Review by Peter Reason
Nemesis is usually seen as the goddess of retribution, even of revenge, of implacable justice with no mercy, the avenger of crime and punisher of hubris. Not one you would want to mix with. Well, maybe. Jay Griffiths gives us a much more attractive and challenging image of Nemesis as the goddess of limits, of ‘proportion, proper measurement and rightness’, and thus a good judge of what is right and a challenge to human hubris and over-expansion, personally and culturally. ‘She knows how things function well’, for limits matter. Of course, once humans overstep the limits, they have to reckon with the consequences: in the opening pages of the book Griffiths shows that overstepping the limits of planetary tolerance is a ‘transgression like no other in its consequences’. She does this, not with the facts and figures of a climate scientist, but through elaborating the image of the goddess. We need more of this kind of storytelling to fully grasp our transgression.
But we are not very keen on limits in Western civilization. As I find my way into this book, I am reminded of the Limits to Growth, published by the Club of Rome back in 1972, from which for many years I taught management undergraduates. The book draws on the concept of exponential growth, the positive feedback through which the increase of any entity – population, consumption, capital, pollution – feeds back on itself, ever accelerating. Through computer simulation the authors demonstrated how, all seems fine for a while; then the system very quickly, unexpectedly, runs up against limits and collapses. When it was published, Limits was trashed by critics: the very idea of constraints to economic growth was unthinkable. But the authors persisted, updating their model, running the simulation with new data, getting broadly the same results. Maybe we can now see the authors as channelling Nemesis, pointing to proportionate limits and the wisdom of the long view.
Jay Griffiths insists Nemesis should be our friend; not simply the goddess of retribution after the breach, but as one who can teach us the value of limits in themselves. In particular, the first essay, The Ethics of Fire, develops the multiple aspects of Nemesis and applies it directly to the climate crisis. Griffiths shows how we have literalized the human desire for the fire of the gods, made it manifest through our technology and thus overreached ourselves. She reminds us that this yearning for the divine flame has its authentic place, not in modernity’s ‘relentless desire to fly everywhere’, but in human creativity, in ‘works of spirit, imagination, and the arts’. For limits are not just about the damage the excess brings: limits also give us beauty – in the formal measure and metric of music, in the golden ratio in art. Limits create a creative tension with the force of artistic spirit – think of jazz improvisation playing on the limits of what is possible. We need Dionysus as well as Apollo, the intensity and passion that Lorca called duende.
Jay Griffiths shows the importance of limits again later in the book with her reflections on the Trickster. The Trickster turns up in different guises folk stories everywhere, a figure we all love, a slippery character who refuses limits. He breaks the rules, cheats and lies, gets his comeuppance but somehow manages to recover to continue his mischief another day. He is always disturbing the order of things, showing up the powerful. But when the Trickster somehow gets into power – think Trump, think Johnson, think Putin – we are in serious trouble. The Trickster in mythology is surrounded by more powerful gods who hold the line even as the Trickster attempts to bend it. But ‘Trickster without any law surrounding him is terrifying’. Nemesis is needed to take him (yes, usually him) down a peg or two.
These two essays are nothing short of brilliant: Griffiths’ sparkling language draws together ideas with the poetics of myth and metaphor to illuminate desperately important aspects of our times. Other essays – a reflection on birdsong, on ritual, on woods and forests, on the hearth, and so on – are maybe more modest, less urgent, but each plays with and deepens our comprehension of Nemesis as our friend and ally. Now I have read the book, I find myself noticing more often the necessity and beauty (or is it the beauty and the necessity) of limits. And I find myself pausing on the final essay on Sacred Hospitality: the host has a duty to offer generously and the guest to respect limits, not to be a burden. We are all both host and guest with each other, with other beings, and with Earth as a whole: ‘if we humans are making other creatures cruelly homeless, the only answer is a politics of kindness… an honouring of the most ancient laws of sacred hospitality… In order for humans to be truly at home, everything else has to have its place’
This collection of essays is immensely compelling both for the issues addressed and the sheer pleasure of reading. Jay Griffiths is known for her earlier books, including Wild: An elemental journey in which she travels through the wild of Earth, Ice, Water, Fire, and Air; Kith, exploring the nature of childhood; and the highly revealing, deeply moving memoir, Tristimania: A diary of manic depression. She also wrote Why Rebel, a powerful argument for, and defence of, the activities of Extinction Rebellion. I am not, however, convinced by the publisher’s claim for the structure of book as tracking ‘the turning light of the day and seasons, an almanac of the turning times’. I may be missing something, but the headings of Dawn, Noon, Evening, Night into which the chapters are organized feel like an imposed structure. And two essays in the middle of the book – on genocide in West Papua and education in Mexico – important, passionate and elegant though they are, feel awkwardly placed in this volume.
If you love books and reading, you will want to read this book for the exuberance of the writing and the imaginative response it stirs in the reader. To take just one example, early in the book Griffiths uses the metaphor of the hourglass – borrowed from classical images of Nemesis – as symbolising time past and future, with time present in the constriction of its narrowest point where the sand rushes through. Over a couple of pages, she builds a picture of the of multiple threats to the planet, and our seeming inability to respond to them. She concludes that we are, ‘collectively at the heart of the hourglass, its tightening, constricting chest pain is a world-reckoning anguish as the narrowing chance of change is closing, moment by moment by moment’. I have scribbled in the margin of my copy that, as I read these words, I experience the physical tightening in my chest. And when I later saw an hourglass in a charity shop, I bought it, to keep next to my desk and remind me of that constriction.
Jay Griffiths is a writer in love with words: playing with them, researching their origins and associations, dancing them across the page. If you are a writer of any kind, you may well find yourself, as I did, wondering what one might learn from her. This wondering led me to take my old copy of Wild from the shelf, to be reminded of her fascination with ‘wild language’. From the rivers of Amazonia she riffs on Heraclitus, ‘you never step into the same language twice… Rivers and language are both gloriously wild’. She compares the taming of the wild world with the taming of language through dictionaries and formalized grammar, yet asserts that language remains ‘unfixable and nomadic, wildly profuse and forever free’. In Nemesis she shows us this freedom, with writing that is continually evocative, playing on the edge of what can be done with words and so stimulating the reader’s imagination.
As she does this, as she links the poetic with the political, the metaphorical with the terrifying reality of our predicament, Jay Griffiths uncovers the pretence that there are no limits with the truth that ‘the laws of nature must be obeyed’. This is why Nemesis must be our friend.
Peter Reason seeks to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times. He is currently engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world? His most recent publications include Voicing Rivers Through Ontopoetics (with Jacqueline Kurio; and (with artist Sarah Gillespie) On Presence and On Sentience. His online presence is at peterreason.net and Twitter @peterreason.
Jay Griffiths, Nemesis, My Friend (Little Toller, 2022). 978-1915068019, 254pp., hardback.
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