Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness

by Frederick TurnerViking, $16.95
For nearly 2000 years, as Robert Nisbet has recently argued, the idea of progress—the belief in man’s ability to shape and improve his destiny—has been the central, energizing principle of Western civilization. Today, however, political and intellectual debate focuses increasingly not on the forms progress should assume but on the question of whether progress itself may be to blame for our present ills.
Frederick Turner has confronted that question in this ambitious, expansive, and intensely personal book. He began his study in response to a strong but vaguely defined sense that he occupies a land he and his society have mastered but do not truly know. The origins of this estrangement, he claims, lie not in industrialism, as some would argue, but in a much earlier time—in the birth of Judeo-Christian civilization.
It was then that a twofold process began: first, man’s separation from the wilderness, the beginnings of efforts to live not as a harmonious part of nature but as its cultivator and its conqueror; and second, the abandonment of traditional myths and the replacement of them with a monotheistic religion whose distant God could never enter man’s life in the way the pagan gods of rocks, forests, and waters once had done.
In the centuries that followed, he maintains, these processes marched inexorably on —Western man, and ultimately all men, dominating the land, wresting great material benefits from it, and yet alienating themselves ever more deeply from any possibility of true communion with it. Turner illustrates these transformations with remarkable eloquence, by drawing upon ancient myths, theology, and secular literature. And he cites as their culminating expression the conquest of the New World by European settlers, whose concept of civilization mandated the extinction of the native population and the exploitation and eventual desecration of the landscape.
This is no ordinary critique of modern civilization. Turner’s discontents are so fundamental, so without hope of redemption, as to disturb even the most determined optimist. Yet for all its controversial pronouncements, all its vague abstractions, Beyond Geography is clearly a work of brilliance and imagination, a compelling, disturbing, and uncommonly literate exploration of one of mankind’s most basic dilemmas.