Towards cosmocentrism: a personal path

Freya Mathews’ autobiographical essay

Today, as the advanced industrial civilizations of the world face multiple environmental crises and as imminent collapse is portended from many quarters, the call for a ‘new worldview’, an alternative to the brutally anthropocentric worldview that undergirds modernity, has never been so loud and clear. In this new context, First Nations voices are finally coming to the fore; science is being plumbed more deeply for post-classical insights into the nature of reality; alternative theories of self and world are popping up in academic discourses such as philosophy, psychology, sociology, economics, cultural studies. This search for a new, more generous orientation to reality is, as it happens, closely aligned with the journey of my own life. It is on the basis of this journey that I incline to the view that, paramount as First Nations are as mentors and teachers, and useful as theories may be for generating new abstract schemas, the germ of a more open-hearted attitude to reality is already intrinsic to the human psyche: whether or not it comes to life depends on the ways in which we choose to engage with the world around us. 

Let me briefly describe my own journey towards this more open-hearted attitude. My co-authors in this book have each arrived at their respective orientations via very different routes. Perhaps by comparing our routes we can shed some light on the experiences that allow the germ of love-for-world to sprout.

I grew up surrounded by gentle animals on a few acres in an outer suburb of Melbourne in south-eastern Australia. This was – and remains - the country of the Indigenous Bunurong people, though I had not the slightest inkling of that fact, or of the cruel history of that people’s dispossession, then. (Yet my parents named our property, Booligal, which I was told meant ‘windy place’ in an unidentified Aboriginal language.) The animals amongst whom I spent my days included dogs and cats, ducks, geese, hens, and, at various stages, sheep, a cow and a pet turkey. The main focus of my entire childhood, however, was my ponies. My first pony, Trotty, and Trotty’s foal, Nola, and later Kazan, were my day-long playmates and confidants. It was to them that I recited my earliest poems, and to them that I ran when I was troubled or excited. They nuzzled me in the same soft, considerate way whatever the occasion. I chose their company not for want of family and friends, but for its own sake. The rapport that developed between us was qualitatively different from anything that could have occurred between myself and human persons. It was a kind of uncluttered closeness, or being-with, which existed despite the fact that our subjectivities were, in terms of content, mutually unknowable. We took it for granted, on either side, that this unknowability did not matter, that our psyches could touch and pervade each other, without need for explanations or self-disclosures such as those conveyable by language. These horses were, for me, “primary others”, in the psychoanalytic sense; they were not substitutes for, but additional to, significant humans, nor could humans substitute for them. I learned from them, and from the rest of my animal family, that sociality greatly exceeds the human, and that one is always in the presence of potentially communicative and companionable others, even when one is supposedly ‘alone’. On horseback I was also inducted into alternative, non-human ways of seeing things, carried into dimensions of landscape in no way otherwise discoverable – into a country in which roads could be left behind and fences jumped. On my pony I was independent, free to explore as I chose and to make my own map. Moreover, however far from home I ventured, I was safe, even at eight years old. In consequence, I trusted that country: it became intimately mine. When I imagine my childhood now, one image recurs – a kind of distillation of all that those early years meant and still mean to me: it is an image of myself astride my pony in a huge, high, luminous, rapturous, slightly shimmering (and now totally lost) land-and-sky-scape.

Domestic animals were not the only other-than-human influences shaping my sense of self and world in those days. There were also kindly ancient manna gums on our land. We knew they dated from before colonization because they bore canoe scars on their trunks. Birdlife was abundant. I was particularly aware of the herons that stood sentinel on the white stags that littered the paddocks. Interestingly dangerous reptiles occasionally turned up under bits of scrap metal or in one’s path. Large wetlands nearby often wreathed our house in mist. At the bottom of our paddock was the creek, our very own, steeped in irresistible mystery for me, yet at the same time busy and loquacious, swirling with news of other unknown yet connected places. All these palpably purposeful ‘elementals’ contributed to my sense of a world of communicative presences beyond the circle of human congress.

Nor was my childhood home the only place that turned my psyche outward in this way.  There was also an old sheep station, Daisy Plains, located near a tiny settlement which also happened to be called Booligal, in outback New South Wales, where I occasionally spent school holidays. Daisy Plains was the home of a class-mate who boarded during term time in Melbourne. Named for the little white everlastings that, in rare wet seasons, carpeted the plains, it was no ordinary sheep station, but, even in those days, a relic of an earlier era. My class-mate’s father, an old-timer with a gaze as blue and far as the desert sky, had been born and raised in the homestead, and he ran the place in the pre-motorized style, with the aid of stock ponies, dogs and horse-drawn buggies. We children were out all day in the searing sun on the saltbush plains, lunching out of battered tuckerboxes, riding in stockmen’s saddles, racing our ponies, chasing kangaroos, emus and feral pigs with delirious excitement. Back at the homestead, animals filled our every waking moment: there were sheep and lambs, domestic pigs, a flock of diminutive long-haired bush goats, an army of dogs, legions of hens, ducks and geese, and at different times tame emus and kangaroos. An old white goat named Snowy and a cocoa-coloured, hand-reared filly clattered about on the wide back veranda. A sack containing a recently orphaned joey usually hung from the clothes-line in front of the enormous wood-fired stove in the kitchen.

The animal-centredness of life at Daisy Plains did not preclude unabashed slaughter and brutality as part of the daily round. From my saddle I witnessed mother kangaroos torn to shreds by the station’s dogs; emus, in flight from our young stockman friends, failing to clear a fence, becoming entangled in the wire instead, only to be bludgeoned to death with a fence-post; and in the stock yards, pigs uttering torture-chamber screams as their throats were cut and their still-convulsing bodies dumped into troughs of scalding water. I sat with the other kids in the back of a jeep on a nocturnal kangaroo-shooting excursion, and as the bodies piled up under our feet, I remember the blood of the kangaroos soaking my green felt boots dark red. The cruelty shocked me to the core - in fact, it was this which first made me aware of my core, a still, silent, inner place of watching, beyond speech. But it did not diminish the overwhelming sense of enchantment that this place awakened in me. For the enchantment, and the heightened feeling of being alive that accompanied it, arose from the fact that animals, and the uncompromising land which decided their fate, were the almost exclusive focus of everyone's life there, and the carnage, for all its horror, was part of that visceral involvement.

When I was fifteen, my family moved into the city, and both my rural life and my visits to Daisy Plains ended. But the sense of inner affinity with the natural world I had experienced till then continued. It did not give rise to a scientific-type interest in the details of living systems and how their components fitted together. Nor was I even a proto-naturalist, identifying species, totting up observations, assembling a solid body of empirical knowledge. The affinity was always more emotionally charged than that, more immersive, indeed more metaphysical. In my teenage years it found expression in a great outpouring of drawings, stories and poetry. If I had known about Aboriginal Dreamings at that time, I would have felt affinity for them. But this was still the era of the Great Australian Silence about all things Aboriginal, and as far as I was concerned Aborigines belonged to a past as remote as Captain Cook and the dinosaurs, despite the fact that there were traces - collectively overlooked - of their recent presence everywhere. Nonetheless, something in my experience - something still inchoate, inarticulate, but informed with that astonishing unconscious fore-knowledge that adolescents often have of their adult lives - was pulling me towards the notion of the indigenous: at the age of 16  I took a journey, on my own, to Rabaul in New Guinea. This was the 1960’s, and New Guinea was still an Australian protectorate. For two months I worked for board and lodging in missions deep in the jungle, travelling in the back of crowded trucks to gatherings where men would dance barefoot on burning coals; eating python meat by the light of fireflies; exploring the simmering, sulphurous craters of active volcanoes; encountering a people still embedded in a pre-industrial tradition of exuberant ecological prosperity, despite ominous overlays of colonialism. I realized then with great clarity that this was where, as a young writer, I belonged, at the interface of the modern and the indigenous.

But unfortunately, life took a different turn. At the age of eighteen, I found myself, incongruously, in “swinging London”. I moved in with friends who leased a top-storey studio in the grand old Pheasantry Club on the Kings Road in Chelsea, and soon I was trapped in the life that circumstances had led me, reluctantly, to embark upon there. The apartment was without a garden, without the slightest glimpse of green from its high windows. The Pheasantry was legendary as one of the nerve-centres of the London ‘underground’. Artists, writers and rock musicians congregated in our apartment, and every night till dawn the entire building was shaken with musical reverberations from the nightclub in the basement. People were embarked on what were for them exciting adventures with sex and drugs. With comings and goings at all hours, residents and visitors alike were charged to the eyeballs with the fizz of glamour, the intoxication of notoriety and celebrity.

I alone, it seemed, languished. I felt deadened.  Without any trees in sight, with all presence and memory of animals expunged from this world, without even a proper sky above me (the London sky appearing more like a low ceiling than the soaring invitation to infinity to which I was accustomed in Australia), I felt truly ‘underground’, buried alive. My spirit, with its lifelong habit of expansiveness, had to submit for the first time to grey urban confinement, to a world built exclusively to human specifications, in which no court of appeal existed beyond socially-prescribed perceptions and perspectives. There was here no turning out to a wider world of subtle voices and signals, a world of myriad, at first indiscernible, but with patient attention increasingly differentiated, responsive presences. Rather, there was a turning in, and a turning up of the volume of human-generated and human-directed self-infatuated cacophony and chatter. This turning-in found its ultimate expression in the essential project of that drug-soaked counter-culture: to transform reality into an inner picture show, a spectacle of hallucinatory images and sexually induced sensations orchestrated for our private entertainment. This project was, in fact, nothing more than a hip rendition of the old transcendental idealism or solipsistic anthropocentrism of the Western tradition, which places reality in us rather than us in reality.

I had no words, at the time, to name this human introjection of reality, or to justify my sense of exile from a world that was truly alive, and, unlike the one in which I found myself, a source of true enlivenment. My education had offered me no name for my own experience of reality. I especially had no words to challenge the high claims of Art on which the counter-culture rested. Instead, I kept some snails and twigs in a jar in my study, and gazed at them for months. I retreated into a state of fantasy and intense creativity, writing and drawing obsessively, calling up from my own deep unconscious the images and motifs I needed to survive. I composed song cycles and stories of origins, though I was only just beginning to learn about Aboriginal Dreamings. I hung around antique stores, antiquarian book shops, seeking out illustrations, old paintings, fairy and folk tales, that could be threaded into my nascent mythologies. I haunted the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, with its layer upon layer, colonnade after colonnade, of magical animal statuary. Whenever I found a numinous image - an old French engraving of a lone seal, for instance, or a Chinese painting of wild geese - I enshrined it, hanging it as an icon in the gallery of my mind. Out of such gathered fragments, and out of my own memory, imagination and dreams, I tried to recreate the sense of enchantment that had always been the essence of my experience of the world, and without which I found life scarcely worth living.

From the viewpoint of Western psychoanalysis, this sense of enchantment is regressive, and signals a failure of individuation in infancy. But to adopt this point of view is surely to beg the metaphysical question. Looking back on my early years now, it seems more plausible to assume that the ample opportunities for close communion with animals and elemental aspects of landscape that were available to me as a child had opened me to a larger world, a world astir with presence or presences that vastly exceeded the human.

After a year or so at the Pheasantry I enrolled in a philosophy degree at the University of London, more for the purpose of renewing my visa than out of any enthusiasm for the cold analytical philosophy that reigned supreme in Britain (and Australia) at that time. At Bedford College I was a wayward student, eschewing lectures but voraciously reading long out-of-print books I found in the library stacks: the prose romances of William Morris; obscure volumes of Carl Jung; and old ethnographies, particularly Levy Bruhl and a swathe of 19th century studies of Australian Aborigines. In those old tomes I at last found hints of what I had unconsciously been seeking: the notion of participation mystique, for instance, and views of the world as suffused with a meaning dimension - a Dreaming dimension. Eventually a kindly tutor, Doreen Tulloch, the only woman amongst the Bedford College Philosophy staff, understood me and drew me back to philosophy. “You have a penchant for metaphysics,” she told me. I didn’t know what metaphysics was because by the mid 20th century it had been expunged from the modern curriculum. But Dr Tulloch took me back to the 17th century and introduced me to the visionary philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz. I embraced Spinoza like a lost lover from the depths of time. To me he seemed to hold up a lantern showing the deserted path the West did not but could have travelled. I must say my immersion in the mind of Spinoza, at the age of twenty-one, felt like an experience of direct transmission, and I have remained a faithful and lovingly grateful Spinozist ever since.

Spinoza’s central intuition, dressed up in medieval categories and set out with Euclidean rigour in his major work, the Ethics, is that reality as a whole is a psychophysical unity. While the physical universe, which is perceived by us under the aspect of Extension, is the outer face of this unity, there is another, inner face, characterized by Spinoza as Thought, which is not extended in space. The physical objects we perceive as making up the outer world are not separate entities – they are mere modes (modifications) of the underlying unity, or in Spinoza’s terms, of substance. Since the underlying substance is psychophysical in nature, so too are the modes: every physical object has both an inner and an outer aspect; in Spinoza’s terms, it exists under the aspect of both Thought and Extension.

With Spinoza’s work I was given a philosophical template for the articulation of my own experience of reality, an experience which seemed to elude the categories – of science, religion and literature – otherwise on offer at the time. Had I not met Spinoza at that point in my life, I would surely not have stayed in the discipline of philosophy. But meet him I did, and so I stayed, for better or worse, and my long journey towards a contemporary version of cosmocentrism began.

In the 1970s environmentalism had barely begun and environmental concern was not my motive. Metaphysics was my motive: the need for an understanding of reality consistent with the bonds of trust and the sense of presence and plenitude in which I was wrapped in childhood. But as the seventies wore on, the outlines of a global environmental crisis grew clearer; my interest in a metaphysic that did justice to a world that could elicit love and loyalty as well as scientific curiosity gradually morphed into concern, then alarm. It was clear that a shift away from the metaphysic that underpinned industrial modernity was key to overcoming the narrow instrumentalism that was wreaking havoc on the natural environment. In the US and Australia, the need for a new environmental ethic was accordingly, in the late 1970s, proclaimed by a handful of philosophers and, by the 1980s, environmental philosophy as a discourse was coming into view. As soon as I discovered it, I knew it was the camp to which I belonged.

This essay includes material adapted from two earlier essays, 'Living with Animals', Animal Issues, vol I, no I, 1997. pp 4-16 and “A Responsive World”, The Ecological Citizen, Vol 2, Supplement A, 2019, 15-19.