I met your father when he was a young man still searching for a proper channel for his ambition. This, more than our intellectual resonance, is what called us into friendship. You see, our generation faced a quandary. Full of youthful ambition, we had awakened to the wrongness of every ready-made goal that society offered as a way to express that ambition. First, we rejected the most obvious conventional goals of money and power, seeking outlet instead in academia, NGOs, science, or any other realm we imagined to be untainted. But as our understanding grew, we realized that every institution was part of the same world-dominating, world-destroying complex. There was nowhere for us to go.
With nowhere to go, perhaps we could find our own way. Perhaps we could channel our ambition into revolution, or into “building the alternatives.” Yet when we tried that, we discovered the same familiar ways of thinking scaffolding our dissident organizations and our alternative programs. It wasn’t just that society offered us the wrong map; it was the whole formula for making and following a map that was wrong. We saw that the revolutionary elite behaved not much differently from the financial elite, that countercultural idea celebrities embodied the same basic archetype as conventional experts. The very recipe for change-making was part of what needed to change: the smart guys in a room coming up with a brilliant idea, a plan, a blueprint, and then convincing the public and especially the elites to enact a change. And so, even the ambition to bring an important new idea into the world was lost to us.
Some of us, your father included, dabbled in the idea of an ambitionless life, an understandable refuge given that those who have tried to save the world have done it the most damage. We thought, perhaps, that ambition was a bad thing. But to suppress it was as impossible as confining steam in a boiling pot. No matter how hard one presses on the lid, it finds another vent. That is what this book is: the eruption of a long-simmering ambition that has not yet quite found its object. What does ambition do, when it lacks a destination, an aspiration? It turns toward adventure, a foray into the unknown. The title of this book is apt then, not only in reference to its content but also in reference to its animating impulse.
It would be inaccurate to say, though, that this book of letters has no destination, just as it would be to say that an adventure has no purpose or a wandering no outcome. It is just that the purpose is never, in the end, what we thought it was. On the contrary, it is something that was unknowable, residing as it did in the wilds beyond our fences.
These letters are among other things a chronicle of a search for home; they are also steps on that search. Fittingly, your father eschews at the outset the possibility of success: “There are no beginnings that appear unperturbed, pristine and without hauntings. And there are no endings that are devoid of traces of the new, spontaneous departures from disclosure, and simmering events that are yet to happen. The middle isn’t the space between things; it is the world in its ongoing practices of worlding itself.” We are always in the middle, he says. The home he seeks never did or could exist.
Yet I have to say, it is not a delusion that draws him on this search. It isn’t that the bull’s-eye, the destination, heaven, home, doesn’t exist. It is only that it doesn’t exist in linear time. It is like a crystal hanging above our entire timeline, refracting partial images of itself onto our world that we recognize as home. That is why the mystics tell us it is always there, closer than close. Nonetheless, our journeys away from home have their purpose. A will stronger than our own sends us on these journeys. If we do not someday leave home, then home will leave us.
Maybe, thought your father as he embarked on these writings, home will come through their completion. Maybe, he thought, I will have arrived somewhere. I certainly thought such a thing when I first became an author, loathe though I would have been to admit it. Can he say, “Now I’ve made it?” “I’m home now?” Perhaps not. Yet something has changed. I just talked to him on Skype today and got the sense that here is a man more at home with himself, more at home in the world, and more at home with his lingering homelessness than ever before.
I wonder if that is more because of you, Alethea, than anything else. It might be trite to observe that family grounds a man in reality and arrests his flights into unwholesome over-abstraction. It is relevant to mention it here though, since this is after all a book of letters to you. I remember you well, you know, your clarity of will and the aliveness of your eyes. We joked about betrothing you to my son Cary, also two at the time, whose will and eyes resemble yours. But I digress. All I mean to say is that it is quite natural that a book that is a journey to and from home, would take the form of letters from a father to his daughter.
I won’t venture to name what I think the destination of this book may be, but I am certain these letters will take you somewhere, Alethea. The same goes for anyone who reads them. While it may be true that there are no real endings, no final homecomings, no place untainted with what your father calls the dust, the messy incompleteness of the world, it is equally true that there are endings, homecomings, and destinations everywhere. I do not think this book will take you to a middle and dump you there. I think it will make the middle feel more like home.
Reprinted with permission from North Atlantic Books
for the book
THESE WILDS BEYOND OUR FENCES:
LETTERS TO MY DAUGHTER ON HUMANITY’S SEARCH FOR HOME
by Bayo Akomolafe
(Foreword by Charles Eisenstein)