Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Kathleen Jamie: "not all primroses and otters"

I am a sucker for aura. Walter Benjamin was never wrong, and so it is that live music frequently moves me to tears while back home on the CD player the same music, played or sung by the same individuals, can sound utterly banal. There are of course many notable exceptions - but, nevertheless, my CD collection is littered with mediocre albums of bands and artists who have since vanished into a well-deserved obscurity, and yet whose concerts I can still recall with a vivid, palpable sense of the wonder and reverie into which their music sent me. 

And yet I never learn... I still buy the CDs of soon-to-be-forgotten artists - and sometimes, now, it as much as a memento of that reverie, as it is a statement of belief in the true talent of the performer. Book readings are the slightly more grown-up equivalent: I enjoy attending them; I always go determined not to buy anything and find myself two hours later with a buzzing mind, waiting in the queue to have my book signed by the author. And so it was tonight that I found myself sitting opposite Kathleen Jamie, telling her about my childhood immersion in Gavin Maxwell, and about Kathleen Raine and rowan trees (although I may have mistakenly referred to Raine as "Kathleen Jamie". Oh dear).

In explaining the falling away of the aura of a work of art in the process of its reproduction, Benjamin turned to nature, and to the "aura" of natural objects, writing of, "a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you," and the way in which we experience their "aura" simply by looking at them. For Benjamin, "aura" is tied up with our relation to objects - and with immediacy, and therefore authenticity. If an object is a reproduction, how to therefore know one's position to it: if I am looking at a mountain, I know I am looking at a mountain; I know how big or small I am in relation to it, and how near or far from it, and also that I am looking at it right now, ergo it exists. If, however, I am looking at a fibre-glass mountain, every certainty about my relation to that original object is thrown into flux: I don't know if the mountain even exists. 

For Benjamin, the desire to reproduce objects is rooted in the desire to "bring things 'closer' spatially and humanly"; i.e. to have and to hold - to own - these objects, even if only in replica. Benjamin was, of course focussing on the "work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction", and not on the natural world, however, were he to have cast his gaze towards "relics of nature in the age of mechnanical reproduction", Kathleen Jamie would have been able to provide him with at least one significant example: the replacement of the famous whale jawbone on Berwick Law with a fibreglass replica.

Whales and their bones - latter day relics - appear throughout Jamie's most recent collection (and my most recent purchase): Sightlines. I have only dived in deep to a few pages here and there so far, but feel the same sense of excitement that I get when reading the opening pages of "Ring of Bright Water." Hearing Jamie talk was to be reminded of the magic of reading and writing about nature, the alchemic preservation it can enact, and the tingling sense of "closeness" to the natural world which it can enable - without recourse to any attempts at Benjamin's aura-killing replication.

Highlights for me, as always at readings, were the sounds and sights which made the evening, and Jamie's talking about her work and reading from it, unique to tonight, and to the audience and place: 

...Browsing in the bookshop with a glass of wine and waiting for the event to start, and finding that the slightly nervous, and very slightly elderly, lady next to me was Kathleen Jamie's distant cousin , however many times removed (they had never met, but she is a fan of her work, and I saw them looking at photographs together later).

...The accompaniment of the Fruitmarket Market lift choir (c/o Martin Creed: hear here) to Jamie's description of the tundric silence ("What we listen to, though, is silence. Slowly we enter the most extraordinary silence. It radiates from the mountains, and the ice and the sky, a mineral silence which presses powerfully from our bodies, coming from very far off. It's deep and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose. I want to quell my mind,  but I think it would take years.") - it really worked though, like an iceberg screaming in the wind - or like the silence itself dealing with its minerals. 

...Hearing Jamie's thoughts on the writing process and the relation between essays and poetry: essays are like the exploded diagrams of engines in car manuals, whereas the poem is like the engine itself: everything needs to be fitted together, and twisted, and made to move." - and: "The mind is like a cistern. It fills up slowly" (for me, the most comforting and hopeful line of the evening).

...Realising that part of the reason for the hiatus in my nature-writing reading has been the hiatus in nature writing itself. Jamie spoke eloquently and fascinatingly on this subject, which is one I had never considered before - namely that nature writing grinded to an emergency stop with the moon landings and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in the sixties. Until then, nature had been man's consolation: whatever awful things we did to ourselves and one another, nature would carry on unchanging regardless; as soon as we realised that these awful things did also in fact have an impact on nature, we (Richard Mabey aside) went into a kind of toxic guilty shock until quite recently (with the Granta New Nature Writing edition marking a resurgence in a newly refigured version of nature writing, of which Jamie considers herself a part). Jamie expands on these thoughts, and goes into much more detail about the evolution of nature writing, in this wonderful piece on Maxwell (who else?) in The London Review of Books. Read it.

...Chitra Ramaswamy, who also interviewed Jamie for the Scotsman, kept the "in conversation" format wonderfully informal, with a light touch: "if I were any more relaxed, I'd be horizontal - and, rather wonderfully, is off to interview Christian Louboutin next.

...Oh, and Jamie namechecked Orwell (supreme being). What more can I say?

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