Strangers, by Rebecca Tamás

Juliano Zaffino

In Rebecca Tamás’ Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, the opening essay ‘On Watermelon’ leads us from the radical Diggers of 1649 to the climate concerns of 2019 – through groups like Black Lives Matter shutting down a UK airport in 2016, up to the American struggle for a Green New Deal today. 370 years, the same striving for “a form of Christian proto-communism: where wage labour, class hierarchy, economic inequality […] and landowner power, became things of the past”. The Diggers were then a radical group – even then, in an age not yet tainted by Amazon and globalisation, it was radical to seek some kind of oneness with the natural world, to look after it the way it has looked after us. “Radical” has its roots in root, in the Latin word radic-, root. Though the word “radical” may evoke subversion, upheaval, overhaul, its meaning – of going to the root, of something fundamental – clarifies the nature of what is really radical: unearthing, yes, but the unearthing of what was already there, the origin of what we know.

Detouring briefly to the once-home of the Diggers – which is, “in almost too perfect a metaphor for where we are now, a gated community… home to celebrities such as Tom Jones, Elton John” – Tamás goes on to conclude the essay channelling a question asked in 1649 by Gerrard Winstanley, the visionary writer among the Diggers. He asks whether the earth was made “to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease”, or “to preserve all her children”; Gerrard Winstanley never had the misfortune of witnessing late capitalism, but his question, clearly significant then, resonates all too vividly now. Is the earth for the few, or the many? As Tamás notes, “There is only one true question, stirring and germinating underneath the ground of all the others, and that is it.”

The “radical co-operation, […] an alternative form of living, based on a community of human and nonhuman” Tamás writes of in ‘On Watermelon’ is a pillar beneath the other six essays in this singular and realised collection. ‘On Hospitality’, a successor in sequence and in spirit, considers how Ancient Grecian hospitality, “Philoxenia, or literally, ‘friend to a stranger,’ was a central tenet of societal and religious life”. For Tamás, through the proxy of Clarice Lispector’s sculptor character G.H., the principles of hospitality apply just as resolutely to the nonhuman – indeed the ecological world, the strangest stranger, is most in need of human friendship, through the climate emergency and beyond. Later, in ‘On Greenness’, Tamás takes an ever-deeper dive into the green, from works by twentieth-century artist Ana Mendieta to the fourteenth-century Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Through the various strangenesses of the green figures and spaces in these disparate works, which unsettle as well as invite, we see “the promise of a green flourishing, another way of sharing with, becoming with, the world of which we are a part.” 

Tamás’ writing is defiantly hopeful – radically so – and yet unflinching, aware at all times of the inhumanity of both the human and nonhuman. In ‘On Pain’, the bodies of women and animals are subjected in similar terms to great hurt and violence, rendered “truly unnatural, not in the sense of some Eden lost, but in the loss of naturally occurring bodily freedom and independence.” Such sickness, as she rightly calls it – and still an insistence on “how we might get better, get well.” And in ‘On Grief’, through such mediums as Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, Tamás writes of her own experiences with depression; where depression intersects with grief, especially as our planet is concerned; how that climate grief is almost inevitable amongst the self-aware; and how active “climate hope”, hard as it may be, is an essential antidote, for us, for the world around us. “Being numb will not help us, hating ourselves without action will not change things”, she notes with her signature precision. Again, that insistence, that we must show up for a world which shows up always for us.

Strangers ends with a gorgeous, haunting essay, ‘On Mystery’, a brief and suitably mysterious meditation on “all the warnings and all the metaphors”, on the urgency of bowing down to mystery in the world, human and nonhuman and otherwise. But the third essay, ‘On Panpsychism’, is the essay which stays with me most eagerly since first reading. Where the later essay ‘On Grief’ considers climate grief, ‘On Panpsychism’ takes a moment of inexplicable depression and considers how the world itself is ill of mind, too, how “the vibrations that we feel” from it suggest awareness of its limits and ours, and all the failings that accompany those limits. Yet the mind of the natural world is not like ours, having “freedom from being stuck in the unbearable feedback loop of the purely human”. This is something I have felt more sharply than ever in this strange year we are all trying to live through, the “radical and shocking alterity” of the nonhuman, a natural world that knows more than our supposedly conscious species could or would. Tamás writes of “the intricate ever shifting patterns of thought, millions of endless webs” – she has spun many of those in these essays, a web maybe, but really a ladder, dangling from a helicopter. We are surrounded on all sides by some encroaching natural disaster and probably don’t even know it yet. The ladder is a warning, a way out, in theory if not in practice.

Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, by Rebecca Tamás, was published 8 October 2020 by Makina Books

Juliano Zaffino is a writer and reader, and runs the online literary community YourShelf, including The YourShelf Podcast and The YourShelf Press. His debut poetry collection, All Those Bodies And They’re Moving, was published 31 January 2020. Currently, he is studying for his PhD in ‘Cutting Shakespeare’, with the Shakespeare Institute and the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can find Jay on both Instagram and Twitter as @jayzaff and @_yourshelf_.