Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Happy Halloween! Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows"

            Happy Halloween to all those who treasure that holiday. It has always been my younger daughter's favorite holiday. This morning when I went to her house to pick something up, I made my way to the door through a yard peppered with ghastly hands sticking out of the ground, a coffin near the steps, and a female skeleton lounging seductively on the porch. My 3-year old grandaughter loves it as much as her mother does.
            I usually try to post something relevant to the spooky holiday each year.  This year, since I am working on a history of the British Short Story, and since "weird" tales are a hallmark of the mid to late nineteenth century in England,  I thought I would post an excerpt on Algernon Blackwood from my book in progress.  If you have not read "The Willows," you might find it just the thing to give you chills on this haunted holiday.
            In her Introduction to the 2014 Best American Short Stories, Jennifer Egan says the single factor that made her decide which stories to include in the volume was its basic power to make her lose her bearings, "to envelop me in a fictional world." This is the basis of the magic of that archetypal story collection, 1001 Nights, for as you read those stories that contain stories within stories, you move farther and farther away from any sense of phenomental reality and  more and more into a purely fictional construct—what might be called the 1001 Nights, in which you move farther and farther away from phenomenal reality and more and more into the world of story.
            Actually, it might make more sense to call everyday reality a fictional construct, merely an assumption that novelists more often than not take as the only real.  For the short-story writer, revelation reality is true reality, just as for primitive man, sacred reality was the only reality, and profane reality was just an illusion that merely made everyday experience possible.            
            In a letter written late in his life to Peter Penzoldt (author of the 1952 study, The Supernatural in Fiction), Algernon Blackwood, British writer famous for his "weird" stories,  insisted that his primary concern was not with the ghost story but stories of extended consciousness. "My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty." 
            H. P. Lovecraft has called "The Willows" the foremost Blackwood tale, an opinion with which many critics of the supernatural story agree. And indeed it is a story that seems typical of Blackwood's thematic structure of having an average man, through a "flash of terror or beauty," experience something beyond the sensory reality of the everyday. The ambiguity, as is usually the case in nineteenth-century short fiction, results from being unable to decide if the experience actually occurs in the world of the story or whether the events are hallucinated by the character.  Such a question about reality in fiction is only troublesome when one takes the story as the mimetic presentation of a phenomenal event, rather than taking the story's fictionality as its true subject.
            The tension between external and internal reality in "The Willows" is embodied as a tension between "place as symbol" and "mind as style"; what is most strongly foregrounded is the "world of willows" as a place that has become animated and significant and the narrator's obsessive mental response to it. Although the events of the story could have taken less than half its 18,000-word length to recount, the primary action of the story consists of the characters thinking about the situation; the effect of the mysterious place is repeated over and over again obsessively.
            "The Willows" is one long process of personification which begins with the animistic sense that the Danube river itself is a "Great Personage" and the impression that the wind in the willows makes the entire plain moving and thus alive.  Skimming down the flooded river in a canoe, the narrator and his companion, the practical-minded Swede, abruptly enter into what the narrator perceives as a new realm, "a land of desolation," "a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic," into which they have trespassed; the narrator begins to feel some essence from the willows completely alien to the human.
         The mysterious mental experience begins with two events in the real world, events, however, fraught with initial misapprehension.  At first, the two see a man's body bobbing up and down in the water, which they then laughingly recognize as an otter.  Almost immediately, they see a man in a boat making signs to them, including the sign of the Cross, an event the Swede accounts for by the peasant's misapprehension that he probably thought the two were spirits.  These two experiences are referred to as real, distinct events, unusual in such a place, but events nonetheless.  At this point begins the narrator's obsessive reflection on the place, and he feels glad that the Swede is a practical and unimaginative man.  However, as the story progresses, the Swede regularly puts into words what the narrator is thinking and feeling.
            The first manifestation of the animated life of the place occurs at night when the narrator sees huge figures moving across the tops of the willows, which he hopes will resolve themselves into an optical illusion.  "I searched everywhere for a proof of reality, when all the while I understood quite well that the standards of reality had changed."  He knows the figures are real, but not real according to the standards of the camera and the biologist.  His first response is that they are the personified forces of the place itself, and he recalls stories and legends of such primitive animistic beliefs.  However, he continues to reason that the moonlight and branches have created the pictures of the figures of the imagination and that he has projected them outwards to make them appear objective, to create a vivid hallucination.
            The external world seems to alter even more, as naturally the river floods higher to make the island smaller, and supernaturally the willows seem to move closer to the tent to create a sense of suffocation.  Moreover, a change begins to take place internally in the minds of both the characters; without having to talk about it, both are aware of the ominousness of the place as if both consciousness have become merged.  The dialogue between the two suggests a mind wrestling with itself, as the narrator tries to find explanations for everything the Swede articulates.  The loss of one of the oars and the tear in the canoe are real manifestations, but the cause of the events is made ambiguous by the narrator's suspicion that the Swede has gone insane or has conspired with the mysterious forces. Both men independently come to the conclusion that the attack from the place will come through their minds, and the Swede urges them not to talk about it, because "what one thinks finds expression in words, and what one says, happens."                 
            However, they do talk about it, with the Swede flinging sentences into the emptiness which corroborate the thoughts of the narrator, sentences so fragmented and inconsequential as to suggest that the main line of the Swede's thought are secret to himself and the fragments he found it impossible to digest.  The Swede voices the thoughts of both men by saying that they have strayed out of a safe line into a spot where the veil between their realm of three-dimensional reality and a fourth dimension had been worn thin--a trespass which would cost them their lives by a mental rather than a physical process. In that sense, says the Swede, and thinks the narrator, they would be "victims of our own adventure--a sacrifice."
            This is probably the key phrase in the story, for indeed, "The Willows" is about the process of characters becoming victims of their own adventure--which they characterize as either a personification of the elements or as a trespass on some ancient shrine.  In either case, the place is one of spirit, in terms of fictional reality, a place of atmosphere.  "The very atmosphere had proved itself a magnifying medium to distort every indication: the otter rolling in the current, the hurrying boatman making signs, the shifting willows, one and all had been robbed of its natural character, and revealed in something of its other aspect--as it existed across the border of that other region."
            This unearthly order of experience is the order of fictional reality itself, an order of reality that the characters have entered into in much the same way that both the fairy tale and the early nineteenth-century German novelle presents characters from the external world entering into a dream-like or purely subjective world which seems both of the artist's making and at the same time a projection of the mental processes of the characters themselves.   The willows exist within the world of the story as created by the author, but also seem projections of the characters.  As the Swede says, "Above all, don't think, for what you think happens!" 
            The unified consciousness of the two persists until the narrator saves the Swede from throwing himself into the water and they find a corpse which the Swede says is a victim that the forces have wanted.  In the conclusion of the story, as the corpse is released from the willow roots and floats away out of sight, it turns "over and over on the waves like an otter."  With this "real event," the story concludes by returning on itself to the opening event that began the adventure.  
            The basic problem in reading such a story as this is to determine whether the events take place in a realm of reality other than the natural world or whether all is a function of hallucination. Such a problem must be dealt with in the short story by understanding the story as constituting a fictional realm in itself wherein the natural world has already been transformed by the symbolic power of the author's imagination and wherein there are no multiple human consciousness, but rather only the single consciousness of the maker of the experience.
            In "The Willows" the narrator both makes the story and experiences it. This is not the same as saying that this is a story about hallucination within the action, but rather that the entire story is an hallucination in which the imagination is projected both on the external world and on the minds of the characters.  What Blackwood thinks does exist is a projection of the imagination itself.  We come to the story, just as the characters come to the island, with the willows already transformed by Blackwood into symbols.  Inside the tale, the narrator sustains the plot by "thinking" the thoughts the Swede expresses and thinking into existence the actions of the mysterious willows.  The story ends when a "real event" outside the thought processes of the narrator occurs and breaks up the projected illusion of the story itself.    

No comments: