Beneath What Is Visible, A Vast Shadow

Photographer Oliver Raymond-Barker uses an innovative take on the camera obscura to uncover visible and invisible networks and complex histories embedded in a Scottish peninsula whose water-and-landscape is home to nuclear arsenals, peace activists and pilgrims’ spiritual traditions.


approximate Reading Time: 11 minutes  


Last November, I joined other artists presenting work as part of Planetary Processing, a gathering for whom photography is a mode of speculation on geological, celestial and bodily systems. I showed prints and text from my latest project, Trinity.

I created this body of work during residencies at Cove Park arts centre in Scotland, where I could engage with the unique ecology of the Rosneath peninsula: the landscape itself, the networks visible and invisible that have been imposed upon it and the complex histories embedded in its fabric.

Beneath land and water

The peninsula is dominated by the presence of HMNB Faslane and RNAD Coulport, the home of Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Existing alongside these sprawling sites are the small, temporary constructions of itinerant activists — locations such as the Peace Wood bear traces of their occupation.

Trinity references the early Christian pilgrims that voyaged to remote corners of the British Isles, such as Rosneath, in search of sanctuary; peregrini who sought to use the elemental power of nature as a means of gaining spiritual enlightenment. However, it also alludes to the contemporary use of the land — promised into the service of conflict, boundaries delineated upon the surface that pay no heed to its deep geological history.

I made these images using my own ‘backpack obscura’ — a custom-built camera obscura designed to allow me to capture large format images in remote locations. A light-tight tent, it uses rudimentary materials and a simple meniscus lens to project the desired image onto the floor of the camera. As well as being my means of image making, it also served as my shelter from the elements.

After two extended stays on the peninsula I felt I had enough material to begin the editing process. However, I soon realised that conveying the depth and breadth of what I had experienced was going to be difficult using image alone. The idea of creating a publication seemed the perfect solution as a means of expanding and extending upon my work. I feel the combination of critical and creative texts really help to locate the imagery whilst also providing a platform from which the reader can access the project.

Image shows cover design of Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Design by Loose Joints.
Trinity, by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019

What follows, with some of the images I took, are edited extracts from the two texts that have been provided for the book: Not Negative, an essay by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and Trinity, writer Nick Hunt’s creative memoir of his stay in 2002 at the peace camp near to the naval base that’s home to Britain’s nuclear deterrent of three Vanguard-class submarines equipped with thermonuclear warheads, where he engaged in several direct actions against the base.

Not negative

Most photography deals in detail, giving the illusion of facts, and with that, an instant understanding. In contrast, these images convey in their evocative obscurity only a steadily gathering comprehension. Raymond-Barker creates a sequence of repeated motifs that gather force and meaning because of their claustrophobic insistence. Branches, foliage and sky dominate, interspersed with mountainous terrain, bodies of water, security fences and eerily empty buildings. Punctuating the procession of glimpsed black and white impressions are shocks of colour: burnt orange, butane blue and blood red. Together, these images appear like the mental flashbacks of a person who is attuned to the animal, seeking survival, hunted in the half-light. Crucial to the arresting aesthetic and meaning of Raymond-Barker’s photographs is his pairing of contemporary concerns and production with basic nineteenth-century analogue techniques, notably paper negatives, which hark back to the origins of photography. In the analogue age, the technical processes and language used to conceptualize photography inhabited a liminal and alchemical space. Unique and ‘latent’ images were formed in light-sensitive silver salts on the surface of metal, paper, glass, and later, plastics. Rituals of the darkroom allowed those images to conjure multiples in the form of positive prints emerging into the light.

Photographer by Oliver Raymond-Barker
Photographer: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

In sidelining negatives to a functional and more subservient role in relation to the positive prints, the artistic and physical uniqueness of the negative remained unexploited. Yet, until they are printed, negatives contain significant untapped potential, like a charged battery waiting to be connected. Moreover, negatives are direct witnesses, actual chemical evidence, still, silent, traces and links to the time and place witnessed by the photographer and channelled onto a light-sensitive surface.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

For the images in this book, Raymond-Barker created a ‘backpack obscura’, a modern portable version of the camera obscura used by artists since at least the sixteenth century. In his construction, a light-tight tent is pitched in the landscape and a 70mm lens and mirror extended outside it projecting an image of the surroundings on a white groundsheet on the floor. Once the composition is decided, in the darkness, he unrolls a sheet of resin-coated paper and places it on the floor to capture an exposure of some fifteen seconds. During the exposure, he is intent, sometimes ‘dodging’ and ‘burning’ the paper. Such methods are conventionally reserved for darkroom printing from negatives, to block or increase light in selected areas, enhancing or reducing contrast and softening edges. The tree canopy above the tent is often the natural subject. The latent image is formed on the photographic paper and will not be visible until later when he returns to process it in his darkroom in Penryn in Cornwall, many miles away. At night, he may sleep in the tent where the image he has captured on the site also lies temporarily dormant.

Some of the black and white paper negatives Raymond-Barker makes remain unique images. Others become the basis for black and white positive ‘contact prints’. However, Raymond-Barker also achieves some tints by combining his negatives with colour photographic papers and processing. He embraces as authentic and integral to the process what might conventionally be seen as faults: water damage, scratches, and uneven development and exposures.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

We may intuit from the uncanny appearance of these photographs that the location they depict is a landscape full of echoes; that it holds a deep history resounding with the ominous undercurrents of the present. It enhances the work to know that these Scottish landscapes are at a location likely to have been near the sites alighted on by evangelist monks from the early Celtic church. By stark contrast, it is also the area close to the present-day Clyde nuclear submarine base at Faslane bay. It is a place of bleak and sublime natural beauty in which helicopters and police boats are reminders of an awesome destructive power that lurks beneath the water. The protesters’ nearby peace camp consists of homemade structures, humbly defiant in the face of military might.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, describing a fearsome threat hiding in the woods and waters, seems apposite:

A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
The water burns …

Raymond-Barker opts for a similarly poetic approach in his image making and storytelling. The charge of his pictures lingers like a half-remembered dream.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

Trinity

He approaches from the south, a small man in a ragged robe. He comes carefully through these woods. There is no razor wire. Sunlight and shadows slide off him, spiderwebs break silently. The skeletons of dead leaves cling to his rough hair.

Behind him is the Irish Sea, cold and grey, with white-capped waves. On the rocky shoreline lies an abandoned coracle. Crabs have made their homes in it. Its willow ribs press on its skin. He will not need it now, for there is no return.

He traces the long line of the loch, stitching himself into the land. Around him is an interweave of oak and ash and pine. He picks his way through tangled thorn. There is no smooth road. Beyond the trees a wet wind blows over open water.

It rises up from deep below. Its shoulder breaks the surface. Water thunders from its flank. The daylight makes it gleam. For long months it has been submerged in darkness and in secrecy, nursing its destructiveness. It has seen the bottom of the world, the undersides of ice floes. Now its weight is buoyancy. It surfaces to claim the air.

Beneath what is visible is a vast shadow.

The call goes up just after dawn. I stumble from my tent. People are staggering around, pulling off their sleep-warm clothes. I spill coffee on myself. Someone blows a trumpet. The loch is hidden by the trees and I can’t see what the others have seen. There is something I’ve agreed to do in this eventuality but I do not know what it is. My brain is still stunned with sleep. Then I know again.

People are running to the loch. I follow without shoes. We leave the camp, cross the road and stand upon the lapping shore. There are no police around. There is no time to think. From the wet heap at my feet I select a thick black skin and drag my legs into it, heave it over my chest and arms, being flayed in reverse. It is clammy, tight and cold. Its smell is like an old tomb. We wade into icy water clad in neoprene.

Photograph by Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He passes dwellings in the trees. Bivouacs and benders. Turf-roofed huts and tents. The camps of charcoal burners. Through the smoke he glimpses them, the gentle outcasts of these woods. Those who fled from villages. Those who are misshapen. He sees them gathered by their fires telling stories, singing songs. He blesses them as he walks by. They do not notice him.

Behind him are the gilded robes that he shed for plain sackcloth. His hand exchanged a crosier for a staff of blackthorn.

These woodlands end against the shore and he walks the pebble beach, the wind harsh upon his skin, following the undulating highlands with his eye. A seabird turns in the air. There is a stink of wrack. He could build a chapel here but something tells him to walk on, away from the long water with its access to the sea. He does not trust those depths. That shadow in the water.

The grey waves part on either side of its gliding topmost fin and join again behind, leaving no trace of its passing. It monstrous mass keeps pace below. Seabirds keep their distance. As it slides towards its home it scans the confines of this sound, reading depths and distances, alert to any obstacle. Its brutal, sleek intelligence seems evolved and not designed.

In its wake, a flying machine hangs and buzzes watchfully.

There were glaciers here once that tore strips from the land. Then the sea flooded in. It travels in their absence.

The first steps into coldness hurt, the next ones not so much. The water grips my legs, my thighs, my chest. I start to paddle. At first we cluster in a bunch but soon the swimmers scatter out. Spectators gather on the shore, shouting exhortations.

The low horizon of the hills goes up and down beyond the waves. Small waves slap against my mouth. I concentrate on breathing. The water feels very dense, made sluggish by the cold. This is not my element. The distance feels hopeless.

Far out, a noisy helicopter turns slow circles in the sky. It must be half a mile away. Below it I can see the shape of something great and dark.

Photographby Oliver Raymond-Barker 2018
Photograph: Oliver Raymond-Barker © 2018

He wanders enraptured, ruptured. The sunlight breaks upon him. On the shore he falls to his knees with the immensity and stares upon the awesome light that floods the shadows of the world. The god of love is everywhere. It is all a marvel. He closes his dazzled eyes and the world appears in negative, the black sky and the white trees, the incandescent veins of leaves, the bleached water opening to some great revelation. A vision flashes in his mind of blank structures on the shore, hard-edged and unknowable, working to some vast and terrible design. The revelation fills him but he cannot understand it. When he opens his eyes again, everything is as it is. The trees, the stones, the small waves are fixed in their positions.

It registers nothing of these things. Nothing penetrates. Its mind, if it has a mind, is as blank as a stone. It has almost reached its home. Its velocity starts to slow.

We doggy-paddle, thankful but defeated, back towards the land. As I focus on the shore I see a man stooping there. Water flows from his cupped hands. He gazes somehow through me. I think about solid ground, warm clothes, a welcome fire. When I look again he is no longer there.

Note from Nick Hunt inside Trinity, a book by Oliver Raymond-Barker. Book design by Loose Joints © 2019.

Find out more

Planetary Processing took the form of a six-month artist-led peer forum, funded by Artquest and hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London. 

A fully designed mock-up of Oliver’s photobook, Trinity, was shortlisted in the 2019 Kassel Dummy Award. “This year we again invited all photographers worldwide to take part and to send us their unpublished photobook mock-up. In total, 362 photobooks from 37 countries from all over the world were sent in.” The book will travel around the world for the next six months for various exhibitions.

The book is designed by Loose Joints: “For this sprawling publication we used an interplay of papers, sizes and colours to re-structure Barker’s immersive images, which are made using a backpack-mounted camera obscura to make and print photographs in situ. The result is a swirling mixture of tones and sensations…”

In his essay, Martin Barnes says, “There is something powerfully primal about Oliver Raymond-Barker’s most recent photographs. Passages of flaring light, blurred boundaries and hard shadows mix with vaporous swirls and smudges. They give the impression of an eye-opening from slumber onto a world that is not yet fully formed, a realm that is intuited rather than understood … Raymond-Barker’s artistic practice is linked to the early experimental phase of photography, reclaiming the negative as an idea as much as an image that immediately conveys something familiar yet otherworldly. In this and earlier work he is primarily concerned with the intersection between history and landscape. His method is to embed himself in a specific location … by walking on a lone pilgrimage. He allows time and the alternative ‘camera-less’ photographic methods he employs to open up ideas and issues in the terrain, a working practice that he describes as ‘getting to the core of a place’. … His subject is the atmosphere of the place, its spiritual history across time, and an uneasy combination of awe in nature with the nascent threat of an unfathomable destructive force.”

Nick Hunt adds in a note to his piece that “St. Modan, the son of an Irish chieftain, renounced his position as an abbot to live as a hermit in the 6th century. His relics are kept at Rosneath Church on the shore of Gare Loch.”

The full texts of Martin’s and Nick’s texts, Not Negative and Trinity, are available at Oliver’s website. Oliver’s previous post for ClimateCultures, Beyond Tongues: Into the Animist Language of Stone, explores his encounter — on a climb in a Welsh slate quarry — with a world beyond our normal modes of communication and a route away from modern separatist language.

In his essay, Martin Barnes refers to the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf, the account of that hero’s encounters with the monster Grendel, who terrorised humanity from his lair beneath the shadowy mere. For a discussion on an alternative imagining of Grendel and Beowulf and the perilous meeting of worlds, see Bringing Our Monsters Back Home, my review of John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #9

Out of rangePoet Nick Drake offers poems of three dark objects that illuminate our world-shifting ways: an emblem of inefficiency, a single-use convenience that will outlast us, and a nightmare taking shape beneath our feet, our streets, our notice, until…

approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes 


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Nick’s selection coincides with the publication of his new collection, Out of Range — which itself brilliantly explores the strange interconnections and confronting emergencies of our new planetary age. 

***

Here are three poems from my new poetry collection about objects which speak to me of the Anthropocene.

Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Out of Range, by Nick Drake
Cover: Bloodaxe Books

Incandescent lightbulbs are inefficient, and have been phased out around the world. Ubiquitous, cheap, reliable, disposable, their illumination gradually conquered the dark, and lit much of the world for more than a century. This poem is a way to say hail and farewell to them…. and to remember the powers of the dark.

Dark - the Livermore Centennial light bulb
The Livermore Centennial Lightbulb (‘the longest lasting lightbulb in the world’)
Image: Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb

You had nothing but the moon,
the guttering candle, and the dish of oil
to thread the eye of a needle, read,
or cast shadows on the walls, until
you created us, the first light
that was constant in the dark –

From a heart-beat twist of tungsten
and a single breath of gas to hold
our whole lives long, you sowed
one idea in our glass skulls;
to shine at your command.

We shed no tears of wax; reliable,
disposable, we lived where you lived,
lit your parties and wars; one by one
we brightened the hill-shanties
and towers of your mega-cities;
when you were lost, we were home
waiting, just a click away
to save you from the small hours’ fears;
when your lives hung by a thread
we stayed as long as necessary;
we shone when you were gone.

And when with a quiet tick
the luminous spell of our filament broke
you cast us off; and now you wish
a light perpetual and free,
your highways and cities radiant
archipelagoes against the dark –

But if the lights go out from time to time,
lie back on the black grass, gaze up
at the banished constellations, take
ancient starlight in, and listen
for the dark song of our source summoning,
on summer nights and winter afternoons,
the antiquated powers of the moon. 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


Along with chicken bones and radioactivity, plastic bottles are what will survive of us (as Philip Larkin said of love) in the geological record. Nearly 36 million are born every day in this country alone. Less than half make it to recycling. Here’s the story from their point of view.

Plastic water bottles
Plastic water bottles
Image: Public Domain Pictures

Still life: Plastic water bottle (used)

Why did you
Make us in
your image?

Replicants
of the prototype, not
goddesses of strange fertility,
not glass, bone, wood or stone, but
generated from dark matter in a split
second to join the silent masses,
monks, soldiers, clones, waiting
in the moonlight of the fridge
for you to drink down our short
stories of ancient waters and bright
sugars until our emptiness
is complete – but there
we part; cast-off, we colonise
every dominion from the highest peak
to the deepest fathom of the abyss
and though the timeline of the waves
degrades us to nanoparticles, yet
we will survive all the brief histories
of your unsuccessful flesh to abide
in every mortal heart undying…
Now only you can save us from
the doldrums of this everlastingness
if you conceive a new skin of beautiful
mortality that grants us too the strange
sea-change of release 
into the mercy of everything
and nothing 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


The Whitechapel fatberg is the largest ever recorded in London, but it has siblings in every major city. It holds a mirror up to consumption and what we throw or flush away. The Museum of London curator, Vyki Sparkes, noted how samples — viewable online via the fatcam live-feed — fascinated the public; “It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating and disgusting. The perfect museum object.” 

Dark monster - the Whitechapel Fatberg
The Whitechapel fatberg
Image: Flickr / Creative Commons

Stranger Thing

(The Whitechapel fatberg, c/o the Museum of London)

Chip fat, cold shits, dead paints, hate mail, grease,
used wet-wipes, condoms, nappies, cotton buds,
paracetamol, toenail-crescents, needles, hair –

the dregs, swill, scum, muck, slop we flush away
are harvest festival for the moony monster
who rules the empire of the upside down

beneath the illusion of floorboards, parks and streets;
stranger thing, behemoth, lonely ogre, shy
Caliban created by our multitudes,

dreaming where the sewers slowly flow
through whispering galleries and gargoyle crypts,
bringing offerings to the awful sanctuary. 

We sent our heroes down in hazmat suits
to besiege it; now these abominable lumps
festering in sealed and chilled vitrines

on live-feed for the curiosity of the world
are all that’s left. The glass holds our reflections,
the beautiful ones who love to scare ourselves,

taking selfies with the alien bogey-beast,
our nightmare mirror image even now
regenerating in the dark beneath our feet. 

© Nick Drake 2018

 


Find out more

Out of Range is Nick Drake’s fourth collection, and is published by Bloodaxe Books (2018). In these poems, he explores the signs, wonders and alarms of the shock and impact of ‘Generation Anthropocene’ on Earth’s climate and ecology. As well as the three poems above, the book includes portraits of ice-core samples, of those living on the margins of the city streets, and of Voyager 1 crossing the threshold of the solar system. Nick’s previous collections include The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012), which grew out of a voyage around the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard to study climate change. Chronicle of the Incandescent Lightbulb first appeared in the book Energetic: Exploring the past, present and future of energy, produced by the Stories of Change project. I reviewed Energetic for ClimateCultures in August 2018.

For more on the Whitechapel fatberg, see this piece by Vyki Sparkes, the Museum of London’s curator, and this one by Lanes Group plc, the company who worked on behalf of Thames Water to remove the monster from its sewer home… Part of the fatberg is now in the museum’s permanent collection, and footage from the fatcam livefeed Nick mentions is available with this article

 

Bringing Our Monsters Back Home

Mark Goldthorpe reviews John Gardner’s Grendel, a novel that reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf and speaks to us about ‘Othering’ the natural world, and how our excluded monsters insist on coming back in.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


“The dragon tipped up his great tusked head, stretched his neck, sighed fire. ‘Ah, Grendel!’ he said. He seemed at that instant almost to rise to pity. ‘You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for a long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they learn to define themselves.’ … I was sure he was lying. Or anyway half-sure.” – John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner’s 1971 novel, Grendel, reimagines the monster of the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Grendel lives in a cave beneath the mere, beyond the settlement of warrior king, Hrothgar. He visits terror and death on Hrothgar’s people: “I burst in when they were all asleep, snatched seven from their beds, and slit them open and devoured them on the spot”.

Border dweller, walker of the world’s weird wall

This beast is an “I”, not an “It,” and his discovery of self, humanity and the world that mankind is making blurs the boundaries between human and monster. Boundaries are important. In Old English, Grendel is mearc-stapa, ‘border dweller’. In the novel he’s the same: “shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall”.

The story takes Grendel from his late childhood, knowing only the cave he shares with his speechless, unfathomable mother and the questions he can’t answer about what and why he is, and out into the world of nature and humans. He observes the growing society of warriors as they settle and transform the world he comes to know, and watches their wars, art and religion. Terrible to confront, he’s rejected by humans and rejects them in return, but is unable to deny his fascination with their determination to make meaning of their own existence. And he encounters the know-it-all dragon, who sees all space and time and the apocalypse at the end of the universe, and subjects Grendel to its nihilistic cynicism. Struggling with the animal, human and dragon-like aspects of his own nature, Grendel ravages Hrothgar’s meadhall time and again and eventually meets his own, inevitable death at the hand of Beowulf. The dragon has seen that too, of course, and so have we; we know the story, but nobody told Grendel.

Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Book cover for Grendel by John Gardner
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1973
http://michaelleonardartist.com

The novel provokes the question: who is it that is speaking? Grendel is the ‘I’, John Gardner his author. Gardner uses the creature he found in Beowulf, a text handed down from unknown Anglo-Saxons writing in a Christianising England before the 10th century; who took their sources from oral traditions we can’t know fully; which told of another country, another time, another (pagan) worldview. Many versions have come between Beowulf and Grendel (including a 1957 prose translation by David Wright – I’m fortunate to have an edition with cover illustration by Michael Leonard, who also illustrated my copy of Grendel), and more since, including films, books, cartoons, songs; each one pouring other texts into their own work, as Gardner did with his novel.

Creating realities

Of course fiction is creative – but in the reading as well as the writing. Reading is not so much about uncovering what lies beneath: the author’s intent. We cannot go beneath the text in the way Grendel dives under the mere to reach his hidden cave. But we bring to this text the others we’ve read, heard about or imagined, and make something out of our particular constellation of them all. Our reading cannot fail to include and use all we’ve read, seen and heard before; and so, creatively, we understand each ‘new’ text through past experiences, and our anticipation of more to come. This is the sort of sense-making that mystifies and torments Grendel.

Reality, however, is always in ‘excess’ of our perceptions, texts and sense-making. Our senses are limited in what they can detect, and they filter out what we do not ‘need’ to know. They can’t bring everything inside; if they could, reality would overwhelm us, crippling our ability to do anything about it. As biology, we reduce our environment to things we can discriminate, then rebuild it into something we can use: something always incomplete. The dragon sees this:

“Counters, measurers, theory-makers … They only think they think. No total vision … They’d map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories … They sense that, of course, from time to time; have uneasy feelings that all they live by is nonsense … That’s where the Shaper saves them. Provides an illusion of reality – puts together all their facts with a gluey whine of connectedness. Mere tripe, believe me … He knows no more of total reality than they do – less, if anything.”

Gardner saw his novel as a defence of human values – of life, love, art, home, knowledge, self-sacrifice, loyalty, hope, friendship, and faith – against the ironic alternatives represented, not by Grendel but by the dragon who lectures him on the bleak universe.

When Grendel first emerges from his dark, womb-like cave, he encounters humans as they also first discover the land they will settle. Shocked by their violent rejection, disillusioned in his repeated attempts to learn meaning from them, he becomes alien, the ‘Other’. A self-reflexive Other:

“I observe myself observing what I observe. It startles me. ‘Then I am not that which observes.’ … No thread, no frailest hair between me and the universal clutter.”

He witnesses the humans’ systematic destruction of their environment. Unlike the dragon, Grendel is not so much supernatural as a force of nature attempting to understand humanity even as it seeks to control, expel or destroy him.

Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Book cover for Beowulf, a prose translation by David Wright
Artist: Michael Leonard © 1970
http://michaelleonardartist.com

(B)ordering the world

This monstrous protagonist-narrator foregrounds questions of how we order the world, border it, make sense of it. How does this (b)ordering privilege some ‘things’ and marginalise or exclude others? How do the marginal and excluded parts of the world respond? What becomes of us in the process of creating our world this way?

Grendel lives on our borders. Hrothgar’s meadhall is ours, created to keep out the cold and dark wilderness and contain the telling of tales by the fire. The meadhall is the new centre of a human world that’s set on expanding forever. Hrothgar subjects and absorbs other tribes, demands tribute, pushes back the world around him. Nature is to be managed, defended against. And, where its threats are too great to be directly comprehended, they’re ‘contained’ in the words of Hrothgar’s poet, Shaper, or the religion of his priest, Ork. ‘Others’ managed as stories: darkest fears hidden in plain sight. But the monster keeps reappearing, whatever words Shaper conjures up. As humans centre the world on themselves, Grendel is increasingly decentred in his, forced onto the margins, but always ready to slip back in.

In that gap between excess reality and incomplete perceptions is space for ambiguity: room for manoeuvre, for creativity – or denial. When we use culture and politics to continue the job of biology, filtering out aspects of the world that we deem unimportant, inconvenient or fearful, we’re pretending something doesn’t exist even though we know it does. We grant it power: the agency to intervene, Grendel-like. Excluding what would overcomplicate our lives, we find it overflowing our frame, pouring back into what we wanted to simplify and manage. Our lives recomplicate, our meadhall doors thrown down again.

Monster culture

In Monster Culture: Seven Theses, English and Medieval Studies scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen says that “We live in a time of monsters”: from global terror to global warming, WMD proliferation to technological acceleration, and ecological collapse to industrial pollution. (Or, as the future-seeing, nihilistic dragon says to Grendel: “Pick an apocalypse, any apocalypse. A sea of black oil and dead things”). That this has led to a state of generalised anxiety is revealed in

“a cultural fascination with monsters – a fixation that is born of the twin desires to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens.” – Jeffery Jerome Cohen

Cohen proposes seven ways to read cultures through the monsters they engender:

  • Thesis I: The monster’s body is a cultural body

As construct and projection of fears, “the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns’ … Like a letter on the page, the monster signifies something other than itself”.

  • Thesis II: The monster always escapes

Whether ‘defeated’ or not in any telling, the monster escapes classification and slips back beyond our re-secured borders, ready to return in another guise: “its threat is its propensity to shift”.

  • Thesis III: The monster is the harbinger of category crisis

Monsters refuse to participate in the order we seek to impose, reappearing at “times of crisis as a kind of third term that problematises the clash of extremes”, of binaries. Grendel: “All order, I’ve come to understand, is theoretical, unreal – a harmless, sensible, smiling mask men slide between the two great, dark realities, the self and the world – two snakepits.”

  • Thesis IV: The monster dwells at the gates of difference

As “difference made flesh, come to live among us” the monstrously embodied ‘Other’ “justifies its displacement or extermination by rendering the act as heroic”. Differences multiply and “slide together like the imbricated circles of a Venn diagram, abjecting from the centre that which becomes the monster”.

  • Thesis V: The monster polices the borders of the possible

Once we’ve created our multiplying and shifting Others, this uncategorisable assemblage takes a “position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes … borders that cannot – must not – be crossed”.

  • Thesis VI: Fear of the monster is really a kind of desire

What is forbidden is also appealing and the fact that it is beyond control only enhances this attraction. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time as we envy its freedom, and perhaps its sublime despair”.

  • Thesis VII: The monster stands at the threshold of becoming

Although we push them back, they always return. “And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge”.

Fiction offers safer encounters with our monsters, but an encounter nonetheless. Grendel invites you to explore your boundaries and beyond. And when you come back, a returnee to what you regard as a human-centred world, you maybe find your self-knowledge a little changed. Perhaps you ask yourself ‘How am I human? How am I monster?’

Look your monsters in the eye - Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe
Look your monsters in the eye
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

Find out more

At the British Museum Beowulf page you can view their digitised copy of the manuscript in their collection — and Electronic Beowulf, a collaboration between the British Museum and the University of Kentucky.

Jeffery Jerome Cohen essay Monster culture (seven theses), appeared in Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Cohen J, ed), published by University of Minnesota Press (1996).

John Gardner’s Grendel was published by Gollancz (1971).

David Wright’s Beowulf (a prose translation), was published  in 1957, and is out of print.