly religious.

The consignment of human souls to death is a classic function of most of the world’s religions. Essayist and Greek Orthodox theologian (also native Marylander) David Bentley Hart has written the best lines on this theme in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. “To put the matter starkly, nature is a cycle of sacrifice, and religion has often been no more than an attempt to reconcile us to that reality.” It does not take a philosopher to realize that humans tend to have a problematic relationship with death. Because we are conscious beings with an awareness of the future, the termination of potential is always an undesirable and even horrifying prospect. In a lecture given at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, Hart brings up a study on primitive consciousness by French anthropologist Lucien Levy Bruhl (“primitive” here is used not in any supercilious way, but as a label for societies that have not concerned themselves overmuch to technological innovation or progressive institutions) shows that an almost universally common feature of those cultures is the sense that death is unnatural, unwanted, and tragic. Hart summarizes Bruhl: “In those societies, every death is in some sense, murder; the violent interruption of a life that would have otherwise continued indefinitely.” In almost all of these cultures, death is seen as some form of witchcraft or black magic. One could rightly say that such cultures are in a state of war with death.

According to Hart, the higher religions from ancient Sumeria to Greece to the Mayans sought to tame the primitive impulse to reject death and instead teach human beings the wisdom of accepting the natural cycles of the earth and the divine require death for their maintenance. This is the genesis of the tradition of sacrifice: an attempt to subsume death into the natural order of being and bring the estranged human consciousness into step with it. Some religions pursued the practice quite violently, others less so, but the common theme is clear: life requires death, death begets life. To think otherwise is hubris and folly. Heaven and earth are a closed loop of death and rebirth from death and the height of religious awareness is the acceptance of this absolute.

It may seem a stretch to call Arcadian America a religious book. Sachs does not describe himself as a very religious person, but nevertheless, his refusal to deny death, to seek peace through confronting and contemplating death from a posture of repose is indeed religious. His prose imbues the cycles of nature with divine import. He wants society to submit itself to the revolutions of nature, its gifts and its due. The hills of Arcadia are nourished by the bodies of our ancestors. This symmetry is worth contemplating and brings a peace worth accepting. Sachs himself says that he no fan of “religion’s exclusionary tendencies.” He also reserves special disgust for Christian burial rituals, reprinting his Arcadian heroes’ desire to swing open the gates of musty churchyards and crypts and let nature into the experience of human death. “The Church retained its control over the meaning of death by swallowing the bodies of its parishioners.” But Sachs is not really against public religion, much as he may try to be. He is truly against the sort of rampant industrialization and retreat from nature that characterizes an unreflective, thoroughly secular public square. This way of life is deaf not only to questions of the divine, but also to the cycle of nature and thorny subjects like death. In this respect, he may be surprised to find that he has many more Christian allies than foes.

Sachs wants society to return to a disposition toward repose. I think this a fine idea. But with it should be remembered the primitive disposition toward war which lies behind the higher religious impulse. At first blush, it may seem that industrialization is the ultimate expression of this original antagonistic disposition toward death, and a foolish attempt to defeat it through technological mastery. I do not think so. The trouble with modern industrialism is not that it has made war on the death, but that it has forgotten war and death altogether. Technology is anesthesia for our souls. This leaves the troubling primitive disposition toward death and its interruption of Sachs’s Arcadian ideal. Our bodies might be in communion with death, but our consciousnesses are not. Repose in itself may not be sufficient for human emotional flourishing, as there is an equally honest and even more ancient preternatural tradition of contrariness toward death.

On this subject, Sachs could have benefited from reflection upon the Christian traditions he spurns. Christianity, for all its present flirtation with unlimited industrialism, once made an unprecedented contact with the primitive awareness of death. God in human form appeared on earth to side, not with the Almighty inevitability of death, but with primitive man in his struggle against it. In a historical sense, Christ (YHWH incarnate) is the first deity to speak up on the side of human consciousness rather than the closed cycle of cosmos. Here we are given the first thorough ethic of charity to the poor, and mercy to the oppressed, which is nothing less than an insurrection against death. No sacrifices will be accepted any longer. Instead of resignation to death, resurrection is promised.

All this may be offensive to environmentalists like Sachs–it certainly was to pagans in the First Century–and rightly so, as it upends the order of things. But it is a view that deals just as deeply with questions of death and life as the Arcadian ideal. Sachs is also quite wrong that the material world is of no concern to churches. Monasticism is instructive here. Monks were often expert gardeners, pursuing an ethic of natural creativity, that the earth should be loved and cultivated and allowed to teach human beings about the meaning of redemption. Many still-functioning monasteries are the very images of an Arcadian ideal. Natural cycles are not eschewed, but sustained under the guidance of human hands. Lavender fields, soap-making, and beer-brewing are activities dependent upon the natural environment for survival. Churchyards do not swallow their members, they give them a home (and many of them are quite lovely.) They are the victory of the primitive consciousness who finds true repose by prayerfully awaiting resurrection and ultimate victory over death. In a society that takes these issues seriously, I should expect to see some amount of disagreement between a romantic Arcadia and a new monastic tradition. The latter of which has already begun to take root in fringe states like New Mexico. Unlike our present duality between urbanity and untamed national parks–a reality toward which we are hurtling uncomfortably quickly–these potential disagreements are fruitful tensions that may result in revival and health for America.

Despite the above, I am actually quite attracted to Sachs’s resurrection of an Arcadian ideal for America. I think it is steps in the right direction, away from unthinking secular progressivism, toward reflective contemplation, away from rampant artificiality, toward an appreciation of nature integrated into human experience. In fact, I think that Arcadian restructuring may indeed offer up illuminating and even transcendental truths that we would have missed living our lives on a grid. But I think that Sachs along with the rest of us suburban intellectuals may be surprised to discover what those truths are. To many, (actually, I believe to all who will be honest enough with themselves to return to an original primitive awareness) Death in the Garden is not a solemn angel, but a serpent. We should not be too self-conscious of our aversion to death nor avoid it. We should not try to anesthetize it through technology, but we should also be aware that the Arcadian ideal–which is really nothing different than a reiteration of high religion–and its attempt fold our consciousnesses into the natural order is not the final word on death. Does Arcadian meandering along brambly, circular pathways really bring us into confrontation with the questions that death poses to us, or does it simply bring us comfortably into death’s orbit? In a sense, this could be just as artificial as technological anesthesia–a natural remedy, lotus-eating. An Arcadian culture of repose is sadness without evil, a sentimental goal, but one that will not satisfy our friend the primitive. His sharp intellect knows its original alienation from the world, even from Arcadia, precisely because he is so much closer to it. Still, Sachs has gained an admirer in me. These sorts of debates can only be taken up in a public sphere that respects religion, remembers death, and loves the earth. Sachs is surely a promoter of such a space. I think it will likely take a return to the Garden to learn again that we have been exiled from it. I prefer to read Poussin’s caption as if I was the one speaking it. Et en Arcadia ego. I exist, which is the problem.

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