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Robinson Jeffers as a Shaman

From Chris Wayan's journal 1996/7/28, plus a follow-up 20 years later, 2016/10/22

Cover of 'Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems'; portrait by Sam Colburn. Click to enlarge.

I just read "Robinson Jeffers: Selected Poems" (Vintage, 1965). He resembles Loren Eiseley, to my surprise--the geological perspective, the gangly language verging on prose. But where Eiseley is a quiet man, a bone-hunter gentle with his fragile finds, Jeffers is a hurt hawk screaming. Genuine vision beyond human scale, but so stripped down, so harsh--just lava rock, like an island too young for trees. Or maybe Yeats plus ecology--but minus kindness.

Later in the day, I stumble on an interview in a back issue of CoEvolutionary Quarterly that's all about Jeffers! Ursula Le Guin says he influenced her deeply. A problematic mentor--his vision so violent, yet with a deep love and identification with animals and natural forces. He truly gets inside them. "Even when I was young I knew he saw California true."

So what's my problem with Jeffers? He underestimates people, and maybe nature, and certainly the spirit world. He saw the corruption of his time but not the reform. Despite my country's sad decay as the parasitic wasps bleed freedom away, owners and dictators around the world have a lot to fear. The ideals of common people have brought down powerful regimes and elites, and threaten more. Humanity's not as morally bankrupt as Jeffers says. Even if the biosphere's crippled for a million years, the worst-case picture now (true, it may get worse, as technology hands more power to the elite), still, healers and reformers are fighting hard. People have died for trees and rocks and lab rats, not just (just?) for human rights.

Jeffers's cynicism bothers me most in "The Inquisitors," in which Azevedo, a lone rider in Big Sur one night, sees three giant earth-spirits, living hills, vivisect some humans, idly tearing them apart like bugs, having heard these little creatures have a Bomb that could damage Life. They can't find anything special.

It's an effective shocker of a poem, but it troubles me morally. Spirits without empathy exist--some humans manage it--but the stronger they are, the less likely to lack this sense. I want to know if Jeffers saw/dreamed this himself, heard it from a real guy named Azevedo, or made it up just to annoy us. If it's his own, did he just witness? I doubt I could just hide and watch their casual mayhem without stepping in, trying to save their victims and answer their questions. Dangerous, but though I'm no hero I do feel SOME responsibility for others--for these three gods as well as the people they kill. They need to be taught what they're doing. A few whacks might explain pain, and teach them the rudiments of empathy. Better to bruise them now than let them believe they're immune. Humans (with or sans Bomb) can "torture the very hills." Doesn't mean they should, right? So why should hills get to torture us either? Increasingly, in MY shamanic dreams, I challenge gods and nature-spirits as often as human jerks. Why not?

Jeffers and his whole generation, drunk on Darwin and drowning in the new depths of time and space, romanticized this view of an indifferent, even cruel nature, where awareness (which they still saw as a human monopoly) is ephemeral and irrelevant. Candle in a storm. How comforting to be irrelevant! Frees you of responsibility. Jeffers swims in a cold current--soothingly numb. He'd get pins & needles in my world--too damn warm & fuzzy. And full--full of awareness. Eager to burst into life. Already alive.

My own dreaming, and those of other modern shamans, show such nature-gods as empathetic, just maddened miserable and stung; WE'RE the indifferent, the torturers--we're still like Jeffers' dawn men, roasting the trapped mammoth alive.

I doubt my doubt. Surely a REAL grown-up shaman (or prophet or whatever) would quit trying to Disnefy this cruel cruel world. I easily buy into Jeffers' picture of the universe as harsh, indifferent, grand--he convinces me it's immature to dissent. Oh, and I'm ashamed of my selfish desire to find a mate! The hills are killing this girl, so let's rescue her. That's bound to impress her! A selfish rescue fantasy, and I judge myself for it.

Yet... though Jeffers TALKS like a lone prophet, he built his rock nest, and had a career, and found a mate who could stand his claws, and had kids who take care of his literary legacy. He did the human thing. I'm the one who really stood apart. Twenty years among the spirits! Yet I dismiss those decades of learning as childish. Not.

The dream-spirits I meet just aren't like his Inquisitors, or their big mean cousin in the Old Testament. I meet ones more like the Yurok legend of the Inland Whale (read Theodora Kroeber's The Inland Whale: California Indian Tales): spirits with their own concerns, certainly not human-centric guardian angels, but still good neighbors and potential friends. Guess we all tend to meet kindred, uh, spirits. And live in a kindred universe, by kindred rules. Jeffers' world isn't the whole story, and his impressive word-skills don't make it so.

An uncomfortable fact to recall the next time I soar too high on my own rhetorical wings...


I'm reading California's Wild Edge, a literary & artistic history of Big Sur (by Tom Killion with Gary Snyder).

I hadn't realized my problem with Jeffers is shared by so many other writers. We vary in personal values, but the sticking point's always his conception of a cruel universe. But they're not autistic like me, so they see his character & taste as flawed--cruel, anti-human, elitist; where I, autistic, find his worldview mistaken: Jeffers saw nature (including the spirit world) as indifferent-to-hostile.

'Vicente Canyon', print by Tom Killion, 1996, from 'California's Wild Edge'. Click to enlarge.
Vicente Canyon, print by Tom Killion, 1996, from California's Wild Edge.

Yet... all the writers who've actually explored Big Sur admit it's an uneasy place. Wild, beautiful, but you always feel watched, and not by friendly eyes. A dark, cruel, xenophobic feel. The spirits of Big Sur mutter "Tourist, go home!" Even poet Jaime de Angulo's modest retreat--everything went wrong, relentlessly. Whatever he planted, Big Sur killed--his garden, his kid, and very nearly him. Smashed friendships, dreams... legs.

So maybe Jeffers is right--just right locally. Poems portraying Big Sur's spirit(s), as in The Inquisitors, don't fit the wider spiritual world I know first-hand... but maybe it's true for Big Sur. Jeffers just overgeneralized about the rest of the world--and humanity. Saw it the Big Sur way, let that resentment take root. Like the Huorns in Fangorn Forest--loathing us meddlers, the wielders of fire and ax.

The surprising unanimity of Big Sur writers about the land's hostility to strangers makes me rethink my own consistent bad luck there, soon as I go a mile inland. That weekend with my classmate Elizabeth, ugh! Lost a lover and a friend. Even more disastrous hike with my friend Beryl (written up as a poem, Thirty Days). At the time, I attributed THAT nightmare month to personal crises manifesting physically, to my own unconscious sabotage; but now I wonder. I had plenty of bad luck outside Big Sur; but never like that. Lost money, blood, my home, a month of my life... I sure FELT hounded out by a gremlin mob, yelling "And don't come back!"

Maybe the bitter old buzzard was right. Locally right.

LISTS AND LINKS: a dream based on a Jeffers tale: Tigerborn - a Loren Eiseley rant: UFOlution - Yeats - Ursula Le Guin - book-inspired stuff - shamans - spirits - giants and ogres - violence - rescue fantasies - duty & responsibility - essays & rants - inheritance - ethics - a dream-farce starring Darwin: A Beagle, Three Wolves and a Setter - a Big Sur living nightmare: Thirty Days - an alternate Earth inspired partly by Killion's prints: Abyssia

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