Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Return

Walter de la Mare [1873-1956]-- from a letter to Edward Wagenknecht: '…the Christian and Catholic idea of Man and the Universe is the richest, profoundest, most imaginative and creative, beautiful and reasonable conception of any I have knowledge of… Therefore…it is…the most likely to be true.'

Imagine the following: a somewhat flaccid, complacent, conformist gentleman, who lives at some unspecified time between 1870-1910, and whose thoughts never strayed beyond the confines of his English village and the perimeter set by his formidably conventional wife, falls ill for a number of days, possibly weeks, with Influenza. One afternoon – perhaps Sheila, his wife, has left the house – he undertakes to leave his sick room and wander outside for a little walk. His path takes him down to the old churchyard where, on a mossy gravestone, after pondering the fate of the denizen within whose memorial he traces out in the broken lettering, he falls asleep.

Upon waking, he feels somewhat refreshed, and saunters – no, strides, – "with [a] vivid exaltation in this huge dark night in his heart, and Sheila merely a little angry Titianesque cloud on a scarcely perceptible horizon" -- back to his house. He returns to his bedroom, sits in knitted thought upon his bed for a few moments, feeling unusually alert -- "it seemed as if a heavy and dull dream had withdrawn out of his mind." He lights the candle, takes out his razors and prepares to shave himself. He looks at himself in the glass.

Shock: the face that confronts him is not his own – at least it was not the Arthur Lawford that seemed to have existed formerly, the Arthur Lawford of history, appearance, and self-belief. It is another face, lean, hungry, wolf-like and saturnine. After a pause of terror, horror, tears, he hears a rustle of skirts mounting the stairs. Sheila knocks at the door. Husband and wife engage in a little colloquy across the locked door. There are pauses, strategems, little maneuevers of postponement – dinner is kept waiting, what will the servants think? – finally Sheila returns again, is allowed to enter, and confronts her changed husband. "Who would believe, who could believe, that behind this strange and awful and yet how simple mask, lay himself?" Would Sheila believe it? Would she "keep the faith"? Who, indeed, is Arthur Lawford? -- "flesh" or "spirit?"

This is the question addressed in Walter de la Mare’s novel, The Return, published in 1922 (American edition). Modern folk may be inclined to chuckle at the high importance given to respectability in the novel. The world of Sheila is, so to speak, deadly serious, and to opt out of the warm waters of socially sustaining beliefs is the equivalent nowadays of a "Terror Alert."

For, as Sheila puts it,

"…Who, in the whole of the parish—I ask you—and you must have the sense
left to see that—who will believe that a respectable man, a gentleman, a
Churchman, would deliberately go out to seek an afternoon’s amusement
in a poky little country churchyard? Why, apart from everything else, that was
absolutely mad to start with. Can you really wonder at the result?"

Let us see if we really get this. A married gentleman has left the house one afternoon to commune with his thoughts in a poky little country churchyard, and the fact that he returns home with a different countenance is somehow less outrageous, less bewildering, than that he would wish to separate himself, and merely be alone with his own intrinsicality, in the first place. For, to paraphrase Hamlet, what dreams may come, when we are alone? What is the social consensus, the net of expectations, the choir of self-affirming beliefs, that hem us and hedge us and shape us to a neat level of being, so that we may nod and agree with our fellows, and not dare to put forth a dissenting branch in the way of the shears?

Alas, dear Reader, these questions are no less consuming now than they were in Walter de la Mare’s sleepy village, though perhaps we have fewer people in our immediate circle – if indeed we even have something resembling an "immediate circle" – who are sufficiently awake, or even loyal to us, to ask the questions. The vicar, Mr. Bethany, remains loyal to Arthur Lawford despite his perplexing change of state. The question is raised if Arthur has been possessed by the Hugenot pirate, Nicolas Sabathier, who died by his own hand in 1739, and whose bones rest in the unconsecrated ground of the churchyard of Arthur’s musings. "Possession" raises the thoughts of devils, and devils, according to the vicar, are real -–"I believe in the Powers of Darkness, Lawford, as firmly as I believe he and they are powerless – in the long run. They—what shall we say?—have surrendered their intrinsicality. You can just go through evil, as you can go through a sewer, and come out on the other side too. A loathsome process too."

And Nicolas Sabathier, though he may have deposited his countenance upon Arthur, also leaves behind, in Arthur’s experience, a new word for the language, a neologism – "to sabathier," which will mean, in a couple of hundred years, "To deal with histrionically…" but which for now, may mean, "To act under the influence of subliminalization; to perplex, or bemuse, or estrange with otherness."

I believe that some wit deepened the pool of human thought with the observation that wherever there is a tumult, you can be sure that pride and folly are at work. The things that serve life and the true history of mankind are the quiet things, the unnoticeable and unremarked. Our world today resembles that English village without "Mrs. Grundy" – without the respectable ladies to keep their eyes upon us. "Mrs. Grundy" at least helped to keep the peace, but nowadays even "Mrs Grundy" herself has been sabathiered. Everything is histrionic, theatrical, bloated with crazed self-belief.

Start your ramble to the nearest churchyard and begin asking yourself how steel towers could have collapsed through burnout, when it has never happened before, or whether the Jews are the perpetual victims they paint themselves as being, or whether the Muslims are the demons that our newspapers continually cry out that they are, or why gambling casinos are being built in every nook and cranny of what was once America, or why the reservoir of the world’s poor keeps growing deeper and deeper, or why the people you see on television appear merely as livid masks, incapable of making sense… Start asking yourself a few questions, you with your intrinsicality, and what remains of your dignity and common sense, and sooner or later the Sheilas of this world will come to scream into the ruins of your face – "What, what have I done to deserve all this?"

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