Marjorie Van Halteren & Brian Price
Vigilance, across the wires
A conversation with Marjorie in France, Brian in Indiana, and Earlid’s curator in Northern California
Joan: I’ve been re-reading Paul Kingsnorth’s novella annually. Beast begs more questions as I mirror it against the ‘real world’ I’m mired in. Despite my hunger for these stories—more so, manifestos—alongside the tumbling and dreaded morning links, a return to Kingsnorth invites me to be vigilant. It makes me stand on the edge and wonder about this ‘beast’; who or what ‘it’ is as we arrive at an apogee only to realize we’ve slipped back into the abyss.
Does your work seek an audience that needs to be similarly keen-eyed (or ‘eared’)?
Brian: We’re all trying to imagine what IT will be like. The end, you know. When you can’t breathe, when you can’t swallow, when you can’t see three feet in front of yourself. What will the earth be like when we can no longer exist on it, when humanity has finally done every stupid thing it can do to screw things up? This is not a new subject—the end is in the Bible; Jack London wrote a cool end of world short story 120 years ago. The 1950s and 1960s are full of perceptive science fiction novels about the nuclear end (just replace nuclear disaster with climate change disaster and all those stories resonate).
In Beast Kingsnorth takes his fears on in two ways. The fear of loneliness. We will be the last ones. We will be isolated. We will have to fight IT alone. Isn’t that always the way? The archetypical cowboy, monk, explorer. And then there is the fear of a world we can’t understand, can’t fathom, can’t control. This is where the moors and the heather seem to come in—to the early man, the early Pict, the early Brit—they erected monuments, standing stones, and ruins (I think they must’ve built ruins right away on purpose) to honor the mysteries of the earth. Kingsnorth plugs into that feeling of first man. Because I think we all think that we will go out the way homo sapiens came in—throwing rocks and spears at sabretooth tigers.
I don’t know if that’s true. Modern man has discovered the unique ability to erase the world. We’ve romanticized the idea, the ideal, that no matter what, the earth will return to Eden, to its former self. If we just left it alone, the earth will get better. Well, yes and no. I think one of the most frightening things about our chemicals and our poisons is that we could totally wipe insects and plants right off the map. Even in my starkest imagination, I never considered that cockroaches and dung beetles and yellow jackets would die out before us, but they are. That’s where the silence is coming from. I haven’t heard a cricket in a few years. With modern agri- and petro-businesses we can sterilize the earth. Gives me the creeps.
So, who is the Beast that Kingsnorth is battling? It’s us, isn’t it? We’re the Beast.
At the same time, he comes up with an ending to the book that leaves a little glimmer of hope. We all can’t help that either. We really do think it’ll come out all right.
Marjorie: Very interesting, Brian! During my teaching years, one of my jobs was at a business school, and for various reasons I was given an ethics course to teach, which I did for eight years. I did not want to teach it within the realm of Governance—that is, from a corporate perspective, but rather as a thought exercise. Eventually the course had a shortlist of basic questions, such is “What is money?” and “Can you put a price tag on nature?”
Of course, I think the answer is no. Along with Carson’s Silent Spring, I also presented Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which challenges the idea of treating natural resources as a commodity, with gifts and commodities as alike as apples and oranges.
As Kingsnorth says in Beast, “You shut yourself in the house and there is only you and the dead things you have made into shapes.” Stuff is not alive. The gift is alive, and it has to move.
Joan: I’m not surprised you’re connecting to this theme, Marjorie. Kingsnorth has a recent missive through his sporadic online series he titles “Acid is the want,” a brilliant essay that illuminates some basics around this ‘stuff’ and our need for it. He says, “Want is the acid. Capitalism is the battery. Growth is the engine. Greed is the forming energy that moves us to where we are inevitably headed. What is the brake? The answer is: limits.” He reiterates “want is the acid,” but adds this: “… the heart is both its provenance and its potential enemy.”
Is the imagination a particular landscape where storytellers can offer these ideas, as Kingsnorth is doing, as the two of you have done in Silence is Coming?
Brian: Overall, I believe why artists find themselves having to approach climate change with imagination and story is that we’ve become worn out by the political and scientific arguments—there are just so many parts per million and coal dust facts we can take. I think that is what Kingsnorth’s book of essays, Confessions of A Recovering Environmentalist, is all about. We go to meetings and talk endlessly about saving humanity, but where’s the humanity? I think the environmental movement sometimes gets so worried about appearing balanced and fair that they trip over themselves. I don’t know how many mainstream environmental articles I’ve read where the fate of the earth is balanced with the fate of money. Yuk blah. So, thinkers like Kingsnorth turn to their imaginations.
Marjorie: I agree that the talk about The Environment is a kind of boiling frog situation. Humans have become used to it, and therefore blind to it. However, I have noticed, especially through social media, how much we all seem to cling to nature today, just as we are, as Brian says, managing to erase it. We spend an enormous amount of energy looking at pictures of cats, dogs, birds, strange insects and beautiful photos of natural environments. Our lust for the natural world seems to know no bounds. Yet, we are under attack from hurricanes, floods, fires, etc. Why don’t we get the message? Like Brian said, we grew up with the idea of some kind of ending—every story needs an ending, right? We are a part of the generation that put our heads under our desks in school, as though that would be all that we needed to do. But in the long run, Dr. Strangelove was just a movie with Peter Sellers being hilarious.
Joan: Right! Those school desks will surely save us from the A-Bomb. We saw through that as kids. Now the fear of nuclear annihilation is climate collapse. It’s been looming and now, quite close. It’s evident all around us. Year after year, it seems like we’re diving deeper into its rift, closer to that A-Bomb as a potential threat. Those of us who make art with an overt or subtle theme regarding these events, have an open ‘space’ to grapple with these ideas. How do you feel about abstraction in either Kingsnorth’s Beast or in your own work?
Marjorie: I think the abstraction is linked to the idea that we simply don’t know anything. Really, how can we? All through the book Kingsnorth’s protagonist is ruminating about the fundamental question of existence, turning every which way.
He seems to be working on the problem as he is writing the book. Does he find anything resembling an answer? His experiment, I think, is to put his protagonist in a place that is so fundamental and stripped away that some insights will occur.
I truly think we know nothing. I recently wrote a poem where I said, “We are a blind eye with a lid folded in on itself (The Grey Angels, 2021).” Since that’s what I believe, it’s hard to avoid abstraction.
Joan: There is a lack of clear villains and heroes in most apocalyptic narratives. Things are either ‘sci-fi’ or dismissed as ‘sci-fi.’ Amitav Ghosh wrote in The Great Derangement, “The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, thus of the imagination.”
Is it a comfort then (as an art consumer and as a maker) to leave things open to the imagination? In Silence is Coming, you collide these two stories and then allow yourselves to shine a light on both the intersections and the individual narratives. You don’t ‘tell’ us any one thing; rather we are enticed to wonder and surmise and follow some of the tendrils.
Marjorie: I have long felt that engaging the reader/listener to do some of the work is the only way to make something truly interesting, or even worthwhile. Anything that is too pat or too explained is denying the existence of the audience, as though, you don’t need us there. A comfort? Because for this kind of subject matter it can leave space for hope? Or because it makes us feel less alone in the situation?
Brian: We are creatures of comfort. We want to feel OK. More than that. We want to feel fine. And sometimes comfort demands amnesia. Live with the monsters, live with the ghosts. Even if you can’t remember their names. At least they are entertaining. I have found as a writer and producer that horror and humor often have the same rhythms, the same suspend-your-disbelief demands. They are stories. And we’re making it up as we go along.
Joan: Kingsnorth has been asked whether the Beast is the landscape itself. His response is that he wants the reader to be open to whatever they think the Beast is. It’s not a sinister animal; rather it’s vigilant.
Marjorie: Certainly, it is vigilant. It is there, existing, and conscious. Of course, the jury is still out—the question hangs eternally in the balance, and humans are so adaptable. Can we adapt beyond our own self-destruction? Is our self-destruction part of our evolution, with continual reinvention?
Joan: And what about the lived reality. Maybe we can dive right back into humor, which is an odd place to end a conversation about the abyss, but why not?
Playlist for the Apocalypse:
Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues
Billie Eilish’s End of the World
Brian: So, we’ve been serious for a while here. Serious about serious things. Serious, because, you know, it is serious. And you know how us humans deal with seriousness after a while, you go crazy. You drive too fast. You want ice cream. You want sex. You want somebody to handle the crazy stuff. I’m sick of this crazy stuff.
And there’s nothing crazier, stupider, more dull-witted, more surrealistic than what we are doing to our own planet, our own homes. Our politicians are more like Beavis and Butthead than FDR. Our hunters aren’t Beowulf, they’re Elmer Fudd. Nobody’s handling this.
I’ve been working on my playlist, my mix tape, for the end times. And it’s not going to be opera. Opera makes me nervous, makes me itchy. I don’t want to be itchy when the toilets and volcanoes overrun. I want some good tunes. Some tunes that are meaningful. Tunes that make me remember and forget.
I want to sit beside somebody I really want close to me when we listen to the final playlist. The playlist isn’t done yet. It’s taking a lot of thought, a lot of work, a lot of listening to YouTube. I might have to ask that the apocalypse be postponed for a few weeks, maybe a couple years, in case my playlist isn’t done. I’m not going out without my tunes. That’s reasonable, isn’t it?
Joan: It is, given your favorites are from artists born at the launch of this century and a decade before the middle of last century. This 60-year span of art-making, yelling into the wind, is vital.