Et in Arcadia Ego
On the chalk downs the Saxon Alfred
Witlessly walks with his hands lamenting. ‘Who are the people
and who are the enemy?’ He says bewildered
— Robinson Jeffers, ‘Ghosts in England
Paul Kingsnorth has withdrawn his essay ‘Elysium Found?’ from distribution, it’s disappeared from his website and the sites of Little Toller books and the film Arcadia to which it was written in response. He has outlined his reasons why in ‘Arcadia: an open letter’ in which he addresses the controversy which erupted on social media in the days before the film’s theatrical release.
It’s a controversy in which I played some part, sharing some of my thoughts on ‘Elysium Found?’ in my own essay ‘A Chill Snake Lurks in the Grass’. I’m pleased that he has chosen to comment, to try and clarify, but saddened that he has withdrawn his original piece preventing anyone now from being able to make up their own minds about what he has written. I am also pleased that he expressed that the controversy will not prevent him from writing about issues his essay discussed — landscape, place, belonging, nature. I think he is a valuable and important voice in discussing these issues.
David Southwell, one of the other commentators writes that despite their negative responses to this piece ‘many of us… love his work and think him the fiercest of talents’, I’m certainly in that group. Gregory Norminton writes that ‘I don’t think it’s fair to hate on Paul Kingsnorth. I often don’t agree with him, but a read of his collected essays reveals a… complex and nuanced thinker’, Benjamin Myers comments that ‘I know Paul Kingsnorth (IRL, as they say), disagree with him on so much politically (I think patriotism is a dead end) but like him & his family a lot and always have the type of reasoned discussions about art, nature, politics which are an impossibility on the internet.’ Adam Russell: ‘Calling him a fascist is unwarranted, and insults the true victims of fascism.’ Eddie Proctor: ‘I have admired his non-conformism (and writing) but…’ Caspar Henderson: ‘I’ve been fortunate to count Paul a friend, but…’ Nick Stewart: ‘Paul is a good guy but…’
He has also found lots of unreserved (no but…) appreciation on social media, matching his own account that ‘The responses I have had to the piece from readers have been pleasant, positive and entirely apolitical.’ Although as the thread below shows some positive responses are political too.
This is not, or course, the feedback that Kingsnorth is primarily concerned with — he is alarmed instead by ‘a furious series of exchanges on Twitter’ ‘certain people on Twitter accusing me of giving succour to xenophobia, race hatred and ‘nativism’’, his words have ‘been twisted — not accidentally, it is clear, by some at least — into a complete misrepresentation of what I wrote and why’ by ‘fanatics on social media accusing me of fascism’, ‘people out there with agendas… wielding them with glee’, people who have ‘outrageously, and upsettingly, represented [him as] a racist or a promoter of far-right narratives’, people running a ‘smear campaign’ with ‘clear agendas’.
I think the most damning of these lines are those which imply that the negative feedback addressed to his essay were actions directed towards a goal of besmearing him, a goal driven by sinister (but unnamed) agendas. I now, like him, find myself on the defensive — is my own essay one of the objects of his accusation?
In that essay I noted that there are:
Those already inclined to disagree with him — bright green environmentalists distressed by Dark Mountain’s rejection of faith ‘that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’’ — or greens and leftists who see betrayal in any view distinct from remain orthodoxy.
So, given the less amiable elements of human behaviour, I don’t doubt that there are some who would be ready to jump on any criticism of Kingsnorth, believing that doing so helps vindicate their disagreement with him on other issues. If that is present in this current controversy it certainly meets the criteria of agenda drive besmirchment — the question is: is it present here? Is there fanaticism and misrepresentation?
Although ‘Elysium Found?’ was published to the web on 20th May 2018, it seems that almost all the Twitter commentary surrounding it has occurred in the last week driven, no doubt, by the UK theatrical release of Arcadia drawing attention towards it and by the film’s website which originally included the essay, being launched on June 14th. I decided to try and review how ‘Elysium Found?’ was written about on Twitter in that period to get a clearer sense of how Kingsnorth had been represented and to look out for secret agendas driving the commentary.
Some of the comments I found were just about not liking the essay very much, negative feedback that was sometimes irate but not too furious. Filthy Útlendingar Muggleblood: ‘very, very bad writing!!’ (link), Charlotte Geater: ‘incredibly ropey piece’ (link), Wayne Holloway: ‘cliched drivel, he should write lyrics for Mumford & Sons’ (link), Dorian Lynskey: ‘creepy’ (link), Darran Anderson: ‘This Paul Kingsnorth drivel is far better when read in the voice of Alan Partridge’ (link) and ‘What’s surprising is that this stuff is seen by anyone as edgy and not what it is and has always been — a crotchety nostalgic middle-aged white dude bemoaning change (and I say that as a member of that group but, Jesus, have some self-awareness)’ (link), Andrew Hubbard: ‘Kingsnorth fancies he is Prospero’ (link),
Other comments did indeed accuse Kingsnorth himself or the article in particular of fascism and/or xenophobia and range from the simply abusive to suggestions that elements of what he has written are fascist type ideas, without much explanation about how exactly they come to that conclusion (the associations are implied to be self-evident). These were the comments most easily understood as besmirchment and straw man argumentation: Kit Caless: ‘comes across as a bit of a fascist twat’ (link), Charlotte Geater: ‘a fascist sympathiser’ (link), Alun Ephraim: ‘creepy subfascist twaddle’ (link), C.C O’Hanlon: ‘creepy, repellent hymn to British aboriginality’ (link), Thomas Blake: ‘basically Enoch Powell dressed as an ‘obby ‘oss’ (link), Darran Anderson: ‘pseudo-mystical esoteric blood and soil bs’ (link) ‘jingoism’ (link), Emma Bolland: ‘Blood and soil ffs. Paul Kingsnorth can bugger off’ (link), Gareth E. Rees: ‘dangerous bullshit’ (link) ‘Blood and soil fascism’ (link), Luke Turner: ‘in the current climate this connection with place has very dubious echoes with toxic nationalism. It feels very misanthropic too, a negation of people & lived experience in favour of some whimsy & woo woo about “magic”, whatever that is’ (link) ‘this essay is exactly what’s wrong with so much back to nature thinking. It’s selective, elitist, parochial & has a really dodgy whiff of burning torches’ (link), Richard Smyth: ‘I read this is as pretty naked nativist nationalism, and I think it *is* dangerous’ (link),
But other comments are those of critical friends — concerned but not accusatory: Nick Stewart: ‘his romanticism is leading him into dangerous territory’ (link), Darran Anderson: ‘this myopic view leads nowhere good’ (link) ‘Don’t concede that territory to them’ (link), Valondar: ‘I mean I’m reluctant to call things fascism, but that’s sort of what fascist mysticism looks like people’ (link)
And while some other comments aren’t so friendly — their criticism still centres around a fear of where this can lead, of co-option, rather than an accusation that Kingsnorth is personally a fascist: Paul Case: ‘Getting into cultural and national purity, regardless of the hippy bullshit you use to get there, is really quite dangerous. So fuck Paul Kingsnorth’ (link), Eddie Proctor said ‘these are dangerous Brexit-cult times for this sort of mystical English exceptionalism guff’ (link), Luke Turner: ‘Paul Kingsnorth is such a perplexing, and increasingly dangerous, writer. A few good ideas surrounded by reactionary bullshit easily co-opted by the right — he’s the Jordan Peterson of #naturewriting, as evidenced by this essay’ (link), ‘jingoistic & open to co-option by dubious ideologies’ (link), David Southwell: ‘vile, excluding cockwadery’ (link), ‘A vile, excluding and partial reading of place. That it comes from such a vast talent makes it even more sickening’ (link).
I couldn’t really find any commentary that appeared to be part of a smear campaign with clear agendas. Some people commented more than others — generally in reply to those who had replied to their original tweets. Many people liked and shared similar tweets to their own. Some people were angrier than others. It all felt like Twitter business as usual. I recognise it must feel pretty awful to discover a bunch of stuff hating on you on the internet and for it to feel like a bunch of bullies ganging up on you — but I couldn’t see any evidence of vindictive collusion.
A few longer pieces of writing were linked to in tweets — my own and some older articles that mentioned Kingsnorth directly: Warren Ellis’ ‘Poisonous Little England’ from March 2017, the collective Out of the Woods’ ‘Lies of the land: against and beyond Paul Kingsnorth’s völkisch environmentalism’ from March 2017, Gary Budden’s Awake Awake Sweet England: Why We Need Landscape Punk from October 2017. These were critical of various elements of his work and explained why, pointing towards particular uses of language and their implications. Mostly they were like those tweets that centred around a fear of where this can lead, of co-option, rather than an accusation that Kingsnorth is personally a fascist.
Richard Smyth’s ‘The dark side of nature writing’ for the New Humanist was published on June 20th and includes reference to Kingsnorth, describing him as an ‘eco-nihilist’ and citing him quoting Norman Lewis as evidence of a misanthropic side to nature writing. It separately reflects on how environmentalism is vulnerable to co-option by fascist narratives. The article was written before the author was aware of ‘Elysium Found?’. On Twitter Smyth did mention ‘Elysium Found?’ however and related it the danger of fascist co-option — his particular phrase ‘fascist greenwash’ (link) a fairly direct accusation.
So while there are indeed direct accusations of fascism they are generally clumsy simplifications of the type that the character-limitations of Twitter encourage — much of the critique was more considered than that and explored the perilous territory of writing about patriotism.
In a tweet from Pippa Marland she shared an open letter from her friend and colleague Steven Lovatt which he had written to Paul Kingsnorth in May in response to ‘Elysium Found’. Both Marland and Lovatt are editors of Little Toller’s online magazine The Clearing (Adrian Cooper the founder-publisher of Little Toller is the the Executive Director of the charity Common Ground one of the producers of Arcadia).
In his letter, Lovatt writes:
‘As emotively engaging as it is — in fact, because it is so emotively engaging — I find the rhetoric of your essay alarming’
‘There is no ‘real’ kid of patriotism , Paul. There is love of the land, but it doesn’t belong to anyone. Love of the land, like love every other kind, makes a special claim on you without giving you a special claim on it.’
This is why people were talking critically about ‘Elysium Found?’ online, and the response in ‘Arcadia: an open letter’ doesn’t really address those critical friends — it is conspiracy-minded and evasive and seeks sanctuary from critique in being ‘apolitical’.
In promoting ‘Elysium Found?’ the Arcadia film website described it as ‘a provocative call and response piece’ — but it’s unclear what they thought it would provoke — and it was the first of the three sites hosting the essay to remove it as soon the response online got too hot. I assume that when they said it was a ‘call and response’ piece they meant that about the essay’s relationship with the film, and this matches Kingsnorth’s prefacing lines to ‘Elysium Found?’: ‘In early 2018, I was invited to write a response to the new film Arcadia… This is what I wrote. Warning: it makes a lot more sense if you first watch the film …’ and lines from ‘Arcadia: an open letter’: that the original essay was ‘A mirroring of a film in words’ and ‘this piece makes little sense without seeing the film’ which ‘nobody has yet seen, as it hasn’t been released’.
Steven Lovatt wrote in his letter: ‘I should perhaps apologise for not talking directly about Arcadia. But then your essay wasn’t really about the film either’. It was clearly also a vessel for communicating ideas that Kingsnorth has written about before, and he published it himself a month before the film’s official release (although it’s been seen already by audiences at the October 2017 BFI London Film Festival and February 2018 Glasgow Film Festival). If the metaphor of call and response is taken from music — where one musician offers a phrase and a second player answers with a direct commentary or response to that phrase — perhaps it might have been understood beforehand that this essay would engage debate, not simply passive readership — that we all have the ‘right to reply’.
Benjamin Myers and Nick Hunt have both attributed the antagonism provoked by the piece, with the difficulties of communication online, the ease by which things can be misunderstood and those misunderstandings amplified. It’s all the fault of the Machine, its why Paul left social media and now wishes he’d thrown his modem in the bin, if we were sat around a campfire together none of this would have happened… But here we are — and writers are publishing stuff on-line on pages closed to comments — but there’s a parallel conversation taking place on-line — imperfect, flawed, sometimes it’s like shouting at people in the pub, sometimes it offers wonderful opportunities for connection and exchanges of ideas with strangers you would likely never have met IRL.
It certainly feels more democratic, more engaging than reading something in a magazine and your options being limited to sending a letter to the editor. There’s a risk that writers pushing out communiques from their websites and letting friends share knowledge of them on the social channels they abhor comes across a bit high-handed. I’m not saying wrestling with the sweaty 24hr arenas of debate provided by platform capitalism in exchange for your privacy are a better alternative — but let’s at least acknowledge the power dynamics going on and how information is exchanged between writers and readers, writer-readers, reader-writers. One of the most distinctive elements of those involved in the commentary was how many were authors involved in writing about place, they weren’t agents of the ‘political left’, they were folk who cared about the land and how we speak about it.