Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There's Nothing in Why: Robert Aickman's "The View"

"The View," Robert Aickman's third contribution to We Are for the Dark, is the first of four of his "strange stories" that have very similar narrative outlines. A man goes on holiday, where he meets an attractive and mysterious woman with whom he forms a brief, blissful physical relationship before some disaster separates them, bringing his happiness to an end. This might be "The View," or "The Wine-Dark Sea" (where there are three essentially interchangeable women rather than one), or "Never Visit Venice," or "The Stains." To point out this similarity is not to suggest that the stories are repetitive; indeed they are not, for the specificities, of character and setting and supernatural phenomenon, render them quite distinct. One common feature, however, makes them difficult to write about within the framework of these essays: there is little about them to explain. Both in terms of broad narrative meaning and of wide-ranging theme, they seem to me fairly straightforward. (If I can be forgiven a digression, this may be why they have never struck me as among Aickman's finest tales; the air of unsettling ambiguity, though present in all of them, is not as strong or as all-pervading. In this, and in most other ways, I think "The View" is the best of the four.)

One could, of course, dig deeper, searching for a hidden level of meaning, a key to unlock the story and make every bewildering detail relevant. But I'm not sure that's a helpful approach. Both Aickman's theory of the ghost story as an artifact of the unconscious, "akin to poetry," and his philosophical stance that the modern over-reliance on reason and the scientific method represents a "wrong turning" for the human race, suggest that past a certain point the search for meaning is fruitless or even dangerous. "The View," though not the first Aickman story to hint at his criticism of the modern world-- there are intimations of that perspective in both "The Trains" and "The Insufficient Answer"-- is the first to move it into the foreground, contrasting the over-explained, dreary, unhappy world of contemporary England with the baffling, beautiful, fascinating Island and its lovely inhabitant, Ariel.

The critique of modernity begins with the description of the protagonist's temperament in the second paragraph. "Carfax always saw all good in terms of 'emancipation': all beauty, all duty. Others had seen the vision, but the slave selves of their past had intervened, making the gorgeous tawdry, the building in strange materials as rapidly failing in beauty, use, and esteem as the human body itself." (In the same vein is his later remark that "There are no beautiful houses in England now. Only ruins, mental homes, and Government offices." Note, by the way, that Carfax's own brief escape from his "slave self" is followed by the rapid aging of his own body.) Shortly afterward comes a glimpse of several such slave selves, in the array of overheard comments on the deck of the boat, which captures in a few brief paragraphs the depressing, faintly absurd quality of daily life and the various unsatisfactory bulwarks built against it.
"She has no idea how plain she is and of course you can't tell her," observed a conspicuously unattractive woman of about forty-five to a replica of herself.

"Communism gives the workers something to work for," vehemently asserted a man in a raincoat. His wispy colorless hair appeared on his prematurely obtruding scalp-line like the last vegetation in the dust bowl.

"So I said I'd give it to her if she promised to have it dyed green," remarked a round matron to her bored and miserable-looking husband.

"If you'll bring in the orders, I'll look after production. You can leave that to me. I know how to handle the ruddy Government."

"In the end I had to drag the clothes off her, and she tried to turn quite nasty." The speaker looked away from the other man and laughed gloatingly before resuming his former confidential manner.

"There's no hope for the world but a big revival of real Christianity," said the serious-minded, rather important-looking man. He was apparently addressing a large popular audience. "Real Christianity," he said again with emphasis.

"Look, Roland! A porpoise!" said a woman of thirty to her offspring, in the tone of one anxious to guide rather than dominate the child's formative years.
The pessimistic tone set by this passage and by the disagreeable boat journey is disrupted by the arrival of the woman known as Ariel, Aickman's first real femme fatale and the voice in this story of the rejection of modern communal values. There is her dismissal of her real names as "hideous commonplaces names of schoolgirls and young brides, and elderly lonely pensioners, and pure women in books. Godparents' names. Goodly names. Useful names which people in shops can spell." There is her description of Carfax's usual existence:
You live surrounded by the claims of other people: to your labor when they call it peace, to your life when they call it war; to your celibacy when they call you a bachelor, your body when they call you a husband. They tell you where you shall live, what you shall do, and what thoughts are dangerous. Does not some modern Frenchman, exhausted by it all and very naturally, say 'Hell is other people'?
The complaints she invokes are at once sweeping-- describing life in England as lived "entirely among madmen"-- and exact-- references to the absence of British taxes on the Island and to eating a lot of butter with breakfast. And finally there is the couplet written in her hand, reiterating her rejection of the pursuit of explanation: "There's nothing in why/The question is How?/Whatever you learnt/From the golden bough."

Faced with a story that itself seems to abrogate exegesis, one might simply throw up one's hands and enjoy it as an encounter with the irrational and beautiful and disturbing world that exists, or might exist, or ought rightly to exist, under and around the common one. But the details of that world, while not fitting into a reductive schematic explanation, do contribute to its resonance in ways that may not be obvious. "The View" is one of Aickman's more profusely allusive stories, rich in reference to the worlds of myth and art, and the remainder of this essay will track down some of those allusions for the benefit of readers who don't wish to do so themselves, suggesting in places how they relate to the larger theme of the story. Such a process does, of course, leave one at risk of "fancying absurd resemblances" and "making quite false identifications," but when analyzing Aickman, such risk is never far away.

Carfax: the name of Dracula's home in England in the Stoker novel, but I doubt that matters much. Its origin is in the Latin word for a crossroads, which would certainly fit the character's status, but it may just be the sort of British name Aickman was drawn to: at once vaguely aristocratic and faintly ridiculous (cf. Wendley Roper, Laming Gatestead).

Ariel: Shakespeare's air spirit from The Tempest, obviously, perhaps with reference also to the Biblical angel of the same name. Considering the gender ambiguity surrounding the Shakespearean character, which is explicitly mentioned in the story, the Aickman character's habit of dressing as a man is striking, if only as a suggestion of a more than human quality or of a duality comparable to a simultaneously human and non-human nature.

Fleet: Time is fleeting, indeed.

the Island: wherever it is. That it is left unnamed is surely the point. The Isle of Man is located in the right general area, and is likewise something of a tax haven, but I don't detect specific reference to that or any other place.

The Last of England: a Ford Madox Brown painting, shown here along with an accompanying sonnet by the author. The poem is, in tone if not in details, suggestive of Carfax's ambivalence about his holiday.

the Pastoral Symphony: Beethoven's Sixth,  intended to suggest the pleasures of travel in the countryside, with movements labeled "Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country," "Scene at the brook," "Happy gathering of country folk," "Thunderstorm, storm," and "Shepherds' song, cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm." The association with Carfax's pastoral recollections and reflections is obvious.

Voltaire: his freethinking tolerance is, of course, quite fitting for Ariel.

the carpet: Possibly with an echo of Henry James' "The Figure in the Carpet," where a writer's great and secret intention is compared to "a complex figure in a Persian carpet," though one hardly needs to have read James to use carpet patterns as a metaphor for pointless meaning-seeking.

a huge and burly man: "one of the Island gods" according to Ariel, and therefore perhaps with some reference to giants of Celtic myth. It's worth mentioning that, with its mysterious woman, its strange and magical landscape, and its unexpected time dilation, "The View" has an underlying similarity to very old stories about visits to faerie lands.

Ariel's verse: This is a translation of a Sappho fragment by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of a pair of fragments he combined into a poem variously known as "One Girl" and "Beauty." Aickman's ellipsis at the end covers his omission of the final words "till now." The second fragment as translated by Rossetti is "Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,/Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,/Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground." Sappho has already been mentioned as part of Carfax's train of thought that was interrupted by Ariel-- that drew her into being near him, if one wants to interpret the story in that way. Critics have observed that Rossetti's use of these fragments has mythic significance, reflecting on love and death with reference to underworld myths like those of Orpheus and Persephone. But that observation postdates the writing of this story, and the general resonance of these images of the desired, the unattainable, and the destroyed for "The View" is a simpler matter given Ariel's own fleeting quality.

Così è se vi pare: Literally means "You're right if you think you're right." The title of a Pirandello play dealing with the fragility of truth and the relentless search for meaning.

Beddoes: Thomas Lovell Beddoes' work demonstrates an ongoing obsession with death, which would seem to make it a poor, or perhaps a telling, choice for Carfax's musical endeavor.

Dahlmeier's collection of Judaeo-Arabic fables: I assume this is a real book, though I can find no information about it. I have no idea about the relevance, if any, of the first fable to Carfax's situation, unless to suggest he has made or will make a wrong choice, but both the second, with its tradeoff between lifespan and pleasure, and the third, with its "pleasurable but dangerous activities... of some visitor from another world" are certainly suggestive.

"Dover Beach": I imagine the relevance of the poem to Carfax's situation is obvious from the section quoted by Aickman, but for those who somehow got through school without reading it the whole thing is here.

the golden bough: As the text suggests, Sir James Frazer's book was The Golden Bough, a rationalist, non-theological study of myth and religion, and as such a logical target for Ariel's (and Aickman's) criticism of scientific analysis at the expense of metaphysical significance. The absence of capitals, if it means anything, may also be meant to bring to mind the specific "golden bough" out of which Frazer's book grew. This was a ritual associated with the goddess Diana Nemorensis in which a runaway slave could pull down a bough from a special tree and fight the priest-king to the death; if he was successful, he became the new priest-king, at least until someone successfully challenged him. Frazer linked this practice to a perceived worldwide myth about a sacred king, married to a goddess, who died and was reborn as part of a cycle associated with fertility.

Without forcing a tempting but imprudent one-to-one comparison (Carfax as runaway slave, the impossibly tall figure as dominant god), one can see this legend and others reflected in "The View," a story that, for all its distinctive Aickmanesque touches, has something classically mythological about it. Whether a conscious product of revision or a result of the unconscious workings to which Aickman attributed the success of all true ghost stories, this air of myth produces that juxtaposition of the quotidian and the uncanny on which Aickman and so many other great writers of the supernatural have drawn.


  1. Hi, so glad to find your Blog. Plenty of horror movie review Blogs, but don't seem to find many Blogs that focus on weird tales/supernatural fiction and the like. The first Aickman story I ever read was The Trains in We Are for the Dark (loved it) and am slowly reading through Cold Hand in Mine and Wine Dark Sea right now. Take care.

  2. I am on an Aickman binge at the moment. I think you are right to group these four stories together, but I could not disagree more that they are all straightforward and leave little to explain. "The Stains", in particular, has far more going on than originally meets the eye, especially in terms of allusions to colonial history and politics. I recommend what has been written about this story over at The Mumpsimus (not my blog, by the way) - very illuminating.

  3. I interpreted much of the framework of this story as representing the creative conflict necessarily endured by any artist (in the widest possible sense) in melding the inspiration of the subconscious dream landscape with the quotidian demands of making physical progress with a work of art, whether fine art, music or literature: Carfax constantly falls to self-indulging himself in over-analysing the worthiness of his efforts, whilst Ariel, his loyal muse, sympathetically endeavours to continue providing him with a truly meaningful context - until, inevitably, Carfax over-analyses the situation to such a degree that the enchantment must evaporate: 'Now he believed her truly unable.' But I think that, even though Carfax doesn't realise it, the finale of the story resonates on a not altogether pessimistic note for him: he may yet get a chance to slay the king of the sacred grove, whose spirit he has lured away from the safety of the island.

    1. That's a fascinating and very persuasive reading. Carfax's mysterious aging becomes perhaps a metaphor for the artist's sufferings in pursuit of the elusive masterpiece, the sense of fruitlessness that can come when one looks back and feels he has not reached his potential. And yet there is always the hope that it will happen one day.