During the Christmas period, I finally finished the novel Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. A multi-layered text which deliberately overturns customary ways of using language, it is a hard book to describe and I could not possibly do justice to its content here; in summary though, it describes a time far off into the future in which the world is still recovering from the devastating consequences of nuclear fallout. In this scenario (the immediate frame of reference for which is what used to be the county of Kent) people live in small enclaves, either farming or foraging for the most part, and have progressed very little in terms of the development of culture or learning. There does however remain a distant memory of the days before the devastation, and this includes the knowledge that mankind had once achieved great things.
It is also remembered though, that the achievements of the past were made through a desire for knowledge and power which was itself in some way tied up with the great act of destruction that left the world as it now is. This, combined with other things half-remembered from the past (the biblical Fall is alluded to, and Adam is conflated with the ‘Addom’ or ‘atom’ central to the operations of the nuclear bomb) gives rise to a complex interpretative matrix which the people use to view their past history (the legend of Saint Eustace, as detailed on the walls of Canterbury – ‘Cambry’ – cathedral is also key to that matrix), and the language of myth, legend, remembrance and foretelling is a key part of Riddley Walker’s world.
By creating a place and time which is radically different from ours, but which maintains key points of continuity between the two, Hoban allows himself to examine some of the things that are essential about the human condition – the things that remain about us when almost everything has been stripped away (both in terms of the landscape and the fruits the natural world brings forth, and also the centuries worth of cultural heritage we have built up). One of the most interesting ways he explores this is in his reimagining of the English language under such circumstances, as it shows us how deeply bound up our thought is with the way we speak (lex loquandi lex cogitati you might say), and at times this can make for a very challenging read.
I have chosen a passage from the book here where what is being said is closer to modern English than some of those more challenging parts, as the way Riddley Walker (the book’s central character) and his counterparts speak can take quite a bit of getting used to. But the passage below also illustrates one of the main themes of the book, which is the persistence of some sort of recognition of the presence of God. Amidst all the devastation that has been wrought upon the earth by man, and despite the lack of any adequate categories to speak of such things, Riddley continues to intuit something beyond himself and the mundane in general:
‘The worl is ful of things waiting to happen. Thats the meat and boan of it right there. You myt think you can jus go here and there doing nothing. Happening nothing. You cant tho you bleeding cant. You put your self on any road and some thing wil show its self to you. Wanting to happen. Waiting to happen. You myt say, “I dont want to know.” But 1ce its showt its self to you you wil know wont you. You cant not know no mor. There it is and working in you. You myt try to put a farness be twean you and it only you cant becaws youre carrying it inside you. The waiting to happen aint out there where it ben no mor its inside you.’
Riddley Walker (1982), p.148, Picador.
What Hoban (via Riddley) is trying to communicate here is that the world is always speaking to us of more than itself – there is always something ‘pressing in’ from both within and without that we cannot ignore. The world is indeed full of things ‘waiting to happen’ and once this feeling of its insistent pressure on the self (which is clearly meant to be the presence of God in His creation) is felt, then you ‘cant not know no mor’ – though we might want to walk away and tell ourselves that this world is all there is and there is nothing more to life than what I can touch, feel, see, hear and smell, once we have felt the sensory world itself calling us beyond it to the One who made it, we cannot put a ‘farness’ between God and ourselves, at least not without a great deal of effort and/or deception.
On reading this passage (and others in the book) I was struck by how powerful an argument Hoban’s reimagined world provides against atheism and some brands of agnosticism. As is so often the case, whilst logical argument can show truth very clearly yet fails to generate the expected response in those it is presented to, narrative can say the same things with a great deal more persuasive power – it has an immediacy about it that speaks to the whole person, and because it is not proposing anything in definite terms, can thus get around the defences people have put so much effort into maintaining. Seeing a world where humanity is stripped down to its basic instincts about existence again, in which our capacity for listening to the voice of God in creation has had the barriers of ideology and distraction removed, can help us to see what we are missing (or blocking out) here and now.
In another passage the latency of God’s presence in creation is explored by an appeal to the complexity and sheer intractable strangeness of the world around us. It is also a good example of how Hoban weaves together the capacity people in Riddley’s world have for reflecting on that strangeness, with those half-remembered bits and pieces of knowledge that the old world had garnered:
‘Stoans want to be lissent to. Them big brown stoans in the formers feal they want to stan up and talk like men. Some times youwl see them lying on the groun with ther humps and hollers theywl say to you, Sit a wyl and res easy why dont you. Then when youre sitting on them theywl talk and theywl tel if you lissen. Theywl tel whats in them but you wont hear nothing what theyre saying without you go as fas as the stoan. You myt think a stoan is slow thats becaws you dont see it moving. Wont see it walking a roun. That dont mean its slow tho. There are the many cools of Addom which they are the party cools of stoan. Moving in ther millyings which is the girt dants of the every thing its the fastes thing there is it keaps the stillness going. Reason you wont see it move its so far a way in to the stoan. If you cud fly way way up like a saddelite bird over the sea and you lookit down you wunt see the waves moving youwd see them change 1 way to a nother only you wunt see them moving youwd bee too far away. You wunt see nothing only a changing stilness. Its the same with a stoan.’
It is easy for us, raised as we have been on a diet of materialism and positivism, to see Nature as one great big interlocking system, impassive and rolling along according to an inflexible pattern of cause and effect, like a very complex set of dominoes – at best, the view of the deists, but more often the view of Lucretius et al. The outlook expressed in Riddley Walker though, is more conducive to both Theism and what we know about the natural world – the universe is not simply lurching along and lacking in any immanent activity, but is intensely alive, filled with movement at every level, even within the ‘stoans.’ That we view the world as unrevealing and self-contained as we commonly do is not just due to the fact that we are too far away to see its movement, but that our minds have been trained not to discern any such thing. We breathe in an air of materialism, whether we like it or not.
The actual nature of things (‘many cools and party cools…moving in their millyings…the girt dans of everything’) however, speaks eloquently of what we know from theology, both natural and revealed – that God is not just One who presses a button (or flicks a domino) and thereafter leaves His creation alone, but is continually active within it and that His presence therein is continually creative. Indeed, how could it be any other way – if God created the world, it seems frankly absurd that he even could leave it alone; that it has been possible to speak of a Creator doing so over the last few centuries says a great deal about the impoverishment of philosophy during that same period. That God created the world means that everything that exists depends, in every moment of its existence, on God keeping it in being. This is what Riddley Walker feels, and what we seem to have (strangely) forgotten.
There is of course, as is alluded to in the second excerpt above, a certain distance between us and our Creator that stops us from seeing the ‘bigger picture’ – it is inevitable that we, as finite creatures of limited capacity (i.e.; as those who are not God: always a good point worth remembering, as we often seem to act either as though we are, or speak as if we should be able to know all He does) will have a finite, limited view and understanding of God and existence in general. As Riddley says later on in the book, ‘If you cud even jus see 1 thing clear the woal of whats in it you cud see every thing clear. But you never wil get to see the woal of any thing youre all ways in the middl of it living it or moving thru it.’ (ibid, p.181). But this does not mean we cannot know anything in this respect, nor that what we can know is an insufficient basis upon which to make conclusions about ultimate reality.
To suggest that we cannot make such conclusions, and/or to take pains to cut ourselves off from the insistent, searching voice that calls out to us from the world around us, the world that itself speaks to us of its inability to account for itself alone, is the error of the atheist (and of certain kinds of agnostic). This error contains a certain amount of self-deception, which is itself rooted in a desire to be completely self-sufficient, to not be beholden to any agency other than oneself. But is also based, in varying degrees, upon a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of mystery – that if we cannot know anything with absolute precision, such as I know the reality of an object I hold in my hand (and it is doubtful how certain even that knowledge is), then we cannot know anything about it at all.
Mystery, as far as most schools of thought over the ages are concerned, does not mean murkiness or obscurity though; it instead refers to something that is incomplete, something beyond our comprehension, but that yet speaks to us of a reality that can, in part, be known (Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, in a letter to Robert Bridges, about the particular way in which this relates to the formulating of categories pertaining to known mysteries). What Russell Hoban shows us in Riddley Walker is that not only is life essentially mysterious, but that it is so in the terms just described – it is significant, it speaks to us of realities that are beyond our total comprehension, but that are nonetheless utterly real, and of great importance. That we ignore such signs is one of the great follies of our age – we no longer see clearly, and, like Riddley, must learn to do so again.