Musings on place… power and perdition


In E M Forster’s short story, ‘The Story of a Panic’, a band of ill-assorted English tourists is assailed by an invisible force in an Italian wood and reduced to a state of inexplicable and abject terror. This force, we are brought to understand in Forster’s subtly-constructed narrative, is in fact a visitation by the ancient god Pan whose absence in the modern world is, at the outset of the story, first bewailed by a pretentious artist among the group, then dismissed glibly by the pompous curate Sandbach who declares that, ‘The Great God Pan is dead.’ Shortly afterwards, of course, not only the party members (though they later refuse to acknowledge or to discuss their unaccountable fear) but we the readers come to realise that this is not the case. Pan is very much alive and may ambush us when we are at our most complacent and self-satisfied.

The horned god Pan may be loosely defined as ‘the god of wild places’ – groves, mountains, rivers, woods and streams. Companion to the nymphs, he is associated with rustic music (hence pan pipes), as well as sex and the coming of spring. Interestingly, he is usually identified as the son of Hermes, who was, of course, messenger to the gods. According to legend, one of Pan’s favourite pastimes was to lie in wait for unsuspecting travellers on the byways that cut through his once thickly-forested lands and to scare the hell out of them by rustling bushes and planting audible but unseen cloven footsteps behind the unfortunate wayfarers. Thus, they were reduced to a state of panic (as in Forster’s story), and it is in fact from Pan’s wicked delight in reducing mere mortals to a state of funk, that the word ‘panic’ derives. It would seem that Pan, with a nod to his father’s service to the gods, has a message for us: do not write me off just yet.

Writing about a decade after Forster, D H Lawrence, in his beguiling travelogue ‘Sea and Sardinia’ (1921) has this to say on the power of place:

The spirit of place is a strange thing. Our mechanical age tries to override it. But it does not succeed. In the end the strange, sinister spirit of place, so diverse and adverse in differing places, will smash our mechanical oneness into smithereens, and all that we think the real thing will go off with a pop, and we shall be left staring.’

Lawrence wrote this one hundred years ago: how much further has the mechanical destruction of the natural environment progressed since then? Lawrence seems to say that ultimately the places of Earth will re-assert themselves in an act of still greater violence than the one inflicted on them by mankind and his machines. Whether or not we agree, his views raise many questions for us today. I certainly believe that the spirit of place is, as Lawrence says in ‘Studies of Classic American Literature’, ‘a great reality’. It is not the product of fanciful imagination, as is so often assumed by modern minds dominated by the rational tyranny of science. Everything now must be qualified, proven, analysed; above all, it must be explained. There is no explaining the spirit of place. It springs from a source that is quite extra-human. It obeys no natural laws, it defies reason. It is blatantly perverse.

The yearning for a kind of lost Eden felt by so many today (particularly after the confining effects of a pandemic) surely result from our seemingly irreversible dissociation from the natural world to which we were born. As I said in my last post, in the place where I grew up, the natural environment had been almost expunged. It was akin to covering over a beautiful mediaeval fresco with plastic panelling. Panelling may be removed with relative ease, and beauty brought back to the light; alas, the natural world is not so easily restored. This, as a young person, haunted me; fumes from a smothered land seemed to seep from cracks in the pavement, resentment to bloom in algal stains on a concrete uniformity. This sense of ‘the other world’ waiting to re-assert itself pervades the Glasswater Quintet. In future posts, I will discuss how it has inspired me (both positively and negatively!) and its direct impact on the individual novels.