Martin Edmond

The Inconsolable Song

Sometime in the early 1980s I wrote down this sentence: Mysterious and eerie are the immense areas of the northern Pacific, carpeted with a soft red sediment, in which there are no organic remains but shark’s teeth and the ear bones of whales. It came from Rachel Carson’s The Sea but its ultimate origin is perhaps a lecture delivered by Archibald Geikie of Edinburgh at the Evening Meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, March 24, 1879. Geikie, citing the dredging work of a Mr Murray at an unspecified location, said:

On the tracts farthest removed from any land the sediment seems to settle scarcely so rapidly as the dust that gathers over the floor of a deserted hall … from these remote depths large numbers of shark's teeth and ear bones of whales were dredged up … some were comparatively fresh, others had greatly decayed, and were incrusted with or even completely buried in a deposit of earthy manganese. Yet the same cast of the dredge brought up these different stages of decay from the same surface of the sea floor … the remains which sink today may lie side by side with the mouldered and incrusted bones that found their way to the bottom hundreds of years ago.

Another striking indication of the very slow rate at which sedimentation takes place in these abysses has also been brought to notice … In the clay from the bottom [are] found numerous minute spherical granules of native iron … almost certainly of meteoric origin, fragments of those falling stars which, coming to us from planetary space, burst … when they rush into the denser layers of our atmosphere … in this case, again, it is not needful to suppose that meteorites have disappeared over these ocean depths more numerously than over other parts of the earth's surface … mud … gathers so slowly, that the very star dust which falls from outer space forms an appreciable part of it.

One of Geikie’s intentions was to review evidence whereby we establish the fundamental fact that the present surface of any country or continent is not that which it has always borne, and the data by which we may trace backward the origin of the land. My intent in recording the quote was different. During the early 1980s there was an upsurge of anti-war, specifically anti-nuclear, protests. Ronald Reagan had recently been elected, and before him Margaret Thatcher, and their cold warriors were busy installing nuclear armed Pershing and Cruise missiles in West Germany, to which the then Soviet Union was expected to respond by adding similarly armed SS-22s and 23s to the massive, nuclear tipped SS-20s it had already deployed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

It looked like the endgame it turned out to be, though fortunately without the fireworks, and the demonstrations, in Sydney at least, were as large as any of the anti-Vietnam War protests in the previous decade. They were also, though we didn’t know it at the time, the last marches of that scale for twenty years and perhaps for much longer. We felt then that extinction in a nuclear war was not just possible but likely and it was in this context that I picked up the shark’s teeth and the whale ear bones, to use in something I was writing.

It was a lyrical piece that never came to fruition. I was trying to evoke the annual celebration of Cracker Night—since discontinued for safety reasons—which was held in mid-winter, having been displaced earlier from Guy Fawkes Night because you simply can’t go firing off rockets and bangers and so forth in south-eastern Australia on November 5 without causing major fires. There was an explicit and obvious analogy between one set of explosives (fireworks) and the other (missiles), with the over-arching metaphor of the cosmos itself as the mute inheritor of our failed dream. The bones and teeth were ciphers of the longevity that would not be ours if we wiped ourselves out.

I’d been anxious about nuclear war for a long time. I can remember the Cuban missile crisis, specifically the worrying effect it had on my parents. Perhaps that was what provoked a nine or ten year old’s fantasy—that I would bring Kennedy and Krushchev together, they’d shake hands and the whole thing would be sorted out. I recalled this improbable dream the other day when my son, who’s the same age now as I was then, said he wishes the whole world would become one nation, under one leader, and that leader would save the planet—from environmental degradation, which is his fear, as mine was nuclear war. Yet I don’t worry about it any more, not because I think it won’t happen, but because I have very little agency in whether it does or not. The consolations of eternity/infinity … I still reach for those.

Geikie probably thought he was practising science when he gave his talk, which now reads very much like literature: In the quaint preface to his Navigations and Voyages of the English Nation, Hakluyt calls geography and chronology "the sunne and moone, the right eye and the left of all history …" he begins and shows throughout a fine awareness of the uses of language towards the precise articulation of thought. If science seeks an explanation, a handle on the world, that doesn’t remove it from the consolations we might reach for when faced with a death, either of an individual or a species.

I heard a scientist say on television the other night that we are presently living through a mass extinction equal to any previous, which is drawing a long bow when you consider that the Permian Extinction (or Great Dying) wiped out 90% of marine species and 70% of land based vertebrates; in the aftermath, the land was colonised by funguses. The Cretaceous Extinction that killed the non-avian dinosaurs was a milder event; only about 50% of creatures disappeared. Catastrophes punctuate the far reaches of Terran time: the Cambrian extinction, the Ordovician, the Triassic-Jurassic, the Late Devonian … we proceed, it seems, from extinction to extinction and maybe it matters less how these mass dyings are caused or engineered than how we console ourselves against them. But how do we?

De consolatione philosophiae, written in 523-4 by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius in a prison in Pavia where he awaited execution for treason, was for a millennium the book most widely read in Christendom after the Bible, even though it makes no mention of Christ or the Christian God. Boethius, who was magister officiorum of Rome under the Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric the Great, was accused of conspiring with the Emperor’s rival in Byzantium but himself said he was brought down by the slander of enemies.

The central argument of his discourse is the brevity and unreality of all earthly greatness and the superior value of things of the mind. Elsewhere, in his commentary on the Isagoge of Porphyry, Boethius discusses the nature of species: whether they are entities which would exist if anyone thought of them or not, or whether they subsist as ideas alone. Science has answered that one for us, hasn’t it? And even that thousand years during which Boethius consoled so many of the literate is a speck in the context of geological time, as the literate themselves were then a tiny proportion of humanity.

What consoles us now when we consider the end? Are these the last days? Will we too be succeeded by fungoids? How will the great Catherine wheel of the Solar System turn without us? What is the solace in contemplating those vast reaches of time and space? Or, for that matter, things of the mind? Those questions were perhaps easier to answer when most people believed in the immortality of the soul: not many of us now think we’ll persist in some form or other after our physical body dies.

I read recently a statement of belief of an African people who distinguish three orders of being: the living; the recently dead; the long dead or ancestors. The distinction between the two kinds of dead is: if you persist as a memory trace in the mind of anyone living, you are among the recent dead; once the last person who has known you dies, you join the ancestors. Our function, in this redaction, is to remember even the unremembered, because it turns out the ancestors are closer and more powerful than the recently dead, who may haunt us but do not exert an ethical force upon the way life is lived, as the ancestors do.

Sometimes it seems that even the notion of consolation is redundant as the ancestors: as if anyone these days could imagine such a thing to be really possible, as if the consolations are themselves about to be swept away by catastrophe, or have already been swept away; as if memory itself were about to be disremembered. On the other hand, Borges, in a 1978 lecture called Immortality, said: My opinions do not matter, nor my judgment; the names of the past do not matter as long as we are continually helping the future of the world, our immortality. That immortality has no reason to be personal, it can do without the accident of names, it can ignore our memory.

In the Cracker Night piece, with its evocation of the green flare of Emerald Fires, the scarlet-pink of Bengal Lights, the squat, cylindrical Mt Vesuviuses and Mt Egmonts, the slender Golden Rains and tall Roman Candles we used to push into the earth then light to watch their brief efflorescence of stars, I wrote: From the far reaches, from outside the negative curve of space, beyond all deconstructionist urges, comes a music unlike any we have heard, composed of falling sediments, grains of matter whirling round magnetic poles, valent fires inside the atoms and whatever through eternity vibrates the ear bones of whales.

This sounds merely rhetorical now; the conceit that the otoliths of defunct whales vibrate to anything at all seems nugatory as the idea that moribund shark’s teeth might still taste fresh fish blood. Still, it’s a peculiarity of thought that we can imagine things that are not, like absence or death. During those same years in the early 1980s I also wanted to write something called The Inconsolable Song but what it was or how to do it I did not know; now I suspect that even if I had known I still would not have been able to write anything truly consoling under that title. But perhaps I didn’t need to, perhaps the words with which Borges concludes his essay are enough: … beyond our memory will remain our actions, our circumstances, our attitudes, all that marvelous part of universal history, although we won’t know, and it is better that we won’t know it.

Martin Edmond lives in Sydney. His latest book, Luca Antara, is due to be published in October this year.

previous page      contents      next page



Post a Comment

<< Home