Monday Motivation: Mantel at Southwark Cathedral
Hilary Mantel was memorialised at a gathering in Southwark Cathedral last week. The great and the good were in attendance. Zadie Smith read an extract from one of her books; Mark Rylance, who played the greatest of her characters, Thomas Cromwell, in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, read another.
But representatives of the great unwashed were present too, fans of her books, readers who loved her incomparable way with words. I was lucky enough to be one of these.
I might write other pieces about other things that struck me during the celebration – it wasn’t a service, Mantel was not a believer – but this is what I’d like to pick up on first: a passage read by the novelist Anne Enright, taken from an essay Mantel wrote about a production of Monteverdi’s opera, Orfeo.
Orpheus, remember, followed his wife into Hades to rescue her from death. He was warned, on the way out, not to look back at Eurydice. If he does, Eurydice will be forbidden from ever returning.
Now, here’s Mantel:
“The writer often doesn’t know, consciously, what gods she invokes or what myths she’s retelling. Orpheus is a figure of all artists, and Eurydice is his inspiration. She is what he goes into the dark to seek. He is the conscious mind, with its mastery of skill and craft, its faculty of ordering, selecting, making rational and persuasive; she is the subconscious mind, driven by disorder, fuelled by obscure desires, brimming with promises that perhaps she won’t keep, with promises of revelation, fantasies of empowerment and knowledge. What she offers is fleeting, tenuous, hard to hold. She makes us stand on the brink of the unknown with our hand stretched out into the dark. Mostly, we just touch her fingertips and she vanishes. She is the dream that seems charged with meaning, that vanishes as soon as we try to describe it. She is the unsayable thing we are always trying to say. She is the memory that slips away as you try to grasp it. Just when you’ve got it, you haven’t got it. She won’t bear the light of day. She gets to the threshold and she falters. You want her too much, and by wanting her you destroy her. As a writer, as an artist, your effects constantly elude you. You have a glimpse, an inspiration, you write a paragraph and you think it’s there, but when you read back, it’s not there. Every picture painted, every opera composed, every book that is written, is the ghost of the possibilities that were in the artist’s head.”
As writers we are, in short, condemned to fail over and over again.
And yet, as Mantel says a few paragraphs on, that’s no reason not to continue trying: We are forever driven to go back into the underworld, “the darkness of our own nature” and bring back something of the beauty or the wisdom we sense there. “(W)e know it probably won’t work, but what matters is that we keep trying.”