‘Division is also an aspect of unification,’ writer Rachel Cusk at the beginning of her memoir, Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation. Here she is talking about the Dark Ages and the nature of their fragmentation in contrast to the two civilizations that bookended them. It’s a question, she says, of unity versus compartmentalization, of diversity and flourishing in the absence of a building, organizing force. Empires and organized civilizations, Cusk argues, come in cycles. Eventually their forms will shatter and new worlds will be formed from those multiple shards. The theme of unions and dissimilitudes comes up many times through the book as she tells the painful but riveting story of her own divorce.
I remember, at school, looking at a map of the early medieval heptarchy and feeling a kind of consternation at its diffusity, its lack of centralised power, its absence of king and capital city and institution. Instead there were merely regions whose names — Mercia, Wessex — fell effeminately on the ears, and whose ceaseless squabblings and small, laborious losses and gains seemed to lack a driving, unifying force that I might, had I cared to think about it, have identified as masculine.
Our history teacher, Mrs Lewis, was a woman of size and grace, a type of elephant-ballerina in whom the principles of bulk and femininity fought a war of escalation. The early medieval was her period: she had studied at Oxford, and now here she was in the classroom of our mediocre Catholic girls’ school, encased in a succession of beige tailored outfits with co-ordinating heels from which it seemed her mighty pink form could one day startlingly emerge, like a statue from its dust sheets. The other thing we knew about her, from her name, was that she was married. But how these different aspects of Mrs Lewis connected we had no idea. She gave great consideration to Offa of Mercia, in whose vision of a unified England the first thrust of male ambition can be detected, and whose massive earthwork, Offa’s Dyke, still stands as a reminder that division is also an aspect of unification, that one way of defining what you are is to define what you are not. And indeed historians have never been able to agree the question of whether the dyke was built to repel the Welsh or merely to mark the boundary. Mrs Lewis took an ambivalent attitude to Offa’s power: this was the road to civilisation, sure enough, but its cost was a loss of diversity, of the quiet kind of flourishing that goes on where things are not being built and goals driven towards. She herself relished the early Saxon world, in which concepts of power had not yet been reconfigured; for in a way the Dark Ages were themselves a version of ‘the new reality’, were the broken pieces of the biggest plate of all, the Roman Empire. Some called it darkness, the aftermath of that megalomaniacal all-conquering unity, but not Mrs Lewis. She liked it, liked the untenanted wastes, liked the monasteries where creativity was quietly nurtured, liked the mystics and the visionaries, the early religious writings, liked the women who accrued stature in those formless inchoate centuries, liked the grassroots — the personal — level on which issues of justice and belief had now to be resolved, in the absence of that great administrator civilisation.
The point was that this darkness — call it what you will — this darkness and disorganisation were not mere negation, mere absence. They were both aftermath and prelude. The etymology of the word ‘aftermath’ is ‘second mowing’, a second crop of grass that is sown and reaped after the harvest is in. Civilisation, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganisation that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity; were betrothed to civilisation, as sleep is betrothed to activity. In the life of compartments lies the possibility of unity, just as unity contains the prospect of atomisation. Better, in Mrs Lewis’s view, to live the compartmentalised, the disorganised life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity, than to dwell in civilised unity, racked by the impulse to destroy.