Recently, I’ve been reading and thinking about Charlotte Wood’s novel The Submerged Cathedral. It’s not her most recent book, but I returned to it after finding a copy during one of those days when you’re trawling the bookshelf looking for something to inspire you: to remind you why you read, and write.
Charlotte is a wonderful writer, and this novel – her second – is far more than the sum of its parts. Certainly the kind of book that reminds me of the power and potential of good writing.
The story is told in sections, with large gaps of time and space between them. A kind of fractured narrative, the novel is held together by strong undercurrents of narrative connection and emotion, by the sense of suppressed and thwarted desires in the main characters, Martin and Jocelyn – for each other, for the land, for spiritual connection – and through a symbolic and physical exploration of landscape. The book is, in one sense, a love story. And in some ways the bones of the plot are simple enough: boy and girl meet, are pulled apart by time and circumstance and … meet again. But there is, of course, far more to this story of desire and longing than such a reduction allows. The novel includes a series of surprising twists, shifts in place, time and situation that startle the reader, while drawing you further in. There is a sharp, deft honesty to the writing, particularly about the failings of love, of people, of our essential frailty. Some of the most memorable moments in the book are of shocking disappointments and betrayals: the casual cruelty of the wrong word, the shift from tenderness to something far less comfortable (“I we were married I could forbid you” Martin says to Jocelyn at one point), the sharp sting of a child slapping his mother in the Alhambra.
But one of the things that most interested me was the beauty and subtlety of the nets of imagery in the novel, particularly the imagery of plants, gardens and gardening, and the ways those images are connected to one of the other webs of imagery in the novel: those of religious faith and religious architecture (both virtual and actual).
One of the recurring images in this book is that of the garden; Jocelyn, while living with Martin on the Pittwater in the 1960s, imagines a magnificent garden of wild Australian plants:
She’s telling him things he doesn’t know, but there’s something familiar in her halting words – and then he recognises it. The notion of the garden. It’s his own five year-old’s epiphany, and the root of his connection to her: they can both see beyond what it is.
She repeats the plant names like prayers. Eucalyptus macrocarpa. Acacia longifolia. Telopea speciossima, Doryphora sassafras, Banksia spinulosa. They look out at the black sea and he listens to her laying down the bones of her half-formed, holy, fantastical plan (37).
The garden represents both their relation to each other, and their inability to connect. Soon, partly through an inability to break free of her sister’s loving but malevolent neediness, Jocelyn is drawn away from her early epiphany about the garden, away from Martin and their love for each other. This imagery of the garden is connected to other themes in the novel, such as faith, and to other gardens, particularly the Biblical gardens (both Eden and Gethsemane). The religious language of the quote above (with its use of words like epiphany, holy, prayers) is echoed throughout the narrative, particularly when Jocelyn visits some of the churches of Europe, and when Martin joins a religious order, but also in the writing about Jocelyn and Martin’s relationship with each other: “In a garden at night a choice is made. To escape, or to continue. Reason, or faith” (263).
The age-old tension between faith and reason seems essential to the book: a key concern both of its characters, and, perhaps, the author. Most overtly, Martin’s faith in his work as a doctor, his belief in his ability to heal (powerfully drawn when he perhaps mistakenly believes he heals a bird as a child), is shattered: later he attempts to redress this rupture by seeking out faith in God.
The tension or ironic affection between faith and reason have been of interest to moral, and particularly religious, philosophers since at least the Classical Period, when Plato and later Aristotle attempted to expound the principles of religious thinking that could function as an endpoint for the regression of explanation (if not of Forms). Plato’s notion of the Forms is crucial to their work in this area, particularly the notion of the Form of Good: the originary Form of which all else is an imitation, or an interpretation. That is, the bedrock on which faith can rest without recourse to reason.
Perhaps my favourite thinker/writer on the question of faith and reason is the fourth-century scholar St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who believed that true philosophy must include both faith and reason, and that reason was never theologically neutral. While the Socratic dictum insisted that “Virtue is knowledge,” and that knowledge leads to truth, Augustine maintained – partly as a result of reflection on his own moral struggles – that knowledge, or an appeal to reason, does not automatically produce goodness. Instead, according to Augustine, “Faith goes before; understanding follows after.”
Augustine wrote that intellectual inquiry into faith was to be understood as faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum). To have faith, for Augustine, was “to think with assent” (credere est assensione cogitare), an act of the intellect determined not by reason, necessarily, but by will.
Augustine admired the work of the Platonists, whowrote so carefully and thoughtfully about the causes of things, but were also interested in the method of acquiring knowledge, and on how we might discern the cause of the organised universe – of life – itself. As a later Catholic theologian writes:
The cogitatio, that quest, that always renewed inquiry of the unsatisfied believer, is not an optional feature of faith; it is an intrinsic element of which the coexistence with a categorical assensus properly constitutes the credere, as much by opposition to the scire as to the dubitare (Marie-Dominique Chenu quoted in Contemplation and Incarnation)
[cogitatio: thinking, reason – assensus: approval/agreement/assent – credere: to believe/to think – scire: knowledge or understanding – dubitare:doubt]
This sense of the application of reason, or thinking, to the practice of faith as a journey – a quest – can be productively read against Wood’s novel. Many novels, some might even say all novels, have some elements of the quest within them. In Wood’s novel, the quest of the characters to love and be with each other is underpinned by their individual quests to reconcile faith (the logic of the heart) with reason (the logic of the mind).
Of course, Charlotte’s book is not a treatise, and while these are the connections and ideas I was prompted to reconsider after reading her book, she is not such a clumsy writer as to fall into didacticism. Her characters lives are scored and circumscribed by the tension between faith and reason, but she is not the kind of writer who pushes these themes onto the page, or into the mouths and minds of her characters. And it is not always a Christian, or even a religious, faith that troubles them. It is also the tension between reason and faith in themselves, in their capacities as humans, as sister and doctor, as well as reason and faith in love, reason and faith in each other.
Some of this is played out in the landscape of gardens: gardens that occur naturally, and gardens cultivated and lived in by the various characters of the novel. In one sense, a reading that focuses on the tensions and connections between faith and reason in the novel, could align these tensions with the metaphors of the garden and the natural landscape and flora, with faith most aligned with native or wild landscapes and flora, and reason with the practice of gardening. Crucially, then, Jocelyn’s epiphanic dream of a native garden, and her late attempts to create an earthly mirror of that vision, bring these two impulses or practices into a productive, if not peaceful, relation. As Wood writes:
A garden is not a gentle place (187)
Gardens, particularly non-native and symbolic/mythic gardens, are contrasted with the natural landscape and with native gardens: metaphors perhaps for the passionate love that Jocelyn and Martin initially enjoy in the relatively untamed natural environment of the Pittwater, and later, in the Blue Mountains garden where Jocelyn’s mother’s garden wilts, and the dog shits in full view of the house. The post-colonial gardens of Jocelyn’s Blue Mountains home, with its languishing introduced species, reflects the ways their love is interrupted and restricted through family obligations, the moral judgment of the times and so on.
Events lead to the two being separated and it is many years before Jocelyn builds the garden she imagines during that early idyll. The site she chooses is connected to Martin,and to the grave of an unnamed child both feel drawn to. Jocelyn finally constructs the garden she imagined, through a labour of love, imagination and determination, though her first garden is partially destroyed by bushfire. This is foreshadowed by references, early in the novel, to banksias being consumed but also regenerated by fire, images that are, in turn, connected to the religious narratives of death and rebirth, particularly in Christianity. These images of the destroyed garden are connected to the Biblical story of Christ, and to the garden of Gethsemane.
Gethsemane is the garden in Jerusalem, where Christ and his disciples gathered to pray the night before his crucifixion. It is the site of Christ’s ‘agony in the garden’: the place where he experienced doubt and what we might interpret as a very human fear and trepidation regarding his upcoming torture and death. According to the Book of Luke, Jesus prays:
Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done (Luke 22:42).
Though he experiences doubt, Jesus finally sublimates his own will to that of his father, God. Both Martin and Jocelyn struggle with the force of their personal wills in the garden of the monastery, suffering their own agonies of self-doubt, determination, frustration and so on.
Gethsemane is also the garden where Jesus is betrayed by his disciple, Judas Iscariot, with a kiss. A kiss shared between two men in a garden is also part of the narrative of Wood’s novel: a kiss that, like the kiss shared between Judas and Jesus, is observed by unnamed others, and which results in both a betrayal and a loss.
Jocelyn, and her garden, are destroyed (though only partly) only to be reborn in a new, perhaps more authentic, form. Before we read about Jocelyn and her garden, however, we read about Martin’s experiences of a metaphoric period of exile – forty years in the desert Jocelyn later transforms into a garden – during which he questions his faith in God, his work as a doctor, and his love for Jocelyn. He questions his love in the same sense that many theologians question their faith in God (ie: apply reason to faith): not because his love falters, but because he struggles to reconcile his real experience of love with love in its Ideal Form.
His work in the vegetable garden at the monastery with James is a source of comfort and self-reconciliation and the site of his eventual reconnection with a sensual and, perhaps, sexual self, and with the possibility of embracing a broader, more nurturing and more practical life, symbolised both in the vegetable garden itself, with its life-sustaining produce, and in the carved stone bearing the word Colo he buries in the earth. Colo is a latin word meaning both ‘to cultivate’ and ‘to worship’, as the novel points out to us. In some sense, the connection between cultivation and worship is the deep spiritual and romantic lesson both Martin and Jocelyn must learn in order to love each other. They must learn to cultivate, or care for, the landscape and for each other: and they must each learn that such a duty of care is also a form of worship, or love.
They must learn the lesson of love attributed to St Augustine by the great internet bubble (though I can’t find it anywhere in his work, and the translation seems remarkably un-Augustinian in tone):
Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.
There are other possible meanings for the Latin word colo, including the action of casting a fishing net. This imagery, of fishing, and of the water on which the net settles before it sinks, is also part of this beautifully-written novel. A book in which the author manages that magic trick: simple things are allowed their complexity, and complex things rendered simply (without losing any of their complexity).
Water is also a recurring and shifting symbol throughout this novel: as soothing balm, as necessary to cultivation, as cleansing and destructive storm and as baptismal salve. Martin’s first romantic gesture is to bring Jocelyn a fish, which she prepares for them to eat, transferring its sequin-scales to her wrists in the process. Their real romance begins, however, when they move into his house by the sea at Pittwater He brings her gifts from the sea – fish when he goes out fishing, but also seaweed and shells and stones – while she works on her editing, and reads letters from her sister about the Thames: the river of London washing up against the warmer, wider, wilder lakes of the Pittwater in the reader’s mind, their waters uneasily sifted together.
One night later in their relationship, Martin brings a crab home for dinner: a gift from a patient he has treated, somewhat unsuccessfully, and which he struggles to kill, or to subdue into the pot with ease. When they part, the ferry “moves away over that now uncrossable swathe of water” (48). For Christmas, Jocelyn gives Martin a painting of the Pittwater: a painting he takes with him when they separate, but leaves behind later, when he is forced into yet another leavetaking. Water also has a baptismal or healing function in religious imagery, in particular, which is evoked in this novel. When Martin turns up at the monastery his legs are “moving as though he had been months at sea” and his prayers there are “like swimming in green water”.
The title image of the submerged cathedral refers to the Debussy La Cathedrale Engloutie, and recalls the tales of a drowned city Jocelyn remembers hearing a story about, and which she recalls when she visits a small church in rural France. The Breton legend on which Debussy based his prelude is about the cursed underwater cathedral of Ys. This magical city rises up from the water when it is clear, but even on wintry, windblown days, the sounds of the cathedral can be heard: priests chanting, bells ringing, perhaps the sound of the waves lapping against the stained glass windows of the cathedral. According to the legend, the city of Ys was the most beautiful in the world, but sank when the daughter of the city’s king, Dahut, under the influence of the devil disguised as a knight, stole the keys to the city and left the gates open during a storm. A wave as high as a mountain came through the gates and swamped the city. (Jocelyn and Martin endure a storm during their last night camping out in the desert before the return to her Blue Mountains home and the tragedy that will tear them apart). It is said that when the city of lights – Paris – finally sinks, the city of Ys will rise again.
In the context of this novel – and because I went off on a little St Augustine binge after reading this book – I can’t help thinking of Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (City of God), as well: another ideal city from which divine music can sometimes by heard, and which may someday rise (or ‘we’ may rise to it) when the City of Man (the city of lights) has disappeared.
Jocelyn and Martin’s love for each other – that most beautiful of imagined cities – is metaphorically submerged beneath the weight of duty, grief, guilt, blame, doubt and social constrictions. On clear days, they may be able to hear the siren song of their mutual affection wafting up through the crashing of the waves, but for decades the music of their submerged cathedral is drowned out or ignored, or their love is sublimated into other affections and duties: family, work, religious faith, gardening. Nevertheless, their love for each other is a constant source of both comfort and longing. As Martin writes in a letter to Jocelyn, quoting from The Song of Songs, in a passage that becomes a powerful coda to the novel, “Set me as a seal on your heart, for love is stronger than death.”
Perhaps this is made more powerful through a sense of irony, a sense that even though both characters want to believe in such a powerful force of love (have faith), reason – and experience – teach them that death and its attendant griefs and losses, its burden of guilt and regret, will not simply be overcome by love. Rather, perhaps, both love (life, joy) and death (sorrow, loss) must be countenanced and stored alongside each other in the heart: both must be accepted. There is a sense, for me as a reader, that the underlying tragedy of Martin’s quoting this line to Jocelyn is that, for them, death has intervened in their experience of love, has been stronger than love – at least for a time. The seal on their hearts has been as much a seal that closes off love: sealing it away like a buried/submerged treasure, or like a body untimely entombed, as it has been a seal of affirmation.
As the poet e e cummings writes, in a poem that echoes many of the core sentiments of this novel, though perhaps (in the whole poem) in an unbridled reversal Martin and Jocelyn might have done well to discover a little earlier (though then, there would be no story, or at least a very different story, to tell):
we are for each other; then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis