Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The second mowing

Rachel Cusk, 'Aftermath' in Granta 115: The F Word:

Our history teacher, Mrs Lewis... gave great consideration to Offa of Mercia, in whose vision of a unified England the first thrust of male ambition can be detected. and whose massive earthwork, Offa's Dyke, still stands as a reminder that division is also an aspect of unification, that one way of defining what you are is to define what you are not. And indeed historians have never been able to agree on the question of whether the dyke was built to repel the Welsh or merely to mark the boundary. Mrs Lewis took an ambivalent attitude to Offa's power: this was the road to civilization, sure enough, but its cost was a loss of diversity, of the quiet kind of flourishing that goes on where things are not being built and goals driven towards...

For in a way, the Dark Ages were themselves a version of 'the new reality.' the broken pieces of the biggest plate of all, the Roman Empire. Some called it darkness, the aftermath of that megalomaniacal all-conquering unity, but not Mrs Lewis. She liked it, liked the untenanted wastes, liked the monasteries where creativity was quietly nurtured, liked the mystics and the visionaries, the early religious writings, liked the women who accrued stature in these formless inchoate centuries, liked the grass roots -- the personal level on which issues of justice and belief had now to be resolved, in the absence of that great administrative civilization.

The point was that this darkness -- call it what you will -- this darkness and disorganization were not mere negation, mere absence. They were both aftermath and prelude. The etymology of the word 'aftermath' is 'second mowing': a second crop of grass that is sown and reaped after the harvest is in. Civilization, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganization that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity; were betrothed to civilization, as sleep is betrothed to activity. In the life of compartments lies the possibility of unity, just as unity contains the prospect of atomization. Better, in Mrs Lewis's view, to live the compartmentalized, disorganized life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity than to dwell in civilized unity, racked by the impulse to destroy.
Image source here.