Et In Arcadia Ego
Why did you decide to include J.G. Ballard in this book, as an example of someone who uses myth as a central theme in his writing?
Well what I like about his writing is the lyricism: they are full of the most beautiful images. Ballard always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But his books are galleries of images. The way I talk about him in The Silence of Animalsdefinitely reflects that. The ability he had was to turn scenes of desolation into beauty. When he walked as a child into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That I believe is the power of myth.
In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?
Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.
So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?
Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.
I’m eager for the US release of Gray’s new book, The Silence Of Animals: On Progress And Other Modern Myths. I will spare you my thoughts about what life in our post-Christian societies would be like if we had a catastrophic economic collapse. You can easily guess what I think. Rather, I want to focus on what Gray — an atheist British philosopher whose books really are bracing and, to my way of thinking, wonderful — says above about J.G. Ballard. It immediately brought to mind why I was so taken last week by Eudora Welty’s short story, “A Worn Path.”
I wrote that the Welty story has about it the air and power of myth, and it really does; Phoenix Jackson, the elderly country black woman protagonist, is on a harrowing odyssey, the full meaning of which you learn at the end. I’m still thinking about it, and my children have twice asked me to read the “Phoenix story” again. They don’t fully understand it, but something about it resonates within them. This tells me that yes, it really does have the power of myth.
Reading the Gray bit about J.G. Ballard in the casino gave me insight into why “A Worn Path” was so particularly resonant with me. It describes to a great extent the world I lived in as a very small boy, a world that pretty much no longer exists. The story is set in the countryside outside of Natchez; the date isn’t specified, but Welty published the story in 1941, and it appears to be contemporary. In my case, Welty’s description of Phoenix Jackson — thin, ancient, making her way through the woods with her cane — reminds me so much of my aunts Lois and Hilda, with whom I spent a great deal of time in my early childhood. Here’s a photo of me with them, taken in 1968:
Hilda, on the left, and Lois were sisters born in the 1890s. They were the aunts of my grandmother, which made them my great-great-aunts. They lived in a little antebellum cabin on the other side of an orchard from where I grew up. I went there all the time as a small child. Here’s what the cabin looked like. It’s startling to see this as an adult, 40 years removed from the time when I frequented this place. It’s so shabby, but in my memory, this place was like the wardrobe in “The Chronicles Of Narnia” — the doorway to a magical realm.
Three years ago, a visit to the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia provoked a powerful emotional response from me, related to my childhood with the old aunts and their house and orchard, for reasons I didn’t fully understand until I wrote about it on my old Beliefnet blog, and two commenters observed that for me, the old aunts’ house and orchard was a “sacred grove.” That’s exactly what it was; earlier, I had described the ruin of the sacred grove in this old Beliefnet post.
Reading “A Worn Path” as myth makes me think about the personal myth I live with, related to the old aunts. What they revealed to me was an imaginative world that became the basis for my own dreams, hopes, aspirations, and delight. I well remember walking with Loisie through her orchard, her bony, birdlike hand, roped with thick blue veins, gripping her bamboo cane as she taught me about japonicas and chestnuts and King Alfreds and all the other plants in her orchard. I didn’t love the flowers and nuts as much as I loved the words for them — loved saying the words, loved turning them over in my mind. And inside the cabin, reading their books and magazines and newspapers, I learned words like “Kissinger” and “Moscow,” words that had a magical effect on me. These weren’t words and concepts that were part of our daily life in the country, except at Lois and Hilda’s place. I wanted to know more. And they taught me so much about the world, especially France, where they had lived as young women during the Great War, and I received all this eating pecan cookies and cupcakes that Loisie made for us kids. Sometimes I helped her cook, and it was so comforting to little me, sitting in my old aunt’s lap, stirring the batter in her FireKing mixing bowl.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that in that sacred grove was born my vocation as a writer.
Every writer dreams of what he would do with the money should his book become a big success, as unlikely as that is. When I’ve thought about what I would do should The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (in which I write about Lois and Hilda and their influence on me, but also how they didn’t connect in the same way with Ruthie) become a success, I’ve imagined building a certain kind of house, and situating it in a certain kind of garden, and filling it with books and art objects and maps, and the smell of delicious things cooking. I’ve thought about this a lot. What I’m doing, I realize, is imagining that I can recreate the Sacred Grove, and live, in some sense, that myth, that dwelling in blessedness, in Arcadia. The aunts were bound by their age, infirmity, and relative poverty to that house and that orchard, but they were the quite possibly the most free people I’ve ever known. Any beauty I’ve been able to conjure as a writer comes from this personal myth. I cannot imagine how much poorer my life would be without it. I owe those old women everything.