In the United States alone there are 75,440 km of highways, which distance is almost twice the circumference of the globe. At the crossroads of the highways to Middle and Eastern, between Knoxville and Nashville, is the fittingly named Crossville, Tennessee. Crossville’s population are some 8,981 persons, of whom 97.03% are white; the median income is $25,796 per annum, which means one quarter of its people live below the poverty line. These are the numbers, they are certifiable, and they take the group for a whole and allow us to make one single fragile judgement: Crossville is a poor place in a poor part of a country. A small place.
If not for the highways Crossville would not exist. It was conceived out of necessity, a place in-between, and to this day it feels transitory, like a temporal glitch, a blur of familiar signs and unimaginable isolation. It is the type of town that slides past your car’s window without picking up any traction. In a strange way such places are like sentences: slipping across your mind, until there is some pause where, to paraphrase the writer Donald Barthelme, you might, or more likely might not, consider the questions raised by its (temporary) existence, which ends when the page is turned or the sentence falls out of the mind that holds it. How much has been said of life in these smaller parts of the world and how much have we retained? Even when these lives are noticed, they are noticed briefly, at speed, on the way to other things, other lives; and the page is quickly turned.
One of the strange qualities of good writing is this: that it should make you stop. But like highways, dialectical practice is becoming streamlined and homogeneous; and for all of its appearance of directness there’s a crisis at the most basic level of its mediated consciousness. I feel like it is no stretch to say that in all of the spectacle and rush of contemporary entertainment, details like Crossville, and its temporary existence, are lost.
I believe that something related to the values and technologies that allowed us to imagine highways have damaged our capacity for mediation. Mediation, which is derived from the Latin medicus (middle, measuring and medicine) is also related to median, which means “to judge,” or to judge the middle. So it’s a helpful term for explaining a quality of writing. Critic Fletcher writes about the way Mediation gives us a method of diagnostic surveyal, at once precisely responsive, and open to the drift of thought. As it becomes one with an outer world it’s practice points toward the symptom, towards the merest passing sign of an order or disorder, hoping to catch this sign as it emerges from the flow of consciousness.
As once roads followed the geometry of a land, now they have tamed it, and a journey has become an unresponsive drift from origin to destination, even when it’s a scenic one. Compare this to the experience of modern literature, which not always but often has become about reaching a certain pre-determined location at a certain pace, which is usually fast enough to hold us in rapture until the final page is turned, and the text slips gently, politely, between the cracks of our consciousness. Not only does this style sacrifice too much in detail, but also it delivers us to places that are unmediated and poorly formed. Places that could hardly be said to have any kind of interaction with how we got there. We have become dislocated and estranged from the processes that locate us in the world.
In a short story called Sentence the American writer Donald Barthelme is talking about sentences: “the sentence itself is a man-made object, not the one we wanted of course, but still a construction of man, a structure to be treasured for its weakness, as opposed to the strength of stones.” This thought emerges at the end of the text, from a chaotically long series of deferrals and semicolons, as the story, which is a single sentence, examines the confines of language.
To be treasured for its weakness?
“In our young manhood we were taught that short, punchy sentences were best (but what did he mean? doesn’t “punchy” mean punch-drunk? I think he probably intended to say “short, punching sentences,” meaning sentences that lashed out at you, bloodying your brain if possible, and looking up the word just now I came across the nearby “punkah,” which is a large fan suspended from the ceiling in India, operated by an attendant pulling a rope – that is what I want for my sentence – to keep it cool!)” [Barthelme]
I think that in a roundabout way what has happened to writing is it is trying too much to bloody our brains. Not for dubious or reticent purposes, but because we are willing and complacent and fecklessly idle. Or perhaps idly feckless. And it’s faster this way to reach whatever it is we’re grasping for, but it also unsteadies the validity of our experience.
As critic James Wood writes in his introduction to The Broken Estate: good fiction asks us to judge its reality and this is all a way of saying that fiction is a special realm of freedom. We have become too religious in re: the terms of our engagement with entertainment and what we need are more punkahs. We need to remember that man-made objects should not just facilitate our needs, they should go about engaging with the terms of our requirement.
In the forest on Crossville’s outskirts, down a pale gravel road and past a number of upscale subdivisions, there resides a minister of god. He is Horace Burgess. God spoke Horace to nearly twenty years ago: told him to build a tree-house worthy of His condescension; and told him as well that for so long as he laboured he should never go without the knowledge, the strength and the materials prescribed by the divine design. He has said that he felt like Job, that the tree house was his test.
The Minister’s Treehouse, at present some 97 feet tall, was built with surplus lumber sourced from construction sites. It cost Horace $12,000, in addition to years of hard labour. The chief structure is supported by a number of trees (six) including an eighty-foot-tall white oak – which is twelve feet in diameter at its base. Across ten levels there are upwards of ninety rooms, including a sky-light chapel, with a vaulted ceiling that almost resembles the Globe Theatre in London.
Horace leads services and youth groups in this room, and it, like the rest of the house, is a kind of open sanctuary, a place where anyone is free to come and go as they please. The other levels, their rooms and corridors, are like labyrinthine maze of hiddy-holes and vantage points. It reflects the chaos of a consciousness.
In The Poethical Wager, Joan Retallack talks enthusiastically about a risk. Her essay, which is at times not entirely serious, or perhaps at times not easily taken seriously, describes this eponymous “wager”: this is that our art should better reflect the chaos of our lives, and move, like our lives, toward the unknowable. She writes:
“To act at all we need to pick up on so many cues that are not part of what we’re explicitly taught to notice. The kind of agency that has a chance of mattering in today’s world can thrive only in a culture of acknowledged complexity, only in contexts of long-range collaborative projects that bring together multiple modes of engagement – intuition, imagination, cognition… The more complex things are, the less certain the outcome but also the more room for the play of the mind, for inventing ourselves out of the mess.”
Indebted to Retallack for what I believe to be the truth of this idea, I think it would be helpful to consider the way Horrace’s creation echoes the fantastic and the childish.
When I was younger my friends and I built tree houses in our parent’s gardens, but they were never “tree houses,” they were watch towers or battlements. And they were invested with a strange power: always described like they were bigger and more imposing than we knew they were. Maybe Horace, whose tree house towers over the forest, allows himself no such departure, or maybe his kingdom is simply better described.
For its wrap around balconies, balustrades, peaked roof and tower, it is strangely grand, and bears more than a passing resemblance to the early manor houses of the region. But largely unlike these regal homes, which abound in the towns of Tennessee and her neighbouring states The Minister’s Treehouse has something of the macabre about it. It looks like it has been nightmarishly repossessed by the forest. It is also vertiginous and dishevelled.
The quality of the tree house is that it is like a hidden kingdom of the “not quite.” Off the highway, through an invisible town in a part of the world that outsiders know, but rarely intimately, there is a structure that resembles better than any other I know the complexities of chaos: of religion, isolation and imagination. But fear what could drive a man to undertake such a construction, to call it his home and act like he is comfortable inside of it. There is a device in literature called a stretto, where you are invited to pause and to reflect on the ramifications of an ideas’ action. It is hugely important that we do not lose sight of the things that cannot be easily explained away.