SOLITUDE, EXILE AND ECSTASY
THEME AND VARIATIONS IN WORDS AND MUSIC
A radio music-drama devised by Bruce Charlton
THE BROADCAST AUDIO VERSION CAN BE HEARD AT THIS LINK:
THEME AND VARIATIONS IN WORDS AND MUSIC
Directed by Philip Martin
Broadcast BBC Radio 3 31 March 1991 (repeated 20 December 1991) Words:
Henry David THOREAU: - Ed Bishop
Hugh MacDiarmid - Ian Cuthbertson
Glenn Gould - Peter Marinker
Music: J.S. Bach - 'Goldberg Variations' BWV 988 recorded 1981 - Glenn Gould CBS D37779
SOLITUDE, EXILE AND ECSTASY
Near the end of March 1845, I borrowed an ax and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow men to have an interest in your enterprise.
I built thus a tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet, wide by fifteen long, and eight feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on either side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite. The exact cost of my house was twenty eight dollars, twelve and a half cents!
[GV; VARIATION 1]
MACDIARMID: [seashore sounds throughout] I came to Whalsay, this little north Isle of the Shetland Group, in 1933. I was absolutely down-and-out at the time - with no money behind me at all, broken down in health, unable to secure remunerative employment of any kind, and wholly concentrated on projects in poetry and other literary fields which could bring me no momentary return whatever.
My work involved continuous intense effort ridiculously out of proportion to my strengthWhat I missed most was human intercourse - the friction of mind upon mind, since isolation and a too complete self-centredness were definitely dangerous, not only to the qualities of the work to be produced but to my own mental stability. If I had been capable of developing any form of insanity, I would certainly have carried myself irrevocably over the border line long ago.
We - that is to say, my wife, our son (now going on five, and so a baby then of little more than eighteen months), and I - are now 'marooned' on Whalsay, and seem likely to remain so.
[GV; VARIATION 7]
GOULD: [Low murmur of city traffic throughout] The north has fascinated me since childhood. In my school days, I used to pore over whichever maps of that region I could get my hands on, though I found it exceedingly difficult to remember whether Great Bear or Great Slave was farther north. The idea of the country intrigued me, but my notion of what it looked like was pretty much restricted to the romanticized, art-nouveau-tinged, Group of Seven paintings which, in my day, adorned virtually every second schoolroom, and which probably served as a pictorial introduction to the north for a great many people of my generation.
A bit later on, I made a few tentative forays into the north and began to make use of it, metaphorically, in my writing. When I went to the north, I had no intention of writing about it, or of referring to it, even parenthetically, in anything that I wrote. And yet, almost despite myself, I began to draw all sorts of metaphorical allusions based on what was really a very limited knowledge of the country and a very casual exposure to it. I found myself writing musical critiques, for instance, in which the north - the idea of the north - began to serve as a foil for other ideas and values that seemed to me depressingly urban-oriented and spiritually limited thereby.
Now of course, such metaphorical manipulation of the north is a bit. suspect, not to say romantic, because there are very few places today which are out of reach by, and out of touch with, the style and pace-setting attitudes and techniques of Madison Avenue. Time, Newsweek, Life, Look and The Saturday Review, can be airlifted into Frobisher Bay or Inuvik, just about as easily as a local contractor can deliver them to the neighborhood news-stand, and there are probably people living in the heart of Manhattan who can manage every bit as independent and hermit-like an existence as a prospector tramping the sort of lichen-covered tundra that A.Y. Jackson was so fond of painting north of Great Bear Lake.
Admittedly, it's a question of attitude, and I'm not at all sure that my own quasi-allegorical attitude toward the north is the proper way to make use of it or even an accurate way in which to define it. Nevertheless, I'm by no means alone in this reaction to the North; there are very few people who make contact with it and emerge entirely unscathed. Something really does happen to most people who go into the north - they became at least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents and, quite often I think, come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility - they become, in effect, philosophers.
MACDIARMID: To mention Karel Capek. I found that we had a great deal in common. Our talk was mainly of matters which were the themes of his last book - Travels in the North - a few years later. When Karel Capek was a little boy he dreamed of discovering a marvellous island above the Arctic Circle, where mangoes would be growing on the slopes of a volcano, amid the eternal ice. Later there was his mind's lifelong journey to the North, on the wings of the great literature of Scandinavia. And always he cherished the thought of an actual pilgrimage to 'just the North'; the North of birch trees and forests, and sparkling water, and dewy mists and silver coolness,' and altogether a beauty that is more tender and severe than any other'. So at last he made his Northern journey; across the neat fairy-tale landscapes of Denmark, among the lakes and islands and granite boulders and red plank farmhouses of Sweden, up through Norway and the great Northern forests, and beyond the Arctic Circle into that unreal world where one may see 'midnight rainbows hanging from one shore to the other, a mild and golden sunset mirrored in the sea before a frosty morning dawn'; so to the 'end of Europe' at the North Cape.
[GV; VARIATION 13]
THOREAU: Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rainstorms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves. There is commonly sufficient space about us. Our horizon is never quite at our elbows. The thick wood is not just at our door, nor the pond, but somewhat is always clearing, familiar and worn by us, appropriated and fenced in some way, and reclaimed from Nature. For what reason have I this vast range and circuit, some square miles of unfrequented forest, for my privacy, abandoned to me by men? My nearest neighbor is a mile distant, and no house is visible from any place but the hill-tops within half a mile of my own. I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself; a distant view, of the railroad where it touches the pond on the one hand, and of the fence which skirts the woodland road on the other. But for the most part it is as solitary where I live as on the prairies. It is as much Asia or Africa as New Eng1and.
I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself. At night there was never a traveller passed by house, or knocked at my door, more than if I were the first or last man; unless it were in the spring, when at long intervals some came from the village to fish for pouts - they plainly fished much more in the Walden Pond of their own natures, and baited their hooks with darkness - but they soon retreated, usually with light baskets and left "the world to darkness and to me", and the black kernel of the night was never profaned by any human neighborhood.
I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced.
GOULD: Solitude is the pre-requisite for ecstatic experience, especially the experience most valued by the post-Wagnerian artist - the condition of heroism. One can't feel oneself heroic without having first been cast-off by the world, or perhaps by having done the casting off oneself.
[GV; VARIATION 16]
GOULD: I don't know what the effective ratio would be, but I've always had some sort of intuition that for every hour you spend in the company of other human beings, you need "x" number of hours alone. Now, what "x" represents I don't really know; it might be two and seven-eighths or seven and two-eighths, but it is a substantial ratio.
THOREAU: I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert. Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war.
We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications. Consider the girls in a factory - never alone, hardly in their dreams. It would be better if there were but one inhabitant to a square mile, as where I live.
MACDIARMID: As the years of my exile on this little Shetland island stretch out, it becomes increasingly strange to have my rare interludes back in Edinburgh or Glasgow or Manchester among civilised people. They are to me like sparkling water in a thirsty land, these comings into relationship again with minds keen, alert, attuned to beauty. I realize that I had almost forgotten that there were people who had thoughts and could clothe them in words not only worthy of rational beings, but even make such words interesting, eloquent. (I do not want to be unfair to Shetland in the least. If there are no such people in Shetland, there are exceedingly few in Scotland or England either - nor more than one per 100,000.)
Except for these brief visits in Scotland and England, and the rare occasions in the summertime when I have friends - authors, artists, and students - to stay with me in Shetland, I see nobody who has read widely enough to possess grounds on which to base, if not opinions, at least reasonable speculations. I hear nothing but the inane phrases of women. 'It's all in the Bible, you know.... Moore, you know, Old Moore. He knew, and they do say that the Queen had a dream... And you remember what Churchill said...?'
And the men are as ignorant and incoherent as the women, even the young men, sailors who have been all over the world and soldiers in the present War and the previous war, with their easy laughs and childish pronouncements upon the development of the awful dramas in which they have taken part. They have read nothing - never open a newspaper, even.
What in Heavens name have I to do with such people? Why, how, have I made such an association possible?
[GV; VARIATION 20]
MACDIARMID This is not a restful place in which to write. The cottage is rattling like a 'tin lizzie' in a 90-miles-per-hour wind, and every now and again there is a terrific rattling of hail. We have had well nigh continuous gales, with heavy snow-storms and great downpours of rain, for the last two months - the worst winter the Shetlands have had within living memory.
But I could not have lived anywhere else that is known to me these last four years without recourse to the poorhouse. We were not only penniless when we arrived in Whalsay - I was in and exceedingly bad state, psychologically and physically. I am always least able to 'put my best foot forward' and do anything that brings in money when I am hardest up.
I do my best work when I have most irons in the fire, and the fact that here I had all my time to myself and had 'nothing to do but write' for a long time made it almost impossible for me to do anything at all and is, recurrently, a drawback still. Besides, I was 'out of touch with things' - I had not the advantage of being 'on the spot' where 'anything might be going' - and worst of all I had no books.
[GV; VARIATION 21]
GOULD: I don't think that one can benefit from isolation in whatever form, whether it's in an arctic outpost, or in a Newfoundland village with no road to the outside world, or in a religious community - which are the main metaphors I have used - I don't think one could benefit from that without first coming to terms with the Zeitgeist, without deciding that its tremendously tyrannical force has to be overthrown in one's own life before one can really learn from such an experience. THOREAU: The greater part of what my neighbours call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything, it is very likely to be my good behaviour. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well? You may say the wisest thing you can, old man - you who have lived seventy years, nor without honour of a kind - I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels. A man’s life should be a stately march to a sweet but unheard music, and when to his fellows it shall seem irregular and inharmonious, he will only be stepping to a livelier measure!
[GV; VARIATION 28]
GOULD: Most people I have met who actually did immerse themselves in the north seemed to end up, in whatever disorganised fashion, being philosophers. Whatever the motive in moving north may have been, each individual seemed to go through a particular process which greatly altered his life. At first, most of these people resisted the change. But after a while they usually reached a point when they said to themselves: "No, that's not what I came up here to do." In general, I found that the characters who had stuck out long enough and removed themselves from the sense of curiosity about what their colleagues were thinking, or how the world reacted to what they had done, developed in an extraordinary way and underwent an extreme metamorphosis.
MACDIARMID: These are the thoughts running in my mind as I sit by my Shetland window completing the writing of my autobiography. Somehow or another - in the face of all likelihood - we have flourished, although never sufficiently, of course, to be secure at any time for more than a week ahead. Tonight as I sit writing, the cottage is amply and comfortably furnished, though I have never succeeded in securing again many of the books which were the background of my earlier books and which were and remain so vital to my creative processes. Nevertheless many hundreds of books have accumulated about me again. All my principal intellectual interests are well represented and catered for - geology, biochemistry, plant ecology, physiology, psychology and philosophy - and I have a fine array of the works of my favourite writers: Rainer Maria Rilke, Charles Doughty, Stefan George and Paul Valery in poetry; Leo Chestov in philosophy; Pavlov's lectures on conditioned reflexes; and Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, Adoratsky and many other dialectical materialist writers!
[GV; VARIATION 29]
THOREAU: If I should attempt to tell how I have desired to spend my life in years past, it would probably surprise those people who are somewhat acquainted with its actual history; it would certainly astonish those who know nothing about it. I will only hint at some of the enterprises which I have cherished. In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it, on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line. You will pardon some obscurities, for there are more secrets in my trade than in most men's, yet not voluntarily kept, but inseparable from its very nature. I would gladly tell all that I know about it, and never paint "No Admittance" on my gate.
I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtledove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travellers I have spoken to concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.
[SITTING ON A RAISED BEACH, ABOVE THE SEA. BACKGROUND SOUND EFFECTS OF SURF ON PEBBLES AND SEA BIRDS. THE FOLLOWING IS A POEM]
We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances
And do not realise that these stones are at one with the stars.
It makes no difference to them whether they are high or low,
Mountain peak or ocean floor, palace, or pigsty.
There are plenty of ruined buildings in the world but no ruined stones.
No visitor comes from the stars
But is the same as they are.
-Nay, it is easy to find a spontaneity here,
An adjustment to life, an ability
To ride it easily, akin to 'the buoyant
Prelapserian naturalness of a country girl
Laughing in the sun, not passion rent,
But sensing in the bound of her breasts vigours to come
Power to make her one with the stream of earth life round her'.
But not yet as my Muse is, with this ampler scope,
This more divine rhythm, wholly at one
With the earth, riding with it, as the stones do
And all soon must.
I am enamoured of the desert at last,
The abode of supreme serenity is necessarily a desert,
My disposition is towards spiritual issues
Made inhumanly clear; I will have nothing interposed
Between my sensitiveness and the barren but beautiful reality;
The deadly clarity of this 'seeing of a hungry man'
Only traces of a fever passing over my vision
Will vary, troubling it indeed, but troubling it only
In such a way that it becomes for a moment
Superhumanly, menacingly clear - the reflection
Of a brightness through a burning crystal.
A culture demands leisure and leisure presupposes
A self-determined rhythm of life; the capacity for solitude
Is its test; by that the desert knows us.
It is not a question of escaping from life
But the reverse - a question of acquiring the power
To exercise the loneliness, the independence, of stones.
I remember how Thoreau wrote:
'I have a commonplace book for facts
And another for poetry,
But I find it difficult always
To preserve the vague distinctions I had in mind
- for the most interesting and beautiful facts
Are so much the more poetry,
And that is their success.
- I see that if my facts
Were sufficiently vital and significant,
Perhaps transmuted more
Into the substance of the human mind,
I should need but one book of poetry
To contain them all!’
[GV; ARIA DA CAPO]