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Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in 2015), recently completed a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. In this series of dispatches from London, Canty shares his reflections on some of the city’s foggy history and the sometimes foggy process of writing. (You may wish to read Canty’s early lines, and his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth reports as well.)
I would like to be able to write as fast as my time left here is passing. In two weeks already, I will no longer be in London. There are so many scenes I feel indebted to, even responsible for. Near a primary school, I walked over a drawing, a naive monument etched into the sidewalk. A matchstick girl, her smile wider than her face, held an open book – a mere rectangle divided by a vertical line – where one could read, in wavering script, “In the book I see words I feel the wind blow against my face.”
This is how I hope you will read me.
Cities, of course, are not the only things that are built upon conversations. After receiving my last report, F., a literary colleague recently admitted into your company, took it upon himself to underline the alliterative leap linking The Man from London and Lindow Man. He asked me whether, as one of the living, I knew him from amongst the dead, and whether I could find his body somewhere in London. This was not hard at all. The remains of this Cheshire lad, dead by unpleasant circumstances at the hinge of prehistory and the Christian era, now lie in a climate-controlled glass cube in a dark corner of the ground floor of the British Museum.1
Lindow man (wilmslow.org.uk)
On the first of August, 1985, Andy Mould – his name seems predestined – a Lindow peat-moss man, pulls what seems like a wooden stick out of one of the blocks of dirt rolling by on the conveyor belt used for quality control by the peat harvesters. The fragment turns out to be a human leg. It’s not the first time this happens. The local police (who are looking to close a missing-persons case) and archaeologists are summoned to the site. The inquiry quickly takes a temporal turn. In the soggy cut of the trench, the investigators find a distorted half-man, face pressed against the soil at the bottom of the still waters. Where no tree can grow, he looks like a root, interrupted in a tortured emergence towards human incarnation. The chemical bath of the fen, noxious to the busy micro-agents of decomposition, has preserved and twisted his remains. A violent fixity stills the reflection of the Lindow man, pins it in time, like the forensic flash of the reporter’s camera at the scene of the crime. His entrails slowly deflate. Over days and years, his skin takes on a leathery, reddish texture. His arm, lying against his chest, melds into his torso. Only our familiarity with the human silhouette allows us to link the lost leg that pulled him out of forgotten-ness to the general form of a man.
It is possible that Lindow Man was the (perhaps willing) offering of one of the sacrificial rites still fashionable in his time, or that he was the victim of bad friendships in line with his young age, or perhaps of one of those explosive skirmishes which we imagine – esteemed ancestors, please forgive us our foolishness – to be the custom of his kin. Scientific reconstructions ascertain2 that Lindow Man was a well-groomed, well-nourished, young man. His beard was finely shorn. He wore his hair short on top, in a jaunty mullet. He was found naked, except for a fancy fox-fur bracelet slipped around his right bicep. His nails were impeccably manicured, and he was all done up in greenish body paint. A piece of string around his neck was an instrument of his vanity or his death. In the hours preceding his demise, he dined on a griddle cake, a handful of hazelnuts, and, if one considers the grain of sand found in his stomach – erosive powdering from the baker’s stony mortar – a piece of wheat-and-barley bread. Infinitesimal traces of mistletoe pollination indicate a delicate seasoning or the druids’ sacrificial magic. Intestinal parasites (nothing alarming) and the tell-tale signs of a developing lumbago complete the picture.
Lindow Man, our Iron Age everyman, wasn’t just anybody. His sacrifice or murder made it so that he could no longer only be himself. He is one of the elects of time, a representative of the bog people – to this day, about one hundred and thirty of them have been found: victims of violent deaths, naturally mummified in the marshes of Europe. Lindow Man has two holes in the back his head, a knife jab on his right clavicle, strangulation marks around the neck, and a broken rib. He was knocked with the edge of an axe at least twice, perhaps garrotted and choked, and finished up with a knife stab, before being left to die, almost naked, face down in the shallow waters. Lindow Man was five feet tall, seven inches and weighed ten stone. His remains are one thousand years old, more or less. He was twenty-five years old. Such are the facts.
Manchester Museum reconstruction of Pete Marsh a.k.a. Lindow Man (published by Caroline Davies, customer support manager, Protective Packaging Ltd, on protpack.com)
The slow chemical treatment from the peat moss ruined his good looks. They are still truly moving. Lindow Man now belongs, like Carroll’s Cheshire cat, to the legend of his county. But it’s not his smile that hangs there, haunting the air and light. It is the taut tension of his body, the fretful sleep of the drowned: that hand holding on to his belly as if it were the seat of the soul, incapable of restraining its fleeting substances, those mysterious processes on which our lives depend (about which, we disempowered alchemists are destined to discover, some fatal day, that they really do not depend on us). One can guess, by his furrowed brow, at a sustained disquiet, a last image, barely hanging at the edge of being. In the end, it is the half-erased features of his face, suffocated in the dreams of the drowned, that survive him.
John Tenniel’s Cheshire cat, 1866
It sometimes seem so strange to me to have a face, and to bear a name.3 This could be a fitting epitaph for the Lindow Man. I should suggest it to the British Museum – explain to them that a scientific scale, when considering the weight of metaphor, seems at best an approximation. Prehistoric people are named – we are so used to seeing depictions of them, growling their way through their unexamined lives – for the sites where their remains are unearthed.4 This method ensures that they cannot hold their own, and they become, in the name of history and science, the synecdochic witnesses of a whole era. There are, of course, worse places to sleep one’s eternity away than in the hallowed halls of an imperial museum.
My first contact with Lindow Man led me to think that he must have been the victim of too-manly men, set on making his day. That he had gone down, in life and after it, a path of little profit for him, before becoming the elect of his whole era, his whole society, whose rule over his life he probably eschewed, like one of those vain truants the cinema wants us to admire. Mostly, I saw in his contorted profile the living victim of anamorphose, a body akin to those ground by Francis Bacon’s spatula. The pact of painting, for this modern Englishman, was summed up by the brutality of fact.5 This formula can shed some light on the situations of our prehistoric brethren. If we really had to submit to some of the treatments that art imposes upon the image of the world, we would be the victims of unimaginable violence. An act of representation testifying to one form of violence is the bearer of another, a feebler force that defies the deed without a chance of winning over it, and yet does not dissipate into it. Bacon’s lapidary formula is not solely a statement of method. Rather, it is the avowal of a worldview. The demonstration harkens back to the monstrous part of its etymon, monstrare, in Latin monstration. It carries within itself the painful weight of metamorphosis. Monstrer, as olde Françoys well knows, alters the thing that is shown. The act of recognition is a form of seizure; it invents a monster, no longer of this world, interrupted in its motion as it lurches back to it. As I stand above Lindow Man, I am visited by images. A man shouts, “I will show you.” His victim falls at his feet, face flat against the ground. He sinks under the shallow mirror of the water. His aggressor – him also – is convinced there is a way, on this side of things, to reach the reality of images. A thousand years later, when the facts of the sacrifice or the crime have long been forgotten, nameless remains jut out from a peaty cube. Their image is then suspended in stilled time, in a glass cell. The memory of a man, reduced to his body. The reality of life, reduced to an image. Nothing is only one thing. For us, the living, metaphor trumps all facts. The monster’s rest is troubled by our curiosity. We think, this was once a man, and that thought is enough to carry us to the threshold of compassion. Near the end of his life, Francis Bacon painted jets of water, framed by the same geometric scaffolds where he caged his meat.
High-resolution reproduction of Francis Bacon’s Jet of Water (1988), found on Pinterest
John Deakin, Francis Bacon, Great Britain, 1952 (Gelatin-silver print, Museum no. PH.100-1984, vam.ac.uk/users/node/16054)
Allow me to take you back to the recent past. The London Art Book Fair has just come to a close. The air is balmy. I am enjoying l’apéritif with B., the Montrealer responsible for my launch here. He will fly back tomorrow. We are sitting at one of the rare terraces in London, at the White Hart Pub, located at the very Montreal-like civic address of 1 Mile End Road. In recent decades, B. has dedicated his professional life to the promotion of the visual arts, but he tells me how, in his youth, he partook of archaeological digs in southern France. Nothing has changed. Every time a cave painting was revealed in the electric glow of flashlights, he maintains, one could recognize the hand of the artist. Those of the hunter, the magician, or the murderer have left other marks. Did you know that the Neanderthal scattered petals on the graves of their departed? One day, in the fold of a grotto, B.’s team unearthed the traces of human occupation, the lost objects of daily living, a couple’s couch … On this autumnal day at the beginning of the twenty-first century, he is able to say, “In my youth, I knew the lives of the dead, their sweet facts.” Neither art nor science will be able to contradict this. And they will only seem dearer for it.
Daniel Canty, the man from Lud Don
1 This apparatus brings to mind the prophylactic enclosure protecting the ancient volumes of the British Library (see my “Fourth Report on the Instability of Cities”). Once a man becomes an object, is he brought closer to a book’s being? Is the book a form of life closer to the dead than to the living? Objects and subjects are worked upon by the same material forces, reconciling us to the overall mystery of the world. The trajectory that brought Lindow Man from his peaty cube to his glassy cell shows how nature and culture, poles of a broken symmetry, are in fact forms which, from an outside perspective of time, are bound to answer and enlighten each other.
2 The results of their work have produced a likeness very like one of those vector-drawn characters, beloved by fervent video-gamers and special-effects fans, who would like to believe that these are human kin. That being said, I also choose to believe.
3 I wrote these lines at the conclusion of Worldlines, the booklet I launched some months ago at London’s Art Book Fair, at Whitechapel Gallery (the French text of this essay, «Mappemonde», was just published in the thirty-fourth installment of Contrejour and devoted to a departed friend, Gaétan Soucy.) I had just summoned the figure of an East Montreal man, singing “Blue Moon” so he could prove, to himself and the world, that Elvis Presley’s despair and his own were close kin – that they basked in the same blue glow, and that a popular song could prove, like a shared star, that all our melancholies are twinned.
4 The Lindow Moss crew baptized him “Pete Marsh,” which might also have been a good name for the drummer in one of those Brit prog-rock outfits, so enthused by knowing archaisms. He might be that magnificent loser, gone from the group before its hour of glory, that everyday rock ’n’ roll idealist, brave enough to ignore the music and live his life on his own terms.
5 The Brutality of Fact is the title of David Sylvester’s book of interviews with Bacon (London, Thames and Hudson, 1987).
Look for Canty’s seventh dispatch soon.