The Majesty of Collapse

February 21, 2020 at 10:48 am (By Amba)

You’d think this was a contemporary poem. Wait for it.


These grand and fatal movements toward death: the grandeur of the mass
Makes pity a fool, the tearing pity
For the atoms of the mass, the persons, the victims, makes it seem monstrous
To admire the tragic beauty they build.
It is beautiful as a river flowing or a slowly gathering
Glacier on a high mountain rock-face,
Bound to plow down a forest, or as frost in November,
The gold and flaming death-dance for leaves,
Or a girl in the night of her spent maidenhood, bleeding and kissing.
I would burn my right hand in a slow fire
To change the future … I should do foolishly. The beauty of modern
Man is not in the persons but in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.

~ Robinson Jeffers, 1935

The last line gave the name to the Dark Mountain Manifesto. From the beginning:

‘Few men realise,’ wrote Joseph Conrad in 1896, ‘that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.’ Conrad’s writings exposed the civilisation exported by European imperialists to be little more than a comforting illusion, not only in the dark, unconquerable heart of Africa, but in the whited sepulchres of their capital cities. The inhabitants of that civilisation believed ‘blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion,’ but their confidence could be maintained only by the seeming solidity of the crowd of like-minded believers surrounding them. Outside the walls, the wild remained as close to the surface as blood under skin, though the city-dweller was no longer equipped to face it directly. . . .

That civilisations fall, sooner or later, is as much a law of history as gravity is a law of physics. What remains after the fall is a wild mixture of cultural debris, confused and angry people whose certainties have betrayed them, and those forces which were always there, deeper than the foundations of the city walls: the desire to survive and the desire for meaning.


It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality. There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight – Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.


  1. Polly said,

    That is true. There is a wall of certainty around our minds, which our culture has been providing since we were born. Every culture provided something like that. We have our mythologies and our defense systems.

    US citizens can think of themselves as peaceful and loving, forgetting those enormous weapons that allow each moment of our survival.

    Life is precarious, was never meant to be permanent. Civilizations will end, the only question is how and when.

    It doesn’t bother me that much, because it couldn’t be otherwise.

  2. amba12 said,

    One of the things they say in the manifesto is, “We do not believe that everything will be fine. We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be.”

    I hate to say it but part of me is rooting for the coronavirus.

    I recommend reading the Dark Mountain Manifesto in its entirety.

  3. Polly said,

    This is why I don’t believe that progress is always good. We are progressing towards good things and bad things.

    The law of the physical world is that everything is temporary. (On deeper levels, I think, nothing ends.)

    This life is a temporary roller coaster ride. It’s supposed to be entertaining, don’t you think? We shouldn’t take it all that seriously.

  4. Polly said,

    (Easier said than done, I know — so many things in life are not entertaining at all, like being sick for example).

  5. amba12 said,

    Well, even as we take it seriously we must not lose the ability to laugh at it.

  6. amba12 said,

    (You know, it’s hard not to take pain seriously.)

  7. amba12 said,

    Granted, the manifesto is a bit solemn, if not pompous, and Romantic.

  8. Polly said,

    Yes, taking it seriously and laughing at the same time. While avoiding pain and trying to stay alive. Without knowing why.

  9. amba12 said,

    Did you ever lie awake and feel all your cells seething with . . . I don’t know what. Ferocious pleasure in their own seething, or determination to defend it. Life’s in love with itself, or at least committed to itself. Its whole purpose is to keep burning, even though all fires go out. Art for art’s sake.

  10. Polly said,

    Yes, I think I feel just glad to be alive sometimes, without caring about the reason.

    But I do think there is a deeper part of ourselves that never dies, although I don’t know what it is. Time is just something that we experience here, on this “physical” level. The kind of time we experience is what makes things temporary here. On different levels, time would be different. Things wouldn’t end — I think that’s where mystics got the idea of eternal life.

    And this way of thinking about time agrees with physics, as far as I know.

  11. amba12 said,

    That seems right to me. “Time” is not real, or rather, our perspective on it is limited. We are four- (or more) dimensional beings moving through a 3-D physical space.

  12. Polly said,

    Yes. So the whole idea of things having a beginning and an ending is just because of our way of perceiving time.

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