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TheFlying Serpent Contemporary Imaginations of the American Indian JOHN BENTLEY MAYS I Whether they are Aleuts or Australians, dwellers in South African kraals, Chinese communes or Vancouver apartments, men everywhere witness the disappearance of Nature and the simultaneous ending of the experience of reality as dual. From the time of the first tool-maker, men have understood themselves at the centre of Nature, this sublunary sphere of light and shadow, of danger, death, time and work. Yet beyond Nature lay another realm, of silence and eternity, imagined as uwhere the dead go" and ,,.where the gods live" - the zone in which history's warfares are transcended and rest is bestowed at last. The uncertainties of this world were imagined as an ordeal of preparation for the peace of the next, our sufferings here as merely a prelude to the freedom beyond time and death. On one of his most brilliant pages, the young Marx radically reverses the image: not beyond time, but within it, lies the peace we seek. And the heavenly rest is attained, not through death, but, paradoxically, through work. We hold eternity in our hands: for on the first day that men discovered how to conquer one fear by the use of a tool, on that day was born the potential (and thus the hope) of an abolition of all fears: the abolition, that is, of Nature, and the realization in its place of a realm of Culture co-terminal with reality itself. It is certainly to Marx's credit that he saw as good this project which so fundamentally defines man in the universe of life and things. A darker meaning in this unceasing secularization had been apparent, however, at least since the technological revolutions culminating in seventeenth-century science. I speak here of the dawning awareness that these instruments of peace, our tools, were simultaneously engines of destruction, and that the transformation of Nature into Culture was war, and, further, that the battle is against ourselves: for our nature shares with Nature mutability and flux. The wars of men are performTHE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. IV, NO. 1, SPRING 1973 ances within Culture of the primal duel between Culture and Nature; the conflicts among ourselves are social correlatives, and necessary consequences , of the wider tragedy. All mankind's rites of expiation and all his eschatologies have been derived to resolve the terrible ambivalence of man towards his unique project. On the one hand, guilt drives him to forget what he has done to his great victim, and name defeated Nature Paradise - to which he then looks with that thinly-veiled self-contempt, nostalgia. On the other hand, this same guilt impels men into a quest for peace which is only an escalation of the war: for the end will come only with the final, irrevocable abolition of Nature and thus the moral ambivalence (the ground of duality ) in human experience. But the forgiveness sought in all religions - the deliverance, finally, from ontological guilt - is only given after repentance; and we cannot repent. To turn from our terrible work of destruction would be to give up the dream of a life without toil. To stop work now would be to work forever. The modern era dawns with the historical disclosure of this fantastic paradox: that sin and freedom are only two names for the same reality,. and that the New Jerusalem prefigured in both religious and liberal eschatology is identical with that which Christian imagination has always named Hell: the abode of those who,. to the very end,. refuse to repent. Everywhere,. as I have said,. men sense the impending collapse of opposites and the instauration of that always hidden in the innocent word universe: an experience, beyond the pluraverse of pre-contemporary cosmology, of a world of total uniformity, silence and law. Their response in this century has almost universally been to return to the earlier scripts by which men played out their historical anxieties and hopes. Thus we witness the rebirth of nationalisms at the same moment telecommunications technology offers to eradicate the very meaning of national frontiers ; the emergence of a Reformation theology in Catholicism (Hans Kung, Yves Congar) in the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 32-47
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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