Derrick Jensen and Charles Eisenstein Fistfight in Heaven

I have just read Charles Eisenstein’s freshly published essay, Standing Rock: A Change of Heart. This is fortuitous, since I’d been wanting to write about how it feels to be immersed in Derrick Jensen’s perspective versus how it feels to be immersed in Charles Eisenstein’s.

Reading A Language Older Than Words a few weeks ago (followed by What We Leave Behind), I noticed ghosts rising up, between the lines – whose voice does this voice remind me of? Oh yes, I realized – Jensen’s writing style echoes Eisenstein’s. Both take a measured approach to potentially inflammatory material; both logically, methodically build a fully furnished conceptual structure in which a reader could choose to live. Both marry clarity with eloquence; both work (I am guessing) extremely hard to avoid being misunderstood.

Yet the results – the conceptual houses, and how it feels to inhabit them – could not be more different.

Since early 2012, I have dwelt, on and off, in versions of Eisenstein’s house. Here, miracles happen (miracles meaning phenomena not possible from within my current story); here, the world can be healed by webs of relationships and spirals of gifts. This house is a live-in cathedral; it has high ceilings, and tall windows admitting floods of light. It invites me to gaze up, and out, in wonder.

Before the 2008 election (and its predecessor, the bailout) I paid a visit to Jensen’s house; after the 2016 election, I paid another. Here, miracles as Eisenstein defines them are magical thinking; here, wildness alone can renew us, and to preserve what little is left we must fight. This house is a hovel. A shack with sooty panes and splintered siding, a wood stove warming a tiny radius. It warns me to hunker down and huddle; the wind outside is worse.

Why is there a question, regarding which house I would choose? Because cathedrals are just as likely as hovels to collapse, in earthquakes, and cathedrals have farther to fall.

Meaning, what if the hovel is real, the cathedral a fantasy? Given a choice between prolonging a dream, and letting truth shatter it, I’ll take the latter.

Then again, there must be a third way. There always is. Maybe I don’t choose one house over the other; maybe I wander from one to the next, then elsewhere, then beyond the reach of my map. Maybe I track joy deep into the woods, whether or not I believe I can find my way back.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

2 thoughts on “Derrick Jensen and Charles Eisenstein Fistfight in Heaven

  1. My book club just started reading Eisenstein’s new book on Climate. But i have to disagree with your logic here, Cathedrals survive earthquakes, mostly hovels dont. But it is more than the brightly colored windows which draws us to these structures. We are in a time in which if we are being small and huddled in the hovel, we will end up watching the world burn. I want to hang in the possible magical place of Eisenstein, because it makes me hopeful and without hope we are certainly doomed.

  2. Thanks for engaging in a conversation about these two authors! I’ve often sensed a strong kinship between the two authors. Some similarities I’ve perceived are a sense that both are fundamentally motivated by deep, heartbroken love for the living world around them, and within them; both fundamentally reject the mythology of the industrial conquering aspect of humanity that Americans like me have been raised on, in trade for an indigenous mythology; both carefully build their arguments and create habitable worlds as you say.
    I laughed when you compared Jensen’s house to a hovel, because I think I understand what you mean. I think his writing is far angrier, fed up, rabble rousing, and urgent. In that sense it’s more inhospitable and repulsive to the average reader in the industrial world. He doesn’t appear interested in convincing fence sitters to jump onto his side. I think his aim is to be more about equipping those who are already on his side with a deeper critique about “the planet being murdered,” so that the reader will take braver actions. He’s the Malcolm X of the environmental movement: razor sharp, cutting, insightful, acerbic, take-no-prisoners.
    Eisenstein on the other hand is writing for everybody on the planet. He’s hospitable to the extreme, and everyone is welcome by his fire. Whereas Jensen clearly identifies the “enemy,” Eisenstein rejects the “find the bad guy” paradigm. He preaches compassion, and asks us to imagine the totality of experience that leads each person to do what they do, hoping that we’ll see that if we were to have lived the sum total of another person’s experience, we may be acting in the same way. Eisenstein’s writing doesn’t evoke me as many moments for me of “DAMN! Tell ’em!” the way Jensen’s does, but more moments of “wow – yes. My heart is sympathetically resonating with the deepest truth being revealed here in this passage.”

    I’m grateful for both of them, and I can’t ever feel fully comfortable in either one’s house, though I feel like I’m in the house of someone I’m grateful to’ve met.

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