PETER WEIR – A CENTENARY CELEBRATION (R9)


Peter Weir

‘Some of the main islands are: my garden, the view of distant mountains,
my country place where I withdraw from the noise of city life, my library…’
Carl Jung (1952)

How I Came to Own The Island

The Island by Peter Weir was published in 1949. I lament the fact that I’ll never know the reason why my mother gave me a copy for my 14th birthday. Did she know somehow that it would fit the way I was – that it would resonate with me stylistically, atmospherically and in the way it brilliantly conveys a still, sad, dreamy, ecstatically hopeless resignation? Or was she just attracted by the sublime illustrations by William McLaren? I can see her picking the book up in Bentalls of Kingston and reading the first page.

The sea had fallen, a low tide

The air was very still and clear, so that voices would have carried.
But there were no voices, just the whisper of leaves and sometimes the call of an owl. Sometimes also a twig broke as a deer stepped through the shadows; the foliage stirred, birds closed their wings, and an apple fell in the orchard. And always if one listened one heard the murmur of waves, so that the forest seemed to throb with the distant beat of the sea.

It was here that it really began, in an old, abandoned orchard. Its grass was long, wild, matted like hair, and it lay in the heart of the forest.

I imagine her thinking, ‘that will just suit my son…’ We were never a talkative family but I suppose I must have given away something about myself. She would probably have glanced at the few books I had on my one shelf then – Elia, Selborne, Sartor Resartus, The Aeneid, The Penguin Book of English Essays, Kenneth Allot’s Contemporary Verse, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – now grown in number to what can justifiably be called a ‘library’; she had perhaps been able to gauge something of my somewhat wayward youthful enthusiasms. We never talked about them and I know to my dismay now that I never expressed my gratitude to her for The Island which has been in my library ever since.

And where did I get the burning desire to possess a library of my own? It probably entered my being as a result of reading the description of the library in the island owner’s mansion: ‘…the candle grew brighter. They pierced the shadows of the library, revealing the true dimensions of the room, walls which were lined from ceiling to floor, the tables covered, with books, books that were there in thousands, mostly very old…’ From that moment I had to have a library!

My mother had done well in a conventional way at school; she ‘matriculated’ but never developed herself intellectually in all her 93 years, being more than mentally burdened by my sister’s progressive disability, but she must have known something about my inner being; though for sure she could never have known how The Island would remain just as captivating for me now as it was then – the trance has persisted during all these many years. Such are the accidental events that make us what we are today.

The Island Trance

I want to explore the nature of the trance which has far more to it than I originally imagined.

The dust jacket proclaims: ‘The author is a young ex-airman who on his release from the RAF retired to a cottage in the New Forest to devote his life to writing…’ I think I decided there and then that was what I wanted too: a cottage in the country and the time and space to write; this was an image or ideal that stuck with me during all the distracting years of making a living, being a father and through all the times of domestic uncertainty. I have always thought of myself, in a Thoreau kind of way, as being in the world but not of it – a virtual hermit – and I have written many miles of words, content with a minute but distinguished readership, if I can call it that! I have read and been consumed by Conrad and Lawrence, Woolf and Hardy and so on but, without underplaying their impact on me, I doubt I’d have been the person I am today without a firm anchor in what is still for me the curiously vivid imagery of The Island.

Peter Weir was born in 1915. In this his centenary year it seems very appropriate to me generally to record his unsung achievement and personally to attempt to figure out the effect that The Island had on me at what I suppose was a highly impressionable age when life was pretty well my own unknown island of potential. Just what is the nature of the trance he induced in me sixty years ago?

The ‘old, abandoned orchard’ on the first page – it started there! Immediately the (unanswered) questions: how did it come to be abandoned and by whom? Facing the orchard is the mysterious bailiff’s dilapidated hut or office where he works on his papers behind closed windows – ‘always closed – covered with cobwebs and dust…’

In later years, when such working conditions always struck me, and strike me still, as being ideal – out of the dim and dusty mess one creates temporary islands of order by sorting papers into heaps – I often wondered, since it was said that the author had intended to devote his life to writing, why nothing else by Peter Weir ever appeared in print; I have always hoped to develop my own creative intentions but nothing much comes of them, partly, I suppose, owing to my complete lack of entrepreneurial spirit! But my interest here is more about what can be derived from ‘the words on the page’, in line with what, in the middle of the 20th Century, was called ‘the New Criticism’ in accordance with which I used to teach English Literature but which, in this godforsaken era of the cult of the personality, is in danger of becoming completely outmoded.

Poetic Prose

The poetic prose of the opening tells us linguistically about the interior landscape of Tarn, the central figure of the novel: ‘…Then there came through endless woods and hollows as if from another world – winding slowly far away – the long clear notes of a horn…’ which seem to haunt the whole novel. I was more than happy to assimilate all this for my own interior landscape: my adolescent poetry sang out with absence and the sound of far-off horns; it was full of images of ruin and desolation!

In a flashback, Tarn recalls the moment some time earlier when Noola, a long-time island resident, whose spirit seems to haunt it, had shown him how to find the bailiff’s hut. Why does he want to get there? He has been somehow translated from his own island a month or two before (so he thinks, but is clearly not sure – keeping track of time is a problem for characters in the novel) and initially wants to find out how to make his way back there; on the other hand now he has met Noola it seems that he is more than happy to remain on her island. In the absence of the even more mysterious island owner, Noola thinks that the bailiff may be able to help Tarn, but, as she tells him, not if the only lead he can offer about his island is that

“It’s really rather like this, more rugged though and smaller, with no great woods like these. There too the swallows have left their nest, and larks will be singing now. Butterflies cling to the grass-stems, asleep, and petals fall indoors. A breath of air makes the curtain sway.”

A woodpecker laughed in the trees…

This seems like a rather louder version of Noola’s quiet response. And there’s always the sound of the sea: ‘…its rhythm haunted his thoughts and gently, dreamily, it lulled him back in its broadly rocking arms…’ Tarn’s quest shifts during the flashback to wondering whether he’ll be able to find Noola’s garden which he imagines as consisting of ‘…dove-cots and… pools of water and light… so many trees in it that parts are very dark. And in the light I see beds of flowers, growing luxuriantly yet somehow wildly, in abandon, tumbling over the lawns…’ This is his own fanciful image of Noola, her manor and its garden.

Throughout the novel conversations remind me of those in a Pinter play – inconclusive, they drift off or fade into one another as do the images – very often a conversation fuses with a depiction of the natural scene or else it melds into past times, stream of consciousness style.

And [Noola] began to play. She had no music before her. She played first old childhood tunes and rhymes – of a little girl in the garden, a child who ran on uncertain footsteps talking to the trees, to a broken doll which she clutched in her arms, among flowers of other days. Those days were endless, of cloudless skies, days of a vast, blue calm – Niord [a general factotum], the horses, a little black dog panting in the shade, swallows nesting in the barn, meadows flooded with hay, tall stems that met above her head, then vanished beneath the scythe. Still further back the hours grew hazy, haunted with the sea, grey, rocking days, a storm-thrush singing, nights of long, soft rain.
“You play well tonight.” [Says her mother for whom she is playing…]
Then she recalled other hands which had moved across these keys – the vanished strains of a minuet, carriage wheels in the snow, lamps lit and fires blazing, laughter, many voices – voices which still were heard in those rooms, very softly when nights were calm – and over the distance a trace of sadness, why she did not know, days very quiet, days so far off that her mother was still a girl.
In a cool shower of crystal notes, the long dead years fell back. The pool rippled and was still. And there in the hot and sultry noon were lakes of bog-myrtle, the moors of summer, and a girl who walked through the haze –
“Noola.”
A lark sang joyously.
“Noola.”
She stopped. Somewhere a canary woke in its cage. The notes died faintly away.
“Noola, whom did you meet today?”
“Tarn, Mother,” she answered, “why?”

Pause. No answer. The mother continued writing. Fade out.

Fade in to the bailiff’s hut. (I wonder if somebody might see the filmic possibilities of the text. It would make a great film or even an opera. I hold the idea in my mind to savour). The bailiff (bass baritone) has written in his daily log WORK I’VE DONE TODAY. It is too dark to read in the shadows of his hut but he records the visit made by Tarn (tenor) to enquire about where the island he came from might be located; the bailiff is unable to help but makes a note to refer the case to the owner (counter-tenor).

Tarn’s visit reminds the bailiff of his youth – how the pattern of his life had been determined when the owner asked him to be bailiff: ‘thus had been sown the seed of his life. And he wondered what seed Tarn had sown by coming…’ The seed of my own life was planted here…

The bailiff turns back to his papers.

Some he had never been able to read; there was not time enough. Evenings came, year followed year. He strove to attend to the present. But the past rose swiftly behind him – and always he heard the sea. It had been over the sea that the owner had gone. “Remember this: I will return. And carry out my instructions.”

This had been no threat, but a statement of fact. And the huge book stood there still, darkly bound, inscrutable, instructions from the owner. It was this which had so dismayed him at first, that some were so hard to follow. Even of these he had not read all, and some could not be read. For the pages were yellow, stained with age, words blotted, erased and then added; cross-references so abounded that often it was impossible to know what was instructed; and some of the references seemed to refer to that part of the book which was blank, to empty pages just faintly stained by those which came before. If only he could have spoken, but once, with his predecessor…’

Towards the end of the novel we discover who his predecessor was. The curious instruction which he had found most difficult to swallow was:-

The bailiff shall have no reward, nor wife,
nor home nor children, save these,
which are his reward, his children:
his work and the island around him.

The predecessor had disobeyed the rule and been expelled. Towards the end of The Island the current bailiff declares his love for Gilla suggesting that he too is running the risk of breaking the rule.

Teaching

Tarn is gainfully employed in the village school as a teacher of all subjects except geography from which he is excluded because of his ignorance about his place of origin. As though they knew about this, some wag in the class had been probably volunteered to mark on the schoolroom map a little mark with a sign ‘this is the island’! The reader wonders which is the Island of the title – Noola’s or Tarn’s. At another level their possible congruence is perhaps the whole other-than-conscious point of the novel. All islands are connected under the sea!

Tarn’s teaching methods are very congenial to me and I think it might have been here that was born my desire to be a teacher which, after various debilitating office experiences and so-called National Service, I set out to achieve ten years after first reading The Island, not that my classes were ever quiet like Tarn’s!

He made it clear that it was necessary to read exam questions carefully but he found that ‘half at least of the answers did not reply to the questions. They referred, he supposed, to some other question…’ Whenever I set a writing task for children I accepted just whatever they wrote, relevant or not, in the belief that writing should come from the soul and not have to conform to somebody else’s diktat. So it suited me very well when I eventually taught an English Literature A Level course where there were no guidelines for a ‘correct’ answer, no marking scheme, and essays had to be assessed for the quality of a student’s thinking. The course was soon abolished by the Power Possessors.

Tarn has a very good relationship with his class as illustrated in the following passage. Also noteworthy stylistically is the way the conversation about how to get to the owner’s mansion so smoothly becomes Tarn’s exploration itself. There is no sense of authorial intervention in the process; throughout the book, characters do their own transformation of natural images in internal reflection which never comes over as author commentary.

… “Come over here to the board.” He began to draw. “Didn’t you tell me you’d been to the Old Mansion – the owner’s house, you know – and that you looked in at the windows?”
“Oh yes, sir.”
“Well, I’ve been there, too, and I couldn’t get in. There’s a wall all round the park. Here’s the wall – lodge-gates there –”
“There are dogs at the lodges too – huge dogs, mastiffs they are.”
“Then how did you get in?”
Next woods and streams appeared on the board, a bridge, a disused barn – and the path along which Tarn walked through the wind on the following afternoon.

The wind was rising. Harebells rang in the fields. Partridges crouched on the stubble. Hazel nuts fell and leaves raced wildly, preceding him through the woods… The door which Peter had described was hidden by brambles and thorns, so that it might well have been passed unnoticed by all save little boys. And although it was chained, he could just squeeze through by pushing it carefully. A robin was singing above the brambles.

When he gains entry to the Mansion, without having the necessary permit, Liza, who appears to be a maid, shows him round the empty galleries and bedrooms of the huge rambling house, explaining that everybody there was waiting for the return of the owner. In spite of his absence the kitchen is very well stocked for his coming, at which time ‘the windows will be thrown open and all the leaves cleared away’.

Here among utensils of every kind, coppers, sinks and pots and pans, great bowls of milk, and ovens, huge ladles, cupboards crammed with provisions, larders in which he saw cheeses and flour, honey-combs, apples and hams…

and most extraordinary of all, stunning image,

…maidens, dressed all alike in white, their hair tied back, their feet bare. Their movements were swift and tireless, silent, so that the impression was that he had entered, not a kitchen, but a vast, tiled hall in which these maids were dancing.

Once again, Tarn has a fleeting intuition that this kitchen is somehow an emblem for his island of which he was the owner, as he tells blind Mr Ardan, who is in the mansion library with the bailiff. At this revelation the bailiff is as surprised as we are. Once upon a time, he was an island owner – has he been deposed, expelled, or in some other way lost control of his own sense of being in charge of his place? Hence the unexplained move to Noola’s island?

Waiting

‘Waiting’ is perhaps the central organising principle of The Island: everybody seems to be waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the owner to put in an appearance is reminiscent of Gurdjieff’s metaphor of the house with an absent Master – without the controlling effect of the Master, things fall apart, directionless; we have to achieve the status of Master in order to put our own house in order, re-discover our essential self; it feels as though this is what Tarn is waiting for. He hopes that Ardan, who, temporarily living in the owner’s mansion, is making a study of, and writing a book about, islands, will be able to help; but merely describing a kitchen won’t be much use! Ardan invites him to an ‘uneventful’ dinner during the course of which there’s the one clear statement of the metaphor behind the title of the book: ‘…the three men sat far apart, each with his own thoughts. They seldom spoke. They were, he thought, like three islands, or planets out in space, their faces lit faintly, in silence, with darkness all around…’

Time passes; ‘winter came quickly’. Tarn visits Noola in her manor house during the winter when it is cut off from the rest of the island by the river. A loving isolation.

Now was the time when the forest thundered as the wind rushed through the trees. From the windows of the manor one looked out on a sea of branches, waves which towered above the house, filled the rooms with subaqueous green and swaying, leaning over it, with a flicker of light and shade. In rain these trees which possessed the manor far more than those who lived there, submerged it, invading it with murmurs, an obliterating sleep. Then the forest dripped from the hills to the shore, rain trickled down the trunks and the valley was lost in a blue-grey mist, the river seething with bubbles.

It is suggested that the verger might be able to answer Tarn’s questions about his island. An arrangement is made for them to meet in the ‘The Fish’, the village pub. Tarn approaches the place through the icy weather and, not for the only time in the book, once inside, feels a sense of cold alienation in a crowd: ‘listening to the conversation around him he discovered that he could not understand it… he knew the meaning of each of their words, but their arrangement meant nothing to him…’ Perhaps the deliberate choice of the name of the pub and all the fish imagery is intended to suggest that here is some kind of esoteric knowledge of the spirit waiting to be found here – that which is, for anybody, difficult to understand. In the same way, the reader comprehends each little cameo sequence in the novel but piecing everything together to make a coherent sense is more intriguingly challenging. We are only able to begin to sort things out for ourselves in its last pages; it is constructed with artful vagueness and poetic discrepancies; it is a novel for a reader with a fair toleration of ambiguity

Anyway, the verger turns out to be the ‘little wizened man, dressed completely in black’ sitting by the wall. They discuss fishing – a common interest – but Tarn begins to feel as though this was a dream – ‘as if in that dream he had wandered by accident on to a stage where a play was already in progress’ – a sensation I have been familiar with all my life.

Unreality

Tarn’s sense of unreality is increased when the verger, as though addressing the parish council of which he is secretary, embarks on an analysis of a problem that he and the bailiff seem to have discussed: because Tarn has been asking questions all round the village, they harbour the suspicion that Tarn ‘…might not have come here by accident. You might have been sent here by some other island…’ Investigations by outside authority have happened before with disastrous consequences as we shall discover. The verger explains their quandary:-

“Now, as a matter of interest – please don’t misunderstand me – suppose you were to be helped to go, not necessarily to your own island, which none of us know, but to some other – say with Mr. Ardan when he finishes his book.” He eyed Tarn curiously to see the effect of his words; but the young man gave no indication of his feelings. “As against such a move there are certain objections of which, as an intelligent man, if I may put it like that, the bailiff cannot fail to be aware. There are in fact two disadvantages either one of which would be certain to arise. In the first place, if you have not been sent here, then your departure would be a waste of time, both for you as well as him – and the owner might learn of it. If, on the other hand, you have been sent here, it might well be construed as a confession of weakness.”

It seemed to Tarn that in thus speaking aloud his thoughts, the verger succeeded only in showing him how unreal and complicated they were.

Verger and bailiff seem constrained by the need not to upset the owner at any cost. The verger’s own solution is simply to keep Tarn on the island either by granting him fishing rights or, with dramatic irony, to get him married to somebody on the island. As Tarn sums it up, the verger was insinuating that ‘the bailiff arranges the love affairs of his community’.

Outside again, ‘a meteor burned its trail across the sky…’

The existence of Tarn’s island is strangely confirmed when he receives a letter from somebody called Gilla (a name which can be interpreted variously as Joy, messenger, boy-servant) which arrives he knows not how. He gives his reaction to the letter to Noola and her mother:-

“… the apples in the orchard, the cattle lowing in their byres and the bees in the ivy-bloom. How then the garden throbbed for me with the endless drone of bees! I saw my window open at dawn on a vast and hazy sea, the falling tide, boundless sands, sea-pools, a schooner [which will appear later on] and far away, another island, vague and remote, great hills that were lost in the clouds. Then her letter grew filled for me with autumn, the gathering of corn, the west wind tossing a young girl’s hair, blowing it into her eyes. And those were your eyes, Noola, and leaves were falling softly, over an island dissolving in mist, in a liquid fruitfulness. Over the land, as I read, fell snow. In a night it was transformed. It was hidden, covered with silent flakes, the branches delicate – woven into a wonderland, white, vaulted, untouched, like a dream. I watched the wind arise on the moors – they mount behind the garden – huge waves of snow-dust toppling – hissing – misty spirals made grey by the heather – deluging the gorse with crystals – waves that flowed down in an endless succession as if to submerge the house. And the wind, as it streamed through the trees in the garden, was calling of days to come, days when the gorse would be motionless, scented, pods snapping in the sun.”

Transformations and merging. Tarn has told Noola that he loves her more than all this now, that her old garden which is described in similar ecstatic terms represents her multiplicity of selves ‘like rings in a tree’, including, prophetically, being a self as ‘a little child running down the path… holding a doll that is blind and she tells it about the flowers…’ And then he sees ‘…nothing – only long waves on the sea…’ by which the garden is haunted – the pattern of their lives in the ‘wild, earthy life of the island of which they were each a part…’

What seems to take Tarn away from a firm grasp of life is the presence of crowds, as when he’s in ‘The Fish’, having drunk more beer than he feels he ought to have done. There is a party at the manor during which he again found himself in a kind of dream: conversations sounded like the drone of insects; he is bewildered by a play and feels that something is about to happen when a distant horn sounds, premonition of thunder, and then the bailiff arrives leading the blind Ardan.

The Arboretum

In his school Tarn discovers a copy of a vast sprawling book, ‘full of sentences so long, so very involved, curling back on themselves…’, the whole thing in the end just petering away. It is called The Arboretum – a book Ardan needed for his studies. Ultimately The Island simply peters away in the most agreeable enigmatic fashion, mystery that has haunted me all these years!

Tarn and Noola visit the Arboretum – a visit that doomed their relationship. Like much else in this thoroughly intriguing novel, the reason for this is never clear.

“This place,” he said as they closed the gate – it seemed natural to speak very quietly – “must surely have some history. I wonder what it is.”
His voice echoed softly.
“I think it has, and there’s somebody working; we might ask him,” she suggested.
Leading off the main ride were two others transepting, like the former only shorter, so that the wood was laid out in the form of a cross. From these rides led smaller paths through groves of rhododendron, among other trees, all huge of their kind although small compared with the red-woods. There were glades of slender, grey-barked beeches, whose leaves were gently rustling, standing like maidens in a circle as they walked slowly on. In some of the glades were cypresses and fir-trees of every kind, silver firs and cedars, trees with several trunks, with pale, grey leaves, blue, brittle foliage, boughs golden and purplish and black, trees whose growth was compact or spreading, contorted, symmetrical. Here and there stood ancient yews in an impenetrable shade, gnarled, dark and patriarchal trees, which might have marked the tombs of kings…

A woodsman they meet explains that long ago the owner had intended to build a house with a walled garden there. All that can be seen are overgrown ruined walls. It was, thought Tarn, ‘…a small forgotten section of that far greater temple, its columns supporting the clouds…’ a mysterious image that causes a bit of a shock to the system since if the ‘far greater temple’ represents the temple of life then Tarn’s view of it is perhaps similar to that expressed by Orwell’s George Bowling in Coming up for Air, ‘the dustbin we’re in reaches up to the sky’?

All work on house and arboretum was long ago stopped on orders from the owner presumably as a result of some great disappointment or falling away of intention. Things just ‘petered out’. It must have been a significant development when it was first proposed because plenty of books have been written about it according to the woodsman who had worked there so long that ‘it’s all a part of us’. The doomed visit to the ruins of the arboretum can be taken to stand for the ruin of Tarn’s plans for marriage: Noola explains that Ardan, like her blind doll, needs her; at that moment a sudden vision of his island fades away from Tarn’s eye like a dream and he knows he will never go to the arboretum again; it’s all a trick of the light.

That nothing more of Peter Weir’s authorship appeared in published form makes me wonder briefly if things somehow ‘petered out’ for him.

That very night Ardan calls for Noola and asks her to go away with him. She goes. Noola’s mother explains to Tarn that it was a big mistake to go to the arboretum before they were married; if they had gone afterwards it would have been ‘different’. The place seems to have infected them with its ruin and decay.

School’s Out

It’s the summer holidays and to rise above his distress Tarn decides to spend a few weeks by the sea with renewed hope of finding out something about his island. So far in the novel, frequent references to the distant sound of the sea have reminded us of its presence but now we are where sea meets land, a potent image representing fluidity and fixity, a magical boundary in mythology where special knowledge can be acquired. Or, in Jungian terms, ‘the unconscious might be compared to the sea, while consciousness is like an island rising out of its midst. The island could reveal what kind of relationship the ego-consciousness of a dreamer has with the unconscious…’

Little waves were lapping along the sands, green, glistening, murmurous, and it seemed that the sea was sleeping, basking lazily, caressing the shores of the island. Its scent floated inland, tinged gold, becoming a part of the gorse-clumps on the hills above the bay. And, as Tarn descended, sounds wove round him, bird cries, voices, fragmentary notes made musical by the distance, bells, flutes and the twang of strings, the beating of drums and cymbals – the sounds of the sea-side town. Soon they clamoured about him. Entering the streets, he was swallowed up by a vast resounding wave.

The transformation of one sound into another reminds me of Jung’s experience with a boiling kettle:-

One evening – I can still remember it precisely – I was sitting by the fireplace and had put a big kettle on the fire to make hot water for washing up. The water began to boil and the kettle to sing. It sounded like many voices, or stringed instruments, or even like a whole orchestra… It was as though there were one orchestra inside the Tower and another one outside. Now one dominated, now the other, as though they were responding to each other… It was soft music, containing, as well, all the discords of nature. And that was right, for nature is not only harmonious; she is also dreadfully contradictory and chaotic. The music was that way too: an outpouring of sounds, having the quality of water and of wind…

The scene in the streets which ‘swallows’ Tarn is so different from the rest of the island. Tarn is once again, as in ‘The Fish’ and at the manor party, alienated by busy-ness and a throng of people invading his peace; the people here seem to have their features painted on waxen masks and ‘…when they laughed or smiled these features puckered as if the wax was melting…’. I am reminded of Pete’s dream in Harold Pinter’s early radio play The Dwarfs:-

I was with a girl in a tube station, on the platform. People were rushing about. There was some sort of panic. When I looked round I saw everyone’s faces were peeling, blotched, blistered…

Pete is similarly alienated by people! He wonders if his own face is peeling…

After this, we ‘normal’ human beings perhaps feel a kind of relief, as though we are suddenly in what we like to think of as ‘the real world’, or at least the world of consciousness:-

Here around him flags were flying, bunting and coloured streamers, roundabouts circled giddily, wheezing, and children were shouting. People were eating ice cream, walking about in beach-attire, racing past him in vehicles of every kind. Here were cafés, each with a different tune, shop-windows filled with picture post-cards, and sea-gulls which dived on the promenade, screaming raucously, to seize morsels of food which were thrown to them by old men and podgy schoolboys. He began to realize that the island was very much larger than he had known.

But Tarn is not fooled by conscious ‘reality’ – even the shadows in his still, silent, hotel are different from the shadows at the manor or in the schoolroom; the lounge with its ferns is full of old people, endlessly reflected in mirrors, dressed as for a journey with suitcases and packages; it has the appearance of a waiting-room.

The waiting image again.

When the steamer arrives the sound of its hooter reminds Tarn of Niord’s horn but the waiting passengers with their suitcases and baggage charge in an unscrupulous melée towards the exit. Compelling image.

Jung

At their destination Tarn discovers a train service along the coast built by the owner for the pleasure of visitors; he goes to the end of the line where, across the salt-marsh with its tidal creeks, a vast breeding ground for birds, he can see a tower, ‘crumbling in the haze’. Climbing it, through rooms littered with miscellaneous junk, for what he hopes will be a better view of the island Tarn feels as if ‘…he were climbing out of the perplexities of the town, of Noola and Ardan, the Arboretum, as if in this wilderness he was finding something for which he had sought…’

What is Tarn seeking for but his essential being? A meta-position from which he can assert himself, his own island in space & time representing what he feels he has somehow lost; fulfilment of a need to make up for the loss of temporary solace in Noola with her roots firmly in the manor and the haunted garden; aspiring to the solidity of the Owner’s mansion, even feeling at home in the bailiff’s hut; always after a container for his being, which has to be something quite different from ‘The Fish’ with its crowd of incoherent topers or the hotel with its mad crush of holiday-makers. The tower takes him up out of all this – though crumbling at the base, it represents, at least temporarily, something solid from which to operate. With the immediate agreement of the tower warden, he decides to spend the rest of his holiday there.

Over a number of years, Jung built himself a tower which came to express something of his inner being:-

Gradually, through my scientific work, I was able to put my fantasies and the contents of the unconscious on a solid footing. Words and paper, however, did not seem real enough to me; something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Or, to put it another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the ‘Tower’, the house which I built for myself at Bollingen.

Jung had intended it to be a simple ‘round structure with a hearth in the centre and bunks along the walls…’ like an African hut with a fire burning in the middle round which the life of the family revolves. He comments that ‘…primitive huts concretise an idea of wholeness…’ Jung’s tower was added to as he experienced ‘…the feeling of repose and renewal…’ become more and more intense; he needed to capture this with additions to the building. However. he realised that the central tower was himself, a place of rebirth which he’d built in a kind of dream, a symbol of ‘psychic wholeness’.

In the last forty years I have built four summer houses in different gardens, no more than ‘primitive huts’, small pointed towers, which I’ve thought of as some kind of representation of my self.

There is a paragraph in Jung’s masterpiece Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961) that is uncannily congruent with Tarn’s general sensitivity:-

At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is nothing in the Tower that has not grown into its own form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.

Of course Tarn’s endeavours to find out about his island, lacking system and stickability, have not been at all akin to ‘scientific work’ but when he arrives at the tower he clearly feels that his experiences of natural events, having become a part of him, achieve a kind of settled climax. This is confirmed when the warden and he spend much time talking, for at last a central mystery is revealed; we feel a sense of recognition, familiar territory, when the warden explains…

You know the office and the orchard. I had been working there all morning and the trees were a mass of blossom. I used sometimes to wonder that trees so old should be so full of life. And I was tired of all those papers and writings when outside the sun was shining. I was still young. So I sat gazing through the window. And then I saw a young girl walking slowly among the trees. The sun and the leaves were playing in her hair. Birds were singing. A torrent of sound swept over me. I went and threw open the door. Even then, standing on the steps of the office, it was not too late. I could have gone back to my desk and nobody would have been any the wiser – if she had not seen me also. That was how I loved her.”

Tarn has forgotten the ‘rules’ attaching to the role of bailiff and wonders how that could have got him the sack.

“I suppose,” the warden continued, “it might have been hushed up, had it not been for the young man who, unknown to me, had been sent to… inspect the island. How even he discovered, I never knew, although I must say he was a very shrewd young fellow. I suspected the verger of telling him; but I didn’t much care then…

So, the warden was the previous bailiff – he’d broken the rules and been exiled. He’d fallen in love with Noola’s mother; presumably he’s therefore Noola’s father and the ‘shrewd young fellow’ who came to inspect the island was a forerunner of the kind of inspector of islands the verger and current bailiff suspected Tarn of being. The ‘plot’, at least provisionally, tumbles into place but we need to read the novel again to get the whole drift of it; several readings are needed to get all the nuances. For instance, it turns out that all the writing Noola’s mother spends her time on goes into letters to the warden of the tower.

A few mornings later, a schooner is observed under full sail. The warden quietly & sadly observes that it’s the owner; he knows that the owner will only return to the island if Noola’s mother dies. A very brief reference tells us that she was the owner’s sister. We are left with the tantalising idea that she had something to do with the owner’s abandonment of the arboretum and the island. He has come for the funeral.

After finishing the last page of The Island and reluctantly closing the book, what impressions are we left with?

• The seamless flow of natural events through the seasons and characters’ absorption in them
• Shady interiors where people write: the bailiff, Noola’s mother, Ardan, the warden…
• Authority figures: the bailiff, the headmaster, the owner, the sinister figure of the verger
• The arboretum ‘curse’
• The way the ending peters away in mystery
• The novel seems like a bit of a ramble but actually has a tightly knit ‘plot’
• The theme of ‘waiting’
• The presence of the sea as perhaps as a representation of the other-than-conscious mind
• The notion of ‘island’ as sanctuary
• A library & old collections of books & papers
• Houses & similar structures as containers of the soul
• Tarn’s alienation – constantly seeking, but ultimately giving in to authority

The Return

When Tarn arrives back after his holiday he finds everything changed as though affected by ‘deep autumnal stillness’. The manor was in the middle of a wilderness: ‘he felt that the garden could never really have been as he remembered it; this wild claim of autumn was the natural end of a dream…’ He imagines that his own island will be in a similar state of abandonment.

Noola’s mother had been confident that Noola would return and so is the only remaining resident in the manor, the cook, who keeps a fire burning while she waits.

In the first of the concluding authoritarian diktats, the headmaster announces that Tarn will no longer be employed as a teacher; he is to go to the manor next day. Tarn asserts that he’ll only go on his terms.

There Noola has taken over her mother’s position writing at her desk and, not seeming to recognise Tarn at first, thinking that they’d been apart for years and years, summers, winters and autumns; Tarn is similarly vague about the passage of time. But anyway, reconciled, He goes to the bailiff’s to ask for the return of her mother’s livestock; he finds the office changed, littered with papers & books, buckets all over the floor to catch the rain leaking through the roof. Noola tells Tarn how important repairs are – a practical observation that Tarn seems to ignore. Perhaps he feels that house repairs are not the stuff of romantic liaison – I recall that Keats says he can’t marry Fanny because he didn’t want their relationship sullied by things like doing the shopping.

Nevertheless they marry and time passes. The owner has discovered the whereabouts of Tarn’s own island and the bailiff demands that he set out for it immediately. Authority wins out. There is a hint that the verger is again machinating to get Tarn out of the way and the owner asserts that Noola’s son ‘is to be my next bailiff’. Another diktat.

The novel peters away in a way that I find most satisfying.

Jung described the relationship between consciousness and the other-than-conscious mind as being akin to a chain of islands which appear to be separate above the surface of the ocean but are really connected below it. When Tarn is absorbed into the ocean we could take it to mean that the individuation process is complete, that he has achieved a conceptual unity with his ‘dark bride’. Consciousness joins up with Other-than-consciousness.

I came across an outline of a dissertation on the Internet by Edward John Federenko called Islands and Transformation: An Archetypal Pattern in Western Literature (January 1, 1996). (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Massachusetts) It explores the literary use of the island metaphor in a way that I think is totally appropriate to Peter Weir’s brilliant short novel The Island. It proposes:-

…the castaway and the island experience as a parallel to the hero and the hero’s journey as a metaphor for what Carl Jung has called ‘the individuation process’. The island setting as a site for the spiritual, emotional, or psychological transformation of a character has remained a constant in Western literature… The typical island story involves a character in many, if not all, of the following ways: removal to a remote island; awakening to, and taking stock of, strange surroundings; initial setbacks followed by increasing adaptation; spiritual, emotional, or psychological growth due specifically to island experiences; a climactic event which challenges growing feelings of wholeness; and escape and return to the home society in a much-altered state. [Federenko traces] …the influence of the island on the castaway story in terms of six archetypes: wanderer, hermit, artist, magician, king, and hero. Jung refers to the influence on the psyche of certain places and situations when he says that ‘only in the region of danger (watery abyss, cavern, forest, island, castle, etc.) can one find the treasure hard to attain… (Collected Works 12:438) …Jung was concerned primarily with describing archetypal figures and their effect on individuation. [Federenko’s] dissertation attempts to extend that concern by considering how the archetypal setting inspires human transformation. The conclusion [he draws] …from examining the function of these six archetypes in island fiction is that they are given impetus by the island setting because of the island’s remoteness from the castaway’s home society and the island’s isolation from all other societies. Jung notes that a particular kind of psychic energy flourishes in isolation resulting in ‘an animation of the psychic atmosphere, as a substitute for loss of contact with other people’ (CW 12:57). The island – a kind of incubator – exerts a more active influence on a character’s growth in island fiction than has hitherto been acknowledged.

When Shakespeare depicts characters who are ‘on the mend’ psychically he takes them off to an island as in The Tempest or isolates them in a forest as in As You Like It for dramatic study.

10 thoughts on “PETER WEIR – A CENTENARY CELEBRATION (R9)

  1. Phenominal read for a Saturday moring – a few thoughts that sprung to mind during the reading/absorption of your erudite (of course) blog. More or less in the order in which they occurred.

    It’s interesting to relfect whether the book reflects you or you reflect the book. Did your Mother simply use her “Mother’s knowing” of you (which has nothing to do with talking by the way) to select just the right book, or does the book contain such universal metaphors that it triggered somatic markers in her on that opening page, that she was aware of in herself in some way, that she wanted to communicate it to you through the book. Who can know now? or even then.

    (Mother’s knowing simply a soul to soul awareness of you as the person you were at the time. Don’t forget that you had literally been a part of her before you were born. Your spirit was in her. Of course she knew who you were. Whether consciously or other than consciously or both).

    I can see you in the way the book is constructed; its language and it’s structure are you to a tee.

    Did Peter Weir use the art of metaphor so supremely well that their (your meaning) meaning seeped deep into your own other than conscious mind and have been leading you hither and thither ever since. Who can know?

    The hidden internal ife of other than conscious meaning derived and subsequently shaping our future and the appeal of the inconclusive, the poetic and the ambiguous together with the shifting sands of time past and present are represented in the writing. The Island is severally a place to escape to and one in which we already reside, a place we sometimes search for outside of us but is actually to be found inside at our core and so cannot be found by the “searcher” looking outside, some might call the island our soul some other Meta-I or Core Self. Connected to other islands inevitably by what Jung might have referred to as the collective unconscious.

    No man is an island.

    What struck me was the power of the right book given at precisely the right moment, perhaps simply recognised as one which would fire the imagination and even create a love of ambiguity, because life is in my own experience at least, a series of unanswered questions and incomplete journeys and seeking.

    From a more fixed perspective of what children “ought to be learning” I can also see that some (for instance teachers I have known) might say it was precisely the wrong book given at precisely the wrong moment in a developing life of a young boy. But somehow I don’t think so.

    The vivid imagery in the book creating a series of somatic markers in you that to this day have resonance.

    What writing – to use your words

    ‘half at least of the answers did not reply to the questions. They referred, he supposed, to some other question…’ Whenever I set a writing task for children I accepted just whatever they wrote, relevant or not, in the belief that writing should come from the soul and not have to conform to somebody else’s diktat.

    All questions of perception…………….

    Such fun on a Saturday – thanks for the treat Colin.

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  2. As always, Colin, it’s such a pleasure to read excerpts of a hitherto-unknown (to me) book through the lens of your extraordinary exegesis of said book. And it’s a pleasure of equal degree whenever you write about any of your remarkable past experiences. May we please have more autobiographical sketches in future posts?

    Let me also thank Pat for her insightful reflections. I too stopped and paused at your recollection of your experience of giving writing assignments to your young pupils without imposing your own requirements upon them. How fortunate they were to have you for their teacher!

    And finally, do you know what ever became of Mr.Weir? Did he continue to write, and simply choose not to publish? Or did he so fully express himself in The Island that he had no need to write anything more?

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    1. Tom – I think The Island is pretty well unknown! It was always a puzzle to me why nothing else ever appeared by ‘Peter Weir’ – that was an important part of my trance. I’ve always wondered, like you, whether he was of the clan of one-book writers having said all he wanted to say in The Island.

      Imagine my excitement now at having at last made contact with his son who tells me that he has the unpublished manuscripts of two 300 page novels and many short stories. I shall visit him in the New Forest where he lives in the same house his father bought in the 50’s before Xmas and what I find will form the next instalment here…

      ABE books have a few copies of The Island but Pat has snapped up the one signed by the author!

      Peter Weir was divorced somewhere in the 60’s and committed suicide in 1978.

      As for my own autobiographical sketches… Well, I suppose the ROOM books are fragments of autobiography! ROOM 8 on its way shortly!

      Colin

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      1. Awesome that you will have the opportunity to peruse those unpublished manuscripts by Mr Weir, Colin! I’m greatly looking forward to your account of that experience.

        Tom

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  3. Curiously the book that you bought me when I was a small lad called Wise Owl’s Story by Alison Uttley surfaced from the chaos of newly moved boxes earlier this week. In it were these words that both reminded me of your method of cooking and educating. Whatever words gathered on a page or whatever happened to be in the cupboard got stirred in and was just right.

    The house was very old and very untidy. Dust and dirt of ages filled the rooms and cobwebs hung in festoons from the ceilings. Sometimes bits of tree fell into the soup when Wise Owl was cooking, but he was too wise a bird to mind, and he stirred them about with his wooden spoon, murmuring, ” How interesting! ”
    “A morsal of a house which had lasted from Queen Elizabeth’s time gives a tasty flavour to the broth!”

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  4. A short write-up about The Island.

    When I was 14 I read “Catcher in the Rye.” It was the first time that I felt as though the author was inside my head, writing about me, Holden Caulfield and I were one: disillusioned, angry, and tired of an adult world full of hypocrites and liars. How was this possible, how could someone know me better than I knew myself? At age 14 this was somewhat of an epiphany. But the last time I began to read that book in front of a classroom of 14 year old students, I had to stop reading. I didn’t like the language, it lacked beauty, and something inside gave rise to putting the book away. If they wanted to continue on with the text, they would have to do it on their own.

    I finally finished reading your glob and the novel, I wrote down a bunch of notes during a break in my class yesterday, and feel pretty good about them. I’ve been extremely busy at work and bogged down at home with the grief my family has experienced since the passing of our son Sam, which occurred on October 24, 2014. To put it simply, a shock that embodies a magnitude of those uncertain proportions sent each family member into an uncharted passageway where our ordinary vocabulary didn’t work; the mind for me anyway didn’t have a reference point or a history, and the mind will make up its own rules and machinations when it experiences a degree of pain that doesn’t seem to contain a bottom. Is this the unfathomable region of the subconscious that Gurdjieff talks about, or is it the mystery of Jung’s unconscious, a place where the gods dwell, where our true self is imprisoned until some great suffering comes along and opens that guarded gateway? Peter Weir’s poetic prose paint with strokes that flow with ease and ferocity, the sea becomes a resounding anchor, a character as important as any in the story, always there, in flux, immutable, like the home us humans long for.

    In the novel The Island by Peter Weir we are cut off from the source, thrown into a dream of staggering imaginative powers. Tarn, the central character is searching for his own island that seems to lose its significance as the novel progresses. Having just finished my first reading I’ve already started my second reading, like all great art, the first impression leaves us with many questions. I hope to discover some of those things that are now swirling around inside.

    We, like islands are born cut off from the source, “our birth is but a forgetting.” Oceans give birth to islands, the islands bubble up from the depths of the sea volcanoes, then it’s up to us to survive the primordial “Tales” that follow us from this genesis.

    The novel begins with a pattern of shifts in time, Tarn and Noola walk through the forest and discover a preserved orchard in the middle of the forest, these fairy tale elements are just one aspect of a story filled with literary motifs, but that doesn’t come close to the musical notes that abound here, music seems to spring from every cubic inch, and act as their own enchantment, a real treat for those who enjoy the songs of Whitman and others.

    He wondered indeed how it came to be there, how it had survived, why the forest had not swallowed it up long since, why – it did not answer. It was very quiet. Beech-trees stood solemnly, pendent around it. It was sleeping.

    Then later:

    Listen, Tarn: you can hear the sea, as if it were alsleep
    Nor did he care about the island where he used to live, and from which he had wondered over the sands, past sea-pools – how long ago?

    So begins the islands influence over Tarn, like the mythical sirens, the island is a temptress, singing a haunting melody of forgetfulness. This is a novel where time with a capital “T” poses itself in a disruptive fashion. I kept finding myself swept away by the sea, by the forest, and by the animals that all seemed to add their own poems and instructions as to what was happening; the plot kept slipping away. Where am I and what just happened were constant friends as I, like Tarn, were being hypnotized by the magnetic pull of Weir’s language.

    But it was the sea that possessed the whole forest.

    The Island holds within its pages more than mere unconscious symbols and sexual tensions, deeper yet is the subconscious splits into vast schisms of danger and helplessness. Tran’s conflict between love and bureaucracy is given to us in the first couple of pages and doesn’t seem to be resolved at the end. If you enjoy novels that wrap things up in a nice bow, this book will probably not satisfy you.

    The novel has an eternal feel to it, like a place we’ve all been to, maybe a place we keep returning, when time allows for those creative works, that sustain this worn and weary world. This short write-up only hints at the mesmerizing pages that like the sea call to us when we remember ourselves long enough to realize that contained within this transient world is an eternal longing, a passageway full of secrets.

    But it was no longer a horn that he heard. It was the wild call of a sea-bird.

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    1. The novel sounds intriguing and the kind I’d have expected Colin Wilson to recommend, in the way he waxed lyrical about A Voyage to Arcturus for example. I’ll see if I can get a copy and fit it into my list of ‘to reads.’!

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