A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1

Author Mary Woodbury opens a two-part series on the development of eco-fiction: a form with many roots, which is “not so much a genre as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness into other genres.”


approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes  


You can read the second part of A History of Eco-fiction here.

***

When we approached the cottage in Ireland, a pair of white horses in the meadow raised their heads to look our way. Strong winds lifted their manes and tails wildly yet gracefully. We had driven from Dublin to the west coast, near Doolin, and were staying above the cliffs in a cottage. I was tired from an overnight flight and the drive to Doolin.

Horses near our cottage, western Ireland
Horses near our cottage, western Ireland. Photograph: Mary Woodbury

You look at Ireland on a map and think it wouldn’t take very long to get from coast to coast, but it takes a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road and the other side of the car. It takes special patience to understand the roundabouts, to safely navigate the narrow country lanes with no shoulders — only rock walls, with more seasoned Irish drivers whipping by at 100 km/h or faster — and to stop and smile while farmers older than dirt slowly herd their cattle across the road. My husband was the driver, as my mother and I took in the magical countryside around us. When we arrived at our destination and stepped onto terra firma, my spirits rose. I went straight over to the horses. They were the cottage owner’s animals, and it took some wading through wet, tall grasses to get there, but the horses came right up to me and allowed me to pet them and feed them hay from the meadow. Each evening, when we returned to the cottage, they were there to greet us.

And each morning, when we left the cottage, we explored the wilds of Ireland: caves, the Burren, the sea, the cliffs of Moher, and the many places we ran — which William Butler Yeats had written about. We sailed to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, a real island in Lough Gill, which Yeats was inspired to write as he walked the bustling Fleet Street of London in the 19th century and dreamed of getting away into a simpler life more strongly connected with nature. We did trail runs in Slish Wood, which was what Yeats referred to as Sleuth Wood in The Stolen Child and in the trails around the lake isle. Nearly every single waking moment of this journey was filled with sweat, wonder, being away from cities and people, and interacting with natural things and places, though at night we did hit the pubs. I sensed within the wild a great seclusion, sacredness, awe, and even discomfort at times. It was a world alive with remnants of the past. I felt free.

Lake Isle of Innisfree
Lake Isle of Innisfree. Photograph: Mary Woodbury

If my story were fiction, it might be called eco-fiction, because the story depends on natural places and the human connection therein. Many precursors to eco-fiction exist, and Yeats’ early work — such as The Lake Isle of Innisfree and The Stolen Child, which dream of escape to the wild from the Victorian world he was locked into — might be considered one inspiration for the modern literary field. Later, he sought this escape via mysticism, but the early roots were steeped in Irish mythology:

For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than he can understand.

from The Stolen Child, WB Yeats

What is Eco-fiction?

One of the largest works describing Eco-fiction is Jim Dwyer’s Where the Wild Books Are: A Field Guide to Eco-Fiction (2010). He researched hundreds of books and stated that his criteria in choosing whether or not a book was eco-fiction were:

  • The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.
  • The human history is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.
  • Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.
  • Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

Another definition is by Mike Vasey (referenced in Dwyer’s book):

“Stories set in fictional landscapes that capture the essence of natural ecosystems…[They] can build around human relationships to these ecosystems or leave out humans altogether. The story itself, however, takes the reader into the natural world and brings it alive…Ideally, the landscapes and ecosystems–whether fantasy or real–should be as ‘realistic’ as possible and plot constraints should accord with ecological principles.”

Some descriptions are simpler. Ashland Creek Press calls it “fiction with a conscience,” and one of the press’ co-founders, John Yunker, via personal correspondence, called it a super-genre. I think of eco-fiction not so much as a genre than as a way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre and make it come alive. I am not big on labels or boxy terms, but eco-fiction is broad and has a rich history.  Eco-fiction has no boundaries in time or space. It can be set in the past, present, or future. It can be set in other worlds. 

A short note on climate change in fiction

These days, many terms have sprung up to address the 'hyperobject' that is anthropogenic global warming (AGW), or what one might call the biggest eco-crisis of our times, perhaps what all other prior concerns in eco-writings have led to, built upon, and culminated in. Such genres include Anthropocene fiction, new nature writing, enviro-horror fiction, afrofuturism, green fiction, ecofuturism, ecopunk, biopunk, solarpunk, environmental science fiction, environmental fiction, climate fiction, and ecological/new weird fictions, to name a few–and these do not always relate just to just climate change but to a related eco/socio/political/cultural system. A hyperobject, according to Timothy Morton, explains objects so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization, such as climate change. Again, I think of eco-fiction as a way to bring alive the wild in any genre, whether romance, adventure, mystery, you name it. 

A History

Jim Dwyer stated in his field guide that the first time he heard the term eco-fiction was from the Eco-fiction anthology published in 1971 by Washington Square Press. Within this collection are even older short stories dating back to 1933. You might be surprised at the big authors in this little anthology: Ray Bradbury, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allan Poe, A.E. Coppard, James Agee, Robert M. Coates, Daphne du Maurier, Robley Wilson Jr., E.B. White, J.F. Powers, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Sarah Orne Jewett, Frank Herbert, H.H. Munro, J.G. Ballard, Steven Scharder, Isaac Asimov, and William Saroyan. The preface to the anthology states:

“The earth is an eco-system. It possesses a collective memory. Everything that happens, no matter how insignificant it may seem, affects in some way at some time the existence of everything else within that system.
Eco-fiction raises important questions about man’s place in the system:
Will man continue to ignore the warnings of the environment and destroy his source of life? Will he follow the herd into the slaughterhouse?”

So the first time the term eco-fiction came about, it contained stories going back to 1933. But, like with many living things, this type of literature has roots and branches and an ever-extending canopy. According to Dywer, precursors include magical realism, pastoral, mythology, animal metamorphoses, and classical fiction. Like with the anthology edited by Stadler, science fiction roots are evident as well. Environmental science fiction and ecologically oriented weird fiction go back far, because, as with Yeats’ and others, writers in every field have always worried about the trappings of walls and cities and refinement and wondered about the kind of life where one can “come away” to the “waters and the wild”. We can find such concerns in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works, too, which often pit machine and greedy power vs. an imaginary (but not unrealistic) natural world. Patrick Curry wrote an article titled Tolkien and Nature at the Tolkien Estate, stating:

“Tolkien…returns readers to the animate, sensuous, infinitely complex nature that humans have lived in for nearly all their 100,000 years or so, until the modern Western view of nature as a set of quantifiable, inert and passive “resources” started to bite only 400 years ago. Middle-earth is real because despite our modernist education we recognize it.”

There’s a long lineage of works in this canon, from early myths of weather gods and goddesses such as Thor, the thunder god, or Susanowo, the Japanese Shinto god of storms and sea. There’s Noah in the Bible and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In 1759 was Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, which dealt with regulation of the weather. Various storms, such as floods and winds and ice storms and fire, figure commonly in eco-fiction plots — but stories do not have to be apocalyptic; they also can be subtle and thoughtful.

Eco-fiction: Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905)
Nanabozho in Ojibwe flood story from an illustration by R.C. Armour, in his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends (1905). Courtesy, Wiki Commons.

We cannot ignore notable nonfiction that has inspired fiction movements, including nature writers and poets such as Rachel Carson, Margaret Fuller, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nearly every era of human-time has had its nature lovers who take to the pen to exalt nature or politicize our impacts on the wild, from St. Francis of Assisi to Gary Snyder to Upton Sinclair to Michael McClure to Naomi Klein.

One might say eco-fiction first began as cave drawings of animals and birds, which documented an era of humans connecting with their environment, and did so with storytelling via art; but the term became popular in the 1970s when natural history evolved among biologists and ecologists, and  nature writing with a sense of advocacy grew in literary study (ecocriticism), nonfiction, and fiction. Along with other environmental movements, the study of ecologically oriented fiction began to bloom and there became a sense of morality in storytelling. We have to be very careful in storytelling to be true to art forms, however, and not be preachy. Eco-fiction novels and prose zoom out to beyond the personal narrative and connect us to the commons around us –- our natural habitat. Previous literary scholarship often ignored this crucial connection.

***

In Part 2 of A History of Eco-fiction, Mary looks at how this “way to intersect natural landscape, environmental issues, and wilderness — and human connection to these things — into any genre” has been evolving from these earlier expressions and will return to the personal journey to her Irish roots.


Find out more

For the articles and books mentioned in Mary’s piece:

The Colour of Flamboyant Flowers

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Wide Sargasso Sea, the classic novel by Jean Rhys: her prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and a story of blurred, alienation, displacement, colonialism and the ‘othering’ of difference in race and gender.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes   


A copy of Wide Sargasso Sea goes to Nancy Campbell for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

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
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
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 one 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.

Sargasso sea — 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
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.”

Stalking the Impossible

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Geoffrey Household’s outstanding 1939 thriller, Rogue Male: a brilliant piece of landscape writing and a novel of slowly revealed relationships, between individual and society; human and more-than-human; surface and subterranean; cunning and culture.


approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes  


A copy of Rogue Male goes to Nick Hunt for his contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

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)
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 element that can both kill and protect. Later, laying 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
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. 

Rogue male: 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<br /> Image: David Rooney
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. 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. The 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 a 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.

The Rise of Climate Fiction #2: The Emotional Key

Author David Thorpe considers approaches that engage readers with human stories within the climate change one, and writers’ responsibilities in climate fiction, given that “stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves.”


approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes 


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.”

George Clarke Simpson, making scientific observations in the magnetic hut during the Terra Nova Expedition
George Clarke Simpson, making scientific observations in the magnetic hut during the Terra Nova Expedition
Photograph: Herbert Ponting, 1911
Source: Wikipedia (‘George Simpson’)

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.

Climate fiction: 'Shackleton's Man Goes South' cover
‘Shackleton’s Man Goes South’ cover Design: Science Museum © 2013

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.

Climate fiction: Weatherfronts cover
Weatherfronts cover design
Photograph: Sarah Thomas © 2017
https://journeysinbetween.wordpress.com

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 southwestern 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. 

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.

Maja Lunde’s novel The History of Bees (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster / Scribner UK and KN’s review is published in Australia’s The Saturday Paper (1st September 2017)

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!

What Use is Grief to a Horse?

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe reviews Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play, Equus, which explores incomprehensible violence against animals as an indictment of society’s dulling of the feeling of true passion, our relationship with the natural world a distortion of nature.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


A copy of Equus goes to Ruth Garde for her contribution to our series, A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. 

***

“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?”

Passion - Cover of Equus
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

Passion as intimiacy? Still from the film adaptation, Equus
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

Passion as worship? The Stanwick Horse Mask from north Yorkshire
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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