A contribution to the Dark Mountain essay series Rewilding the novel.
Baby, if you wanna be wild,
You’ve got a lot to learn.
– Bruce Springsteen, Candy’s Room
How to bring it? How to walk into the space where it can be found? Any writer will tell you of the importance of losing control. Until your book has possessed you, reshaped you, brought you to the edge of disintegration and forced you to look over the lip, then it is no book at all. There are different paths to this lip. Dylan Thomas used whisky, R. S. Thomas used God. Coleridge used opium, Yeats the occult. Something has to break you open before you are fit to be used. If you think you are the author of your book, you have a long path still to travel.
I am standing in my cabin wondering how to rewild my novel, when I hear a sound behind me. I turn around to see Samuel Johnson sitting on my sagging sofa. He is fatter than I had imagined.
‘I didn’t expect this,’ I say. ‘I thought maybe the Morrigan would turn up, or Loki, or something. Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Tea, sir!’ he bellows. ‘If that fool Cobbett was right about anything, it was tea. It is the drink of scoundrels and blackguards! The true patriot drinks ale. Now, pay attention. I understand you believe yourself to be some kind of novelist, though having skimmed a few of your pages I find this notion hard to countenance. But I hear you muttering about ‘wildness’, and I must vigorously counter such stupidity.’
‘I don’t have any ale,’ I say. ‘I’m all out. Whisky?’
‘Wild, sir!’ he bellows. ‘A novel? A novel is not a wild thing, sir, it is a civilised thing. It is a tool through which Man may reach above and beyond the dirt and filth of his origins. Literature is a creation of the educated, the literate and the civilised. If you wish to see wild, sir, I shall take you on a grand tour of the gin holes of London, or the forests of the tropics, full of savage beasts and savage men, or the wild moors of the north, the hovels of the ignorant and base peasantry who have journeyed no further than their own pigsties. We shall see how long you last there! These things, sir, are wild, and the novel must rise above them. This is the very design and purpose of literature. It must raise us, sir, raise us! It can and should not ever be wild.’
‘He is hard work, isn’t he?’ comes another voice from the corner. ‘Everybody says so.’ A thin woman in a dark, plain dress is perched on the edge of the desk. She looks pale and haunted.
‘The wild moors of the north, in point of fact,’ she continues, intensely, ‘contain everything a person may need to write. There is more truth in one stand of heather than in any of this gentleman’s London aphorisms. If a book is not wild, it is in its grave!’
‘Emily Brontë,’ I say, dreamily. ‘I used to want to marry you.’
‘Female hysteria!’ bellows Johnson, shifting his bulk on the settee. ‘A woman’s opinion on such matters is scarcely to be attended to.’
‘Fat fool!’ shouts Emily at him, going red in the face. ‘Too much port, too much beef, too much London! Too much self-admiration! A novel is wild if it is constructed around passion, around danger, around the elements of the heath, the wind and storm, the human heart. It builds like steam in a kettle and explodes on to the page! That is writing!’
Wild is whatever brings the Machine down. Novels come from its heart, they reinforce it. You wanna ‘rewild’ them, you gotta turn your book into a bomb.
There is a cracking sound from over in the corner. Edward Abbey and Charles Bukowski are slumming it on the floor with a six-pack.
‘Be careful with my rug,’ I say. ‘It really ties the room together.’
‘The chick’s kinda cute,’ says Bukowski, ‘but a vicar’s daughter ain’t gonna know the process. The novel is essentially a bourgeois form. You gotta break it open, take it into the sorting room and the factory floor and the bar room. You wanna “rewild” it, take it to where the stiffs are. Get the shit kicked outta you by your old man for fifteen years and turn that into words. You gotta go down, not up.’
‘It’s an act,’ says Abbey, wiping beer suds off his beard. ‘This whole working-class stiff thing Charlie’s got going on. He reads Celine in the bath.’
‘Fuck you, Ed!’ retorts Bukowski, genially, lighting a cigarette. ‘This from the guy in a cowboy hat who lives in a suburb. I’ve seen you, writing about the wilderness from your armchair.’
‘Wild is out there,‘ says Abbey, ignoring him. ‘In the desert, in the Great North Woods, in the places the humans haven’t fucked up yet. Wild is whatever brings the Machine down. Novels come from its heart, they reinforce it. You wanna “rewild” them, you gotta turn your book into a bomb. None of this polite, English PC crap. Neurotic liberals wringing their fucking hands. You gotta subvert the form.’
‘But not like that asshole Joyce,’ belches Bukowski. ‘Can’t understand a goddamn word.’
‘Men!’ sighs Mary Shelley, from the sofa arm. ‘Always striding out looking for something. Always full of opinions. You will find that the wildness is in you. It is in us, in what we create. And it is dark when you find it. There is a monster in every human soul. You will not escape it in the desert.’
‘Or on the moor,’ says Emily, quietly.
‘Or on an island,’ says William Golding. ‘Solzhenitsyn said something to me just a few days ago. How did he put it? “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” I wish I had written that. We are all Fallen, and there is a snake in our garden. You are looking for “wildness”, but I would advise you to be careful what you wish for. The meniscus is thin. Once the animal escapes, it may consume you. If you like, we could get Pound and Hamsun down here to demonstrate.’
He stubs out his cigarette in Bukowski’s empty beer can and immediately lights another.
‘Down the river!’ shouts Conrad, who is passing by the open window. ‘Down the river, into the swamp of human darkness!’
‘Darkness, indeed,’ says Thomas Hardy, lugubriously, leaning on the sill stroking his substantial moustache. ‘Novels won’t cut it. Too long, too easy to misread. Give it up and write poems. You can compress a great deal of bleakness into a single line, with enough practice.’
‘I’m not sure any of this is really helping me,’ I say. ‘I’m thinking I could do with a bit of peace now.’
Nobody takes the hint. Nobody even listens. They are all too busy arguing with each other. The place is a cacophony. I am never going to get any work done.
‘Peace is only to be found in God,’ says a small voice from somewhere. I go to the window and look out. Rumi is wandering in circles in the field. ‘You must be silent in order to hear this,’ he continues. ‘When I first met Shams, he threw my books down a well. He did not need to say a word. To taste the honey, you must smile, walk in circles, pay attention. At some point it is necessary to stop speaking.’
‘Huh,’ I say. ‘I like that advice. I like it very much.’
‘Poetry is an improvement upon these things you call novels,’ continues Rumi, ‘as Mr Hardy suggests. Ah, but silence is an improvement upon poetry! The universe is sickening with words. It is sickening with human categories, definitions, explanations. It requires silence of us all now. It simply desires to be beheld. It is time to shut up and listen, as our ancestors once did. Pay attention, and you will find that there is nothing to escape from.’
‘Yes!’ I exclaim, suddenly thrilled. ‘Yes!’ I need to know more. I turn and fight my way through the crowded, bickering, smoky room towards the door and the field beyond. There is something out there that I need. I can feel it.
I push my way outside. I find nothing. There is nobody there at all. I turn and look back into my empty cabin. The whole place is silent. There is no smoke. The sky is cloudless. The day is warming. Somewhere, a thrush sings.
I drop my pen into the grass and sit down.