Time, as William Hope Hodgson characterizes it, exhibits a certain self-inclination, whereby pasts and futures intersect one another. As in the typological paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, we find the far reaches of Time compiled, occurring simultaneously. And yet, in Hodgson's, The Night Land, we find this compilation somehow more erratic: the different stages of some sequential narrative do not cohere as one, but rather, seemingly unrelated moments in Time connect to one another, allowing a joint narrative to take place among them. And what's more, there exists here neither Alpha nor Omega; Time persists beyond all containment. Hodgson represents Time not as some stream that runs from the mountaintop to the sea, but as a faucet that continues to drip long after the valve twists shut.
The narrator and hero of the book lives in some chivalric, pre-modern society, where he falls in love with his beautiful cousin, Mirdath. They forge a bond one evening upon relating to each other the similar dream imagery that the night evokes in them: Mirdath calls it "truly an elves-night," and the narrator "felt in my bones that it was a night to find the Giant's Tomb, or the Tree with the Great Painted Head" (p. 6). We discover that in fact these two lovers live an additional life beyond this one, a life a million years in the future, in the days after the sun has expired. And although this dream imagery does not match precisely the nature of that later world, it hints at the world's strange mood and the wondrous creatures that emerge in it. When Mirdath dies, the narrator stumbles into that later life, fully experiencing a romance with the later incarnation of Mirdath, before finally returning to the medieval life of the novel's beginning.
If both of the medieval lovers had died, and then reunited in that later life in the night land, we would simply have a story of reincarnated love, of two soul mates finding one another beyond the grave. But that the narrator experiences one life in the middle of another — returning to the first one so that he can write about the second — reveals something important about Time. Indeed he makes the roundtrip at least once, but perhaps even more; the talk of "elves-nights" between our hero and the Lady Mirdath suggests that, already, traces of their later incarnations brood inside of them. Time, it seems, possesses passages between very particular moments. A certain past corresponds to a certain future, so that the two are present concurrently, and a human soul can navigate between them. Time folds upon itself like a protein — two molecules, separated by a great distance along the surface contours, attract one another across the void. Such a conception of Time's contortions does not sound so strange by today's standards, but, coming as it does in the early years of the twentieth century, it challenges certain trends of the age. Indeed, Hodgson's time travel is not the time travel of H. G. Wells, whereby man manipulates Time through the use of his machines. In fact, one could hardly describe the activity of The Night Land as travel at all, for travel suggests agency. Rather, we find that a soul slips, without volition, from one stage of the material world to another. Hodgson's notion of Time exhibits, in addition to these unpredictable wormhole-like straits, an utter perseverance. It ventures ever onward, exhausting all materials, outlasting all events. Time does not fear solitude. With the sun no longer around to reckon Time's endless passing, mankind understands it through its conquest of things, both living and material. That is, mankind understands Time through decay.
In this regard, The Night Land emerges in large part out of the aesthetic and decadent movement toward the close of the nineteenth century. Individuals instill their lives with artifice, both as a reaction against the world's aesthetic imperfections and as an attempt to obtain some level of permanence. In Huysmans's Against Nature (text), for instance, Des Esseintes inlays a live tortoise's shell with jewels that please his eye. "Des Esseintes now watched the tortoise squatting in a corner of the dining room, shining in the shadow. He was perfectly happy. His eyes gleamed with pleasure at the resplendencies of the flaming corrollae against the gold background" (p. 27). Although the jewels essentially mummify the tortoise while still alive, they do not betray to the viewer their own destructiveness, but only their power of preservation. They make the tortoise beautiful even in death, and for much longer than death usually allows something to remain intact, let alone intact and beautiful.
The artwork of this time period displays a similar trend. Gustav Klimt's painting, Judith, depicts the biblical heroine with the head of Holofernes presumably clutched in her hands. Klimt conveys the woman's figure as blending into the geometric metalwork of the background; human life and material substance blur. Wearing an expression of sedated ecstasy Judith seems to be reacting to, more than her victory over Holofernes, her victory over decay, preserved in the artist's bronze work as well as in Hebrew lore.
The central conflicts of The Night Land essentially resemble these decadent concerns, though on a much larger and darker scale. In the future in which the hero finds himself, humankind as we know it has secluded itself in several self-contained redoubts. Meanwhile, outside in the dark cold lands, a variety of creatures roam and scavenge, some of them quite humanlike, though adapted to the harsh environment in behavior and form. At one point during the last dying days of the sun, humans faced a choice: whether to remain a part of the changing, terrifying world, or to seclude themselves forever. One man, renowned forever afterwards in the annals of the Great Redoubt's civilization, did "call all his Peoples together; and did make it plain how that the Darkness grew upon the World, and that the Foul and dreadful Powers abroad, were like to be more Horrid when a greater Gloom came. And he put to them that they build a Mighty Refuge; and the Peoples did acclaim" (p. 70). The humans of the Great Redoubt chose to abandon the disappointing world for a world of their own, hidden behind a thick wall of artifice. The Great Redoubt is, in effect, a Tennysonian Palace of Art. The citizens construct artificial fields below the earth's surface, including a great Country of Silence wherein they bury their dead. False moons shine over the graves, and soft voices coo the Song of Honour, so that any who visit the Hills of the Babes may find themselves thoroughly moved. The architects design tier after tier to house city after city that span miles into the sky, forming a beehive of order and harmony, insulated from the grave chaos of the night land. One could argue that these measures differ from those of the decadents' in that the citizens of the Great Redoubt do not just fight for aesthetic preference, but against obliteration. Yet one may well make just the same argument regarding Des Esseintes. To surrender one's inner harmony to the crudeness of the masses would be a sin as great as suicide; and indeed personal harmony, and not life, distinguishes the redoubts from the world outside. A more sardonic Naani might have echoed Huysmans's hero when her Lesser Redoubt fell to the shaggy men of the night land: "But they don't enjoy the same things I do!"
These few civilized humans seem an odd relic in this late age, not unlike the jeweled tortoise of Huysmans. The rest of the planet teems with creatures suited to the circumstances. Besides the humanoid beasts there loom the four Watchers, which "moved not, neither gave they out any sound. Yet did we know them to be mountains of living watchfulness and hideous and steadfast intelligence" (22). In this era of the expired sun, when the day/night cycle has ceased to imbue Time with the illusion of interruption or segmentation, Time shows its true face — unquantifiable drudgery, immeasurable patience. These Watchers conform quite well to the circumstances, sitting, waiting, watching, so that generations of men do not notice so much as a shiver. And yet meanwhile the humans embalm their old way of life, refusing to let it modify itself organically. People oftentimes regard flies as symbolic of death, for that they breed and feed on corpses, instead of symbolic of immortality, of resurrection, in that from the dead relics new creatures spring. The humans of the Great Redoubt fear decay, they fear devolution; yet, in fact, all they fear is change. New creatures, new circumstances spring up all about them. The men do not wish to halt Time, but to keep up with it until their legs give out, to stake the familiarity of their insular world against whatever unfamiliarities the universe brings to them. Any change one perceives as decay, when it represents a change beyond one's comfort zone.
One appealing feature of Christianity's conception of Time comes in the Book of Revelation. God plucks the earth's fruit before it rots, and spits out the spiny pit. Humans are still humans when Time as we know it ends — or at least the good humans are still good humans, and the evil ones are sorry. Though all things end, humanity perseveres into eternity. Petrified wood, glossy and firm, with its rings attesting to its permanent state of youth.
The hero of The Night Land notes that such an End of Days has in fact occurred in the annals, though obviously without the finality of Revelation's apocalypse. "And the earthquake did burst the world up, along a certain great curve where it had weakness . . . And thereafter there was a mist and confusion and rain upon the world . . . [But then] the Mighty Chasm had been calmed by the weight of an Eternity" (p. 69). Time creeps onward, surviving the great cataclysms, with a handful of souls struggling to creep with it. Indeed, though the humans neglect to adapt to these changes, their efforts to preserve themselves largely succeed. The novel leaves one with the sense that the Great Redoubt will endure until the earth current finally dwindles — which is all the humans could truly ask for. The spirit of decadence survives the night land for as long as the night land can sustain anything at all.
But to find the true survivor of the novel, we must not look to this civilization of the Great Redoubt — who, though they live among the bleakest of circumstances, occupy only a limited stage in Time — but rather we must return, for a moment, to the idea of time travel, or time slippage, mentioned earlier. It comes as no surprise that the two souls who together transcend the temporal specificity of life, deeply love one another. The book would offer a more puzzling message if our hero spent his two lifetimes with the Master Monstruwacan instead of the Lady Mirdath. Romantic love represents, more than the other human feelings and relationships, hope, because in romantic love lies the suggestion that one exists as more than oneself, as a portion of a thing to be shared, that one is not stranded alone in space and time. And hope looks both to the past and to the future in order to persevere: to the future for the knowledge that Time may change the bad, and to the past as evidence that Time, at some point, has bred something good. Our hero, grieved by the death of the Lady Mirdath, loses himself in the future, where he reunites with his soul mate. Yet in that future, the two only reunite by looking to the past: Naani calls the name Mirdath across the aether in order to gain our hero's attention. The past as example, the future as recurrence — together these mold the stuff of hope. And of all features of the human experience, hope pervades the most thoroughly, for it spans the entire era of man and travels in all of Time's directions. It does not outlast Time, but, while man himself lasts, hope provides the means by which he endures Time, the veil with which he shields his eyes from its utter enormity. For, as Moses knew in the wilderness, some things are too great and too terrible to gaze upon bare.
Last modified 13 May 2009