Post-Brexit Monsters Part 2

‘Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’ – Paul Kingsnorth's Beast (2016)

BY Patrick Langley in Culture Digest | 01 SEP 16

The late Russian-American theorist Svetlana Boym once wrote, echoing Goya’s famous etching, that: ‘Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.’ She argued against the dangers of inventing ‘a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to kill’. What monster might be bred by the nostalgia for an imaginary Britain – a bygone land untainted by population growth, immigration and industrial pollution?

One response to this troubling question comes in the form of Beast (2016), a hallucinatory novel by author and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth. At the start of the story, its narrator Edward Buckmaster has rejected the modern world and retreated to a tumbledown farmhouse on a barren moor, where he subsists on scant rations in total isolation from society. He is hoping to attain a spiritual awakening, and compares himself to the Desert Fathers, the early Christian hermits. Instead of enlightenment, a cataclysmic injury befalls him. This event is represented in the book by several blank pages: a rupture in the text that could be a violent attack, a landslide, a roof caving in – we never know for sure.

After the accident, Buckmaster begins to explore the hostile wilderness on broken legs, crawling around like one of the ditch-dwelling anti-heroes of Samuel Beckett’s fiction. Injury alters his awareness. But, instead of the Christian enlightenment he had been hoping for, an altogether more pagan, animistic worldview overcomes him. ‘Come to a place like this,’ he says, ‘shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand soon enough that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing.’ This ‘great animal’ soon assumes the form of a terrifying beast that prowls the windswept moors. It is ‘big and long and dark’, a ‘big black animal’ resembling a panther. As with Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016, reviewed in my previous post), the monster is a mystery. Is it a friend or foe, predator or prey? Buckmaster’s pursuit of the monster either drives him insane, or turns him into a cracked prophet. He has violent visions of death and destruction. Geography warps in confounding, maze-like ways. Past and future blur to dizzying effect.

Beast reflects Kingsnorth’s bleak view on humanity’s destructive relationship with the environment, a relationship he believes can only end in catastrophe. This view is expressed by the output of Dark Mountain Project, a writing collective that he co-founded in 2009. As their Manifesto states: ‘It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen.’ Beast is a powerful elucidation of this idea: a heady blast of mind-bending prose that distils all that is ‘savage and unseen’ about our natural world into the prowling form of the titular beast.

But the book is more than just a revenge narrative about nature rising up to destroy its human abuser. It is also, more uncomfortably, a nativist search for the soul of England. Significantly, Kingsnorth was a supporter of Brexit, and has expressed suspicion that immigration may lead to a confusion about what it means ‘to be “us” in England’. Beast is the second novel in an ambitious planned trilogy that explores that identity across ‘the mythical and actual landscapes of England across two thousand years of time’. The first was an intense, angry novel called The Wake, which was set in the 11th Century and written in an updated form of Old English. Its narrator rails against the occupation of the ‘grene lands’ of England by William the Conqueror’s forces, and laments a lost country in which men once lived ‘in freodom not in thrall’. Did this ‘freodom’ ever actually exist? And can it be recaptured by yearning for the return of a pre-modern England? As Svetlana Boym reminds us, the lust for a phantom homeland can summon more murderous monsters than the prowling black cat of Beast.

Patrick Langley is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is a contributing editor of The White Review.