21 October 2020

‘On Mystery’: an essay from Rebecca Tamás’s Strangers

Posted by Rebecca Tamás

Our Book of the Week is Strangers: Essays on the Human and Nonhuman, the first collection of essays by poet Rebecca Tamás. 

I will always go to the funfair when it comes into town, and walk amongst the burger wrappers, and fizzy sweets, and Wurlitzers and clashing music. Occasionally a friend will agree to go on some rides with me and we’ll scream until the air is glittered and swimming.

The feeling of entering a funfair is the feeling of utter inconsolable mystery. For a long time I have thought about what meaning I can ascribe to the hugeness of the feeling there; the sun going down as the rainbow coloured lights splash over the heath; the unsettling mixture of innocence and sex, where little children scream and play at the same time that teenagers gather to smoke and kiss and be sick. On the edges of the funfair are small dwellings, caravans and tents, white and blue washing hanging outside, leather boots. These are the normal, everyday things of the people who work for the funfair, but the funfair transforms them like a trick mirror; turning them strange, making them secrete mystery like phosphorescence.

Circus-feeling goes everywhere in which mystery dips into view. Seeing different stars every few days does not mean that you have always a good life. It cannot just solve your problems. Yet walking past a poster for one at the seaside, my partner says, ‘we can’t let you go to that, you’d run away.’ He can see the vulgar, tender sparkling behind my eyelids.

At a circus in Budapest when I was very young, I saw lions and a real Indian elephant. I knew that I was being serviced with a brutality I couldn’t get at home. I wondered whether Aztec citizens, watching sacrificial victims have their hearts cut out hundreds of years ago, felt any less terror or disgust than I might feel, if I saw the same thing.

Circus-feeling is saturated with meaning, but the meaning is unspeakable. I find myself wanting to write ‘that feeling, that feeling, that feeling’ over and over again as language pleasurably fails.

As a child I was terrified of ghosts. It didn’t matter that there were real dangers out in the world, perverts, murderers, thieves. Every night I would lie choked in fear, listening for the smallest noise, knowing that this would be the moment when I would open my eyes and see one in front of me. The moment when I finally rid myself of terror was not the moment I stopped believing in them. Rather, it occurred to me to ask myself what they would do to me.

They might murder me, torture me, abduct me, maim me, make me go insane. Nothing they were capable of doing was any different to what a human might inflict, if they decided to do it. I had genuinely never thought beyond the moment of unspeakable terror and unknowing, where the veil would be rent and I would see … something. I did not actually know what. Imagining them cutting me into little pieces was awful, but without real mystery. If they wanted to kill me, I might not know the reason, but there would be one, somewhere. A plan, a rationale – cruelty, or sacrifice, or pleasure. Some sordid but nameable thing. So, I was free.

Mystery is in the tapes my father gave me of Transylvanian Roma music. The squall of the violins and the soaring voices is, in quite a literal sense, irresistible. I don’t think you could walk in a forest, and see a huge snake rise up in front of you, and feel nothing. Similarly, I don’t think you can hear this music and feel nothing. It is sophisticated, brilliantly put together, and wild. Where does the mystery come from? It is the music of no rulers.

When I first heard someone use ‘gypsy’ as an insult as a child, I was completely shocked. To me, to be a gypsy was the highest form imaginable for a human being – to keep moving, to parlay your own destiny out to the rattling of horses hooves, to head off to unknown places. A cossetted, privileged view of what is valued.

In W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, the title character remembers coming upon a ramshackle circus troupe, playing for a tiny audience behind the Gare d’Austerlitz:

‘I still do not understand,’ said Austerlitz, ‘what was happening within me as I listened to this extraordinarily foreign nocturnal music conjured out of thin air, so to speak, by the circus performers with their slightly out of tune instruments, nor could I have said at the time whether my heart was contracting in pain or expanding with happiness for the first time in my life … but today, looking back, it seems to me as if the mystery which touched me at the time was summed up in the image of the snow white goose standing motionless and steadfast among the musicians as long as they played … beneath that shimmering firmament of painted stars until the last notes had died away, as if it knew its own future and the fate of its present companions.’

Walking through fields in Sussex, in high winds, trees moving, grass moving, air moving. White trainers getting black with mud, whistling, turbulent birdsong. My body clenched with the feeling that I am not the only one out there, something is moving through the green, not over it but … in it? Something is moving towards me and away from me at the same time, through the swirling blue patterns in the wheat, in the swirling patterns, around them. I recount this experience to a family member who I always consider to be rational, organised, sharp. Without looking up from cutting some bread she says, ‘I suppose you felt Pan moving out there.’ I immediately burst into tears. The softness and sentimentality of my reaction to this describes perfectly my biggest obstacle in talking to you. In really talking to you.

Pan has long been referred to as ‘The God heard, but not seen.’ This comes from the strange music he plays, pan pipes calling in the distance, underneath the sound of rainfall.

The Ancient Greek playwright Euripides wrote ‘The Bacchae’, a play which focuses on another wild god: Dionysus. In the play, King Pentheus of Thebes rejects the god and refuses to worship him; despite the fact that his power is demonstrated by the women of the city turning to the wild hills, to dance and sing in constant ecstatic workshop of Dionysus. Pentheus ignores all warnings, bans the women’s celebrations, and captures Dionysus, who being a god, easily escapes, and razes the palace to the ground. Deeply attracted by the Maenads who he claims to be repulsed by, and overcome by his enemy’s casual destruction of all that he holds dear, he sneaks off to observe the women. Caught in an ecstatic altered state, his own mother, Agave, murders him, thinking he is a mountain lion. She is then sent into exile, whilst other family members are turned into snakes. By the end, even Dionysus’ worshippers, the Bacchantes, feel bad for the harsh treatment meted out to those who refuse to give in to mystery. They want pity. But the play is not interested in pity, or mercy, or cruelty:

Knowledge is not wisdom: cleverness is not, not without awareness of our death, not without recalling just how brief our flare is. He who overreaches will, in his overreaching, lose what he possesses, betray what he has now. That which is beyond us, which is greater than the human, the unattainably great, is for the mad, or for those who listen to the mad, and then believe them.

Everywhere I go it seems like all the warnings and all the metaphors have already been written, and are waiting patiently for us to read them.

Sebald, W. G. Austerlitz. Edited by James Wood. Translated by Anthea Bell. London: Penguin Books, 2018
Euripides. The Bacchae of Euripides. Translated by Charles K. Williams. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990

Strangers by Rebecca Tamás is published by Makina Books, priced £12.99. 

Books mentioned in this blog post