Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth. (Two Dollar Radio)
I don’t necessarily like talking about myself as a writer. When I try, it tends to come off as overly serious, like I put way too much thought into things that ultimately don’t matter (which, if I’m being honest, I totally do). Being a writer is a solitary life while we observe the world around us and take silent note. I assume no one cares about what my trivial thoughts are from moment to moment, so when I’m asked about my life or writing I’ll deflect or feel odd if I try to give an honest answer.
But then someone like Paul Kingsnorth comes along with a book like Savage Gods and makes the whole thing sound so fucking romantic. The observations he makes about the writing life makes me want to point to it and say, “This, right here. This is what it means and why it matters.” I’m not someone who generally marks up books, but I found myself drawing arrows and brackets around massive chunks of text, making me feel like—instead of a review—I should just cite the entire book. All of it. Front to back, right now.
So, have you ordered your copy yet? Why the hell not? Alright, fine. Let’s do this thing. We’re in it together, after all.
Savage Gods is a personal essay of sorts. Kingsnorth is using himself as the subject to explore how artists fit themselves into the world. He dissects the restless nature of writers and how they’ll never be comfortable because they can’t allow themselves to find contentment for fear it’ll get in the way of their art. It’s not a new concept: artists feeling like they need to suffer in life to produce worthy art. Chuck Palahniuk’s Haunted has the backbone plot revolve around this exact same idea. But what makes me stop and pay attention to Kingsnorth is the absolute honesty he speaks with. He’s more ashamed than proud, and it sounds more like he’s in a support group, looking for advice, rather than bragging about his chosen profession.
I think this introspection into life comes from the fact that he has a wife and two daughters. He feels the need to find the spot—both physically and mentally—where he can sit down and rest for a while, if not for him, then for his family.
The observations Paul Kingsnorth makes in Savage Gods about the writing life makes me want to point to it and say, “This, right here. This is what it means and why it matters.”
It’s also about a world too distracted with consumerism to concern itself with self-preservation. We can’t see past that next paycheck or the next new thing to see the world crumbling around us. I’ve recently been thinking about this, so it was serendipitous that I happened to pick Savage Gods up at this specific moment. Sure, we can all (or at least most of us) recognize that we’re in a climate crisis. The world has changed so much in such a short amount of time that I’m completely baffled if people fail to at least acknowledge the fact that our planet has altered for the worse. But will enough of us actually change our ways enough to make any sort of meaningful impact? And how possible is it for those of us who aren’t financially well-off to make a positive change? There is a degree of dependency on certain foods and conveniences when you’re living within a financial class, and those benefits often don’t align themselves with being environmentally conscious. Because of this, I feel like even if I did make a notable change in my life I’d likely not find what I was looking for. Kingsnorth’s moving—in hopes of finding contentment—didn’t pan out like he’d hoped. He says, “it has not saved me and it is not going to, and I have taken too long to understand that.” I’m afraid, at this point, that it’s going to take all of us far too long to understand the situation we’re in, and at that point it’s going to be far too late. If that doesn’t put you in a state of malaise, then I’m envious.
Kingsnorth spends quite a bit of time meditating on the purpose and use of words. This is where the title comes from. He “feel[s] that words are savage gods and that in the end, however well you serve them, they will eat you alive.” Words are meant to be tools helping us communicate, but after years and years of filtering, changing, and shifting, we’ve come to a moment where words act as a trap. We live in a world where the dictionary admits the common usage of “literally” is, in fact, the literal opposite of what the word means, and this makes my brain want to literally explode. So now, we’re forsaken on these islands, where the one thing that was supposed to connect us may be the same thing pushing us further apart.
Kingsnorth continues a few pages later, “and here’s my fear, I think, here’s what is perhaps at the root of my loss of confidence in these black symbols on white paper: I worry that all words are lies.” This makes me wonder about an array of things: What can we do about it now, after the fact? We must rely on words, especially as writers, but what if they’re corroding everything we love about the world? What if these words are the root of all the vitriol and pain coursing around us? I certainly don’t have an answer to these questions, and I don’t think Kingsnorth does either, but isn’t that the point? We’re not supposed to have the answers; because the bigger battle at the moment is asking the right questions. He comes back to this at the end of the book, telling us that he is “a filter, and you are a filter and we are alone, trapped in our own perceptions, and we see different worlds.” And almost like he’s trolling me: “In this context, words become bridges, teachings-out, from one filter to another.”
The core theme that runs throughout the book is inside all of us, simultaneously; we have two desires, fire and water, and they’re at constant odds. We want to stop and rest, preserving meditation and retrospection; this existence finds contentment where we are. Then we want to consume; the fire burns for what’s new and unknown, telling us we’re not living unless we’re on the move. We’re stuck in the middle of this struggle—fire evaporating the water, or water dousing the fire. Can we find a suitable and satisfying balance?
There is a point in the book where he goes back to the fire and water metaphor, and it feels like Savage Gods begins to meander. It seems like he’s flippantly jumping from one topic to another without much rhythm or rhyme. But then, towards the end of the book, he admits he’s essentially been winging the whole project. He sat down and, like a writer should, simply bled onto the page. I couldn’t make up my mind if this makes Savage Gods more or less brilliant, but it certainly makes it bold.
Savage Gods is a call to all of you who have found contentment in your life, to those of you who need to be on the move, to those who don’t know how to fit into the greater world, and to all you artists. Savage Gods is a book that will make you think and contemplate and want something more, or hell, something less. It’s a book about questioning—there aren’t a lot of answers, but like I said before, that’s the whole point and it’s one hell of a good one.