a ‘highbrow caveman’ according to deepai.org’s artificial intelligence image generator.

It should have been a great weekend. I was staying with my friend Cal at her cottage on a moor. She’s a splendid person. She’s kind, smart, and intuitive, and her heart is very much in the right place. When she’s not chained to a bulldozer or up a tree protesting against a new road, she’s teaching infant school kids about flowers, playing her fiddle in a folk session, baking cakes for sick neighbours, reading to a blind woman in the village down the valley, writing poems of rare vision and pamphlets fizzing with righteous anger, swimming in the river, nailing up bird boxes, and finishing a novel too acute and interesting to be published.1

It started well. On the Friday night, as I walked through the door, she poured out a pint of her Damson wine, shoved it into my hand, hugged me (spilling most of the wine), and it went from there. She was brilliant, funny, concerned, and wise. After dinner, we took a bottle and sat by the stream. There were fireflies and flickering bats, and a barn owl flew low to salute us. I went to sleep in my bivvy bag under a tree. She went inside to curl up with her dog.

I was woken early by the sun, sat for a couple of hours listening to the wind and the birdsong, and then went to the car to get an MP3 player and some headphones. I was plugged in when Cal came out, carrying the morning coffee. Then it all went wrong.

She didn’t like the headphones.

‘How can you prefer whatever’s on there to the martins and the skylarks and even the bloody sheep?’

It was a fair point—one that I’m always making aggressively and counterproductively to the children. I smiled and said that I’d had quite a bit of natural sound while she’d been snoring happily away.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

‘What are you listening to?’

I was listening, I told her, to the Bach B Minor Mass—’one of the best things that humans have ever done. Don’t you agree?’

‘I do not,’ she snarled. ‘And I can’t believe your hypocrisy. All that talk about only being a fulfilled human if you’re intimately connected with the natural world. All that stuff about our “porous boundaries”—that’s your expression, isn’t it? All that denigration of “progress”. That idea that human history’s gone downhill since we settled and started farming. That sermon of yours—I’ve heard it so often—that we all now live in virtual worlds rather than the real one, courtesy of our left brains and our technology. And here you are, plugged into a machine, drowning out the birdsong with human junk: music written by a very male man, made from merely human ideas of what’s beautiful. It’s the product of patronage. It’s designed to prop up patriarchy, can’t you see? And the rule of dreary neurotypical Protestants. It’s about power and control. It’s Christian propaganda. So turn it off.’

Johann Sebastian Bach, ‘a very male man’: the enemy?

That, anyway, is the publishable version.

It was a long and scary indictment. I didn’t know where to go from there, so I drank up my coffee, tried to turn the whole thing into a joke (Cal wasn’t having that), and went home.

The exchange worried me. Mainly because I wondered seriously if Cal was right. Is there a duty—particularly in these troubled times where a war rages between the human and the non-human world—to declare clearly, by rejecting human culture, that we’re on the side of the wild?

I was reminded uncomfortably of tense exchanges with my mother, who has now gone to join the wild world that in life she so feared and distrusted. Her atoms have long since been transpired by real trees. That’s a vertiginous thought. Perhaps she thought it. Perhaps that was why she preferred trees painted by one of the great geniuses of Western art. She wouldn’t have dreamt of climbing a real mountain, but sat for an hour, entranced and exhilarated, before a painting of the Alps. She was beluga-white, despite her Sicilian blood, because she hated the sun she celebrated in Van Gogh.

She loved farm labourers in Thomas Hardy, but sped up as she drove past a farm because she couldn’t bear the smell of cows. Folk music smelt of cows too, and so it was banned from the house: proper people listened to the Great (and always capitalized) Classics. Elemental struggle was fine if it was in French or Italian and between the covers of a book. But the real thing? Oh no! We’ve come a long way since we daubed those crude caricatures of cow-like things on cave walls, Charles, and we must never go back: never, ever go back.

She gently mocked my atavism: the mud on my knees, the leaves in my hair, the skulls on my wall, the tunes of dead farmers and the songs about hanged highwaymen playing in my head, my childish talk of noble savagery. I slept with the window open so that I could breathe the air that had been blown out by foxes: she closed it to keep out the germs.

And I mocked her back, but less gently. Our conflict entrenched our positions. I must have sounded like Cal. I certainly thought I was on Cal’s side against my mum. I was upset, that morning by the stream, to be told that I’d switched off the birds, and alarmed to hear myself saying that the Mass was the pinnacle of human achievement. What did I believe? Did I believe anything at all? Did I really have to choose between a woodland epiphany and a Baroque epiphany? Did taking the side of the badgers really mean torching the Louvre?

There was obviously some work to do.

I started to ask around, hoping and expecting to find that Cal was a maverick. She wasn’t. Amongst the people I really like she was mainstream. I don’t know how I’d missed it before. The rhetoric was the same: the ‘high’ art of the West was fatally compromised; the fruit of a Faustian bargain with the Establishment. Switch on the Brandenburgs and you were switching off the rain cycle over Peru. If you went around the Renaissance churches of Tuscany on your holidays, you’d be bound to have a fetid portfolio of Monsanto shares. You couldn’t support the rights of indigenous people and also applaud Piero della Francesca.

The result, I’m afraid, was a thoroughgoing philistinism; a fulminating inverted snobbery. Of course Donatello’s David isn’t beautiful, they’d say: there’s more beauty—because more honesty—in a homespun llama-wool hat. The Sistine Chapel is trash: not a patch on the roof of a yurt.


Of course many disagreed, but they tended to keep their heads down, scared of being cancelled, hiding the Mozart in a drawer and having the Tibetan chant and didgeridoo music out on the shelves.

Their philistinism rarely extended to literature. This is odd. I’ve expressed before my suspicion of language. Language has power out of all proportion to its capacity to represent reality. It uses that power to codify the cosmos: to make it manageable; to recreate it in the image of the writer or speaker; to create cages for surging and squawking and whooping things; to domesticate waves and tides, suppress the chemistry of intuition, and block out the smell of halitotic whales. And yet Cal’s friends and my friends had groaning bookcases, full of really clever classic novels. Perhaps they thought that writers were more countercultural than painters or musicians. If so, I’m sure they were wrong.

Was my sample skewed? I hope so. But even if it wasn’t, isn’t it worth trying to work out what Our Side (by which I mean Cal’s side, the side of the ragamuffins, surf-tumblers, peasant farmers, canal-boat dwellers, old-tune hummers, fire-starers, fox-followers, felt-makers, tree-whisperers, category-confounders: the people who carve unicorn horns and watch clouds but never the news, who have unwashed children in trees and happy thin dogs; the un-centrally-heated and non-air-conditioned ones who hold your gaze and walk with the long loose stride of the free; the side my mum thought she was fighting) should do with the so-called high culture of the West? For we’re on the back foot, the wrong side of history, government and the bloody free market. We need all the help we can get, and if it turned out that Beethoven’s with us, I’d feel a lot more secure.

To know where we should live, what music we should make, what pictures should be on our walls, whom or what we should worship, and what should be the proper relationship between our language and our ideas and our ideas and the world, we need to know what sort of creatures we are. To know that we need to know where we’ve come from. To know where to go we need to know where we’ve been.

We first see signs of us (at least in Europe), around 45,000 years ago. (There’s a huge Eurocentric bias in the literature. Our story started in Africa and no doubt much more of our cognitive evolution happened there than we recognise.) When I say ‘us’, I mean ‘behaviourally modern’ humans: humans whose cognition seems, from the traces left in the archaeological record, to have produced a way of being in the world that is like ours.

We were distinguished from non-humans by our colossal brains.

Brains are metabolically very expensive. The space inside the skull is prime real estate. A company with a Fifth Avenue address has to justify the address by an exceptional return, and the brain had to justify its tenancy of the skull by conferring a massive selective advantage. It did.

Big brains are mainly important for relationship. To be good at relationship you must be fluent in inchoate languages, remember slights and favours, calculate deals, and make and execute judgments. If you can engender and sustain a large number of relationships you’ll be safer from actual and metaphorical sabre-toothed tigers and be an effective hunter, gatherer, and trader. You’ll have influence beyond the borders of your own body. Our big brains gave us a huge capacity for relationship. Most of us today don’t use much of it: we’ve outsourced to electronics the running of our personal communities. The neurological software built so arduously over millennia is atrophying fast.

We weren’t restricted only to relationships with humans. We had a vibrant, useful (in the dinner-delivering sense), and apparently ecstatic relationship with the non-human world. We saw ourselves as part of it. The woods bled into us and we bled into the woods. As we discovered and explored the miracle of our own agency we attributed agency to the cosmos, and a careful, respectful choreography evolved. We didn’t doubt that we had enduring souls. Agency, indeed, seemed to increase when we died.2 If we had souls, so too, we decided, did other things. That was companionable, but it was also a problem: it meant that whenever we ate, we relocated the souls of the dead things we’d eaten. This demanded an elaborate liturgy of thanks, expiation, and propitiation. It made us sacramental creatures. Shamans, after figurative but agonising apprenticeships of piercing, dismemberment, and death, used their knowledge of the geography of the spirit world (often on the other side of a cave wall) to travel there on behalf of the community. They shuttled to and fro, seeking knowledge, blessing, and forgiveness. And the rest of the community wandered after the herds, and from bush to bush; each footstep in somewhere as different from the last step (if we could only see it—and once we could) as Antarctica and Angola. Life, quite literally, was a journey.

The signs of behavioural modernism in the record are signs of symbolism: a piece of reindeer bone could be shaped into a human face while still remaining a reindeer bone. If that kind of alchemy was possible, was anything impossible? The world was kaleidoscopically complex. Excitingly, nothing was only what it seemed. Or perhaps ‘seeming’ itself was different then.3

By then, and probably long before then, we were musical animals. Music, as the biologist David Haskell puts it, is neurologically prior to language. The musical centres in our brains are close to our movement centres embryologically and in terms of evolutionary history.4 Dancing probably made us appreciate music: we may have danced into behavioural modernity. 

Consciousness—the sense of the subjective—broadcast that most thrilling and deadly of words: ‘I!’ And consequently, and even more thrillingly, ‘You!’ Otherness spurted into the world.

Language, too, played a part in this symbolical revolution. Just what part is unclear: we don’t know if language ignited symbolism, or symbolism secreted language. In any event, language and symbolism became synergistic partners. Language eventually arrogated to itself a power it should not have had, but that was still to come. In the early phases of behavioural modernism language was still a tool, not a master. It helped us to manipulate the world. And with language came metaphor and story.

Consciousness—the sense of the subjective—broadcast that most thrilling and deadly of words: ‘I!’ And consequently, and even more thrillingly, ‘You!’ Otherness spurted into the world. We started to tell ourselves stories about ourselves, and who we were, and why we were. We told stories because we were stories. We too had a beginning, a middle, a sort of end, and we too could be told forever. The best story-tellers, with the greatest ability to enter the minds of others, and so tell the most compelling stories, got the best bits of the caribou, the most sex, and the most children, and so evolution smiled on them and on story.

There were no straight lines in this world, just as there are none in nature—except an erect penis, that most transient phenomenon. Reality was circular and cyclical. The seasons turned. The flowers faded and came again. The herd left and came back. Humans died and returned, though somehow enhanced.

Minds, even now, are surely not imprisoned in skulls. They roam far beyond, romping lasciviously and grappling bracingly with other minds. They are parts of Mind as an inlet is part of the sea. When the tide goes out, we call it loneliness and meaninglessness. In the Upper Palaeolithic, I suspect the tide was usually in. This didn’t just mean epiphany: it was useful. If you could tune into the intentions of a roving gazelle herd, you could cut them off at the pass and your clan would eat. Modern hunter-gatherers, until they get their iPhones, know from miles away what the hunting party has killed. Altered states of consciousness (induced by plants or fungi or physiological stresses or dancing or mantras) no doubt played some part in catalysing modern consciousness: they certainly played a significant part in its evolution. We wandered through our minds and through other minds as we walked over the earth. Self-exploration was easier then, and otherness more accessible.

It’s harder to be arrogant if you know you’re a little inlet. It’s harder for a man to be a sexist pig if, as is typical in hunter-gatherer communities, his wife brings home most of the calories. And indeed, though there were hierarchies, they were more fluid and less toxic in those Upper Palaeolithic times than they later became.

And there was leisure. There’s always food for a superb naturalist (we were all superb in those days) who knows when and where to look. If there’s no food in that valley, you go to the next. You needn’t worry about feeding your children. You can paint bison, talk with your dead uncle, and perfect your metaphors.

Leisure, the absence of rigid hierarchy, connection with an infinite number of other minds and with Mind itself or Himself or Herself, a passion for story and for symbols of all kinds, a conviction that everything signifies, a conviction that there are other more real, or at least more powerful realms beyond death and beyond the cave wall (meaning that what you create endures and matters and is part of a greater whole), and deeply ingrained music, governing the way you walk and what you hear in the wind. It all sounds artistically promising.

Yet even in this Eden, trouble was brewing. Each of the human hemispheres, as big as the whole brain of many quite sophisticated primates, has a very different function. The right is the big-picture hemisphere, concerned with context and holistic understanding. It knows that the stand-off between black and white, on and off (the very dualism upon which the digital world of ones and zeros is built) and north and south doesn’t rightly represent the world.

The left hemisphere is a nerdish, petulant, binary-obsessed, conservative bureaucrat, fond of its procedures and its paradigms, good at filing, narrow focus, and formulaic responses. Most unfortunately it controls the right hand: the grasper. Its role is to support the higher-order functions of the right hemisphere: to execute the commands delivered by its wiser master. But the left side became discontented. It came to resent its secretarial function, and got delusions of grandeur. As language—and so speech—became more and more important, the left hemisphere’s prospects improved, for the left hemisphere controls speech. It planned a coup.

The history of that coup has been brilliantly charted by Iain McGilchrist in his The Master and His Emissary (2019) and The Matter with Things (2021). The coup took many millennia. The left hemisphere’s victory has only neared completion in the last couple of hundred years. Now the remaining right hemispherists have been driven into exile. But the first obvious sign of the left’s advance across the corpus callosum was in the Neolithic.

And so we built walls across our minds too. We became compartmentalized creatures, living mentally in one room at a time.

When was the Neolithic? It depends on where you look. And of course there was no obvious seam between the hunting and gathering Upper Palaeolithic and the more sedentary Neolithic. Hunter-gatherers started to control and to cultivate, while still hunting and gathering. Farmers often continued to hunt and to gather. They still do: think of the farmer taking a turn round his field with his gun and his dog. But nonetheless things changed. We settled down, as mud settles on a river bed when the current slows. We made fields. We built fences and walls across the land to keep animals close to our huts, and no longer walked far to find our food. It is in the nature of embodied life and part of the magic of metaphor that physical things lead to psychological things. And so we built walls across our minds too. We became compartmentalized creatures, living mentally in one room at a time. One part of our mind didn’t know what the other parts were planning, let alone what the red deer herd in the wood fifty miles off was thinking. We lost our integrity.

We presumably thought at the time that the physical and mental walls were a good thing. Many of us still do. At some level, we don’t like freedom. It’s too much of a responsibility. Like imperial mapmakers, we carved up the big free lands of our minds into tiny territories, stuck razor wire across the borders, and set up passport controls.

Our horizons shrank, and so did our brains. The limbic system—the part of our brain responsible for alertness—shrivels in all domesticated animals, from humans to fish. (For discussion, see James C. Scott’s 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.) This was an age of sclerosis: of hardening, of simplification, of the perceived incompatibility of opposites. Hierarchies became more important. Women were subjugated. Leisure ebbed away, for corn and the law of supply and demand are harder taskmasters than the bountiful seasons.

The left hemisphere, which had engineered the whole era, liked it that way. The new, inflexible categories, the straightforward dualisms, the loss of the time and the faculty for imagination: that all makes for easy control, for neat ledgers. It doesn’t make for a scintillating artistic culture.

Today, as the ragged troops of the right hemispherical resistance set out from their secret woodland redoubts and mountain eyries in what often seems to be a hopeless fight against the zeitgeist, it is easy enough to see the first signs, in those Neolithic fields, of the swelling hegemony of the left hemisphere. But are there signs too in the art of the millennia between the Upper Palaeolithic?

There are indeed, but they are complex and hard to interpret. We can confidently chart the jackbooted march of the left hemisphere through the history of ideas and in political philosophy. It is plainly there in burgeoning polarity, in the admiration of power, in the expansion of bureaucracy, in centralization and the suppression of itinerants and edge people, in the preference for procedure over substance and the quantitative over the qualitative, in the suspicion of the ambiguous and the unspoken, and supremely in the Enlightenment’s reconception of the cosmos as a machine, with its related declaration that there are no souls in anything—let alone in everything. But it is not at all so clear in the arts.

It can be argued coherently that in all the arts there has, overall, been a steep downward (and leftward) trajectory since the Enlightenment, but there are huge numbers of outliers (think of Beethoven, the Impressionists, and Dickens, among many, many others). Nor will it do simply to compare the glories of Lascaux with the digitized jingles of a 21st-century advertising campaign, sniff disgustedly and say: ‘There you are.’ Upper Palaeolithic cave art is, to my eye, some of the very best there has ever been, and I’ve suggested that Upper Palaeolithic life was more conducive to the artistic adventure than any subsequent human era (yes, including the Italian Quattrocento), but it would be laughably wrong to pretend that in the last 10,000 years or so there have not been many triumphs of the human spirit, evidenced in artistic production. I’ve been rude about sedentism, and I don’t repent of that rudeness, but without sedentism there would have been no Florence.

Gwion Gwion rock paintings, western Australia. Source/Author: Bradshaw Art/TimJN1. CC BY-SA 2.0.

There’s a clear picture. The artists—or at least the ones we would agree are great—are the main fighters in the battle against the left hemisphere. They’re often working behind enemy lines, in deep cover. Cal mistook the cover for betrayal. She’d have hanged Michelangelo as a collaborator with the Medici, and so she’d have hanged one of the great undercover generals of the anti-left-hemispherical resistance.

The debate about what constitutes ‘great’ art is almost completely sterile. The little that can usefully be said is as follows. A great work of art does not fit neatly into any category. Anything that does is by definition not great. It is certainly not necessarily produced or appreciated by a social or intellectual elite. Much unquestionably great music is made in pub sessions or with tins and drums at a campfire. ‘Great art’ always flows primarily from the right hemisphere, and represents uncompromisingly the perspective on the cosmos of a fizzing and informed right hemisphere, but is executed with the aid of a skilful left hemisphere as joyfully fulfilled in its subservience to the right as a working sheepdog is to its human master. It hints; it never asserts. It suggests; it never states. It knows that the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts, that all is process—in which what we perceive as true emerges in the course of a conversation between an infinite number of participants and is influenced by each—and that the truth is not at all the same as the total amount of data. It knows that opposites coexist, nesting inside one another, co-dependent, as the Yin and the Yang encompass and empower one another. It knows not only that opposites can co-exist, but that they must, and that all life and all wisdom depend on this co-existence. It knows that the positive pole of a magnet wouldn’t exist without the negative pole. North requires South.

Heraclitus observed that a lyre can make music only when its strings are tensed by being pulled in two different directions. (For discussion, see Jane McIntosh Snyder’s article ‘The Harmonia of Bow and Lyre in Heraclitus Fr. 51 (DK)‘.) This fact, central to everything that we identify as authentically artistic, is invisible and offensive to the left hemisphere, whose vector calculus insists that opposites cancel one another out, rather than resulting in a net plus.5

The tectonic fact of the lyre string is most obviously true in music. This, along with music’s early evolutionary association with our movement and so with our most basic mode of enfleshment, gives music supremacy in the arts. Until music prostitutes itself to vacuous or directive or non-allusive language, as of course it often does, it can only allude; can only invite and curate a conversation. And in alluding, it eludes, as the true love always does. It may permit a glimpse which suggests—but only ever suggests—the whole voluptuous body. It may tell a story, but it is a story that has the conditionality and uncertainty that are the most salient threads in the web and weave of all reality. It also (forcing us to mix and transcend metaphors) embodies that most characteristic part of hunter-gatherer living: a journey. ‘The slow movement of Schubert’s mighty Ninth Symphony is like those vast mountainous landscapes that Schubert loved trekking through in southern Austria,’ writes the musicologist Michael Spitzer. ‘Walking through a landscape is intrinsic to Western music; it is not a metaphor.’

That resonates with my experience. Forced to choose one word to sum up life and the natural world, I’d choose symphonic.

Reading what I’ve written I note that I’m starting, tentatively, to suggest another argument for that much-maligned ‘high Western culture’. It is that that culture is derived from and often refers explicitly—and always implicitly—to the non-human world.

This is sometimes hard to see, for it’s often hard to penetrate the cover of the right-hemispherical guerrillas. The impression on a quick scan is that the non-human world was—at least until Romanticism began its campaign against anthropocentrism and reductionism—a stage on which human dramas were played out. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in the natural world for its own sake—though there are some honourable exceptions, such as Aristotle and some of the Renaissance polymaths (I discuss this issue in detail in my Being a Human; see footnote 2). There are trees, mountains, fur, and feathers in the pictures, but the trees and mountains are there to frame the human characters; the birds and beasts look on approvingly.

But it is easy to fail to see the real trees for the anthropocentric wood. Perhaps the dominant message of those pictures is precisely that human endeavours are explicable only in their non-human context; that we are, as the hunter-gatherers know, indivisibly part of the non-human world; that human dramas make sense only when they’re on a wild stage. Even when an aristocrat is being flattered, a victory celebrated, or a myth retold, distinctly non-human shoots erupt into the picture, mocking the hubris and threatening to steal the show. In the great cathedrals of Europe, grave Green Men and insolent nature spirits look down on the altar as the catechism is recited, forcing its propositions into the context of the whole created order. Deer graze in the margins of holy and learned books. The art of the mediaeval elite smelt of gorse, musk, and wood smoke. And outside the courts and the monastic libraries the wild was even more unavoidable: even more the real master. The city centres wriggled with live eels, the suavest urbanite knew the sound of a stuck pig, dung blocked the streets, and cycling kites recycled the dead. Outside the city gates (as most people were), everyone knew and felt the pressure of the farmer’s contingencies; everyone looked anxiously up to the clouds for rain, and knew that the frost was out to kill.

‘High’ and popular culture often sprang visibly, audibly, and olfactorily from the wild. The farmers’ songs and tunes seeped directly from the ground, borrowing their cadences from the wind, the swaying treetops, and the sea. And those songs and tunes were in turn borrowed by bewigged and flouncing metropolitan maestros, and became the only parts of oratorios that anyone really likes.

Terroir obsesses me. I know a man who is such an expert on the wines of Bordeaux that he can often tell not only which vineyard and which year produced a wine, but which corner of which field. That sort of skill, though it’s associated with smart suits and high net worth—though it’s a prime example of the stuffy ‘civilization’ so loathed by Cal—is like the skill of an albatross winding through the scent-valleys of the southern Atlantic, or a wolf knowing in its head, from the leaking smell, the landscape on the far side of a mountain. My friend tastes the sun and the rain from a couple of decades ago and from over the sea. He listens to the muttering of the grape and the barrel. That sounds weird: not at all the sort of talk that would go down well with the stockbrokers who buy his wines. Yet they love him. He’s a particularly potent undercover agent.

Now that I notice it, so many of the uncontroversially great human artists had distinctive terroir that we might well say that it’s an essential criterion of artistic greatness. We must be careful here, of course. We must beware the obscenity of the blood and soil fascism that’s growing malignantly in some organs of the folklorish community. Martin Shaw (a sworn and doughty enemy of that fascism), rather than using the language of terroir, speaks instead about the importance of being claimed by a place. If one is claimed, he says—if the place trusts you and hugs you and confides in you—you are heir to immense resources, and hence immense responsibility. For the land is old, and has seen much. But let’s be clear: there is no bar at all to anyone being claimed by anywhere. By a great act of wholly undeserved grace I—a kid from an industrial city in Yorkshire—have been claimed by a remote part of the Peloponnese. If my ancestors’ bones are in a hill they might help me to be claimed, but their absence is no impediment. And we can be sure that anyone who thinks that the hill can be represented by a flag has no prospect whatever of being claimed, or of tasting the terroir. Every hill there has ever been is far, far too complex and dignified to need a flag. Flags are tawdry things: hills are not. You might as well put a paper party hat on a Blue Whale and say that the hat is a useful symbol of the whale.

a ‘blue whale with a party hat on’ according to deepai.org’s ai image generator.

So, then, there are many explicit examples of the wild creeping into the most urban and urbane citadels and determining their shape and colour and scent and the whole way of human being inside them, just as ivy, crawling over the facade of a brutalist building, makes it soft, habitable, and even lovable, and the smell of wisteria coming in through a window changes the mood and the mind of everyone in the room.

Yet these influences, powerful though they are, are not the main means the great arts use to wild us covertly. Here’s the scandalous secret: proper, free, honest creation is itself wild: and wild promiscuously begets wild.

Pan is a musician, and I know a few places where you can still reliably hear him. A relaxed adult trachea has the same diameter as Pan’s marble pipe in a crumbling and overlooked statue in southern Greece. The sea, sucking and blowing through a rock in the bay just below the statue, wheezes out a perfect fifth.

The tone of a whistling thorn in a part of the East African bush I love is the same as the top organ pipe in a high Baroque church in southern Munich (when the diapason stop is out).

In that church, counterpoint curls like bindweed round the melody. The pieces they play there are often long enough to be significant journeys, like the journeys of migrating swifts. Dissonances resolve, as the rough edges of rocks are shaved by wind, water, and time. Dissonances don’t last long, either in nature or (if that’s different, which it’s not), Baroque music. Many of the themes in those pieces speak to one another like birds in a forest canopy; and they recur cyclically, for in music, as in biological life, ends are beginnings.

As I sit in the pew, listening to the organ, the music, as a matter of fact, not fancy, makes my cells vibrate. I suppose everyone else since the mid-17th century who’s heard that Toccata has vibrated at the same frequency. That’s a pretty intimate connection with the dead. Everything vibrates all the time, and everything affects everything else all the time. The spin of the electrons in my spleen modifies, instantaneously, the spin of the electrons in the galaxies on the far side of the universe6, and so the Toccata is changing the universe.

The composer stood on others’ shoulders. Cal calls this contemptible human tradition. I call it evolution—recruiting and developing the innovations of others. It’s at least one—if not the only one—of the engines generating natural complexity. The mathematics of this toccata are fairly basic, to be honest, but the same species of mathematics is encoded in snowflakes, double helices, and the mechanics of a hyena’s hock. Chartres Cathedral is rumoured to enshrine the arcane geometry of Pythagoras. My body does too, which might explain the shimmering frisson of a Sung Mass there.

The composer of the Toccata, along with Pythagoras, Leonardo, and every human creator you’d think of as ‘great’, lived and worked at the edge. It might not always look that way (that’s the cover), but it’s true. Nothing important in any domain (ideas, music, visual arts, literature, cooking, comedy, taxidermy, kite-flying, potting-shed design, plumbing, or whatever) has ever, ever come from the centre. It’s the same with biological innovation. Evolution works on the margins; with odd configurations of bodies and molecules and behavioural traits. The flying buttresses that make you gasp (and look, incidentally, rather like mangroves) came from wild minds; edge minds; the sort of minds with which natural selection can do serious and novel business.

Everywhere in the Toccata, in the buttresses, in the spin of my splenic electrons, in the bark of a fox in the field outside Chartres, and in my response to all these things, there is story—story of the same kind that we call literature. It cannot be otherwise, for consciousness is everywhere. The cosmos is a web of stories. Individual minds are examples of what happens when universal consciousness collides with matter7, taking for a while the shape of that matter, conditioning the matter’s qualities forever, and creating characters in a story. A good human story is one that reflects the way that characters really are in the cosmos. Good human language takes its cue from that way (perhaps by onomatopoeia; at least by a repudiation of the abstraction so beloved of the left hemisphere). 

The epic of story-making, and its parallels with biological processes, is shown nowhere better than in jazz. The paradigm example for me is the Bach-based jazz of Jacques Loussier. There you have the mathematical bottom line: the equation: the statement of the connection with the snowflake and the hyena hock. Round it coils the riff, always heedful of the baseline equation, but sometimes offending it for a delicious anarchic moment to explicate it; to show the possibilities inherent in the equation that ordinary obedience would have missed.

[Tyrants are] terrified of ‘high culture’, because they’re terrified of the wild from which it comes. They know that they came out of the wild, and will one day return to it when they’re burned or eaten by worms.

This riff is itself possible only because of the clairvoyant connection between the pianist’s fingers and the notes and the keys, and between the pianist and the other members of the band; a connection surely like that inside a flock of murmurating starlings, and faster than thought. It shows that intuition far outstrips sluggardly light and is stronger than tungsten rope, and when you’re playing anything like this you know the atomistic model of the self on which all our politics and economics are based is laughable and that there’s no very obvious reason why, with the same quality of attention, you shouldn’t persuade a distant cedar tree to switch a few of the base pairs in its DNA and turn purple. The riff around the theme is how genetic variation happens. This is how plants talk to plants, electrons to electrons, and proper lovers to one another. No wonder tyrants are terrified of jazz.8

They’re also terrified of ‘high culture’, because they’re terrified of the wild from which it comes. They know that they came out of the wild, and will one day return to it when they’re burned or eaten by worms. For the same reason, they’re terrified of real folk culture; the sort that oozes out of the hill with the brown peat water. Their control depends on pastiche: depends on pretending that humans are far simpler than they really are. That they are nowhere near as complex and dignified as a real human, whose appetites and stories and epiphanies can only be hinted at by the most adept agents of the right hemisphere. This doesn’t demand artistic complexity, needless to say. ‘If you play more than two chords,’ said Woody Guthrie, ‘you’re showing off.’ In many situations he’s right. But it does demand an ear for the concordance between human art and the way that things really are. And the way that things really are is wild. The way that things really are is only appreciated by the right hemisphere.

The war on the wild is being waged by the same tyrants, and for the same reasons, as the war on the arts. If you want to fell a forest and build a car park or put beef cows there, I’ll wager that you’re also agitating for the defunding of museums, art galleries, and classical concerts. That should show us, if nothing else does, where we need to take our stand. This is obvious, too, when we look at the aesthetics of the left-brainers who prop up the tyrants. Fundamentalist Protestantism, remember, smashed up the mediaeval churches, reads the crass and deeply disturbed Left Behind novels, and worships in breeze block garages.

The tyrants use fake art in the campaign, of course: buildings of unutterable ugliness and pretension, praised by the left-brain critics using words like ‘iconoclastic’, ‘stark’, and ‘uncompromising’: bold, clever words that make us embarrassed to point out that our architectural emperors have no clothes and obscene paunches: computerised music that appeals to the motor-drive dance centres of our impoverished brains but nothing else, and is repetitive without the fractal beauty often associated with repetition in the real world of cells and molecular lattices. In The Silmarillion there were two types of music before the seat of Ilúvatar. They ‘were utterly at variance’, Tolkien tells us:

‘The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.’

There is great comfort in that final sentence. It is my conviction and (almost) my conclusion.

This has been a long article, but it needs to be slightly longer. Cal delivered a broadside against Christianity—or what she saw as Christianity. I can well see why. But she is assaulting a great ally.

This is no Christian tract, but no defence of any of the ‘high’ arts of the West can fail to mention Christianity. It would be like trying to stage Hamlet without once mentioning Hamlet. Nor will it do to say that what we have to admire in Western art is the work of imaginative pagans who cynically took Christian money but were unmoved by the central doctrines. There is unmistakable piety in the Gothic cathedrals, in the mediaeval Miracle plays, in the Toccata that transfixed me in Germany. These are right-brain works, which should at least raise the presumption that the creed itself is right-brain—or represents a fecund marriage between the left and the right. The Reforming zealots were and are the stormtroops of the left brain. If we know our enemy, perhaps he can point us to our friend?

It’s tragic that the environmental movement has for so long identified Christianity with the shrill perverted pastiches of Christianity that have hijacked religious discourse in North America.

Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers would recognise immediately the figure of the pierced shaman who goes to another dimension on behalf of the people and returns, bearing great gifts. The fact that Jesus’ resurrection body was more solid and more powerful than his fleshly body was entirely in accord with the Upper Palaeolithic belief that death increased agency (see footnote 2). The caveman would be unsurprised at the unity of opposites (the defining right brain insight) in Christian orthodoxy: the virgin who is also a mother; the beginning who is also the end; the Alpha who is also the Omega. Hunter-gatherers would nod approvingly at the Greek Orthodox morning prayer which expresses belief in the immanence as well as the transcendence of God: ‘O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things…’ ‘Fillest all things’ includes mushrooms, rocks, and badgers: it mandates a kind of animism.

It is tragic that the environmental movement9 has for so long identified Christianity with the shrill perverted pastiches of Christianity that have hijacked religious discourse in North America. Yes, many unfortunate things have been said by real historic Christianity too—most notably in misconstruing the Genesis mandate to ‘subdue’ the earth. But they shouldn’t make us cold-shoulder Christianity. That’s just what the left brain, expert in dividing and ruling, wants us to do.

There are signs that we’re finally starting to realise what an ally we’ve been missing. This isn’t, by and large, because of the efforts of green movements in Christianity, but by personal reflection. Martin Shaw and Paul Kingsnorth, for instance, faithful priests of the Green Man and superb writers, have recently been baptised.

I hope it goes without saying that a comparable case can be made in relation to the other great religions, and I’d be very happy to make it. The reason I don’t make it here is because this article is primarily about Western Europe and North America, and because many thoughtful Westerners have a particular problem with Christianity, as we all tend to have problems with the things closest to us. 

Our crises—environmental and otherwise—are spiritual at root. Political solutions put plasters on gaping wounds, allowing and possibly causing the wounds to fester. We need far more radical solutions that speak deeply to deep. I’m not pretending that all the ills of the world would be cured if Bach were broadcast in all shopping malls, but the sort of attention that causes you to listen to Bach and is cultivated by listening to Bach would, if sufficiently widespread, put the world right. Whatever you think of the Sistine Chapel, it’s pretty spiritual in a way that the Keystone pipeline is not. We need a culture that acknowledges the place of soul, that knows that surface meanings are not the whole story, and that we are wild. We need the executive skills of the left hemisphere, but we need to keep it in its place. We need to know that real atavism is high culture, and that high culture is atavistic.

At the root of Cal’s diatribe was, though she’d deny it, a corrosive misanthropy. She loves the natural world, but one of her ways of loving is to hate humans—and so hate the ‘high art’ that she sees as distinctively human. ‘I love not Man the less,’ declared Byron, ‘but Nature more.For Cal and many others, you can’t love both: nature-loss is human-hate.

This is a terrible error. There are many reasons to have confidence in humans. If you can’t quite swallow the Imago Dei, at least see, in any decent art gallery, what we can do.  

Kenneth Clark observed that what destroys all cultures and civilizations is a lack of confidence. We can have no confidence in our current left brain culture. Few really do—hence our queasy fears about the future. That culture will fall. It must, for it is no culture at all: it is no civilization at all. It is a pure secretion of the left hemisphere, and that hemisphere is at war with culture and civilization. But this need not and must not mean that we lose confidence in culture and civilization themselves: that would be the ultimate triumph of the left brain. We need instead to have renewed confidence in true human civilization. For that, we have to look back. And not just to the glories of the Renaissance or Periclean Athens—though we must look there and claim those glories as our own; look and say: ‘We did that!’ If we do, and know what sort of creatures we are, we won’t easily go back to daytime TV.

But to find out even more about what we are, we need to look further, to the normative humans: to what we were before things started to go wrong. We need to befriend the Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer in all of us, for that’s what we really are when all the artifice is stripped away.10 We’ll find that he agrees wholeheartedly with us about the Birth of Venus and the Temple of Athena Nike.  


Have I managed to broker some kind of peace between my dead mother and the caveman? Well, possibly. I’ve been eavesdropping on their conversation (over my mum’s scones (with doilies) and a still-steaming raw caribou rib). He played her a lament on his swan-femur flute: she put on Herbert Von Karajan conducting the Mozart Requiem, and he listened silently and thoughtfully.

I’m still working on Cal. She hasn’t spoken to me since, but I hope she’ll meet the Highbrow Caveman too. We all need him.

  1. No, Cal is certainly not Jay Griffiths. ↩︎
  2. Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist specialising in the Upper Palaeolithic, observes: ‘For most humans death is not conceived of as an abrupt end of the individual but a transformation from one state to another, one which usually results in an increase in the power of their agency as they ‘transcend’ the biological world.’ I discuss this in detail in my 2021 book Being a Human: Adventures in 40,000 Years of Consciousness. ↩︎
  3. I set out this thesis in detail in Being a Human. ↩︎
  4. Haskell writes: ‘It seems that preceding both [music and language] is bodily motion: the sound-controlling centres of the brain are derived from the same parts of the embryo as the limb motor system, so all vocal expression grows from roots that might be called dance or, less loftily, shuffling about. An epistemology that is grounded in muscle, nerve and bone is perhaps, then, what we need.’ (Cited in Being a Human.) ↩︎
  5. Another example: per Sun Xidan ‘The qi of Earth ascends above, while the qi of Heaven descends below. Yin and Yang rub against each other, and Heaven and Earth jostle up against each other. Their drumming creates peals of thunder.’ Cited in Eric Fox Brindley’s Music, Cosmology, and the Politics of Harmony in Early China (2012). ↩︎
  6. I’m thinking of the notion of quantum non-locality, whereby if X has been very close to Y, X will ever thereafter, and instantaneously, however far it is from Y, affect Y. And vice versa. ↩︎
  7. Whatever ‘matter’ is. What it is is very mysterious. No one has any real idea. ↩︎
  8. Jazz, for instance, is banned by the totalitarian regime in Howard Jacobson’s 2014 novel J. ↩︎
  9. By using the word ‘environment’ I’m breaching one of my own rules. ‘Environment’, which suggests something around us, as opposed to something in us and part of us, is a dangerous and unfortunate word. I’m using it here just as shorthand. ↩︎
  10. In Being a Human, I say: ‘Suppose that behavioural modernity began 40,000 years ago, that the Neolithic began 10,000 years ago and that we became modern, in the sense we now are, 1,000 years ago… Assume that each generation is twenty-five years. There have then been 1,600 behaviourally modern generations, 1,200 (75 per cent) of them Upper Palaeolithic or Mesolithic. There have been forty modern generations: that’s 2 per cent of the total human generations. If a human life time is seventy years, 75 per cent of a human life time is about fifty-three. Most of our development as individuals is done by the age of fifty-three. And most of our development as humans was done by the end of the Upper Palaeolithic. We’re Pleistocene people… If we start the story when anatomically modern Homo sapiens first appeared, 200,000 years ago, 95 per cent of our history has been as hunter-gatherers…’ ↩︎
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