Our bright natures

March 13, 2010

Rebecca West’s best-loved book is probably The Fountain Overflows, with its extraordinarily vivid authorial voice and remarkable characterisations, quite unlike anything else. Yet West’s supreme achievement is usually designated as Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (1942), the Yugoslav travelogue/ artist’s statement/ philosophy doorstop, invariably hailed as a masterpiece. This is a long (1,150 pp) book, discursive and complex, so highly-wrought that its correspondences take several readings to appreciate fully. It’s superbly written, with West’s muscular and versatile prose soaring over every curtain-wall she sets herself on triumphant if idiosyncratic wings. Most of all, it is a work of consolation. In a time of war and horror, it was a heroic celebration of the possibility of hope.

The central paradox is that the book is full of darkness; West records that the bloody history she had to write sometimes seemed so ‘unendurably horrible’ that she could hardly go on. Yet she did, in order to condemn wherever she found it cruelty, inhumanity and the death-wish, while celebrating the ‘poetical achievement of the soul’. In the course of her digressive journey through Yugoslavia (both the literal landscape and the country of the mind), she finds this poetry in surprising places.

The work resembles the writer; many interests run concurrently, inform one another, unite surprisingly, reach unexpected conclusions, set off again. Deep convictions develop gradually, preconceptions are re-examined and perhaps modified or jettisoned, suddenly-reached opinions are confirmed by experience, but become more complex. There are certain problems for the contemporary reader. I find her personally-affronted attitude towards homosexual men distasteful; some people think her dislike of a pro-Nazi German woman too merciless. (These are small toe-stubs in a cataract of pleasures.) West’s political statements are sweeping, opinionated, and no doubt inexpert, in that they treat the political world as one in which the values of other human activities are still relevant, so that her leaders should be ‘of that company loving honour, freedom and harmony…’

The immensity of the book, its vast scope in terms of themes, defies any over-view. It would be worth considering just her treatment of the ‘female tragedy’ – the strength men derive from the subjugation of women – or her extraordinary meditations on this culture’s urge towards self-destruction and death, which she calls the myth of the rock:

‘Only part of us is sane; only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set life back to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness…’

The solution West offers, which makes her book so important to me, is her belief in the role of art. While she holds that profound works of literature such as King Lear express the central paradoxes of existence, beyond that she believes that art has a supreme function ‘for of course art gives us hope’. Typically, this hope isn’t a vague though encouraging emotional prop; it is quite practical. West perceives that art has a use. When she meets an old woman who has endured terrible sufferings and demands ‘Let me know what my life means’, this is presented as ‘making the true demand of art’. West derives this from the cave-dwellers’ urge to draw the aurochs they hunted in order ‘to better understand the aurochs and have fuller fortune in hunting’, as ‘the ancestor of all artists’. (She adds, characteristically, that art is complex enough to ‘regard the more stupendous aurochs that range within the mind’, that eventually ‘we shall read the riddle of our universe’.) Her conclusion about art is that ‘it is a force which could destroy the myth of the rock itself, and will, no doubt, a thousand years hence’.

This is some credo, embedded with great subtlety in a huge volume; art has the power to conquer war, evil, guilt, hatred, self-destruction – darkness itself. There are, she admits, many problems. Art is an ‘uncertain instrument’, which ‘cannot talk plain sense, it must sometimes talk what sounds like nonsense, but is actually supersense’. The nonsense must be discerned, as must ‘counterfeit’ artistic activity, then West implacably reminds her reader of the renegade saints;‘the few guides’ sent to help us out of the darkness have come ‘surrounded by traitors, dressed in their guise, indistinguishable’. Yet, despite all this, within the text there is a concrete example of the ultimate usefulness of art.

On p.509, West hears the music of a Mozart concerto by chance on a café radio; she is enormously comforted, but then considers – since the music needs a certain education and cultural background to be understood, since it requires so much of the listener – that ‘art covers not even a corner of life’. (In the context, this conclusion seems not only depressing, but a denial of her own perceptions which the reader wants to refute.) But by p.1127, West has returned to Mozart as one of the ultimate expressions of what is ‘correct, important, permanent’. As she listens to The Marriage of Figaro during an air raid on London, the music seems more real to her than the danger of death; it transforms everything.

It takes enormous courage to write like this, from the heart, with passionate sincerity and an utter conviction that the reader will understand. The absolute commitment it demonstrates is exhausting to contemplate, as is the writer’s emotional energy and engagement. But the reader who can respond with the necessary perseverance and enthusiasm will find that this rough journey undertaken in Rebecca West’s company leads to a vision of harsh salvation, ultimately consoling.

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