• George Orwell and More in the Borderlands of Life and Death

    Andrew Ervin Talks to Robert Macfarlane and Emily Wilson About the World's "Thin Places"

    I’d like to share with you excerpts from two consecutive entries in George Orwell’s Diaries. These were written on Scotland’s Isle of Jura, where he had gone off the grid in an attempt to complete Nineteen Eighty-Four. On August 16, 1947, he wrote:

    Last night saw the northern lights for the first time. Long streaks of white stuff, like cloud, forming an arc in the sky, & every now & then an extraordinary flickering passing over them, as though a searchlight were playing upon them.

    Looking back now, it’s frightening to consider how close Orwell came to dying shortly after this remarkable sighting. His next diary entry was dated August 19, after he was and his son Richard were almost killed in the notorious Corryvreckan whirlpool:

    On return journey today ran into the whirlpool & were all nearly drowned. Engine sucked off by the sea & went to the bottom. Just managed to keep the boat steady with the oars, & after going through the whirlpool twice, ran into smooth water & found ourselves only about 100 yards from Eilean Mór, so ran in quickly & managed to clamber ashore.

    A few days later, Orwell described the event to his lifelong friend, Brenda Salkeld. (His time on the Isle of Jura is a topic I’ve written about before.) Strangely, this letter is excerpted in his 1991 authorized biography, written by Michael Shelden, but is not to be found in the four-volume collected Essays, Journalism & Letters:

    Four of us including Richard were nearly drowned. We got into the whirlpool, owing to trying to go through the gulf at the wrong state of the tide, and the outboard motor was sucked off the boat. We managed to get out of it with the oars and then got to one of the little islands, just rocks covered with sea birds, which are dotted about there. The sea was pretty bad and the boat turned over as we were getting ashore, so that we lost everything we had including the oars and including 12 blankets.

    Shortly after his near-death experience, Orwell contracted an illness that also came close to killing him. Another biography, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation by Jeffrey Meyers, describes the aftermath of that near drowning:

    On Jura he was seriously ill in September and October. By the end of December he’d lost twenty pounds, seemed to be wasting away and felt deathly sick all the time. More afraid than ever of infecting Richard with what was now conclusively diagnosed as tuberculosis, he did his best to keep the boy away from him. On December 20, 1947, he entered Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride, about twenty miles south of Glasgow, where he remained for the next seven months.

    The potential human tragedy aside, it staggers the imagination to think that it was a whirlpool, of all things, that so nearly deprived the world of one of the most prescient and profound novels in the short history this English language.

    I recently returned to Orwell’s Diaries because I’ve been interested in the idea of thin places, where the membrane separating the real and extra real can feel tenuous, where one’s religious or spiritual communions with nature are most likely to occur. I asked Robert Macfarlane via email what had been his most potent experience in such places while writing his magnificent Underland: A Deep Time Journey. “Undoubtedly the cave of the Red Dancers in Arctic Norway,” he told me, “to which I made what became a shockingly arduous solo winter journey.”

    That section is called “Red Dancers (Lofotens, Norway)” and in it Macfarlane describes a near-death experience of his own while attempting to visit the site of some Bronze Age painted figures in a remote sea cave. “The cave’s modern name is Kollhellaren,” he writes, “which translates roughly as ‘Hole of Hell.’”

    Two entrances to the underworld, then, hard by one another; one opening into rock, the other into the ocean.

    It was there that “practices in the painted caves may have been rites of passage, permitting mortal movement—through the membrane of the stone—to the cosmic underland or overland.” The cave is accessible by boat, but that would mean passing through one of our planet’s fiercest whirlpool systems, the Moskstraumen. Macfarlane, a braver man than I, traveled on foot. “This place, now, is one of the thinnest I have ever been,” he writes. “In the case of Kollhellaren, certainly, it is hard to imagine that the cave’s proximity to the Moskstraumen Maelstrom was not considered part of its power as a place of making.”

    In our email exchange, I asked Macfarlane to elaborate upon what he experienced there. He told me:

    The immense granite sea-cave in which the dancers were painted lies on the uninhabited north-west coast of one of the Lofoten islands, and it stands proximate to the “Maelstrom,” the whirlpool that gives us our generic word for such vortexes. Two entrances to the underworld, then, hard by one another; one opening into rock, the other into the ocean, and it is no surprise to me that 3,000 years ago, Bronze Age hunter-gatherers were drawn to cross the doubled threshold of the sea cave—firstly the threshold of its mouth, and secondly the threshold where light gives way to dark—and there to paint the marks of these red dancing figures.

    The natural world contains any number of these thin places, and it’s up to us to learn how to see them. According to ancient Greek myth, Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters who resided on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina. Here’s how Emily Wilson describes Charybdis in her in her marvelous recent translation of The Odyssey:

    divine Charybdis sucks black water down.
    Three times a day she spurts it up; three times
    she glugs is down. Avoid that place when she
    is swallowing the water. No one could
    save you from death then, even great Poseidon.

    And here’s the kraken-like Scylla:

    She has twelve dangling legs and six long necks
    with a gruesome head on each, and in each face
    three rows of crowded teeth, pregnant with death.

    Pregnant with death? I suspect both Orwell and Macfarlane would agree. “The day I finally reached the cave and found the red figures,” the latter told me, “moving there in the scant light, deep inside the mountain, I wept for feelings I still cannot name.”

    Wilson is Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her translation of The Odyssey made me see this story I’ve read a dozen times—and the art of translation itself—in an entirely new and brighter light. It has made it wonderfully clear how little of Homer I’ve actually understood. In a recent email, she told me that she believes the story of Scylla and Charybdis endures in the public imagination because, “It’s a way of representing, instantly, the impossible dilemma.” Navigating between those two monsters is impossible without supernatural aid, so Odysseus is forced to choose which one to confront.

    “It’s interesting that the proverbial version quite often, it seems to me,” Wilson wrote, “has a notion that one could actually get through without cost, if one were super careful—even though you’d think it should always suggest that there is no such route; the choice, as per Circe, is between losing six and losing everyone.”

    To Wilson, this section of The Odyssey is focused in large part on what she calls “the issue or trope of dangerous mouths, dangerous voices.” She told me:

    [T]here’s the background voice of Circe, giving instructions; there’s the voice of Odysseus, giving a very selective account of the truth to his men, six of whom are eaten, arguably because they’ve trusted his untrustworthy voice; and there’s the consuming female mouths of the Sirens, six-mouthed Scylla, and Charybdis, who is all mouth.

    To her, the story of Scylla and Charybdis is part of a larger thread in the poem: “a question about whether the male elite protagonist will be swallowed up by female mouths/female speech/female sexuality.”

    If that doesn’t make you want to add this book to your summer reading list, I don’t know what will.

    I took the opportunity to ask Wilson about her own thoughts on the idea of a thin place. “I think it’s closely allied to the concept of local natural deities,” she wrote, “which was of course prevalent throughout Greco-Roman antiquity, and is still part of some modern religions, so that every river or stream or pool or waterway is likely to have its own deity.”

    Perhaps Orwell, when facing his own Maelstrom, benefited from Circe’s advice to Odysseus:

    Row fast, and steer your ship alongside Scylla
    since it is better if you lose six men
    than all of them.

    Indeed, it’s even better yet to lose twelve blankets to the maw of Charybdis than all of Nineteen Eighty-Four. “Time proceeds according to its usual rhythms,” Macfarlane writes in Underland, “but not here in this thin place.”

    “Caves, water, mountains and woods, and islands too, are all likely to be inhabited by natural goddesses (nymphs) or gods,” Wilson told me. “Like Calypso in her cave, or the nymphs in the cave on Ithaca; or the many water goddesses and river gods and sea goddesses and gods. It makes intuitive sense.”

    Andrew Ervin
    Andrew Ervin
    Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House and the novella collection Extraordinary Renditions. His most recent book is Bit By Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World. Twitter: @andrew_ervin

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