Friday, 24 May 2013

Serious Moonlight 

Mysterious Kôr by Elizabeth Bowen

"That," said Pepita, "was what set me off hating civilisation"
"Well, cheer up," he said, "there isn't much of it left."
"Oh, yes, I cheered up some time ago. This war shows we've by no means come to the end. If you can blow whole places out of existence, you can blow whole places into it."

This spiky variation on the 'eternal triangle', published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories in 1945, is set in war-time London at night. There are three characters: Pepita; Arthur, her soldier lover; and Callie, Pepita's flat-mate. The action pans out over the course of a couple of hours. Arthur is on leave, but with London so crowded he and Pepita have nowhere to go, except back to the flat, where Callie, well-meaning but naive, waits with mugs of steaming cocoa. Eventually they go back. Arthur sleeps on the couch in one room, while Pepita and Callie are uneasy bed-fellows in the other. Someone wakes up and stumbles around. Someone else gets up. A conversation follows. There are tears, a dream and, more than anything else, the moon - a mixed chalice of transformative light and glaring exposure - working its particular brand of tough magic on the protagonists' imaginations:

At once she knew that something was happening - outdoors, in the street, the whole of London, the
world. An advance, an extraordinary movement was silently taking place; blue-white beams overflowed from it, silting, dropping round the edges of the muffling black-out curtains ... A searchlight, the most
powerful of all time, might have been turned full and steady upon her defended window; finding flaws in
the black-out stuff, it made veins and stars.

Outside, with Arthur, between the street and the park, the moon flings Pepita's mind and spirit back to school and Andrew Lang's poem, She, a sonnet which Bowen had found both captivating and compelling in her childhood:

"Mysterious Kôr," Pepita recited, sliding her hand from Arthur's sleeve, "thy walls forsken stand, thy lonely towers beneath the lonely moon."

Meanwhile, at home, the patient Callie is transported far beyond her loneliness, her staid upbringing and her complex of unconscious anxieties:

Below the moon, the houses opposite her window blazed back a transparent shadow: and something - was it a coin or a ring? - glittered half-way across the chalk-white street ... And the moon did more: it exonerated and beautified the lateness of the lovers' return. No wonder, she said to herself, no wonder - if this was the world they walked in, if this was whom they were with.


The moon does funny things to people. So does war. So does London. Experience is heightened. People and objects occasionally take on a fantastic power of suggestiveness, hinting at the promise of hidden depths and potentialities on the brink of manifestation. At any moment, it sometimes seems, the screen of surface appearance might collapse and implode, folding inwards into a million gem-like shards, ceding place to a highly charged, poetically resonant world of art and revolution.

Every fundamentalist - political, religious or scientific - should read this story. What can you say? The mystery is the mystery is the mystery. We can't pin it down, can't nail it to our masts. It's always a step or two ahead, just around the corner, scuttling along those "wide, void, pure streets, between statues, pillars and shadows, through archways and colonnades. With him she went up the stairs down which nothing but moon came; with him trod the ermine dust of the endless halls, stood on terraces, round the extreme tower, looked down on the wide, void, pure streets. He was the password, but not the answer ... "

We should be glad. There are no answers. That's the beauty. That's our freedom. Mysterious Kôr.


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