An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr.

An Animist's Bookshelf

Yesterday, while reading ‘Wakeful World’, I decided to put some music on.  My computer refused to play what I thought I wanted, so I dreamily selected some Chopin Nocturnes.  The music drew me into a meditative state and memories began to surface of my mother playing the piano.  Then I remembered that the previous day would have been her birthday.  I had slipped into that misty terrain between memory/imagination and co-presence, so decided to have a look at her horoscope.  As often happens at moments like this, the transits, both to her chart, and even more bewilderingly to the rational mind, to a composite chart (combining hers with mine), were fairly breathtaking.  Particularly given the physical realities of the solar system that underpin such observations.

A whole cluster of ‘planets’ (including the Nodes of the Moon) were making close aspects to the position of key planets at the moment of her birth in April 1913.  This is not the place to consider the fine detail, but experiences like this, in which a horoscope seems to work beyond a person’s death -signifying fluctuations in the reputation of public figures, or quiet moments of memory and ‘contact’- complicate still further the unsettling commonplaces of astrology.  I mention this because observations from astrology, and other forms of divination, have been a key reference point in my own grapplings with animism. I wondered, therefore, whether Emma Restall Orr’s investigation of animist ontology might cast some helpful light on such phenomena.  What follows is a provisional response to a thought provoking book.


Restall Orr, a high profile British Druid, and founder of Honouring the Ancient Dead, manages a natural burial ground, and has previously written about aspects of Druidry.  In a talk posted on her website she tells us that she finds animism exciting and dangerous becuase it offers an alternative to Western consumer capitalist culture’s objectification and exploitation of many human beings, other animals, forests, and so forth.  In Wakeful World she wanted to hone a definition of animism that would stand its ground against other world views, and help us deconstruct self-sabotaging assumptions in the process.

As a confirmed pluralist I welcome this book.  We need a range of perspectives.  I like the way in which Restall Orr develops her thesis, step by step, throughout the book.  The research behind her most recent offering has clearly been a labour of love, and there’s much of interest here, not least an extended consideration of the mindedness of nature.

No book appeals to everyone however, and some have found Wakeful World a bit circuitous.  I thought it could have been tighter, but then, at the risk of oversimplifying the differences between our approaches, I tend to be an an inductive thinker (I like to work from specific observations towards general understandings) whereas Emma Restall Orr appears to be a deductive thinker, motivated by a desire to theorise animist ontology as cogently as possible.  She does this primarily by examining a series of related concepts, such as spirit, soul, matter, mind, self, life, and consciousness.  Although she has previously written, quite powerfully, about autobiographical experience, personal observations make a relatively minor contribution to the argument unfolded here.  Perhaps the abstract rational mode of thought is not alien to the grounded and relational nature of animism after all, then?

Turning to the rather brief index (for a book without notes) it soon became clear that the author’s reference points have mostly been different from mine.  My favoured intellectual landmarks/interests are largely missing.  This may not matter however, as much can be gained from exploring the creative tension of difference.

As well as being a different kind of thinker, however, I found myself struggling with some aspects of the author’s writing style.  After four decades in the company of feminists of various hues, I was surprised to find that she’d opted to resurrect the generic ‘he’.  In most of the circles I’ve moved this unexplained departure from a widespread post second-wave feminist consensus on non-discriminatory language is likely to be taken as further evidence that neo-Pagan sub-culture is a bit out of touch with progressive political values.  Unfortunately, it may undermine her goal of gaining intellectual respect for animism.  The problem will be compounded for many where she imports the word ‘God’ (but not Goddess) into her animist lexicon. (see pages 186-7).

Once I’d overcome my initial resistence to Wakeful World, I soon realised that it would work for me as a reference guide to all kinds of discussions relevant to animist thought.  Emma Restall Orr’s definitions of animism as ‘a monist metaphysical stance based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances but an integrated reality rooted in nature‘, and as ‘a monist metaphysical stance based upon ubiquitous and integrated mindedness‘, are likely to be influential.  There is, however, another discourse in which monism, whether religious or secular, is conceived as an enclosed system, subject to a single master principle, whose antithesis is not dualism -which monism tends to generate- but pluralism.  In this view, monism is the underlying cause of Cartesian hyper-separation, not its solution.

So, for instance, where Emma Restall Orr addresses Plato’s dualist metaphysics, Patrick Curry targets the authoritarian nature of his monist universalist cosmology.(1)  Plato has been described as a ‘monistic dualist’, a ‘dualistic monist’, and a ‘priority monist’ (for whom the One takes precedence over the parts).  In the Timmaeus, he envisions a cosmos constructed by the demiurge in the pattern of ‘one visible animal comprehending itself within all other animals’.(2)  Many, perhaps all, neo-Platonists -for whom an anima mundi, or world soul, moves within the material world, have been/or are, surely, animists?  You may (or may not!) therefore wish to ponder whether animism can also be a dualist, monist dualist, or dualistic monist, metaphysical stance. (Aaagh 🙂 ).

Where does all of this leave pluralism then?  As Graham Harvey puts it ‘animists celebrate plurality, multiplicity, the many and their entwined passionate entanglements’, and crucially, ”for animists, the answer to the problem of dualities is not the assertion of unity, but the celebration of diversity‘.(3)  As far as I can see, and I claim no expertise here, this is potentially applicable not just to questions about personhood, agency, and the familiar catalogue of (geo-)political polarisations, but also to how we understand consciousness and overcome mind/body-matter dualism.  The wonderful diversity of states, beings, worlds, and phenomena, described in Wakeful World seem to me to testify to the irreducible plurality of nature rather than to any comprehensively unifying monist ‘essence’, or even web.  In which case, perhaps we should be saying something like ‘animism is a pluralist metaphysical stance grounded in the ubiquitous mindedness of nature‘?

For the time being, at least, though, I would prefer to suggest that from a phenomenological/experiential perspective, all of the above (including dualism) are defensible descriptions or constructions of cosmic nature.

Later in the book, Emma Restall Orr adds the further definition that animism is a relational ontology.  At this point I’d like to have seen a mention of Nurit Bird-Davis, whose conception of animism as a relational epistemology (way of knowing) has been so influential in debates about contemporary animism, not least because of her influence on Graham Harvey, who talks about the relational nature of animist ontologies (theories about being) as well as epistemologies.(4)  As befits an individualistic and inductive thinker, Emma Restall Orr approaches relational ontology from an altogether different direction (from Bird-Davis’s ethnography), by visiting early Christian theology and Gaia theory.

Sprits and Souls

So, with my astrological Chopin moment query in mind, I want to conclude by looking briefly at Emma Restall Orr’s discussion of spirits and souls.  This is a pivotal issue, given the etymology of the term animism (from the Latin anima, life, breath, soul), and Edward Tylor’s nineteenth century definition of animism in terms of belief in an insubstantial ‘ghost soul’ that could ’cause life and thought in the individual it animates’, leave the body, and continue to exist and re-appear after death.(5)  For Tylor, such beliefs were childlike delusions, characteristic of ‘primitive’ cultures, but also definitive of religion per se.

Although Restall Orr has written elsewhere about her own psychic experiences, she vigorously denounces the dualistic ‘superstition’ that the spirits of trees or rivers ‘behave like ghosts in a child’s story book’.  This is animism drawn with ‘fat crayons’.  Personally, I’m uncomfortable with this borrowing of derogatory language, because its been the weapon of choice wielded by proponents of the dominant paradigm of scientific rationality against marginalised intuitive/spiritual/mythopoetic/non-rational knowledges -the knowledges of Enlightenment’s ‘others’.  I also wonder how we’re meant to know, with any certainly, about the habits of tree or river ‘spirits’?  Restall Orr acknowledges that many animists believe in the transmigration of souls, but this would surely be inconcievable without believing in the existence of specific ‘souls’ (single or plural) of other-than-human beings, rather than just the fabric or ‘soul’ of nature as a whole?  I don’t think we can be sure about these matters.  There is some fairly convincing testimony from Near Death Experiences, that suggests that consciousness can work independently of the physical brain, and, as the author clearly knows, the ‘ghostly figures of dualistic superstition’ can occasionally be seen, felt, and/or heard.  This, at the very least, means that we need to treat such testimony with respect, even when we disagree with the terms in which it is described.

The author’s definitions of souls and spirits are, characteristically, distinctive.  She understands spirit as ‘those essential forces and energies that, moving within particular patterns, vitalise and empower’, or as ‘the pattern created by crucial moments of interaction’- a fleeting form rather than a seperable entity, and soul as the wholeness of a being, its song, or contextual expression -a recurrent pattern, both mental and physical, but, again, not a defined individual.

My first impression on reading this is that the language (particularly in relation to spirit) is too dry and technical to convey the profoundly emotional quality of subtle encounter, and that these definitions are very different from those I’m used to.  For example, Graham Parkes writes ‘in the traditional triad of body-soul-spirit, soul occupies the middle, mediating, position, which suggests that the psychical is more closely interfused with the body and the physical than are the mental, intellectual, and spiritual, aspects of our being.’  He uses ‘soul’ and ‘psyche’ more or less interchangeably, and keeps them distinct from ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’.(6)  This sense of soul being closer to the body and earth, is familiar from the post-Jungian writings of James Hillman.

Emma Restall Orr’s ideas are certainly interesting, but, despite her assurances to the contrary she sometimes writes as though defining a singular animism, and speaking for all animists.  Responding to Whitehead’s teleological God, who guides the universe towards the production of beauty, for example, she writes ‘there are no such benevolent gods in the pantheon of the animist’.  Well, no single teleological god, perhaps – but no benevolent gods, guiding us towards beauty?  There is a bleakness in this omission that, once again, I’m uncomfortable with. I acknowledge the recurrent reality of ‘brutality’, but the beauty I’m surrounded by feels more fundamental and enduring.  There’s bleakness too in the statement that ‘as no more than a flow of percepts, of changing contextual data, the self actually has no purpose, no meaning at all‘.  If that were so, how could ‘we’ enter into long term relationships with other (meaningless) selves?  Why would ‘I’ want to ‘create a sustainable and peaceful world’?  Why would I find that the pattern of the planets consistently reflects the capacities, challenges, and intimate concerns of individual human, or other-than-human lives?  Why would any of this matter?

B.T 24/4/14 (updated 27/4/14).

Note 1, see Patrick Curry’s discussion of Weber, in Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004, p78, and of Plato’s monism as the foundational instance of disenchantment, in Divination, Enchantment, and Platonism, inThe Imaginal Cosmos; Astrology, divination, and the sacred, Angela Voss and Jean Hinson Lall, eds. University of Kent, Canterbury, 2007.


(1) Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

(2)  Jonathan Schaffer, Monism, the Priority of the Whole, Philosphical Review, Vol 119, no1, 2010, p37.

(3 and 4) Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005. See pp xiv and 203, and a discussion of Nurit Bird-Davis’s work on pp20-22.

(5) Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, 1871.

(6) Graham Parkes, Composing the Soul, Reaches of Neitzsche’s Psychology, University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Emma Restall Orr, The Wakeful World; Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature, Moon Books, 2012.

You Tube: Emma Restall Orr’s talk to the Duid Network Conference, 2012.

This provisional response to Wakeful World was written as a contribution to the Animist Blog Carnival/Book Club. 


One thought on “An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr.

  1. I had a similar response to this book. Whilst I admire Emma’s attempt to locate animism within the discourse of Western European philosophy and make it viable for academics I found her arguments long winded and tortuous. I also thought a number of important reference points were missing- in particular Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ and post-modern critiques of ontology such as Derrida’s.

    I also very put off, particularly in light of her personal visions of fay, deities and the dead in ‘Living Druidry’, casting belief in individual spirits as naive and childish and dismissing belief in benevolent deities. It is these kinds of assumptions that have also put me off Graham Harvey’s depictions of animism.

    My personal view is that it’s possible to hold a belief in nature as whole and inspirited, and at the same time distinguish between physical and spirit persons, this world and the Otherworld.

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