Wednesday, October 10, 2007

At Avebury

Here is the draft opening to my new project on "The Weight of the Past." I'm attempting to frame the problem with an initially negative solution, but (you know me well, my readers) will eventually swing around to something more affirmative.

This project, I should add, is the biggest loser in the theft of my laptop: my research notebook, with the detailed scribblings, observations, outline, and bibliographic notes, vanished with that computer. I had not backed it up since August 17. But (speaking of swinging around to a more affirmative mode), the loss of the project's past has given me the chance to clear out some of the weight of that history, and to think certain components of my argument anew. That's strangely liberating, even if a buttload of work.


We stand beneath the megalith. Brisk winds roam the grass. The sheep are complaining. “Can you feel anything?” I ask. His palm presses against the rock as eagerly as mine. “Yes,” he whispers, fingers searching clefts and lichen. “I think I do.” He places his head against the stone and closes his eyes, as if through an intimate touch he might discern hoary secrets. He seems as certain and as joyful as when, many years ago, he used to press his head to my chest to apprehend the life of an invisible heart. In a solemn voice, as if he has absorbed from deep in the rock its enduring history, he announces “It knows it killed someone.”

I realize immediately that my son must have pilfered my copy Aubrey Burl’s Prehistoric Avebury: Second Edition. He must have been reading the volume late into the night of our London flat. “Me, too,” I say. “I definitely feel something.”

I am lying. Like my son I want to feel power in the towering stone. Not the energy of astral planes or the pull of a vortex or proximity to pagan divinity. Not whatever it is New Age druids come to Avebury seeking. Yet as in their dreams, my desire is that the stone not be inert. My son is right: this megalith did, after all, take someone’s life. After standing for millennia, the 13-ton rock crushed a man and preserved him for six centuries beneath its bulk. The weight of the past, indeed. Alexander Keiller discovered the body in 1938 when he disinterred and re-erected the stone. Archeologists hypothesize that the skeletal remains were in life an itinerant barber-surgeon. His leather purse contained some scissors, a lancet, and some coins from the early fourteenth century. He was likely witnessing or even assisting in the contemporary effort to obliterate Avebury, “mightiest in size and grandeur of all megalithic rings” until a piecemeal destruction commenced in the Middle Ages. Pits were dug beneath the standing stones so that they toppled and were buried, acts of “pious vandalism” directed at what was probably understood to be an unchristian structure. Perhaps the effort was abandoned when the accidental entombment of the barber convinced its witnesses that these stones could still exert some force. Since its re-erection eight decades ago, the megalith has been known as Barber Rock, its new name bearing witness to the life it took.

As destructive as the fourteenth-century project of toppling Avebury may have been, this attempted annihilation of an architecture four thousand years old paradoxically assisted in preserving its components. Those rocks buried by medieval vandals where they fell were shielded from fragmentation and reuse in later periods. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were especially brutal to the Avebury stone circle. The utter destruction of numerous megaliths was accomplished through the use of fire, cold water, and sledgehammers. We will never know how many of the rocks became, once smashed to pieces, the foundations of local farmhouses and the stuff of quotidian roadways.

My son felt power abiding in a megalith that, having celebrated thousands of birthdays as part of a Neolithic architecture, fell upon and crushed a medieval man. The stone had patiently awaited resurrection for five hundred years so that it could again tower over a verdant field, could again render the humans standing alongside it small and ephemeral. With my son I wanted to believe that histories long separated from us can endure in objects like Barber Rock – and Avebury, and Stonehenge, and the prehistoric past, and the Middle Ages. I wanted to believe that human meaning can survive across inhuman temporal gaps. Yet I knew that the body of the crushed barber-surgeon, of the man who had dared to undermine the stone and had paid for the act with his life, had been rediscovered recently in London. A new theory holds that the barber was dead before the stone toppled over him. So much for the agency of the rock, its dangerous and enduring force. Those are powers we humans yearn to observe because we suspect that they do not exist, that time brings history to an oblivion as mute as stone.

Intimations of mortality. Whatever its initial architects called it, in whatever language they spoke but could not bequeath to us, Barber Rock has perhaps always been inert. The dolmens and stone circles that tourists wander Brittany, Ireland and Britain to glimpse -- architectures we think endure from time out of memory -- are typically modern reconstructions using nearby materials, designed to look Neolithic. Avebury is no different, a product of a massive restoration in the 1930s as much as a time capsule mailed five millennia ago. My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires.

So much for the weight of the past. History, it seems, is literally immemorial, “out of memory,” impossible to hold for long.


Adam Roberts said...

Fascinating stuff. The stone in your photo has the look of a Picassoan, Guernicaesque horse's head, I'd say.

There's a pub that does B&B inside the circle of stones at Avebury, and I stayed the night there once; I know what you mean about the glamour of the place ... I mean, about the way it's about seventy-five percent wish-fulfilment projection from the adult mind. I especially like the way you're going against the against-the-grain, if you see why I mean, by dealing with a literally weighty thing as a, well, weighty thing ... instead of arguing that (for instance) the lancet found in the purse of the corpse has the most 'weight' (in, say, symbolic or hermeneutic terms). I like it that you don't do that. Sometimes the elephant, whether in the room or out on the grass, is the biggest thing.

One other point: given the context of discussing weightiness ... how much, exactly, does a 'buttload' weigh?

J J Cohen said...

Thanks, Adam, for those kind words.

As to how much a buttload weighs, I'd like to think in my case not all that much, but others will have to judge that aspect of my physicality.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

This is a really lovely meditation on something that seems to come up so often in reading about time vis a vis history -- i.e., the way we endow physical objects with the "weight of the past." I'm particularly interested in your reading of the stone-as-agent vis a vis the stone as the reconstruction of our present desires.

History, it seems, is literally immemorial, “out of memory,” impossible to hold for long.

Interesting too that in our own fashioning of history, we rely so much on that very memory, codified, rewritten and reshaped, to give us a way of understanding what is at times a product of a complex but subjective interaction between our minds and our environment, most particularly in the form of these monuments, coupled with stories passed down.

It reminds me of that beautiful line in Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, which I happen to have recovered my copy of yesterday upon my return to NC for the weekend (downside of my little sister becoming an English major: she stole my books!!). It's the part where the men have just landed on Mars, and the crew is making a huge racket, and one of them, Spender, separates himself out, admonishing the others, and feeling that they're being disrespectful:

"It was just the idea of Them watching us make fools of ourselves."
"The Martians, whether they're dead or not."
"Most certainly dead," said the captain. "Do you think They know we're here?"
"Doesn't an old thing always know when a new thing comes?"

He goes on to talk about it as a feeling of being uncomfortable in the new situation because of the marks left by the past:

"Ask me, then, if I believe in the spirit of things as they were used, and I'll say yes. They're all here. All the things which had uses. All the mountains which had names. And we'll never be able to use them without feeling uncomfortable. And somehow the mountains will never sound right to us; we'll give them new names, but the old names are there, somewhere in time, and the mountains were shaped and seen under those names. The names we'll give to the canals and mountains and cities will fall like so much water on the back of a mallard. No matter how we touch Mars, we'll never touch it. And then we'll get mad at it, and you kno what we'll do? We'll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves."

Rereading that now, from the perspective of nearly a decade since my first encounter with it -- it seems to be saying something that resonates with the questions you raise in these initial moments of the "Weight of the Past". I wonder if a part of the fabric of the narratives we weave of the past, whether we call them history or myth of science fiction, is that odd sense of dis-ease that comes with knowing we weren't the first to pass this way -- that things in the landscape outlast any story we could tell of them, that in our minds they must somehow, to borrow your phrase, mute as stone, bear witness to our human finitude. It's a difficult silence to bear.

Hm, not sure any of that makes sense. I blame it on the Carolina sunshine.

Steve Muhlberger said...

In my mind I'm going to Carolina...

Good post, good comments. I'm linking my blog here on the chance that a few of my students will follow it up.

J J Cohen said...

Mary Kate, I think you and I share many of the same obsessions, as well as perhaps a melancholy disposition towards them. I certainly had your wonderful post on lost languages in mind as I revised this vignette. As to these lines:
I wonder if a part of the fabric of the narratives we weave of the past, whether we call them history or myth of science fiction, is that odd sense of dis-ease that comes with knowing we weren't the first to pass this way -- that things in the landscape outlast any story we could tell of them, that in our minds they must somehow, to borrow your phrase, mute as stone, bear witness to our human finitude.
Well, you expressed it better than I could! It's funny. I read Martian Chronicles so long ago, and the power of that scene you quote didn't cling to me as it did you ... or if it did it is somewhere I can't reach anymore. I love it; thanks for furnishing it.

Steve, it'd be great to hear from your students!

dan remein said...

yes, to all that's above. and, a little tiny thing: that domens as seen things are definately re-constructions, by way of excavation. i mean, these things were structures that were covered in earth. but a lump of dirt is not so stone-age as a physical visual dolmen, no? heh.

logic aitchison said...

History, it seems, is literally immemorial, “out of memory,” impossible to hold for long.

To contradict the idea that seems to be evident here, I personally don't think that just because these megaliths have been re-erected means that they have somehow lost their (for lack of a better term) "weight" in history. Think of all the reconstruction and modification to ancient buildings in Europe - it may seem blasphemous to some historians, but to others, myself included, it's a chance to allow history to be available to later generations. Since history is ongoing, letting these monuments stand where they once were is not changing their histories, it's allowing them to be explored by those interested in their stories.

(this comes from a young university student who has yet to be free in the world and see all the pretty structures that I see in the textbooks. I'm glad people have helped conserve them so I might be able to explore in the future.)