Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Haunted Woman

If you want to know what it felt like to be a second century Gnostic, convinced that the world was a prison forged by an evil (or incompetent) demiurge, keeping you apart from the truth, and that the ascent to that truth was a path of stripping away ever-subtler illusions, whose intensity of suffering and, thus, quality of illumination, deepened with each level achieved, read David Lindsay's 'The Voyage to Arcturus'.

It might not be a fully digested as a spiritual text but as a summons (or sounding) of the depths of alienation and a calling to a vocation of search, it is brilliant. It has become a minor classic of imaginative literature.

His novel, 'The Haunted Woman' is an attempt at describing a similar imaginative space but within the confines of a more 'normal' landscape. Here there is no voyage to a distant star but within a novel about the conventions of a proposed engagement (in the 1930s), a haunted house and an ultimately tragic relationship between a man and a woman. The 'haunting' is not of ghosts but of rooms that hide and reveal themselves only to those who seek (knowingly or unknowingly) the truth of themselves and the world. The rooms reveal- the first yourself, the second your relationship with others, the third the true nature of the world. But descending from the rooms, you find yourself progressively forgetting what you have seen except as a distant summoning, a quiet melodic vibration that draws you on.

It leaves you with a sense that you have a read something alluringly dissatisfying and when you try to think what it is, you realise that the novel is trying to embody a 'set of truths' that are seen but not embodied in their author (neither intuitively nor intellectually). It gives both books a sense of their underlying 'fury' - I want to know, I want to communicate what I know but my knowing is but second hand. It does not sit as an embodied wisdom, emanating from a tradition of knowing, in which the author sits. Neither is it an experiment in knowing, it does not have that humility.

The sadness of that reaching after something and not grasping it is pervasive and makes of 'The Haunted Woman' its tragedy. Lindsay's gifts (which are many) you feel were not ultimately planted in the 'right soil'.

I found myself relating this failure to two other contemporaneous novels - Mary Butts' 'Armed with Madness' and T.F. Powys' "Mr Weston's Good Wine' - both of which throw metaphysical happening into conventional settings - a house party in the south of England, an English village - and ask you to accept an element of the 'miraculous' in the familiar.

It is the latter one that 'works', that holds the two worlds together most fruitfully, and, paradoxically, precisely it is the most sceptical of any underlying metaphysical reality and posits its reality primarily to question the soundness of our daily lives rather than reaches out of those lives to attain 'truth'. It is, also, the case it is the only one that is shot through with humour.

This brings us back, neatly, to the 'gnosticism' that underlays Lindsay's vision and the quietly devastating question that Plotinus put to it in the second century. If this world is of no value, simply a delusion, there would be no ground on which to base any valuation at all. We are embodied, here and now, and from here, we must explore the truth. If this ground is not, at least, grained with signs of the truth, we have no foundation.

It was that sense that Lindsay had that perhaps there is no foundation that unbalances his novels into tragic attempts at truth sharing. He has a vision that he burningly wants to offer in which he cannot wholly believe, perhaps even this is delusion. It is in evoking that tragedy that gives his novels their poignancy. 

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