A Winter Mind

John Burnside

As a teenager, I spent many hours in the section of the library where the art books were kept, partly to be out of the house and away from where anyone might track me down, and partly because I was searching for an ideal of cleanness, a personal Elysium. It probably goes without saying that Corby reference library had a rather limited collection of art books, and in many of those it did possess, the reproductions were blurred and sun-faded, approximations of an original theme, folded into a faint mustiness like the illustrations in wartime children’s annuals. Still, I was an uncritical child, easily haunted by images, and some of those I found in that place have stayed with me ever since, shaping the geography of my imagination. There were Bible scenes, which I skipped, and frequent nudes, which I lingered over briefly before turning the page, the faint whiff of the presbytery at my back. My main reason for being in the library, however, and the pictures I loved more than any others, were Dutch and Flemish landscapes. I could go around for days with a big sky over flat, empty fields running on in my mind’s eye and there were nights when my average 15-year-old’s dream life was conducted in a maze of red-brick courtyards and canals.

Hendrick Avercamp’s ‘A Scene on the Ice Near a Town’ (c.1615).
Hendrick Avercamp’s ‘A Scene on the Ice Near a Town’ (c.1615).

My particular ideal was a frozen river where, bundled up in whatever came to hand, a newly liberated citizenry ventured onto the ice under a winter sky – and my mind would follow, knowing that this was the closest thing to freedom I could hope for. The skies above those frozen rivers could be translucent, almost blinding, touched with willow pattern blue or peach or an elusive pigeon grey, or the dark, textured gold of old vellum, as in Jan van Goyen’s Winter Landscape with Skaters or Hendrick Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice Near a Town, but no matter how bright or dark the heavens, how empty or crowded the ice, what was important was the new space these pictures revealed. That space, I assumed, was short-lived and I believed it was new to the townsfolk captured skating, or driving horse-drawn sleighs or playing some strange, antique form of ice hockey on their frozen river, a temporary condition and therefore somewhere the usual rules, along with the usual religious, gender and class prejudices, were suspended. It was a public space, yet it was strangely intimate and, unlike any public space I had ever known, it appeared to be unpoliced and free.

Not that I thought about it politically – or not at the time. My engagement was emotional and imaginative rather than analytical: when I looked at Winter Landscape with Skaters, all that mattered was what I felt, and what I felt was a mix of raw sensation and a belonging I had been waiting to experience for years, but couldn’t have defined or explained. I knew nothing about the techniques of painting snow, nothing about the Little Ice Age that gripped Europe when these ‘winter scenes’ were painted in the 16th and 17th centuries, nothing about the social and political conditions that prevailed during that era. My response, then, and for years to come, was purely lyrical. Anyone and everyone could walk and skate and flirt there, and such spaces were proof that the world was capable of transformation, just as in the old stories, where time and space could be magically transfigured in a single icy night. Bodies of water that had not frozen over in living memory could suddenly become hockey rinks and dance floors, people could carry braziers out and cook something, men and women could look back years later and say that that was when they fell in love, on the day the river froze and all the usual business was forgotten in an unlooked-for holiday.

I knew snow, of course, and partly because snow occasionally happened in my world, I knew that time falls into two distinct categories: what I thought of as real time, in which I had room to move and to be (which is to say, at my own pace), and what I saw as the time of others, which was not necessarily uncongenial but, being imposed, was never entirely true. When there was snow, everyday proceedings could be suspended by a burst pipe or a blocked road, traffic could come to a standstill, schools close. Yet the effect was also more metaphysical: the snow made the world fall quiet and the day appear to stand, if not motionless, then still enough for real time to prevail. The spaces between the houses on our estate became wider and deeper. Ordinary townsfolk, passing by in a snowfall, were rendered strangely magnetic. Gravity altered. When I went out into the snowy street, everyone I met felt like kin. Most important of all, for those of us who defined everything in terms of relative deprivation, public spaces became places that could be shared. As absurd as it might sound, snow granted us a few days, sometimes even weeks, of something that felt like democracy.

*

I was a student when I first heard about the London frost fairs and, to begin with, I filed this pleasing idea in the central chambers of my imagery, along with Avercamp and van Goyen and the stories of polar exploration I had gathered as a child. By then, I had become a secret devotee of snow: my favourite poem was Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’, my favourite painting Pieter Bruegel’s Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap. The film scene that ran on a neverending loop in my head was the snowy automobile and sleigh ride in The Magnificent Ambersons; my perfect exit from this world – at 19 one plans such things – was Gerald’s long walk into the Alpine blizzard towards the close of Women in Love (I had toyed with Captain Oates’s departure from Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition, but Gerald’s taciturn self-erasure seemed more appropriate to my social class and discontents than Oates’s stiff upper lip). I thought that there was nothing at all the matter with having ‘a mind of winter’; I could have lived happily in a world of perpetual cold. So when I began reading John Evelyn’s diary entries for January and February 1684, I should have been delighted. Instead, I felt an odd revulsion:

9 January: I went across the Thames on the ice, now become so thick as to bear not only streets of booths, in which they roasted meat, and had divers shops of wares, quite across as in a town, but coaches, carts and horses passed over …

24 January: the frost continues more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets, all sorts of trades and shops furnished, and full of commodities, even to a printing press, where the people and ladies took a fancy to have their names printed, and the day and year set down when printed on the Thames: this humour took so universally that it was estimated that the printer gained £5 a day, for printing a line only, at sixpence a name, besides what he got by ballads, etc. Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs to and fro, as in the streets, sleds, sliding with skates, a bull-baiting, horse and coach-races, puppet-plays and interludes, cooks, tippling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water … London, by reason of the excessive coldness of the air hindering the ascent of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steam of the sea-coal, that hardly could one see across the street, and this filling the lungs with its gross particles, exceedingly obstructed the breast, so as one could scarcely breathe.

Immediately I saw how naive I had been to imagine a carefree, liberated populace skating out onto the wide expanse of the Thames under a high clear sky. Evelyn’s picture was more realistic: as soon as the river was safe to walk on, every entrepreneur with the means to set up shop was out there, filling the air with smoke and noise; the gullible and the idle were to be gently fleeced, as children are fleeced in modern museums by slot machines that churn out polished stones, or pennies stamped with the insignia of some former tyrant. It would have been a free-for-all – though not for long. Soon, given the corruption of London’s city council, and the manner in which such things are usually handled, at least by this nation of shopkeepers, the authorities would begin to ‘regulate’ trade on the ice. The choicest spots would go to those willing to curry favour with the (self-designated) great and good; once the appropriate levels of bribe and barter were approved, every inch of available space would be occupied, and those lovers of my childish fantasies would miss one another in the fuliginous air.

Instead of offering a vision of equality, as in the Dutch paintings, or the snowy days of my small-town childhood, the frost fairs symbolised all that was wrong with a nation that would be responsible for the Acts of Enclosure and the Highland Clearances, the privatisation of the water in our rivers and even of the wind that blows across our neonicitinoid-drenched fields. When I think about the London frost fairs, I can’t help seeing them as a surrender of a transient Elysium to crude and unimaginative commerce, a complete reversal of that democratisation of space found in northern European winter landscape painting. I am clinging to a child’s dream of freedom, but I can’t help but wonder why we have surrendered the imaginative possibilities of public space and why we assent so readily to the continued enclosure of our field of vision, our right to roam and our ability to find a place in which to be quiet, and still, both out of doors and in our own media-infested homes.

*

‘Time and space – time to be alone, space to move about – these may well become the great scarcities of tomorrow.’ This prediction by the naturalist Edwin Way Teale seems both prescient and poignant. We already live in a world in which time to be alone and space to move about are attainable by the rich perhaps, but a matter of luck, or hard discipline, for others. Time and space have become luxuries or, for the many who have become unaccustomed to them, new and surprising burdens. Students complain when asked to read Henry James or Proust, with their long, carefully constructed and nuanced sentences; the essential nature of sports like cricket and baseball are modified to accommodate the demands of television; classic golf courses are redesigned to make them faster to play, which usually involves more chemical and mechanical intervention.

A poignant example of what happens to those deprived of meaningful space – of any vista, of perspectival logic, even of light – is provided by Sean Penn’s segment of the film 11’09”01. In 2002, the producer Alain Brigand invited 11 filmmakers to respond to the World Trade Center attacks in a compendium of short films, each to last for no more than 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame. As Penn’s film opens, an old man, wonderfully characterised by Ernest Borgnine, is seen getting up in the morning, complaining about the darkness of the apartment he apparently shares with his wife (whom we do not see) and then, while he shaves and gets dressed, chatting more generally about the past and about the business of the day. It is only when he returns to the bedroom, carefully folds up an empty nightdress and puts it away in a closet full of improbably neat clothes, that we realise he is alone. The man, it seems, is a widower, but each morning he sets out a new outfit for his wife (we see him searching, at one point, for something summery) and at night puts away the day clothes and lays out a freshly laundered nightdress. We are shown this ritual repeated over a number of days, during which time we learn the man’s routine: he shaves, goes to the store, watches Jerry Springer on TV, drinks beer, occasionally gets drunk. All the time he conducts imaginary conversations with his wife, reminiscing, philosophising, grieving, and, all the time, he complains about the lack of light, that his wife’s flowers can’t flourish because there is no sun. He wishes they had ‘taken that place out in the country’, but this opportunity, if it ever existed, was lost long ago.

He has a fixed routine but, because he sometimes drinks, he needs an alarm clock to wake him up every day. One morning, the alarm clock fails and the man, who must have fallen asleep watching TV, drowses through the events of 9/11, which play out on the news while he tosses and turns. He does not wake until, slowly, as the first of the Twin Towers collapses on the TV screen, the apartment fills with bright sunshine. This is when the man comes to himself and, after shaking off his confusion, sees that his wife’s flowers have miraculously bloomed, and brings them to her, laughing with joy, the apartment filling with light, the sense of release, of new life, almost overwhelming. The film could have ended here and scored a fairly obvious political point: the poor and powerless in America are oppressed by runaway capitalism in much the same way, if not to the same extent, as the disenfranchised in other places. What happens next, however, brings us back to an essentially socialist American film and theatre tradition – and Borgnine plays the last few moments of the film as if he were realising the part in the theatre, rather than on film. The room is still full of light, but now the old man remembers that his wife is dead, that he is showing the pot of beautiful flowers to an empty nightdress and collapses into an old grief, not just for her death, but for the life she was forced to endure, a life of half-light and shadow, a life that was never fully illuminated. He says, over and over, his voice almost empty now: ‘You should have seen this. You should have seen this …’ The political point is transformed into a human tragedy, with working Americans denied that most basic of rights, a place where, as Hemingway puts it in ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, ‘the light is very good and … there are shadows of the leaves.’

*

In Edwin Way Teale’s formulation, time and space tend towards abstraction; what Penn’s film shows us, however, is that, taken together, they constitute the place where we live and have our being. As cavalier as our attitude to light may be – and as any night walk through a city or suburb demonstrates, too much light can be just as much of a problem as too little – our soundscapes are even more seriously compromised. Today, only money buys natural quiet; the rest is cacophony. In his study of noise pollution in the United States, One Square Inch of Silence, the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton quotes the Nobel Prizewinning bacteriologist Robert Koch’s prophetic remark, made in 1905, that ‘the day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.’ ‘There is likely no place on earth untouched by modern noise,’ he goes on.

Even far from paved roads in the Amazon rainforest you can still hear the drone of distant outboard motors on dugout canoes and from the wrist of a native guide the hourly beep of a digital watch. The question is no longer whether noise will be present, but how often it will intrude and for how long … In my experience, a silence longer than 15 minutes is now extremely rare in the United States and long gone in Europe. Most places do not have quiet at all; instead, one or more noise sources prevail around the clock. Even in wilderness areas and our national parks, the average noise-free interval has shrunk to less than five minutes during daylight hours.

As many naturalists point out, the extinction of those quiet places is directly linked to species loss. Birds, in particular, are susceptible to the racket we have created, but many lifeforms are affected, from whales to bees. Yet, as if this denaturing of the biosphere with floodlit driving ranges and chainsaws were not enough, as if the ungainly intrusions of high pressure sodium lamps and the wind farms that Hempton describes as making ‘an incredible ruckus’ in ‘previously quiet places’ were insufficient to satisfy our collective ego, we also denature the air, water and soil on which all life depends. There is a general awareness, now, that we have lost all meaningful contact with the earth, but little agreement on what we can do about it. Well, one thing we can do is practise ikebana, the Japanese art of flower-arranging.

*

Just as time and space are abstractions that coincide as lived place (the here and now, the quality of ‘being there’), so the essential coincidence, the potentially perfect ‘falling together’ of ikebana unites two equally dangerous abstractions, form and nothingness, to express a temporal and spatial instance of is-ness. At its most basic, an ikebana arrangement is composed of three levels: sky, earth and, between the two, the human. To appreciate this artform we must apprehend not only the beauty of the arrangement but also its intrinsic justness. It demands years of study to achieve the spontaneous coincidence of emptiness and form. This coincidence gives rise to an ephemeral condition called ma, which is so elusive as to set it beyond translation (the frequently used ‘negative space’ simply will not do). The play of form and emptiness is notoriously difficult to express, yet it is easily discovered in the spontaneous artwork, the natural ‘object’ in its own element, in the dynamic of a good conversation, in which just words emerge from the underlying quiet of listening and fully attending to one another – or in any phenomenon that is sufficient unto itself, and present in real time.

The polar opposite of this condition of ma is clutter. Muzak; bull-baiting in its myriad forms; light trespass, skyglow and glare; pointless consumption; billboards, chain outlets, museum audioguides. Even in ikebana, ma is rare and we may ourselves have become so denatured that we can’t see it, but the gift of a snowfall is that it not only creates a white space in which all of the usual rubbish is erased for a time, but offers a glimpse of what Wallace Stevens calls the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’. And yet, though one way or another every snowfall is a gift, that vision into ‘negative space’ is vouchsafed, as Stevens knew, only to the ‘listener’ who can be described as ‘nothing himself’. This condition is both dual and dangerous. On the one hand, such a listener may be someone who has achieved the ‘relinquishing of all views’, but he may as easily be someone who has been ‘cold a long time’, and thus has become so indifferent, as opposed to detached, as to be possessed, now, of a ‘mind of winter’. The ‘mind of winter’ is a hazardous condition, akin to that fantasy I once entertained of walking away like Gerald in Women in Love, who is moving towards nothing, merely escaping a polluted and trivialised world that he despises:

A weakness ran over his body, a terrible relaxing, a thaw, a decay of strength. Without knowing, he had let go his grip, and Gudrun had fallen to her knees. Must he see, must he know?

A fearful weakness possessed him, his joints were turned to water. He drifted, as on a wind, veered, and went drifting away.

‘I didn’t want it, really,’ was the last confession of disgust in his soul, as he drifted up the slope, weak, finished, only sheering off unconsciously from any further contact. ‘I’ve had enough – I want to go to sleep. I’ve had enough.’ He was sunk under a sense of nausea.

At first sight, Gerald’s walk into the snow seems nothing more than a confession of failure. But is that all it is? Surely even this desperate gesture, in which a disgusted man abandons the obvious clutter of his now hopelessly trivialised world, could be interpreted as noble in its own rather perverse way. Oates leaves in order to disencumber his fellow explorers; Gerald refuses his age’s peculiar decadence. What he cannot bear is the thaw, the weakness, his joints turning to water, the nausea, a condition that would only worsen and humiliate him utterly if he were to stay and endure Gudrun’s sneering and Loerke’s hatred of the ideal. Better to walk away, better to be erased by the blizzard, than to continue in that world.

Yet there is another possible response to the polluting clutter of this world and it seems to me that in the skating scenes of Bruegel and Avercamp, it is posed spontaneously, with great good humour and with the same appreciation of ma that we find in ikebana. What distinguishes the landscapes of the Little Ice Age from the Thames frost fairs, with their vendors’ booths and midriver tippling houses, is their celebration of a new and spirited public space. True, these scenes are often crowded, but for the most part the people are on the move, and we feel that, with nightfall (or partial thaw) the ice will be clear again, clear and uncluttered. No one is claiming his or her piece of licensed ground, no one is setting up souvenir shops; for the most part, this day’s play is not about occupancy and will not end in pollution. By contrast, the frozen Thames quickly becomes a series of muddled and fouled spaces, opportunities for various forms of commerce that, by definition, exclude all other possibilities and, most of all, the potential for free movement. The frost fair offers little more to the imagination than the shopping mall or some bogus street market contrived to sell ‘craft-work’ and trinkets to tourists, while the skaters’ engagement with their newly discovered, temporarily democratic space extends the spontaneous ma quality of the ice. On the one hand, the frozen river is treated as an opportunity for commerce and the exercise of social privilege; on the other, it becomes a fleeting and extemporised space in which the democratic spirit comes out to play.