Goodness degraded: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (she was the youngest of the Bronte children), was published in 1847 when she was 26, in the same volume as Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Being a less potent, poetic or emotionally visceral novel, lacking its gothic passion and sexual charge, Anne’s first novel tended to be overlooked. This is understandable, but I’d argue, despite its flaws, that it’s still worth reading – just don’t expect a masterpiece like WH or Jane Eyre.

The prim, irritating puritanical Christian- didactic tone of Agnes, who narrates, is established in the pedantic opening paragraph:

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find…Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge. I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others; but the world may judge for itself. Shielded by my own obscurity…I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay down before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend. (p.15 – all references to the Penguin Popular Classics edition I read)

Agnes Grey PPC cover

My copy in the cheap and cheerful Penguin Popular Classics edition

It’s based largely on Anne’s own difficult and degrading experiences as a governess in two upper-middle-class Yorkshire families. In the first part of the novel Agnes insists on taking a poorly paid position as governess to the children of the Bloomfield family; her clergyman father had foolishly speculated his savings and lost everything, and her own family was practically destitute. She’s just 18, and naively expects her young charges to be as biddable and respectful as she and her siblings had been. She’s in for a nasty shock:

The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me, my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt’ (49)

Seven-year-old Tom is a petty tyrant whose ‘propensity to persecute the lower order’ (he gleefully tortures birds and small animals) is positively encouraged by his doting parents and relatives. The polysyllabic, rather stilted Victorian prose style adopted for the most part by Anne Bronte is apparent here and in my other quotations; it makes the novel rather plodding, exacerbated by the over-earnest moralizing tone – but she’s capable of flashes of vernacular energy and outspokenness, especially when quoting the unruly children’s tantrums.

The novel is largely worth reading for these depictions of fiendish Victorian upper-class children: their cruel, selfish behaviour towards Agnes (and animals, over whom they also claim rightful dominion) reflects and reveals the deep class divisions and of Victorian society. Downtrodden, selfless, shy Agnes has to contend with the oppression and abuse of the children she is notionally in charge of; their portrayal in the narrative foretells what they will become when they grow up – cruel, heartless and feeling as completely justified in their attitudes and amorality as their complacently cruel, socially offensive parents and adult relatives.

That Agnes, in her lonely isolation, does so by reaching for Christian homilies and puritanical submission to adversity is pretty wearing, but the children’s demonic, sadistic nastiness prevents the novel from sinking completely into moralistic tedium.

Outfaced by these recalcitrant, disobedient, almost feral children she digs deep into her store of Christian forbearance and tenacity:

Patience, Firmness and Perseverance were my only weapons (50)

 

– but she secretly longs for a ‘birch rod’ or to have the courage to box the bullying ruffian Tom’s ears.

OWC cover Agnes Grey

The more elegant OWC cover – via Wikipedia

It’s ‘degrading to submit so quietly’ and ‘intolerable to toil so constantly’- but Agnes strives to resist being ‘subdued’. This submissiveness becomes grating, and one longs for a bit of spirit in our grey heroine. It’s a long wait.

Her position with the Bloomfields ends with ignominious dismissal:

I had been seasoned by adversity, and tutored by experience… [I] longed to redeem my lost honour [in the eyes of her family] (84)

She takes a new post with the Murrays – a socially superior family to the Bloomfields. The children in this household are older, but if anything more selfish and unruly than the Bloomfields, because they are more cunning and ruthless. Matilda is a tomboy who swears like a trooper, and totally uncontrollable. Rosalie, at 17, is disarmingly pretty, and aware of it: she’s a dangerous, manipulative flirt. Both are capricious and wilful.

Agnes continues to suffer mortifications and humiliation with ill-suppressed righteous indignation:

I sometimes felt myself degraded by the life I led, and ashamed of submitting to so many indignities; and sometimes I thought myself a precious fool for caring so much about them, and feared I must be sadly wanting in Christian humility, or that charity which ’suffereth long and is kind, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, beareth all things, endureth all things.’ (115)

She has to accept her powerless position, being in a social limbo – neither servant nor  equal to the Murrays. Thus when they return from church together, she has no choice whether she is to walk with the girls or travel back in their carriage:

I liked walking better, but a sense of reluctance to obtrude my presence on any one who did not desire it, always kept me passive on these and similar occasions; and I never inquired into the causes of their various whims. Indeed, this was the best policy – for to submit and oblige was the governess’s part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils. (167)

Title page of the first 1847 edition

Title page of the first 1847 edition

The Murray children, being slightly older, treat Agnes with more contempt and disdain even than the Bloomfields had. Agnes, for her part, can only fall back on her sense of virtue and its superiority to the superficial, outward charms of preening, beautiful, deceitful Rosalie:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves, or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.

So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience? (214-15)

Here at last we see a flicker of spirit in her: she challenges her own moral certitude.

Agnes Grey represents an intermittently interesting use of the first-person narrative, autobiographical voice, as I hope my quotations have indicated. We are largely invited to share the innermost thoughts and suppressed feelings of Agnes. There is very little subtlety in the way this is done: there’s no free indirect discourse or revelation of character through witty dialogue, as in Jane Austen, say. Our narrator claims to be mining her diaries of the time for raw material, and as such the narrative often reads too much like ‘this happened then this, and this is how I felt, though I said nothing.’

But read Agnes Grey for its uncharacteristic Victorian depiction of obnoxious, indulged children and spoilt adolescents (though I know Dickens has some pretty awful children in his novels). Their awfulness is an index of the social injustices and inequalities of which this novel is largely an indictment. The romance part is unconvincingly tacked on to provide a supposedly upbeat ending (that’s no spoiler).

It would be interesting to hear what your views are of this novel, or of the depiction of children in literature: wilful savages if left unchecked (Lord of the Flies), or angelic (Little Dorrit, Little Nell) – any more?

Tom at Wuthering Expectations wrote about the Bronte sisters collectively HERE, and considered Agnes Grey  ‘a dud’; a bit harsh, but understandable.

 

 

Like a heroine in a Victorian melodrama: Patrick McGrath, Asylum

Patrick McGrath, Asylum (first published 1996; Penguin paperback, 1997)

Stella Raphael’s husband Max is a forensic psychiatrist and deputy superintendent of a ‘maximum security’ mental institution closely resembling Broadmoor (known when it opened in 1863 as a ‘Criminal Lunatic Asylum’; famous inmates included Richard Dadd, the artist) in Berkshire, 30 miles north of London. She plunges into a ‘catastrophic love affair characterized by sexual obsession’, with inmate Edgar Stark – said to be a gifted sculptor, but a deeply disturbed individual who developed a delusional jealousy for his wife that culminated in his murdering her, decapitating her and mutilating her head, hence his incarceration and treatment at this institution.

Her story is ‘one of the saddest I know’, states our self-important, stuffy narrator, Peter Cleave, a senior psychiatrist at the institution, who is treating Stark. Later in the story he treats Stella, too, after she has a breakdown as a result of just one too many catastrophes in her life. His narrative, we quickly realise, arises from his over-confident interpretations of what she appears to have told him in their consultations.

The melodramatic gothic plot of this taut, gripping novel is outlined from the start, and it is narrated with tough, even brutal bluntness, as the opening paragraph makes clear, as if to forestall a reader’s desire for suspense:

Four lives were destroyed in the process [of Stella and Edgar’s affair], but whatsoever remorse she may have felt she clung to her illusions to the end. I tried to help but she deflected me from the truth until it was too late. She had to. She couldn’t afford to let me see it clearly, it would have been the ruin of the few flimsy psychic structures she had left.

What kept my attention wasn’t so much this lurid scenario, but the intriguing narrative technique. I’ve not read any other McGrath novels yet, but from what I’ve seen in interviews with him he’s fond of the ‘unreliable narrator’ approach. That’s apparent from page 1, and the extract I quoted above provides a revealing example of how the author exploits this ambiguity and slipperiness in what we have so smugly shown to us by Cleave, the narrator, too confident that his professional insights and self-awareness are superior to anyone else’s – including the protagonist in this affair: Stella.

Note the self-righteous tone of condemnation in the first sentence quoted, Cleave’s implicit suggestion that Stella should have shown ‘remorse’, but instead stubbornly, wrong-headedly ‘clung’ to her ‘illusions to the end’. This is not the objective, impartial analysis of a clinician; it’s McGrath’s carefully planted clue, at the outset of the narrative, that Cleave is biased and probably motivated by his own weaknesses, desires and punitive (of others) inclinations.

This is brought out in his evasive admission that Stella ‘had to’ deflect him from ‘the truth’. That it was ‘too late’ when he realised this alerts us to the novel’s inevitably tragic ending. It was not in Stella’s selfishly deluded interests when the passionate affair with Edgar was taking place, he insists in the fictional present time at which we are to imagine him composing these lines, to let him ‘see clearly’. The implication is that she was mendacious and he was cleverly duped. This leads to the question, how could he, a highly experienced psychiatrist who specialises in manipulative sexual obsessives, let that happen?

Asylum: cover pageIt’s clear that everything that follows represents a version of events that lacks complete veracity or clarity: the narrator’s perceptions are ‘deflected’ by Stella’s devious (as Cleave represents them) manipulations. It’s the tension that this narrative technique produces that’s almost unbearable by the novel’s final stages, and that gives the narrative its ferocious, startling power.

Cleave’s voice increasingly intervenes with nods and winks that are intended to nudge us into concurring with his own interpretations of Stella’s partial revelations, but which cumulatively have the opposite effect. Here’s a random example from the early stages of the affair, when Stella is first attracted to Edgar, and hides away a sketch of her that he’d drawn and given to her:

She kept it in a locked drawer and showed it to nobody, for reasons she was reluctant to look at too closely. Nothing improper was happening on the surface, but she hadn’t said a word about her new friend to Max; and by consistently failing to mention an event of significance in her day she was practising a form of duplicity. She rationalized it. She should have known that deception eventually eats away all that is wholesome in a marriage, and she should have faced this, but she didn’t. She chose not to. From this evasion all else followed.

The similar structure to my first quotation is telling: ‘She had to’ is echoed in ‘She chose not to’. The judgemental, self-pitying tone is again apparent. Those pained, subjective, condemnatory barbs against her: her ‘reluctance’ to look closely at her secretive actions (‘she should have known’ and ‘should have faced them’ is transparently accusatory); the adoption of her presumed inner voice of self-delusion in ‘Nothing improper was happening on the surface’, with the clear suggestion that she’s concealing from herself the ‘true’, explosive significance ‘under the surface’; even that snide reference to ‘her new friend’ is redolent of … well, Cleave’s jealousy. She’s not the only one harbouring a morbidly jealous disposition.

Patrick McGrath in 2008: photo by David Shinbone via Wikimedia Commons

Patrick McGrath in 2008: photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

Numerous further examples could be cited. Here, on p. 71, Jack Straffen [see PS below], the institution’s superintendent, tries to warn Stella about Edgar’s scheming nature; this only serves to increase her determination to be vigilant about revealing her true feelings. The narrator provides her interior monologue:

…it was Jack Straffen who was attempting to manipulate her, not Edgar.

But this is Cleave’s anguished projection of how he imagines Stella was thinking at that point; it’s his jealousy again that’s revealed, not Stella’s self-deceptions. Then the voice slips back into Cleave’s own, and his intemperate, unprofessional partiality and jealous bitterness become even more apparent:

Oh, he was cunning, my Edgar. He had prepared her for something like this…

‘My Edgar’ sounds like a twisted (mad?) parody of Jane Austen’s ‘My Fanny’ in Mansfield Park.

A few pages later he reveals his prejudices again. With the narrative now peppered with ‘she said’ and ‘she admitted to me’ to justify his corrosive judgements on the doomed pair, he comes out with this extraordinary statement, after a particularly salacious account of Stella’s exhilaration and terror at knowingly stepping beyond the bounds of the law, society, her marriage and family in indulging her morbid sexual obsession (again this is Cleave’s portrayal of it, remember):

Romantic women, I reflected: they never think of the damage they do in their blind pursuit of intense experience. Their infatuation with experience.

His condescension and misogyny are made luridly clear, while Cleave…cleaves to his own self-deluded sense of outraged, superior probity and moral integrity. His corruption of the concept of freedom into something only deluded, infatuated women indulge in is deplorable.

Except of course he isn’t entirely wrong in his perception of Stella and Edgar. But lovers from Tristan and Isolde to Cathy and Heathcliff have been the subject of more compassionate fictional treatment. McGrath destabilises the reader’s own perceptions and preconceptions of what distinguishes ‘morbid obsession’ from hopeless passion.

Later Cleave says:

At root, I suppose, in spite of everything she loved him, or told herself she did, and women are stubborn in this regard.

His attempt at objectivity flounders immediately as he makes his habitual lapses into sexist generalisation and personal animosity: he condemns Stella because his perception is that in deceiving him she represented womankind’s generic duplicity and weakness – Stella maris, the idealised Virgin Mary, revealed as sexually depraved, intrinsically flawed Eve, who’s woe to man. This is a leap into an obsessive view – a kind of madness – as deluded as Edgar’s or, if she is mad, Stella’s.

As Cleave narrates Stella’s downward spiral into immolation, he brings to light his own, symmetrically similar descent.

I’ll stop there, having gone on longer than I intended. This is a skilfully deployed narrative, and McGrath’s engaging use of it invites us to think we’re wise to Cleave’s duplicity in insisting on Stella’s own devious manipulations of him, but, like him, we don’t fully see it until it’s ‘too late’.

So: the story of mutually destructive sexual obsession that ‘destroyed four lives’ is the ‘surface’ story, but what makes this novel compelling, for me, is that artfully duplicitous, multi-layered narrative voice.

PS.

I note in Wikipedia, where I was reading up on Broadmoor, that a child murderer called JACK STRAFFEN escaped from there in 1952, after which the alarm siren system was introduced. Interesting therefore that McGrath gives his 1959 superintendent, when the action of this novel is said to take place, the same name. Maybe it’s another indication of his questioning of the notion of ‘insanity’ and people who ‘run mad with love’, as Robert Burton anatomises it.

See also: Trevor at The Mookse and Gripes for a slightly more critical view of Asylum

 

Now I am glad and free: DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall – final part

[5 September 1916, to Dollie Radford,(pen-name of the poet, 1858-1920, real name

View from the moors above Zennor

View from the moors above Zennor

Caroline Maitland), from Higher Tregerthen] The blackberries are ripe: we have made about ten pounds of jam…We have had many many beans out of both gardens, and peas at last…they were very good. But it has been very rainy…The heather is all out on the hills – very beautiful indeed – purple patches. And the young gorse is all in flower again…The bracken is withering, the sunsets are tremendous, almost terrible, the autumn is coming in…The Murrys are both in London.

[In letters quoted in my earlier posts on Lawrence’s letters, he’d expressed his dismay and disappointment at what he saw as the desertion, from the cottage next to his own, by the Middleton Murrys: they found this part of Cornwall too bleak and ‘rugged’, he complained.]

Tinner's Arms, Zennor

The Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, where the Lawrences stayed before moving into Higher Tregerthen nearby. Stopped for a pint of Tinner’s ale there yesterday and took this picture.

[On 11 October L. writes to Murry a conciliatory letter: ‘what I hate in you is an old you that corresponds to an old me which must pass away, the beastly thing. Meanwhile he says he and Frieda continue their ‘long and bloody fight’, but are ‘at one’; ‘it is a fight one has to fight – the old Adam to be killed in me, the old Eve in her – then a new Adam and Eve. Till the fight is finished, it is only honourable to fight. But, oh dear, it is very horrible and agonising.’]

[On 7 Nov. he writes to Catherine Carswell that he wants ‘to go away from England forever’, to go to ‘a country of which I have hope, in which I feel the new unknown.’ In short, to America, which is ‘monstrous’, ‘falser’ than England, but ‘nearer to freedom’. It is less corrupted than England: ‘my Florida idea was right.’ Cornwall as Rananim, it seems, has failed. To Koteliansky he wrote, on the same day, his Rananim, ‘my Florida idea, was the true one. Only the PEOPLE were wrong…I have done with the Murries, both, for ever…So I have with Lady Ottoline Morrell and all the rest. And now I am glad and free.’]

Zennor moors

Zennor moors

[23 Feb. 1917, to D. Radford] The spring is coming also. Yesterday the lambs were dancing, and the birds whistled, the doves cooed all day down at the farm. The world of nature is wonderful in its revivifying spontaneity…the cooing of the doves is very real, and the blithe impertinence of the lambs as they peep round their mothers. They affect me as the Rainbow, as a sign that life will never be destroyed, or turn bad altogether.

[5 May 1917, to JM Murry! So much for ‘I have done with the Murries’.] I have been gardening very hard: made a new garden just above the little one, and planted also a large corner of a potato field – not with potatoes, but carrots, peas, spinach, etc…The primroses and blackthorn are out…

Zennor moors[11 May 1917, to Koteliansky] Today I have been cutting blackthorn and gorse to make a fence to keep the lambs out of my garden. I loathe lambs, those symbols of Christian meekness. They are the stupidest, most persistent, greediest little beasts in the whole animal kingdom. Really, I suspect Jesus of having very little to do with sheep, that he could call himself the Lamb of God. I would truly rather be the little pig of God, the little pigs are infinitely gayer and more delicate in soul. My garden is very beautiful, in rows. But the filthy lambs have eaten off my broad beans. The salads are all grown, and the scarlet runners are just ready for the sprint.

[Poor lambs! They suffer the same transformation of attitude towards them as many of L’s friends, the Murrys especially]

[23 May, to Murry] I have three gardens: the little one, which is a gem: pansies and columbine and fuchsia as well as veg: then the little field at the back…broad beans, etc., spinach, many beautiful rows: then in the field below, peas, beans, etc. I have worked hard.

Zennor moors[29 August 1917, to D. Radford] My garden was so splendid, thirty nice marrows sprawling and rolling abroad under the leaves, festoons of beans and peas, and myriads of sweet-peas and nasturtiums climbing, to say nothing of endive and beet and spinach and kohlrabi and all the rest….on the speckled melon plant there is a big green melon, lovely. If there were sun, it would ripen.

[23 Sept. 1917, to Koteliansky] We have had fine gardens full of vegetables…There has been a curious subtle mystic invisibleness in the days, a beauty that is not in the eyes.

[In October the Lawrences were ordered out of Cornwall by the military authorities, who suspected Frieda of spying. She was German-born, a von Richthofen, distantly related to the notorious air-ace, the Red Baron.]

I shall end this sequence of posts on how the letters of Lawrence reveal his response to Cornwall with this extract from John Worthen’s DHL biography website:

In spite of what he feared would be the fate of his fiction after The Rainbow, in the spring of 1916 he started again on the Sisters material, and – after an enormous creative effort in which he wrote the whole book twice – in November finished the first version of Women in Love.  But it was rejected by every publisher who saw it; the fact that it contained recognisable re-creations of several people (including Russell, Heseltine and the Morrells) did not help.

He and Frieda stayed in Cornwall, living as cheaply as they could; the English Review published the first versions of what would become Studies of Classic American Literature, his pioneering study of the great nineteenth century American writers.  Early in 1917 the Lawrences made another, more serious attempt to be allowed to go to America, but they could not obtain passports…All the Lawrences could now do was live precariously in friends’ flats and country cottages.  In 1917 he completed a major revision of Women in Love; it was the novel which represented his last comprehensive attempt to write for his country, as it examined and characterised contemporary anxiety and conflict.   In future novels, his voice would often – quite consciously – come from the sidelines: he staged guerrilla attacks as well a full-frontal assaults: his writing was goading, insistent, revelatory.

Photographs all my own.

The magic fades: DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, pt 3

DH Lawrence’s response to Cornwall, continued: the idyll fades, disillusion and desertion sets in. Extracts from the Collected Letters, ed. Harry T. Moore, Heinemann, London, 1970, vol. 1

[To Barbara Low, from Higher Tregerthen, nr Zennor (all the following letters were written from there), 1 May 1916] It is very lovely here, with the gorse all gone yellow and the sea a misty, periwinkle blue, and the flowers coming out on the common. The sense of jeopardy spoils it all – the feeling that one may be flung out into the cess-pool of a world, the danger of being dragged into the foul conglomerate mess, the utter disgust and nausea one feels for humanity, people smelling like bugs, endless masses of them, and no relief: it is so difficult to bear.

[As my last set of extracts showed, the military and other state authorities had started to show an unsettling interest in this ménage of the Lawrences: Frieda striding around W. Cornwall in brightly coloured mismatched stockings, speaking English in her heavy German accent, their cottage curtains similarly mismatched. Locals suspected this suspiciously unconventional couple were signalling to the enemy submarines which patrolled the waters off the peninsula. Nevertheless, DHL’s outbursts in letters of this time are disquieting, Nietzschean in their contempt – even if it’s understandable he’s so upset.]

Ottoline Morrell

Lady Ottoline Morrell, society and literary hostess, by Baron Adolf de Meyer, platinum print, 1912. Wikimedia Commons

[To Ottoline Morrell, ?4 May 1916] The country is very beautiful, with tangles of blackthorn and solid mounds of gorse blossom, and bluebells beneath, and myriads of violets, and so many ferns unrolling finely and delicately. I have begun a new novel [this would become Women in Love]

[To OM, 24 May] The country is simply wonderful, blue, graceful little companies of bluebells everywhere on the moors, the gorse in flame, and on the cliffs and by the sea, a host of primroses, like settling butterflies, and sea-pinks like a hover of pink bees, near the water.

[To Catherine Carswell, 19 June] I have nearly done my new novel. It has come rushing out, and I feel very triumphant in it.
The Murrys have gone over to the south side, about thirty miles away. The north side was too rugged for them. And Murry and I are not really associates. How I deceive myself. I am a liar to myself, about people. I was angry when you ran over a a list of my ‘friends’ – whom you did not think much of. But it is true, they are not much, any of them.
I give up having intimate friends at all. It is a self-deception. [He goes on to invite the Carswells to stay in the Murrys’ vacated rooms next door!]
It is very fine here, foxgloves now everywhere between the rocks and ferns. There is some magic in the country. It gives me a strange satisfaction.

[Lack of money – L calls it ‘penuriousness’ – is still a problem, and he smarts at the sense of living off the charity of others – but at least he has been exempted from military service.]

[To Barbara Low, 8 July] I should have died if they had made me a soldier… It is the most terrible madness. And the worst of it all is, that it is a madness of righteousness. These Cornish are most, most unwarlike, soft, peaceable, ancient. No men could suffer more than they, at being conscripted…they believe in their duty to their fellow man. And what duty is this, which makes us forfeit everything, because Germany invaded Belgium? Is there nothing beyond my fellow man? If not, there is nothing beyond myself…because I am the fellow-man of all the world, my neighbour is but myself in a mirror. So we toil in a circle of pure egoism…I know that, for me, the war is wrong…To fight for possessions, goods, is what my soul will not do…All this war, this talk of nationality, to me is false. I feel no nationality, not fundamentally…one fights too hard already, for the real integrity of one’s being.

[L is forced to type up the MS of his new novel, and revisions of The Rainbow, himself; he has only £6 in the world, he writes on 12 July. Next day he writes to thank J.B. Pinker for the cheque for £50 he’d received from him.]

[To K. Mansfield, 16 July; she has returned to Mylor, nr Falmouth, on the ‘soft’ south coast. L is benign and adopts a cheerful tone, gossiping about visitors and repairs and improvements being made to the leaking, damp house she and Middleton Murry had so precipitously abandoned. L generously hides his disappointment at this perceived desertion.] The corn is very high, the hay is out…the Tremeada [nearby farm] corn full of the most beautiful corn-marigolds…The foxgloves are really wonderful…full like honeycombs, with purple wells.
[Then his tone shifts:] Really, one should find a place one can live in, and stay there. Geographical change doesn’t help one much. And people go from bad to worse. I think I shall be staring out from Higher Tregerthen when I am a nice old man of seventy.
[He doesn’t try to disguise the rebuke.]

DH Lawrence in Cornwall, pt 2: I feel fundamentally happy and free

So, Lawrence has established himself in his ‘Promised Land’ of Cornwall. He’s aware it’s not Florida, where he’d hoped to establish his Utopian ‘colony’ of artist-philosophers, Rananim, with disciple-friends like John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield (‘truly blood kin’, he calls them in a letter to them of 11 March 1916), but it might be just as good. His longing for a peaceful life is almost palpable. [The name Rananim is taken from his Ukrainian-Russian friend the literary patron and translator Samuel Koteliansky’s Hebrew songs.]

He’s found the cheap rented cottage he was looking for: in Higher Tregerthen, a cluster of houses near Zennor, on the coast between St Ives and Penzance. Temporarily he and Frieda stay in the village inn, The Tinner’s Arms – its name reflects the mining heritage that was the subject of my recent posts on the Man Engine in Cornwall.

His flow of almost daily letters continues. Here’s a further selection; I’ve picked out his revealing descriptions to the local scene, which tell as much about his own state of mind, his hopes and feelings, as they do in evoking the sense of place…

Fields near Zennor:

Fields near Zennor

 [5 March 1916, from Tinner’s Arms, Zennor, to Middleton Murry and K. Mansfield] We have been here nearly a week now. It is a most beautiful place: a tiny granite village nestling under high, shaggy moor-hills, and a big sweep of lovely sea beyond, such a lovely sea, lovelier even than the Mediterranean… To Penzance one goes over the moors, high, then down into Mount’s Bay, looking at St Michael’s Mount, like a dark little jewel. It is all gorse now, flickering with flower: and then it will be heather; and then, hundreds of foxgloves. It is the best place I have been in, I think.
…The place is rather splendid. It is just under the moors, on the edge of the few rough stony fields that go to the sea. It is quite alone, as a little colony.

[He goes on to plead with this letter’s recipients to rent the adjoining house to his, ‘the long house with the tower’, establishing two more friends with them, Heseltine and someone else, it will be like ‘a little monastery’. He even tells them who will occupy which rooms. ‘It would be so splendid if it could but come off: such a lovely place: our Rananim.’ There they could ‘strike some sort of root’ because ‘we must buckle to work.’ There must be no more ‘follies and removals and uneasinesses.’ I find his words here redolent of ‘uneasiness’. He concludes:]
…This country is pale grey granite, and gorse: there is something uralt and clean about it.
[His cottage, he proudly confides, ‘is only £5 a year.’ The larger house next door has a rent of £16 p.a. – chickenfeed, even then. Subsequent letters reveal why they were so cheap.]

[11 March? 1916, Tinner’s Arms, to JMM and KM] I told you all about the house: the great grey granite boulders, you will love them, the rough primeval hill behind us, the sea beyond the few hills, that have great boulders half submerged in the grass, and stone grey walls. There are many lambs under your house. They are quite tame. They stand and cock their heads at one, then skip into the air like little explosions…I’m sure we shall live on at Tregerthen a long while, years, a tiny settlement to ourselves. And the war will end before next summer…
[Yeah, right. More wishful thinking all round here. Even the lambs he later revises his opinion about, as we shall see.]

[Letters at this time relate how he’s been making furniture, cupboards, shelves, etc. He loved throwing himself into physical, manual labour; later he helped his farmer neighbours with harvesting and other farm work. This is all about the ‘freedom’ he seeks, not scenery per se. The first letter L. writes from the two-room cottage at Higher Tregerthen is dated 7 April, to Ottoline Morrell, when he says the JMMs have moved in, too, and they were busy decorating and putting things in order. ‘The Murrys like it also’, he claims – prematurely as it turned out.]

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

Lower Tregerthen farm, their neighbours

[16 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to Catherine Carswell] Here, doing one’s own things, in this queer outlandish Celtic country, I feel fundamentally happy and free, beyond.

[Letters now refer to the ominous wartime threats to this Cornish idyll; JMM is arrested by the police for evading conscription; he’s released when he shows rejection certificate. But General Conscription seems increasingly likely; L ruefully suggests he’d be used as a clerk, and often vents his spleen on jingoists and ‘patriotism’]

[18 April 1916, Higher Tregerthen, to O. Morrell] But one is impotent, and there is nothing left but to curse. Only, how one hates one’s King and Country: what a sickening false monster it is! How one feels nauseated with the bloody life, one stodge of lies, and falsehood. I don’t care a straw what the Germans do. Everything that is done nationally, in any sense, is now vile and stinking, whether it is England or Germany. One wants only to be left alone, only that…I hate the whole concern of the nation. Bloody false fools, I don’t care what they do, so long as I can avoid them, the mass of my countrymen: or any other countrymen.
I feel the war must end this year. But in one form or another war will never end now…It is very beautiful, all the gorse coming out on the hillsides. But one feels behind it all the dirty great paw of authority grasping nearer and nearer of jeopardy…the unspoken question all the time is how long do we hold out.

DH Lawrence in Cornwall, pt 1 – The Promised Land

“When we came over the shoulder of the wild hill, above the sea, to Zennor, I felt we were coming into the Promised Land. I know there will be a new heaven and a new earth take place now: we have triumphed. I feel like a Columbus who can see a shadowy America before him: only this isn’t merely territory, it is a new continent of the soul”. Letter of 25 Feb. 1916 to Ottoline Morrell, from The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, ed. Harry T. Moore (Heinemann, London: 1962, repr. 1970), vol. 1, p. 437

My last two posts dealt with the mining heritage of Cornwall, where I live, embodied and celebrated in the form of the Man Engine, and the songs associated with the industrial toil of the working people of this county, especially in the nineteenth century, when tin and copper mining were at their peak of production. Thereafter the mining industry collapsed, and no working mines survive. A Cornish diaspora ensued, so that there are now pockets of Cornish Celts in S. and Central America, the USA, Australia – and many more far-flung places.

One of the writers with the closest affiliation to Cornwall, even though he stayed here only a short time, is D.H. Lawrence.

DHL passport photo

DHL passport photo, undated, from the Beinecke Rare Book and MS Library, Yale: public domain

After staying in a house at Porthcothan near St Merryn, lent to him by the novelist J.D. Beresford, DHL sought a cheap place of his own to rent. He was looking forward to being joined by his close friends (at the time; they later fell out) the literary Middleton Murry couple: John, and his wife, the New Zealander, Katherine Mansfield, to form a Rananim or ideal artistic-philosophical haven in Zennor, west Cornwall. If it could not be in his longed-for ‘Florida’ – or anywhere in the USA of Melville and other admired American writers like JF Cooper, where Lawrence felt there was a less constrained national spirit, then Zennor might serve, he believed.

His spirits were probably raised as much by his excited discovery of Melville’s Moby-Dick as they were by the Murrys; he was fast falling out with John, who’d been highly critical of Lawrence’s recent, controversial novel The Rainbow (1915), which had quickly been banned and taken out of circulation.

I’d like to offer a few extracts from the letters Lawrence wrote at this time, to try to give an insight into his developing state of mind at this critical time in his life, when he was finding England, embroiled in the catastrophic slaughter of WWI, so uncongenial that he began to hate it and its jingoistic, small-minded spirit. At first he loved Cornwall for its alien, dark, pagan, unEnglish quality, but gradually Kernow, too, lost its allure, and he began to hanker for distant lands again. He was a prodigious and gifted letter-writer, as I hope these brief extracts will show.

[Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to J.B. Pinker]: Already, here in Cornwall, it is better: the wind blows very hard, the sea all comes up from the cliffs in smoke. Here one is outside England, the England of London – thank God…The Cornish sea is lovely, so wild.

Porthcothan coast

Porthcothan coast: Wikimedia Commons photo

[Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to J.D. Beresford]: We have been here a week…We love being here. There have been great winds, and the sea has been smoking white above the cliffs – such a wind that it made one laugh with astonishment…I do like Cornwall. It is still something like King Arthur and Tristan. It has never taken the Anglo-Saxon civilisation, the Anglo-Saxon sort of Christianity. One can feel free here, for that reason – feel the world as it was in that flicker of pre-Christian Celtic civilisation, when humanity was really young – like the Mabinogion – not like Beowulf and the ridiculous Malory, with his grails and his chivalries.
But the war has come.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

[7 Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to Katherine Mansfield]:…I love being here in Cornwall – so peaceful, so far off from the world…a fine thin air which nobody and nothing pollutes. [But he’d been very ill with the respiratory disease later diagnosed as TB, as well as suffering a deep spiritual depression that he struggled to vanquish in his admiration of the Celtic otherness of Cornwall, ‘bare and dark and elemental’, as he described it in another letter, to Catherine Carswell].

[17 Jan. 1916, Porthcothan, to J. Middleton Murry and K. Mansfield]: I still like Cornwall…The landscape is bare, yellow-green and brown, dropping always down to black rocks [this sounds to me like Chaucer, The Franklin’s Tale, with its ‘rokkes blake’ of Brittany, which topographically resemble those of W. Cornwall] and a torn sea. All is desolate and forsaken, not linked up. But I like it.

DHL Letters vol1[24 Feb. 1916, Porthcothan, to JM Murry and K. Mansfield] We went out looking for a house, and I think we have found one that is good. It is about 7 miles from St Ives, towards Land’s End, very lonely, in the rocks on the sea, Zennor the nearest village: high pale hills, all moor-like and beautiful, behind, very wild: 7 miles across country to Penzance. [They stayed briefly at the village pub there, The Tinner’s Arms – it’s still there, next to the church dedicated – a rare instance of this – to St Senara, with its pew-end carved famously in the form of the Mermaid of Zennor. He goes on:]

Primroses and violets are out, and the gorse is lovely. At Zennor one sees infinite Atlantic, all peacock-mingled colours, and the gorse is sunshine itself, already. But this cold wind is deadly. [His health was precarious, and this climate would not be good for him, as he soon found. But he clearly longed for this move to work.]

I’ll leave him there, on his way to the village inn. In his next letter, to Ottoline Morrell, he wrote the passage I placed at the head of this post.

Next time we’ll see how he fared in his new Zennor home.

Cornish Man Engine, pt 2: Hag yn Kernew, Den Bal Karrek Kernow

HAKA BALWEYTH (Cornish Mining Chant)

Kober! Arghans! Sten! Sten! Sten!

Yn pub karrek? Yn pub men!

Kober! Arghans! Sten! Sten! Sten!

An gwella sten? Yn Kernow!

[Audio version of this chant to encourage the Man Engine to rise: HERE – from Man Engine website, home page HERE]

Man Engine Truro

Man Engine stands in Truro’s Lemon Quay last week

I posted recently about the rousing progress through the county of Cornwall of the Man Engine, Britain’s biggest ever mechanical puppet. It was more than just a nostalgic entertainment: it was a poignant and salutary reminder of the difficult, dangerous, often fatal work undertaken by the Cornish miners, and of our mining heritage here in the county in the far SW of England.

This is the stirring anthem sung by the choirs and crowds as the Man Engine ‘transformed’ from his prone position to his imposing full height of over ten metres.

[NB the full story about the characters named in the song can be read at the Man Engine website HERE. Words highlighted in RED in the lyics are commented on afterwards, below]

 HARD ROCK CORNISH MINERS  (Hag yn Kernew DEN BAL KARREK KERNOW Antemna an Jynn Den)

Copper, silver, lead and tin

Can’t you feel em ‘neath yer skin?

One and all we’ve always been

  • hard rock Cornish miners. 

Kober, arghans, plomm ha sten

Yn-dann groghen kettep penn.

‘Onan Hag Oll’ kri pub den,

  • Tus val karrek Kernow.

Chorus:

Cousin Jacks both great and small

Raise your voice, sing One and All

Round this world we send our call

‘Health to the Cornish Miner!’

 

Deep and dark down Caradon Mine

William Crago’s aged just nine

8 hours work then 2 hours climb

  • hard rock Cornish miner.

Alfie Crowle he made his name

in Mexico’s first football game

Gave our pasties worldwide fame

  • hard rock Cornish miner.

Clung to life when three men died

Telfer Mitchell bikes with pride

One foot dancing one foot tied

  • hard rock Cornish miner.

Our Jane Harvey’s a Foundry maid

White Hart Hayle’s her cast-iron trade

Deals get done and money gets made

  • hard rock Cornish miner.

Londonchurchtown from Penzance

Humphry Davy leads the dance

Invented more than Safety Lamps

  • hard rock Cornish miner.

  • Copper, silver, lead and tin

    Can’t you feel em ‘neath yer skin?

    One and all we’ve always been

    • hard rock Cornish miners.

    ____________________________________________________________

Hard rock mining involves the excavation of metal mineral ores such as tin, copper and gold, unlike soft rock mining, such as for coal.

Cousin Jacks was the nickname for émigré Cornish miners from the USA to Australia, once the great diaspora began in the mid-19C, when the copper began to be mined out and the market for other minerals became too volatile for it to continue to be economically viable in many Cornish mines. More info at this BBC site (archived), and HERE.

Caradon Phoenix_mine

Phoenix Mine, from a 1908 postcard: Wikimedia Commons public domain image

South Caradon copper mine lies high on the granite dome of Caradon Hill up on Bodmin Moor. It closed in 1886. The song could refer to any one of the other mines in the vicinity; this whole area is still full of the remains of engine houses, chimney stacks, waste heaps, quarries and other mining industrial archaeology. For links to relevant websites and a short illustrative video visit HERE – Cornish Mining Heritage website, Caradon site

Cornish pasties, the pastry-cased pies crimped down one side to hold it together, were the miners’ traditional lunch or ‘croust’. Beef and potato were the staple filling, often mixed with onion and swede, although many other ingredients have been controversially substituted. Some mines had a hot oven up top in which the pasties could be kept warm until lunchtime. The owner’s name would often be inscribed in the pastry to facilitate identification. Some miners would reserve a small corner to leave for the ‘knockers’ – the mischievous ‘little people’ of the mines, believed to cause all kinds of mayhem and bad luck if not placated by these human intruders into their subterranean habitat. I believe the ‘empanadas’ of Argentina, Chile, etc., are S. American pasties based on the recipes the emigrant Cornish miners imported there when they took to working in the mines there after the diaspora.

Jane Harvey was the daughter of John Harvey from Hayle, in west Cornwall. In 1779 he established a foundry and engineering works there. He worked there with Richard Trevithick (1771-1833, born to a mine captain and miner’s daughter in a village near Camborne, inventor of many high-pressure steam-powered devices and locomotives, including improved versions of Newcomen and Watt’s earlier mine pumping engines) and other leading engineers. In 1797 Jane married Trevithick.

Harvey’s became the main mining engine foundry in the world, with an international market served through their own port at Foundry Town, Hayle.

Harvey’s of Hayle reached their peak in the early- to mid-19th century and then, along with the Cornish mining industry in general, suffered a gradual and slow decline.  The engineering works and foundry were closed in 1903, although the company continued to trade as a general and builder’s merchant, eventually merging with UBM to become Harvey-UBM in 1969 [adapted, including links, from Wikipedia]

The White Hart building, established in Foundry Square, Hayle in 1838, was built for Jane and Trevithick by her brother, who succeeded his father (died 1802) as the foundry’s owner. It still stands, an imposing sight, and functions as a hotel.

 

For a 12-min film of the singing as the Man Engine ‘transforms’ by Gray Lightfoot, see this YouTube site. A shorter one by Mel Potter from the Geevor Mine visit, see HERE

The Man Engine

The Man Engine at Truro last week

The Man Engine at Truro last week

The Man Engine is the largest mechanical puppet ever constructed in Britain. He stands at 4.5m when he’s on his transporter, or when he ‘crawls’, rising to 10.2m when his ‘transformation’ has taken place and he ‘stands’ erect.

The Man Engine

The Man Engine at full height in Lemon Quay, Truro

 

 

 

 

 

He made his triumphant debut at Tavistock, just over the Tamar in west Devon, on July 25th this year. He has just completed his two-week Progress 130 miles through Cornwall, from Tamar to Geevor Tin Mine at Pendeen near Penzance. But he’s not just an entertainment for Cornish residents and visitors: he’s a visible and stirring reminder of the dangerous, often fatal work of the Hard Rock Cornish Miners, and of the relative prosperity and security this difficult, demanding work brought to some sectors of the Cornish people for some two hundred years.

I’ll post more on this shortly, and on the experience of my wife and I, and grandchildren, when we went to see him in Truro and Camborne.

Mining for minerals in the county dates back to the Bronze Age, but the heyday of the industry in the Duchy was in the early 19th century, when Cornwall had some 2000 mines, and was the leading supplier of copper in the world.

The most important minerals that were mined were tin, copper, silver and lead, but gold and arsenic were also important. The landscape and skylines of Cornwall have been largely shaped by the mining industry: engine houses and other industrial archeological sites proliferate, especially in mid-Cornwall around Camborne and Redruth, and in the far west.

Tram and train lines formed a network of supply and transport for the industry, many of which survive today. Thriving ports exported the minerals. Technology developed to facilitate ever more efficient means of accessing, digging out and marketing the deep-hidden wealth beneath the Celtic landscape of moors, rocks and picturesque townships.

In 1689 the technological innovation of gunpowder was introduced to the Cornish mining industry for the blasting of rock. It was imported until 1808 when the first Cornish gunpowder factory opened at Perranarworthal, midway between Truro and Falmouth. Such places were located in secluded and wooded river valleys to provide a source of water power and to protect neighbours, who would be relatively screened by the trees. Even the roofs of these factories were designed to come off easily in the event of an explosion.

In 1831 William Bickford, from Tuckingmill near Camborne, invented the safety fuse. Blasting in mines was highly dangerous. Previously, holes were drilled into the rock, filled with gunpowder and tamped, and the relatively primitive ‘quill’ fuses inserted and lit to blast the rock. The fuses were temperamental and unreliable, and caused many serious injuries and deaths in the mining industry.

If the quill fuses failed to ignite the gunpowder to blast the rock and expose the minerals, the miners would have to wait until it was considered safe to do so – a risky process called ‘to hang fire’, hence the expression today. Bickford’s invention made blasting much safer.

The first practical high explosive charge for blasting in a Cornish mine took place in 1846 at Restormel Iron Mine near Lostwithiel. By the 1880s high explosives had largely replaced the less efficient, slow-burning gunpowder.

In 1866 Alfred Nobel invented the nitroglycerine-based explosive dynamite. Soon after it was first used in Cornwall’s mines. The first Cornish dynamite factory, the National Explosives Works, was set up in 1888 in the protective seclusion of the dunes at Hayle Towans (‘towans’ is Cornish for ‘dunes’)– but accidental explosions did take place. It’s still possible to see the traces of the site, which at its height covered 300 acres, and the network of single-track railways that serviced the enterprise.

During WWI the company manufactured a range of high explosives for the British military. The site closed in 1920, but continued to be used for the storage of explosives until the 1960s.

So why the Man Engine?

Dolcoath man engine

Man Engine at Dolcoath mine: picture via Wikimedia Commons of 1893 by John Charles Burrow

These were mechanised devices to enable miners to access the levels they were working at, often deep underground. They were only paid for the time they spent at the rock face – they often faced long (2-3 hours) and arduous, dangerous climbs up and down slopes or ladders before the invention of these devices. The first man engine in Britain was installed at Tresavean Mine in Gwennap in 1842. There were sixteen of them in Cornwall in total.

They operated by exploiting the rise and fall of the rods which operated the steam-powered pumps that were essential for emptying the shafts of water. The miners would step from rod to platform every twelve feet, and hence make his progress up or down, often many hundreds of meters, in a kind of stepped paternoster elevator.

Dolcoath engine house

Dolcoath engine house, built 1860. Wikicommons picture by Will Wallis

Tin-mining-cornwall-c1890 Dolcoath looking east

Dolcoath mine site c. 1890, looking east. Wikicommons

Dolcoath (near Carn Brea, Camborne) was the fifth largest of around 470 copper mines in Cornwall. When the copper looked like running out, deeper shafts were sunk to mine for tin at lower levels: by 1882 the deepest was 660 meters, later over 1000 meters, making it the deepest in Cornwall; there were 12 miles of serviceable tunnels, and many more older, unworkable ones. In 1893 seven men were killed when stulls or props gave way half a mile underground and a tunnel collapsed on them.

Another hazard was hookworm, which infected nearly every miner. The men defecated in the shafts, and this enabled the parasite to spread.

Tincroft mine engine house

Tincroft mine engine house

Tincroft Mine has the only remaining complete man engine building in Cornwall. The beam engine which it housed was used to power the man engine in nearby Dunkin’s Shaft.

The last to operate was at Levant, where a terrible accident occurred in 1919, killing 31 miners, men and boys, when the cap that held the main connecting rod broke. Historians say that the man engine had a good safety record prior to that disaster, for before its use there were frequent accidents, often fatal, especially when tired miners were climbing ladders up the long shafts from deep underground, exhausted after their long work shift.

East Wheal Rose

East Wheal Rose

The engine house and stack at East Wheal Rose, St Newlyn East, near Newquay, Cornwall was principally for lead ore (galena) but also silver, zinc. 39 miners died underground in 1846 when torrential rain flooded the shafts.

Since 2006 the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape has been a World Heritage Site. Its gateway site, Heartlands, opened in 2012, on the site where South Crofty tin mine became the last operating mine to close operations in Cornwall in 1998.

My picture of the site of Robinson Shaft engine house at Heartlands, Camborne

My picture of the site of Robinson Shaft engine house at Heartlands, Camborne

For a Wikipedia article on the mining industry in Cornwall see HERE –

has many links to all kinds of related materials, including the story of the Cornish diaspora – Cornish miners took their knowledge and experience to all corners of the globe when their home mines ceased to be productive or economical. Links also to various mineral railways and the ports they serviced, and to individual mining areas and the more prominent mines and individuals associated with the mining heritage of Cornwall.

Travelling at a wayward angle: Don DeLillo, ‘Zero K’. Pt 2 of my exploration

Part Two: Zero K, by DonDeLillo

There is an aggregate of past events that we can attempt to understand [p 167]

Jeff has left his father’s cult-like cryogenic facility in the desert of Uzbekistan after the death of his stepmother and the freezing of her body in a cryo-pod. He’s gone back to a drifter’s life in New York.

His new girlfriend’s stepson is called Stak. His obsessions – time, languages (he teaches himself Pashto), words, numbers, temperatures in random cities across the globe – resemble Jeff’s. When Jeff takes him to a bizarre art installation, the central exhibit of which is a large ‘interior rock sculpture’, a strange conversation ensues. Stak has dropped out of school; it’s ‘meaningless’. He’s ‘unlearned’ as ‘self-defense’ the ‘ten million faces that pass through our visual field every year…[Learned to s]ee them all like one big blurry thing.’ There are ‘very few’ exceptions.

He’s clearly disturbed, possibly traumatised.

Jeff looks at him and says:

‘Rocks are, but they do not exist.’

He repeats the mantra with other objects that ‘are, but don’t exist’. Trees. Horses. God. He doesn’t tell Stak that he took this formula as a college student from Heidegger. The Nazi sympathiser.

History everywhere, in black notebooks, and even the most innocent words, tree, horse, rock, gone dark in the process. Stak had his own twisted history to think about, mass starvation of his forebears. Let him imagine an uncorrupted rock.

 

He goes on, as he usually does when stymied by semantics or ontology, to challenge Stak to ‘define rock’:

I was thinking of myself at his age, determined to find the more or less precise meaning of a word, to draw other words out of the designated word in order to locate the core…The definition needed to be concise, authoritative.

Stak languidly proceeds to give a masterly linguistic definition, full of technical jargon – petrology, geology, marble and calcite. Jeff marvels as the boy seems to grow taller as he speaks, and the signifier and signified refuse to be other than arbitrary units:

He was alone with the rock, a thing requiring a single syllable to give it outline and form.

His mother is dismayed to find Stak has given up his previous obsessions; he’s no longer ‘involved’, he says mysteriously. He’s to return to his father and who knows what fate:

A son or daughter who travels at a wayward angle must seem a penalty the parent must bear – but for what crime?

 As they leave the gallery Jeff and Stak reconsider the meaning of his ‘Rocks are, but they do not exist’ conundrum:

It was a subject that blended well with our black-and-white descent.

DeLillo, Zero K cover

Even the cover of my Picador edition is weird: it has a semi-transparent plastic-paper dust jacket with the title and author’s name on the front, half concealing a mannequin’s face on the hard front cover of the book. Disturbing.

So, once again, what’s this novel Zero K all about? Is it not the dystopian sci-fi it masquerades as, but more about the nature of parenthood and childhood rebellion, the child’s struggle to find its identity in a dysfunctional world? The tyranny of genes and the competing impact of environment (which humans are systematically desecrating) on the developing psyche?

I don’t know.

I don’t now think it’s just these things. Or a so-so contribution to the genre of dystopian-cryogenic-existential-thriller, though it poses as that, too.

It is also, as I hinted in my previous post, a deeply philosophical meditation on mortality (among lots of other things: I looked at some last time) – hardly surprising for a writer touching 80. Problem is, the first section of the novel is just too often…well, tedious. Characters are ciphers, who mostly speak gnomic, phenomenological nonsense. Embodiments of philosophical positions. Epistemic puppets. It’s all rather leaden (thanks for the word, Belinda at Booksbii)

The novel can be seen, perhaps, as more of a meditation on religion, humanity’s thirst for spiritual clarity; faith, and the role and nature of ART. The novel or literature in particular. Here’s a random question in that section of the novel where the Scandi-twins, putative creators of the Convergence cryo-facility, tease the sceptical Jeff about the project’s likely impact on future human existence and the numerous questions this raises:

“Does literal immortality compress our enduring artforms and cultural wonders into nothingness?”

“What will poets write about?”

“What happens to history? What happens to money? What happens to God?”

It’s easy to dismiss Zero K, as I nearly did on first reading, as grand-sounding pseudo-mystical sci-fi. But there are so many resonant, beautiful sentences in it, the novel is worth reading just for the pleasure of savouring DeLillo’s prose.

Final thoughts about what it might all signify: Stak meets a terrible fate near the end. Jeff, back in the Convergence, watches it apparently captured on film on one of the screens that intermittently descend from the ceilings of the halls in the maze-like complex. He stands a long time once it’s finished, waiting for the hall to empty and go dark. He stands with his eyes shut in the dark:

I’ve done this before, stand in a dark room, motionless, eyes shut, weird kid and grown man, was I making my way toward a space such as this, long cold empty hall, doors and walls in matching colors, dead silence, shadow streaming toward me.

Once the dark is total, I will simply stand and wait, trying hard to think of nothing. [p. 264]

 This sounds to me like death. Near-death. Like those visions people claim to have when they ‘flat-line’ and enter that last tunnel towards the heavenly light that will be death. Out of the darkness.

It’s like Tarkovsky’s Solaris (a director name-checked by the sinister twins as one of the cultural artificers who’ll be used to implant new ‘memories’ in the resurrected cryo-corpses). It reminds me too of Ambrose Bierce’s Owl Creek story: all of the action takes place in the seconds it takes for the noose to tighten and the for the protagonist to die. Everything else is the human’s desperate desire to evade inevitable, ineffable death. A sort of dream, then, Zero K, the death-wish in reverse. The will to live. Or of Art to survive.

But that too is maybe too pat. For there’s one final chapter to follow this cryptic passage. Jeff back in the city considers whether his entire adult life has been a futile hippyish rebellion against his father and his ‘corporate career’ (the parent/child theme again, but it turns into something more mystical):

 I tell myself that I’m not hiding inside a life that’s a reaction to this, or a retaliation for this. Then, again, I stand forever in the shadow of Ross and Artis and it’s not their resonant lives that haunt me but their manner of dying.

 

The beckoning figure of a begging woman in the street recurs:

What is there to see that I haven’t seen, what lesson is there to be learned from a still figure in the midst of crowds? In her case it may be an issue of impending threat. Individuals have always done this, haven’t they? I think of it as medieval, a foreboding of some kind. She is telling us to be ready.

Sometimes it takes an entire morning to outlive a dream…Stak is the waking dream… [p. 267]

 Final judgement, as on a medieval church mural. Or a dream of it.

But there’s yet one more transcendent scene: as at Stonehenge at midsummer, the sun sets once or twice a year and the ‘sun’s rays align with the local street grid’ of Manhattan, shining in a ‘radiant moment’ through the high-rise buildings, flooding the streets with a ruddy brilliance. A young boy ‘on a crosstown bus’ on which Jeff is also travelling rises as if to greet the sun (son?), emitting ‘howls of awe’, and Jeff thinks of his father’s words when he first introduced him to the Convergence and its hallucinatory plans:

Everybody wants to own the end of the world.

Is that what the boy was seeing?

The ‘solar disk, bleeding into the streets’ – an image of the crucifixion? – lights up the tower blocks.

It’s no spoiler to give the final lines, for their meaning, like the rest of this uneven, challenging, often infuriating novel, sporadically brilliant novel, is obscurely beautiful:

I went back to my seat and faced forward. I didn’t need heaven’s light. [see – I said this was eschatological mysticism!] I had the boy’s cries of wonder.

The only other blog I’ve read on Zero K is this thoughtful piece by Belinda over at Biisbooks: do take a look.

Death is a tough habit to break: Don DeLillo, ‘Zero K’, pt 1 of an exploration of what it might all mean

Don DeLillo, Zero K (UK edition by Picador, 2016) 

 

‘Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth’

‘Is it outright murder? Is it a form of assisted suicide that’s horribly premature? Or is it a metaphysical crime that needs to be analyzed by philosophers?’

 This place was located at the far margins of plausibility.

This post became so unwieldy in the drafting that I’ve broken it into two instalments. This is Pt 1.

cover of my copy of Zero KThis reflects the difficulty I’ve experienced as I grappled with its meaning. The struggle was exhilarating, but I emerged not exactly unenlightened, but not entirely clear what on earth I’d just read.

Zero K seemed to me on first reading to be a sporadically interesting but largely tedious sci-fi dystopia. It’s a well-trampled field.

But there’s also a subtext critiquing a hit-list of DeLillo hates: corporate capitalism; the increasingly depersonalising, invasive and debilitating influence of technology; eco-disaster and humanity’s spoliation of the planet; wars and the terrorism that arises out of or before them; the socio-cultural and political atrophy and ennui of modern life – the list goes on.

The ‘Convergence’ is located in a ‘strafed desert’. It’s a semi-submerged complex in ‘a wasteland’ (literary allusions abound in Zero K), possibly in Uzbekistan where cryogenic suspension is the gamble of the rich; they believe they can cheat death by freezing their bodies in pods, crypts or capsules, awaiting some time in the future when they hope technology will have advanced to the point where it’s possible to use ‘nanobots’ to ‘refresh their organs, regenerate their systems’ using ‘Enzymes, proteins, nucleotides’ and they will live again in ‘the billionaire’s myth of immortality’. Their decapitated heads will be restored to their torsos, eviscerated organs restored to their proper places. They will be reborn in ‘cyberhuman form.’ Probably.

‘Die a while, then live forever.’

Weird multinational scientists, philosophers and spectral, monklike figures in scapulars waft about the facility, that resembles an Escher picture, intoning psychobabble like

‘Death is a cultural artefact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable.’/’Nature wants to kill us off in order to return to its untouched and uncorrupted form.’

The facility is portrayed as a cross between a starship and a nuclear bunker. Many of the tropes familiar from a thousand sci-fi stories appear: the canteen auto-dispenses clinical ‘food-units’ of unidentifiable mush. Access to different ‘levels’ is gained by an electronic wristband that resembles the tag used to track bailed prisoners. Elevators don’t necessarily travel in a vertical trajectory. Creepy guides or ‘escorts’ conduct the visitor like a psychopomp. Anonymous, disengaged and wordless sex is offered. The place is apocalyptic.

There’s clearly something deeply sinister about this setup: it’s more like a death-cult than serious experiment – or is it a refuge from a mad world, where meditation and contemplation have replaced acquisitiveness and aggression? The monk sits on his bench and considers himself reincarnated and sitting on that same bench. An empty room has murals depicting that same empty room. These are mises en abyme that typify this novel’s enigmas that take it beyond the realm of regular sci-fi.

The twin Scandinavians who seem to be the masterminds of the Convergence breezily claim that these frozen ‘units’ – the obscenely rich candidates for cryogenic suspension – will become ‘citizens of the universe’. ‘We want to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be human – stretch and then surpass…to alter human thought and bend the energies of civilization.’

Jeff Lockhart, 34-year-old first-person narrator and son of billionaire entrepreneur Ross, who is the prime source of funds for this project, has arrived at this ‘faith-based technology’ unit, summoned by his father. Ross deprecates Jeff’s aimlessness: ‘I hadn’t done anything yet. Hadn’t lived at all yet. All you do is pass the time, he said’. Jeff is, says Ross, justifiably, in a ‘determined drift, week to week, year to year.’ (Time and the means of measuring it are a recurring preoccupation for Jeff and this narrative.) His is a ‘noncareer’ – the opposite of his father’s.

And Jeff is sceptical; he’s like the Savage in Huxley’s Brave New World, the outsider-visitor who enables us to perceive what those within the system he visits are inured to, or in league with: the horror. The heart of darkness.

Here’s his reaction to the twins’ opening spiel:

They weren’t scientists or social theorists. What were they? They were adventurers of a kind that I could not quite identify.

But when Jeff asks if the subjects when reassembled in the future will be who they were before they entered the chamber to be frozen, the chilling response is:

‘They will be subjects for us to study, toys for us to play with.’

Jeff is both intrigued and appalled by these twin ‘demonologists in spirit’, with their predictions that ‘In time a religion of death will emerge in response to our prolonged lives.’ ‘Bring back death.’ There will be ‘voracious bloodbaths’ as ‘bands of death rebels’ will randomly kill these regenerated forms, mutilate and eat them, smear the ashes from their immolated corpses on their own bodies. It’s a vision out of Bosch or the Holocaust, not a Walt Disney fantasy. Yet the twins blandly answer the question: What will we find at the final reckoning? with:

‘A promise more assured than the ineffable hereafters of the world’s organized religions.’

Jeff is dubious:

This was their aesthetic of seclusion and concealment, all the elements that I found so eerie and disembodying. The empty halls, the color patterns, the office doors that did or did not open into an office. The mazelike moments, time suspended, content blunted, the lack of explanation.

These thoughts of Jeff’s are surely those of any sensible sceptic confronting this nightmare, this mad vision, with its SS skull prominently displayed – or revered. But there’s an allure to it, as his thoughts go on to show:

This was art in itself, nowhere else but here.

So far, so tedious. There’s a lot of pretentious guff about the nature of art, religion, identity, fate, technology. ‘Many other questions’, ethical and philosophical, arise, and the twins, Jeff or narrator chillingly recite them. What is art? Or Death of course. And ‘What does it mean to die?’, ‘What good are we if we live for ever?’ What about life, immortality and mortality: what do these terms mean? What do words signify? ‘Define X’ is one of Jeff’s default inner questions. Rhetorical ones.

Jeff learns that he’s been summoned to the Convergence by Lockhart for an unsettling reason; he tells his son he has chosen to join prematurely his dying wife Artis (see what he’s doing with characters’ names?!) by euthanizing himself and facilitating the process of ‘cryostorage’ that gives the novel its title – and going with her into a pod of his own. Even worse follows: ‘Come with us,’ Artis urges Jeff.

I nearly gave up on Zero K around p.90. I had no other books with me – I was on a trip – so had no option but continue. I’m glad I did.

Because the novel turned, at p.163, into a different one. Jeff leaves the Convergence (what a silly pseudo-religious, cult-like name), returns to the city, two years pass, and the story picks up his relationship with a woman who has an adopted son, rescued from war-torn Ukraine and now a troubled, obsessive teenager called Stak.

I hope I haven’t put you off with this not entirely positive start; do stay with me. In the final part of this exploration of Zero K I hope to look more deeply into its textures and puzzles, as I try to fathom what DeLillo may possibly have been up to in this, his seventeenth novel, as he nears 80. Is it a falling-off in his notorious ‘late period’, or a return to the form of a writer often hailed as ‘America’s greatest living writer’, as the blurb on the dustjacket calls him?

Is DeLillo toying with the reader, playfully duping us into thinking this is his grimly faux sci-fi take on Margaret Atwood-esque oracular visions, after watching ‘Solaris’, ‘2001’ and other dystopian tech-horror films like Alex Garland’s 2015 ‘Ex-Machina’ (all those disturbing ‘mannequins’ lurking in the Convergence hallways)? Or is it an eschatological, metalinguistic riddle? The crushing mindlessness of corporate jargon is constantly lampooned. Gnomic aphorisms abound.

I’ll continue with such questions next time and may even attempt some answers.