Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Swamp | Fiction | Swamp Thing. You Make My Heart Sing. You Make Everything...Oozy.

To Seamus Heaney, bogs and marshes are a touchstone symbol (his enemies would probably claim, an overused symbol) of the unconscious mind. He’s forever peering into them, digging them up, unearthing horrid monsters of the collective mind’s past. To him, though the swamp appears to be a wasteland quagmire, there are ancient treasures to be found within – but also dangers, strange and troubling truths that the conscious mind fears to face. These artifacts, however – Tollund Men, and the poet’s own reflection, disturbed by a rat - always serve a greater purpose; that of reminding us who we really are.

“As if he had been poured

in tar, he lies

on a pillow of turf

and seems to weep

the black river of himself.


For Samuel Beckett, the unconscious is also a swamp, but he feels less ambiguous about its potential merits. (It should be noted that both Heaney and Beckett have shown in their work that they have, at the very least, a working understanding of Jung). In Happy Days, the ‘swamp’ – the quicksand into which Winnie gradually disappears over the course of the play – is literally oblivion. The unconscious is unquestionably a place of de-individuation, and the ambiguity comes from Beckett’s own feelings towards that loss of the self; is it to be feared, or embraced as an end to the constant atrophy of his characters?

The fascinating thing is that this complete opposition of views comes from the action of the swamp rather than the nature of it. Heaney sees the swamp as an opportunity for enlightenment; his, appropriately, is the rising action, a shift from the Dionysian towards the Apollonian – or, to put it in the more accurately Jungian fashion, a shift towards the Apollonian using the Dionysian – a “night journey”. Beckett views the swamp as something to sink into, and, in consequence, something to lose oneself in. It’s the end that Hamm longs for – and that only finally comes to Winnie after a play’s worth of total bodily and mental decay.


Obviously, it’s the Beckettian viewpoint that makes me a little troubled about the surprisingly widespread quicksand fetish. Wikipedia suggests, not unreasonably, that a great deal of the phenomenon’s influence is due to the widespread exposure of quicksand, and the thrilling peril that came with it, in the old vintage adventure serials that permeated their way into a young generation’s consciousness. A cheerfully open-minded Slate article eloquently points out that the niche is split between “sinkers”, who enjoy the actual sensation of being submerged themselves, and the voyeurs who have the desire to see others being immersed. It goes on to note, using the data collected by enthusiastic fetishists who are attempting to every scene involving quicksand, swamps, bogs, marshes, that the peak era for the swamp in Hollywood cinema was not, in fact, during the age of the adventure serial, but in the 1960s – where, apparently, jaw-droppingly, 3% of all films contained a scene in which someone fell into a viscous liquid and couldn’t get out. (Don’t look at me like that, it’s their statistic.)

I’m very strongly resisting the urge to point out that cinema has never before or since shown anywhere near such an impulse towards swamps as in the decade most famous of any decade for its embracing of the Dionysian ideal.

...No, I can’t do it. I can’t hold it in any longer. What I just said. In the Sixties, the era which perceived itself to be about collectivism, orgies, and drugs (even if the overall reality was quite different), the symbol of someone being immersed in a quagmire shot up dramatically in the public consciousness. Additionally, as an aside, one of my favourite movies from the Seventies, Don’t Look Now, which is very much about psychological illumination, features prominently the repeated symbol of a body being raised out of muddy water. And, if I really wanted to push my luck, I might argue that one of the most famous Dionysian characters in the mainstream is called Quagmire.


Jon Ware
Fiction Editor

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