In what I hope will be the start of a new ‘Conversations’ strand within ClimateCultures, environmental artist Linda Gordon responds to my review of the book ‘Anticipatory history’. Linda reflects on personal memories and intimations of change, and offers a recent example of her ephemeral art.
You can read my original review of Anticipatory historyhere. And you can download the book's introductory essay from the publisher's link on that page.
Are we, as Anticipatory history suggests, largely not culturally equipped to respond thoughtfully to environmental change, or to imagine our own futures?
The trouble is that places and the objects within them (natural or manufactured) seep into our consciousness and become part of our personal inner world, complete with its private collection of received stories.
Looking at Mark’s reference from the book, “Many of these changes… will register as subtle (or not so subtle) alterations in familiar landscapes…”, I remembered that many years ago, when I was living in East Sussex, someone living a few miles inland from the Seven Sisters cliffs demolished a World War II pillbox (a concrete machine gun emplacement) that was sited in their garden, in order to make his garden more pleasant. This was followed by a vociferous outcry from local people, and at first, I thought: “It’s his garden, and he can do what he wants!” Then I realised those people probably saw his act as part of their world being destroyed, and therefore threatening their sense of identity.
Not far from where I live now, is one of my favourite trees. Nothing particularly outstanding about it – but it is special to me because I return to it again and again in times of trouble. If it keeled over tomorrow in a gale, and died – I would feel a few moments sadness, and then accept it as a natural part of life’s processes. But if someone deliberately and illegally killed it, say, in order to cram in an extra housing unit for pure profit, I should find it extremely difficult not to react with outrage!
It is my view that people’s wellbeing and felt experience should be respected and fully taken into account during times of change, and when planning ahead. (The same goes for other lifeforms too). However, I don’t currently believe that looking to history and story-telling, in itself, will do very much to help us to cope with “changing landscapes, and to changes in the wildlife and plant populations they support”. I tend to think it is more a matter of paying close attention to the present moment.
I like how the authors are taking an exploratory approach to this whole question, rather than attempting to formulate any rigid conclusions, and definitely think it is important to keep living with the question, and allow the intelligence of life itself to inform and guide our actions.
The photo is of an ephemeral work I made in Bucks Valley Woods, North Devon, at the end of September, at the time when all the sweet chestnut fruits were falling. The title is Time to Let Go.
Creative conversations for the Anthropocene
Want to share your response to my original review or to Linda's thoughts? Send in a mini-post of your own - and why not complement it with a piece of your own work or someone else's, as Linda has done? Or use the Contact Form to suggest a topic for ClimateCultures to explore as a conversation.
In a new Members’ Post from film maker James Murray-White, we have his review of the current exhibition at the award-winning GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn. ‘Fire & Ice’ brings together three artists: photographers Gina Glover and Jessica Rayner (mother and daughter) and potter Hilary Mayo.
GroundWork Gallery is dedicated to artwork directly focused on the environment.Previous exhibitions have looked at birdlife, trees, forests and the art of wood, and stone; and their first exhibition featured a specially commissioned piece using River Ouse mud by Richard Long, showing alongside work from his friend Roger Ackling, themed on sunlight and gravity.
It’s an art space that inspires and draws in, and I for one have become a huge fan of GroundWork and its ethos since I encountered it during that first show. Curator Veronica Sekules has created a unique space that brings environment-focused art to us all, from the ground up.
Fire and Ice continues the elemental theme and brings together a mother and daughter with a potter, using still and moving images juxtaposed with pottery to explore how energy is embodied in ice and fire and clay: what it means to humanity, as a thing of beauty and as an object of power, sometimes destructive.
Gina Glover’s still images take the viewer on an arc from the landscapes of Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen, showing wonderful glaciers framed as aesthetic, to a series titled Poisoned Water Runs Deep looking at fracking in the United States. The glacial images are in colour, and have an ethereal beauty, as art that we would wish to hang on our walls; and the fracking images – black and white, stark, cropped closely – dominate a whole wall. The controversy over fracking is well known – and we in the UK are seeing it come upon us right now. I’m hearing shocking stories of police and private security guards attacking protestors who are trying to prevent the fracking equipment being set up on land in Lancashire. A friend of mine has been hospitalised after peacefully protesting but being violently pulled and dragged from the public roadway.
Glover’s work makes the damage to the land and atmosphere clear, but it is also the future damage that reveals itself: as one example, fracking taking place on North Dakota farmland, with cows grazing nearby – the animals, the grazed land, the water, and the soil and sky all being irreversibly polluted. This is necessarily political work, and needs to be seen. At an event on using climate change imagery recently, run by the NGO Climate Outreach at the London Reuters Office, I saw a provocative presentation by Canadian photographer; Robert van Waarden has taken this investigation one step further and photographed and interviewed those living on the fracking line as it criss-crosses the US. His images show the human face of this issue: Glover’s work emphasises the environmental issues which this chaotic rush for energy produces.
The experience of these contrasting images close by on the ground floor gallery is stark. They are interspersed with Jessica Raynor’s work: her images and footage present energy in its active form, as tantalising to humans; perhaps like ‘fool’s gold’, ever elusive and drawing us further into its secret. I loved the dynamic dissection in 365 Faces of the Sun: 365 images of the sun flickering before us and drawing us in to its magic and power.
Raynor’s work, she says, comes out of an inquisitive response, “reacting to nature through wonder.” I was also drawn in by her video work Conversion, which shows the burning of a bale of straw, looping backwards and forwards. It represents creation, blooming and death, and her work in total is reminiscent of the best of ideas shaped within the films of Stanley Kubrick
There’s a surprise on the way up to the upstairs gallery, where another of Rayner’s images hangs. The Wood-Pile is a graphite drawing of wood chips, used in the production of biomass. I love the reference to Robert Frost’s poem:
“I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labour of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay”
– The Wood-Pile, Robert Frost
Upstairs, Hilary Mayo’s pottery dominates the room. As the son of a potter, I’m biased towards this art form, and usually have to be restrained from my inner instinct to reach out and caress clay, as my youth was spent playing with wet and dry and fired clay, the tools and wheels and assorted craft involved in making. I love the way that slip drips down the vessels, marking a lighter territory upon the darker hues seen as landscape through Mayo’s physical vocabulary.
Mayo’s work was made after a trip to Iceland, and follows the contours and colours of that land, encrusted and dipped upon pottery forms, made as vessels. The power of energy bubbling up underneath that land, spewing out in geyser form, spills out onto Mayo’s clay, and represents force and passion, light and dark entwined. Her large-scale piece, Deliquesce sits in the window of the ground floor gallery – or more accurately, squats, like a hewn tree root, powerful and watchful.
Mayo cites an important quote by Walter Benjamin as her influence: “History lies before the eyes of the observer as a petrified, primordial landscape.”
Also upstairs, facing Hilary Mayo’s pottery, Gina Glover shows Melt, a series of 12 circular aerial images of the Greenland ice sheet. GPS references for each image are shown on each. Glover has made an almost perfect artistic record here of the fact of glacial melt, a crucial climatological indicator. Climatologists estimate that were all of this ice to melt, the world’s oceans would rise by approximately 23 feet. Groundworks Gallery, Kings Lynn, and most of East Anglia up to where I write this in Cambridge – the flat fens – would be under water.
The three artists complement each others’ practice within their unique disciplines, and have been brought together in Fire & Ice in a way that points an audience beyond the simple constraints of human understanding to deeper connections with the base elements that underpin planetary life and consciousness. These artworks ridicule human obsessions with energy creation, and connect us to the beauty and deeper power of the raw elements of this planet.
Note: James is an Artist-Associate at GroundWork Gallery. He filmed an event there on 28th October – facilitated by environmentalist Tom Burke OBE – at which the three artists gave presentations about their work. The film will be available on the GroundWork Gallery website soon – and you can see a promotional film James made for the gallery.
Find out more
You can see more of the exhibition Fire and Ice exhibition – which runs until 16th December 2017 – and the work of GroundWork Gallery at their website. GroundWork has recently won the highly prestigious Nick Reeves Award for Art & Environment, awarded by the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management’s Arts and Environment Network.
You can read Robert Frost’s poem The Wood-Pile on The Poetry Foundation website (and I recommend the appropriately themed Fire and Ice).
You can discover more of James’ work at his site, Sky-Larking.
Questioning power? Space for creative thinking...
'A thing of beauty and an object of power' is how James refers to the embodiment of energy in ice and fire and clay on show here, and our connections through art to planet, culture to nature. How might human and more-than-human powers play out for you in a creative response to our energy concerns?
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
In the first part of The Rise of Climate Fiction, David looked at some of the early works to address the topic, and the definition of this not-quite-so-new strand of writing as ‘Cli-fi’. In the concluding part of the talk he gave at a workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk, he considers approaches that engage readers with the human story within the climate change one, and how writers might use their responsibility to convey climate change, given that “stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves.”
You can read Part 1 of the Rise of Climate Fiction: Beyond Dystopia and Utopia here.
I’ve interviewed a few cli-fi writers about their work. Tony White, author of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, was appointed writer in residence at the Science Museum in London. He found, in the bowels of the building, a lost Edwardian science fiction story. But this one was written in Antarctica in 1911 by George Clarke Simpson, Captain Scott’s meteorologist. He says:
“Simpson’s short story is not a great work of literature but it is a very revealing document, revealing about the time when it was written, while on its own terms it is a story from a fictional far future in which climate change has melted the Antarctic ice and destroyed all human life. What was also immediately intriguing was that nobody seemed to have noticed it. For a century this strange text had been more or less overlooked, absent from the commentary yet hiding in plain sight in the South Polar Times, a kind of scrap book newspaper founded by Sir Ernest Shackleton on an earlier expedition.
Finding a science fiction story about climate change – which uses those two words, in that order: ‘climate change’ – yet which had been written in 1911, was quite a bombshell. While researching Simpson’s life and reading his other publications, and the private journals that are held in the Met Office archive down in Exeter, I discovered that he had continued to research climate change for most of his career – though he had never written another short story about it! – and that he had even been the longest standing director of the Met Office in the UK.”
Tony’s novel incorporates this story plus a reversal of the Shackleton myth: ‘the world turned upside down’, with people fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it, in a hot world instead of a cold one.
Psychologically there are many aspects to people’s reluctance to engage with the profound implications of climate change and other aspects of sustainability in a way that’s appropriate and proportionate. George Marshall’s brilliant research, in Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, documents many of these. It’s not just the jargon, it’s peer pressure, near-sightedness, fear, ignorance, vested interests, to name a few.
Yet stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves. Because of this, I do think there is some responsibility not to paint self-fulfilling, disempowering dystopic futures or to preach about environmentalism to the converted, but instead to provide inspiring and realistic future visions as settings for potentially popular fictional narratives that demonstrate how humanity might successfully meet climate change’s challenges and make a better world, solving multiple challenges.
This was behind another project I became involved in: Weatherfronts, which produced new work by very different writers and poets. In his introduction to the first of two Weatherfronts collections Peter Gingold, Director of TippingPoint, quotes Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman: “I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.” The psychologist adds: “To mobilise people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion.
Reaching the emotions
It has to be an emotional issue. TippingPoint organised two Weatherfronts events at the Free Word Centre in London to try and reach this emotional reaction to this abstract topic – Peter Gingold calls it “a creative challenge” – and found that there seems to be no limit to the number of forms, voices, and approaches that can be used to bring new and powerful perspectives to the subject. As an example of the variety of works possible, Chris Rapley – a professor of climate science at UCL and Director of the British Antarctic Survey from 1998 to 2007 – ‘starred’ in 2071, a show co-written with Duncan Macmillan and directed by Katie Mitchell at the Royal Court Theatre.
I attended the second Weatherfronts event, with 65 other writers and 20 climate experts – an intensive exploration of the scientific facts, the politics, the creative possibilities and more. Many submitted excellent proposals for new work, from which a panel chose five, including mine, for commissioning and publication. My story is set in 2092, comparing the UK’s and Barcelona’s responses to climate change in the tale of a young mother’s dilemma. Should she stay in flooded, chaotic Barcelona – a city over-run with climate refugees from Africa – with her husband and child? Or leave them to go back to England, which is run by algorithms that balance the amount of available food and energy with the population level, on the principles of ecological footprinting, to achieve a ‘one planet’ country? A dilemma as gut-wrenching as this – stay with your child and husband or leave them – is a good way of bringing home the realities of climate change already being faced by some people, say in Pacific islands being lost to rising sea levels.
There were two events, two sets of commissions, separated by two years. As Peter Gingold says in the introduction to the second Weatherfronts collection:
“One thing we have seen very clearly is that over the 12 years of TippingPoint’s life, writers’ and indeed all artists’ responses to the subject have grown far more sophisticated and, both miraculously but also unsurprisingly, increased in their range and scope. The work in this collection amply illustrates that … If there is a common theme to these five powerful pieces of writing it is that their scale is domestic. This most grandiose and abstract subject is experienced at a very personal level, making its demands on the way we live with partners – or with friends, neighbours and communities. This must be fruitful.”
The creative response
It’s no longer ‘we need to persuade people climate change exists’; it’s ‘what are the emotional ramifications of climate change?’ This is a good point to bring in my friend Emily. A poet, Emily Hinshelwood is also a climate activist. We’re going to run a course on writing cli-fi together next year. She wrote a poem based on conversations she had about climate change with ordinary people. This was her creative response to feeling swamped by data and statistics on the issue. She told me:
“I needed to talk to people who aren’t normally asked about climate change. I decided to walk through Wales, along the Heart of Wales route, and everyone I met I’d ask three questions. I fully expected to get told to fuck off. They were: What images come to mind when you think of climate change? How often does it come up in your conversation? Is there anything you think you can do about climate change?”
She interviewed 250 people, and wasn’t told to fuck off once. In fact, everyone answered the questions, even one who threatened to shoot her for walking on his footpath on his land. She said:
“In some cases people were relieved to talk because they’d never before had an outlet to say what they thought about it. I was heartened by that. The majority were concerned and didn’t know what to do other than recycling. The dominant image was the earth shrivelling up.”
I think this is really interesting. In Weatherfronts, there’s a true story about the widow of the one man to die in the climate-change related floods in Cumbria in the winter of 2015. There’s a poem cycle about families living on Doggerland in the North Sea 5,000 years ago, when it was above sea level, being forced to leave because of rising seas. There’s an affectionate family tale from the ’70s in which the dad is putting solar water heating panels on his roof and growing organic vegetables – to the concern of his neighbours.
These are the daily realities of lives – yes, domestic, but hardly undramatic.
A theme, not a genre
There is now a burgeoning number of cli-fi novels. There are always going to be genre-led ones, like Paolo Bacigulpa’s The Water Knife. This is a thriller about corruption in the control of water supplies in the south western United States. Thrillers sell well, and perhaps get people thinking about climate change. All kinds of people read genre novels, like sci-fi, horror, thrillers. So I don’t think cli-fi is a genre. It’s not, as some think, a sub-genre of sci-fi. I think it’s a theme. Genres have distinguishing tropes. Climate fiction relates to the subject matter, not the type of story.
University departments now run courses studying them. They attempt official definitions. Here’s one from an MA thesis:
“In contrast to earlier science fiction (and other genres) that depict earth as ‘climatically changed’ by ‘natural causes’ climate-change fictions specifically deal with narratives relating to ‘anthropogenic ecological change’. Professor Jenny Bavidge, of Cambridge University, states Cli-fi is used to describe novels ‘which all touch on, or are concerned with, the context of climate change’. Dr Gregers Andersen, University of Copenhagen, defines Cli-fi as: narratives that employ the ‘scientific paradigm of anthropogenic global warming’. Presently, various universities around the world, including the University of Cambridge UK and Temple University in Philadelphia US, offer literature courses in Cli-fi. Nonetheless, while some academics are openly employing the ‘Cli-fi’ terminology others prefer to use ‘Climate change fiction’ as well as ‘climate fiction’ and/or ‘eco-fiction’. Ultimately they are all directly exploring narratives of the ‘Anthropocene’.”
– The influence of the Anthropocene on creative literature Donna Thompson, University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), Australia [citations removed]
Lots of writers now think this is a bandwagon to jump on. As a result, reviewers are already starting to tire of the clichés that the theme generates. This is from a review of 2016’s The History of Bees, a Norwegian Bestseller by Maja Lunde. The review is by someone signed only as KN and published in Australia’s ‘Saturday Paper’:
“Cli-fi – climate change fiction – has become so popular it has achieved the status of a genre. That makes it more easily identifiable and more marketable, but it also comes with pitfalls. Conventions carry the risk of appearing formulaic and repetitive. They also emphasise a genre’s status as fiction. This is all a problem for cli-fi, given that its practitioners are concerned with raising awareness about very real and urgent issues.
I had these thoughts reading Maja Lunde’s cli-fi novel The History of Bees. Once again, I was confronted with a future involving global warming, famine and hardship, and a Third World War. I was in familiar territory and feeling – dare I say it – a little bored. I began speculating on the possibility that cli-fi actually performs a kind of inoculation of its readers against the potential horrors of our future.
Having said that, Lunde presents an original angle. The dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006. Bees, as pollinators, are crucial to food production.
Most memorable, though, is the proposition that gradually emerges: “in order to live in nature, with nature, we must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves”. Notably, it is the character from China – the country of the one-child policy, a universally denounced attempt at detaching people from their natural instincts – through whom this message is first presented. Here the book offers a bold provocation in the way cli-fi must if it is to have a genuine impact.”
“We must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves” is a bold message, if that’s the only way to save the planet. But it is an emotional one, not a scientific one. It says we must change human nature. So we’re back at the start, with Saci Lloyd. Actually, if you remember, it wasn’t the book she was talking about. The book was an excuse to get into schools. It was the conversations she had with kids as a result. Similarly, Emily Hinshelwood’s poems were based on conversations. Culture is about not just artefacts, but the conversations we have about them or the conversations they make us have.
Cli-fi must be emotionally provocative to succeed. People must recognise themselves in the perilous situations the stories describe. As writers, unless we believe writing can change people’s minds, and we get it in front of people who otherwise wouldn’t come across these ideas, we might as well – like Voltaire’s Candide – retire to “cultivate our garden” instead of vainly seeking the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds”, or even a ‘just good enough’ one.
I think fiction which contains references to climate change has only just begun. I think there are many imaginative ways to approach the topic. I think great novels and films are yet to be made. And I think that, as climate change increasingly affects all of the world, then almost by definition all novels set in this world could be seen as climate novels.
Find out more
David’s novel Stormteller (2014) is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book. And you can see more of his fiction and non-fiction at his website.
You can read about Emily Hinshelwood’s Three questions about climate change project (and her verbatim poem from her conversations, A Moment of Your Time) at her site.
Paolo Bacigulpa’s novel The Water Knife (2016) is published by Little Brown.
George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014) is published by Bloomsbury.
Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell (2017) – the combined anthology of new writing commissioned at both 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts events – is published as a free e-book by Cambria Books.
Tony White’s book, Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013) is available as a free pdf from his site, Piece of Paper Press.
Note: An earlier version of this post said that Tony White ‘won a competition to be a writer in residence at the Science Museum’ rather than, as correctly stated here, that he was appointed to that role. Apologies for the error.
Questioning genre? Space for creative thinking...David suggests that 'cli-fi' is a theme, not a genre; many genres might address climate change. What genres do you think might do this in unexpected ways - and what cliches might it either avoid or exploit to novel effect?Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, ‘Equus’, explores incomprehensible violence against animals as an indictment of a society where the human ability to feel true passion is dulled, the human relationship with the natural world a distortion of nature. When I redisovered it in my local Oxfam bookshop, I knew I’d revisit it and pass it on as one of the works of fiction that has had an impact on me. ‘Equus’ goes to ClimateCultures Member Ruth Garde for her recent contribution to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and here is my review.
“One great thing about being in the adjustment business: you’re never short of customers.” The world keeps sending psychiatrist Martin Dysart customers: the children he’s come to see as being damaged by that world, it judges them as damaging to it. “One more dented little face. One more adolescent freak. The usual unusual.”
Introducing Equus, Peter Shaffer mentions the risks in reproducing a written text. Not simply that the play obviously consists of so much more than the words: the gestures, the lighting and the ‘look of the thing’; but that the printed book “can imprison a play in one particular stylisation … Rehearsing a play is making the word flesh. Publishing a play is reversing the process.” Dysart seems to feel the same way about his own work: rendering the living spirit back into inoffensive flesh and bones.
A play that says more than once that “extremity is the point” begins with crisis. Magistrate Hester Salomon pleads with Dysart to take personal charge of a 17 year old boy who has committed a crime her colleagues want to punish him severely for.
DYSART: Why? What’s he done? Dosed some little girl’s Pepsi with Spanish Fly? What could possible throw your bench into two-hour convulsions?
HESTHER: He blinded six horses with a metal spike.
[A long pause.]
Shaffer said that he’d been driving past a stables one day when a friend told him about just a crime, which he’d heard about at a dinner party. “He knew only one detail, and his complete mention of it could barely have lasted a minute – but it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.” That real crime became the trigger for a play portraying a world which has so destroyed people’s ability to feel passion that it leads to incomprehensible acts.
Alan’s distraught mother, Dora, resists any implication that the blinding was somehow the result of the boy’s upbringing, of society.
DORA: We loved Alan. We gave him the best love we could. All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up. My husband is a good man … He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy … No, doctor. Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan. Alan is himself … If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all our things added up.
Harry Dalton, the owner of the stables where Alan worked at weekends, insists the boy was a model employee – right up to the sudden, vicious attacks. “No, he was bloody good. He’d spend hours with the horses cleaning and grooming them, way over the call of duty. I thought he was a real find.” This in spite of Alan’s one oddity; apparently, he never rode the horses, although that perk was the reason most stablehands took the job. Asked why Alan should be so different, Dalton replies: “Are you asking me? He’s a loony, isn’t he?”
The indispensable, murderous God
Hester wants Dysart to bring back the ‘normal’ boy within the tormented teenager. But the psychiatrist finds himself resisting more and more the call of the tame.
DYSART: The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes – all right. It is also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills – like a God. It is the Ordinary made beautiful; it is also the Average made lethal. The Normal is the indispensable, murderous God of Health, and I am his Priest. My tools are very delicate. My compassion is honest. I have honestly assisted children in this room. I have talked away terrors and relieved many agonies. But also – beyond question – I have cut from them parts of individuality repugnant to this God.”
Dysart – middle-aged, working at a relentless conveyor belt rolling cases in through one door and out through another – is, of course, in the midst of his own existential crisis. Hester, horrified by his despairing self-awareness, tries constantly to coax him back into seeing the real benefits he delivers, every day, to the children he cares for. We begin to wonder who she thinks will be the saving of whom: Dysart of Alan Strang, troubled and troubling youth; or Alan of Martin Dysart, world-weary psychiatrist careering down into his own annihilation?
Dysart, however, is having none of it. He’s haunted by a dream that Alan’s arrival has triggered, and for which his own fascination with the ‘civilisation’ of Ancient Greece provides the setting.
DYSART: That night, I had this very explicit dream. In it I’m a chief priest in Homeric Greece. I’m wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded, like the so-called Mask of Agamemnon found at Mycenae. I’m standing by a thick round stone and holding a sharp knife. In fact, I’m officiating at some immensely important ritual sacrifice, on which depends the fate of the crops or of a military expedition. The sacrifice is a herd of children: about 500 boys and girls. I can see them stretching away in a long queue, right across the plain of Argos … It’s obvious to me that I’m tops as chief priest. It’s this unique talent for carving that has got me where I am. The only thing is … I’ve started to feel distinctly nauseous. And with each victim, it’s getting worse … And then, of course, the damn mask begins to slip.
Alan, meanwhile, is running rings round him, deflecting all attempts to uncover the dark reason for blinding the horses he’d cared for. The psychiatrist interviews Alan’s parents, picking apart their differences – class, temperament, religion. He wait, impassive at first as Alan bombards him with constant singing of adverts he’s learned from the forbidden TV, then angrily as the boy makes deep incisions of his own, with barbed comments about the doctor’s childless and sterile home-life.
Religion would seem to be at centre and bottom of Equus: Dysart’s fascination with the primitive rites of ancient Greece, his revulsion at the Normal deity of modern living; Dora Strang’s Christian faith and tutoring of her son against the wishes of her equally devout atheist husband. Gods exert their powerful pull as mortals continually recreate them.
But it’s passion that’s the real heart – buried and beating in in Alan, exposed and dying in Dysart. ‘Passion’ is ‘suffering’ – the Passion of Christ – but, derived originally from the Latin pati ‘to endure, undergo, experience’, later came also to mean ‘strong emotion, desire.’ Experience, suffering, desire – and all the animist, conventional and secular religious forms that evoke, console, contain, inhibit and incite these in their different ways. Alan has imbibed and rejected something of his mother’s religious faith and his father’s ‘rigorously self-improving’ one. And society’s consumerist religion is proselytised through the TV he’s supposedly banned from watching and reinforced by the customers at the electrical shop where he works during the week; selling brand names to satisfy the already well-equipped citizens of techno(theo)logical society.
Alan’s father preaches on TV’s corrosive effects:
FRANK: You sit in front of that thing long enough, you’ll become stupid for life – like most of the population. The thing is, it’s a swiz. It seems to be offering you something, but actually it’s taking something away. Your intelligence and your concentration, every minute you watch it. … Mindless violence! Mindless jokes! Every five minutes some laughing idiot selling you something you don’t want, just to bolster up the economic system.
From all this, and from vivid if dreamlike childhood memories, Alan has created his own vital, ritualistic worship of his secret God, Equus: kneeling to the picture of a horse framed above his bed; slowly brushing the horses in the stables; secretly taking night-time rides on them. Riding is a worship to be offered raw and alone under the darkness of night, in unwatched fields of mists and nettles: human and animal both naked. Never in the genteel daytime rituals of ‘indulging in equitation’: animal harnessed, humiliated, un-natured; human civilised, ‘mastering’ nature.
At last, exhausted, he reveals his secret, miming for the psychiatrist how two beasts become one and ride out “against them all … My foes and His .. The Hosts of Hoover. The Hosts of Philco. The Hosts of Pifco. The House of Remington and all its tribe! … The Hosts of Jodhpur. The Hosts of Bowler and Gymkhana. All those who show him off for their vanity!”
DYSART: Without worship you shrink, it’s as brutal as that… I shrank my own life. No one can do it for you. I settled for being pallid and provincial, out of my own eternal timidity … Some pagan! Such wild returns I make to the womb of civilisation. Three weeks a year in the Peloponnese, every bed booked in advance, every meal paid for by vouchers, cautious jaunts in hired Fiats … such a fantastic surrender to the primitive. And I use the word endlessly: ‘primitive.’ … I sit looking at pages of centaurs trampling the soil of Argos – and outside my window he is trying to become one, in a Hampshire field!
Extremity’s the point
Although Alan has abstracted his passion into a mystical vision of Horse-become-God as enthralling as the God-become-Man and Man-become-God visions of Christian and Industrial religions, what Dysart sees at its core is a primal relationship between human and more-than-human. Far-removed from “the Normal world where animals are treated properly: made extinct, or put into servitude, or tethered all their lives in dim light, just to feed it!” He dissects the inhuman condition we’ve inherited, become (de)naturalised into, and recreate with every Normal thought and action and speech. Dysart knows he cannot keep Alan free from it. It’s what Dysart also wishes to free himself from – and feels insanely jealous of the boy for succeeding, if only temporarily and at a terrible cost to human and animal. More terrible, though, than the ‘proper’ relationship of humans and animals?
DYSART: I’ll give him the good Normal world where we’re tethered beside them – blinking our nights away in a non-stop drench of cathode-ray over our shrivelling heads! I’ll take away his Field … and give him Normal places for his ecstasy – multi-lane highways driven through the guts of cities, extinguishing Place altogether, even the idea of Place! He’ll trot on his metal pony tamely through the concrete evening – and one thing I promise you: he’ll never touch hide again!
Alan has confronted the world of fake reality and discovered his own sexual being at exactly the same time he realises the sexless world on offer in the desolating Normal of his parents’ lives, Dysart’s life and the lives of everyone he sees around him when the young woman he works with at the stables takes him on his first date, to “a skin flick over in Winchester! I’ve never seen one, have you? … All those heavy Swedes, panting at each other! What do you say?”
ALAN: The whole place was full of men. Jill was the only girl … All round me they were all looking. All the men – staring like they were in church. Like they were all a congregation.
Equus is a jealous God. Alan and Jill are discovered in the cinema by his father – revealed as a hypocritical consumer of what he’s brought his son up to beware. When Jill leads him away from the horrifying confrontation and takes him, inevitably, to the place they both know and can be alone together, she’s unaware that the stables are not just her secret place for sex but also his Holy of Holies. Naked with her, Alan sees his God watching through the eyes of the six horses. Equus sees all and punishes transgression, leaving Alan humiliated and, unable to act on his desire for Jill. Forcing her away, when Alan’s alone again with Equus, in despair he takes revenge on His all-seeing God’s earthly forms.
Shaffer’s intense fascination on hearing the brief, almost completely decontextualised account of the real-life horse-blinding was with a crime that “lacked, finally, any coherent explanation.” Meaning that we must all look for our own, incoherent, ones. But remember the one small detail that Shaffer did have: a crime his friend “had heard about recently at a dinner party in London.” More than likely a very ‘Normal’ dinner party, at which conversation, with the odd bit of spine-chilling news and thrilling gossip, took place over plates of animal flesh of one kind or another – although certainly not horse.
A thousand local gods
Returned to the Normal world – where “animals are treated properly” in that way rather than blinded with their own hoof picks – once Dysart has delivered on his promise to “heal the rash on his body … erase the welts cut into his mind by flying manes,” Alan “may even come to find sex funny. Bit of grunt funny. Trampled and furtive and entirely in control. Hopefully, he’ll feel nothing at his fork but Approved Flesh. I doubt, however, with much passion! … Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.”
But, he tells the sleeping boy, “He won’t really go that easily. Just clop away from you like a nice old nag … When Equus leaves – if he leaves at all – it will be with your intestines in his teeth. And I don’t stock replacements.”
Dysart has confessed to Alan his own secret desire: to escape his work, his home.
ALAN: Where would you go?
DYSART: Yes. There’s a sea – a great sea – I love … It’s where the Gods used to bathe.
ALAN: What Gods?
DYSART: The old ones. Before they died.
ALAN: Gods don’t die.
DYSART: Yes, they do.
And earlier, when he told Hesther of his true passion for the world, his own form of worship, Dysart was offering it to us too. Knowing he’d never find it himself but warning us: try – find every way through, out of the Normal and into something more real.
DYSART: I wish there was one person in my life I could show. One instinctive, absolutely unbrisk person I could … stand in front of certain shrines and sacred streams and say ‘Look! Life is only comprehensible through a thousand local Gods. And not just the old dead ones like Zeus – no, but living Geniuses of Place and Person! And not just Greece but modern England! Spirits of certain trees, certain curves of brick wall, certain chip ships, if you like, and slate roofs – just as of certain frowns and slouches … I’d say to them – ‘Worship as many as you can see – and more will appear!’
It’s a passion not for the abstract but the particular vision – of place, of person and of the more-than-human world: a renewed and habitual relationship with habitat.
DYSART: And of all the nonsensical things – I keep thinking of the horse! Not the boy: the horse, and what it may be trying to do. I keep seeing that huge head kissing him with its chained mouth. Nudging through the metal some desire absolutely irrelevant to filling its belly or propagating its own kind. What desire could that be? Not to be a horse any longer? Is it possible, at certain moments we cannot imagine, a horse can add its sufferings together – the non-stop jerks and jabs that are its daily life – and turn them into grief? What use is grief to a horse? … I shove in my dim little torch, and there he stands – waiting for me. He raises his matted head. He opens his great square teeth, and says [Mocking] ”Why? … Why Me? Why – ultimately – Me? … Do you really imagine you can account for Me? … Poor Doctor Dysart!”
Find out more
I first discovered Equus through Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film adaptation, with Richard Burton as Martin Dysart and Peter Firth as Alan Strang.The screenplay was adapted by Peter Shaffer himself.
Questioning extremity? Space for creative thinking...
"Extremity is the point," suggests Martin Dysart - in the world of Normal, where passion is flattened out, made safe, and industrialsed violence against animals (human and non-human) is hidden from sight. Freed from a need for any 'final, coherent explanation', what extremity might your creative practice bring to light?"
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
One of our Subscribers passed on one of our recent Re:Culture mailings to the folks at Manchester Climate Monthly – MCFly. Marc Hudson, MCFly editor and climate change policy researcher, contacted me for an interview.
Manchester Climate Monthly – or MCFly – “exists to inform and inspire and connect people in (Greater) Manchester who are taking or who want to take action to improve the quality of their lives and communities and to prepare for the changes that are coming because of climate change and energy price rises.” There’s all sorts of interesting and useful stuff on their site.
You can read my interview here. And Marc sent me this link to a fascinating interview he did a few years back with psychotherapist Rosemary Randall, which he rightly thought would be in tune with ClimateCultures: highly recommended.
Thank you, Marc – and thank you, mystery subscriber.
The moral of the story? Do pass on ClimateCultures info wherever you think it might strike a chord!