Thoughts


I watched Jindabyne recently, an Australian film with Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne; the main plot revolves around issues of guilt (both social and individual) and remorse, and how they can impact upon networks of relationships, but there was a complex spider-web of allusion and metaphor spun up around this, centring in the main on water and drowning. This is exemplified by the town of the film’s title, situated in the Snowy Mountains, NSW, which was established initially when European settlers displaced the Indigenous populations from the 1820s onwards. In the 1960s, the Snowy River was dammed and the valley in which Jindabyne sat was flooded, and so the inhabitants were moved up to higher ground, and the new town sits at the southern lip of the lake. In the film, two children tell stories and scare each other at the lakeside, with tales of the drowned settlement, imagining the houses and inhabitants suspended in watery gloom, neither dead nor alive, existing beneath the lake’s mirrored surface.

Not too far beyond the city’s edge near to where I grew up, there is a huge expanse of water, alongside and over which the main road west snakes across the Pennines. The valley here too was flooded, seen here in maps before and after. The reservoir was planned and initiated in 1935; it took eight years to build, and two more to fill. Before the waters came two villages sat in the valley floor, Ashopton and Derwent. The former witnessed the future viaduct being built over its head as life continued during the reservoir’s construction; the village’s chapel was demolished prior to the flooding, but not before its community was able to reflect, in the final hymn of the final service, on the inconstancy of the earthly. In contrast, at Derwent, the church was initially left standing, its spire piercing the waterline providing an astonishing image for those who passed by in times of low water¹.

ladybower_reservoir_derwent_church_spire

When I was young, every time we drove past the reservoir my parents would point out to the expanse of water and tell myself and my sister of the long-drowned villages and how the remains of the houses and the streets lay silent and submerged. As a child I was absolutely entranced by the stories, and the images that they created in my mind. In that sense, I was just like the two fascinated Australian children staring into the gloom of Lake Jindabyne telling each other frightening tales of the lost and the drowned, the empty houses and the sunken lives. I am not alone in having been enraptured by this image: many of the numerous contributors to this message board about Ladybower show the same childhood obsession with stories of the submerged villages, and people still now hope to see fragments of the once-drowned at times of low tide.

For years I forgot about the stories of the lost villages at Ladybower, and the pleasing sense of nameless fear and wonder that they had conjured in the imagination. Then, trying to write something through a voice situated inside academic archaeology, I was attempting to find some kind of overarching metaphor for the position of those who study the past using whatever fragmentary material remains time and chance have allowed them, and my mind toyed with a picture of drowned cities, their towers and steeples forlornly trying to reach out from the black waters that otherwise had overwhelmed them. Some images seem better suited to metaphor than to reality, perhaps. I thought also of the story found in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, relating that in the time of Seth two huge pillars, one of brick and one of stone, were built and inscribed with all knowledge, so that if the earth suffered disaster of fire or flood, the world’s repository of learning would survive even if there was no-one left to read it². The water rises up as time flows on, and we float on the rafts of the present as pondskaters do, held fast into the moment’s meniscus. Whatever is left to make sense of the past’s drowned lives, its cities, villages, and people, is whatever has chanced to survive the constant deluge and pierced the water’s surface for us to survey. When I was writing the article in question, I initially thought I had found a rather apt metaphor, and (as usual) flattered myself at its efficacy; only later did I, vain idiot, realise this was an image from my own past, one that had its root in my father’s stories. In my mind, it had become detached from the specifics of place, and become loosed into the everyspace of metaphor. Sometimes it’s good to have a metaphor come home.

Yet that still leaves a questions: why was this image of the drowned villages, buildings partially sunk beneath the waterline, so very compelling? The final line of a short essay by Borges entitled ‘The Fearful Sphere of Pascal‘ reads:

“It may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors”

In the essay, Borges traces one particular metaphor concerning endlessness and divinity: the image of deity as an infinite sphere. He follows this from the Presocratics, through to its appearance in those writings ascribed to Trismegistus, on to its most familiar and well-rounded formulation in Alain of Lille (Deus est spera infinitia, cuius centrum est ubique, circumferencia nusquam), and beyond to the work of Bruno, and finally Pascal³. The nature of metaphors — their imaginative fecundity and propensity to overlap and perforate — means that they are creative and generative in memory and image. There’s something in Benjamin to effect that allegories are in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things. The drowned villages of Ladybower aren’t ruins in the Romantic sense, but the profound (and probably also deeply Freudian) image of the lost and sunken lives still protruding into the present in a ruinated state carries tremendous metaphorical power. One day, those houses and churches will be ours.

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¹ This situation did not last long. Apparently there were fears for public safety: individuals were minded to attempt to swim out into the deep water in order to touch the spire, and so, only two years after the flooding of the valley, the steeple was dynamited.

² Jewish Antiquities 1.69-71. There is something comparable in the SHA, Thirty Tyrants 22, where a golden column was reported to stand in Memphis and etched upon it were prophecies of the future rather than the memories of the past.

³ Borges also relates that, with the image of the infinite sphere weighing down on Pascal, he “compared our life with that of castaways on a desert island. He felt the incessant weight of the physical world, he experienced vertigo, fright and solitude…”

The Sunday before last was All Soul’s, and in the cold and the wet that morning we scattered the ashes of my grandfather, who was ninety-four years old when he died in the very early morning of Christmas Eve. His funeral and cremation had followed his death as quickly as the festive season would allow, but what was left of him rested inside a plastic container with my mother; whilst the house clearing and selling were dealt with, it all seemed too soon still, but once the small house and its contents had been dispersed, it seemed right to do the same to him, and All Soul’s Day was as good a day as any. The site chosen was the place where the ashes of his wife, my grandmother, had been scattered six years earlier: atop the graves of her own parents, in the village in which she’d been baptised early last century. A view of the Cleveland Hills, in the quiet of a small village graveyard.

graveyard

It was not a ceremonial moment: we were all family, and there was no-one to officiate but ourselves. Using trowels, we cleared away the stray grass and dead leaves in the lee of one of the pair of standing family gravestones, and then my mother opened the flask, and poured him out. We tried to bed the ash down, digging it into the soil, and in the mizzle there wasn’t much chance for him to be scattered, but that didn’t matter: we’d wanted him tight, fast to the earth, in the same spot as his wife had been similarly sown. A stout proud man, he’d been a sailor, an engineer, fought in the war, lived in Africa, and found his way home in the end. I was an archaeologist and I’ve dug many bodies, hating them every time for how they slowed me down and demanded care and attention to excavate and record, qualities I had little of as a trench-monkey. Here, though, was my grandfather’s cremated remains, and I was amazed at how much of him there was: not something to be flung from the fingertips like sand, but handfuls and handfuls, grey and black, shards and dust. And so we crouched there, turning this mound of powder into the damp ground, churning the charcoal-flecked ash with the soil from freshly-dug molehills next to the grave, bedding all that back into the earth.

Because I think too much, and most frequently about things that I shouldn’t, instead of standing solemnly and thinking about all the happy times I had had with my grandfather (not to mention how appropriate it was that he was uniting with the damp fertile soil when for most of the time I had known him he had so enjoyed producing flowers and vegetables out of his own small patch of it), I was instead mediating my feelings through others, thinking about the seventeenth-century doctor and philosopher Thomas Browne, and specifically about his essay on death and burial, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall. Browne’s inquiry into the social and cultural articulations of funerary custom was caused by the discovery of cremated human remains in North Norfolk.

In a Field of old Walsingham, not many months past, were digged up between fourty and fifty Urnes, deposited in dry and sandy soile, not a yard deep, not far from one another: Not all strictly of one figure, but most answering these described; some containing two pounds of bones, distinguishable in skulls, ribs, jawes, thighbones, and teeth, with fresh impressions of their combustion.

His study of human remains spins out into an exploration of materiality, the nature of historical knowability, the futility of remembrance, and the nature of being human. Browne is like no other writer, a fact that many other people have expressed better than I ever could, and Hydriotaphia is like no other work of literature I have ever come across.

I came to Browne for the very first time through Borges’ short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (a piece I have already mentioned here, albeit pretty tangentially). I encountered Borges’ erudite name-dropping at a time when I was just beginning to grapple with the styles and processes of learning-as-task, and the mystical intricacies of esoteric names and books bleeding through the surface of the narrative delighted and aroused me in equal measure. Some names and works were known to me; others I assumed to be real, but I had yet to encounter them in my reading; a third category was revealed when I tried to find out more about Silas Haslam’s (non-existent) A General History of Labyrinths: those authors and volumes that Borges had invented for his narrative¹. I have little background in English literature, and at that point I had absolutely none in seventeenth-century literature of any kind, and thus the name of Sir Thomas Browne that makes a fleeting appearance at the end of Borges’ narrative was wholly unknown to me, and I was unable to discern which of the latter two categories he might belong to. Nor did I have any idea what a work of literature entitled ‘Urne-Buriall‘ might encompass (beyond the obvious), and I had absolutely no idea who Quevedo was. Then, in one of those particular co-incidences that in retrospect one re-examines and finds to be scarcely credible, I put down the volume of Borges short stories and picked up the next book on my to-read pile, The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald. I read of the narrator’s desperate confinement in a Norwich hospital, and then in astonishment, of the tale of Thomas Browne’s skull, which had been interred in a church in that city upon his death in 1682, accidentally disinterred 150 years later, exhibited for display in the hospital museum, and finally restored to the ground in 1922². The remarks Sebald made about Browne’s works compelled me to seek them out, and upon returning to England in late summer of 2000 I finally got hold of an old copy of the Patrides 1977 collection for the Penguin Classics. I began, inevitably, with Hydriotaphia, and my obsession with his writing spiralled from there. I was fortunate to obtain other editions (including, most cherished, a gift of the six volume Keynes edition of the twenties). I visited the site of his grave, at St. Peter Mancroft in Norwich, and talked to the curate there who was kind enough to show me inside the vestry, and see the small collection of Browne relics(?) accumulated over the years, including his coffin-plate. I, like Sebald, followed the extraordinary odyssey of his skull, digging out of a neglected shelf a copy of the 1923 edition of the journal Biometrkia, wherein I found an extensive and thorough investigation of his cranial morphology. Another gift was a facsimile copy of the double portrait of he and his wife that is now in the collection of the NPG in London. Browne provided the epigraph of my doctoral thesis, and has managed to find his way into sufficent of my papers to have bemused those who know me.

Browne became an anchor for me at a time when it was far from clear whether or not I could make any sense from the material I was trying to collect and write about. It was to him I looked for a vindication that simple deep and wide reading could be a starting point in itself, that patterns (like the quincunx) might appear out if one collected and collated sufficient material, and that there should be no fear in traversing what appear to be defined disciplinary boundaries if you felt a strong enough urge to explore. His work further urged me to realise that the injection of the personal, the pulse of inquiry and wonderment, need not be discouraged if it could enlighten the narrative’s path. Unavoidably, Browne also taught me prose, and how to inhabit it, shape it, drive it, if not fully control or understand it. Writing, I turn again and again to Hydriotaphia, simply to read it and read it and read it. It lives, especially the final chapter, and it reaches unsurpassed heights.

The purpose of all of the greatest literature is to help us understand the journeys that we must make, those that are both inevitable and unique. Many times I’ve needed Browne, and read parts of his work over and over again³. Maybe then I shouldn’t have felt so bad that my grief over my grandfather’s death and the occasion of his commital to the earth and the wind was being refracted through the prism of Browne’s writings; articulations of loss are curious things, as Hydriotaphia itself tells us. Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.

hydriotaphia

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¹ This was in an age before internet searches could be expected to point one towards reasonable information (or at least, it was beyond my capabilities to wring such information from the tubes). I looked Haslam up in the enormous green-bound catalogues at the university library where I was a graduate student. I note now that the relevant Wikipedia article gives a full list of the ‘fictive-ness’ of the story’s characters.

² It was something of a cascade of intertextuality, as Sebald not only describes Browne and his work in the first chapter of The Rings of Saturn, but he also manages a later reference to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and at the end of the third chapter replays Browne’s appearance in it.

³ Who, after all, has not needed “Men that look upon my outside, perusing only my condition, and fortunes, do err in my altitude; for I am above Atlas his shoulders”; I might as well get that as a frickin’ tattoo, as it’ll sit nicely alongside the chip on my shoulder.

Within a day or so of the previous post, which treated our economic meltdown as something of a bagatelle in amongst various Borgesian mindwarpery, I felt as though I’d got my clock cleaned as I read a piece entitled Tips for New Paupers by John Dolan. Reading it made me feel as though I’d been kicked in the stomach by a cow, and I went on feeling that way for the next few days. It’s not as though I would even characterise my previous thoughts as flippant or derisive in their tone. Rather, they were motivated by trying to understand precisely why I felt so alienated by much of the media’s coverage of the crisis and how even though I was a participant-witness of ‘the meltdown’, I failed to feel part of any constituent whole to whom this was happening. Being unemployed, relatively transient, and without money, savings, or debts to speak of, this didn’t feel as though it was something that I was involved with, perhaps because much of what is taking place continues to reside in the realm of abstract money and has yet to fully filter down to the somatic economy (although unemployment, prices, and home repossessions climb gradually). Still, after reading the aforementioned piece any attempts towards the whimsical were knocked out of me sharpish.

The article is presented as an advice-piece written by someone (apparently a relatively peripatetic writer, editor, and academic) who has been recently been through a period of time in severe financial hardship; a year or so onwards, now things have become somewhat better for him, he reflects and tries to use the experience as a means of offering some counsel, as we all might be staring at a not dissimilar life-changing horror-time in the months ahead. At the most superficial level, my strong reaction to the piece was caused by the realisation that things could indeed get a great deal worse, and that acting as though I live in some ethereal big rock-candy mountain realm just because I don’t have a mortgage to default, a pension-plan that’s getting hosed, or a job to get shitcanned from, is some serious wishful thinking. He first describes  “genteel” grad-student-type poverty (a place I’ve lived in [with the exception of a single six month period] continually for the past thirteen years), where you’re pretty perpetually cold through the winter, you eat mainly vegetables and pulses, and (most damagingly of all) you live on an edge of fear about how you’re going to manage and what you’ll be doing for food and heat in twelve month’s time. To anyone who has been a student of any kind, or even young at all, this is all pretty familiar stuff, but he’s concerned with the step down from that, into something altogether more serious and dangerous. This is where it gets so much worse for him, and where it can get worse for a lot of people (which is his point), and which, inevitably, includes me. Yeah, maybe we won’t all be the Joads, packing up every single small thing we have and moving great distances just to find work, but what made me sit up was realising that the step from the shabby “genteel” situation, to the dead-fuck-broke and seriously wondering about heat and food is a surprisingly small one.

In this respect, the article prompted me to recollect Jack London’s¹ The People of the Abyss²; not that I’m for a moment equating those desperate and bleak lives that London chronicles with any of our own more trifling worries — it’s simply that this tiny, imperceptible distance one travels to find oneself at a completely different level of poverty reminded me of the precariousness of the situation the book describes in the East End in 1902. In the book, London (incognito and in mufti) visits the slums in the East End, in order to try to produce a piece of reportage portraying the wretched lives of the working poor in London, a kind of ethnography of those who were being forsaken by capitalism and modernity.

In what is a fairly harrowing book, there has always been one particular point that London stressed which I’ve found especially haunting: the precariousness of life. This is a recurrent theme but one to which London specifically turns for Chapter 21 (and from whence comes the title of the post). He described “the ragged edge of poverty”, upon which the vast majority of people live (both in the East End and beyond), whereby poverty is either already upon them or only at a single remove; for this latter group existence is such a matter of day-to-day survival that they inevitably have insufficient resources to stave off total ruin if more than a few days go by without income from work. Thus, it will only take a single unforeseen occurrence (injury, illness, bad luck, accident, or even unexpected economic downturn) to shatter an entire family and bring them all into the kind of abject workhouse pauperism that it can be impossible to escape from at all. Obviously it wasn’t the comparison of the actual states of poverty described in Dolan’s article that brought London’s book to mind: the people of the abyss are in far greater peril and misery than we of the developed world will ever see, no matter how sharp our current downturn is. Rather it was the image of teetering on the precipice which brought it to mind, particularly because (and this is why I wandered around for a while in a daze after reading the piece) it reminded me of me. Lately I have felt so very much as though I have stepped off a cliff without ever realising there was a cliff up ahead, or even noticing that I no longer trod on firm ground: only once I actually fell did I realise what happened. For the people of 1902 Whitechapel, of course, the difference is that the precariousness is of incredibly pitiless savagery, and that the faltering misstep or unexpected moment of bad fortune will not suck them any deeper into poverty  (for they can fall no further) but will in fact leave them dead. I am still alive, but somehow have become unglued from an existence, and this is where Dolan’s article punched me out, I guess. Sometimes we end up where we do for good reasons, and more importantly, reasons that can be accurately retraced and understood as rational judgements with cause-and-effect; in other cases, you know you went wrong, but each incremental step of misjudgement never by itself adds up to a why. Even worse, sometimes each small step was, in and of itself, a right one (and sometimes the only right one), but added together in a narrative, they prove to be an inescapably logical trail of error. To crown it all, as Dolan so unflinchingly recounts, once you are in this state, you will frequently fail to identify and accept help when and if it presents itself.

“You change completely, more than you realize, to the point that even if you get a break you can’t grab it….I was too deeply, permanently spooked by our condition. I was just plain wrong….I was the wrong volume, the wrong temperature”.

Whether it’s being skull-fucked by depression for too long (meds never worked for me, unlike Dolan), too long living at that gray land where self-medication is beginning to shade into alcoholism, to full of uncertainty of self-worth, too deeply and perpetually ashamed. Maybe all of them. Maybe the reason that I even started the blog was to try to work some of this shit out. Sometimes you end up where you end up and you have no fucking clue how, and the line that you somehow somplace sometime crossed was one you didn’t notice, and every damn thing has come unhooked.

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¹ I have a vast amount of love for London’s writing. Making a count for this post, I reckoned that I’d read about eight of his books and a volume of the best of his short stories. The last couple that I got ahold of (The Sea-Wolf and John Barleycorn) I started with some trepidation, fearing that the writing wouldn’t be as good as the others of his I’d already read. Sometimes I get this fear: loving a writer and starting off reading through most of their best-regarded work, and then perhaps being a little afraid to read farther into their wider body of writing, in case some of their more peripheral or minor stuff isn’t as hot and will somehow taint their original high standing. Whether or not this is a deeply stupid thing to worry about in general, in the case of London specifically I had nothing to fear: the former gripped like a wet rope, and the latter — whilst a little self-deluding — was a compelling description of what alcoholism feels like. I also realised that London is probably one of two writers that I have been reading for the longest. That is to say, I read Call of the Wild when I was pretty young, and I continued to read his work in my teenage years and all through my twenties, always keen to read ‘new’ books rather than re-reading ones I’d already been through. The other writer is J. Meade Faulkner: Moonfleet was probably my favourite novel as a kid, and recently I picked up a copy of The Lost Stradivarius, which was pretty good, and had an excellent introduction by Tom Paulin.

² The People of the Abyss I came to after The Iron Heel (the latter recommended to me by a friend who was more excited by Leon Trotsky’s piece that acted as the introduction); they both led me on into some  astonishing contemporaneous works with similar socio-political concerns. One shared the hard-edged first-person sense of lives being lived with scarce hope and even scarcer money at the outer limits of early twentieth-century capitalism (The Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill); another added furious demands for real political change to the overall image of a swathe of the population being brutalised by capitalist industry (The Jungle by Upton Sinclair); one in particular mutated the idea of a group of people with no way out into an astounding anarchistic fable describing the relentless brutality of the system (The Death Ship by B. Traven).

Watching the ceaseless coverage of our global fiscal eschaton is somewhat disconcerting; the remorseless jeremiads against the markets/banks/John Q. Fatcat-Banker and the overall tone of impending megamoneypocalypse sit uneasily with my personal passivity. It’s like watching silently on your earth-bound monitor as grainy footage taken from inside the capsule shows the shaved monkeys somebody somewhere shot into space seventy-two hours earlier are slowly asphyxiating. Having almost nothing in assets of any kind, it is difficult to find a level of engagement beyond the abstract, and as the pretty numbers all shift into reds and minuses, I feel like an unhappy spectator, watching from the sidelines who fails to understand the horror of the crisis or the profound despair of those vanquished by Market Forces. There’s no smugness, for sure: I know this is real, and it’s serious, and it will doubtless impact on all of us somewhere along the line. It’s simply that I don’t have a dog in this fight (and as such, I felt an affinity with two recent posts by excellent bloggers), and so whilst I can feel pity, it’s empathy that is absent, and this results in almost complete disengagement.

And so, it came as some surprise when a recent newspaper Op-Ed piece about the economic crisis almost blew my head clean off my body as I was reading it. It begins by exploring the mysteries of global high finance, and the way in which transactions and their results have become so complicated and their articulations so esoteric, that explanations for why things happen are beginning to transcend normative statements of cause-and-effect. As such, it sits well alongside another recent insightful piece on the ‘faith-based’ economy by Arjun Appadurai, because subjective-seeming issues of belief and confidence begin to override the impact of apparently objective occurrences. And here’s where it gets weirder, because for the author — a guy named Richard Dooling — we are in danger of seeing those systems we initially created to monitor and calculate the multiplicites of the market’s rhizomatics actually take the fuck over. Accumulated capital has become so abstract and translocated that it has transcended our ability to understand it fully and much control must be ceded to a variety of technological apparatus in order to maintain some kind of equilibrium. This abstract marketplace then finds expression in ways that strike those not inside the machine as absurd or illogical, but our reality has become subordinate to the machine’s reality, and in order for the entire system not to come crashing down, we cannot turn the machine off.  As I read further into the article (and here’s what caused the cranial asplosion), all I could think of was Tlön. We never needed a battalion of modest demiurgi secretly compiling the encyclopedia of a counterfeit world based on idealist imaginings; instead, it has been left to the financial logicians to create their subsequent and proximate macrocosmos, to which reality has immediately begun to yield with some relief. Thus, maybe disengagement is the inevitable answer to this, and the best thing is to pay no attention and go on revising my uncertain Quevedian translation of The Wealth of Nations (which I do not intend to publish). Or write my very first blog post.