Paul Kingsnorth’s Transhuman Apocalypse Unfolds in an Old English Fenland

Ellie Robins Talks to the Author of Alexandria About Language, Essence, and Violence

Paul Kingsnorth’s tenth book, Alexandria, completes the trilogy that began with the Booker-longlisted The Wake (2014) and 2016’s Beast. Unfolding over 2,000 years, from 1066 until the early 3000s, the Buckmaster trilogy charts human collapse: of cultures, psyches, and, ultimately, civilization as we know it.

And yet. Though set in a distant future where risen seas have turned today’s world into Atlantis, and our very age into a cautionary tale of mythic proportions, Alexandria might be the most optimistic of Kingsnorth’s books to date. The despair and spiritual yearning of The Wake and Beast have given way to a rooted faith, the Nitrian Order, under which the handful of remaining humans live in communion with land, the elements, and all living creatures.

But the members of the Order are stalked by emissaries of Wayland, an AI-like entity. Wayland’s goal? To coax the dregs of humanity to leave the cumbersome life of the body and upload their minds to the timeless, disembodied city of Alexandria.

Too often caricatured and misunderstood, Kingsnorth writes from the very core of the agony and inner turmoil of being human in a living world dying at human hands. As humanity struggles to find a good enough reason not to annihilate ourselves and all life, Alexandria is a fervently proffered modern myth, offering no simple answers but plenty of meaning.

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Ellie Robins: Though you’ve sworn off writing since finishing Alexandria (as detailed in last year’s Savage Gods), language seems to me to be your lover as much as your nemesis. Can you describe your linguistic process for Alexandria? Did the novel’s patois come to you organically, or was it carefully devised?

Paul Kingsnorth: I like your first sentence. Sometimes it does feel like I’m having a terrible, destructive affair that I know I should break off but keep being drawn back to. One day it will destroy me!

When I conceived this novel, I actually decided I would “go mainstream.” My last two books were very experimental in terms of language. I wanted this to be much straighter: told simply, in standard English. But I failed, because I was mugged by my lover again. In creating a community set a thousand years in the future, in a post-industrial, rewilded Britain, I found I simply couldn’t have people speaking 21st-century English. Why would they?

And so the patois developed, organically, as I wrote. It was mainly a matter of paring back the language to its essentials. I also wondered what English would look like if a culture with a different sense of time and space was using it. That’s the reason the tenses shift seemingly at random, for instance.

ER: I’d like to ask about this ability of yours to write myth—whether that’s a skill you’ve consciously honed or just the way your ideas have always come.

PK: I’ve always been immersed in them I suppose—drawn to them since I was a child. The old myths and stories of England especially, as that was the landscape I knew, but not just those. Somehow myths and folk tales seemed to tell me more about the world than any news report.

“Some things, it seems to me, do have an essence. Gravity, say, or a mountain, or the human soul.”

Now they just appear when I write. I can’t help it! The Wake, for example, was supposed to be a book about political resistance, but as soon as I started writing I found all these old gods knocking at my door and demanding access.

ER: In your previous work, I’ve always sensed a binary: civilized/uncivilized; languaged/pure. As though there were some uncivilized, purely embodied truth you might grasp if you could only shed enough conditioning. In Alexandria, there seems, ultimately, to be a new synthesis between body and mind. Does this shift reflect a major change in your worldview?

PK: I suppose I’ve been looking for Eden all my life. I think we all have. And I think that primeval communion between humanity and the rest of life did exist once, and perhaps still does in some pockets. But it is not available to modern people except in memory or longing. And the search can be damaging if it distracts you from the fact that, whatever horrors humanity unleashes, the world is still a wonder if we can just get out of our anxious minds long enough to see it. Which is easier written than done.

Both sides in the argument that runs through Alexandria—nature versus culture, body versus mind, human versus machine—find that their worldview has holes in. That’s part of the point, I think. Our world is being eaten by this great, terrible machine, but the machine is a manifestation of us.

If my worldview has changed it is only to reveal to me that any “enemy” we might have is lodged firmly in each of our hearts, and that there is nowhere to escape to that doesn’t lead through it.

ER: Let’s talk about one of the criticisms most frequently aimed at you: that you’re an essentialist. One reviewer of Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist found you too fixated on the notion that “fixed, unchangeable traits determine identities or things,” and an early review of Alexandria accuses you of gender essentialism (though I should note that the novel explicitly interrogates the relationship between essence and construct).

How much were these ideas (and these past critiques of your work) at the forefront of your mind while you wrote?

PK: I certainly don’t write novels with anyone else’s opinions in mind. That would be suicide! I hadn’t really paid attention to this line of criticism, but it’s an interesting one to talk about, because it goes to the heart of this book.

So, “essentialism”—this seems to be a notion popular with a certain type of liberal Western intellectual. We are to deny that any “fixed, unchangeable traits” exist in either humans or the wider world, because to accept them may open the doors to racism or sexism or fascism—or perhaps the kind of eugenics which was popular with the same sort of Western intellectual a century ago.

Of course a certain type of racial or cultural essentialism can indeed lead to those places, and we need to maintain barriers against it. I live in a mixed-race family in a country which is not my own, so I’ve a vested interest in those barriers staying up.

But that’s a very limiting version of the question at hand. Are we, in resisting the misuse of the idea of “fixed traits,” to suggest that none exist at all? That nature, including human nature, is endlessly malleable? If so, what is the conclusion we are led to? That the whole world is up for grabs and amenable to human control. That everything is what we make it, and that nothing has any reality outside the human mind. It’s an arrogant, anthropocentric view of the world: ultimately a denial of nature.

Because some things, it seems to me, do have an essence. Gravity, say, or a mountain, or the human soul. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to this as the “inscape” of each individual creature: its distinctiveness, its deep self. Are we supposed to deny that such a thing exists? That’s a big claim—and a very modern one.

Really the question at the heart of this book is the oldest one: what does it mean to be human? In the age of transhumanism that question takes on a new urgency. Do bodies matter? Are we animals, are we connected to the rest of the living Earth by what Mary Oliver called an “invisible thread”? Is there an essence, after all, to us? If not, what are we? Just “constructs” of some kind? If so, what is to stop us rebuilding the Earth, and ourselves, according to our lights? Why not just upload our minds to the cloud and live forever?

“Human history is a grotesque parade of violence against other humans and other creatures, often carried out in the most nauseatingly creative ways.”

Each of the novels in this trilogy has set out to interrogate the question of what nature is and what humans are. The first book, The Wake, explores cultural identity and roots. In that book, the central character’s stubborn refusal to surrender his very particular notion of what it means to be English in the face of unstoppable change leads to tragedy for everyone around him. Beast, the second novel, shifts from culture to the individual. What does it mean to be an individual mind in the world, what is the mind, can it be broken open and what lies outside it? Reality in that book is far from fixed. 

If The Wake is about the culture, and Beast is about the mind, Alexandria is about the body. The central conflict in this novel is between those who live determinedly within their given, natural forms, and those who seek to escape them through becoming “as Gods” and remaking reality to suit human desires.

The struggle is between accepting limits and denying them in pursuit of our own divinity. The argument between these views—essentially the pre- and the post-modern world—is at the core of the book. It’s our struggle today, and I think it’s pretty clear who is winning.

ER: During one dialogue in Alexandria, an emissary of Wayland argues forcefully that humanity will never overcome its capacity for harm, because the impulse to violence is written into the human body. How close is that to your own worldview? 

PK: I don’t write novels to feed people my worldview, but to work out what it is, and sometimes to argue with myself about it. If I wanted to tell people what to think, I’d write op-eds. Or, these days, news journalism.

On the question of violence, I fear we’ve returned to the dreaded essentialism. Every human society throughout history, with very few exceptions—there are some exceptions, but they tend to prove the rule—has been riven with violence. The need to prevent it escalating is at the heart of all religions and most cultural systems: it was one of Jesus’s major concerns, for example, along with the corrupting influence of wealth.

Human history is a grotesque parade of violence against other humans and other creatures, often carried out in the most nauseatingly creative ways. The mass killings and industrial wars of the 20th century differ only in scale from what Genghis Khan or Nero were doing centuries ago. What we also see, by the way, is that this violence is carried out overwhelmingly by males, in almost every culture at every time in history.

This is clearly not a “social construct,” then, but some universal drive. Anyone who spends any time in non-human nature can see that everything else is doing it too, from cows to coyotes. The poet Robinson Jeffers wrote once that violence was “the bloody sire of all the world’s values.” This is also the claim made by one of the main characters in the novel: that violence is the ultimate human essence, that we can never move beyond it.

Is that true? Actually I don’t think so. I’m not known as an optimist, but I think we canmove beyond our tendency to violence and greed and abuse of those who are not like us or don’t serve our interests. There have been cultures with no word for war, and there are people with no war in their hearts. But it takes a tremendous effort of will, it’s a deeply personal struggle—a struggle with our own heart—and we can’t do it alone.

ER: Alexandria seems to suggest that humankind’s greatest harm might be its crimes of consciousness—its inability to conceive of and care for subjectivities and intelligences other than its own. Is that how you conceive of the planetary crisis these days?

PK: I’m not sure about that. My view on this has probably changed in recent years. I live on a few acres of land, we have our own animals, I see nature red in tooth and claw daily, even if only at the micro level, and it’s pretty clear that actually humans are just about the only animals interested in caring for intelligences other than their own. I can’t think of another species which would be capable of, let alone attempt to, “conserve” another, let alone set up charities to rescue orphaned dogs or hedgehogs, or “rewild” land. In that sense, perhaps our greatest failure is our constant falling short of what we want to be capable of.

“Once humanity and the birds could understand each other, but . . . we broke this link and turned our back on nature.”

Maybe this is an example of something that really is a social construct. Human societies have existed which respected and lived with and even deified the non-human world. Our society—Western modernity, now gone global—sees the non-human world primarily as a commodity to be mined. We could choose differently, and many of us would like to, but we are locked into an ecocidal machine with its own momentum.

That’s the crisis: that we created this, and we don’t know how to stop it, or even if we really want to.

ER: Your writing burns so hot. (This might be why reading each of your books has precipitated some breakdown in me, so thanks for that.) I’m curious about how life has changed for you since you put down the pen. Do your thoughts and feelings still burn as hot? Or was the act of languaging stoking the heat?

PK: You’re welcome! I haven’t written anything of any substance since spring last year, and it has changed me. I think the heat builds up, sometimes over the years, until I can contain it no longer and I have to write it down.

Right now I’m in an interesting place. My energy is concentrated elsewhere, on the life of the spirit rather than the life of the head. That has made it an unexpected year, but I’m not prepared to go into any more detail yet. Maybe there will be a book in it one day.

ER: The members of the Nitrian Order are able to commune with birds and to sense the subjectivities of the moon, the forest, and all beings in the living world. Has your own ability to do the same increased since you quit writing?

PK: Alexandria’s bird-messengers were partly inspired by Indo-European myths about the human ability to communicate with birds. The god Woden, who pops up in all of my novels, had two raven familiars, for instance. There’s a fascinating book called Bird Medicine by the Native American academic Evan Pritchard which also informed me, packed as it is with stories of Indigenous communication with birds.

So while this book looks forward, in doing so it also looks back: to a recovery, a return. The “language of the birds” is a mythic notion which can be found in many cultures. You’ll find it in the Talmud and the Koran and woven through European occultism and in all sorts of other places. It tells us that once humanity and the birds could understand each other, but that we broke this link and turned our back on nature. In Alexandria, the link has been reforged.

But yes, the problem with writing, as I tried to enunciate in my anti-book book Savage Gods,is that after a while the territory can become the map, or vice versa, and the writer can get lost in a forest of his own making. I’ve found that since leaving the forest I have more time to sit with the trees, though it’s never easy. But maybe I can end with a quote from St. Isaac the Syrian: “Ideas create idols. Only wonder leads to knowing.” Amen.

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Paul Kingsnorth’s novel Alexandria is available now.

Ellie Robins
Ellie Robins
Ellie Robins writes about books and place for the Guardian, the Washington Post, the TLS, and elsewhere. Her translation of Alan Pauls's novel A History of Money was published by Melville House in 2015, and she's worked as an editor in London, Buenos Aires, and New York. Sign up for her newsletter at tinyletter.com/here.





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