Robert Macfarlane: “I Wanted the Reader to Undertake a Descent into the Darkness.”
Joining Paul Holdengraber on his Return to Lit Hub Radio
In this episode of A Phone Call With Paul Paul Holdengraber speaks with Robert Macfarlane about his new book, Underland, the pleasures and necessities of walking, the threshold experience of the underworld, and the longing for the language of trees.
From the episode:
Paul Holdengraber: I’m wondering, these chambers, as it were . . . From seeing to hiding to haunting to ending with that extraordinary chapter on surfacing . . . and you are with your son. I’m just curious if you could say something about you share how you devised that melody, how you made that symphony, how you modulated the book?
Robert Macfarlane: I am a very structurally, formally, stylistically, and rhythmically minded writer, which is not to say I get these things right, but I pay them great attention. The simplest and the oldest of the forms of the book is in a way the simplest and the oldest of the forms of all our stories, going back to a variant of the Epic of Gilgamesh: The descent and the time below ground in darkness where knowledge is found and lost loved ones are met with and cannot be retrieved in most cases. Then a surfacing occurs, a return to the light that is often the hardest part because one journeys down. Unlike a mountain, one must journey up. I wanted the reader to undertake a katabasis in this sense as well, to make that descent and feel the pressure of deep time and darkness, and all the wonder and horror that has happened below ground. These chambers, in a sense . . . these are spaces where ideas and voices that echo and speak to one another, and the reader lifts a flickering torch and sees a cave wall with impossible scenes on it. Those are the chambers, and they speak of all the great tasks of the Underland: to reveal, to store, to keep safe, to shelter, and to dispose.
PH: And this book was produced . . . from you wanting to understand what that imaginary landscape of your soul, as it were, came from.
RM: That is true in so far as I’m fascinated as to why I have been drawn high. I too am interested in how I have been personally been drawn low . . . In a way, this has not been so much the imprint of a particular landscape upon my soul and heart, but actually a landscape, or a realm if we want to call it that, that has been imprinted upon the species. I say that in part because mountain-climbing, which seems so naturalized to us, is only a scant three hundred years old in terms of a culturally and historical impulse of the western imagination. However, the journey into darkness is older than us. . . . We have gone into caves to leave marks, to make and retrieve meaning, to move through the membrane of the rock, and to play music. . . . That impulse is a much older one than to go high, so it may be an attempt to retrieve the contours of the soul of the species, if that in any sense is a possible task.