The House of Cold Rain
“To join our essence and consciousness with the world was once the common inheritance of humanity. Now, it can only be found in the hinterland, the lands beyond. Beyond techno-industrial society. For what is there to join with in concrete and steel?”
From Ramon Elani
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
In the House of Cold Rain there is mirth and joy. The children sing and dance and gambol among the violets. The smell of lilacs is heavy about the place. Bread is baked in the bright oven and old stories are told. The pots and pans in the kitchen are of black iron. There are but few things within those wooden walls that might frighten the household spirits. Any number of cats mysteriously peer out from shadowy corners, grey with cobwebs. A broken staircase leads down beneath the house, where there is naught but black dirt, from whence come the songs and whispers of the Fair Folk. The garden is thick and overgrown with cabbages and potatoes. Visitors are welcome, though perhaps regarded with a touch of suspicion and the hounds howl always. Moss creeps up slowly from the ground, washing over gnarled apple trees like a wave from the sea and dripping from the roof. A cairn of stones stands beneath an old white pine. And it always rains. Merwin’s “old house in the dawn rain.” And the world is still burning. Or perhaps it burned down entirely long ago and we live among the ashes, unknowing.
The House of Cold Rain sits within a defile between two hills. A roaring brook lies beside it, singing and moaning and shrieking. The rain trickles down the slopes in rivulets. From the top of the hill, crowned with an old stone wall, the valley opens up beneath. Mist rises from the piney woods and drifts and dances. It is a place of strength and a high place. It is a tower and refuge from the world. This tower is build of loving charms and songs of peace and silence, rather than stalwart bricks or stone. But a tower nonetheless. For there is a great horror upon the land and I would protect my family and any others who seek shelter within these walls. A place of peace in a broken world. And not by human hands can the world be remade and restored. There is no shame in turning away from the world. It is no surprise that the sages of all people fled from the world, to live out their days among the spirits of the forests and mountains.
Even in the month of May, when all is bright and green, the House of Cold Rain lies under shadow and mists that hide. Even in May, when the Druids light the goodly fire and guide the cattle to pasture and singe their tails with the Sun God’s flame. When the spirits of the dead come a’ night to seek their ancient homes and at the House of Cold Rain are they fed and appeased with gifts and libations are poured. When primrose is cast about the threshold, to keep the Fair Folk at bay in their merry-making. When the White Heifer stands upon the mountain and the Sun shall not burn her and the Moon shall bestow kisses upon her. When the ruddy maidens sing:
“Yarrow, yarrow, yarrow,
I bid thee good morrow,
And tell me before to-morrow
Who my true love shall be.”
For it is known that in the Maying month the Fair Folk are strong in their power and roam abroad the land. And I shall place garlands of marigold over the door and around the necks of my wife and daughter, for I know well that Fionnbharr stirs from his rath and searches for comely women to snatch away to his halls beneath the hills.
Alas, Fionnbharr, cursed to sit in his crystal court and remember forever the lost glory of his people. Time diminishes all, true enough and even the gods themselves have retreated to hidden places. So remember, Fionnbharr, remember the stature and greatness of the Children of Danu. Remember the coming from the Four Cities of the North, remember the spells and charms that brought them to regain their inheritance, in fire, smoke, and the sword. Remember, Fionbharr, how the Children strode with long, vigorous steps and slew their enemies until the earth was sticky and black with blood and mounds of the fallen blotted out the sun. So fight your little battles, Fionnbharr, only that you may recall the thrill of the blood. And neglect your golden haired Queen for the fleeting pleasures of mortal flesh. Your Queen who is arraigned in dew drops and sweeps the ground with her golden hair. And sing, above all, sing those songs of loss and remembrance so sweetly and painfully that any who hear shall have nothing but madness and death for the rest of his days. Sit in the violet twilight and remember, Fionnbhar.
Cast out of the world and scornful of modernity and it’s hatred for all things slow, dark, and messy, the Fair Folk retreat deeper and deeper in the wilderness. There are few places left that have not been touched by the contagion of techno-industrial society and it’s dreadful mechanistic logic. So the Fair Folk remain in their palaces of gold and pearl, deep beneath the earth. What is there left for them in the world? A world forever haunted by the specter of causality. The Children of Danu once burned their ships so they could never return to the Four Cities of the North. So too, the Fair Folk now seal themselves within the realms of grove and glen and hillock. And I seal myself in the solitude of the House of Cold Rain.
On the hill above the House of Cold Rain, I put the salve upon my eyes and watch the Fair Folk dance under the moon. Of reason and modern, they know nothing. Theirs is a world animated by intuition and instinct. Madness is the price, but then again, do we not have our own madness borne from rationality and overmuch technology? And though the Fair Folk are doomed in their souls for they have no hope of life eternal, as Osian once said to Saint Patrick, “if there is no fighting and drinking in heaven and my kinfolk are not welcome for being pagans, then what need have I of heaven?” So if the old gods have been chased out of the world by the spirit of modernity and its accusations of superstition, then I will welcome them into my heart. And I will walk nine times around Fionbharr’s rath at midnight and drink his wine and eat bread. Primrose and marigold notwithstanding.
As Carl Jung wrote, “Civilized man…is in danger of losing all contact with the world of instinct—a danger that is still further increased by his living an urban existence in what seems to be a purely manmade environment.” The march of techno-industrial society is inexorable. It will continue until it destroys itself and much else along with it. Jung saw this clearly even in the early 20th century. When he was forty-eight, he went to the shores of Lake Zurich and built a stone tower by hand. He pumped water from the well, chopped wood for the fire, and read by candlelight. The rooms were simple and bare and smelled of “smoke and grits, and occasionally of wine and smoked bacon.” Here, he felt, his ancestors would be honored and his own wound would be healed. The spirits shun the cities and the works of man. Jung knew that only in his tower at Bollingen could the covenant be restored. He longed to see humanity fleeing from the cities and returning to the wild world, of “terminals deserted, the streets deserted, a great peace descend upon us.” The vital world of intuition remains and we bear its mark. But each day that we remain in society, the mark fades and our connection to the spirits weakens. It was in the Bollingen tower that Jung dreamed that he stood beside an ancient chief: “We both know that at last the great event has occurred: the primeval boar, a gigantic mythological beast, has finally been hunted down and killed.” The Promethean, Apollonian impulse of techno-industrial society has finally succeeded in its horrifying task: it has killed the beast, at last.
At the Bollingen tower Jung found the primeval self, the intuitive self restored at revitalized. If there is hope for the world, it lies in the ancient spark within our hearts. The tiny whisper that calls out to the trees and the hills. The small door that opens into a universe without end inside of us. So too did Jung find himself stripped of his fragile, misguided ego and dissolved into the living world around him. There are few errors more profound in the modern perspective than the horrifying notion that consciousness is limited to humanity. All things have their consciousness, not merely living creatures. The landscape itself is conscious. And just as important is the recognition that our own consciousness is constituted precisely by the interplay with the consciousness of the cosmos. As a species alone, we are nothing. This is precisely what Jung found at Bollingen. He writes, “here is space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.” To join our essence and consciousness with the world was once the common inheritance of humanity. Now, it can only be found in the hinterland, the lands beyond. Beyond techno-industrial society. For what is there to join with in concrete and steel?
In 1950 Jung built a stone monument at Bollingen, beside his tower. Having ordered a shipment of stones to build a wall around his garden, Jung found that the cornerstone had been measured incorrectly and was a large cube rather than a triangle. The mason was about to take the stone away but, as Jung writes, the stone called out to him, spoke to him and in that moment he knew he must have it. As we will see in what follows, there is something in the task of hewing stone, building with stone , communing with stones that connects us profoundly to the world beyond, the world of the cosmos. There is a intelligence in all things that may express itself to us, if we have the power to listen. At Bollingen, Jung reconnected himself to the animated universe and to the spirits of the past. He writes,
my ancestors’ souls are sustained by the atmosphere of the house, since I answer for them the questions that their lives once left behind. I carve out rough answers as best I can. I have even drawn them on the walls. It is as if a silent, greater family, stretching down the centuries, were peopling the house.
This sense of a “greater family” extends beyond the individuals and communities that make up our own personal history. Like Jung’s collective unconscious, our lineage stretches back to the birth of the cosmos itself. We contain within us the memories of dying stars and galaxies uncountable. In the swampy regions of psyche, the memories of the dinosaurs are alive. The Fair Folk are there too, dancing in the moonlight. But there is no room for ancestors and spirits in the world of techno-industrial society. We must create a physical place for them, as well as an inner place. They need silence, for their voices are hard to hear from centuries of being unused. Or rather, they have shouted themselves hoarse because we have not listened for so long.
It was at his tower, among his stones and solitude, that Jung developed his rhizomatic metaphor, which has since inspired so many great thinkers, most notably, of course, Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari:
Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away—an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.
It is no surprise that this idea came to him in that setting. Far away from the techno-industrial world we can perceive the eternal world. As the walls of our own little, determinate, particular, historically constituted identities fracture and crumble, we perceive the self that is present in all things. We are bonded to the cycles of death and rebirth. The true nature of time, which is to say its cyclical nature, becomes clear. The techno-industrial world denies this. It postulates time as ruthlessly linear, hurtling toward perfection. Though we all know that the only place it will lead us to is doom.
Around the same time that Jung was building his stone tower by hand on the shores of Lake Zurich, another stone tower was being built by hand, thousands of miles away, upon the edge of the abyss, at the very end of the world. This tower was built by American poet Robinson Jeffers. After the conclusion of World War I, Jeffers purchased a piece of land on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Carmel, California. There, in 1919, Jeffers built a stone cottage called ‘Tor House’ for his wife Una and went on to construct a stone tower adjacent to the cottage, which he named ‘Hawk Tower.’ Like Jung, Jeffers found discovered something within himself through the process of working with stone. In fact, scholar Tim Hunt goes so far as to describe masonry as Jeffers “other lifework.” The work inspired his poetry and features largely in many of his most famous poems. His first major book was only published during the final phases of construction.
We can clearly perceive Jeffers belief in an animate cosmos in poems such as “To the Rock that will be a Cornerstone of the House.” Mirroring Jung’s own private conversation with a cornerstone at Bollingen, Jeffers addresses the stone thus:
You have been dissevered from humanity
And only known the stubble squirrels and the headland rabbits
Or the long-fetlocked plowhorses
Breaking the hilltop in December, sea-gulls following.
Screaming in the black furrow; no one
Touched you with love, the gray hawk and the red hawk touched yourself
Where now my hand lies. So I have brought you
Wine and white milk and honey for the hundred years of famine
And the hundred cold ages of sea-wind.
Through his poetry, Jeffers devoted himself to the stones and the cliffs and crags of his refuge, evoking them as models for the beauty and violence of the cosmos. Entrenched in the human world, Jeffers argues, the universe becomes nothing more than a reflection of ourselves. We see our own smallness, our own weakness, our own ugliness radiated throughout the cosmos. In order to escape this apocalyptic solipsism, Jeffers urged a reconnection with the non-human world. A reckoning with the vast powers and forces of the world. But precisely in seeing how small we truly are, and in recognizing how awe-inspiring the non-human world is, lies our hope for rediscovering ourselves as kin to the world. Techno-industrial society makes a titan of humanity, only to make us worthless and alone. The brutality and transcendent beauty of the wild world makes us small but in that we find our redemptive unity. This fundamental belief, which Jeffers described as ‘inhumanism,’ is defined in the poem “Double Axe,” as “a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to notman; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the trans-human magnificence.” This shift requires a necessary detachment from the human world, from techno-industrialism, and from the entire constellation of moral and conceptual apparatus that we have inherited from centuries of disconnection with the wild world.
While Jeffers built his stone tower, he was visited every day by a single hawk that came and perched on the stones. On the day he finished the tower, the hawk disappeared. Like the stones, the hawk became a symbol for Jeffers. Of the hawk, Jeffers writes,
I think, here is your emblem
To hang in the future sky;
Not the cross, not the hive,
But this; bright power, dark peace;
Fierce consciousness joined with final
Life with calm death.
Rejecting the monotheistic religions as well as human society, Jeffers posits the hawk and urges us to follow its path. High above the human world, the hawk does not see our struggles. It burns with the light of creation and finds its unity in the indifference of the world. The hawk perceives the death that it is inherent in life and remains unconcerned. Contrast this to the vanity of techno-industrial society, which views death as the ultimate enemy to be resisted by any means. For Jeffers, the wild world conveys much of what Jung saw from his tower at Bollingen, the permanence that underlies all change and flux. Humanity, and techno-industrial society even more so, is a passing thing that lives, decays, and dies in its time. There is no force that could make it otherwise. And yet, the our society seems devoted to the idea that we stand equal or perhaps beyond the natural world in force and durability. Jeffers reminds himself and us that the stone tower he builds will outlast him by generations. And the cliffs upon which it is built will outlast the house by millennia. And the sea will outlast the cliffs for countless aeons.
Living in the midst of human society we are deafened by countless voices. Competing morals and ideologies, each promising an eternal answer. And yet each hungering for the blood of the other. The world we live in is not the world. All the rationality and cleverness of modernity comes to nothing. For Jung, the path away from this world depended upon perceiving and awakening the dormant memories of the old ways, the gods and spirits. For Jeffers, the illusions of society are burst apart by the majesty of the wild world:
I believe that the beauty and nothing else is what
Things are formed for. Certainly the world
Was not constructed for happiness nor love nor wisdom. No, not for pain,
Hatred and folly. All these
Have their seasons; and in the long year they balance each other, they
Cancel out. But the beauty stands.
In the dark woods and upon the craggy mountaintops, we stand in the immanent power of that beauty. To live apart from human society is to live among the undying things and to find a fragment of ourselves among them. We are not exempt from the beauty that Jeffers describes. But we forget the source of that beauty: it is not derived from what makes us human, it is precisely derived from the parts of us that are not human. The parts of us that can hear the voices of the stones. The parts of us that hear haunting songs drifting over hill and valley. The parts of us that awaken suddenly on moonlit nights and frantically look toward the meadow at the edge of the woods.
In the end, for all his urging us to abandon society to itself and even turn away from ourselves as human, Jeffers’ vision is not a pessimistic one. Like Jung, for whom the turn away from the modern world facilitated a resurrection of banished demons and a healing of a wounded humanity, Jeffers argued that in detaching ourselves from a rigid and poisonous conception of what it means to be human, we discover a strength within us that can endure the agonizing flux of history. The horrors of the world are no less horrifying but we can be made to be much more resilient than we are. The late poem “Carmel Point” perfectly illustrates this hopeful quality in Jeffers’ thought:
The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it.
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. — As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
The world burns and the ruins gather in piles all around us. There are those who criticize quietism and the desire to escape. In answer to them I will paraphrase the great Ursula Le Guin: What’s wrong with escaping? What else should a prisoner seek to do?
Ramon Elani holds a PhD in literature and philosophy. He is a teacher, a poet, a husband, and a father, as well as a muay thai fighter. He wanders in oak groves. He casts the runes and sings to trolls. He lives among mountains and rivers in Western New England.