De Chirico’s ‘Mystery and Melancholy of a Street’
The opening of the book has become, for me, similarly imprinted as just as potent a premonitory vision of apocalypse as Giorgio De Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy of a Street. Adams verbalizes an uncanny description of something being amiss among the banal that linguistically captures the innocuousness and languor of the dread depicted by a great deal of surrealist art. Fittingly, there’s been a good deal of Jungian analysis (obviously, a huge influence on surrealists’ foreboding dreamscapes) that’s been read into the book, which begins with this atmosphere of dreamlike suspension (before becoming more visceral and physically violent).
“The naive, even primitive, presentation of good and evil,” writes Joan Bridgeman in her essay, “The Significance of Myth in Watership Down,” “is skillfully contrasted with the Jungian concept of the unconscious, as the dark, buried life with which we live in harmony and the shadow forces of the soul which we must reconcile within ourselves.” Interestingly, collective unconscious is also — as Charles A. Meyer writes in “The Power of Myth and Rabbit Survival in Richard Adams’ ‘Watership Down‘” — “used by the rabbits as a survival strategy…Animal instinct and human myth both arise in the collective unconscious of the species. Hazel and company show us that, as real rabbits do, we can sometimes steer toward a safe haven by allowing the breath of our unconscious to touch us and then tacking as it directs.”
The Jungian notion of collective unconscious posits an inherent intersocietal connection through basic human motifs, and it’s the pack mentality of the rabbits, based on Fiver’s premonition, that ultimately enables their safety (again, they don’t know what the sign says — they’re going off a feeling). To that end, the book’s narrative about characters seeking safety amidst an anthropocenic threat — and then finding just as much adversity within the micro-societies they encounter — seems a rife bit of storytelling in the present day.
We see now how the Anthropocene is not only a threat to animal life, but ironically a dire threat to human life — and we see the world trying and stumbling to rally its various governments to come to an agreement on how to save the planet after the exceedingly slow heeding of warnings about global warming; suddenly, the planet’s future relies on the near-absurd notion of collectivizing its 7 billion+ population based on a common fear 0f a scientifically proven prophecy. Whether or not Jung’s now somewhat dated take on the human mind has total scientific bearing, tapping into some broader notion of a universalized survival instinct would probably do us good.
And so the 1972 novel’s opening chapter is not only startlingly effective in its dreamlike rendering of dread — it also, perhaps unintentionally, aims that dread towards a very real future, seeing a line of mythological and real-life prophecy perpetuated from Cassandra through the ages. What’s so cool about these opening pages is that within the bracket of a few thousand words, the author is able to render perfectly the transition of fear from the unconscious to the conscious in the reader. We do not know what’s so horrifying about what Fiver sees, and yet the adorable language and quaint languor set against the onset of visions of a blood-soaked field make for an indelible image — one I personally remember from reading 20 years ago. That abstract horror we feel throughout the beginning of the chapter becomes — with the bluntness of a sign haphazardly nailed to a fence — blatantly real for the reader at the chapter’s close. To make a story that questions how long it’ll take for the message on that sign to truly hit home on a collective level work, you don’t need gruesome violence. The seeming unanswerability of the question is already violently unsettling.