Brendan MacNamee, ’A Rosy Crucifixion: Imagination and Time in John Banville’s Birchwood’[UU ENG507 2001]

”I am, therefore I think. That seems inescapable.” (11) These two opening sentences of John Banville’s Birchwood hold the essence of the novel. In overturning the rationalism of Descartes and stressing the “I am” as the ground of being from which the thinking self, the self in time, flows, and not the other way around, Banville’s narrator, Gabriel, aligns himself firmly with such champions of the imagination as William Blake and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Gabriel’s “I am”, I take to be an echo of Coleridge: “The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.”[2] His story is an attempt to capture in language the essence of this “I am”, and the nature of its relationship with “I think”. The question of invention (”I invent, necessarily.” (174)) takes on a new significance in this light. Phenomenal facts belong to the world of time, and time vanishes, to be retained only in the memory, which is governed by the imagination. But since, as Gabriel realises, “all thinking is in a sense remembering” (11), the imagination, the “I am”, cannot be divorced from the clutter and chaos that make up a life in time. Time is the cross on which the imagination is hung.

But it is a rosy crucifixion. “Eternity” (by which he meant imagination [3] said William Blake, “is in love with the productions of time” [4] It is only through the productions of time (the phenomenal world), that eternity can make itself known to human consciousness. In this sense, Birchwood is a story of paradise lost and partially regained. It is a demonstration, too, of the inevitability, the necessity, of that loss. There can be no redemption without sin, no Christ without Adam. We are human, not angels. Heaven may be our true spiritual home, but solid earth is the only place from which we can sense its existence. Birchwood is a musing on the inescapability of “I am, therefore I think”, on the indissoluble link between imagination and time. It is an enquiry into the meaning of “those extraordinary moments when the pig finds the truffle embedded in the muck” (11).

Banville’s focus on this question of imagination and time sets the story apart from traditional ‘Big House’ novels, such as those of Jennifer Johnson and Elizabeth Bowen, but, while he engages in much playful parody, he has more substantial reasons for making use of this motif. As Joseph McMinn has pointed out, the genre has “instant associations with decay […] and [with] a class of people increasingly out of touch with reality” [5] Additionally, using the Big house motif as a focus, an objective correlative for a metaphysical enquiry, links the fiction, both physically and psychologically, with certain realities which it, however distortedly, mirrors. The Big House in Ireland has always had a hint of the heavenly about it (not for nothing were the gentry known as ‘the Ascendancy’). Those who lived there believed themselves blessed, those who did not looked to it as the centre and hub of their lives, distant and unattainable. Yeats saw it as a symbol of the ideal made real, and virtually all fictions treating the Big House theme realistically are stories of its rise and fall, as fall it did, historically speaking. Banville reverses this and begins, rather than ends,with the fall. In naturalistic terms, the reasons for this fall are those normally adduced: the forces of history, revolution, the rise of the middle classes. The Godkins are indeed out of touch with reality, but in terms of Banville’s metaphysic, the true meaning of this disjunction is to be found within themselves. Gabriel himself only refers to the source of their various madnesses as “the reason which does not have a name” (174), but Gabriel, we must remember, is an integral part of this fiction. As readers, it is perhaps permissible for us to stand back and, viewing Gabriel’s family against Gabriel himself, say that what they lack, above all, is imagination. They have confused the real with the ideal, pinned all their hopes and centred their lives on a glittering pile of stones. They have turned in on themselves (an inversion symbolised most powerfully in Joseph and Martha’s incest), and love has curdled into hatred in their hearts. They “were stalked by an insatiable and glittering madness born, I suspect, of the need to hate something worthy of their hatred” (16); “Joe was never one to pass up a fight with that ancient harridan, the only one of us that he loved” (17). The real world has become a frightening mystery: Joseph reads of events in the country with “awe and bafflement”. “Surely it was all a dream? The world was solid, God damn it!” (85) And Joseph, too, gives eloquent voice to the great emptiness within when he has his “little chat” with Gabriel:

We get up in the bloody morning, and we go to bed at night, and there’s nothing to do. We think we’re doing things, making the world sit up and take notice. We give ourselves heartburn, we’re so busy running up and down, and all the time, nothing. And we’re sick of ourselves. Look into your heart, boy, listen to it. What does it say to you? What does it show? Nothing. (92)

In the end, they wither. Granny outlives her time and explodes, signalling the beginning of the end: “Now there was always something wrong with the stillness” (78). Beatrice goes mad, Martha walks into a fire, Joseph dwindles into a drink-sodden husk and Michael is consumed by a lust for vengeance. Granda Godkin, in a scene highly symbolic of the general illusion-clinging, dies with his teeth sunk into the bark of a birch tree. Only Gabriel escapes.

It is well that he does because Gabriel himself shows some disturbing signs of succumbing to the malignant forces of Birchwood. There is a growing emotional void within him (”Do you never cry?” (59)), and a burgeoning detachment from reality: “I can never think of that ghastly day without suspecting that somewhere inside me, some cruel little brute, a manikin in my mirror, is bent double with laughter” (77). Family rows find him “grinning uncontrollably at this intimation of splendour, of violence and of pain” (28). His very birth is heralded by a scene of utter lunacy:

An invasion, no less! Granny Godkin’s shoulder was dislocated by the shotgun she fired off at the invaders. Granda Godkin locked himself into a lavatory, where he was found hours after the battle sitting paralyzed on the bowl and frothing at the mouth. A policeman’s skull was split by an ashplant. Beatrice laughed and laughed. And I was born. (24)

If his family suffer from a lack of imagination, Gabriel is in danger of a surfeit. The first sight of his fellow blackcurrant pickers “trembling on the mist” strikes him as mysterious and gay”. But not for long: “If only, when they were beside me, when I was among them, they had retained even a fragment of the beauty of that first vision, I might have loved them. It is ever thus.” (65)

It is not quite thus, however, with the circus with whom he links up after his departure. Comprised of an even more outlandish cast of characters than those he’s left behind, the circus, to begin with, provides Gabriel with “an unprecedented sense of imaginative freedom” [6] This arises, not just from the adventurous lifestyle, but also from a sense of imaginative distance that he maintains between himself and the group. From the outset, he feels he is being made to “play in a game the rules of which I did not know” (107). The circus works as a metaphor for imagination in two ways: one, its raison d’etre is to leaven lives sunk in time-worn, all-too-solid cares with a hint of magic, of the enchantment of mystery: “on the tight steel cord of their careful lives we struck a dark rapturous note that left their tidy town tingling behind us” (117); and two, the circus, being always on the move, is an apt symbol for “that music, palpable and tender, which a wood in summer makes, whose melody is always just beyond hearing, always enticing” (31). Such tentative, tantalising apprehensions are the imaginative core of Gabriel’s being, and travelling with the circus is, for him, “a nameless promise, never reached, and yet always within reaching distance” (125). But Birchwood is the tale of a sensibility torn between two conflicting worlds, between the harmony of imagination and chaos of time, which can no more live totally in the one than in the other. To live wholly in time is to go the way of the Godkins; to live steeped in imagination is to deny one’s humanity. “Praise this world to the Angel”, Rilke says; “tell him things” [7] And Gabriel, much imaginative sustenance though he derives from his days with the circus, still feels the pull of that other, time-bound half of his nature, still feels the need for life to make sense, to add up: “If I had not a solid reason to be here, travelling the roads with this preposterous band, then my world threatened to collapse, for I still believed then that life was at least reasonable. The future must have a locus! If not, what was the point?” (138). The point he seeks, though, is an illusion. He is in danger of confusing fantasy with reality, which is a different thing entirely to deriving imaginative sustenance from reality. And though the fantasy of a lost sister is fast slipping from his grasp, an even more potent symbol of completion is coming to replace it:

Well then, if she did not exist – and I could not admit that much – how explain the hints and discrepancies in my past, the tiny corners of enormous secrets revealed, and that one bold forthright message delivered to me the night before I left? I went over these fragments again and again, and always there was distilled out of all my considerations one thrilling and inexplicable name – Prospero. (138)

But just as these imaginary figures threaten to swamp Gabriel in a self-enclosed, despairing world of illusory yearning, the real world bursts in with a vengeance. Banville highlights the contrast between Gabriel’s growing solipsistic cynicism and the all-too-real pain of humanity by juxtaposing his abstract musings with the first news of disaster:

The world is full of people, and how many of them know from where they come? A crack opens, a creature falls in, the crack closes. We were half a day’s journey out of the town when Mario beside me suddenly cried,

“Sophie! Where is she? You seen her, eh?” (139)

Following this, the floodgates open. Ida, who, along with Magnus, has come closest to touching Gabriel’s heart, is brutally murdered by soldiers, a return to the lowlands reveals death and famine everywhere, Rosie’s funeral is encountered and rendered grotesque, towns are overrun with rats, Magnus is shot and the circus aligns itself with a murder gang. Gabriel escapes from yet another fire and finds himself wandering alone through a nightmare winter landscape, directionless, he thinks, but in fact, “describ[ing] a wide circle, the centre of which was, unknown to me, the circus, carrying me with it towards its goal by some mysterious intangible magnetism” (157). Its goal turns out to be Birchwood, and so Gabriel returns to his spiritual home, which is “changed and yet was as it always was” (165).

The same might be said of Gabriel himself. His journey has brought him ‘home’, but this ‘home’ is a place in which he has never been. Home is both Birchwood itself and “a dream of Birchwood” (12). It is all his tangled memories of the people and, most importantly, his memories of “those rare moments when a little light breaks forth, and something is not explained, not forgiven, but merely illuminated” (33). It is all these things and it is himself, too; a self changed by his experiences in the world, experiences that have been instrumental in shattering illusions fostered by the hypnotic charms of Birchwood itself. When he had lived there, the events and people that now comprise his memory were part of the manifest world surrounding him. For Gabriel, they were the raw materials that would go to create that memory, they were forming impressions that together would make up the thinking, imagining entity that is Gabriel, the Gabriel that must, of necessity, live in the world of time, with a full awareness of the pain and loss that time entails. When he says, “It may not have been like that, any of it. I invent, necessarily.” (174), he means precisely that. It is, necessarily, inevitably, the events and apprehensions that made the deepest impression on his imagination that make Gabriel the person that he is, and thus influence heavily the account he now renders. Those events, seen objectively as part of the continuum comprising the physical world (if such a vision were possible, who would be seeing it?) “may not have been like that”. The past is not so much lost as created by consciousness of its loss. Gabriel’s account is true because it is part of what Gabriel is, and Gabriel is a consciousness shifting uneasily between “perception and existence”, [8] between “I am” and “I think”, between “silent intuition” [9] and “dark laughter”, the heaven of imagination and the hell of a meaningless, chaotic, time-ridden world. By returning to Birchwood and accepting both these elements of life, by fusing them in Birchwood, Gabriel has performed an act of healing, of self-completion (insofar as this is possible). The boy who never could cry finally weeps “for what was there and yet not there. For Birchwood” (12). On his arrival, the house “refused to be real, even while I stood among its ruins” (12), and true apprehension of reality, “that thing-in-itself” [13], the fusion of imagination with the physical world, only comes when he ventures “into the attics and cellars, my favourite haunts, the forgotten corners” (13). Gabriel has transformed Birchwood from a malignant pile of stones into, if not quite paradise, then a place from which occasional hints of that state might be glimpsed. And his telling, his re-creation of his story in all its sublimity and horror, is the chief component of this healing. One of the most impressive of his many moments of illuminations came with recovery from a fever, when he became aware of “a beauty which did not spring from any one thing, but from everything, causing the light to sing” (83). It comes to him again only in the act of telling: “I have experienced that same sensation only once or twice since then, in these nights, in my latest sickness, toiling over these words” (83).

Rilke, a strong Banville influence, puts it thus:

These things that live on departure understand when you praise them: fleeting they look forrescue through something in us, the most fleeting of all. Want us to change them entirely, within our invisible hearts, into – oh, endlessly – into ourselves! Whosoever we are. [10]

Banville himself, in commenting on this passage, provides a lucid artistic credo that tells us much about Birchwood:

It is out of the tension between the desire to take things into ourselves by saying them, by praising them to the Angel, and the impossibility finally of making the world our own, that poetry springs […] Hence the note of solitude, of stoic despair, which great art always sounds. As Beckett says: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. [11]

“Banville’s narrators look back for some clue to their sense of tragic confusion”, Joseph McMinn has written. [12] It is Gabriel’s awareness of the irresolvable dual nature of life that lies at the heart of his own sense of tragic confusion and, inevitably, he looks back over his life for comprehension. I say inevitably because Banville is a postmodern novelist. More pertinently, he is a post-Beckett novelist. The consolations of past times – religion, drugs, politics, big-game hunting, sex – are no longer viable. Humanity is alone, “on a wide, wide sea” [13] and must fend for himself, spiritually as well as physically. Banville at least allows his characters a self and a past to burrow in (unlike Beckett who stripped away everything except bare consciousness and a voice), and it is only through the imaginative structures erected from these pasts that his narrators find some sense of reconciliation, some way of allowing the “harmony” to be discerned through the discord of experience, of calling a truce in the “war of attrition between imagination and time”. [14]

That is the best that can be hoped for, but it is enough. Like Beckett’s Unnameable, Banville’s narrators will “go on”, despite all. Rudiger Imhof has characterised Gabriel’s quest as one of “utter futility”, [15] and his journey through the narrative as being “from the Cartesian certainty of ‘I am, therefore I think’, to the Wittgensteinian despair of ‘whereof I cannot speak, thereof I must be silent’”. [16] Concerning the first of these contentions, Gabriel’s quest is futile only in the sense that its ostensible objective, that of finding a lost sister, fails, as it must. Its real objective, however, is deeper, and is twofold: it is to free his imagination from the suffocating horror that Birchwood is fast crumbling into (a large part of which horror is recognising his real twin in Michael), and it is, through the inevitable failure of the quest, and through the horrors of the world he witnesses, to bring him to an acceptance of the harsh truths of life, to an embracing of its chaos and confusion: “There is no form, no order, only echoes and coincidences, sleight of hand, dark laughter. I accept it” (174). The acceptance allows him to exorcise his dark twin and thus achieve a measure of self-completion: “I lowered the knife and spoke aloud my own name seven times and listened to the echoes, and then returned through the wood and across the garden to Birchwood” (170). But this is not the Birchwood that he left behind, it is not the Birchwood of the Godkins. He wants to tell the old women taking away the bodies of the dead, “Look, I am not my father, I am something different” (174), and his life, he declares, will be “a life different from any the house has ever known” (174). The failure of the quest, it could be said, is the quest’s success.

As to the contention about Gabriel’s overall journey, Cartesian certainty is precisely what he rejects, by overturning it with his opening sentence. Gabriel’s remark could, it is true, be read as a ringingly confident declaration in its own right, but the sentence that follows it, “That seems inescapable”, has the effect of splitting it down the middle, an effect intensified as we proceed through the narrative and relive with the protagonist his painful awareness of the nebulous but unbreakable connection between “I am” and “I think”, between imagination and time. And there is an ironic joke in the closing quote from Wittgenstein. It is precisely that whereof he cannot speak, that creates that whereof he can. It is the aching awareness of the silence beyond speech, the reaching out towards it, that gives rise to such artistic language structures as fiction and poetry to begin with. [17] It is the moments of “silent intuition”, the intimations of harmony that are “felt only” (175), and beyond the reach of words, that create the anguished tensions within Gabriel that cause him to write his story in an attempt to make sense of it all. The attempt is doomed to failure, but it must be made. One can only “fail again. Fail better”. [18] As Imhof realises, “the result of the effort is not as important as the effort itself”. [19] This is despair, yes, but within the despair is immanent a vibrant joy, if only because of “those extraordinary moments when the pig finds the truffle embedded in the muck” (12).

[Page references to Birchwood are given in brackets after each quote and are taken from the Picador paperback edition of 1998.]
1 The phrase is Henry Miller’s, being the title of his three-volume autobiographical novel.
2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poems and Prose, ed. Kathleen Raine (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1957), pp.190-91.
3 “The world of imagination is the world of eternity”: William Blake, ‘The Last Judgement’, in William Blake, Poems and Prophecies (London: Dent & Sons 1927), p.358.
4 Ibid, p.45.
5 Joseph McMinn, The Supreme Fictions of John Banville (Manchester UP 1999), p.32.
6 Ibid., p.34.
7 Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies (Ninth Elegy), quoted in ‘John Banville: A Talk’, in Irish University Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 1981), p. 16.
8 McMinn, p.44.
9 Ibid., p.42: “These epiphanies are always moments of silent intuition, beyond linguistic or intellectual account.”
10 Rilke, in ‘John Banville: A Talk’, Irish University Review, op. cit., p.15.
11 ‘John Banville: A Talk’, Irish University Review, op. cit., p.16.
12 McMinn, p. 4
13 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of The Ancient Mariner’, in Kathleen Raine, (ed.), Coleridge: Selected Poems and Prose, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1957), p. 44.
14 Seamus Deane, ‘”Be Assured I Am Inventing”: The Fiction of John Banville’, in P. Rafroidi and M. Harmon (eds), The Irish Novel In Our Time, (Lille: Universite de Lille 1975), p.333.
15 Rudiger Imhof, John Banville: A Critical Introduction (Dublin: Wolfhound Press 1997), p.72.
16 Ibid., p. 62.
17 Interestingly, the German literary theorist, Wolfgang Iser, finds a correlation of this idea built into the very process of fiction reading, regardless of subject matter. Calling the quest for meaning, for order, ‘consistency’, and the power of words to disrupt this quest ‘alien associations’, he speaks of reading a novel as an attempt to strike a balance between the two, but an attempt with failure built into its very structure:

If the reader were to achieve a balance, obviously he would then no longer be engaged in the process of establishing and disrupting consistency. And since it is this very process that gives rise to the balancing operation, we may say that the inherent nonachievement of balance is a prerequisite for the very dynamism of the operation. In seeking the balance we inevitably have to start out with certain expectations, the shattering of which is integral to the aesthetic experience.

In other words, the success of the operation lies in its failure. Just as the success of Gabriel’s quest, insofar as it can be judged a success, is dependent on the failure of his search for either a lost sister or for a Prospero.
18 Samuel Beckett, Nohow On, (London, Calder Publications Ltd. 1992), p.101.
19 Imhof, p.61.

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