Monday, March 01, 2010
Gaudete by Ted Hughes
Ted Hughes’s Gaudete is a 200 page poem laying bare the neurosis at the heart of our western civilisation. In it, Hughes creates a myth about the nature of civilisation itself, about the forces that shape humanity and the malignity that can transform us. Although in his work Hughes generally eschews the dualism that is at the core of Christian thought, there is nonetheless a dualism at play here – not good and evil, God and devil, but order and nature, rationality and spirit. In Gaudete, he depicts what he considers to be the spiritual impoverishment of contemporary civilisation. What he sees as the overweening attraction to pure reason, at the expense of mythic invention, leaves us prone to psychic discontent, paralysed, passive and apathetic. Moreover, the hypocricy contained in the constricted teachings of Christianity make us stunted, unfulfilled and sexually repressed. Hughes is unsparing in his depiction of modern man. Lee Lance calls Hughes’s poems ‘messages from another world (inevitably a collective unconscious) meant to heal, guide or illumine.’ If that is so, Hughes’s prognosis is that we are in dire need of those messages.
The story centres on Nicholas Lumb, a minister in a small English community. In the first section of the poem he is seen wandering through an Eliotesque city of the dead, terror-struck by the despair and disaster which surrounds him. He becomes a changeling, and a shadow of himself returns to his parish, a shamanic magician who is set on founding a new religion. This will sweep away the puritanical Protestantism that shackles mankind. It is based on women, its adherents may only be women, and it proceeds in a Dionysian ecstacy of sexual excess. Lumb effectively turns the village and its female parishioners into his private harem and he brings to the surface the latent emotions of all those around him – sexual in the case of the women in his thrall and violent in the case of their cuckolded husbands. However, he later decides to elope with one of his parishioners, Felicity, setting in train a murderous climax which finally sees the church burned to the ground, taking with it the bodies of Lumb, Felicity and Lumb’s housekeeper Maud.
This section of the story – by far the longest – is suffused with sex and violence and death, a nihilistic danse macabre in which Hughes depicts a civilisation on the brink of disaster. Roelef Wigboldus suggests that the imagery contained within it symbolises ‘the outbursts of violence characteristic of Western civilization.’ That may be so, but I would suggest the symbolism is even wider: Hughes is not portraying only the violence of western civilisation, but western civilisation itself. Western civilisation is violence, he is telling us. It has succumbed, under the malign influence of repressive religion, to a neurosis which has rendered it incapable of dealing with its inner needs or creating beauty or understanding meaning in any other sense than hard, rationalistic facts. In a 1970 essay on myth and education, he noted: ‘A scientifically biased education has produced a chronically sick society. Some go even wider and suggest that our scientifically biased, technological civilization is ipso facto a chronically sick civilization, and that the whole thing is a complete mistake.’ Hughes’s remedy for this sickness is Jungian, based on a rediscovery of invention, ‘[t]he deliberate education of imagination by means of stories.’ Gaudete is an attempt to do just that, to establish a new myth at the core of our being.
The final section of the poem is explained by Hughes as being the poems of Nicholas Lumb himself, who has somehow surfaced in rural Ireland and speaks to three awestruck children. These elliptical poems are effectively paeans to a nameless earth goddess, setting forth Hughes’s alternative philosophy of anima, or spirit, a way in which humanity can recover from its neurosis. Nicholas Lumb is both Christ and the devil – old Nick and the lamb of God – and he is thus threat and opportunity, problem and solution. Ann Stevenson sees echoes of Aeneas, Orpheus, Dante and Christ in Lumb’s descent into darkness but, perhaps, Lumb’s journey is not an eschatological one: for all the nihilism of the main story, Hughes leaves us with a tantalising glimpse of freedom.