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Critical Essay by George P. Landow
SOURCE: "History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 197-211.
An American educator, editor, and critic, Landow frequently writes about Victorian literature and writers as well as on issues regarding hypertext and electronic publishing. In the following essay, he discusses Swift's emphasis on history and storytelling in Waterland, classifying the novel as a late twentieth-century example of fictional autobiography.
Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives. [Waterland]
Graham Swift's Waterland (1983), a novel cast in the form of a fictional autobiography, has much to tell us about the fate, even the possibility, of autobiography in the late twentieth century. Although Waterland does not confuse personal with public history, it intertwines them, making each part of the other, for as Tom Crick, the secondary school teacher of history who is Swift's protagonist, seeks an explanation of how his life has turned out, he tells his story, but as he does so, he finds that he must also tell the stories of the fens and of his ancestors who lived there. In the course of telling his story, their story, he questions why we tell stories to ourselves and our children, how the stories we tell relate to those found in literature and history, and what these stories tell us about selves, ourselves.
Waterland meditates on human fate, responsibility, and historical narrative by pursuing a mystery; so the book is in part a detective story. It is also the story of two families, of an entire region in England, of England from the industrial revolution to the present, of technology and its effects, and it is, finally, a meditation on stories and storytelling—a fictional inquiry into fiction, a book that winds back upon itself and asks why we tell stories.
As a novel that questions the interrelated notions of self and story in Dickens's Great Expectations and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! at the same time that it draws upon them, Waterland appears a late-twentieth-century, post-modernist rewriting of each. In attempting to relate his own story, Tom Crick begins by questioning the purpose, truthfulness, and limitations of stories while at the same time making clear that he believes history to be a form of story-telling. These questionings of narrative within its narrative make Waterland a self-reflexive text.
The novel has as protagonist a history teacher who is about to be fired because history (his stories) are no longer considered of sufficient cultural value. He ruminates upon history in terms of the events of his own life, and he quickly runs up against the young, those without interest in the past, those who quite properly want to know why? why pay attention to what's over and done with? "You ask," the narrator tells his students, "as all history classes ask, as all history classes should ask, What is the point of history." They want to know, as we do, two things: What is the point of history as a subject; that is, why study the past? and what is the point of history itself, that is, does history, man's existence in public time, have any meaning, any pattern, any purpose?
This resistance to both notions of history by the young, who wish to live in the here and now, is embodied in Price, Tom Crick's student, who voices all the usual objections to paying attention to what has gone by. "Your thesis," Tom responds, "is that history, as such, is a red-herring; the past is irrelevant. The present alone is vital." Some of Tom's own statements about history and historiography suggest that Price might have a point. "When introduced to history as an object of Study … it was still the fabulous aura of history that lured me, and I believed, perhaps like you, that history was a myth." Tom Crick confesses that he retained such pleasing, soothing notions of history
Until a series of encounters with the Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed—and I had become a part of it.
Concerned with saving the world from nuclear war, concerned that there may not be a future, Price thinks history is bunk: "I want a future … And you—you can stuff your past." As it turns out, Price's use of the second-person pronoun is correct, for this past, this history, that he rejects is precisely his—Tom's—past.
Price also makes a second appealing attack on history and historiography, namely, that it is a means of avoidance: "You know what your trouble is, sir? You're hooked on explanation. Explain, explain. Everything's got to have an explanation…. Explaining's a way of avoiding facts while you pretend to get near to them." To be against history is thus for Price anti-explanation, because according to him, both history and explanation evade life in the present—an attitude based on the assumption that the present is pleasant, nurturing, and not deadly.
Near the close of the novel Swift's protagonist answers the charge that people resort to history only as a means of evasion with the counter claim that curiosity and the explanations to which it leads are necessary and inevitable. They do not subvert life, claims Crick, nor do they bear responsibility for keeping us from engaging in important events like revolutions.
Supposing it's the other way round. Supposing it's revolutions which divert and impede the course of our inborn curiosity. Supposing it's curiosity—which inspires our sexual explorations and feeds our desires to hear and tell stories—which is our natural and fundamental state of mind. Supposing it's our insatiable and feverish desire to know about things, to know about each other, always to be sniff-sniffing things out, which is the true and rightful subverter and defeats even our impulse for historical progression.
Trying to understand why—trying to understand, that is, what has happened to him and his life—Crick retells the story of his life. By relating the events of his life in some sort of an order he makes it into a story. He constructs history—his story. He constructs himself, and in the course of doing so he recognizes that "Perhaps history is just story-telling": "History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark." And he has examples of this in the historical legends told to him by his mother.
Before the murder of Freddie Parr, he and Mary lived outside of time and history, outside that stream of events he is trying to teach to his class. But with the discovery of Freddie's body floating in the canal lock, and with the discovery of a beer bottle, Tom and Mary fall into time and history. Previously, "Mary was fifteen, and so was I … in prehistorical, pubescent times, when we drifted instinctively." As Tom explains, "it is precisely these surprise attacks of the Here and Now which, far from launching us into the present tense, which they do, it is true, for a brief and giddy interval, announce that time has taken us prisoner."
This view accords with that of those philosophical anthropologists—Mircea Eliade and others—who emphasize that until human beings leave tribal, agricultural existence, they live in an eternal present in which time follows a cyclical pattern of days and seasons. Emphasizing that "from the point of view of ahistorical peoples or classes 'suffering' is equivalent to 'history,'" Eliade claims [in the 1959 edition entitled Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return] that archaic humanity has no interest in history or in the individuation it creates. Interest in the novel, the unique, the irreversible, appeared only comparatively recently. Tom Crick's whole existence in the novel instantiates Eliade's point that the "crucial difference" between tribal humanity and its descendants lie in the value "modern, historical man" gives to historical events—to the "'novelties'" that once represented only failure and infraction. In tribal society, one becomes individual, one becomes an individual, only by botching a ritual or otherwise departing from some universal pattern. In such societies, one differentiates oneself, becoming an individual, only by sin and failure. The individual therefore is the man or woman who got wrong the planting or fertility ritual, the hunting pattern. Which is why the narrator explains: "What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong."
Therefore, writing history, like writing autobiography, only comes after a fall, for autobiography and other forms of history respond to the question "why," and people only ask that question after something has gone wrong. "And what does this question Why imply?" Crick asks his students. "It implies—as it surely implies when you throw it at me rebelliously in the midst of our history lessons—dissatisfaction, disquiet, a sense that all is not well. In a state of perfect contentment there would be no need or room for this irritant little word. History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret." But, of course, were it not for trouble, perplexity, and regret we would not have autobiographies, and as the history of Victorian autobiography demonstrates, periods of trouble and perplexity, if not regret, produce self-histories galore, for in such circumstances autobiographers traditionally have offered their experiences, their survival, as exemplary.
Tom Crick's autobiographical project therefore centers on what went wrong. This whole novel, in fact, is an attempt to explain what went wrong—what went wrong with his own life and Mary's, with the lives of his parents, and with the lives of both their families, who represent the peasant and wealthy entrepreneurial classes of Britain from the seventeenth century to the present. Waterland begins, therefore, with the discovery of Freddie Parr's body in midsummer 1943, a discovery that comes all the more shockingly, unexpectedly, because Swift presents it within a fairy-tale landscape, for it was "a fairy-tale land, after all," in part because both his mother and father had a gift for making it such with their hand-me-down tales.
Waterland, in other words, to a large extent embodies the conventional Romantic pattern best known, perhaps, from "Tintern Abbey." Like the idealized Wordsworth who is the speaker of that poem, Tom Crick returns (though only in imagination) to the landscape of thoughtless youth, and like the poet, he concerns himself with the losses of innocence and with the corollary fall into time, self-consciousness, and social existence—into, that is, the world of adulthood, into "trouble … perplexity … regret." Finally, like Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey," Crick relates his meditations on his own life and its patterns in the presence of a younger audience, and like the poem's speaker, Crick also acts in the manner of a ventriloquist, obviously placing words in the mouths of that younger audience. The obvious difference between the two works, of course, appears in the fact that, unlike "Tintern Abbey," Waterland bravely refuses to find solace in some Romantic revision of Milton's Fortunate Fall.
Tom does, however, come to believe that all such explanatory narratives, function, however provisionally, as means of ordering our lives and thereby protecting us from chaos and disorder. And Swift's array of characters surely need such shelter, for some are victims of progress, technology, and the anti-natural (the Cricks of earlier generations lost their way of life as swamp people when the swamps were drained), and others victims of what the adult narrator considers purely natural (as are Mary, Tom, Dick, and Freddie, who were only following natural sexual urges); and yet others were victims of World War I (like Tom's father and uncle), or victims (like Tom's mother) of natural unnatural love, of the incest that produces Dick, his idiot half-brother. Story-telling, and history, and books like Waterland are these people's prime defences against fear: "It's all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It's all a fight against fear," Tom Crick tells his class. "What do you think all my stories are for … I don't care what you call it—explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things in perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairytales—it helps to eliminate fear."
In fact, Tom Crick argues, story-telling comes with time, with living in time, and story-telling, which distinguishes us from animals, comes with being human.
Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. Man man—let me offer you a definition—is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right.
The problem, as this entire novel goes to show, is that the material of stories often refuses to be shaped by them, just as nature, unmediated nature, refuses to be shaped by the convenient story of progress within which Victorians tried to place it. (And, one must note in passing, this fact might cast into doubt all story-telling, particularly that of this novel, since narrative always involves some kind of progress.) Thus, Graham Swift's emphasis throughout the novel on two matters—the Fens and sexuality—that resist all ideological, narrative control, that refuse to be shaped by stories we tell. Putting together the two opposed forces that drive much of his tale, Tom claims "Children, there's something which revolutionaries and prophets of new worlds and even humble champions of Progress (think of those poor Atkinsons …) can't abide. Natural history, human nature." As Tom makes us realize, natural history is a paradox and an oxymoron—that is, a jarring placement together of contraries—because it is history of the antihistorical which has no order or is cyclical (nonhistorical) without individuating markers.
This whole novel, in other words, sets out to examine these ages—and their literary as well as religious and philosophical foundations—and finds them wanting. It examines various theories of history, such as that proposed by religion, progress, and hubris, and canvasses a wide range of subjects for history, such as political events from the Roman conquerors of Britain to the Bastille and World War I and II, the history of technology, including draining the Fens, the history of places (Fens), the history of families (Atkinsons and Cricks), the history of individual people, especially the narrator and Mary, and the history of a beer bottle.
Waterland, which is cast in the form of a fictional autobiography, probes the role of narrative and in so doing raises questions about the means and methods of autobiography. Like much recent theory and criticism, the novel looks skeptically at two aspects of narrative. First, it expresses suspicion of the way human beings gravitate towards folktales, myths, and other well-shaped narratives that falsify experience and keep us from encountering the world. Swift's narrator himself admits that his "earliest acquaintance with history was thus, in a form issuing from my mother's lips, inseparable from her other bedtime make-believe—how Alfred burnt the cakes, how Canute commanded the waves, how King Charles hid in an oak tree—as if history were a pleasing invention." Recent studies of nineteenth-century autobiography have pointed out the extent to which authors depend upon such conventional narrative patterns to create what Avrom Fleishman has termed [in "Personal Myth: Three Victorian Autobiographers," in Approaches to Victorian Autobiography, ed. George P. Landow (1979)] a "personal myth" by which to tell their lives. As Linda H. Peterson has pointed out [in her 1986 Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation], however, conventional narratives, such as those drawn from scripture, create major problems for many would-be self-historians, particularly women, who find that these narratives distort their stories or do not permit them to tell their stories at all.
Second, Swift's novel takes its skepticism about narrative further, for it not only points, like recent critics, to the falsifications created by particular stories, it is suspicious of all story-telling. Waterland questions all narrative based on sequence, and in this it agrees with other novels of its decade. Like Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger (1987), another novel in the form of the autobiography of an invented character, Swift's novel has a historian, Tom Crick, as his protagonist, and like Lively's character, Swift's relates the events of a single life to the major currents of contemporary history.
Using much the same method for autobiography as for history, Swift's protagonist would agree with Lively's Claudia Hampton, whose deep suspicion of chronology and sequence explicitly derive from her experience of simultaneity. Thinking over the possibility of writing a history of the world, Lively's heroine rejects sequence and linear history as inauthentic and false to her experience:
The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I've always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and reshuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.
Like Proust's Marcel, she finds that a simple sensation brings the past back flush upon the present, making a mockery of separation and sequence. Returning to Cairo in her late sixties, Claudia finds it both changed and unchanged. "The place," she explains, "didn't look the same but it felt the same; sensations clutched and transformed me." Standing near a modern concrete and plate-glass building, she picks a "handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-year-old Claudia … crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant." Her lesson for autobiography is that "inside the head, everything happens at once." Like Claudia, Tom Crick takes historical, autobiographical narratives whose essence is sequence and spreads them out or weaves them in a nonsequential way.
Lively and Swift are hardly the first to suggest that narrative sequence falsifies autobiographical truth. Tennyson's In Memoriam, one of the most influential as well as most technically daring poems of the nineteenth century, embodies this postmodernist suspicion of narrative as falsifying. Arthur Henry Hallam's death in 1833 forced Tennyson to question his faith in nature, God, and poetry. In Memoriam reveals that the poet, who found that brief lyrics best embodied the transitory emotions that buffeted him after his loss, rejected conventional elegy and narrative because both falsify the experience of grief and recovery by mechanically driving the reader through too unified—and hence too simplified—a version of these experiences. Creating a poetry of fragments, Tennyson leads the reader of In Memoriam from grief and despair through doubt to hope and faith, but at each step stubborn, contrary emotions intrude, and readers encounter doubt in the midst of faith, pain in the midst of resolution. Instead of the elegiac plot of "Lycidas," "Adonais," and "Thyrsis," In Memoriam offers 133 fragments interlaced by dozens of images and motifs and informed by an equal number of minor and major resolutions, the most famous of which is section ninety-five's representation of Tennyson's climactic, if wonderfully ambiguous, mystical experience of contact with Hallam's spirit.
Like Tennyson and most other nineteenth-century autobiographers, Tom Crick tells his story as a means of explaining his conversion to a particular belief and way of life. Unlike the great Victorian autobiographers, real and fictional, he does not relate the significant details about his life from the vantage point of relative tranquility or even complacency. Mill, Ruskin, and Newman, like the Pip of Great Expectations or the heroine of Jane Eyre, all tell the stories of their lives after everything interesting has already happened to them and they have at last reached some safe haven. Similarly, however tortured Tennyson's mind and spirit had been after the death of Hallam, and however little conventional narratives were suited to communicating that experience, by the close of In Memoriam the reader encounters an autobiographical speaker or narrator who stands on safe, secure, unchanging ground. In contrast, Tom Crick, unlike Pip and Jane, writes from within a time of crisis, for Tom, like his age, exists in a condition of catastrophe.
Such writing from within an ongoing crisis may well be the postmodernist contribution to autobiography, for whether or not one chooses to see such a narrative position as a pretentious pose—after all, people have always lived within crisis; the Victorians certainly believed they did—this vantage point inevitably undercuts the traditional autobiographer's project, which entails showing himself and his survived crises as exemplary. Even though Newman, Mill, Ruskin, and Tennyson present themselves and their experiences as essentially unique, they nonetheless emphasize the representativeness and therefore relevance of their lives to their readers. They present themselves as living lessons for the rest of us. The approach to autobiography undertaken by Tom Crick, on the other hand, essentially deconstructs the potentially hopeful aspects of his narrative. By refusing the autobiographer's traditionally secure closing position, in other words, Swift's protagonist casts into doubt the world of the autobiographer, his autobiography, and narrative in general.
Waterland, as we have seen, is a book that winds back upon other books, for it is a descendent, an echo, and a qualification of both Dickens's Great Expectations and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Swift's novel begins, for example, with an epigraph from Great Expectations, another work that opens in the fens, and it shares with Dickens's novel many elements other than their opening scenes of death and guilt. Both works, which combine autobiography and atonement, begin with the intrusion of a fearful reality into a young person's consciousness. Both, furthermore, tell of their protagonists' climb up the social ladder from working class to some form of shabby gentility, and both, for these reasons and others, could equally well bear the titles Great Expectations and Expectations Disappointed, for both end with far sadder, somewhat wiser narrators. Both novels relate the dark results of an adolescent passion, and both are haunted by the presence of an abused older woman, as Sarah Atkinson echoes and completes Miss Havisham—as do the breweries and flames that associate with each.
Waterland stands in a similar relation to a twentieth-century canonical work—Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Brian McHale's contrast of modernist and postmodernist fiction [in Postmodernist Fiction (1987)] helps us place both Waterland's attitudes toward narrative and its relation to Faulkner's novel. According to McHale, whereas epistemological concerns define the novels that embody modernism, ontological concerns characterize postmodernist fiction.
That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as … "How can I interpret this world of which I am a part?…. What is there to be known? Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of certainty?"…. Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! has been designed to raise just such epistemological questions. Its logic is that of a detective story, the epistemological genre par excellence.
In contrast to modernist fiction, which thus centers on
Although Waterland shares little of postmodernist fiction's aggressive, explicit destabilizing of the world and the self, the novel's intertextual relations with Faulkner differentiates it from both his work and from literary modernism. The clear parallels between Waterland and Absalom, Absalom! that reviewers have observed in fact serve to point up the differences between the two fictional worlds. As one anonymous review [entitled "Paperbounds" in The Wilson Quarterly (1986)] pointed out, "The Fens of east England serve novelist Graham Swift as Yoknapatawpha County served William Faulkner: less as a geographical setting than as an active force shaping people's lives…. Mysteries ramify but ultimately lead, as in all Gothic novels (including Faulkner's) to a secret at the center of the family house." The two novels share other similarities as well: both take the form of family tragedies in which a male ancestor's hubris leads to terrible disaster, both emphasize violations of the family bond, and both employ as backgrounds cataclysmic wars that change their nations forever. Like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, and like Dickens's Great Expectations (which the British reviewers don't mention), Waterland meditates on human fate, responsibility, and historical narrative by pursuing a mystery; so the book, like these others, is in part a detective story.
There is, however, one important difference: In true modernist fashion Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate attempt to solve a mystery by detection and by imaginative re-creation. In true postmodernist fashion Tom Crick, who knew the identity of the murderer years before he began the story-telling that constitutes Waterland, creates a mystery (for us) where none exists.
In addition to Waterland's very different, self-conscious use of mystery, its discussions of narrativity and narratology make it a late-twentieth century retelling of the works of both Faulkner and Dickens as do its postmodernist grotesqueries, playfulness, emphasis upon the erotic, and convoluted style that continually draws attention to itself. Another aspect of postmodernist fiction with particular significance for autobiography appears in Swift's creation of a textualized, intertextualized self.
Presenting Tom Crick as intertwined with so many other tales and selves, Swift presents the self in the manner of many poststructuralist critics and postmodernist novelists as an entity both composed of many texts and dispersed into them. In Waterland Swift textualizes the self, and that self matches the description of text that Roland Barthes advances in S/Z when he points out that entering a text is "entrance into a network with a thousand entrances; to take this entrance is to aim, ultimately … at a perspective (of fragments, of voices from other texts, other codes), whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselessly pushed back, mysteriously opened." Tom Crick's textualized self fulfills Barthes's description of the "ideal text" whose "networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest;… it has no beginning; it is reversible." Therefore, we can say of the self-construction that Tom Crick offers us to read, that "we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable" (Barthes). And that is why to record part of himself, Tom must also record so many other histories, for they all intertwine, echo, and reverberate; causes, responsibilities, limits become difficult to locate.
In other words, as soon as Crick begins to tell his story he finds necessary expanding that story beyond his biological beginnings. On the one hand, Waterland seems a rigorously historicist presentation of selfhood; on the other, its self-conscious examination of the history that historicizes this self makes it appear that these narratives, like the historicism they support, are patently constructed, purely subjective patterns.
Tom Crick's autobiographical acts, in other words, turn out to be fictional analogues of the land reclamation whose presence dominates the novel. Provisional, essential, limited as they may be, telling stories can never adequately control reality or nature or what's out there or what Tom calls the Here and Now. Like the Fen waters, like the natural force it is, Mary's and Tom's and Dick's and, alas, Freddie's sexuality refuse to be contained by the canal walls and dams of human fairy-stories and, instead, lead to Freddie's murder, Dick's suicide, Mary's abortion, and ultimately to her kidnapping an infant in a supermarket and subsequent commitment to a mental institution. That is why the Fen lands and Fen waters, which the Atkinsons and other commercial leaders of the Industrial Revolution try to fit into a human story, play such an important part in this novel. And that is why Tom, who explicitly takes draining the Fens to exemplify progressive theories of history, speaks in his imagination to his wife of their "Sunday walks, with which we trod and measured out the tenuous, reclaimed land of our marriage." Fen lands and waters represent the reality that won't fit into our stories (one can't call it nature or the natural because those terms refer to a reality that already has been placed in a story). "For the chief fact about the Fens," Crick emphasizes when he introduced them as the setting of his life history, "is that they are reclaimed land, land that was once water, and which, even today, is not quite solid."
Waterland examines and finds wanting the Neoclassical view of nature that takes it to be divine order, the Romantic one that takes it to be essentially benign and accommodated to our needs, and the Victorian one that takes it to be, however hostile or neutral, something we can shape to our needs and use for the material of a tale of progress.
Like John McPhee's The Control of Nature, Waterland takes land reclamation and man's battle against water as a heroic, absurd, all too human project that particularly characterizes modern Western civilization's approach to man, nature, and fate. Swift's novel presents both land reclamation and telling one's story as game, even heroic, attempts to shape the chaotic setting of human existence: marriage, nature, water, past time, memory, other literature. Within such a conception of things, telling one's own story takes the form of a similarly heroic, if absurd, reclamation from the destructions of nature and time, for autobiography, like land reclamation, takes the purely natural and after great self-conscious exertions makes it human. Of course, autobiography and history, like draining the fens, can never achieve more than temporary victories against the natural, for the simple reason that people carry out both these projects within time, and eventually, sooner or later, time wins. Time wears channels in the dykes, rusts machinery, makes a particular autobiographical act obsolete or irrelevant. None of these facts, of course, argue against reclaiming land nor do they argue against undertaking to write history and autobiography. But, as Tom Crick recognizes, they do cut such projects down to size. Suspicious of the idea of progress, Crick warns us that the world does not really head toward any goal, and therefore "It's progress if you can stop the world from slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires." Similarly, autobiographical acts and fictional versions of them) provide brief, temporary, provisional living spaces for human beings.
Autobiographical acts, then, follow from a basic human need for order and meaning that relates intimately to the need to escape chaos and fear. Telling stories about ourselves, like telling stories about people of earlier times and about the natural world, derives from curiosity, that force that, according to Swift's narrator, weds us to both world and word—a force that drives sexuality, science, and story-telling. Swift raises the problem of the erotics of the text in the context of explaining his wife's curiosity as a fifteen year old back in that halcyon year, 1943. "Mary itched," Tom Crick explains. "And this itch of Mary's was the itch of curiosity. In her fifteen-year-old body curiosity tickled and chafed, making her fidgety and roving-eyed. Curiosity drove her, beyond all restraint, to want to touch, witness, experience whatever was unknown and hidden from her." This intense curiosity, which, according to Crick, defines the human, "is an ingredient of love. It is a vital force. Curiosity, which bogs us down in arduous meditations and can lead to the writing of history books, will also, on occasion, as on that afternoon by the Hockwell Lode, reveal to us that which we seldom glimpse unscathed (for it appears more often—dead bodies, boathooks—dressed in terror): the Here and Now." Despite the occasional encounters with terror that curiosity begets—which Swift instantiates by prompting our readers' curiosity to lead us to Dick's incestuous origins and Mary's horrific abortion—in Waterland, curiosity, the force of narrative, appears in Aristotelian fashion as an essentially life-giving drive. "Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world." To be human we have to be curious, and curiosity produces story-telling.
As impossible as getting right these stories may be, attempting to shape a narrative, one's narrative, one's own novel, is all we have, and we must therefore all be historians. Like autobiography, "History is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. So that it teaches us no short-cuts to Salvation, no recipe for a New World, only the dogged and patient art of making do."
By forever attempting to explain we come, not to an Explanation, but to a knowledge of the limits of our power to explain. Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the-sky—to be realistic.
However provisional, however reduced, however its narratives are fractured or dispersed, autobiography in the world of Waterland therefore remains essential and inevitable. One basic justification for history, narrative, and autobiography lies in the fact that it is something we as humans must do. As Crick explains to the members of his class, their very questioning of history provides one of its basic justifications:
Your "Why?" gives the answer. Your demand for explanation provides an explanation. Isn't the seeking of reasons itself inevitably an historical process, since it must always work backwards from what came after to what came before? And so long as we have this itch for explanations, must we not always carry round with us this cumbersome but precious bag of clues called history? Another definition, children: Man, the animal which demands an explanation, the animal which asks Why.
Telling stories, particularly one's own story, turns out to be absurd and even comical when viewed by any cosmic scale, but for all that it is a necessary act, something that one does, as Carlyle put it, to keep our heads above water. Carlyle comes readily to mind when considering Tom Crick's willingness to face reality in reduced, bleak circumstances in part because, as Tom tells us, he read Carlyle's French Revolution during one crisis in his life and that work, which provides some of the narrator's facts and emphases, led to his vocation as a history teacher. But one thinks of Carlyle even more because Tom Crick also shares his general tone, his willingness to act in a bleak, barren world if only because that's all there is to do. Crick believes, finally, that
All the stories once were real. And all the events of history, the battles and costume-pieces, once really happened. All the stories were once a feeling in the guts…. But when the world is about to end there'll be no more reality, only stories. All there'll be left to us will be stories. Stories will be our only reality. We'll sit down, in our shelter, and tell stories to some imaginary Prince Shahriyar, hoping it will never … [ellipsis in original].
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