The website for the 2017 documentary film Arcadia says that it’s “a sensory journey into the beauty and brutality, magic and madness of our changing relationship with land and each other. The film combines over 100 years of archive film with a grand, expressive new score by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp.” It’s a kind of nonlinear survey of the various survivals of paganism — sometimes scary forms of paganism — in modern Britain.
Arcadia excited the writer Paul Kingsnorth (author of, among other things, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist) very much. In an essay written to accompany the film — an essay he later withdrew; more about that in a moment — he wrote,
The guardians of our civilisation tell us that attachment to place and tradition is reactionary, backward, dangerous. Like magic and mystery, attachment to land and history are things which belong to a dark and grim past, and should stay there. We are all progressives now. You are romanticising a past that never existed, they tell us. But it did exist, and not long ago. You can see it here, flickering in black and white. I defy any Briton to watch Arcadia and not feel a surge of patriotism; the real kind, the old kind. Not an attachment to monarchy or church, institution or government, idea or ideal, but the old pull of the land you walk on. The ground beneath your feet.
For Kingsnorth, the film Arcadia reminds us that the old “magic and mystery” of the land are not dead. The land still calls to its inhabitants, though faintly. Kingsnorth wants us to watch the film and have our attention to that call renewed.
What happened to our Arcadia? We stopped listening to it. We stopped dancing, we moved away, we started listening to the chant of the Machine instead. It is debt we chase now, not the moon. We are individuals, not parts in a wider whole. In a broken time, it is taboo to remember what was lost, and that fact alone makes Arcadia a revolutionary document. Look, it says. This is how it was. This is what was broken. At night, when you lie awake with your phone flashing under your pillow – do you miss it?
Thus Kingsnorth. Now, Warren Ellis, the great comics writer, in response:
That creepy Heideggerian dasein that fronts as meaning being-in-the-world but actually means being in a familiar landscape surrounded by lovely white people with no connection to the wider culture, preferring localism over multiculturalism and not being disturbed in your eternal idyll in the black forest (or on the dark mountain) by any of those nasty foreign types. This is where landscape writing sheds its leafy cloak and lets you glimpse its colder face – sounding like Steve Bannon, quoting Steve Bannon, black notebooks in hand, gazing from its bench at the little woodland of little England and trying to decide if “benevolent green nationalism” sounds too much like “… well, a nice kind of Hitler.”
We see you for what you are.
So: just as Heidegger wove together the experience of dwelling in his little hut in the Black Forest with his support for the Nazi regime, his black notebooks full of antisemitism, so too Kingsnorth with his racist Arcadia, his Brexit Arcadia, his doors-closed-to-colored-immigrants Arcadia?
This seems … a bit of a stretch to me. But Ellis is not the only one who reads Kingsnorth that way. Richard Smyth digs up nature writing’s fascist roots; “London Permaculture” teases out the fascist, racist snake lurking in the grass of England’s green and pleasant land. And this outcry led to Kingsnorth withdrawing his essay and then posting an explanation — which he also deleted.
I think what prompts these fierce denunciations is this: When we look back on the old ways of English culture — and this would apply to England’s Christian history almost as completely as its pagan one — we see white people, and only white people, enacting them. So how can those ways be praised without also praising exclusive whiteness?
Which raises for me another question: For these critics of Kingsnorth, is there any legitimate way to praise, and to seek to conserve, old rituals and practices? Can you love harvest festivals or Morris dancing or Druidic rites or for that matter Ember Days without being a racist, a fascist, a Nazi? Or is urban cosmopolitanism the only ethically acceptable ideal of human life?
And if you can love and practice those old ways without being a racist — How? What would distinguish morally legitimate attitudes from the ones that Kingsnorth is being pilloried for?
This inquiring mind would really like to know.