The 2nd Veil

“The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world… …But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live like an army of occupation, alienated, and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.”

~ Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

My derisive laughter drew scornful looks from the chimps. It was even loud enough to penetrate the thick lethargy of the monkeys. The docents were compelled to approach and ask if everything was alright. I told them everything was warped, twisted, distorted, but I myself was indeed alright. I was only temporarily crushed into a manic state by the heavy irony all around.

I stood in the monkey forest of Ubud, Bali surrounded by zealous tourists gawking in giggly awe at the rhesus monkeys. They’d buy bananas from vendors to feed the ‘wild’ animals. They’d burst into laughter at their curious behavior, marvel at their adept climbing ability, and fail to comprehend the tacit arrogance. I found the whole thing laughably foul.

There were thousand year-old temples laden with cultural relevance standing beside vendors hawking cheap wares; thin shirts scribed with trite witticisms, bumper stickers, sunglasses, and beer cozies plastered with cartoon monkey faces. The mawkish hollowness of the mass-produced souvenirs reflected the superficial heed paid to the ancient temples.

I crouched down on hands and feet and clawed at the banana merchant’s thighs in mock solicitation. I bared my teeth at strangers. I caught cigarettes raining down from the trees, discarded by thieving monkeys. Diogenes would’ve been proud.

The whole debacle rubbed me the wrong way. These monkeys were closer to docile pets than wild animals. They were tame, passive, and idle; made indolent by their easy lifestyle. They were as corrupted by human civilization as the Ray Ban wearing chimps carrying GoPros. To consider them specimens of a wild species was as grievous a fallacy as believing the chimps in sneakers were in some way exceptional.

That odious frame of thought, the superiority, or the separateness, of humankind to animal-kind is a corruption of reality with massive societal detriments.

The notion of man’s lofty distinction is the second veil of society. It has grown thick by infrastructure, and tall by technology. It’s an all-encompassing wall, painted gaudily by the sweet fantasies of culture. It looms like a permanent fixture; its presence normalized, as if it always was and always will be.

By separating ourselves from nature we made enemies of it. We hunted our competing predators because they stole game from us. We plowed jungles under because they occupied land we wanted. We killed rodents that plundered our stores, poisoned insects that threatened our crops. In our reckless arrogance we fished out the oceans, polluted the rivers, poisoned the atmosphere, and destabilized the community of life that we have pretended to be perched above, but in fact we coexist with.

The truth is that the flora and fauna are connected to us in mutual dependence. We were born alongside them, and live among them. Given the expectation for the survival of our species, we surely cannot do as we please, as we have been doing. The horrible tragedy is that the end game of our arrogance will eventually lead to our demise, and that is rapidly approaching.

The quote at the start of this post is from the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. It is a thoughtful novel that focuses almost exclusively on the descent of the second veil and the mayhem it has directed us towards. In the book, human civilization is metaphorized as a poorly designed airplane. Around the time of the agricultural revolution, people climbed aboard this craft and leaped off a tremendous cliff. At first people were ecstatic, believing they’d achieved flight, oblivious to their free-fall.

It has taken thousands of years to realize our ignorance. But in recent decades more and more are waking up to the idea that our model of civilization doesn’t work. It does not conform to the laws of biological communities which allow for sustained life, just like the figurative airplane doesn’t conform to the laws of aerodynamics which allow sustained flight. Continuing as we are, civilization is destined to crash.

Moving beyond the second veil is an imperative for our species’ survival.

As it pertains to my own individual well-being, transcending the 2nd veil has contributed to my sense of belonging; to the world, and to the universe. Life is a continuum, not a ramified structure of distinct branches. Knowing that my species evolved among those around me, that we struggled through the mud and slime together, unites us in brotherhood. Knowing that we share much of the same DNA, the same history, the same wants and needs as organisms of this planet, connects me to them in a profound way. That connection blooms peace and contentedness. Belonging combats loneliness and bitterness. These qualities alone justify the move beyond the veil.

Fear is dispelled beyond the second veil. Imagining that spiders and cockroaches, and all the critters of the world, as villains that seek to infest us, bite us, poison us, is a perspective from behind the second veil. Ascribing undue aggression, danger, and antagonism to the fauna of the world is an illusion perpetrated by the second veil. The second veil is a paradigm that sees the creatures of this world as hostile enemies. It is a perspective teeming with fear. I’ve forsaken my arrogant notions of superiority.

I see now that the creatures of this world are more like us than different. In allowing them theirs, they allow me mine. I don’t baby talk dogs. I don’t prejudge snakes. I walk through clouds of bees with calm repose. And I’m never bitten.

Beyond the second veil, I’ve rooted out arrogance and planted seeds of humility. Beyond the second veil, I’m able to give credit to plants and animals for the individuals they are, rather than seeing members of a species as simple copies of one another. That vision imbues my interactions with animals with greater sympathy and understanding.

That human beings are intrinsically linked to nature is not a stylistic, anecdotal assertion. I claim objectively, invoking the science of biology, that human beings are far more similar to animals than different. And I claim objectively, invoking the science of ecology, that the fates of nature and human civilization are bound.

So when I witness the blatant presumption of humanity’s superiority, I cringe. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with deriving glee from the quirkiness of monkeys. It’s the glare reflecting off the second veil that gags me. I get angry because I know that that thinking portends humanity’s extinction. And I get angry because I know there’s a truer way.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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