Several weeks ago I was fortunate to attend this event, a celebration of the life and work of J.L. Carr that was held at Shandy Hall¹, in Coxwold, North Yorkshire.  An exhibition was opened which collected and displayed all of Carr’s idiosyncratic and aesthetically triumphant county maps of England, followed by an illustrated lecture given by Carr’s son (who currently oversees the publishing house his father founded) on the subject of J.L. Carr’s life and work. If the former has been detailed in some depth by a well-received biography, then the latter is usually truncated, in general, to the thoroughly outstanding novel A Month in the Country. Indeed I must admit, somewhat ashamedly, that at the time of writing it is the only one of his work’s I’ve encountered, apart from the array of county maps he created that were on display at Coxwold. A Month in the Country is probably as close to perfect as a novel can get: a tight, emotional, faultless evocation of loss and nostalgia, set within a beautifully sparse plot and informed by an unmatched eye for the sense of place and history in the English landscape². One thing that emerged of particular interest during the fascinating talk given in the evening was that Bob Carr, J.L. Carr’s son, had spent his working life as an archaeologist, with (I think) Suffolk County Council. I found this an immensely striking co-incidence, as A Month in the Country features a memorable cameo by an archaeologist, Moon, who is excavating in the field near to the church in which the novel’s main character, the art restorer Birkin, is rescuing a massive medieval Doom painting from beneath its whitewash overlay. Both are damaged veterans of the Flanders trenches, seeking some kind of healing or restitution.

Bob Carr’s job and Charles Moon’s trench propelled my thoughts towards other archaeologists in literature, and the role they might play in portrayals of the present’s relationship to the past. I’m well aware that there are a couple of streams of pre-existent thought on this topic. One of these is the investigation of the role of archaeology in science fiction/genre novels, where very frequently archaeology is a perfect vehicle for expressing aspects of the past’s malevolence and the ways in which, if disturbed, it can impinge upon the present. Archaeology, as task,  also becomes the model of a ‘quest-narrative’ with the excitement of the chase and the past (or at least some artefact acting as its synecdochic stand-in) as the quarry. There is also a substantial amount of work on the place of archaeology in popular culture more generally (by Cornelius Holtorf in particular) centred in the main on the depiction of archaeologists in television documentaries and in mainstream cinema, but I was seeking examples culled from the novel, to sit alongside Charles Moon.

I know of the exhaustive list of archaeology in fiction, compiled by Anita Cohen-Williams, but my thoughts veered towards two books in particular, one on her list and one not: First Light by Peter Ackroyd, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, both of which feature archaeology in a somewhat oblique manner³. The former is as bewildering, beautiful, and hallucinatory as the rest of Ackroyd’s fiction, and if one sidesteps some of the more Baroque renderings of rural antics, then one finds a deep meditation on the links between the landscape and the sky, the past and the future, archaeology and astronomy. In the latter, digging is hardly the Magistrate’s primary concern, but Coetzee shows how the archaeology that he pursues occasionally as a hobby informs his sense of self and his humanity; further, the awarenesses he gains from his excavations about the nature of time and the inevitability of its triumph colour his perception of the chain of events that forms the narrative’s core. In all three of these novels it is archaeology’s extraordinary fecundity as a symbol that surely draws the novelists towards it. Not only is it capable of being used to transmit metaphors concerning the presence of the past and its inevitable interaction with the Now, but it is also an investigative discipline that has an acute awareness of the landscape and our place in it, making marks that might be deciphered in centuries to come. Thus archaeology’s usefulness is its load-bearing capacity as supporter of metaphor, and that it works at illuminating the boundaries of things: past/present, people/landscape. Finally, no consideration of the cameo appearances of archaeology in literature can really be complete without reference to Borges, and to Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius in particular. Here, in a world in which idealist philosophy has triumphed over materialism, the archaeologists labour to ‘produce’ those objects they desire to find in their excavations. These hrönir are the artefacts spontaneously created by desire or subconscious need on the part of the excavators which have been of invaluable aid to the archaeologists of Tlön in modifying the past, “which is now no less plastic, no less malleable than the future”. Borges, as ever, is using the fantastic to tell us something we perhaps had scarcely perceived about the world in which we live, as our archaeologists ought not to need hrönir to tell them the truth of that.

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¹ Shandy Hall is quite one of the most astonishing and unique places you might ever visit, were you fortunate enough to happen by it: an extraordinary nexus of place, literature, and history. The carefully curated parsonage in which Lawrence Sterne created Tristram Shandy has been preserved not just as monument to the man and his work, but as a living exhibition devoted to the perpetually slippery relationships between text and life, books and thought. Oh, and it has some improbably beautiful gardens attached too.

² A more recent novel that shares most of these concerns and displays an almost equally adept handling of loss and landscape is Peter Hobbs ‘s The Short Day Dying, which is probably about as good a book as I’ve read in the past two or three years.

³ I know of two other novels in which archaeology features as the profession of the lead character, Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing and Out of this World by Graham Swift, although I have to admit not having read either. In any case, something interests me more in the three novels by Carr, Ackroyd, and Coetzee in the way archaeology is not the central issue in the narrative, nor even the main meaning-bearing metaphor, but something that is used, to a greater or lesser extent, to interact in a subtextual manner with the story’s broader interests.

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
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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…”