Up to some eight thousand years ago, Great Britain was still joined to that which would become an expression of its strangeness once it became an island: the continent. I find this incalculable figure in The World of Stonehenge, the exhibition at the British Museum, surrounded by an apt setting of twilight, birdsong, the distant rumour of water. The exhibition is not limited to the history, still full of gaps and mystery, of the famous stone circle in Salisbury plain—it links it in an organic way to other sites of prehistoric cult in different regions in Europe.
The calculation of dates like this abound—the sort that brings about vertigo in the face of time’s sovereignty and evidence of our existence’s insignificant dimension, but which are also a source or awe and wonder, and of a profound sense of human community which, no doubt, transcends our fleeting condition.
Nine thousand years ago, for instance, the taciturn megaliths hadn’t reached yet what we now know as Stonehenge: there were only the trunks of three trees, totems raised by some tribe of hunters-gatherers. The temptation to bring that image to mind is irresistible. In the exhibition’s displays we see stones, pieces of flint, innumerable axes from around 4300 BC, when the hunting and gathering culture gave way to farming. We also see an idol found in Glastonbury, from around 2500 BC, with big breasts and phallus, which, we are told, is the first human representation in Great Britain, and from these objects as starting point we try to imagine the landscape that would come to be occupied by the monument, in that inconceivably remote past, not surrounded by a tarmac path and the motorway as it is now, but by an expansion of quiet that we will never be able to know, visited by wild animals (including the extinct aurochs) rather than the New Age devotees that gather in crowds during the summer solstice in our dislocated times. Other things we don’t need to imagine: we see, with incredulity and a wonder that moves us to tears, an elm leaf that fell from a lost tree that no one will ever see again six thousand years ago.
We’re not told what the story of that leaf is; how it was found, or its age classified, what process has been required for its conservation. Perhaps it is better not to know. Looking at it is enough: its perfection, its fragility, its resilience, in absolute ignorance of time, and of our gaze.
Around Stonehenge have been found the remains of hundreds of people of whom we know nothing and who never imagined us. The over eighty sarsen stones which originally made up the circle, carried there around 2500 BC with superhuman effort through vast distances, and erected who knows how, are, as we know, aligned not only to mark the summer and winter solstices, but also the Metonic cycle of 19 years in which the sun and the moon return to the same place on the same date, and can predict eclipses. I remember a sunset there one September, several years ago, while the full moon rose at my back—a silent spectacle that went beyond any concept of beauty. You don’t need anything else to access the experience of the sacred.
Less dramatic, but equally eloquent, are the remains in the British Museum’s rooms of ritual feasts that took place many thousands of years ago, celebrated by human beings that have disappeared, but to whom we are bound by our gaze; the patterns with which these people decorated their objects or the huge stones inscribed with the signs of a celestial order that was understood through their eyes, intuition, body. We see chalk sculptures raised by children’s tombs, or some magnificent stone spheres carved with abstract designs, hailing from Scotland, perhaps the oracle of also disappeared gods, close to the recreation of Seahenge: a place we might think invented but which was real, built up with inverted tree trunks, the roots spread up into the sky, by the coasts of Norfolk.
Stonehenge’s circle was concluded some 4,500 years ago. Let’s think about that. Its presence calls us, whilst it is evidence of something irrecuperable. The landscape around it has changed for millennia, through human intervention and the action of time. If time is the condition of the irrecuperable, it is also the mirror that shows us that reality endures, in constant transformation.
It suffices to look at these ritual objects, and then see around us the hordes in the museum, stirred by that manic lack of interest of the tourist, with their selfies, or the objects being sold in the shops outside, the innumerable trinkets, to realize that things have been really screwed down the road. And yet, though mystery makes ancestors so wise in our eyes, surely banality has always existed in the human soul, even if we don’t know in what concrete form it was made once manifest.
However, this is not a review of the magnificent Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum, but rather words born out of a reflection about time and its vestiges, about the world, everything created, and about the destruction of creation, which also occurs in time.
Up to now, 2022 has been a spectacular year in the United Kingdom. Not, it goes without saying, in politics or its economy, something I’ll touch upon at another moment, but in its weather (just before it became infernal during the July heatwave, I mean) and its light: that radiant light that has blessed us almost uninterruptedly since January, and the indescribable beauty of spring and summer so far. Life and nature following their course, without asking for anybody’s opinion, without lamenting about the way we humans do everything we can to destroy them.
During the most luminous months of the year, with the earth tilting its head towards the sun, there is light from four in the morning till almost eleven in the evening, and the whole earth—trees, blossoms, humans—come out to meet it suspended in a mesh of something that I can’t quite articulate, but which is sacred, even if sometimes we’re not aware of it. When I travel by train (one of my favourite pastimes), or on the trains and buses within London itself, I see trees, sky, clouds, and more trees; a luxuriant munificence which seems to want to take us back to the woods, to remind us of what we are. Often, my rapture has come accompanied by a reflection about certain threats that we hear over and over in the mouth of Russian spokespersons, politicians and the military.
The nature of the threat is nuclear. For some reason which, among the vomit of disjointed information about the war in Ukraine that overwhelms us all, escapes me, though from the beginning of the Russian invasion Putin’s government has shouted from the rooftops that the whole of the West and the NATO countries are their enemy, the threats of nuclear extinction are often directed specifically to the UK: a submarine missile, for instance, that would come down the Irish coasts, unannounced, without even a bomb alert, and which would turn us into a sterile wasteland in ten, twenty minutes. Of late they’ve said they might spare Scotland or Ireland after all but could definitely obliterate England, as if the devastation would respect borders. They tell us that the UK is not taking this talk seriously; that we think they wouldn’t dare to; that we’re playing with fire; that, what’s more, they can make us disappear in less than four minutes, and from the whole of the UK there would be absolutely nothing and no one left standing.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the absurd in such bragging; the certainty, which is already commonplace, that no one would be victorious after such an attack; or that we’re so relatively close to Russia that they would be victims themselves, since the radiations would reach them sooner or later. Let’s forget all that for a minute. Let’s think about the threat itself. Its dimension is so absolute, so unimaginable that sometimes, when I think about it, looking out of the window the landscape of sheer greenery that I love so much, I almost laugh. What kind of response is possible in the face of such nonsense?
I suppose that the Stonehenge stones, which have withstood so much and that were taken to Salisbury plain with such effort wouldn’t be standing either. Or would the stones remain, but no living being, nor any human consciousness to ever be amazed again by the ingenuity, strength and accurateness in astronomic calculations of those who took them there? Goodbye to the traces of those who preceded us thousands and thousands of years ago. Goodbye British Museum, with all its treasures, just- or ill-gotten! Goodbye to all the trees, the hills, the rivers; to the entire heritage of these islands’ culture, and to its birds. Goodbye to its flowers, including the wild, splendid hollyhocks. Goodbye everybody, friends and foes, men and women and everything that may be in between, from wherever they may hail, of any faith or none, of any race, young, elderly, children. Goodbye to collective memory. Goodbye to artists, authors, scientists, medical staff; goodbye to builders, bureaucrats, and the tourists that irritate me so. Goodbye to my life, its signs, my memory. Goodbye to hares, deer, foxes. Goodbye to the innumerable parks and gardens, the prodigious cathedrals, the vestiges of centuries in ancient buildings, and skyscrapers. Goodbye seagulls. Goodbye cafés, cinemas, pubs and hospitals. Goodbye, now for good, to the royal family, and 10 Downing Street in London, with its police, journalists, tourists and protesters at the gates. Goodbye red double-deckers. Goodbye to the melancholic coasts and their pebble beaches. To the sublime and the vulgar. To the landscape portrayed in countless books, pictures, films, and goodbye to the actual books, pictures (goodbye Turner!) and the gadgets that project the films. Ashes, the whole lot, as much as the audience. Goodbye to everything, without warning, without time to run, to say farewell, time for a last prayer or some gesture of soul or consciousness that might come close to it.
Goodbye to the leaf, preserved by miracle, that fell off an elm six thousand years ago.
And goodbye, I insist, to this bountiful nature, each and every single tree and flower.
Putin and his henchmen, emboldened by their orgy of blood and death in Ukraine, livid because things didn’t go as they planned, think that it is in their power to unleash this supreme destruction, and they amuse themselves suggesting to our imagination the infernal scenes. Their delirium is the conjuring up of the inconceivable.
Still shaken by the collective trauma of the pandemic, with frayed nerves because of the ever shriller evidence of global warming (in the above-mentioned heatwave that’s stifled Europe this summer, London reached 40 degrees for the first time in its history, and wildfires spread everywhere), the world does imagine, and its reaction is everything but wise: crazed nations invest more in nuclear weapons, as if the vertigo of a vision of hell couldn’t give rise to anything other than the most imbecilic and absolute self-destruction.
Why, if this threat is a thousand times worse than the Covid-19 pandemic, even though vertigo does pull at me, and even though I’m of course afraid, I don’t feel the same paralysing terror? I think it is because of its very inconceivability. Because the threat of absolute hell is, ultimately, absurd. If, as these sinister clowns pretend, there is really nothing we could do, if there would be no possible defence nor warning or alert, then the answer is clear: we have to live. Now. Just to live.
Through the train or bus window, through my home’s windows, I look out into the world, and I’ve never found it more beautiful. If it’s all going to end now, or not; if it is ever ending and ever renewing, as it’s finally the truth of this earth that has been turning for billions of years; if we know that even this sun that sheds light on us will be one day extinguished, we still have a form of resistance: to look at the world with reverence. To find our joy there, and to surrender our fear, our sorrow—infinite too—to time’s course, just as others yielded, in a silent stone circle, their adoration to a higher fire.
-Imagen de Michael Sutton
Adriana Díaz-Enciso es poeta, narradora y traductora. Ha publicado las novelas La sed, Puente del cielo, Odio y Ciudad doliente de Dios, inspirada en los Poemas proféticos de William Blake; los libros de relatos Cuentos de fantasmas y otras mentiras y Con tu corazón y otros cuentos, y seis libros de poesía. Su más reciente publicación, Flint (una elegía y diario de sueños, escrita en inglés) puede encontrarse aquí.
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