After a few hours in the city yesterday I drove back just as kids where getting out of school. It was sunny, though cool. The traffic slowed with the speed restrictions, and with the after school congestion. I was in no hurry, and for a change patiently went with the flow. It was a good opportunity to listen to an audiobook.
I listened to a short story by an English author of about a century ago, E. F. Benson. In his day I think he was a popular author, and he writes well, but I doubt if many know of him these days.
I became acquainted with him when I was a teenager. I read everything back then, pretty much as I do now. One of my favourite genres was horror, and more particularly, supernatural stories. Benson made his name as a straight writer, but dabbled in stories of the supernatural I would read in the great anthologies I scouted out.
The story yesterday was The Man Who Went Too Far. Like many stories of the era there is a naturist angle to it – a yearning towards something more elemental, more primitive. These tales describe a return to nature, and glory in the basic and eternal beauties contained within it. You have to figure that stories like this were reflective of a society perhaps wearying of the hustle of a developing civilisation, the
These aren’t pastorals though, and each story of this type has a twist. What is revealed just about every time is that nature is not as ideal as our high-minded principles would have it. Within nature there is contained the seed of something darker. That’s true enough in reality – in nature organisms subsist off each other. There’s light and there’s shadow. It’s not all harmony and Strauss.
In these stories that dark thing is more forbidding. The inclination towards the ‘pure’ is human nature, but the pure doesn’t really exist except in our idealised notions. Nature is painted in brilliant colours in these stories, but on just about every occasion the high-minded protagonist is consumed by what he professes to worship. Menace lurks in the shadows. Purity is an illusion, and innocence a myth.
A common figure in these stories is that of the ancient Greek god Pan. Pan was the god of nature, half-man, half-goat, gambolling through nature playing the pan flute. He’s a seductive figure who weaves from his flute beautiful and compelling tunes. Those who hear the magical tunes are captured by them. They are lured onwards, by the music, by the ideal it seems to epitomise. Too late do they understand that Pan is a pagan god, and a god given to dark and playful impulse. Beauty and death combine; ultimately nature itself is too great for any man to survive.
Pan seems to me a forgotten god these days, but back then he was a familiar trope. Saki wrote about him as well as Benson, Machen too, and Lovecraft, and others I no longer remember. The common theme throughout is that nature is not as idyllic, or as innocent, as it may seem, and we are foolish to thoughtlessly give ourselves over to it entirely.
Listening to this on my drive home my own thoughts were counter-intuitive to this message. I was drawn by the idyllic scenes depicted, and to the simple life described. As it has to me before it touched upon that part of myself that yearns to live more simply, and closer to nature. A hundred years on the urge to simplify remains.
I almost decided there and then stuck in traffic that this I would do – really, must do. I have to get away, find that enchanted cottage in the countryside, look upon blue skies, listen to the birds trill and the burble of the stream outside. All in all, become closer to the world.
I seem to write it tongue in cheek – it’s easy to mock such naive aspirations – but it’s true even as I sit here writing this. To work with my hands and observe the natural world around me is an alluring concept. If I were able to, to grow my vegies, cook in my kitchen overlooking the hills, and if in this I can truly write… Well, why wouldn’t I take that?