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

At low tide, this long narrow bay has great expanses of sand, rock pools and sea caves exposed. To get an idea, see photo SW8572 : Porthcothan Bay at low tide
© Copyright Val Pollard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

At low tide, this long narrow bay has great expanses of sand, rock pools and sea caves exposed. To get an idea, see photo SW8572 : Porthcothan Bay at low tide

  © Copyright Val Pollard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

[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.

 

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Flying lovers with title

Poster from the Globe website

Last Thursday my wife and I went to see Kneehigh Theatre’s current production in their ‘Asylum’ mode – a marquee pitched in the grounds of The Lost Gardens of Heligan, just outside St Austell – of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which relates the life of the artist Marc Chagall, focusing on his relationship with Bella Rosenfeld; they met in 1909 when she was 20 and he was 21. They married in 1914. Kneehigh is a Cornish company specialising in high octane musical drama: not ‘plays’ in the traditional theatrical sense.

Kneehigh Asylum marquee

Kneehigh Asylum marquee

The Flying Lovers is typical of their exuberant style. Kneehigh love to use traditional stories, folktales and legends, imbuing their performances with music, dance and an energy that can border on the frenetic – but always entertaining and innovative.

TFLOV was written by Daniel Jamieson, and directed by Emma Rice, a long-time stalwart of the company, in her final production before taking up her new role as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

The first and stronger half of the play shows their whirlwind courtship and early married life. While they were engaged Chagall left for Paris, where he became the darling of the avant-garde artistic world, developing his own unique take on contemporary trends, from Cubism through Fauvism to Surrealism.

Marc Antolin, who plays Chagall, has a gangling charm and convincingly portrayed his ingenuous sense of purpose: he was determined to make it as a painter – at all costs, sometimes including the feelings and wishes of his adoring Bella (played by Audrey Brisson), herself a talented, intelligent woman, but who sublimated her own creativity as a writer and actor to nurture his rather egotistical ambition. On one occasion he thoughtlessly disparaged her writings, and in another more shocking scene tore a page from her creative writing notebook to make a paper butterfly for their new baby. He didn’t mean to be cruel, but Bella’s pain was evident.

They both came from Vitebsk, a city in what became after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution a part of the Soviet Union. As Jews they were confined to the shtetl, had to show passports in their own country if they wanted to travel, and were highly constrained in terms of career and social life. When the revolution came they hoped their lives would become freer, but the opposite happened. Eventually they were able to escape the stifling Soviet regime and travel the world, artistic refugees.

This production was excellent at showing how artistic creativity can triumph over oppression and hardship; the love between Marc and Audrey was palpable, and delightfully conveyed through some remarkable visual imagery that ingeniously replicated some of Chagall’s iconic, vibrantly colourful paintings.

Mobile of the flying lovers   hanging from the roof of the refreshment tent

Mobile of the flying lovers hanging from the roof of the refreshment tent

The one that sticks out in my mind is that of the entwined lovers, sinuously embracing and kissing, as Bella hands Marc a bunch of flowers for his birthday. Obviously the earth-bound actors couldn’t replicate Chagall’s trademark disdain for gravity in his subjects, but with their animation and charm, Brisson and Antolin were able to convince the audience that they really were flying.

These intimate, romantic scenes were the most successful in the performance. They were offset by those conveying the grim history of the first decades of history in Russia. Vitebsk was gradually and systematically destroyed during the course of the two World Wars, ongoing pogroms, and a Soviet system even more brutal towards the Jewish people than that of the tsars. Chagall was denigrated by the Bolsheviks for displaying bourgeois individualism in his groundbreaking artistic style, and like so many artists of the avant-garde had to ignore the critics and political enemies who despised him.

Audrey Brisson has a beautiful voice and moved and danced elegantly. Her duets with Antolin were poignant and heartbreaking by turns. The two multi-instrumental musicians, Ian Goss and James Gow, managed to sound like a small orchestra, and played with skilful animation, often participating in the action and joining in with the songs.

I particularly enjoyed the close, haunting harmonies of the four players when they sang what sounded like Slavic or Yiddish folksongs – some in the original languages. The other dominant mode was jazz, played and sung with panache, and a highly appropriate way of illustrating through music the exuberant, extraordinary work of an artist who proudly incorporated images and motifs into nearly all he painted from his Jewish heritage and provincial background – his fiddler on the roof inspired the later musical, while his rabbis and animals (green cows, winged fish) uncompromisingly populate his scenes of his beloved Belarussian homeland.

The Asylum aspect of Kneehigh’s touring company reminds us, as the programme notes and the displays in the refreshment tents indicate, of the continuing plight of refugees like the Chagalls, fleeing today’s war-zones and murderous intolerance in Syria, Afghanistan and too many other places to mention. Kneehigh Asylum also provide us, through this and other productions to come, of our responsibilities as fellow human beings towards these desperate, frightened people who’ve lost everything.

I’d urge you to catch any performance you can.