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West Kennet Long Barrow
Image credit Willow
Memorials of oblivion, these turfed tombs
Of muttering ancestries whose fires, once red,
Now burn for me beyond mysterious glooms;
I pass them day by day while daylight fills
My sense of sight on these time-haunted hills.
Could I but watch those burials that began
Whole history – flint and bronze and iron beginnings,
When under this wide Wiltshire sky crude man
Warred with his world and augered our world-winnings!
Could I but enter that unholpen brain,
Cabined and comfortless and insecure,
That ruled some settlement on Salisbury Plain
And offered blood to blind primeval powers,-
Dim Caliban whose doom was to endure
Earth’s ignorant nullity made strange with flowers.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)
Is it Camus’ “slow trek” that brings me to Avebury, then (as well as meeting my friends here)? Without wishing to overanalyse (too late, perhaps), and as I suggested in the very first paragraph, part of it may also be a desire to belong; to surround myself with the obvious evidence of a time that none of us can exclusively lay claim to, or rather, that all of us possibly can. But this cannot be a widespread motivation – some people will think the way that I do, but many won’t – and, in any case, it could easily be satisfied closer to home. In fact, from my experience, I’d argue that the range of active stimuli can be neatly split across four distinct, yet deeply overlapping sections;
(1) Itinerary – gathering Experience, visiting the guide book (this can be driven by the desire for information and impact, and feeds interpretation)
(2) Information – finding out about what interests you, learning (this can feed interpretation, impact and experience)
(3) Interpretation – the messianic urge (forming theories using experience, information and impact)
(4) Impact – the ‘hit’; religious, appreciative or personal (this can be magnified by experience, information and interpretation)
Edward Thomas (ed. Gant 1977, 22), for example, describes Avebury thus; “…most pleasant is the descent among the sarsens that rest on turf blue with sheep’s bit or rosy with rest-harrow. Jefferies knew Avebury, through love of the Down ways and through his early archaeological curiosity. What they worshipped at Avebury Temple no one knows, but the human mind is still fertile in fantasy and ferocity – if it no longer draws blood – when it worships within walls. To me the sycamores that gloom at the entrance to the temple are more divine.”
Yes. Impact has been my main motivation, but a little bit of everything was and still is, involved. Likewise, Thomas’ response to the site is fairly mild, but he still finds sensation where Avebury interacts with the natural world. And, with very little effort, it’s also possible to identify each of the other three stimuli in his passage; visiting, noticing details and thinking about what went on there.
On the Sunday of my visit, I took the river path from Avebury Trusloe to Silbury Hill. The way, on that day at least, was overgrown with nettles and stalks – an appropriate advance, perhaps, of Edward Thomas‘ ‘divine‘? This constant reaching and spreading of plants, or trees, seems a lot like our own similar urge. They are as alive as we are and act in much the same way. I wonder if this is what distinguished the sycamores, in Thomas’ mind? Although our ancestors’ monuments may have been an integral part of their urge to live, or may have celebrated it, they are still human creations; ‘art‘, rather than, in the sense of sycamores; alive (or ‘divine‘?).
What, actually, gives us this impression of life? Look very closely (in your mind’s eye, maybe) at a nettle. You know that it’s alive because your knowledge of its expected appearance says that it is. But, apart from that, it could be a human creation; well-crafted plastic, for instance. If it sways in the breeze, the only movement is of the air. So, how does our response (or that of Thomas) make this vital, visual distinction between art and life? Nietzsche (trans. Faber 1994, 247) wrote that “love, springtime, every beautiful melody, mountains, the moon, the sea – all these speak completely to the heart but once,..“ In his opinion, each has the capacity to give us one unforgettable reaction – like the one that I quoted earlier from Isolde’s Liebestod (or so it would have been, for me). But they are a mixture. What might make us react to them all in a similar way? If (following Thomas‘ sycamore) it is life, itself, that we react to, or rather, the way that life is; could it be that we can recognise a signifier of it, and that its equivalent may be present in all of these?
Kandinsky (trans. Sadler 1977, 20) points out that music; “has at its disposal duration of time;..” So, try this; imagine, perhaps, if you could stretch time out and watch your nettle grow, perceptibly, in front of you, spreading towards the light. If you could see that ‘urge to live’, that spirit of life, in action, just as (you’ll recall) my mind tripped along with the lines of the Mozart sonata. Just as the moon nightly circles the sky, ever-changing, sometimes vast. Sometimes red. Sometimes black. How would you feel? Knocked out, I expect. And movement may be the secret; or, more specifically, the quality, in the object itself, of movement. The quality of reaching and spreading, of animate life. And is this not also part of what I’ve responded to in certain paintings and monuments; part of that which I called ’presence’, or ‘living art‘?
It’s a mesmerising, or unsettling, phenomenon, when you find it where you did not expect it to be. Or, like your nettle, in a way that you had not experienced it before. Do you remember, for example, the tension and extension, that I mentioned in connection with circularity? Or, of how the verticality in some monuments, just as in mountains, just as in Newman’s paintings, enables them to “soar”. Or how Cézanne’s fruit rolls at you out of the canvas, perhaps, or the way that Raphael’s Donna looks back to you with love (and love alone) in her twinkling eyes and flushed face?
Schopenhauer has trodden this ground before, or at least, a variation of it. He wrote, for example, (trans. Hollingdale 2004, 161) that “in vegetation the law of gravity seems to have been overcome, in that the plant world raises itself in precisely the opposite direction from the one dictated by this law and thus directly proclaims the phenomenon of life as a new and higher order of things. We ourselves are part of this order: it is that in nature which is related to us, the element of our existence. Our heart is uplifted in the presence of it. What pleases us first and foremost at the sight of the plant world, therefore, is this vertical upward direction,.. The melancholy effect of the inorganic nature of water is in large part abolished by its great mobility, which produces an impression of life, and by its constant play with light:..” But Thomas’ statement, about Avebury, was the key to the last door for me.
You might have noticed that I used the first third of this feature to bring me to the question; ‘are megaliths, by this definition, art?’. And to, hopefully, demonstrate that I had enough ‘art-miles’ in me to be able to answer; ‘my own experience of aesthetic response says – yes.’ In a similar fashion, I’ve used the remainder of this feature to work around the answer to another. I stated earlier that; ‘all you can assert, without detailed accompanying qualification, is that these monuments make you feel like this.’ but I also asked what, assuming a ‘clear’ response, is; this, that you feel? What might this “profound and unique” insight be? When I have confronted a monument, for example, and felt (as I did in the Mesopotamian section of the Louvre) that I was ‘looking at a deeper part of myself; the ‘where I came from’’, was this actually the case?
In a way, yes, and I did feel that. But I am beginning to realise that this was only the context that I had built around my response, and what I may have been looking at inside it, or truly feeling – the ’insight’, if you like – was ‘what I am’, or, more specifically, the ‘way that I am’. And not what my ancestors were, or where I came from.
I’m suggesting, therefore, that the reason that my; “heart is uplifted in the presence of “ many megaliths, or paintings, or pieces of music, is because I am reacting to a sense of ’presence’, in them – a ’presence’ of life, or rather; the way that life is. And a signifier of this, for me, is the quality – in the object itself – of movement. My ‘heart’ may also have been affected by my own context, of course; by factors such as my previous experience, by the information that I have and by my interpretation of these and of the impact itself – I can respond, for instance, to the movement contained in the circularity of a ring fort, and have that feeling dampened by the knowledge that the building was most likely functional. Or, I can respond to the circularity and verticality, of Stonehenge and have that feeling intensified by the knowledge that its principal axis is to the solstice. But, by then, my focus will have moved from what the object is – an aesthetic response to structure – to include what the object did. That is, from pure ‘sound’, to include ‘meaning’. The first response is the one that is elicited by factors that are more likely to have been originally present. But its nature is material, rather than conceptual. It is one that makes me feel as if I am placed mentally inside the object (effectively, for the duration of it, we are one).
What I am also proposing, albeit with less vehemence (I’m conscious of that messianic urge) and without excluding the significance of their original context, is that a consideration of this ‘aesthetic response to structure’ may have figured in the construction of these monuments. Do you recall Newman’s statement, that; “the artist among primitive peoples was anything but a commentator. He was a maker of gods that had animate life, that had intrinsic meaning“? Even at that level; if megaliths were believed to contain energy, or animate life (or the spirit of some poor bugger that was popped beneath them), then how much more effective would they have been if their form encouraged that exact conclusion in the observer?
Thus round, mound-like Silbury seems to throb – as me – permanently, in the centre of an issuing ripple (see my photo above). Convex and green, where once it was a rising stack of drums and white (and how it must have shone when it was young) – Anaximander, the Milesian, theorised that the earth was “rounded, like the drum of a column; we stand on one of its surfaces,..” (Wright 1995, 39). What would this idea have looked like if it was applied to a multi-partite cosmos? Burl (2002, 182) sensibly mentions that the method, not unusual in Brittany, would have ensured stability. While I was there it ‘followed’ me and, like a child, I constantly checked back to see if it was watching.
And thus, also, West Kennet becomes my long, creased mantle, with tentacles reaching towards a point on the eastern horizon. Someone has said (thanks George) that its building may have coincided with the rising of a full, red moon there – a Brigadoon moon. And it was nice to stand on top and see that happen in my mind’s eye, then look at its insides glisten and shimmer. As off in another place, buried East Kennet gives its own hint of a rumble, or a shake of its trees in the wind, as I look back to the west.
And thus the Sanctuary and then later, Avebury, sporadic within an encircling Oceanus, are too invisible, or diffuse, for me to get any strong sense of them. But gapped Avebury’s cove, even incomplete, is a masterpiece of concentrated verticality. I wonder what its effect would have been like, in a time before the circle was built? When the sun and the moon moved above it, or sank behind it, and people and music may have moved, in time, towards it, or around it (as they may also have done around Silbury). Because it, itself, seems to move. Its form causes it to “soar“. Just like the description of its companion at Stonehenge; “For a time the great horseshoe stood on Salisbury Plain, solitary, awesome and alien.” (Burl 1997, 5) Because it is also what we, briefly, are.
“All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”
This was for Megan, who needed to know why I visit stones. And for LS, who encouraged me to write about them.
Bradley, R. The Significance of Monuments Routledge 1998 (paperback)
Burl, A. The Sarsen Horseshoe inside Stonehenge: A Rider WANHM 1997
Burl, A. Prehistoric Avebury Yale 2002 (paperback)
Doran, M. ed. Conversations with Cézanne California 2001 (paperback)
De Bolla, P. Art Matters Harvard 2001
Kandinsky, W. trans. Sadler, M.T.H. Concerning the Spiritual in Art Dover 1977 (paperback)
Kingston, A.R. The Origins of Co. Cork Kingstons JCHAS 1981
Magee, B. Aspects of Wagner Oxford 1988 (paperback)
Magee, B. Confessions of a Philosopher Phoenix 1998 (paperback)
Michell, J. The Old Stones of Land’s End Garnstone 1974
Newman, B. Selected Writings and Interviews California 1992 (paperback)
Nietzsche, F. trans. Faber, M. Human, All Too Human Penguin 1994 (paperback)
Schopenhauer, A. trans. Hollingdale, R.J. Essays and Aphorisms Penguin 2004 (paperback)
Wright, M.R. Cosmology in Antiquity Routledge 1995 (paperbck)
The Louvre Collections Réunion des Musées Nationaux 1999
In the midst of my love affair with Barnett Newman, that most megalithic of artists (I was later to discover), I read a book by Peter De Bolla; called ‘Art Matters’. Over five chapters, he attempted to understand the condition of being affected by a work of art, through consideration of his reactions to Newman’s ‘Vir Heroicus Sublimis’, to Glenn Gould’s second recording of the ‘Goldberg Variations’ and to Wordsworth’s ‘We Are Seven’. And he had something apposite to say, regarding the aesthetic response (2001, 18); “.., the quality of being “art” lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits…Yet aesthetic value is determined by the quality of the response: if a particular object arouses the kind of response one can recognise as “strong” or “deep”, then it has claims on a high aesthetic value no matter how simple, trivial, or roughly worked up the object itself may be.”
If you happen to go to the Tate Gallery in London and wish to test this, then go to the section that contains the American Abstract Expressionists. There are usually two paintings, by Barnett Newman, there, called (appropriately for visitors to Avebury) Adam and Eve. Both canvases seem, at first glance, simple; Eve is a wide bright expanse with one thin strip at the side, and Adam has a few bold ‘zips’ splitting and cutting through a dark-hued background. Stand at a point at which you can see them both, but also the paintings that surround them; an angled position at a distance and to one side, perhaps. Look away, then look back. When I do, I find that these two paintings, and these alone, have what I would describe as a ‘presence’. To put it another way; they seem to have an existence beyond their parts – they live. The others, no matter what the intention behind them, are, at best, only representations of something else. In his own words (1992, 93); ”…it should be made clear to all those who think of primitive art in terms of Western European aesthetics, as the expression of a reaction toward the universe, that the artist among primitive peoples was anything but a commentator. He was a maker of gods that had animate life, that had intrinsic meaning.” This is exactly what I mean. I’m not talking about sensing energy, or spirits, although, in the case of megaliths, it could be (and often is) taken up that way and may well, as Newman suggests, have been the original intention. But of a particular type of (or a particular part of a) strong aesthetic response to the object itself. These are the dogs that I wouldn’t touch in case they growl.
What De Bolla said was that; “the quality of being “art” lies not, in any sense susceptible of description or analysis, in the object but in the response it elicits” Are megaliths, by this definition, art? My own experience of aesthetic response says – yes. But note the connection between the object and the response it elicits. Can we, consequently, attempt to gain an understanding of the past through this relationship (such as the one that I claimed for myself, earlier, in the Louvre)?
Magee (1998, 477), channelling Schopenhauer, suggests that it may be; “the specific function of the arts to convey profound and unique insights that are unamenable to conceptual communication.” In fact, you may already respond to monuments in this way – in terms of communication – and fully absorb the powerful message that you receive through them. Perhaps inclusive, even, of the senses of ’where I came from’ and ‘presence’, of which I’ve spoken (these were my impressions). But doesn’t a true ‘insight’; the form that this understanding of the ‘object’ must take, require an absolutely ‘clear’ response? Anything that doesn’t conclusively apply to its original context could have blurred its surface (I wrote part of that Louvre message, unknowing, myself, for example), or worse, directed our gaze into something else altogether. Deeper responses can often follow (what might appear to be) deeper understandings. And these will have lead many of us, ultimately, to what is referred to as the ‘intentional fallacy‘, or; “confusing an artist’s intention with his achievement” (Magee 1988, 78).
In the case of monuments only that which rests with structure; visible (what you can see – in my analysis; the ’presence’), or invisible (archaeological information), can have a ‘clear’ claim on understanding. And even that which is visible may be compromised – by the influence of landscape change on its immediate setting, for example, or by romantic expectation (the waters and the wild), or by deterioration of its form. And that which is invisible, by false interpretation.
As I’m writing, for example, on a bright Friday morning, back in Ireland, I’m half-listening to Mitsuko Uchida playing the Mozart piano sonatas. If I were to give them more attention, then everything around me would begin to feel like it was falling away. My mind would open – as if it was skimming over the ground, flying as a floating, free treble, while my body, the bass, rode its wake; attached yet still earthbound. I love these pieces, but I’ve never felt compelled to dig too deeply into the life of Mozart and I’ve no idea what intention, if any, is in the music. But it never fails to give me a strong impression of him, nonetheless. And my reaction, including placing myself mentally inside the piece, remains the same as when I first heard K-whatever on the radio. This; Kandinsky’s (trans. Sadler 1977, 19) “expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound”, is what I mean by a ‘clear‘ response.
Now, think of the word; ‘shock’. It’s one of those words that can convey a message in its sound, as well as in its meaning. Both are part of its effect. And, in a similar fashion, music, such as my Mozart sonata, would need only the ’sound’, where painting would use the ‘sound‘ and, often, some of the ‘meaning‘. And monuments may be closer to evenly balanced. Their (often potent) ‘presence’ is delivered by the fact that they are made, by their form, by their setting and material. This is the ’sound’; the deep ‘growl’. But that effect can be magnified (and your response altered) by their ’meaning’; by an understanding of them, whether it be right or wrong.
If I apply this to Stonehenge, you’ll probably see what I mean. It was built, for instance, in a wide, expansive setting and it was made by the hands of people, like us. It is mostly made of stone. It has verticality, like those tilted portal tombs and monoliths, to enable it to “soar” (De Bolla 2001, 51), and it has circularity to tense it. Or, as Bradley theorises, to extend it; “outwards from the individual and upwards into the sky” (1998, 109). These are features that may be valid, ‘clear‘, even powerful, as communicators of ‘insight‘, or understanding. But what if that ’sound’ is coupled with ’meaning’? With experience of other sites (and your heightened expectation of this one), with interpretation of the monument and with archaeological information about it? How it was made, in other words, what can be imagined of the people that made it, what influenced it and what magic it may have been used for (even as my response, in the Louvre, to Naram-Sin had been animated by the non-applicable myths that I had read, by the information in the guide book and by my own previous experiences of art). Does it not go deeper?
As De Bolla suggested, the quality lies not “in the object but in the response it elicits”. But the greater your inclusion of personal experience and interpretation, the harder it will be to separate your own construction of what you’re looking at, from what you’re looking at, and the less likely a ‘clear’ response, or ’insight’ will be. And if it is ‘clear‘ – Kandinsky‘s “expression of the artist’s soul” – then what is it? All you can assert, without detailed accompanying qualification, is that these monuments make you feel like this. And that the deepest of those reactions, so rare, are unforgettable.
“At its fullest”; according to Cézanne (ed. Doran 2001, 112), the sensation; “is in harmony with all existence.” Stendhal syndrome. Isolde’s words (in another context) describe it well;
Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear
Sounding from within him,
In bliss lamenting,
Its sweet echoes
Resounding about me?
Are they gentle
Ringing out clearly,
Surging around me?
Are they billows
Of blissful fragrance?
As they seethe
And roar around me,
Shall I breathe
Shall I give ear?
Shall I drink of them,
Plunge beneath them?
Breathe my life away
In sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
In the resounding echoes,
In the universal stream
Of the world-breath –
To founder –
Utmost Rapture!” (from Isolde’s Liebestod; EMI 1994)
On the liner of Scott Walker’s ‘Scott 4’ are the following words, from Albert Camus; “A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”
De Bolla notes (2001, 3) that, what he calls, “mutism” has been singled out by some writers; “as the distinctive aspect of aesthetic experience.”
by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action
It was my first time in the Avebury area. But it was also my homecoming, I guess. Four hundreds years ago, an ancestor, a young English soldier, was given a land grant in Ireland; planted, as it was then termed, on ground that had been confiscated by Oliver Cromwell’s regime. Years later he fought again, as a colonel, in King William‘s army at the Boyne (Kingston 1981). It feels, sometimes (and I know that I’m not alone in this), as if a large part of ‘what I am’ is taken up by a void that I’ve made myself – one that’s called ‘where I came from’.
There are so many different people here besides me, though; wandering amongst the massive megaliths of Avebury and Stonehenge, and amid the surrounding long barrows, barrows and hills. What compulsion could possibly bring them all? The couples strolling as if in the gardens of a stately home, for example, or the young kids climbing the banks and running around, the enthusiasts either obsessively photographing, or touching and hugging, or squatting, frowning with book and compass (and often all three), or the energy-believers praying, speaking or just sitting? Perhaps I would be better off if I began by reducing the question to something that I can answer. What, outside my curiosity about ancestors, brings me?
I came to megaliths from books, although I’d primed myself, without realising it, a few years previously. Some time in the late ’90’s, I’d read John Banville’s ‘The Untouchable’; a fictionalisation of the life of Cambridge spy and art historian, Anthony Blunt. I’d never really been that gripped by ‘Art‘, or specifically paintings, before then – I was in my 20’s and had, not unusually I suppose, a lot of other things on my mind. Besides, there‘s also the possibility, sketched with clarity by Bryan Magee (1998, 453), that; “.., I was not yet ready” That; “This kind of unreadiness is more familiar to us on our relationship to artistic than intellectual work.”; in other words, that you may first have to attain the capacity to receive artistic work before you can ever hope to ‘get’ it (and then, it might just hit you unexpectedly and as hard as a punch in the stomach). And certainly, in my case, I had struggled with a fair amount of books, sights, sounds and so on, before my late 20’s and gained very little; no real insight, joy, or understanding. Only to read, see or hear them, after that point, and have them push me, like a heretofore nervous fledgling, to soar. To finally use the restlessness that had been thumping away inside me, all the time; “if you like that, try these“.
I read Banville’s book and then, interested, I turned and read about Anthony Blunt. The greater part of his life seemed to pass in a devotion to, or perhaps an obsession with, the artist, Poussin; what was that all about? I investigated the paintings and, as I’ve just implied, I was suddenly, unexpectedly and completely, captivated. I was experiencing the singular thrill of an ‘aesthetic response‘. And better. I knew how to continue it. I bought Blunt’s book on the artist and read Seneca, because Poussin rated him. Then Tacitus, because he wrote about Seneca. And I began, gradually, to tip from one to the next, now exulting in the power of the d’Orsay Cezanne, then in the shock of Barnett Newman. To visit galleries and to visit cities so that I could visit the galleries there. I discovered Rembrandt and then Raphael (effectively and wonderfully, Poussin without the lockjaw); and the latter carried me to Rome and Michelangelo, to Caravaggio and Bernini. I read and I read; and London was close. But Paris was the prize, because of Cezanne; and in the Louvre, because all eras of art are gathered there, I saw the Mesopotamian section, was awestruck, and learnt of the hero, Gilgamesh.
Meanwhile, roughly parallel to this (although with rather less interpretive and more informational, reading), I was working my way through an itinerary of musical styles and types. Hunting – I’m aware, when I look back at it, now – for more of the ‘hit’ that I was getting from the greatest paintings. In the manner of Magee’s ‘unreadiness‘, for example and after years of being unable to handle him, I suddenly got Dylan; I got the poetry and could begin to crack the references. I began to listen attentively to what I would previously have found uninteresting, or un-listenable. Searching through Beethoven brought me, skin tingling, to Newman’s phrase (1992, 173); “the exalted“, in the late piano sonatas and in the late string quartets. I found it again and again; in the vocal music of Mahler, in ‘Astral Weeks’, and raging like a forest fire; in the post ‘Ascension’ output of John Coltrane. Obsessively, I combed my way through the tangle. I read and I listened; both within and across type – massive Penguin guides, ‘The Wire’ magazine, Delacroix and Goethe, Toop and Bangs, Feldman and Mondrian. Reading about Abstract Expressionism pushed me towards ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ and through Nietzsche I came, eventually, to Wagner; to ‘Tristan Und Isolde’ and to ‘The Ring’.
There’s, obviously, nothing unusual in what I’ve described so far. Many people have filled themselves with books, with art and music. So what? Many have stalked their responses instead, with, I’d guess, as much of a sense of fulfilment; hunting in the detail of what‘s close around them. Or began to sate their appetite on layers, rather than variety. Perhaps we move from one mode to the next. It certainly feels that way sometimes. My reason for detailing it is to show that if it were not these restless habits, I would never have passed the boundaries of what was making me (and still makes me) happy, to find something else. And to show that if I had stumbled on it differently – other than as an artistic relationship and via books – then it wouldn’t have had the same intense and lasting impact on me. That‘s the way it was. My heart had swelled with the Rhine Journey and started and stopped, with the Funeral March, and it was inevitable that doomed, brave Siegfried would carry me away to the past; to the world of European mythology, to the same sources that underpinned Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.
It’s a simple thing to lose yourself in myth isn‘t it? In the straight choices, the nobility and heroism, in the fatalistic, Peckinpah-esque acceptance of destruction. I did. It was like fantasy, but more powerful by far, because it felt real, both in the straightforward prose and in the conviction of the telling. And I mentally went back further and further, to live in each tale as its impression of one of our common ancestors, as one of those people who were, in John Michell’s evocative description (1974, 109); “no different from ourselves, only placed in a situation where the laws of nature were more pressing and apparent than they are for most people today.” I submerged myself. This time in the Volsungs, in the Kalevala, in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I was both Achilles and Hector, Cuchulainn and Ferdia, Nuadu and Lugh. I was Fionn agus Diarmuid. I was the Dagda at the riverside and Beowulf, full of foreboding. I was Anna, cradling Dido’s body on the pyre.
How inevitable it also seems now that, wandering through the Louvre, I would come face to face, for the first time, with the living work of this “pressing” world. It was similar in form, yet radically different somehow; less ‘art’ and more ‘to the bone‘ – rather than looking at something created by someone, I felt as if I was looking at a deeper part of myself; the ‘where I came from’, that I mentioned in the first paragraph. I didn’t have to try to sense the way back; it was there in all its terrifying glory, right in front of me. The first part of Michell’s definition looked forwards in time, a message in the eyes of Gudea and serene Ebih-II. But the second, more powerful – us stripped bare – stood bodily, awesome and alive. In twinned, man-faced Assyrian bulls and in the dust-pink sandstone of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.
I remember reading the guide then (1999, 34) and the words were matter-of-fact, but they caught my head and ripped away the four thousand years as if they were only packaging; “Originally this stele was erected in the town of Sippar, centre of the cult of the Sun god, to the north of Babylon… It illustrates the victory over the mountain people of western Iran by Naram-Sin, 4th king of the Semite dynasty of Akkad, who claimed to be the universal monarch and was deified during his lifetime. He had himself depicted climbing the mountain at the head of his troops. His helmet bears the horns emblematic of divine power. Although the stone is worn, his face is expressive of the ideal human conqueror, a convention imposed on artists by the monarchy. The king tramples on the bodies of his enemies at the foot of a peak; above it the solar disk figures several times, and the king pays homage to it for his victory.” And why not depict it several times, if it’s your god? In Newman’s opinion (1992, 93); “It is the man who is terrorised by his sense of personal weakness who becomes concerned with divinity.”
The bible stories that I read as a boy came flooding (what an appropriate word) back to me and I went straight from there to an English language bookshop and bought ‘The epic of Gilgamesh’. It was all that I could think about. I read it, dreamed of what I read and of how it affected what I saw, and now I ached for this ‘living work’. But I didn’t know how I would ever find it, or rather, this sensation, again. Did I look closer to home? It never occurred to me, although, looking back, it seems obvious now. The reluctant answer would only come crab-like, and eventually, from a reference in a book of sagas; to another book, about Stonehenge. I’d heard of the monument, but not a lot more (that‘s not unusual here). So I bought, almost at random, Colin Burgess’ ’The Age of Stonehenge’, to find out. And there, amongst the sites mentioned, was one (of several) that was only about twenty minutes drive from where I lived. I never even knew that it existed; Drombeg, probably the most famous stone circle in Ireland.
Do you remember Magee’s ‘unreadiness’? How a minor stream can suddenly become a raging torrent? (Think, perhaps, of the narrator’s despair in ‘The Little Prince’, when it doesn‘t). The water remained the same, but my own size, in comparison to it, had changed completely.
Not a momentary action – it required squatting down at the back and painstakingly scraping away the rear surface, something that would have taken quite a few minutes of hard work.
The notice was giving details of the DEFRA Countryside Stewardship Special Project which protects both the natural and archaeological aspects of the World Heritage Site and it’s hard to see how that could prompt such an attack.
UPDATE: Culprits exposed! See Comments.
Seeing this little family last week we thought we’d just make a brief reference to “squatters in West Kennet Long Barrow” or something similar but then we came across this, written three years ago by our much missed friend Rebecca van der Putt – “Treaclechops” in her wonderful style:
It was thrilling to touch the stones again after so long, wonderful to stand in the small forecourt before walking once more into the dark, imposing chambers. Again, the structure of the place struck me through new eyes; the size of the rocks, the creation of this space, the awesome nature of the whole. It occurred to me that the stones appeared very much like the bones of the earth. Once again, memories of times past drifted through my mind, especially the last visit, which was strange and dark. I didn’t want that memory to stay with me, but it persistently floated back, until a sudden trilling chirr and resonant, urgent wing beat broke the dark chambers’ air. More squeaks, more wing beats, a dart of movement, and a swallow swooped out of the entrance, up the face of the forecourt stones, and into the night. A few moments later a rush of air signalled its return – they were nesting inside one of the chambers!
I hid behind a large stone …… to watch their unerring, acrobatic passage back and to the nest. We were the only people there, immersed in the magic of the muted night’s colour and smells, the timelessness and atmosphere of the long barrow and its stones, the sounds of wind through grasses and swallows’ wing beats and chirrs. The feeling of re-birth, renewal, regeneration and life filled the place, and any dark memories were chased away, to be replaced by light and airy vibes of positivity.
A guest feature by Littlestone