One of my favourite books is Grendel, by John Gardner (1971). The story is a meta-fiction of the Old English poem Beowulf. The novel follows loosely the same plot as the poem, but offers Grendel’s personal description of his war with Hrothgar and eventual, fatal encounter with Beowulf. The book runs through several philosophical themes as Grendel strives to understand himself, to derive a sense of meaning in his life, usually by reflecting on violent encounters with king Hrothgar’s subjects (there is much dismembering and gulping of blood). Grendel is shaggy, violent, akin to the monster from the epic poem – but also cool and rational, a surprisingly likeable thinker. “I observe myself observing what I observe,” he says, whilst buried under the supernatural weight of his mama’s desperate embrace.
The difficult relationship between emotion and rationalism is an integral part of the book’s thematic explorations. Grendel’s struggle to find balance between the two states is a trouble known to all people, at some point or another: We share in common with Grendel certain emotional and biological impulses that can be difficult to control or direct using the mind. Sometimes, it can even feel as if the mind is trying to destroy itself. So we get confused, upset, trying to reconcile half-felt feelings and incomplete facts to understand who we are, and what we should be doing with ourselves. Just to make it all a little harder, we also change over time – not just because of the biology involved in ageing, but because the world around us is also shifting, shuddering. People come and go. Our memories and identities are inconsistent.
Re-reading Grendel, I feel a kind of grim comfort in the general nihilism of the book. I accept no religious order. As an extension of this, I like the idea of ‘signs’, ‘signifiers’, and the ‘signified’ of semiotics, i.e. there is no inherent value in the physical world. Rather, like the Shaper in Hrothgar’s meadhall – a man who uses the art of musical poetry to conjour a living myth about his king – it is us humans who create language, culture, symbolism, thus giving changeable meaning to the meaningless world around us. Grendel never fully accepts that the world is both things simultaneously. He refuses to allow the order created by the Scyldings to impose itself upon his own reality:
“I alone exist […] I create the whole universe blink by blink.”
At the same time, he revels in his perceived responsibility for the ‘creation’ of old king Hrothgar:
“This nobility of his, this dignity: are they not my work? What was he before? Nothing! […] I made him what he is.”
In other words, he wants to feel the comfort of absolute nihilism, but butts up against the reality that his identity is shaped by others; that he can choose to carve out his own rational life, but that he is actually bound by instinct to violence and terror. In the end, he pretty much just feels his way to the end of life.
I think it’s common for people involved in food education, activism, and especially related areas like sustainability or ecology, to go half-crazed trying to fight for what they consider a ‘better future’. If one accepts the long view that eventually all life will be burned away by the sun, it doesn’t matter what anyone does. As the Dragon tells Grendel, “Whatever you like. Do as you think best. […] It’s all the same in the end.” Meanwhile, we experience a time-limited version of the world, forging strong relationships with other people, with trees and waterways. It matters. It feels bad to do nothing about destructive farming practices, the loss of ancient woodland, or exploitation of the socio-economically vulnerable.
I don’t want to do nothing. I have always wanted to spend my life doing something, specifically, something good. I thought that working in biomedicine might be a way to do that, then figured non-applied science was inherently good, then conservation, and most recently so-called ‘organic’ market gardening. Do you know a funny thing, though? None of these are good.
That’s not some grand proclamation. In fact, it borders on trite. But it is important to acknowledge when trying to navigate the world. It’s tough to realise that you can’t just be good. For example, it doesn’t matter how hard I try to love people (ah, love, the most good of all human things?), I inevitably make mistakes or hurt those who are the target of my affections. That’s totally normal. Or how about the market gardening gig: growing an abundance of highly nutritious vegetables for those in the local area, an independent business run by a man who cares about a sense of community, using no synthetic pesticides or herbicides. Well, is it good to grow more and ‘better’ food when there’s already so many people on this planet? More food means more babies, more dwellings, more competition. There’s waste involved, all the plastic and infrastructure, there’s water usage for hungry crops that I may not even really enjoy but must grow for economic reasons, and so on.
Some things are more good than others, of course. Just how much depends on your perspective. I don’t want to be too down on organic, or on small-scale farming, or about how, ultimately, permaculture and regenerative ag are pointless because all soil organic matter will eventually be turned to ash by our sun. ‘Ultimately’ is a difficult perspective to hold as one’s dominant worldview. It glosses over the lived reality and purpose of what sustainable and regenerative agriculture is: It’s about doing our bit to grow tasty food without wrecking the environment, all whilst clawing back a sense of control over the landscape and our lives. It’s not just for us who are living now, but bears future fruits for those who are not yet born. It’s a positive movement to get involved in, because emotionally speaking, it should improve the lives of many, and that’s pretty good. Not perfect, not entirely good. But pretty good. Which is all it needs to be.
It has made me a bit nervous to write this blog post because I don’t like being judged too harshly for being naive, or late to develop. But actually, this struggle between emotion, reason, and purpose, is one of constant re-evaluation. I trained as a biologist. That meant studying within existing paradigms, picking up basic lab skills, and learning to combine existing research outputs with novel results. Science alone was considered – more or less – to be the engine of truth. Though we were taught to be sceptical, facts derived from scientific inquiry were of utmost importance to society. Yet holding up facts as immutable, ultimate, or in isolation is, as the Dragon tells Grendel of humankind, like “build[ing] the whole world out of teeth deprived of bodies to chew or be chewed on.” What I have come to realise is that “connectedness is the essence of everything.”
A man I respect a great deal recently described me to someone else as a ‘plantsman’, and I think he was right to do so, even if he was very drunk at the time. It’s actually OK that I just want to grow plants as a living. It’s actually OK for me to be emotional and romantic, in addition to sceptical and analytical. I don’t want to just feel my way through life like Grendel, not only because a gigantic warrior might pull off my arm and kill me, but also because there needs to be some balance, some pragmatism, an allowance for compromise in a life’s work that is twisted together by reason and emotion. Goodness and love can never be perfect.
But that’s alright: “Do as you like. Whatever you think best.”