The Colour of Flamboyant Flowers

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

Whenever a ClimateCultures Member contributes their personal nominations for our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, I send them a book that's had an impact on me. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is certainly a novel that packs a punch, and I'm delighted to have sent a copy - as usual, discovered in a recent visit to an Oxfam bookshop - to Nancy Campbell for her post A Personal History of the Anthropocene - Three Objects #7. Here is my review.

Wide Sargasso Sea, famously, is Jean Rhys’s prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; the tale of the first Mrs Rochester — whose appearance in the original novel is as the ‘mad woman in the attic’ and the cause of Mr Rochester’s blindness when she sets fire to their house. It is also a story of dreams that stretch from childhood into adulthood, and the blurred borders of dream with reality. It is above all a story of alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference of race and gender, told in multiple voices.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Photograph: Francoise Lacroix © 2000 Source: Penguin Books

 

The Fall

Although it could not be described as idyllic, Antoinette’s Jamaican childhood on the family estate of Coulibri is, in its own distorted way, Edenic. It’s an Eden whose white Creole family has already had its fall; for the time being, however, their exile is an internal one, held within the walls of their decaying estate rather than expelled from it.

Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible – the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root.

Early on then, although seen looking back from adulthood, the young girl’s experience is of forbidden knowledge and a world out of reach. The tentacled family history of colonial mastery to which her mother clings keeps them in isolation and delusion, on an island that is undergoing the first signs of a rebalancing of power.

Wide Sargasso Sea is set early on in the years after the supposed emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean, and Antoinette’s is one of the planter families who have lost their status and income when their slaves were freed and their plantations became unviable. Her mother has also recently been widowed but is unable to relinquish the past; “How could she not try for all the things that had gone so suddenly, so without warning,” Antoinette wonders.

One of the family’s few remaining servants, Godfrey, warns: ‘When the old time go, let it go. No use to grab at it. The Lord make no distinction between black and white, black and white the same for him. Rest yourself in peace, for the Righteous are not forsaken.’ But who are the righteous?

The ending of slavery did not of course end injustice so much as shape-shift it into new forms. The mother’s former slave, Christophine — a wedding present from her first husband — remains with the family, becoming the nanny to Antoinette and her brother.

No more slavery! She had to laugh! ‘These new ones have Letter of the Law. Same thing. They got magistrate. They got fine. They got jail house and chain gang. They got tread machine to mash up people’s feet. New ones worse than old ones – more cunning, that’s all.’

And when new incomers from England — the England of Jane Eyre, built on the power and appropriations of Empire — start to buy up or marry into the former slave owners’ estates, it is of course the ‘Letter of the Law’ which holds sway.

Antoinette’s mother remarries to regain some of her former lifestyle and security, but the new head of the household, Mason, is blinded by his racism and moneyed complacency. Unable to comprehend the restlessness of the black natives or his wife’s sense of danger for white Creole natives — looked down on by the English and resented by their black neighbours — he dismisses everything. “’They’re too damn lazy to be dangerous … I know that.’” And his wife cannot convince him of his error.

For the young Antoinette though, a growing appreciation of the problems that beset them brings into relief the safety of home — of place and family and the care of her nanny. Security is the dominant focus of her consciousness, but one that is about to shift forever.

I lay thinking, ‘I am safe. There is the corner of the bedroom door and the friendly furniture. There is the tree of life in the garden and the wall green with moss. The barrier of the cliffs and the high mountains. And the barrier of the sea. I am safe. I am safe from strangers.’ … I woke next morning knowing that nothing would be the same. It would change and go on changing.

An alien heat

Antoinette’s childhood environment is one where land, plants, animals, even objects seem conscious, to have agency: “All this was long ago, when I was still babyish and sure that everything was alive, not only the river or the rain, but chairs, looking-glasses, cups, saucers, everything.”

It’s childish imagination at play, but Antoinette retains a fanciful capacity in adulthood when, sole inheritor of the Coulibri estate and then bride to a newly arrived Englishman — never named in this novel, but Bronte’s Mr Rochester — she tries to imagine the England he will take her ‘home’ to. It’s an England she’s never seen but feels she remembers: a place somehow embedded within her.

They say frost makes flower patterns on the window panes. I must know more than I know already. For I know that house where I will be cold and not belonging, the bed I shall lie in has red curtains and I have slept there many times before, long ago. How long ago? In that bed I will dream the end of my dream. But my dream had nothing to do with England and I must not think like this, must remember about chandeliers and dancing, about swans and roses and snow. And snow.

Rochester has married her to fortune from her estate; the younger son of a landed family, he resentfully accepts that his brother will inherit everything while he must ‘make his own way’ in a society that clearly thinks it combines meritocracy with aristocracy. It’s a society that never pauses to sees what lies beneath, the foundations of its plundered prosperity. The love he’d briefly felt for Antoinette has quickly evaporated in the alien heat and flora of the Caribbean; he’d succumbed to fever soon after his arrival and, conveniently for his conscience, was in its throes when he proposed to her.

Wide Sargasso Sea, cover
Artist: unknown

Where she had found safety in her childhood home, Rochester feels as alienated in his new, temporary, surroundings as he is from his own family back in England. His past is a distant place that forced him out through its customs of inheritance and social expectations; his present is the alien world he’s been exiled to; his hoped-for future is to appropriate someone else’s and return home as a man of means. But no one in this world is fully in control. Even selfhood seems dreamlike where everything seems Other.

Rochester confesses to Antoinette his “feeling of something unknown and hostile”:

‘I feel that this place is my enemy and on your side.’

‘You are quite mistaken,’ she said. ‘It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else. I found that out long ago when I was a child. I loved it because I had nothing else to love, but it is as indifferent as this God you call on so often.’

She recognises the unknowable around her and chooses to love it. Never forgetting its indifference but accepting both its beauty and its power, she lies between sleep and wakefulness at their honeymoon home, “looking at the pool – deep and dark green under the trees, brown-green if it had rained, but a bright sparkling green in the sun.” Colour is a force in her life.

Watching the red and yellow flowers in the sun thinking of nothing, it was as if a door opened and I saw somewhere else, something else. Not myself any longer. I knew the time of day when though it is hot and blue and there are no clouds, the sky can have a very black look.

She is seeing through the door into her future. “I will be a different person when I live in England and different things will happen to me.” But the England she expects is not the she finds when, after years of oppression, madness and isolation — and forced to endure even her name being taken from her when he insists she becomes ‘Bertha’ — she at last escapes for good from her attic ‘asylum’ at Rochester’s Thornfield Hall, is able to “open the door and walk into the new world.”

It is, as I always knew, made of cardboard. I have seen it before somewhere, this cardboard world where everything is coloured brown or dark red or yellow that has no light in it. As I walk along the passages I wish I could see what is behind the cardboard. They tell me I am in England but I don’t believe them. We lost our way to England. When? Where? I don’t remember, but we lost it. … This cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.

A dangerous place

In her first weeks of marriage, suspended between the dreams of childhood and adult homes, she recalls her final night at Coulibri, with her mother and brother and nanny and her complacent stepfather — the night the ex-slaves took their anger out on the decaying estate, burning it to the ground:

Nothing would be left, the golden ferns and the silver ferns, the orchids, the ginger lilies and the roses, the rocking-chairs and the blue sofa, the jasmine and the honeysuckle … When they had finished, there would be nothing left but blackened walls and the mounting stone. That was always left. That could not be stolen or burned.

And later, on another night, it’s the colourful associations with that fire that prompt her own fatal actions in the ‘cardboard England’. When she watches the fire her keeper has made for her in the cold attic, “flames shoot up and they are beautiful. I get out of bed and go close to watch them and to wonder why I have been brought here. For what reason?” She takes down her old red dress, “the colours of fire and sunset”:

The colour of flamboyant flowers … I let the dress fall on the floor, and looked from the fire to the dress and from the dress to the fire … I looked at the dress on the floor and it was as if the fire had spread across the room. It was beautiful and it reminded me of something I must do. I will remember I thought. I will remember quite soon now.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester is blinded when his mad wife Bertha sets fire to the house, but in Wide Sargasso Sea he has called this fate on himself when Christophine confronts him on his deception and his sexual betrayal of Antoinette, “wicked like Satan.” He protests:

I said loudly and wildly, ‘And do you think that I wanted all this? I would give my life to undo it. I would give my eyes never to have seen this abominable place.’

She laughed. “And that’s the first damn word of truth you speak. You choose what you give, eh? Then you choose. You meddle in something and perhaps you don’t know what it is.’ She began to mutter to herself. Not in patois. I knew the sound of patois now.

What he is hearing but not comprehending are his own words being used to curse him. It’s a curse that will take effect far in the future, years after Rochester and Antoinette/Bertha have travelled through the Sargasso Sea — the shoreless, liminal expanse of ocean between the Caribbean and the eastern Atlantic, where ships reputedly become disoriented and becalmed — and back to the dark heart of Empire. But already there is so much in plain sight that he’s been unable to see, and he’s come almost to accept this about his dream-like place of exile even as he’s about to leave it with his prize.

It was a beautiful place – wild, untouched, above all untouched, with an alien, disturbing, secret loveliness. And it kept its secret. I’d find myself thinking, ‘What I see is nothing – I want what it hides – that is not nothing.’

Sargasso Sea
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Leaving their honeymoon house for the ship that will take them to England, Rochester looks back; “the sadness I felt looking at the shabby white house – I wasn’t prepared for that.”

More than ever before it strained away from the black snake-like forest. Louder and more desperately it called: Save me from destruction, ruin and desolation. Save me from the long slow death by ants.

But what are you doing here you folly? So near the forest. Don’t you know that this is a dangerous place? And that the dark forest always wins? Always. If you don’t, you soon will, and I can do nothing to help you.

Rochester has already seen another ruined house, marooned deep within a forest that’s overgrown it and all sign of the road that once led to it. That house also was burned down, long before Antoinette’s Coulibri, itself long before Rochester’s own Thornfield Hall will be.

And sailing away from one dream, headed to the Sargasso Sea and then another dream, Antoinette later recalls:

The white ship whistled three times, once gaily, once calling, once to say good-bye.

 


Find out more

Wide Sargasso Sea is published by Penguin Books. In an episode of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday FeatureSarah Dillon hunts down the story of Jean Rhys and her masterpiece fifty years after its publication, Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (17/1/16). Published in 1966 when Rhys was in her 70s, the novel became an instant classic. In the programme, Sarah Dillon goes on a journey to find out why there was a 27-year gap between novels. “The struggle to bring the book to completion touches on poverty, death and a passionate desire for perfection.”

The British Library has a post from writer and broadcaster Bidisha, An Introduction to Wide Sargasso Sea. And a post by Carol Atherton discusses the Figure of Bertha Mason — Antoinette as renamed and oppressed by Rochester according to Wide Sargasso Sea — as explored in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. “Rhys’s complex, fascinating novel, which explores themes of fragmentation and instability, is evidence of the fact that whatever Rochester might have wanted, Bertha simply will not stay hidden: nearly 200 years after her creation, she continues to disturb and intrigue.”

Britannica explains that the Sargasso Sea, “which encompasses the Bermuda islands, was first mentioned by Christopher Columbus, who crossed it on his initial voyage in 1492. The presence of the seaweed suggested the proximity of land and encouraged Columbus to continue, but many early navigators had the fear (actually unfounded) of becoming entangled within the mass of floating vegetation.”

A recent article by Kris Manjapra in the Guardian (29/3/18) When will Britain face up to its crimes against humanity? tells part of the astonishing story of not only how the ‘freedom’ of slaves in parts of the British Empire came about in the 1830s, but how the slave owners were compensated with a sum equivalent to 40% of the Treasury’s annual income at the time. This was financed by an 1835 bank loan that was finally paid back in full by British taxpayers only in 2015: 180 years after (some) slaves were forcibly turned into ‘apprentices’ for their masters. No compensation, of course, was paid to the slaves — and many of their descendants will have contributed to the taxes that effectively paid off the owners. “The legacies of slavery in Britain are not far off; they are in front of our eyes every single day … The owners of slaves in British society were not just the super-rich. Recent research … has shown the striking diversity of the people who received compensation, from widows in York to clergymen in the Midlands, attorneys in Durham to glass manufacturers in Bristol. Still, most of the money ended up in the pockets of the richest citizens, who owned the greatest number of slaves. More than 50% of the total compensation money went to just 6% of the total number of claimants. The benefits of slave-owner compensation were passed down from generation to generation of Britain’s elite.”

In the Path of Its Beam

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

Annie Dillard's 1974 wonderful - and wonder-filled - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a classic, although one that resists easy classification and offers many uncomfortable closeup views of 'nature'. I was given it by a friend who'd been given a spare copy and was excited to pass it on. So when I picked up a spare copy myself on a charity bookshop foray, I knew it was time to reread and review it here. This copy has gone to Veronica Sekules in return for her excellent contribution in January to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Annie Dillard set herself quite a challenge when, aged 27, she wrote this classic: an ambitious book, weaving science, history, theology, philosophy, literature and biography into nature memoir. Perhaps nothing less can start to dissolve our false, harmful but persistent boundaries between human and other beings.

“What I aim to do is not so much learn the names of the shreds of creation that flourish in this valley, but to keep myself open to their meanings, which is to try to impress myself at all times with the fullest possible force of their very reality. I want to have things as multiply and intricately as possible present and visible in my mind.”

Ultimately, all the intricacies and extravagances that she sets out to catch, inspect, dissect, convey make for a reality that must always exceed her human grasp and agency. “I cannot cause light”, she has to admit; “the most I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.”

Tinker Creek in Virginia’s Blue Ridge country is – was in 1972, when Dillard took a house there and started to write her account – a “rather tamed valley.” But it’s a surprise to see it labelled such when almost every page seems to proclaim the wildness, even alienness, of its non-human life and the great chasm of Deep Time which houses it all with room to spare. And yet this creative tension is there right from the outset, when she tells us “I propose to keep what Thoreau called ‘a meteorological journal of the mind,’ telling some tales and describing some of the sights of this rather tamed valley, and exploring, in fear and trembling, some of the unmapped dim reaches and unholy fastnesses to which those tales and sights so dizzyingly lead.”

We glimpse the human life of the valley – the tracks left by locals’ bikes, the stock fences erected by landowners, an unexplained pile of burned books dumped outside an abandoned house, even Dillard’s own house: all its windows broken, so she must tread shattered glass to stand and look out. She takes us into Tinker Creek’s community as spring floods rip down the valley and bring people together to protect life and property. And we see it also in the commodification of the domesticated, industrialised animals that gives the landscape much of its meaning:

“I sit on the downed tree and watch the black steers slip on the creek bottom. They are all bred beef: beef heart, beef hide, beef hocks. They’re a human product like rayon. They’re like a field of shoes. They have cast-iron shanks and tongues like foam insoles. You can’t see through to their brains as you can with other animals; they have beef fat behind their eyes, beef stew.”

Mostly though she walks away from her own kind, observing, tracking and questioning the wild extravagance of the more-than-human world she finds herself within — and realises she’s always been caught within, and it can never be any other way. On a long road journey back to the creek, she pauses:

“I am absolutely alone … Before me extends a low hill trembling in yellow brome, and behind the hill, filling the sky, rises an enormous mountain ridge, forested, alive and awesome with brilliant blown lights. I have never seen anything so tremulous and live. Overhead, great strips and chunks of clouds dash to the northwest in a gold rush. At my back, the sun is setting – how can I not have noticed before that the sun is setting? My mind has been a blank slab of black asphalt for hours, but that doesn’t stop the sun’s wild wheel.”

‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ cover
Design: Milan Bozic © 2007
milanbozic.com

Two paths to the more-than-human

Pilgrim explores, in more or less equal measure, horror and beauty in nature, fixing both with an unblinking stare that’s Dillard’s hallmark. In an afterword written 25 years later – looking back at the way her book exemplified “youth’s drawback: a love of grand sentences” but respecting the way she’d “used the first person as a point of view only, a hand-held camera directed outwards” – Dillard explains the book’s two-part structure by analogy with early Christian theology. Neoplatonism set two paths to God: the via positiva and the via negativa. While the former asserted that God possesses all the positive attributes in His own creation, the latter stressed His unknowability to His creatures; “as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God.” So, “thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” Dillard the pilgrim explores both paths into a nature she’s part of but separated from by her own creaturely attributes; accumulating first what she sees of nature’s goodness, and then stripping away the veils as “the visible world empties, leaf by leaf.” Between these two ways of seeing, the book’s two parts, comes the flood.

As well as offering two modes, it’s also a book in two places at once. As she experiences the fecundity of the Virginian valley through the year’s seasons, Dillard draws frequently on the far north, the lives and legends of indigenous Arctic peoples. She seems to yearn for the north and a sparer existence, and its absence emphasises her strange, almost exile-like existence in the temperate south, amongst the overabundance of armour-plated insects, rock-shearing trees “doing their real business just out of reach,” and the summer heat when “the sun thickens the air to jelly; it bleaches, flattens, dissolves.” The north seems her refuge, imagination’s retreat from an incessant, death-enthralled liveliness that engulfs her. But it’s the south that she sticks with, lives through, and learns to see.

Dillard is a hunter of experiences. It’s harder in summer, when “leaves obscure, heat dazzles, and creatures hide from the red-eyed sun, and me.”

“The creatures I seek have several senses and free will; it becomes apparent that they do not wish to be seen. I can stalk them in either of two ways. The first is not what you think of as true stalking, but it is the via negativa, and as fruitful as actual pursuit. When I stalk this way, I take my stand on a bridge and wait, emptied. I put myself in the way of the creature’s passage … Something might come; something might go … Stalking the other way, I forge my own passage seeking the creature. I wander the banks; what I find, I follow.”

Duality is everywhere and is dizzying. From the via positiva and via negativa of seeing, the north and south of being, the beauty and terror of life, and the twin approaches of pursuing the wild and waiting for it, we also have the existential contrasts of mountain and creek. From Tinker Creek, Dillard often looks up to Tinker Mountain, but seldom travels up. It’s as if she is deliberately not seeking the perhaps easier spiritual revelations that are often claimed for the hard upwards climb into rarefied atmospheres. Like north and south, these are different beasts entirely:

“The mountains … are a passive mystery, the oldest of all … Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back as some creeks will. The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.”

A monster in a mason jar

Being a pilgrim in Tinker Creek is about embracing its discomforting otherness. And nothing is more discomforting here than the insect world: “a world covered in chitin, where implacable realities hold sway … Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.”

Dillard recalls a vivid childhood experience, when a teacher brought into class the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth and passed it round for every child to hold. Under the heat of many hands, the cocoon started to shift and throb as the teacher at last placed it in a mason jar, for everyone to see the premature transformation they’d unwittingly brought about.

“It was coming. There was no stopping it now, January or not. One end of the cocoon dampened and gradually frayed in a furious battle. The whole cocoon twisted and slapped around in the bottom of the jar. The teacher fades, the classroom fades, I fade: I don’t remember anything but that thing’s struggle to be a moth or die trying. It emerged at last, a sodden crumple … He stood still, but he breathed … He couldn’t spread his wings. There was no room. The chemical that coated his wings like varnish, stiffening them permanently, dried and hardened his wings as they were. He was a monster in a mason jar. Those huge wings stuck on his back in a torture of random pleats and folds, wrinkled as a dirty tissue, rigid as leather. They made a single nightmare clump still wracked with useless, frantic convulsion.”

This childhood experience of human indifference and insectoid implacability haunts the young woman: an inescapable memory of the crippled moth being released into the school yard and, unable to fly, crawling off into its own short future and Dillard’s forever. “The Polyphemus moth never made it to the past; it … is still crawling down the driveway, crawling down the driveway hunched, crawling down the driveway on six furred feet, forever.”

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus)
Photograph: Stephen Lody © 2012 (Creative Commons)
Source: Wikipedia

Other horrors await: the slowly collapsing frog that extinguishes before her eyes, folding in on itself inside its skin as a giant water bug sucks it dry, unseen beneath the creek’s surface; the mantises that do their famous mantis things to each other in the act of making more mantises; the parasitic wasp that “lays a single fertilised egg in the flaccid tissues of its live prey, and that one egg divides and divides. As many as two thousand new parasitic wasps will hatch to feed on the host’s body with identical hunger.” She wants to draw us into this extravagance – “more than extravagance; it is holocaust, parody, glut.” 

“You are an ichneumon. You mated and your eggs are fertile. If you can’t find a caterpillar on which to lay your eggs, your young will starve. When the eggs hatch, the young will eat any body on which they find themselves, so if you don’t kill them by emitting them broadcast over the landscape, they’ll eat you alive … You feel them coming, and coming, and you struggle to rise … Not that the ichneumon is making any conscious choice. If it were, her dilemma would be truly the stuff of tragedy; Aeschylus need have looked no further than the ichneumon.”

She wants to look away, quoting Henri Fabre on examining too closely the insectoid world: “Let us cast a veil over these horrors.” But there is no looking away from these “mysteries performed in broad daylight before our very eyes; we can see every detail.”

“The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the dark, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie: why? … Our competitors are not only cold-blooded … but are also cased in a clacking horn. They lack the grace to go about as we do, soft-side-out to the wind and thorns. They have rigid eyes and brains strung down their backs. But they make out the bulk of our comrades-at-life, so I look to them for a glimmer of companionship.”

To stare reality in its multifaceted eyes is not to be overwhelmed by it, looking away no way to escape its cascades pouring upon us. Reality needs to be filtered down to something manageable, liveable with: glimmers of companionship. That beauty is there as well as horror – and both in abundance – is down to the ‘extravagant gestures’ of nature: human and non-human together.

“Nature, is above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil … This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behaviour too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.”

There is exuberance in Dillard’s imagination, as in her understanding of an exuberant world. She looks for the shadow in things and finds it everywhere. Not just the oval shadow of the giant water bug under the water, but under all things. “Shadows define the real … making some sort of sense of the light.” When our planet sits in its own night-time shadows, “I can see Andromeda again; I stand pressed to the window, rapt and shrunk in the galaxy’s chill glare.” Meanwhile, beneath her feet as she sits or walks among trees: “keeping the subsoil world under trees in mind, in intelligence, is the least I can do.”

“The shadow’s the thing,” she says, and seems to mean consciousness itself. Shadow – “the blue patch where the light doesn’t hit … Where the twin oceans of beauty and horror meet” – is the creek in which we live (although the mountains are home):

“This is the blue strip running through creation …. Shadow Creek is the blue subterreanean stream that chills Carvin’s Creek and Tinker Creek; it cuts like ice under the ribs of the mountains, Tinker and Dead Man. Shadow Creek storms through limestone vaults under forests, or surfaces anywhere, damp, on the underside of a leaf. I wring it from rocks; it seeps into my cup. Chasms open at the glance of an eye; the ground parts like a wind-rent cloud over stars. Shadow Creek: on my least walk to the mailbox I may find myself knee-deep in its sucking, frigid pools.”

It is here too, in her forays into the woods and waters, up into the galaxy and down through her microscope into creekwater samples, gazing at “real creatures with real organs, leading real lives, one by one”. “Something is already here,” she says, “and more is coming.”

“I had been my whole life a bell…”

For Dillard, more does come. She returns many times to a pivotal experience: “one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Altered epigraph page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Artist: Anna Maria Johnson © 2013
annamariajohnson.virginiajournal.org

Beauty is to be found in the interstices as much as in the profusion of things and beings. “Go up into the gaps. … Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than maple – a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

“Beauty is real. I would never deny it; the appalling thing is that I forget it. Waste and extravagance go together up and down the banks, all along the intricate fringe of spirit's free incursions into time. On either side of me the creek snared and kept the sky's distant lights, shaped them into shifting substance and bore them speckled down.”

Find out more

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was originally published in 1974, winning the Pullitzer Prize the following year. A 2011 edition is published by Canterbury Press. The edition I sent to Veronica, from which the cover image above is taken, was published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics in 2007.

Writer Anna Maria Johnson, whose ‘Altered epigraph page’ image is used above, wrote a fascinating graduate thesis. A Visual Approach to Syntactical and Image Patterns in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, published in 2012 in Numero Cinq magazine, is also available. on her website. Her illustrated essay offers many insights into the structure of the book and how Dillard’s words work on our reading minds.

Robert Macfarlane’s Guardian review (30/4/05)An impish spirit, shows the character and value of Dillard’s writing and gives interesting details of how she came to produce this prize winner.

 

Stalking the Impossible

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

It's been two month's since Nick Hunt's excellent addition to our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. I sent him the customary secondhand book that these contributions attract. So my review of that particular book, Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, is way overdue. It's a novel I discovered over a decade ago and have read or listened to many times since. It seems to attract this rereading, so I was obviously very happy to discover a copy in an Oxfam bookshop and have this excuse to enjoy it yet again, to share it and to set down some of my thoughts on such a classic.

Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, published in 1939 as Europe descended into war, is a peerless thriller and a brilliant piece of landscape writing. It’s also an exploration of a wounded human forced to resurface long-buried self-knowledge, and a novel of more-than-human relationships.

The plot is taut. A wealthy English landowner and big game hunter, who never reveals his name because his fame threatens reprisals on his friends if his private account – his ‘confession’ – is ever discovered, is hunting in Europe when he slips into an unnamed country and stalks its dictator to his closely guarded country retreat. Like the hunter, the nation and tyrant are never identified. Setting out to test whether his stalking skills are up to this ultimate prey, our narrator is a hair trigger’s breadth from succeeding when over-confidence and a slight change in breeze result in his capture, interrogation, torture and attempted murder by the dictator’s henchmen. From that moment on, he’s in flight for his life, moving painfully, cautiously across a continent that’s closing down on freedom, back to London and then a secret hideout in the Dorset countryside. His hideout is, like much about his past, a secret he keeps even from himself until he is almost at the threshold. Although he is in a state of denial about his actions and motives, as the title suggests, he’s a “solitary beast, exasperated by chronic pain or widowerhood … separation from its fellows appearing to increase both cunning and ferocity.”

Rogue Male cover, first edition (1939)
Artist: unidentified

‘That safe pit of darkness’

As he digs deeper into his memories – literally deeper, as he lies in the burrow he’s made for himself in the high banks of a long-forgotten lane that’s cut deep and overgrown between two mutually suspicious farms, and waits to see if his equally cunning and ferocious pursuer has discovered him – his journalling uncovers just how much he’s been deceiving himself. He experiences

“the blankness which descends upon me when I dare not know what I am thinking. I know that I was consumed by anger. I remember the venomous thoughts, yet at the time I was utterly unaware of them. I suppressed them as fast as they came up into my conscious mind. I would have nothing to do with them, nothing to do with grief or hatred or revenge … I had not admitted what I meant to kill.”

He represents himself in his pencil-and-exercise-book confession as a blameless, adventuring sportsman. But he recognises that his hope is to understand his own actions, whose “reasons were insistent but frequently obscure”; to “get some clarity. I create a second self, a man of the past by whom the man of the present may be measured.” This doubling, and the regarding of a reflected self it enables, is anticipated in the moment he first sees his broken face.

“I didn’t recognise myself. It was not the smashed eye which surprised me – that was merely closed, swollen and ugly. It was the other eye. Glaring back at me from the mirror, deep and enormous, it seemed to belong to someone intensely alive, so much more alive than I felt.”

He spends much of his account not recognising himself. And yet, if his relationship with his inner life seems as evasive as his cross-country false trails right up until the final confrontation with his pursuer and the “second enemy dogging my movements – my own unjust and impossible conscience”, his relationship with society at large seems self-assured, if cynical. He scorns the ideologies of ‘the masses’ or ‘the State’ that are taking hold abroad, of course, but also an anti-individualist conformism closer to home.

While he doesn’t escape the male, privileged attitudes of his time, class or country, he’s no misanthrope or xenophobe. He has a keen eye for the character of individuals he meets, a respect for their lives, and a dry and understated humour at his own expense. Nor is he a classic British imperialist in the style of other ‘rugged loners’ from pre-war thrillers. But his view of people and society is heavily skewed to his own – very male and individualistic – philosophy of nature.

As for his relationship with the animal kingdom, this is for the most part that of the hunter; his trek on the continent “quite a conventional course: to go out and kill something in rough country in order to forget my troubles.” But his relationship with the physicality of his environment – not just his native countryside, but wherever he exists, as hunter or hunted – is something far more elemental.

Barely conscious after his capture and questioning, his captors take him to a remote precipice, leaving him hanging by smashed fingertips so his ‘accidental’ death can be ‘accidentally’ detected. Further torn and mangled by the long fall down the cliffside, he’s saved only by falling into a marsh. As he comes back to life – it is a form of resurrection – he’s unable to differentiate body from bog.

“I had parted, obviously and irrevocably, with a lot of my living matter … it was revolting to imagine myself still alive and of the consistency of mud. There was a pulped substance all around me, in the midst of which I carried on my absurd consciousness. I had supposed that this bog was me; it tasted of blood.”

New skins, old connections

That same muddy mess, caked to him as a second skin, binds his wounds: its substance melding with his to keep insides in, outside out even while he cannot completely separate the two in his own mind.

There is nothing cozy about this self-identification with intimate surroundings. Rather than romantic notions of the hunter as organic extension and master of his terrain, it’s a more primal experience; the wounded prey at once part of and apart from an elements that can both kill and protect. Later, lay a false trail, invisible to the eyes of a police and populace who have been cleverly roused by his pursuer, the only cover is the sodden clay of a cabbage field in plain sight of the road he knows his pursuers will use.

“It was a disgusting day. The flats of England on a grey morning remind me of the classical hell – a featureless landscape where … the half-alive remember hills and sunshine …To lie on a clay soil in a gentle drizzle was exasperating. But safe! If the owner of that vile field had been planting, he’d have stuck his dibber into me before noticing that I wasn’t mud.”

As with earth, water plays a crucial role in his survival. At different points on his slow journey, stream, river, sea – even absent water in the case of a ship’s disused water tank – conceal him, offer the means to clothe himself, or provide his mode of transport through hostile country.

Trees and hedges also assist him. In the first hours after near-death, he struggles to raise himself high into a larch, single-mindedly abusing his tortured hands so as to leave the bark free of tell-tale mud from his boots, and waits out the day. While he recovers, a search party looks for his body below. “When I became conscious, the tree was swaying in the light wind and smelling of peace … I felt as if I were a parasite on the tree, grown to it.” Unable to make sense of what is around him, he can “only receive impressions. I was growing to my tree and aware of immense good nature.”

Later, cornered in his burrow by the hunter who offers sweetened lies about the freedom he will find again if he signs a confession of his assassination attempt, he tries to tunnel his way out of the death-trap he’s made for himself. The air supply restricted, his digging is constantly interrupted by imminent suffocation from his own spent breath and the foul air of his faeces, which he’s been forced to live with in the dank, claustrophobic cell. “Then I would begin to dream of the root or the stone or the water that was beating me, and I would get up again and go to work, half naked and foul with the red earth, a creature inhuman in mind and body.”

Until this point, he has shared his den with an older inhabitant of the decrepit holloway between farms: another cunning and ferocious beast, a feral black cat. This creature proves to be a great ally.

“I was so prepared to frighten any dogs which investigated me that they would never come back, but it appeared that something had already scared them for me; dogs gave the lane a wide berth. The cause was Asmodeus. I observed him first as two ears and two eyes apparently attached to a black branch. When I moved my head, the ears vanished, and when I stood up the rest of him had vanished. I put out some scraps of bully beef behind the branch, and an hour later they too had vanished.”

As the novel plays out, the man’s world has shrunk from his summer’s freedom to roam, a privileged and skilled loner; to a furtive hide-and-seek testing of those skills; then the hoped-for autumnal rural cover, where he can live off his wits until danger has passed; finally to a dank, filthy pit scraped into the cold red earth beneath a thorn hedge: an isolated and hollowed out existence in a holloway known only to his enemy and to no human friend. The cat seems a last link between him and something like a liveable world that a rogue male might choose rather than be forced to endure.

Rogue Male cover, limited edition hardback reissue
Artist: Stanley Donwood © 2013
archive.slowlydownward.com

The two beasts, wary at first, gradually become respectful and then sympathetic with each other.

“Asmodeus, as always, is my comfort. It is seldom that one can give to and receive from an animal close, silent, and continuous attention. We live in the same space, in the same way, and on the same food, except that Asmodeus has no use for oatmeal, nor I for field-mice. During the hours while he sits cleaning himself, and I motionless in my dirt, there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us. I cannot ‘order’ or even ‘hope’ that he should perform a given act, but back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action. I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.”

How this confinement ends for the three hunters – would-be assassin, feral cat, fascist agent – is not something to let out of the bag here. 

Under cover

Rogue Male is a novel of slowly revealed relationships. Between individual and society. Human and more-than-human habitats and cohabitants. Surface and subterranean. Cunning and culture. The self and itself. Memory recovered and memory constructed. Between the man and the loss which turned him rogue and in pursuit of a vengeance he cannot admit to himself.

The Dorset holloway is not his first hiding place. From the leafy cover where he trains his rifle on Europe’s notorious mass murderer – just “for the fun of the stalk”, he insists – to the muddy bog where he lays his first misleading tracks, the tree where he hauls his broken body, the lakeside foliage from which he dashes to steal bathers’ clothes, his stowaway on a cross-channel ship, the black tunnels of the London Underground or the night cover of Wimbledon Common, to cabbage field and secret burrow, he excels at using his environment to cover, recover, survive. But finally, even with all his skills and instincts – and occasional flashes of imagined ‘simple thought-transference’ between his unstable mind and the unknowable one of Asmodeus – he cannot extend his physical senses out into the light spaces beyond his underground cell. Neither can he hide forever in the dark internal spaces of denial he’s carved out: mental sanctuary from a buried anguish the dictator’s regime brought down on him. He must burst out, into a future and a fate he cannot judge ahead of their reality.

Rogue Male illustration, Folio Society edition
Image: David Rooney © 2013
davidrooney.com

“Now luck, movement, wisdom, and folly have all stopped. Even time has stopped, for I have no space. That, I think is the reason why I have again taken refuge in this confession. I retain a sense of time, of the continuity of a stream of facts. I remind myself that I have extended and presumably will extend again in the time of the outer world. At present I exist only in my own time, as one does in a nightmare, forcing myself to a fanaticism of endurance … I will not kill; to hide I am ashamed. So I endure without object.”

 

Find out more

Rogue Male has been written about many times over the decades since its 1939 publication, and more than once by no less a figure than Robert Macfarlane. The fact that it’s has been a little intimidating to follow that skilled literary tracker’s footsteps is part of the reason for taking so long to even start on this review. Another is that I kept wanting to reread and relisten to the book itself; so I did, and always found something new. You can read his review of Rogue Male and of his attempts to locate the famous sunken hideout of Household’s hero; and if you have the 2014 Orion edition of the novel, you can read the extended version which forms Macfarlane’s introduction.

A limited edition hardback issue was produced alongside the Orion edition in 2014, with cover art by Stanley Dornwood as shown above.

Dornwood also collaborated with Robert Macfarlane and Dan Richards on a 2012 book, Holloway. A masterpiece, this slim book of words and images is another, fuller telling of the quest for the Dorset hideout and a meditation on the nature and history of England’s sunken lanes and tracks. I’ve not made much here of the landscape of ancient tracks and sunken lanes that criss-cross Household’s novel, although it is central to the novel’s character, because it is so well (un)covered in Macfarlane’s own words. Holloway book deserves its own review here; but in lieu of that, there’s an excellent Guardian photoessay on holloways, by none other than Robert Macfarlane himself.

And for another analysis of where this semi-fictional sunken lane might be located in fact, with a map, see Chris Newall’s The Rogue Male’s Hideout?

Rogue Male also exists in an Audible audiobook format; and another excellent reading, by Michael Jayston is regularly rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. It’s worth keeping your good eye open for the next airing; this was my first encounter with the story, and I still think it’s the best way to experience it. Maybe through earphones, lying in the dark under stars between the hedges (or if you’re feeling particularly authentic, dug in beneath the roots and earth) of a secret holloway in south west England. Take a cat.

The book was adapted for film in the 1940s and 70s: Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) starring Walter Pidgeon, and Clive Donner’s Rogue Male (1976) with Peter O’Toole. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with either unless you’d a completist. Apparently, there’s a third adaptation on the cards, with Benedict Cumberbatch…

Rather than watch adaptations that are doomed to fail the original, you could explore another, more recent classic of a very different kind. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is his account of what he knew was an always doomed-to-fail attempt to experience land, water and air as a non-human animal. “What’s an animal? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists. What’s a human? It’s a rolling conversation with the land from which it comes and of which it consists – but a more stilted, stuttering conversation than that of most wild animals.” You can read my mini-review of Being a Beast, which I contributed to the Happy Museum Project.

Of Fire, Ice and Earth

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

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.

‘Melted World’
Photograph: Gina Glover © 2017
www.ginaglover.com

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.

‘Poisoned Water Runs Deep’
Photograph: Gina Glover © 2017
www.ginaglover.com

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.

‘365 Faces of the Sun’
Art: Jessica Rayner © 2017
www.jessicarayner.com

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

‘The Wood-Pile’
Artist: Jessica Rayner © 2017
www.jessicarayner.com

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.

‘MEANDER I’ (hand built stoneware)
Art: Hilary Mayo © 2017
www.hilarymayoceramics.com

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. 

‘Volcanic Black Container’ (stacking set)
Artist: Hilary Mayo © 2017
www.hilarymayoceramics.com

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 see work by the individual artists at their sites: Gina GloverJessica Rayner and Hilary Mayo. James mentions the work of Canadian photographer Robert Van Waarden.

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!

What Use is Grief to a Horse?

— approx reading time: 10 minutes

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 rediscovered 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.]

DYSART: Blinded?

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?”

Cover of Equus
Design: Dewynters; Photograph: Simon Turtle © 2005

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

Still from the film adaptation, Equus
MGM Studios © 1977

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

The Stanwick Horse Mask from north Yorkshire
Photograph: British Museum, Creative Commons licence
http://www.britishmuseum.org/collectionimages

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: Somewhere.

ALAN: Secret?

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 shops, 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

The script of the play is published by Scribner / Simon & Schuster (2005).

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?" 

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