Authors: Jeanette Winterson
Charles Darwin published
On the Origin of Species,
and Richard Wagner completed his opera
Tristan and Isolde.
Both are about the beginnings of the world.
Darwin – objective, scientific, empirical, quantifiable.
Wagner – subjective, poetic, intuitive, mysterious.
the world shrinks to a boat, a bed, a lantern, a love-potion, a wound. The world is contained within a word – Isolde.
The Romantic solipsism that nothing exists but the two of us, could not be farther from the multiplicity and variety of Darwin’s theory of the natural world. Here, the world and everything in it forms and is re-formed, tirelessly and unceasingly. Nature’s vitality is amoral and unsenti-mental; the weak die, the strong survive.
Tristan, weak and wounded, should have died. Love healed him. Love is not part of natural selection.
Where did love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?
In the fossil record of our existence, there is no trace of love. You cannot find it held in the earth’s crust, waiting to be discovered. The long bones of our ancestors show nothing of their hearts. Their last meal is sometimes preserved in peat or in ice, but their thoughts and feelings are gone.
Darwin overturned a stable-state system of creation and completion. His new world was flux, change, trial and error, maverick shifts, chance, fateful experiments, and lottery odds against success. But earth had turned out to be the blue ball with the winning number. Bobbing alone in a sea of space, earth was the lucky number.
Darwin and his fellow scientists still had no idea how old earth and her life forms might be, but they knew
they were unimaginably older than Biblical time, which dated the earth at 4,000 years. Now, time had to be understood mathematically. It could no longer be imagined as a series of lifetimes, reeled off like a genealogy from the Book of Genesis. The distances were immense.
And yet, the human body is still the measure of all things. This is
scale we know best. This ridiculous six feet belts the globe and everything in it. We talk about feet, hands, spans, because that is what we know. We know the world by and through our bodies. This is our lab; we can’t experiment without it.
It is our home too. The only home we really possess. Home is where the heart is…
The simple image is complex. My heart is a muscle with four valves. It beats 101,000 times a day, it pumps eight pints of blood around my body. Science can bypass it, but I can’t. I say I give it to you, but I never do.
Don’t I? In the fossil record of my past, there is evidence that the heart has been removed more than once. The patient survived.
Broken limbs, drilled skulls, but no sign of the heart. Dig deeper, and there’ll be a story, layered by time, but true as now.
The story of Tristan and Isolde.
The second time the sword went in, I aimed it at the place of the first.
I am weak there – the place where I had been found out before. My weakness was skinned over by your love.
I knew when you healed me that the wound would open again. I knew it like destiny, and at the same time, I knew it as choice.
The love-potion? I never drank it. Did you?
Our story is so simple. I went to bring you back for someone else, and won you for myself. Magic, they all said later, and it was, but not the kind that can be brewed.
We were in Ireland. Was there ever a country so damp? I had to wring out my mind to think clearly. I was a morning mist of confusion.
You had a lover. I killed him. It was war and your man was on the losing side. As I killed him, he fatally wounded me; that is, he gave me the wound that only love could repair. Love lost, and the wound would be as bloody as ever. As bloody as now, bed-soaked and jagged.
I didn’t care about dying. But you took me in out of pity because you didn’t know my name. I told you it was Tantrist, and as Tantrist you loved me.
‘What if I was Tristan?’ I asked you one day, and I watched you grow pale, and take a dagger. You had every right to kill me. I turned my throat to you, Adam’s apple twitching slightly, but before I closed my eyes, I smiled.
When I opened them again, you had put down the dagger and you were holding my hand. I felt like a little child, not a hero, not a warrior, not a lover, only a boy in a big bed, the day turning round him, dreamy and slow.
The room was high and blue. Cobalt blue. There was an orange fire. Your eyes were green. Lost in the colours of our love I never forgot them, and now, lying here, where the sheets are brown with my blood, it is
blue and orange and green I remember. A little boy in a big bed.
Where are you?
We said nothing. You sat beside me. You were the strong one. I couldn’t stand up. Holding my hand, and stroking it gently with your finger and thumb, you touched in me another world. Until then, through wounds and wreck, I had been sure of myself. I was Tristan. Now, my name gone backwards, I went backwards myself, unravelling into strands of feeling. This stranded man.
When it was time for me to sail back to Cornwall, you came out and stood on a narrow rock, and we watched each other so far that only we two knew what was rock or boat or human.
The sea was empty. The sky was shut.
Then King Marke sent me to fetch you to be his wife. You said you wanted to kill me.
Again I opened my body to you. Again you dropped the blade.
When your servant brought the drink I knew you intended to poison me. Under the cliffs of Cornwall, the King in his boat ready to meet us, I drank the water, because that’s what it was. Your servant had given me water. You drank too, and fell to the floor, and I went to catch you and hold you as the men dropped anchor and the ship lurched. You were in my arms for the first time, and you said my name, ‘Tristan.’
I answered you: ‘Isolde.’
The world became a word.
We lived for the night. The torch in your window was my signal. When it was lit, I stayed away. When you extinguished it, I came to you – secret doors, dark corridors, forbidden stairs, brushing aside fear and propriety like cobwebs. I was inside you. You contained me. Together, in bed, we could sleep, we could dream, and if we heard your servant’s mournful cry, we called it a bird or a dog. I never wanted to wake. I had no use for the day. The light was a lie. Only here, the sun killed, and time’s hands bound, were we free. Imprisoned in each other, we were free.
When my friend Melot set the trap, I think I knew it. I turned to death full face, as I had turned to love with
my whole body. I would let death enter me as you had entered me. You had crept along my blood vessels through the wound, and the blood that circulates returns to the heart. You circulated me, you made me blush like a girl in the hoop of your hands. You were in my arteries and my lymph, you were the colour just under my skin, and if I cut myself, it was you I bled. Red Isolde, alive on my fingers, and always the force of blood pushing you back to my heart.
In the fight when Marke found us, I fought at the door until you escaped. Then I faced Melot at last, my friend, my trusted friend, and I held my sword at him, red with blood. As he lifted his sword against me, I threw mine down and ran his through my body, at the bottom of my ribs. The skin, still shy of healing, opened at once.
When I woke, I was here, in my own castle, across the sea, carried and guarded by my servant. He told me he had sent for you, yes surely there was a sail? I could see it swift as love. He climbed into the watchtower, but there was no sail.
I put my hand into the bloody gap at the bottom of my ribs. Her name drips through my fingers:
Where are you?
I didn’t drink it either. There was no love-potion, only love. It was you I drank.
wake up. Don’t die of the wound. Divide the night with me, and die together in the morning.
His eye is pale, his breathing is still. When I first saw him, he was still and pale, and I kissed him into life, though he never knew that was the art I used.
the world was made so that we could find each other in it. Already the world is fading, returning to the sea. My pulse ebbs with yours. Death frees us from the torment of parting. I cannot part with you. I am you.
The world is nothing. Love formed it.
The world vanishes without trace.
What is left is love.
Dark and Pew were drinking their tea in silence, as they always did. Dark broke it.
‘Do you recall my visitor?’
Pew sucked on his pipe before he spoke.
‘Darwin? Oh aye, I recall him, and Salts like a great cheese o’r-swarmed wi’ mice.’
‘I woke up in one world and I went to bed in another.’
‘It was but a fancy of his, Reverend. A boy playing with shells.’
‘No, not a fancy, Pew. The world is older than we can dream it. And how it came about, we hardly know.’
‘You don’t believe that the guid God made it in seven days then?’
‘No, I do not.’
‘Well, an’ that is hard fir ye then.’
‘Yes, hard, but not as hard as other things.’
There was another silence. Dark shifted in his chair so that he could re-tie his boots.
‘Do you recall my visitor?’
There was a great puffing, like an engine, before Pew spoke.
‘Stevenson? Oh aye, and he ran up and down this lighthouse without coughing once, though his lungs, they say, have more holes than a cod net.’
‘He has published this book. He sent it to me today.’
Dark passed it to Pew who ran his hands over the cover, feeling the tooled leather and the engraved type.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
‘Is it aboot lighthousekeeping?’
‘In a manner of speaking, it is – if keeping the light is the one thing all of us must do.’
‘Oh aye, we must do it all right.’
‘This story of his is about a man named Dr Henry Jekyll; an upright beacon, a shining example, a fellow of penetrating intellect and glowing humanity.
‘Well then…’ said Pew, re-filling his pipe, and sensing a story.
‘Well then, by means of a drug he manufactures himself in his laboratory, he can transform himself at will into a stunted dark creature by the name of Edward
Hyde. A thing of infamy and villainy. But the twist is that Hyde is able to do all of the things that Jekyll secretly longs to do. The one is all virtue and the other is all vice. But while they may seem to be entirely separate, the dreadful and disturbing part, is that they are the same person. Listen to how Jekyll reasons it to himself:
If each, I told myself, could be but housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.
Pew sucked on his pipe. ‘I’d rather walk at night with a clean-bodied villain than a clean-clothed saint.’
‘The crimes of this man Hyde multiply even to murder, and of course, after a time, Jekyll finds himself remaining as Hyde even when he has taken the potion to restore himself to Jekyll. Eventually Hyde takes over completely.
The hand which I now saw, clearly enough, in the yellow light of a mid-London morning lying half shut on the bedclothes, was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a smart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.
Dark paused. ‘Pew, when Stevenson came to visit me, and we sat in my study talking, he asked me if I thought a man might have two natures; the one almost ape-like and bestial in its fury, the other committed to self-improvement. Of course Darwin is much to blame for all this, with his monkey talk, though he has been misread, I know. I told Stevenson I did not believe that Man was descended from the Ape, or that he shared with such a creature a common inheritance.’
‘Well spoken all right,’ said Pew.
‘And then, Stevenson said he had been lately in Bristol, where he had met a seaman by the name of…’
‘Price,’ said Pew.
‘That is correct. And I told him all there is to tell. You understand me, Pew? All there is to tell.
There was another pause – longer this time, like a difficult thought.
‘Do you recall my visitor?’
Pew took his pipe from his mouth and answered at once, ‘Oh aye, Mrs Tenebris.’
‘Her married name was Lux. Her maiden name was O’Rourke.’
‘She was a fine woman.’
‘You allowed me to bring her here, and for that kindness I am bound to you.’
Pew waved his pipe.
‘You understand me, Pew? I am Henry Jekyll.’ He
paused for a moment, looking at his hands, strong, long, studious. ‘And I am Edward Hyde.’
It was a southerly wind that blew along the headland, pushing the hair back from his face. He was fifty-eight, and his hair was still thick, but white as the bleached bones he threw to his dog in place of a stick.
The obvious equation was Dark=Jekyll. Lux=Hyde. The impossible truth was that in his life it was the reverse.
He walked on – turning it over and over in his hands, as he had done for so many years now. He took the seahorse out of his pocket – his emblem of lost time.
Stevenson had not believed him when Dark told him that all the good in his life had lived in Bristol with Molly. Only Lux was kind and human and whole. Dark was a hypocrite, an adulterer and a liar.
‘But he is me,’ said Dark, ‘and I must live with him even though I hate him.’
Could he not now, even now, resolve his nature? Why was it too late?
He understood that when Molly had come to Salts it had been his last chance. His freedom. She had come to forgive him and to rescue him. She had wanted to
take him away. She had wanted them to disappear that night on a packet boat and go to France.
Why had he not gone?
His life here was hateful to him. His two months a year with her had made it bearable. She was the air pocket in his upturned boat.
Now he had drowned.
He took out his notebook, scuffed and scored and looked at the entry.
Molly returned to Bristol. I would not accept her plan of our new life in France. I stood firm. I stood firm. I stood firm.
He closed the book and shoved it in his pocket and walked on, noticing how the cliffs were worn away at the base.