Sunday, 6 August 2017

Nature, Lacking Tooth and Claw: A Review of Algernon Blackwood's "The Dance of Death" (1928 Short-Story)

In The Dance of Death, Algernon Blackwood uses the supernatural to express platitudes. A modern man, a modern-deskbound-man, yearns for rugged nature. Mr Browne’s nine-to-five deadens him, you see. Blackwood does not redeem this trite setup with nuance, character depth, and/or Weirdness. From respect to Blackwood, an acknowledged master storyteller, I was tempted to uncover layers of irony, to find, beneath the naïve protagonist’s thoughts, a subtext criticising the protagonist’s naiveté. But no, The Dance of Death depicts a love of nature held only by those who have never met nature.

Mr Browne loves nature. He saves up, from his stultifying desk-job, so he may retire to a life among nature. His doctor’s diagnosis, then, comes as quite a shock; and a shock is the last thing he needs, what with his weak heart. Living among nature would be far too strenuous for him. Even dancing must be undertaken with care. He attends that night’s dance hesitantly and sadly. Then he sees a woman, Miss Issidy, a woman none else seem to see, a woman more like a forest sprite than an urban dancer. He dances with her, and she reveals she knows him, and was waiting for him. We zoom out: Browne died on the dancefloor from overexertion. His boss is glad to be rid of him. 

The Everyman is not a relatable character. Call me arrogant, but I cannot identify with people who have no personality. Blackwood avoids all characteristics that would distinguish his protagonist from his audience of middle-class desk-jobbers, who divert their free-time by reading trite fantasies like this*. Browne has a precarious post at his job, and daydreams about living ruggedly in rugged nature. (You know, the type of guy who reads Walden and Fight Club for escapism.) He has nothing else characterising him. He has a dream-destroying heart problem – conflict! – but it is a conflict which afflicts a character with no character, a character I am meant to care about merely because he, hypothetically, resembles me.

Browne’s driving passion in the story, the thwarted passion, is his naïve love of nature. A love of nature that only we most tamed and civilised people have. A man who, unironically, believes being a ‘shepherd’, a ‘dweller in the woods’, will stoke his ‘savage yearnings’. Blackwood means me to feel sympathy for Browne, because his weak heart ‘at one fell swoop … destroy[ed] a thousand dreams’. Yet all these thousand dreams are insubstantial, mere daydreams about rustic idylls, too Romantic to ever become reality.

But H P Lovecraft praised Algernon Blackwood, so I shouldn’t dismiss him lightly. Perhaps, on close-reading, this story will become a satire.

Looking for irony, I can find it, in the first half. Blackwood’s page-long description of Browne’s sensitivity to nature approaches self-awareness. A snippet:

‘[Browne] was an idealist at heart, hating the sordid routine of the life he led as a business underling. His dreams were of the open air, of mountains, forests, and great plains, of the sea, and of the lonely places of the world. Wind and rain spoke intimately to his soul, and the storms of heaven, as he heard them raging at night round his high room in Bloomsbury, stirred savage yearnings that haunted him for days afterwards with the voices of the desert.’

That first sentence is one-sentence description of so many Everymen – good, good, that’s self-awareness to build on. Storms ‘spoke intimately to his soul’ – something so earnest-sounding cannot be genuine; Browne feels it, but Blackwood mocks it. Blackwood then contrasts Bloomsbury, an upmarket area, with Browne’s ‘savage yearnings’ – so evocative of the bougie kid who wants to travel Africa to ‘find himself’. Oh, and rainy storms filling Browne with ‘voices of the desert’ implies he doesn’t know how deserts work.

This close-reading thing seems to work. I’m building respect for Blackwood. Let’s turn the page.

Browne fears his weak-heart will force him to spend his holidays and retirement ‘in some farmhouse “quietly,” instead of gloriously in the untrodden wilds’. How different that ‘quiet’ life would be from his dreams, his dreams of becoming ‘a shepherd on a hundred hills, a dweller in the woods, within sound of his beloved trees and waters, where the smell of the earth and campfire would be ever in his nostrils, and the running stream always ready to bear his boat swiftly to happiness.’ If Browne cringes at ‘quiet’ living, I’m surprised his daydreams don’t make him retch.

The ending neuters the text’s satiric potential. Brown meets Miss Issidy, the spirit of Nature, or some such saccharinity. Issidy does not belong to ‘ordinary humanity’, being invisible to all but Browne, and evoking a ‘young tree waving in the wind’, ‘ivy leaves’, and a ‘life of the woods.’ They have an instant and soul-deep connection, as of a forest goddess and her unwitting worshipper. They dance ‘with music … within, rather than without; indeed they seemed to make their own music out of their swift whirling movements’. Their dance lifts them from the hall, takes Browne over ‘the dark-lying hills’, with the ‘cool air of the open sky on his cheeks’. The girl, the spirit of Nature ‘melted away into himself and they had become one being’. Browne dies in sublimity.

The moral of the story, children, is: Nature was in you all along.

The denouement, where Browne’s boss callously plans to replace him with a more efficient worker, does not salvage the story. Rather than pulling back from Browne’s daydream, showing perspective, the last paragraphs validate Browne’s daydreams. The sordid world of business deserves to be deserted, for nature is so much more fulfilling. The sentiment is valid, even agreeable. But, as expressed by Blackwood, it is hardly interesting.

*This is unfairly reductive towards middle-class desk-jobbers, but that’s the point: such reductive characters don’t exist in real life.

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