At a friend’s apartment, over the course of several evenings, a few of us watched the Stanley Cup semi-finals. The games were exciting, but for me it was the gathering of men that was the larger fun. We were all half hoping to see a good fistfight to break out – not among ourselves, of course, but within the game.

Living vicariously is not the highest form of self-expression, but how else are most of us going to give our primitive energy some breathing room. To effectively live your wild side first hand (to be one of the fighters, for example),that would take some highly cultivated talent. Would also have to be contained within the rules of the game. The penalty box thing.

Unless, of course, you are rich and famous. Then, as our current president has pointed out, you can get away with murder. If you were part of that small “elite” before the Me-Too movement, you could even “grab women by the pussy, and they’d like it.”

One way or another, to keep the lid on, people need to let off some steam. The average Joe, however, blundering into his wild side likely ends up broken or dead, and all too often takes a few others down with him.

Irrefutably, Joe Blow lids are blowing off in ever increasing numbers all over the world; and in America (“the last best hope of man on earth,” as President Reagan phrased it) more than anyplace: the school/ mall/nightclub shooting frenzies, the opioid/heroin epidemic, street warfare, police violence, right on up to Trump’s “fire and fury” apocalyptic taunts, nothing off the table in terms of the employment of nuclear bombs.

To look at this picture closely is to wince at what may be soon upon us: the lid of civilization itself blowing off, the explosion from which there’s no turning back. God and love and culture notwithstanding, this sucker could go down. Actually go down. It’s a nerve-wracking thought, but thinking people are starting to think it.
. . .

In that mood, I’ve been rereading Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Even without any familiarity with this seminal work, you can guess what the source of the discontent is. To gain the support and protection of society requires that we repress huge portions of our instinctive selves. Daily, hourly, minute by minute.

Repress long enough, or ineffectively, without sufficient outlets, you’re dealing with flammable explosives. Human beings have been civilized for a mere 5000 or so years, but our pre-civilized DNA has coded within it 200,000 uncivilized years, in which we were physiologically structured just as we are now, but socially very differently organized. Living in small tribes. Largely out-of-doors. Hunting and gathering. Intimately connected to the wild.

Surely there was some family/tribal conditioning, some behavioral expectations. But going off the rails wasn’t possible. There were no rails, whereas in modern life almost nothing but rails. The proper thoughts and behaviors that are drilled into us – first within the home, then the school, church, government – have been daunting challenges to maintain. Good parenting or bad, good schooling or bad, etc., much of our deeply engrained natural (wild) selves gets distorted, if not buried alive, and the jury is still out as to whether civilization itself will succumb to what roils underneath.

Is it possible that 5000 years ago humanity made a wrong turn in its so-called evolution. Freud didn’t think so. “Discontents” is a mild word, and he had many positive things to say about civilization. Was thankful for the technological developments. The advances in medical practices. The satisfactions within art and science.
The distancing from our instinctive selves was worth the losses. And the gains also mildly ameliorated the suffering that goes with being born into this world — in particular the knowledge that we are born to die. In this reading, I’m surprised to see how even religion, which Freud sometimes sneered at and felt was inimical to higher intelligence, he saw as a necessary illusion for the average person, in order to offset the terrors of death.

But to be remembered, when Freud wrote this book in the 1920’s, the population of the world was less than one-fourth of what it is now. There was still some elbow room on the planet. WWI, “the war to end all wars,” was now in the past. Neither the Great Depression nor WWII had yet begun. The Holocaust had not yet happened. (Well, to Black and Native “Americans” it had, but so far they didn’t count.) Air warfare was in its infancy. Technological development hadn’t yet overreached into massive escapism and fantasyland. Nuclear bombs had not been invented. Computerized missiles had not been imagined.

What would Freud entitle this same book if he wrote it today? At least “Discontents” would need a modifier. “Civilization and its Unfathomable Discontents.” … “its Explosive Discontents.”

In the living room where we were watching the hockey game, our longing for a good old-fashioned melee among hockey players is a quaint throwback to yesteryear, in contrast to the proliferation of graphic video violence, kick-boxing, drug addiction, pornography, etc. that eats away at civilization today — finally endless war which within a few short lifetimes has “evolved” from muskets to assault rifles, tanks, guided missiles, atomic bombs.

While at the so-called red phone sits the you-know-who leader of the “free world.”
. . .

Ironically, another book that I’m rereading at the same time is Thoreau’s Walden, also critical of civilization, although Thoreau, like Freud, was a highly civilized man. He read the classics in the original Greek and Latin. Wrote a world classic himself. Was a regular lecturer at the local lyceum. Frequently walked several hours to use the Harvard library, and then several hours home again. On occasion he danced; once he even proposed marriage.

In writing up his experiment in living near Walden Pond, a mile from his nearest neighbor, what he seems to be striving for is something like a soul marriage between the wild and civilization. In “Higher Laws” he says “[I find in myself] an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another towards a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.”

However, near the end of his life, one detects a shift in in the direction of loving the wild a whole lot more than the “good,” perhaps because he is early to see that the wild, both within and without, is being constantly devalued, distorted, and finally ground up by the steady advance of civilization. (Very early to see, indeed, when you consider America’s population in Thoreau’s youth was 12 million. And our West — at that time meaning west of the Appalachians –was barely populated at all with white people.) In his last great essay, “Walking,” Thoreau pens his oft quoted, “In wildness in the preservation of the world.”

Other passages make this shift even clearer. “Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure…” “How near to good is what is wild!… “The most alive is the wildest.” The second half of the essay builds around the metaphor of walking away from civilization. Walking west. “The West,” he says,” is but another name for the Wild.” … “I am leaving the city [the root of civilization] more and more, and withdrawing into the wilderness.”
. . .

Me, too, Henry. Not the outer wilderness. That’s pretty much a remnant now anyway, although I appreciate the inspiration, and efforts, of my friend, Charley Sullivan, who in his mid-60’s, and with a bad knee, is training to walk the John Muir Trail, among other reasons to say a respectful good-bye to it. The wild is a beautiful remnant that is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking.

It is more into the inner wilderness that I am withdrawing. Approaching death will do that for some of us, and I am included in that number. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Death is the ultimate wilderness. Who’s going to tame death? Even as a child I knew that the peaceful looking corpse in the coffin wasn’t sleeping. Nor did I find comfort in the promise of an unembodied life in heaven.

And as I draw yearly, monthly, weekly closer to that wilderness, all kinds of wild dimensions begin to assert themselves. My almost lifelong civilized self sometimes appears to me as a hoax, a prank, a sleepwalk that I was mesmerized into.

Speaking of a “wildness that no civilized glance can endure,” recently I was sitting by the creek that runs behind my house, looking at a plain bush. And for some unknown reason, I saw that that bush had no meaning. It just was. And it scared the living shit out of me, as much as if I was suddenly face to face with a hungry lion.

On the other hand, my heart seems to be losing its protections. Is opening to meanings that have no meaning to civilization. I have no words for this opening. Impersonal love is the closest I can come to it. Some combination of joy and terror.

Wild, wild country.


  1. Charles Sullivan

    Another finely crafted, thought provoking essay from Jim Ralston. I had to contemplate my response for a day or to, and what have to offer is probably woefully inadequate. But here it is.

    Thoreau correctly identified wildness as being synonymous with freedom. A Freudian interpretation of current events might lead to the following conclusion: The inability to tap into the wild self by risking behavior that is not acceptable within the parameters of civil society leads to repressed memory (yearning for oneness with the wild) and pathology.

    What the author is describing here is the fundamental conflict between wildness and civilization. This, in turn, leads to the following question: Are wildness (freedom) and civilization incompatible? Homo sapiens, a recent arrival on earth, are in a race against time. Will we mature enough, and fast enough as a species to continue our evolution or will we self-destruct? From where I stand, the prospects do not look particularly good—50-50 at best.

    The moment we leave the womb as pure (innocent) but unformed beings, within the first year of life we gain an identity separate from the Mother (our biological mother and Earth Mother). We spend our entire lives, mostly subconsciously, I suspect, seeking to reunite with the mother. The wild is the vector that leads us back to her. Birth is the moment of separation. Death is the moment of reuniting. In a sense, maybe birth is death and death is rebirth.

    As the author intimated, death is the ultimate and untamable wild, toward which all of us are journeying. Birth and separation from the Mother are traumatic experiences. There is no sense of security comparable to the safety of the womb. That is what we are seeking, but it is unattainable in life. The fledgling bird is reluctant to leave the nest, but it must find the courage to test its wings and see if it can fly and stay aloft. A big, menacing world, and death, awaits us out there.

    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

      Your comment provokes many thoughts, Charley. Probably needs to be mulled over on our next long walk. But I will say that I find your 50/50 odds that a higher consciousness can be arrived at in great enough numbers soon enough to keep this experiment in nature (us) moving along is optimistic, not pessimistic.

      I guess Whitman would say that my less optimistic perspective is too limited to this particular earth.

  2. Mireya Mudd

    Reading this article makes me realize we all have a wild side but some never discover it. I wonder if it’s necessary to have a wild side and know about it as opposed to ignore it. Would that make us more complete individuals?

    1. jamesralston@hotmail.com (Post author)

      That’s a good question. I have to think about it. I guess, yes, if we can handle knowledge, meaning that we’re not hurt too badly by what we know. It’s a constant battle, isn’t it, between our ideal self and who we actually are.


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