BOOKS: Humans are ethically obliged to care for others

Only Connect

Review by Liza Costello in Dublin Review of Books

Morton can be loosely placed in the relatively new field in metaphysics called “object-oriented ontology”, and his is a world in which, rather than “Nature” being a backdrop to human life – thus far the stance traditionally taken in fiction and ecological studies – there is no background or foreground, no meaningful distinction between human and non-human. The view from this perspective is of a frightening reality in which “species exist but not that much”, where teleology is non-existent, where there is “no center and no edge” and where everyone is a “strange stranger” to everyone else – that is, where all living beings, human and otherwise, have a shared genetical basis, and thereby a deep physical intimacy, yet are fundamentally unknowable to each other, their strangeness itself is strange. “Do we know for sure whether they are sentient or not?” he asks. “Their strangeness is part of who they are. After all, they might be us. And what could be stranger than what is familiar?”

It is this precise paradox of existence – the physical intimacy between beings and the ultimate unknowability of the other – that forms the core of the ecological thought, which for Morton “is the thinking of interconnectedness … a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, or mineral”. If this seems to have a hippy-harmless ring to it, think again. Morton’s interconnectedness is underpinned by the fact that DNA always mutates randomly; because “everything is interconnected, there is less of everything”. In seeking to capture how this interconnectedness defines our existence, he devises a kind of analogous concept that he calls “the mesh”. The mesh is everything: “all life forms are the mesh, and so are all dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings”. He goes on:

The more we become aware of the dangers of ecological instability – extinctions, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, starvation – the more we find ourselves lacking a reference point. When we think big, we discover a hole in our psychological universe.

This version of the world could not be more humbling for us humans; “humans are not the culmination of anything,” he writes, “they aren’t even a culmination of anything.”

Dermot Healy, author of Long Time, No See at his home in Sligo.

All of this is remarkably pertinent to Dermot Healy’s final and masterful novel, Long Time, No See, which was published in 2011, the year after The Ecological Thought hit the shelves. Loosely centring on a young man called Philip, or Psyche, the narrative recounts a summer in which he awaits the results of his Leaving Certificate, passing the time by doing odd jobs for various people in his small corner of the world, particularly his uncle JoeJoe and JoeJoe’s friend, the Blackbird. The almost unspoken context is the death of Psyche’s friend, Mickey, in a car accident the year before. It is inherent to the novel’s sensibility that despite this tragic backdrop we rarely get a glimpse into Psyche’s mental state, or indeed that of any of the novel’s characters. By consequence perhaps, neither is there any sense of rising action to be found – this is a novel with no obvious cause and effect, no climax or denouement. As Terry Eagleton noted (not necessarily disapprovingly), “nothing much happens … There is no plot,” he went on, “and no evolving narrative, just a montage of episodes. Life in this forsaken corner is not heading anywhere in particular, and neither is the novel.”

A plot of course means prioritising some beings and events over others and a novel that manages to do without one (another paradox, surely) inevitably evokes a world in which no such hierarchy can be found, a world in which no part is greater or lesser than another; in other words, a world that evokes the mesh. In Long Time, No See, we find, in the absence of plot and human interiority, an inherent and striking “surface quality” to the narrative, with a consistent emphasis on the physical world and the characters (human and otherwise) moving around in it, with scenes playing out within landscape rather than against, bringing to mind Morton’s observation that Darwin shows “what is hidden in life form is right there on the surface”. As Dermot McCarthy put it in his essay on the novel, it is characterised by a “a storyworld that is a felt habitus” within which “hospitable and neighbourly men and women (as well as dogs, horses, donkeys, hares and herons)” are richly portrayed.

One of the most remarkable manifestations of this “surface quality” is the novel’s abundance of “brilliantly inconsequential” dialogue, as Eagleton described it. Writing of the quality of improvisation inherent in some house music and jazz, Morton writes that “improvisation introduces Darwinism to art”. What he means by this is that an emphasis on “unintention”, as he calls it, draws our attention (at least on some level) to how in the process of adaptation, all mutations are random. “When you think about adaptation,” writes Morton, “it’s like music that listens to itself.” In Long Time No See, the improvised speech of the characters is equally like music listening to itself. Tending towards the strange, with emphasis firmly on style over meaning, its absurdism is rooted in this quality of unpredictability – the sense that even those speaking don’t know what they’re going to say next until they’ve said it. To pluck one of many examples from the text, take the comically erratic quality found in this piece of dialogue at an impromptu gathering in Joejoe’s house:

I love Smirnoff, said Anna and she said the word again with a long f-sound.
– Hallo there, said Joejoe –
– Hallo –
– You say Hallo very often in Ireland, said Dido –
– We can’t help it –
– It’s why we have put on so much weight, said Mister Townsend. I think it might rain.

Long Time, No See’s surface quality also manifests itself through its almost hallucinogenic descriptions of the natural world, which are so vivid and intensely wrought, with a gaze that seems to betray a helplessly democratic attitude towards everything it takes in and that, over and over, presents to us a version of ourselves in which, rather than our environment being a stage for the human drama, we are just another aspect of the environment. The beach, for example, is often portrayed after a storm, with people foraging alongside other creatures, underlining the codependent nature of these relationships. Such images almost always feature something “technical” or manmade too, like a digger or electric pole; in this way, portraying the man made as part of the natural world, rather than separate from it:

The light was coming and going. And there were sudden gusts of wind coming from the north-west. An empty bucket went flying across the field. A heave of salt flew across. Then up went a puff of sparks from the rusted transformer on the electric pole next to the house. The gust passed. The sky darkened. There was the one faraway cackle of seagulls. The island drifted out of sight.

The surface gaze is also to be found in depictions of non-human animals and the “almost communications” we might call it between man and beast, like when Psyche casually uses the plural “we” rather than “I” when describing a journey made with a donkey, which implies a shared personhood. In this same scene, a careful and tender description of the donkey’s behaviour just stops short at suggesting any meaningful communication or understanding between the two:

On the way back, a stray ass came out of the forest and followed me. He’d step up and bite at my sleeve. He had huge deep eyes and his hooves were bad. They were long and painful. At the road he jumped as motorbikes flew by. … he liked to put his chin nearly, but not quite, on my shoulder, then he’d tug at my elbow. (emphasis added)

In another scene, the phrase “looking off into the distance” is used in a description of a magpie, suggesting a mind preoccupied with some private thought but stopping short of musing on what that thought, if indeed it even is a thought, might be. It’s not the only time this phrase is used in a description of an animal, reappearing in a late scene in which Psyche and his father tend to a sick cow:

Myself and Da carried water in a tall milk can into the North meadow. We poured a few drops onto the lips of a sick cow. Then filled the stone basin. Lying on her stomach with her hooves in the air, she looked off into the distance. He patted her down.

I like that animal.
The cow continued to stare ahead.
He stared into her eyes.
Get better soon, he said.

In The Ecological Thought, Morton does not stop at showing its nature, but goes on to elucidate the inevitable consequences of perceiving the world through this lens. One is that instead of “local community”, collectivity emerges as what is needed – “a collectivity,” he writes, “of weakness, vulnerability, and incompletion”. And again, in Long Time, No See, the social world of Psyche’s small townland outside Sligo is depicted, rather than a community, but as a place populated by both locals and “outsiders”, including migrants from eastern Europe, a couple of Russian sailors, “a pair of lucky men”, out-of-town hippies and a German couple to name but a few. For a novel set in rural Ireland, it is remarkably unconcerned with the notion of community, at least in the sense of a small, insular world inhabited only by people who were born and grew up there. Instead, with its stubbornly democratic tone, equal importance is implied for all its characters, whether new, peripheral or central (or indeed, human or non-human). Significantly, for Morton collectivity is the only basis through which genuine hospitality can arise. “How to care for the neighbor,” he writes, “the strange stranger … are the long-term problems posed by the ecological thought.” As there is no escape from the mesh, we humans are ethically obliged to care for others. Our concern can only be with “considering others, in their interests, in how we should act towards them, and in their very being”. The emotions of the ecological thought are therefore “compassion as helplessness”, as well as curiosity, humility, sadness and tenderness.

I say significantly because, again, this all rings true as regards to Long Time No See, not only in the sense of the intrinsic hospitality of its tone, but also the many quiet and unquestioned acts of hospitality and compassion which add up to a defining characteristic of the novel and which seem to arise inevitably and organically from its “surface gaze”. The careful depiction of the donkey with his painful hooves cited above, for example, is followed by the Blackbird cutting them:

We went through all the hooves as Tom went round in circles and the donkey reared and then bit food off the palm of my hand. With each cut his eyes widened. No you’re not upset said the Blackbird, we’ll be there in a minute. The ass just stood and took it. Next thing it was over.

Other (of many) examples include the time Psyche and his father offer the temporarily homeless Russian sailors their boat for the night (“I hope,” says his father afterwards, “that I am doing the right thing”), and the time Psyche, his parents and Anna organise the Stations of the Cross to be held in Joejoe’s house in an attempt to lift the dark mood that has descended on him. In that scene, an emphasis is placed on efforts to clean the house, the “lilies and wild daisies” arranged in vases, the food prepared:

Next thing Anna arrived with two apple and rhubarb tarts and a few dozen sandwiches. … Ma cut lemons and parsley, and chopped wild celery … Beside her Anna was making pea soup, with hoards of wild mint and coriander. … Ma started to make a second fish soup with mussels and lobster and mackerel I’d collected that morning.

There is also the scene in which Psyche, his father and the Russian sailors clean Miss Jilly’s chimney so that she can light a fire in the cold evenings, and that which follows when Miss Jilly invites them all to dinner to say thank you, with the emphasis again falling on the abundance of food and drink:

Mister Lundy reappeared with a large plate of fish, followed by Da carrying a bowl of potatoes. … Miss Jilly … began meticulously laying out the food.
Chives, iceberg lettuce, rocket, parsley and dill. … Next we have apple and celery. Potatoes and spring onion … crab claws and a taste of mussels.

These are just some examples; the story, insofar as there is one, essentially comprises one act of hospitality followed by another, each one unexplained, thereby presented as an inevitable consequence of the novel’s attitude of openness.

Healy explained once in an interview that the novel took a decade to complete. It was composed alongside A Fool’s Errand, his last poetry collection published during his lifetime and the two works have been described as a diptych, with a similar evocation of thoughts ecological occurring in A Fool’s Errand. In this light, it seems significant that it was during that same decade that the existential threat of the climate crisis was hitting home more forcefully than ever before. At its start, the word Anthropocene was coined, in 2000, to denote the present geological epoch as defined by human activity impacting on our ecosystems and climate. In that same year, the climate crisis was on a UN list of greatest threats to the planet but placed low down, with all the concern going to deforestation and diseases. Yet by the end of that same decade, the Geological Society of London had already decided to consider adding Anthropocene to the other units on the Geological Time Scale, such as Cambrian and Jurassic, and the climate crisis was topping the international agenda. A string of weather-related catastrophes comprised an important factor here, as did the growing realisation of the carbon-intensive nature of globalisation in its current manifestation, particularly in terms of outcomes such as immigration. For Ireland, this meant the 2000s was also the decade in which we (finally) became a multicultural country, with the number of people living here who were born outside the country almost doubling within those ten years. This also seems significant, given the way Long Time, No See simultaneously engages with this long overdue move towards cosmopolitanism in Irish society, in its evocation of that sense of collectivity over community, an approach which for Morton forces us to “invent ways of living together that don’t depend on self-interest”.

About midway through the novel, a conversation arises between Psyche, his mother and a young woman who, on her way out for the night, notices Psyche and his mother sitting in their car as she walks by. In the friendly exchange that follows, the woman asks what they are doing. When they explain their unusual family ritual, carried out every Saturday night, whereby they drive into Sligo town, the father “walking about, looking around him”, while Pysche and his mother “just sit … here” taking in the evening, she politely decides, “That’s weird” before continuing on her way. What Psyche and his parents are doing certainly is weird. They are treating their own local and therefore familiar world as a strange and new one, one worthy of observing, of taking in anew every single week. It also epitomises what Healy achieved in Long Time, No See and indeed the less-enthused aspect of the novel’s initial reception. But this weirdness is of course its strength. In Long Time No See, the fact that what we see is what we get is where its prescience and power as a work of fiction lie.

Healy once said of his own writing that while other people “might see better what’s there, I might see what I think is there”. Considered in the context of Morton’s ecological thought, it’s difficult not to conclude that the opposite is true: that Healy managed to see and then show us our dangerous reality and even the means of surviving it, rather than what we choose to perceive. This is all the more remarkable considering Long Time, No See was written during the decade in which this new reality was still literally unfolding and revealing itself to us.

Hargadon’s is the pub in Sligo for writers and would be writers to meet.  Picture by Bill Heaney

1/4/2022

Liza Costello’s second novel Crookedwood will be published this summer (Hachette Ireland). She is completing a PhD on the pastoral mode in the writing of Dermot Healy with DCU School of English

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