01/10/2011

the wolf in the mind


Myths and fairy tales – the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – are an abiding preoccupation of A.S. Byatt. In her most recent novel, The Children's Book, Olive Wellwood compiles, for each of her own children, personalised tales that reflect the natures (and, perhaps, destinies) of her sons and daughters: their essences or unadorned selves. The tales are nightmarish, with an appropriately naif surrealism; peopled by heroic children and their quest companions. They also bespeak Olive's deep anxieties about her own origins, her Midland childhood – her father and brothers died in mining accidents - reflected (but never so stated) in the perilous Underground through which her characters travail. But it's precisely the conviction that 'stories are ineluctable' which lends Byatt's recent work its noble terror. Tom Wellwood's fate is 'plotted' as pitilessly and inescapably as the fate of Baldur – no matter what provision might have been made to free themselves from it, neither can refuse the iron logic of the stories they're welded to.

Others in the 'Canongate Myths' series make use of the fashionable device of 're-imagining' or 're-purposing' myths, but Byatt has, in Ragnarok, written a slender, vital book that at once rehearses a powerful fable and tells a tale of the origins of a writer's imagination – without feeling the need to squint at the source material through the lens of 'contemporary relevance'. (Although she does concede that the apocalypticism might offer itself as a figuring of environmental disaster.)

Myths are often unsatisfactory,” Byatt says, “even tormenting. They puzzle and haunt the mind that encounters them. They shape different parts of the world inside our heads, and they shape them not as pleasures, but as encounters with the inapprehensible.” As John Ruskin domesticated Greek myth – in such lecture series as The Queen of the Air – and brought to it an 'improving' mentality, with a view to the edification of the public, so Byatt purposely resists the temptation to point any moral with her version of Nordic legend. Indeed, she suggests that myth as ur-narrative must necessarily be immune to the sclerosis of overdetermination, be it ethical, political or doctrinal; [it must be in serene keeping with Keatsian 'negative capability', denying sponsorship of human institutional meaning;] it must disengage itself from the formularies of creed, even timeliness. Byatt's gods are merely what they are, not ciphers of ideology or doxa; neither exemplary nor realistic. They embody elemental forces, a reckless energy that, paradoxically, as Byatt comes to admit, is peculiarly human.

In this intensely visual rendering – image tumbles over image, set-piece spawns set-piece - Byatt doesn't signpost the themes of the tale, there's no editoralising, as it were. This isn't a work of explication, or mythography in quite the sense of an unriddling. What we make of it will depend chiefly on our prepossessions. It 'tactfully suggests' possible interpretations. Byatt lays out the stories themselves in all their bracing purity, her prose lyrically sensuous but without the impedimenta of . These stories woo our imaginations. If the catechisms of the established church have palpable designs on us, she as much as says, then the raw unleavened violence of these myths, their exuberant physicality, ought just as well to survive without our input. In the nightwood of myth only instinct and imaginative openness can guide us.

Grafted onto the 'stipe' of the primary tale is the 'thin child's' story, Byatt's avatar, her younger self, as she makes exploratory inroads on the perhaps unanswerable question – why is there something and not nothing? “The thin child, reading and rereading the tales, neither loved nor hated the people in them – they were not 'characters' into whose doings she could insert her own imagination.” Given a book, Asgard and the Gods, by her mother, she sets herself to the job of making sense of the war-time world she finds herself in. The tale of Ragnarok, 'the dark water over everything', tutors her in the stark possibility that, once lost, things can never be recovered (in contrast with the Christian myth of redemption and resurrection). The thin child's reading equips her with images – 'the wolf in the mind', 'the picture of the end of things, like a thin oval sliver of basalt or black slate' – which become fixtures in her psychic life: sense-making eidolons to set against the onrush of experience as it assaults her.

This, Byatt implies, is the supreme significance of myth: not hortatory, not prescriptive, but fluid lit images in the service of permitting us to orient ourselves to the universe. They assist us in coming to terms with our radical contingency, with the bitter fact of our being inessential. We can take them or leave them as we please. But they persist as vagabond memories, shadowing the human enterprise.

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