After reading first sentence of ‘On Panpsychism’ in Strangers – Rebecca Tamás’s new essay collection – I felt a relief I hadn’t known I’d needed: ‘When I go for a solstice swim on the south coast, I come out not feeling as refreshed as I might hope – still battling a summer cold, still worrying.’
Some proponents of nature-writing – the kind whose encounters with the sublime come furred with adjectives and relayed with all the insufferable evangelism of an early-morning swimmer – would have you believe that the natural world is a source of relentless ecstatic revelation. They sometimes remind me of a particular feedback form I was asked to fill out at university, which asked (by way of a tick-box response) whether I was ‘completely stimulated’. But here, Tamás is ready to admit that being in nature can be disappointing, vaguely unsettling, or even boring.
Some proponents of nature-writing... would have you believe that the natural world is a source of relentless ecstatic revelation
The fact is, we don’t just experience the natural world – we relate to it. As Tamás suggests, these relationships can be acquisitory or presumptuous. Often they are inelegant. That opening sentence tells the whole, familiar story: it starts out purposeful and alliterative, with the conviction of someone who is counting on bragging about their weekend, but ends up repetitious – still battling, still worrying – stuck in preconditions it had hoped not to have to mention. It even confesses to that most embarrassingly asynchronous affliction – the summer cold. A wild swim will almost always blow away the cobwebs, but of all the recent literary swims I can think of, it is Tamás’s thwarted attempt that I’ve found most refreshing.
This disabused attitude undergirds Strangers, a book of seven ‘Essays on the Human and Nonhuman’. Each considers some aspect of how we, as humans, relate to that which we designate non-human: animal and plant life, and possibly also the spiritual realm. This isn’t a book that necessarily implores us to 'reconnect' across that divide; rather it circles the reasons for the disconnection, describing it as manufactured and fallacious, and takes vigorous pleasure in exposing uncomfortable connections where we might least like to recognise them.
The natural world does get exalted along the way, but what stands out in Tamás’s account are its difficulties and uglinesses
The natural world does get exalted along the way, but what stands out in Tamás’s account are its difficulties and uglinesses, its jangling dissonances that elude neat, marketable retelling. The collection’s second essay, ‘On Hospitality’ sets the tone for this preoccupation. The piece is substantially a reading of the novel The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, in which a sculptor living a comfortable life in Rio goes to clear out the bedroom of her recently departed maid and has a fraught encounter with the single, brown cockroach she finds there. The sculptor is appalled by the cockroach but also recognises some awful mutuality in it: she sees unequivocally that they share, as Tamás puts it, the same, 'mute life force'.
This is a kind of truth, but it is realised as a problem rather than a solution. It has form: Lispector’s cockroach, especially in Tamás’s rendition, recalls the dumb, disquieting insect Gregor Samsa becomes in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as well as David Foster Wallace’s lobsters from Consider the Lobster, with their 'thick antennae awhip'. But G.H.’s revelation, which for Tamás is 'this strange moment of nonhuman recognition...the radical reality of intimate difference', reminds me most of the vital and awkward conclusion Annie Dillard reaches in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Even after developing a total attention to the natural world around her, Dillard cannot see cohesive, sublime sense in it. Some parts refuse to provide clear-cut meaning; in her immensely memorable phrase: ‘There is something that profoundly fails to be exuberant about these crawling, translucent lice and white, fat-bodied grubs.’ Mark O’Connell describes Dillard as ‘inhabit[ing] the world in an ecstatic way while refusing to avert her eyes from its darkness’ – Tamás shares this rigour, and has her own version of Dillard’s real, elucidating humour.
One strain of climate activism might tell us we need to fall in love with nature, to be bewitched by it again, in order to ballast our commitment to saving it
One strain of climate activism might tell us we need to fall in love with nature, to be bewitched by it again, in order to ballast our commitment to saving it. Yet for Tamás, an acknowledgement of its unwieldy weirdness – its failure to be exuberant – is at the heart of a truly engaged and resilient activism. The guiding convictions of her essays are therefore in the stark, inchoate mould of G.H.’s revelation. It follows that her arguments sometimes suffer when they hit the rocks of more programmatic argumentative language. The book’s less effective first essay ‘On Watermelon’, an argument for the affinity of environmentalist and socialist causes, is at pains to make exhortations that aren’t particularly controversial or sharply focussed, even if their resources are intriguing. Tamás’s convictions transmit best when, like Dillard’s, they are presented as deep-seated tangles of problems, muggy with their accusing stink of accuracy. Tamás writes personally and pungently, enacting the type of thinking that she advocates: 'not un-intellectual but suffused with irrationality'. The best essays here tread a rare, involving line between speculation and argument. ‘On Panpsychism’, which begins with the faulty sea swim, succeeds not so much by endorsing panpsychism – the theory that ‘mind’ exists beyond human consciousness, coming from without not within – as by haunting us with it.
Tamás sounds a clear call to political and social climate action, but one that’s particular for wanting to work with complexity and paradox rather than solving or ignoring them. She cites Camille T. Dungy’s Black Nature: 'there is no place in the land where one can idle inattentively or harbour romanticized views. Interactions with the natural world demand respectful, honest attention and vigilant care.' These words could be the mantra guiding Tamas’s rigorous perception of the socialised aspects of relationships to nature, as well as its various strangeness. Tamás is persuasive in suggesting that this kind of real attention will foment a recognition of intimacy far more powerful than dewy-eyed admiration. 'The ‘natural world’ does not wait outside of us,' she writes, 'but moves through the door of our being, connecting and reforming what we are, its sticky difference impossible to excise.'
Tamás is persuasive in suggesting that this kind of real attention will foment a recognition of intimacy far more powerful than dewy-eyed admiration
The wide-ranging essays in Strangers include a tribute to the mythic figure of the Green Man, appreciations of the works of the poet Ariana Reines and the artist Ana Mendieta, and a limpid account of depression which functions as an introduction to the idea of 'climate grief'. The collection is slim but abundant with its dense compost of intelligently digested, biodiverse ideas. Already a celebrated poet, Tamás emerges from Strangers a truly exciting essayist, particularly adept at handling her first person – that tricky, often inauthentic figure in writing about nature. The fragments of memoir here glint with insight.
While the book’s aim might ostensibly be to dissolve the human-nonhuman dichotomy set up in its subtitle, it is at its best when it gives in to the captivating tension of that necessary but faulty division, thriving in intensities of dialogue and relation, in 'sticky difference'. Tamás welcomes the alluring difficulty of the world where other writers tend towards simplification or squeamishness, contending with it as a way of knowing it and herself. The version of the world made visible to us here again echoes Annie Dillard, who borrows Simone Weil’s words: 'it is real: it offers resistance to love.'
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