The Integrated Life
This essay is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.
Although there are certainly relationships that rise above this standing reserve mentality (I’m thinking of my beloved bicycle or maybe your favourite mug), it seems equally obvious that when we strip the earth of its trees and minerals and oils as we are doing, we are treating it as mere fuel. I say “we” because however much we try to short circuit our participation in mainstream North American society, it’s virtually inescapable. We’re almost always to some degree accomplices, participating at least partially in the standing reserve mentality. And, of course, it’s not just the earth that we see in this way: we’re more than capable of seeing each other as standing reserve as well: “human resource departments” clearly understand people as fuel.
I agree with Heidegger that this way of seeing the world is a problem, one that has invited ecological devastation among other things. And here’s where wonder comes in. For a technological mind set is utterly incompatible with the kind of wonder generated by epiphany. James Joyce, in an early draft of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, describes the epiphany before an object as a moment in which “its soul, its whatness, leap to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object . . . seems to us radiant.” It seems to me that it’s impossible to think of a radiant, soulful object as standing reserve, as something that exists only for me to make use of as I will. I can’t clearcut an acre of forest in which I recognize its whatness, its radiance. Poetic epiphany, by helping to reveal the whatness and radiance of things and people, may thus be helpful in redressing some of the ecological imbalances we’re currently living with. Of course, the matter is more subtle than this, because few of us are ever called upon to do the actual clearcutting. Instead we become complicit through the use of paper and wood products or through the consumption of beef. But the same logic applies: if I have a stronger sense of the whatness of those products, I may dispose of them less thoughtlessly. My thought—my hope—is that poetic epiphany may help to put me in a state of mind in which I’m ready to see the whatness in whatever thing I encounter, and that this will lead to more considered, more ecologically sound treatment of that thing.
Published online June 01 2009.