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Home / Book Reviews / A Language Older Than Words
A Language Older Than Words
by Derrick Jensen
ISBN: 1893956032
Publisher: Context Books
Publication Year: 2000
Publisher Price: $16.00
Cover Type: paperback

Many books this year pretended to be about the millennium.They talked about the need for change, or about the inevitabilityof change, or about the exciting prospects for wireless, DVD, freemarket-friendly, in nanoseconds-type change. Yet they hedged their bets by invoking images of stability, security, permanence, control -- images of non-change -- at almost every turn. Even our recent election embodies this paradox of stasis in change.

Enter Derrick Jensen's A Language Older Than Words. At the very heart of thisstunningly original and profoundly moving book lies a very simple message:

Look around you. Listen carefully. The whole world is in pain. We do not have to live this way.

There it is. Perhaps the only relevant message for the millennium.

Like the lone unarmed man who stood in the way of a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square back in 1989, there stands A Language Older Than Words, with all its heartbreaking honesty and courage. Opposing this book is the bulk of the so-called millennialist works that appeared this year: numb and menacing hunks of verbiage that are wholly indifferent to what needs to happen now.

Derrick Jensen defies convenient stereotypes. A meat-eater who hunts, fishes, and raises chickens for his own table, he is a keen observer and defender of endangered wildlife. Jensen is also a fervent critic of the US Forest Service and an outspoken advocate for breaching dams in order to free northwest salmon runs. He once asked -- aloud -- a group of coyotes to stop killing his chickens -- and they did. His earlier work Listening to the Land was selected by USA Today as one of its 1995 Critic's Choice winners

Like its author, A Language Older Than Words is a protean work that defies conventional marketing labels. Here Jensen is imbued with a vision that is at once poetical and mystical, and yet rigorously analytical and excruciatingly detailed in its observations. Whether he is talking about horrific acts of incest or animal torture, or relating documented atrocities, Jensen's authorial voice is always quiet, calm, rational, even distant at times, sounding like an elder who is recalling something long ago and far away. Yet Jensen's tone is perfect for speaking both casually and intimately about unspeakable acts of violence. He has an astonishing gift for yoking incongruous images together -- the killer clown, the toxic Happy Meal, the smiling rapist dad -- to illustrate that waking nightmare that abused children and shamans share, inasmuch as they both have seen what lies beyond our superficial reality.

Combining vivid portraiture and compelling argumentation, A Language Older Than Words embodies Jensen's lifelong quest for the right way to see what others have dismissed -- and for the right way to say what no one willingly wants to talk about. Jensen believes that once we have abandoned denial and broken our complicit silence towards what we know that we are actually doing to our world, we will then be able to return to that primal, bedrock layer of consciousness that supports all of our values, assumptions, or beliefs, and understand that "language older than words". This language is the common symbolic language of our myths and dreams, and the telepathic communication of trees, stars, and animals. Its sole purpose is to express that life is worth living, a value judgment that is the fundamental premise of -- not the proved conclusion to -- all value judgments, all logic, all reasoning, all experiential observations. Only by living fully within our senses can we prove its existence. Only by dying can we disprove its validity.

Despite Jensen's intentions and the undeniable power of his writing, however, the task of getting the blind to see and the dumb to talk might be unrealistic, at best. But Jensen seems to know his own limitations:

The world is drowning in a sea of words, and I add to the deluge, then hope that I can sleep that night, secure in the knowledge that I have 'done my part' . . . . What can I say that will give sufficient honor to the dead, the extirpated, the beaten, the raped, the little children[?]

Likewise, he certainly knows the limitations of the culture in which he lives:

Fearing death, fearing life, fearing love, fearing most of all the loss of control, we create social rules and institutions that mirror our fears and reinforce our destructive behaviors. Having surrounded ourselves with images of ourselves, and having silenced all others, we can now pretend that the false-front world we've created is instead the world we've been given.

Jensen is not the first thinker/writer to be struck by the paradox of our "silent planet" -- C.S. Lewis' Perelandra series superbly depicted the true measure of our culture's depravity in its reluctance to communicate with other cultures or with other species except through their death or enslavement. Jensen might be a true pioneer, though, in the use of his own experience as a male rape and incest victim as the context in which an entire culture's dysfunction can be analyzed.

If Jensen's book were nothing more than a devastatingly accurate critique of 500 years of New World Disorder, it would not be the vital and necessary book that it is. Other critical works, such as Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred and Peter Matthieson's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, for example, are more focused, thorough, and systematic in their respective cultural analyses. What sets Jensen's work apart is . . . Derrick Jensen himself, a posthumous child who miraculously preserved his childlike wonder of the living world around him. A Language Older Than Words is such a hauntingly brave and beautifully written work, it is worth every tear-stained page you read.

Copyright 2001 by K.N.S. Maré