Apocalyptic frames of reference

Walking home the back way, two sourdough loaves from Mark’s bakery in my rucksack, the warmth of them pressed into the small of my back, not unpleasant even on a humid morning. The back way, in this instance, runs past a small trading estate, along a shared path (cyclists and pedestrians) and beside a stretch of the Malago River which, at this point, is a stream, a brook, a brooklet.

(On the Malago, see https://malago.wordpress.com/ )

As in many areas accessible to the public but a little off the beaten track—though hardly limited to those—rubbish is often scattered here, behind or against fences and walls, tossed into undergrowth, even dropped into the water. Volunteer teams of local residents regularly get together and clear this stuff but the relief is only ever temporary.

If other species fouled their own habitats in such a reckless and incontinent manner, we would, I suspect, view their extinction as both inevitable and deserved. The guano of cormorants eventually ‘fouls the nest colony’ but they shift their location, presumably because of this.[1] Human fouling is on a larger scale entirely, its effects reaching far beyond crowded and polluted cities to oceans, coral reefs, distant islands:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/15/38-million-pieces-of-plastic-waste-found-on-uninhabited-south-pacific-island

It’s also, of course, indefensible, since we know the effects of our behaviour but refuse to modify it—and shifting our location is not a practicable option.

Ernst_Europe

(Max Ernst, Europe After the Rain, 1940-1942: © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT)

There have been countless works, in all media, of an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic strain. Freakish weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and, increasingly over the past few decades, nuclear war, though the actual cause of the catastrophe is often left unspecified, the primary interest, from the writer’s point of view, being generally in the aftermath, the physical transformation together with the political, social and psychological conditions arising from it. And there have been some extraordinary works, from Mary Shelley’s The Last Man through Richard Jefferies’ After London to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.

An apocalyptic frame of mind prompts other reflections. One that’s occurred to me several times over the years relates to our increased reliance on technology: is there a corresponding increase in our vulnerability in the event of that technology’s failure—whether through data corruption or the actions of hostile forces? If those things that we rely on—the internet, email, mobile phones—failed, how long would it take for the unease, anxiety, frustration, fear, to turn into more aggressive and destructive reactions?

Then there’s that oft-cited ‘thin line’ between civilisation and barbarism; and the obvious fact—though perhaps it’s not obvious to everyone—that, while it takes many decades, centuries, millennia, to build a civilisation, it takes very little time to destroy it:

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal[2]

It’s true in other contexts too, as vast as civilisations, as small as personal relationships: building is slow and often difficult while destroying is quick and usually easy—and thus well-suited to certain types of character and types of mind. Guy Davenport remarked that humans’ advantages over their fellow creatures ‘are all mechanical and therefore dependent on the education of each generation: meaning that an intervening generation of barbarians destroys all that has been carefully accumulated for centuries.’[3]

GD_Geography

That fragility of the civilised state is a topic of extraordinary interest to writers. In a novel published well before the First World War, Arnold Bennett wrote of humanity walking ever ‘on a thin crust over terrific abysses.’[4] John Buchan, in a book that actually appeared during that war (though written in 1913), has his brilliant arch-villain Lumley say: ‘You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Saturn.’[5] A few years later, another of his characters, John Heritage, tells Dickson McCunn that he ‘learned in the war that civilization anywhere is a very thin crust.’[6] Fifteen years after the Armistice, Ford Madox Ford, who had served in the British army in France, wrote of it having been revealed to him that ‘beneath Ordered Life itself was stretched, the merest film with, beneath it, the abysses of Chaos. One had come from the frail shelters of the Line to a world that was more frail than any canvas hut.’[7]

FMF_IWN

Rudyard Kipling, too, influenced by ‘the Hindu concept of maya (or illusion)’, Andrew Lycett suggests, ‘came to regard civilisation as a fragile edifice’,[8] while J. G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, convinced of the ‘solid layer of savagery beneath the surface of society’, asserted that ‘we seem to move on a thin crust which may at any moment be rent by the subterranean forces slumbering below’.[9]

 This cheerful frame of mind can probably be partly blamed on my recent rereading of Angela Carter’s Heroes and Villains. I read her first six novels within a few months, decades ago; and most of her other books at more widely-spaced points over many more years. One or two of the (much) later novels were more appreciated critically but I suspect I liked the earlier ones more, for all their imperfections (not that those were evident to me). I liked them firstly because I found them out entirely by myself; and because I hadn’t come across anything similar at that stage. I particularly liked Heroes and Villains because it was even more unfamiliar to me than Carter’s other books. Unlike several of my friends at that time, I’d never contracted the science fiction or fantasy habit.

It was reading New Worlds, then edited by Michael Moorcock and frequently including work by J. G. Ballard, that was a significant factor in Carter’s writing Heroes and Villains, between January 1968 and January 1969, often working for twelve hours a day on her ‘post-apocalyptic fairy tale’.[10]

‘The roads were arteries which no longer sprang from a heart. Once the cities were gone, the roads reverted to an older function; they were used for the most existential kind of travelling, that nomadic peregrination which is an end in itself.’[11]

Reading the novel again after so many years, things were visible to me that hadn’t been then, of course, and no doubt there are some autobiographical elements that criticism and biography has since traced out. But my own impressions were, firstly, that it’s a very consciously written book, its effects quite deliberately worked out; secondly, that it’s thickly populated with ideas and theories and propositions from the books she was reading at the time; thirdly, and most strikingly, the palpable sense of liberation. That sense often emerges in the work of a writer (or painter or composer) who’s realised that he or she is not bound by genres or classifications: the novel can be both realistic and fantastic; it can be poetic and prosaic; it can include references to classical literature and popular culture; it can provoke expectations and frustrate them; it can conform in some ways to quite recognisable generic rules—such as fairy tale—but can, at the same time, explore the most vital contemporary concerns, sexual politics, social anthropology, linguistics, environmental science.

Unsurprisingly, I noticed literary references that I wouldn’t have caught before: one of the Barbarian mothers wears ‘a dead wrist watch on her arm, purely for decoration; it was a little corpse of time having stopped for good and all at ten to three one distant and forgotten day’ (Heroes and Villains 44). Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ famously ends: ‘oh! yet / Stands the Church clock at ten to three? / And is there honey still for tea?’ and it’s a choice replete with ironies (some of them Brooke’s). Later in the book, after Marianne has rescued Jewel from drowning himself in the sea, ‘Water streamed from his hair and his soaked clothes stuck to him, the gaunt survivor of a shipwreck, his eyes momentarily blind as pearls’ (Heroes and Villains 143), which surely waves to The Waste Land again—‘(Those are pearls that were his eyes)’: The Waste Land, l.257—which is itself quoting The Tempest (I.ii.401).

Near_Thing_Captain_Najork

But there are hazards to reference-hunting: having made a reasonable case for a phrase in the early pages of the novel faintly echoing Bob Dylan’s ‘Outlaw Blues’—Bringing It All Back Home was released in 1965, Carter’s novel in 1969, so it’s at least feasible—I then  attempted to convince myself that the tone and crispness of several other phrases were surely reminiscent of similar instances in two superb children’s books by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen and A Near Thing for Captain Najork. I was saved from such delusions by chronology: the first was published in 1974, the second a year later.

It’s a dangerous path. . .

 

References

[1] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 37.

[2] T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land (1922), ll. 371-376.

[3] Davenport, ‘The Symbol of the Archaic’, in The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 19.

[4] Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908; Penguin, 1983), 444.

[5] Buchan, The Power-House (1916; Edinburgh: B&W Publishing, 1993), 38.

[6] Buchan, Huntingtower (1922; edited by Anne Stonehouse, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 116.

[7] Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 49.

[8] Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 3.

[9] Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged edition (London: Macmillan, 1957), 73. The passage is quoted in the course of a discussion of Frazer’s significant influence on early modernist writers by Helen Carr, The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (London: Cape 2009), 262-267.

[10] Edmund Gordon’s phrase in his The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography (London: Chatto & Windus, 2016), 118-119.

[11] Heroes and Villains (1969; London: Picador, 1972), 107.

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