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  • Worlds Without Us:Some Types of Disanthropy
  • Greg Garrard (bio)

Man is a mistake, he must go.

(D.H. Lawrence 1989: 188)

Modernist Disanthropy

It was Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of a good joke to have the end of moral dualism, and of the human alienation from the earth that followed from it, announced by Zarathustra, the very prophet who probably invented it: "I beseech you my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! ... Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go" (1982: 125). Sadly, either no one found it funny or it merely went unnoticed, forcing Nietzsche to clear the matter up, with injured irritation, in his megalomaniac self-commentary Ecce Homo:

I have not been asked, as I should have been asked, what the name of Zarathustra means in my mouth, the mouth of the first immoralist: for what constitutes the tremendous historical uniqueness of that Persian is just the opposite of this. ... Zarathustra created this most calamitous error, morality; consequently, he must also be the first to recognize it.

(1989: 327-328).

Zarathustra may also have invented the end of the world, an idea that has haunted the Western imagination—especially its environmental imagination—since the enthusiastic adoption of the idea by several belligerent Jewish sects around two millennia ago (see Garrard 2011: 93-116). Yet the apocalypse, for Nietzsche as much as for the Judeo-Christian and other apocalyptic traditions, always involves the survival of at least one privileged or unfortunate human: Calvinists hope to be one of the "elect," Zarathustra promises (or threatens) that "Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss" (126), and novels are populated by the likes of Mary Shelley's Lionel Verney, Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker and Margaret Atwood's Snowman. Even in the secular apocalypse, the survivor bears witness to the aftermath of a cataclysm that can hardly be read as anything but a judgment upon humanity.

In the early twentieth century, though, for the first time writers began to imagine a world completely and finally without people.1 D.H Lawrence, [End Page 40] enthused and infuriated by Nietzsche,2 entrusted to his alter ego Birkin in Women in Love a desire that I will call "disanthropy":3

"So you'd like everybody in the world destroyed?" said Ursula.

"I should indeed."

"And the world empty of people?"

"Yes, truly. You yourself, don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?"

The pleasant sincerity of his voice made Ursula pause to consider her own proposition. And really it was attractive: a clean, lovely, humanless world. It was the really desirable.—Her heart hesitated, and exulted.—But still, she was dissatisfied with him.

(1989: 187-188)

Birkin's disanthropy is inspired, in part, by ordinary misanthropic hatred of "the crowd," but is distinguished by his absence from the future he envisages; man's loss is a gain for "the grass, and hares and adders, and the unseen hosts" (188). Ursula, more realistic, knows better: "'But man will never be gone,' she said, with insidious, diabolical knowledge of the horrors of persistence. 'The world will go with him'" (188). Yet she is not in the least perturbed by Birkin's vision of human absence itself; rather she resents how she is positioned by it as the abstract subject he would redeem with his "Salvator Mundi touch," which she calls "a very insidious form of prostitution" (189). Could disanthropy really be "attractive" and compassionate like this, albeit that we remain conscious of the "horrors of persistence"?

Lawrence may have yearned for a world without people, but it was Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse that first explored disanthropy as a formal problem. Twenty years after first reading it, I can still recall the shocking thrill of its central section, "Time Passes," in which the deaths of Mrs Ramsay and two of her children are mentioned parenthetically amid the passing of years through the uninhabited house. We are permitted the merest...


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