Secular Resolutions in Burnside, Enright, and Millet

Three recent novels struck me with a similarity of theme and conclusion; they led me to ponder their relative convergences and differences. Two of the novels grouped themselves more closely together and the third one stood somewhat apart, and its principal distinguishing feature is that it restates and fortifies the points from the other two. It also approaches them from a distinct starting point, but the conclusion remains the same. The protagonists of these books— and honestly this is the feature which aligned them in my mind—each suffer periods of madness.

These departures from their senses obviously differ from story to story: they are variously described, variously severe, and end with permanent alteration of the character. This is what we encounter in fiction when it is worth the name.

The three that grouped themselves, and the characters I’m collecting here for consideration, are Michael, a young man living in a Scottish coastal city in John Burnside’s The Devil’s Footprints (2007) 1;
Veronica, a 39 year-old Dublin housewife in Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007)2; and Anna, a young mother on the run from her husband in Lydia Millet’s 2016 novel Sweet Lamb of Heaven 3.

These characters’ journeys are distinct, clearly; I intend to explore the ways these three plots involving madness contrast with each other, but also to find the surprising aspects they have  in common. As we will explore, the three novels share the principal theme of repudiating “magic” solutions to problems of faith and religion. I mean “magic” in the anthropological sense: some physical act, like a sacrament, or faith healing, or astrological calculation, or touching of some object, which, when used, brings divine assistance to humankind.

First, a brief discussion of the books individually, with salient points about how each contributes to our theme.

The Devil’s Footprints (John Burnside)

Protagonist Michael Gardiner, inheritor of his house on the east coast of Scotland, sinks into an odd “elective madness,” in which he decides he will make good on a (maybe) offhand promise to a 14 year-old girl. He knows the girl (called Hazel) is in a bad situation at home, and probably has a relationship with a teenage boy which is itself likely not beneficial, but his chief interest in her stems from his belief that she may be his daughter. He hears of the ghastly event of her mother’s vehicular suicide, in which her mother kills herself and murders her two young sons—Hazel’s brothers. Hazel has fortunately been excluded from this horror, and is discovered by the authorities wandering dazed along a country road, barely aware of her surroundings. After some low-level stalking, Michael engages her in conversation outside of school, and later gets a phone call from her, taking him up on his ill-advised promise to “take her away from all this”—“this” being the purportedly miserable life the young girl is living. (p. 241). This stupid dare results in great changes in Michael—almost killing him—and reinforces, echoes, corresponds to the “Footprints” of the title.

We are introduced to the fact of Michael’s madness early on. After he hears from his housecleaner about the murder-suicide and the teenage girl’s hopeless predicament: “Now, listening to Mrs. K. describe the dreamwalk that Hazel had taken that day, an idea began to form in my head. I wasn’t aware of it forming, not then; only with hindsight can I say that it was at that moment, idly gossiping with my cleaner, that I began to go insane.” (p. 59) His cleaning woman recounts this sad history, and she watches him, sizing him up: “contaminating me [Michael says] with her interest and her compassion …” (p. 60). And Michael considers the story, how awful it is, but how it germinates a seed which will grow into an action to be taken: “I should have realized that every story is an infection, one way or another. I should have seen that though she meant me no harm, Mrs. K. had her own ideas about how things should happen, and even if she didn’t know it at the time, it was in her interests—or rather, it satisfied her expectations of how the world operates—that I should go insane.” (p. 60)

Michael slides into an odd mental state; he describes it several times as “elective.” Hazel confronts Michael and takes him up (p. 241) on his offer to help her flee.
For a moment I didn’t know what to say. I had been serious, I was still serious, but I think I also knew that I was going insane. A temporary, elective, perverse form of insanity, but insanity nevertheless. I hesitated for only a moment, but I know, looking back, that what was running through my mind, in that split second - running through like some underground stream, invisible, barely heard - was a question. I couldn’t have put that question into words then, but I can now. The question was in three parts. First, it occurred to me that things had happened, things had been said and done that I was not aware of. Signs had passed, secrets had been revealed, without my even knowing. I was insane, really, in the ordinary, defeatist way that Peter was insane when he denies Jesus, in the way that Joseph is insane when the angel appears to him in a dream - and he believes what he had seen. … Only the insane listen when the angel speaks, only the insane make wild-eyed denials and so confirm their guilt. I was insane and I had been listening to angels, without even knowing. That was fine but, if I was insane, what was she?”

The Gathering (Anne Enright)

Veronica Hegarty is a 39 year-old Dublin housewife and mother, one of twelve siblings of an

obviously Catholic family. The author starts her novel referring to a crime of the flesh, which happened a long time ago. Her narrator, Veronica, cannot even be sure it actually happened. “I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me” (p 8). And at p. 64:

Late at night, I hear voices in bursts and snatches - like a radio switched on and off again, in another room. Incoherent, but quite cheerful. Stories bouncing off the walls. Scraps of lives, leaking through. Whisperings in the turn of a door handle. Birds on the roof. The occasional bleeping of a child’s toy. And once, my brother’s voice saying, ‘Now. Now.’  

“I listened for him again, but he was gone.

“As I opened the fridge, my mind is subject to jolts and lapses; the stair you miss as you fall asleep. Portents. I feel the future falling trough the roof of my mind and when I look nothing is there. A rope. Something dangling in a bag, that I can not touch.

I have all my regrets between pouring the wine and reaching for the glass.”

Veronica plunges into a downward spiral when she hears that her dearest brother Liam has killed himself. We learn as the narrative unfolds that Veronica, Liam, and younger sister Kitty were shunted off while very young to their maternal grandmother’s house for extended periods. While living there, Veronica and Liam suffer abuse at the hands of their grandmother’s lover, Lambert.

Lust and people’s various reactions to it drive each salient event in Gathering: the abuse at grandmother Ada’s house in the Broadstone neighborhood, Liam’s suicide and the confused, maddening reaction of the clan to that, and Veronica’s descent into madness. Veronica directs the rage arising from these long-past events at her mother—she of the 19 pregnancies and 12 live births—and her grandmother Ada. It is at Ada’s house and under Ada’s nose where the heinous acts occurred. Veronica and Liam share their psychological scars, but his suicide brings her scars to the fore and they demand a reckoning. She tumbles into a madness as she has to accompany his corpse from England to Ireland, and the gathering of her family for the burial only makes things worse. Her brother haunts her thoughts. She talks to him and at times thinks she hears him speak to her. She cannot sleep, showing symptoms of depression. Rage, depression, hallucinations, addled thought processes; these all afflict Veronica.

During her sleepless nights, Veronica sits down to record her tumbling thoughts and emotions. All she has are words, which she tries to use to make sense out of the frustrating, terrifying, rage-inducing thing her life has become—has always been. Episodes from the novel recount Veronica’s emotional issues from early childhood on. She remarks that her grandmother Ada would not allow herself to recall things. Or “There was something about imagining things, or even remembering them, that she found slightly distasteful—like gossip, only worse. These days, of course, I do little else” (p. 139).  Gossiping to oneself about events of the past leads to conflict, a renewal of old grievances. Veronica’s painful memories “make me think that Ada was right: there is something immoral about the mind’s eye” (p. 140-141). Compare this to Michael’s (of Devil’s Footsteps) considering that stories are infections, things that grow malevolently unless treated.

Memories will be Veronica’s undoing—in fact they are her undoing.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven (Lydia Millet)

The madness suffered by Anna in Sweet Lamb of Heaven is unlike that of either of the other two protagonists here. After she gives birth to her daughter Lena, Anna hears a voice, or rather, voices. She continuously hallucinates these spoken shreds and phrases and snippets. They come to her in a variety of voices and languages. She sometimes gets the impression that she’s hearing a language as it was spoken 500 years ago, or even as long ago as Chaucer. Anna spends years dealing with these aural hallucinations; she spends much money and energy on research, she sees doctors, and has tests done on her ears, all of which turn up nothing physiological, and nothing neurological. During this period, Anna is assuredly not mad. Her madness comes later, and its cause is anything but mysterious.

Sweet Lamb is the outlier of the three books. Its plot and theme separate it from the other two, and reflect, refine, and solidify those of the other two. Unique among our protagonists, Anna has multiple episodes of altered mental states—I refrain from the term ‘madness’ as applying to Anna—and these episodes are separated in her life by five years or so. The first episode features her ongoing auditory hallucinations, which last from the birth of her daughter until the day little Lena first starts to speak. The second, much more frighteningly described, and described in much greater detail, is induced by a monster, her husband. We will address that particular episode in detail.

Repudiating the “Magic” Solution

In the cases of The Devil’s Footprints and The Gathering, a spiritual background dominates. In the case of Burnside’s novel there are several signposts along the way which bear this out. In Footprints of course we have the Devil itself in the title. We have Michael speaking of his father: a renowned photographer, he is famous and well-off from his photographs of people in dire distress - imprisoned, sick, war casualties, the dying - he calls himself of “soul thief” one time, taking and exploiting the arresting images. “… but the fact remained that his livelihood and the well-being of his family depended on money he had obtained, and in some cases was still obtaining, from the souls he had stolen” with his camera (p. 210). Michael thus had a father who provided for him by figuratively stealing souls. His mother, an artist, saw and rendered shadow, of variable depth and shape—dealt in it as a preoccupation and major feature of her perception. This vision of darkness reflects her reaction to the unwelcoming town and the harassment she and her husband suffer at the hands of neighbors. She has a book of art plates from which she shares with Michael two of her favorites: Georges de la Tour’s religious-themed paintings of the angel visiting St. Joseph, and one of St. Peter denying Christ. These paintings are made with subtle and limited lighting, (they are night scenes containing candles) and are thus plunged mostly in deep shadow.

A school acquaintance, Malcolm Kennedy, bullies twelve year-old Michael over the course of some months. One day, Malcolm deals particularly harshly with him and Michael ends with a bloody nose. He goes down and covers up; when he is in this position, curled defensively, the elderly townswoman Mrs. Collings suddenly appears, to offer aid and succor. After this episode in the alley behind her home and shops, he comes under Mrs. Collings’s care. As she tends to him that first day, he hears her speaking to someone. He looks up, following Mrs. Collings’s glance, and sees a woman, almost an ethereal presence, leaning out an upstairs window, her wispy white hair blowing in the breeze. She smiles and hopes Michael is well; her name is Angela. These are the angels to whom he listens.

After Michael makes good on his promise to Hazel, running away with her, he must find his way back home by taking to the road on foot. He has lost his car, keys, and cash, and must hoof it the full, terrible distance back during the cold and rainy winter night. His epic trek burnishes Michael of all madness, all comfort, and all illusion. But he must endure the walk and its creatures to emerge cleansed at the end:
I felt good, I felt alive, aware of things to an almost painful degree, my body attuned to the cold and pared down to some essential state by fatigue and hunger, and I remember thinking—oh, yes, I was exhausted, and I was broken and emotional, but I remember, not thinking, but knowing, with no sense of being either comforted or disturbed by the notion—that I also belonged to those wide, eternal patterns, those laws that guided the birds and the tides and the weather that had brought me home: the pattern, the law, that kept everything in motion and the pattern that allowed it all to open a little, every hundred years or so, to let the Devil in.” (p. 336)

As Michael struggles against pain, exhaustion, and delirium in his walk home after being stripped of all his possessions, he at last reaches his home village. He shuffles painfully into Coldhaven on a bitterly cold morning in the snow, and notices a variety of bird species as part of a litany of natural phenomena. He thinks, “There was a pattern to it all, and even if that pattern was disrupted, a new pattern would emerge, as if from nothing, insistent, neutral, self-governing. I knew this, and I think, for those few minutes at least, I rejoiced in it …” (pp. 335-336).

But also, during his long trek to get back home:

… if you walk for long enough, in the cold, or fast rain, or facing the wind, you become aware of another walker, out in the distance somewhere: an echo, an exact copy of yourself who is nevertheless a distinct animal, a different body. … Alone, yet companion to the birds and animals who go invisibly along with him, he lives on his wits. … He is the one who is in danger of being lost forever, the one who might at any moment turn into a pillar of salt. Most important of all, he is the one who has to carry the name of the devil in his memory, the bones of the devil in his bones, the blood of the devil in his veins - and, for the duration of that walk, he was my true companion: mon semblable, mon frère.  This of course, was delirium.” (p. 314)

In this milieu of the sacred Michael walks for a time in the Devil’s footprints. But of course he is not the devil, only an temporarily insane man, making missteps, but doing harm mostly to himself, at least at this point in his life.

But of the earthbound, human-centric nature of these phenomena, Burnside provides an even more definitive affirmation:

Before it became the Devil, that spirit had been something else - an angel, Pan, the genius cucullatus [hooded spirit], some wandering breath of wind or light that touched a man from time to time when he was working in the nether field, or steering his boat through the fishing grounds, far at sea. The people had known it once and had respected it; then the priests came, and they’d made it into something else. They took that bright, dark spirit and called it Satan, Beelzebub, Baal. The Devil. They didn't want to be stitched together with rocks and stones and trees, they didn't want to share their world with animals and birds and sprites. They wanted to be alone and separate. They wanted to own the land and have their God be a man, like them, so he could grant them dominion over the beasts of the earth” (pp. 339-340).

So here is the repudiation of magic in Burnside’s novel. The devil isn’t some mythological creature, or a foil for God in some religious construct of the supposedly divine. It’s simply a wandering impulse which occasionally affects men and what they do. Further, the priests, those who depend on providing divine interpretation, guidance, and discipline, wrest the devil away from man and nature, out of fear and jealousy of their stature and livelihoods. Burnside, through Michael, goes on to personalize the terror of the priests and landowners. They found even though they could co-opt the devil and turn it to their shared purpose, they couldn’t kill it. And with this fear and constant company with the devil came a terrible familiarity.

They must have known how close it was: They could smell the sulfur, they could feel the heat of the flames. They were the Devil's own; they were his chosen. They knew, in their hearts, that the simpletons and scapegoats they tried and burned were nothing but unholy innocents. They knew, because they tasted the Devil on their own lips, smelled him on their own hands. They woke in the night and something from the fields had followed them into their inner chambers …” (p. 342)

The two cardinal vices of lust and anger roll and roil much closer to the surface in Anne Enright’s remarkable The Gathering. Lust drives Lambert Nugent to abuse Veronica and her brother Liam, it drives Ada’s self-absorbed culpability, and what he suffers as a child drives Liam to kill himself. Rage: Veronica directs a righteous anger at her mother, she of the 19 pregnancies, at Lamb Nugent for his abuse, at Ada for her fatal negligence, and at her assembled siblings for a variety of things.  The vices displayed by the motley Hegarty clan show in clear relief against the devout backdrop: her mother’s compliant fecundity, the reciting of the rosary at the wakes in the novel, Veronica’s brother Ernest entering the priesthood. In this milieu Veronica finds that by translating the sex act, by pinning it to a board, so to speak, by which she recognizes the unmistakable banality of the act itself, she can belittle it to an extent which affords her the space to live her life.

The bookie fucks the whore (I had forgotten she was a whore), and we are near to the truth of it here, we are getting to the truth of it—of man’s essential bookieness and woman’s essential whorishness—we are pushing for it now as Nugent pushes into Ada, the fact of her baseness, the fact that she wants it too. Or is this enough? Would he not, to prove his point, need to do more?  

“I can twist them as far as you’d like, here on the page; make them endure all kinds of protraction, bliss, mindlessness, abjection, release. I can bend and reconfigure them in the rudest possible ways, but my heart fails me, there is something so banal about things that happen behind closed doors, these terrible transgressions that are just sex after all.

“Just sex.

“I would love to leave my body. Maybe this is what they are about, these questions of which or whose hole, the right fluids in the wrong places, these infantile confusions and small sadisms: they are a way of fighting our way out of all this meat (I would just like to swim out, you know?—shoot like a word out of my own mouth and disappear with a flick of my tail) because there is a limit to what you can fuck and with what, Nugent opening Ada’s belly with his wicked, square fingers, delving into her cavities, taking with such careful desire the beautiful lobes of her lungs and caressing—‘Oh,’ gasps Ada, as the air rushes out of her—squeezing her pink lungs tight.


“I reach the end of what they might do, what they might have done, and it all shrivels back to this:

“Ada reaches her hand to Nugent’s shoulder and he, in the manner of a person who knows her these many years, looks up and lifts his hand to her hip. They stay like that for a moment, and then Ada dips to lift the tray, and turns to leaves the room.” (P. 213-214)

This unvarnished consideration of the sex activities of Lamb and Ada, and the ridiculous and mundane act she reduces it to, serve to place the act in its most basic nature, and yet when it is perpetrated on a small child, it is evil. Veronica works to comprehend the deeds that have led to Liam’s suicide and her own brush with madness, and arrives at a point where the act has no deep significance, other than how it can ruin a little boy and lead to his suicide. Consider that conclusion with this statement, after she finally remembers a particular episode of molestation by Lamb Nugent:

I am sickened by the evil of him all the same, I am sweltering in it; the triangles of blackness under his sharp cheek-bones, the way his head turns slowly and his eyes spin, slower still, in their sockets, towards the light of the opening door where my grandmother stands.

“I do not believe in evil - I believe that we are human and fallible, that we make things and spoil them in an ordinary way - and yet I experience the slow turn of his face towards the door as evil"(p. 335).

Lamb turns his face and sees Ada at the door and at this moment, the adult Veronica understands the whole thing is Ada’s fault: “This is the moment when we realise that it was Ada’s fault all along. ❡ The mad son and the vague daughter. The vague daughter’s endlessly vague pregnancies, the way each and every one of her grandchildren went vaguely wrong. This is the moment when we ask what Ada did—for it must, surely, have been something—to bring so much death into the world.

But I do not blame her. And I don’t know why that is.” (p. 337)

Here Enright asks the reader to make sense of that which never does. Her role as author does not require her to be convenient for her readers, or hackneyed in her conclusions. She depends on her readers to see the conclusion for what it is: humans are fallible and we ruin things in an ordinary way. Liam’s suffering and death take place in the midst of a religious culture and a family which includes a priest. But the calamities and the consequences derive from human failings, in the vast world, in the endless sea of human grappling and emotional jackbooting. Again, the lesson from these mangling events reflects nothing magical or supernatural. The world is full of fallible people, and these people ruin things, including lives, in the ordinary way, through human bumbling and sinning.

One of her daughters asks an ingenuous question about Liam’s death and in reply Veronica sets to work:

For a week, I compose a great and poetic speech for my children about how there are little thoughts in your head that can grow until the eat your entire mind. Just tiny little thoughts—they are like a cancer, there is no telling what triggers the spread, or who will be struck, and why some get it and others are spared.

"I am all for sadness, I say, don’t get me wrong. I am all for the ordinary life of the brain. But we fill up sometimes, like those little wooden birds that sit on a pole—we fill up with it, until donk, we tilt into the drink.” (p. 265)

With this simple but effective formula, Veronica reduces so much sorrow and so much frustration to terms which we can manage, and she seeks to instruct her daughters about life and growth. Obviously there’s no magic here. Veronica experiences growth of her own and while it does not reflect a conscious turning-away from any religious principles, she offers a more modern and more useful secular solution to problems which in deeply religious families and communities too frequently often go unaddressed.

Concluding Treatment: Sweet Lamb of Heaven

One could argue that Sweet Lamb of Heaven has no corresponding religious background, and I would say to the contrary, that it’s certainly there, and the form it takes bears strongly on the meanings I am observing. Its presence does not have the same priority as in the other two novels; Millet’s novel deals with religious beliefs and effects much more obliquely—and briefly. Anna’s husband, the ghastly Ned, pursues Anna and his daughter only after they are already long gone from home. The reason? He’s decided to run for the Alaska state Senate, and he needs them for his image. He has emailed Anna his website, with its prolife agenda and its glossy colors; Anna knows he doesn’t believe in these values, because when she first met him he “claimed not to have any politics. … Politics were for crooks, he said. But later politics grew in him like a metastasis” (p.21) So the cynical, sociopathic Ned pitches his tent in the theocratic camp, since he sees it as his best chance to win. So, to complete his brochures and website, he needs Anna and their daughter Lena to appear on the podium with him, smiling, attractive, reassuring.  The religious, or civic-religious, agenda drives Ned’s pursuit of the fleeing Anna, and this pursuit of course drives the novel.

But beyond these considerations, Millet includes a highly original plot feature in Sweet Lamb, and it is a much fuller treatment of language than appears in either of the other two novels.  As we have pointed out, Anna begins hearing voices after Lena is born. These voices are an immersive experience for Anna. She hears them constantly, beginning in the hospital after Lena is born until the little girl learns to speak, a period of more than a year. It’s quite telling, a smoking gun if you will, that Ned can hear the sounds too when he’s at the house, which isn’t very often.  Anna’s flight from Ned lands her at a motel in Maine overlooking the Atlantic. She doesn’t know it at first, but she has found a place filled with fellow “hearers,” people who have had the same or very similar outré auditory experiences as Anna. One character, a young doctor working in neonatal care, apparently knows more than anyone else about the sounds. Millet places in this character, Kay, a deep insight into source and import of the sounds.

Anna learns from Kay, but first she learns of the variability of the others’ experiences. One guest, who had worked with killer whales at a West Coast marine amusement park, hears Orca song, soaring, or guttural, or clicking. Another character, a botanist, hears the long, fading, and incomprehensible sound of plants communicating. Kay knows, or has formed theories, about the source of these perceptions. Kay feels them deeply and shares them when Anna requests it. At pp. 361-362:

It is language,' she said. 'The same kind that makes your body work without you telling it to. You know how the brain runs your kidneys, say, or tells an embryo how to grow in a pregnant woman? What’s the difference between that kind of implicit, like, limbic OS for our biology—and for the biology of all animals—and just a miracle?'

“'I don’t know,' I said [Anna in the first person said].

“'It’s part of deep language that runs these operating systems for us. You see? It’s not the language we speak. I mean our language comes from it, like all language, but our own specific language is like the surface of the ocean, the very top line of the water. Just the line. Deep language—I mean I happen to call it that, but there are other names—it’s the rest of the ocean beneath, see, Anna? It’s the rest of the water below, and it’s everything the rest of the ocean holds, that makes that thin line of surface possible.'”

Language holds an important, if not heavily emphasized, role in both Footprints and Gathering. Michael, in Footprints, complains that the suicide story Mrs. King tells him contaminated him with her interest and compassion (p. 60). Further (same page), “I should have realized that every story is an infection, one way or another. … [i]t satisfied her expectations of how the world operates - that I should go insane.” The story infects Michael; he sees how life has affected someone with whom he was at one time intimate, and focuses on the surviving daughter. Narrative has this power over human emotions and actions. The story generates in Michael the need to—save? rescue? provide for?—Hazel, and he starts on the path that even he recognizes as insane.

Early in The Gathering (pp. 7-8) Veronica works to deal with her anger and her shaky mental state. She has trouble remembering the ghastly past; at times she isn’t sure she wants to. “I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me - this thing that may not have taken place.”  
It doesn’t matter. I do not know the truth, or I do not know how to tell the truth. All I have are stories, night thoughts, the sudden convictions that uncertainty spawns. All I have are ravings, more like. She loved him! I say [referring presumably to Ada and Lamb]. She must have loved him!  I wait for the kind of sense that dawn makes, when you have not slept. I stay downstairs while the family breathes above me and I write it down, I lay them out in nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.”

Language may save Veronica in The Gathering. During the anguished time after hearing of her brother’s death and while the Hegarty clan gathers to bury him, she spends her sleepless nights writing in a word processing document, organizing and examining her feelings. She lays out her “nice sentences, all my clean, white bones.” Trying to control her emotions, she buries her words, her story. She works to get to the point where all her bones are clean and white. But words and auditory bits aren’t always helpful or trustworthy. Here I repeat the prior-cited quote from Gathering:
Late at night, I hear voices in bursts and snatches - like a radio switched on and off again, in another room. Incoherent, but quite cheerful. Stories bouncing off the walls. Scraps of lives, leaking through. Whisperings in the turn of a door handle. Birds on the roof. The occasional bleeping of a child’s toy. And one, my brother’s voice saying, ‘Now. Now.’  

“I listened for him again, but he was gone.” (p. 64)

This passage is eerily reminiscent of much of our third novel, Sweet Lamb of Heaven, and with which we can fully consider our theme of the place of language. Sweet Lamb dwells on language at full measure. Anna hears auditory hallucinations for years on end, and finally finds refuge with others with the same experience. The issue and the legacy and the omnipresence of language sit at the center of Sweet Lamb.

Thus author Lydia Millet builds around language a highly original plot for her runaway wife and the community the runaway wife finds. The people she finds all hear some version of the confusing, insistent language, which in their consciousnesses can only be described as a hallucination. In Anna’s case the sounds go away after Lena begins to speak. Others hear the words or sounds yet, dealing with the haunting presence even during the current events of the novel. Even Anna’s husband Ned, the greedy sociopath running for office, hears it when he is at home with his family.

The inclusion of Ned and his adopted politics in a novel about language puts me quite clearly in mind of Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin was a 20th-Century Russian philosopher who worked among other things on an influential model of the novel4.  From Bakhtin I want to take the concepts of the centrifugal and centripetal forces of language, and point out how adroitly Millet illuminates them in Sweet Lamb. In his ranging discourse, Bakhtin posits how the meanings of words multiply over time through their use and re-use in novels. His term “heteroglossia” refers in part to these accreting definitions. He observes how language naturally tends this way, to broader and broader interpretations and meanings. He calls this the centrifugal force. Words used in fiction spread to lower forms as a natural progression. On the other hand, when the authorities (writers in the Soviet era, especially ones who have been exiled from the Soviet Union, tend to focus on totalitarianism, unsurprisingly) try to limit speech, and reduce the phraseology to a limited allowed set of acceptable formulations; this Bakhtin called the centripetal force. Today we are unfortunately seeing people with political and economic power exercising a strong censoring impulse, trying to tamp down the language and expression of dissent. This trend started decades ago, and although it exists at all times, it is especially overt and apparent today. Millet brilliantly marks this trend in Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

I said earlier that Anna (of Millet’s novel) suffers multiple episodes of altered states of consciousness, although I would not call them madness. For a period of time after her daughter Lena is born, Anna hears a variety of voices speaking a variety of languages, with seemingly no subject off limits. She is steeped in language, and becomes steeped further when she escapes her husband and travels to a remote hostelry, where she mingles with others who have the same experience. But as her husband Ned catches up to her, she suffers a terrifying episode of hallucinations, in which she sees herself age unnaturally, her body undergoing absurd and grotesque changes. It’s her husband’s doing. He who has aligned himself with the theocratic side as a matter of convenience, uses simple means to limit Anna’s effectiveness, to marginalize her, weaken her, and eventually kill her. The idea to murder her comes late to the narrative, when it looks possible Ned may lose the election, and decides he may need the sympathy vote to put him over the top.

In her dialogue with Kay, Anna receives an email from Kay, the young doctor, posthumously as it turns out. Kay has a mystical view of what she calls deep language. It commenced when she experienced the voices as she held an infant named Vasquez. In her manuscript Anna reprints the email. It appears at page 374, and typos and grammatical errors appearing in this passage appear this way in the book and are a reflection of the character Kay:
You said you wanted to hear everything I know. So OK. So I have trouble explaining how I know it & what it is—writing isn’t my thing. I mean I was more the organic chem type!!! I used to get visions of like resonance structures & chair conformations & stuff, when I was holdig Infant V. But so. You know how I told you we r the only ones it leaves, what I meant was, it doesn’t leave the whales or the crocodiles, it doesn’t leave the plants & the trees, & that’s not because, like, theyre dumb. Theyre not. Deep language is in all living things but all the others, it stays with. Only not humans. Its because the other things, apes, cats, even the grasses in a field, don’t live just for themselves. They live for the group. They live for all, this whole of being. We used to be like that to, once a long time ago, once in our evolution, I don’t know when but once. “But slowly it chaged & now we live for ourselves. So the deep language does’nt stay with us when we get our own, our surface language, you coud call it. We split off from it then & are forever alone. God leaves us Anna.

God leaves us.”

Thus we have Kay’s take on the comparative place of language across the animals and plants of the planet. Her theory holds that humans alone, among all the animal species on the planet, lose the ability to communicate using what she calls “deep language.” Anna doesn’t have as fully developed a sense of this as Kay does, but she does observe at the end of the book:
Yet we’re the children of that language—not the only children, that boast was always a rookie mistake, but among their multitudes. We still swim in the shallows of that vast and ancient sea, the water that runs through us, a coding of genes and flesh that lives on in beings and cultures. We are those bonds that make our nervous systems, our circulation, our lungs exert their miraculous intelligence without our direction—the beneath and always, the insane, preposterous motion of life.

“Let God leave us, Kay, if what you mean is constant company. Let God leave us! Let us grow up. Let us walk forward on our own. Because we need the silence of the holy: we need the sacred and equally we need its maddening silence. And in the curious privacy and relief of that silence we can go out into the chaos and commit a thousand acts of minor and gleeful splendor all our own. If it’s our tragedy to be left by God, then let it also be our luck.

“Our loneliness is our strength. It’s not the same as being alone—almost the opposite. Loneliness is the sense of others, present but beyond our reach.”

To this conclusion, I want to add an observation made by Michael in Devil’s Footprints, which he makes after reflecting on how the priests and landowners have co-opted a very human spirit and because of their hauteur and greed fashioned it into the Devil. Michael tells himself this story, and then adds a corollary to it. He acknowledges that the old time secular and spiritual authorities felt the spirit in themselves. But this spirit, this animation, touched them with a terror, a fear they couldn’t overcome (pp. 340-341). This desire to be separate and to own the land and God and the souls of others, took root. The church succeeded these two millennia in courting the secular powers and yoking them to serving its interests. Whereupon the secular state rubbed its purportedly empty hands together and agreed, and tried on the mantle of the holy and found a nice fit. After all, the result so many centuries ago was a docile citizenry, and is to this day.

1 Page excerpts from: John Burnside. “The Devil's Footprints.” Apple Books. https:// books.apple.com/us/book/the-devils-footprints/id420740551 eISBN: 978-0-307-47251-9 Page numbers cited are from iBooks PR 6052.U6683D48 2007 in which, read in landscape format, the text is 364 pages 

2 Page excerpts from The Gathering by Anne Enright © 2007 by Anne Enright ISBN 9781555848071 (e-book) purveyed by and purchased from Apple books, 2018  This file shows 397 pages, read in landscape format

3 Page excerpts from Lydia Millet. “Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/sweet-lamb-of-heaven-a-novel/id1047813558 ISBN 9780393285550 (e-book) This edition has 503 pages read in landscape format  

4 Andrew Robinson, 2011, “In Theory-Bakhtin: Dialogism, Polyphony, and Heteroglossia,” Ceasefire Magazine, https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-1/ and https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-2/. See also Bakhtin, M.M., (1982). The Dialogic Imagination, Four Essays, (M. Holmquist, Ed.) (C. Emerson and M. Holmquist, Trans.) Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. (Original work published 1910-1921)

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