“Shall I Project a World?”
There is a game that I love to play with friends and relations.
The game is a question and the question is this: what are the ways of living that, 100 years from now, will be considered taboo?
At first, the question seems obvious, but when you think about the 100 years between the Spanish Flu and COVID-19, suddenly the act of trying to imagine just what exactly will be different seems like the most difficult charge.
I mean 100 years made some difference on the issue of wearing masks in the face of respiratory illness, but it is still clearly an issue.
One of the obvious ones that many seem to bring up is in wearing real fur as fashion.
Whether one believes in states of consciousness shared by mammals, or in the devastation orchestrated by climate change, to wear fur in 2020 is to be willing to deny life as it has been subdued by humanity.
To imagine fur as still being a logical choice in 2120 is difficult to swallow.
Taboo seems too harsh a word for the game, but it is not without its merits. 100 years ago, smoking was a societal norm, but now when we see someone light up close to young children, the science of secondhand smoke does give us the twinge of discomfort. Smoking may still exist in 2120, but what we smoke and why might seem alien.
The reason the game is so fun is this: it is a reminder that we, all of us, are embedded in history, whether we like it or not. Like it or not, some 100 years from now, when people will be fortunate enough to read works from the future library, they will also be able to see the culture that gave these books their tone, their atmosphere, and their sins.
We all want to believe that we avoid history. One of the hallmarks of having a rich and loved childhood is the paradoxical fact that it is difficult to remember. To live in relative harmony is to not require memory at all.
But it is in moments like the coronavirus pandemic that we are reminded that we not only have bodies, but that we have history. As simple as it was to believe the post-Cold War mantra of “The End of History,” the truth is that nothing is inevitable, and calamity can befall the sacred as well as the profane.
“What is history,” Rachel Cusk wrote “if not memory without pain?”
History as Protagonist
If there is one small mercy in the midst of worldwide illness, it is in its ability to tear open previous notions of…well…everything. Just what exactly have I been doing the past decade? Have I really been enjoying teaching? Or is it simply convenient? When I wake up in the morning and immediately check my phone, what is it that I am looking for?
The same sort of double take occurred in the 1920s. The Lost Generation, as I have written about in a previous post, brought with them experimentation and fresh ideas to all sorts of artistic projects, whether in literature, dance, painting, or sculpture.
Suddenly it seemed to me that I had a very low bar for fiction. What I had expected the genre to do, or what I thought it should amount to, had become too narrow.
This is likely to do with being involved in public education and being forced again and again to find books of “entertaining” value to children. The young adult books blend together even as I think of them, all made up of first acts, second acts, and the third of those, in order to sell copies. Whether it is because they are quick to read, or because young adults are the only ones reading, or…more troubling, if the reading level of young adult books is all anyone can stomach, they seem to be making bank.
And, whenever this happens in my life, there seems to be a book that shakes up that premise, that opens up my idea of what fiction can do or can be. For every James Patterson there is John Barth. And when I find a book like David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, I am suddenly filled with a renewed sense of the human spirit. Of our ingenuity.
It is with this perspective that I bring you The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
For too long, the concept of characters has been a trifle. How does one person cultivate personalities for many? In the poorest examples of these, they are simply plot cut-outs, more ready to get into trouble for the sake of conflict than hold onto common sense.
In the best of these, you have Theo in The Goldfinch, a Dickensian struggle through terrorism and post-Recession America that has me going back to his final monologue at the end of the novel time and again.
But for the most part, when we agree to read fiction with characters as the cornerstone of the structure, we are making ourselves vulnerable. We agree that these characters, though they do not exist, can illuminate what it means specifically to exist. And sometimes, rarely, it works.
But most of the time it doesn’t.
Or at least for me it no longer does. Perhaps as a child I gave into the notion of heroism in the fantasy books by Brian Jacques. The Abbey of Redwall was a place of plenty and harmony, and compared to the constant struggle of elementary school, it seemed to me how the world ought to behave. Matthias’s personality became mine by proxy.
Warner’s novel takes that idea and dispenses with it quickly.
The gesture is violent and surreal. Giles and Alianor de Retteville are engaged in an affair in the 13th century. Their consummation is short-lived, as Alianor’s partner Brian storms in with his cousins and butcher Giles. Alianor is stunned and remains still. It is this stillness that saves her.
By the end of the first chapter, Alianor is a distant memory, her name and endowment used to build, of all things, a convent. Her husband perhaps thought of a nunnery as an over-correction to her infidelity, but strangely his attention to the details proves there was love there still.
In any case, the first chapter exists as a prologue, and by the end of it they are all dead, they being the ones responsible for the founding of the Oby Convent. Even Richenda de Retteville, a younger sister, who helped put the convent in the black by her ability to proffer.
What love is to some women, and needlework to more, litigation was to Richenda.
The chapter ends in the midst of the Black Death, in 1349, where it seems the real work begins.
The book is already a masterpiece in my eyes, for its ability to weave together the darkest of humor with lines that ring as poignant. Here is one such moment, where Sir Peter is debating leaving Oby in order to prevent the spread of heresy in a neighboring town, in the midst of the plague:
Their silence appealed to him. Presently he began to speak on a milder note, saying how deplorable it was that though God’s providence send these catastrophes upon mankind, mankind was not, as a rule, any the better for them. Then, asking for their prayers, he said farewell.
Such is the context of our moment that the words strike us at our heart. Our history aligns with theirs, though any reader could pick this up and imagine for themselves without the need of their surrounding senses just what minimum amount of pain is required to exist at all.
And Warner seems to be tugging at our desires to take action. In Alianor’s case at the beginning of the novel, it is not her action but rather the opposite that keeps her alive. Brian, peering at his naked wife, her braided hair resting in a lovely way across her breasts, finds himself unable to destroy her.
Likewise, when Sir Peter does eventually leave, the Black Death comes to Oby anyway. Dame Susanna, the infirmaress at the time, muses, “Sir Peter might just as well have stayed. He would have found plenty to do.” As she speaks to the horror, the bailiff recommends digging a large pit as soon as possible, while they still have the labor.
In times of plenty or in terror, action by humanity seems at first to be the obvious response. To take action, to move our bodies, implies agency. “Work will set you free” was the phrase that they inscribed over, of all things, the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a phrase that Americans have taken up despite all evidence that productivity seems uncertain, with disease more likely.
The first thing to recognize about having a novel with history as its main character is that the goodness of action seems to happen as if by accident. Sometimes actions are taken that seem easy enough. For example, disaster breeds what appears in the novel to be opportunity:
In 1257 the old reed and timber cloisters fell to bits in a gale. It was decided that the masons who came to build the new should also build on a proper chapter-house. When it was half-built a spring rose under it. Rather than throw money away, the head mason suggested, why not finish the new building as a dovecot, a wet floor being no inconvenience to doves, and convert the old dovecot, so solid and weatherproof, into a chapter-house? This suggestion, too hastily accepted, led to discomfort all round. The pigeons refused to settle in their new house. Some flew away for good, the others remained in the lower half of the old dovecot, whose upper story remodeled with large windows and stone benches, made a very unpersuasive place of assembly. However, the arrangement was allowed as a temporary expedient, and as such it became permanent.
If there is one boon to the terrors of history, it is expedience. I have seen first hand in education how expedience can make teaching suitable, only to have it backfire before the year is out. The problem of history is the problem of scarce resources and the minds it produces. To imagine distance learning in some other century would be to imagine internet faster than the snap of our fingers. It would be to imagine an artificially intelligent natural language program like GPT-3 that would provide feedback on the essays that students write, a companion that could offer more time than my flesh and blood could ever allow. It would be for all children to have a healthy diet, food deserts eradicated with hydroponic gardens.
History unfortunately is ill-prepared to handle all of the future, only what’s past.
And the past is a terror of cost-benefit analysis. Even in a supposedly sacred place as the Oby Convent, in the years in which Christianity stood as the defining ideology, weights and measurements are still taken.
For these reasons, I am already thrilled at the first 24 pages of Warner’s book. I write to you now to spread the word on the power of fiction. The best book you’ll read turns out to already exist, but it lurks out there without you knowing. Had it not been for the August 2020 edition of Harper’s, perhaps I would have lived and died without her writing in my life. Incredible that I can fall so readily in love with someone given only the words in these 24 pages.
Had I not been forced into stillness, she might have gone by without a second glance.
The question then becomes: what is the right action? Unfortunately, since we are plunged in history, we can never really know until it is too late, until we are dead and our forebears must put the puzzle back together.
But perhaps Sylvia Townsend Warner was onto something when, during her time writing this book, the world had descended into yet another world war.
If for nothing else, coronavirus is teaching us that society, for all its pleasures, cannot sustain our hearts without also including a little bit of madness.
And it is in the in-action of disasters that sanity can return.