The death of James Leslie Mitchell in his early thirties was a major loss to Scottish literature.Hugh MacDiarmid in the the introduction to Leslie Mitchell: Lewis Grassic Gibbon by Ian S. Munro, vii.
On February 7, 1935, when J. Leslie Mitchell died suddenly following an operation for a perforated ulcer, we suffered a larger loss than just a literary career cut short or, indeed, a national literature left poorer. Having published 16 books in just 7 years (with another partial novel published posthumously), it certainly seems that Mitchell was destined to be a prolific writer. Though far from perfect, all of his works show a man of great potential working on and honing his craft. Had he lived longer, who knows how he might have improved upon and directed that faculty of genius that wrote Sunset Song? But it is not just the “incalculable loss for Scottish literature” (Munro 1) that leaves the Mitchell reader feeling bereft, incomplete, unsatiated at the end of his bibliography. While no doubt we mourn the stories untold, we also wait in a state of eternal, suspended animation for Mitchell to finally solve the problem he raises again and again in his works: what is the true nature of humankind and how can we create a human society free of the corruptions of power, greed, and competition?
Gibbon’s Thirteenth Disciple is a modern Romance, following a young man on his quest for purpose. Like most Romances from the 15th century on, the quest object (the Holy Grail, the Damsel, the Enchanted Sword, The Tower, or in Malcolm’s case the lost Mayan City of the Sun) is really a metaphor for a journey into self-knowledge: the object is an understanding of self and the motives and drives of humankind. Malcolm’s quest for the ancient City of the Sun is a journey to understand human nature and find something greater and more meaningful than than the senseless corruption and cruelty he witnessed in WWI. Malcolm’s quest in the Thirteenth Disciple is not unlike Leslie Mitchell’s quest throughout all of his writing: why do humans create such suffering and how can we recover an existence free of it?
Like a Questing Knight to the Sage Hermit, Malcolm seeks answers from the wiser and freer Domina. He asks her “That stuff you talked about– the Adventure. What are we going to do about it? What’s our job to help its beginning again in this collapse of civilization?” (178). The Adventure that ”the Old Stone Age men were out on when they lost and forgot it in the herding of cattle and the sowing of seeds” (169) is Mitchell’s utopic, perhaps impossible, solution to the “disease” and “brain fever” that is civilization: a mode of living and experiencing more natural and pure than that gained through civilization. The Adventure is shorthand for a never fully-articulated solution to the great problems of the human condition. It is here that Mitchell’s death figures as a great loss for all, not just those with a literary bent, because Mitchell was a philosopher. Because Leslie believed that his art must have purpose beyond entertainment, beauty, and ornamentation, Mitchell uses Romance to work through the universal problems of human existence by attempting, like so many philosophers before him, to uncover the true, inherent nature of humankind.
For his understanding of the basis of human nature before and after civilization, Mitchell drew from the archeological and anthropological schools of Diffusionism of twentieth century Britain. They claimed that the innovations and institutions that provide the basis for all civilization can be traced back to a single origin in ancient Egypt. According to some, civilization began when nomads discovered that vegetation grew near the banks of the Nile after the seasonal and rising and lowering of the river’s water level. From this moment, Diffusionists trace the beginning of religion, marriage, economy, government and various other institutions of what would become modern civilization. From this one point in Egypt, Diffusionists argue, the foundations of civilization spread to other previously nomadic groups, and thus out to the world. The actual archeological basis for such a theory has been largely discredited. Yet, the theory of Diffusionism provided Mitchell with a scientific basis for a radical, deconstructionist philosophy of subversion and rejection. If civilization and its attendant institutions could be traced to a single moment of change in a particular culture, it would appear that civilization was not necessarily the natural, universal, innate state of mankind. Before civilization, one could imagine the nomadic peoples as a race free of hierarchical oppression and capitalistic greed. Thus, Mitchell could construct civilization as the antithesis of all that is positive in mankind’s natural primitive state. For Mitchell, civilization creates and authorizes oppressive states of inequality though society’s institutions and their ordering of human experience along hierarchical values. It is this concept, rather than Diffusionism’s archeological theory, that allows Leslie Mitchell to construct the Golden Age of mankind as one of natural kindliness, freedom, and fraternity.
Thus, if for Mitchell, man’s natural state is that of the kindly, free wanderer, explorer of the earth, what is “the Adventure” that must be brought back in order that we may escape the oppressions of the “civilized” human condition? In an attempt to make this utopic Adventure clearer, Domina calls it The “Expedition of Consciousness against the dead universe–and the Thing behind it” (171). She goes on to detail it in even more symbolic language:
Somewhere beyond the rim of the Galaxy and the rims of time, ten million years and a day away, men’ll reach the palace of God and storm it, and capture the engine-room and power-house, and then–and then–171
Domina, like Leslie himself, can only understand and process the potential human utopia as some abstract yearning, some mystical certainty in a right and true way of being, that is beyond language and explanation.
Mitchell’s short story “The Road” offers a slightly more concrete description of the utopic Adventure: “Somewhere, attainable by a mustic Road, was an amazing, essayable happiness, life free and eager, life in the sunlight beyond the prisons of fear and cruelty” (Smeddum 258). Ultimately, we might agree that Malcolm’s desire to bring it about refers to a yearning for a transcendent existence based on knowledge of our corruption away from such an existence. What this existence is composed of, and the actual quality of that yearning, are entirely subjective. What is at stake for Mitchell, for his characters, and for the world at large, cannot be adequately expressed or pinned down by language as of yet. For this reason, the utopian drive here can only be accessed through indirect, subjective, a-rational knowledge. Such knowledge challenges traditional masculine epistemology: it is sensual, subjective, and semi-mystical. To know Mitchell’s “Adventure,” one must meet it by receiving it, experiencing it as Domina and Malcolm do, rather than through active reasoning and description. Even more frustrating is Mitchell’s refusal or inability to lay out a clear path through which to achieve a more utopian existence.
Domina asserts that it is time to “resume again that adventure the Old Stone Age men were out on when they lost and forgot it in the herding of cattle” (169). Malcolm seeks action, a way to force the new age into being. Like imperialists before him, his conception of progress focuses on an end goal, a future certainty, an achievement that blunders blindly past the personal and subjective to bring all humanity under the same yoke. The feminine response, Domina’s “job” to help bring forward the utopic new Golden Age existence, rejects the monumental forward action. Instead, her response is to participate in circulatory, personal time: to act individually by activating a subjunctive past.
All those mothers of mine–I’m going to live the lives they were cheated, collect and spend the wages that you defrauded them… Why, my own mother’s, her mother’s, her mother’s, and so on back to the early Neolithic–all those poor damn women who went through hell to give the dirty peasants and priests and patriots and poets of civilization easy time and well-cooked food and all the crazy satisfactions of lust and torture and sadism which were yours. I’m going to live every unenjoyed life of those starved mothers of mine who were killed and eaten in cannibal rituals, starved to death, beaten to death, crippled in crinolines and ghastly codes, robbed of fun and sunshine and the glory of being fools and disreputable for over six thousand years. . . And I’m going to get every woman to do the same!179
Malcolm’s “I” exists to become the salvation of men, the subject that creates monumental action, the god that saves the world. Domina’s “I”, though intensely personal and subjective, seeks to become universal by becoming one with the “I”s of every woman before her. She wants to get every woman to participate in the “glory of being fools” by living “every unenjoyed life” of their mothers. While Malcom seeks to repeat a new version of liberal imperialism by proscribing a way of life for the benefit of all, Domina seeks only to guide those already on the periphery of “all” towards a personalized jouissance. Domina does not articulate a particular action she will take to either live the adventure or get women to do the same. Instead, change takes places through the actual living itself, through experiencing the phenomena rather than constructing the phenomena. Yet in the Thirteenth Disciple, neither Domina and her women nor Malcom and his quest bring about a Utopian age. Domina disappears from the narrative, presumably living those lives of the women before her, and Malcolm dies with a Grail-like glimpse of the City of Sun, never actually entering its gates.
What are we going to do about it? What’s our job to help its beginning again in this collapse of civilization?
Mitchell’s work always appears on the verge of an answer: the grail has appeared to the quester in revelatory vision, but never shall his fingers grasp it solidly. The object, a Golden Age, life free and in the sunlight, requires human action that Mitchell struggles to envision. Mitchell’s quests rarely end optimistically for society; while he suggests that the individual may glimpse a subjective, personalized grail–a personal freedom, an understanding of self–there seems to be no straight path for others to follow. Mitchell’s ’ individual quest for the great solution to the problem of the human condition was cut short that February of 1935. Yet, perhaps, if we adopt Domina’s attitude, living the the unlived lives of others, we might take up his quest and pass it along to new readers of future generations. Perhaps someday, Mitchell’s spiritual, literary heir will complete our quest and find the path to a kindly, free society where no one is crushed beneath the ambitions of others. After all, what is the purpose of anything that endures, of art or literature or life, if it is not to inspire the next adventurer to take a step on the great Road? I have to think, whether he had lived to a ripe old age or not, that would have been Mitchell’s goal all along.