July 20, 1997
Of all the qualities that have some claim to being the essence of modernism, reflexivity may have the strongest. Self-consciousness was the first, bitter fruit of the Fall; the obsessively introspective St. Augustine seems the most modern of the ancients; Montaigne, Descartes, and Pascal gave birth to the modern sensibility by taking, each one, his own personality, mind, or soul as his field of investigation. Numerous practitioners and critics in this century have declared that the true subject of art is the process of making art, thereby ceaselessly intensifying the self-consciousness of artists. And science is still coming to terms with the discovery by quantum physicists that nothing can be measured without altering it, however slightly, in the very act of measuring.
Literature, too, has commonly turned back on itself (which is the root meaning of “reflexive”). Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Stein and company could not have been more deliberate and self-conscious in their drastic formal and psychological innovations. The displacement of attention from the object of knowledge to the method of knowing, from the created work to the creative process -- there’s a rough sketch of a first approximation to a preliminary definition of modernism. It’s not always fun for the audience, and the critics and theorists are seldom much help (are often, in fact, unbearably tedious and self-important). But you just can’t keep artists down on the naturalistic farm, it seems, after they’ve glimpsed reflexivity.
Nicholas Mosley’s novels are experiments in fictional epistemology. They have plots, but action is not, so to speak, where the action is. He is trying, he writes, “to look at people looking at the patterns of their own minds.” Characters (or the author -- it isn’t always clear which) constantly interject questions, fantasies, speculations, conjectures, and revelations. The result is not so much a stream of consciousness as an eddy, meandering upstream against the flow of the narrative. Mosley’s comment on one of his early novels pretty well characterizes all of them:
The sentences wind in and out of each other like snakes, like filigree, indeed like strands of fog; but then do not humans live much of their lives in a fog -- of illusion, projection, self-blame, denial -- and is it not only by recognizing this that there is some chance of breaking through? Stories that present the minds and experiences of humans as resolute and all-of-a-piece are ... not much to do with human life at all.
In addition to this psychological complexity, much of the intellectual and political history of the twentieth century finds its way into Mosley’s novels. He’s especially curious (and knowledgeable) about the implications of contemporary science, with its recurrent themes of discontinuity and uncertainty, for religious or moral experience. Fortunately, he can also tell a pretty good story.
Nicholas Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the founder of British fascism. Unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Mosley never came anywhere near power and so has no historic crimes to his name. In fact, on the evidence of Nicholas’s splendid two-volume portrait (Rules of the Game (1982) and Beyond the Pale (1983)), Oswald Mosley, for all his sins, may have been the most intelligent and morally serious -- as well as the wittiest, handsomest, most charming, most athletic, and most eloquent -- British politician of his time, not excepting Churchill. The memoir, at any rate, is a marvel of brave candor and astute sympathy, as is Nicholas’s more recent (1994) and autobiographical memoir, Efforts at Truth.
Nicholas Mosley’s novels caught on slowly in England, helped eventually by a couple of movie adaptations. Impossible Object was a finalist for the first Booker Prize in 1969. Hopeful Monsters -- a “heroic masterpiece,” as Sven Birkerts described it, of epic historical and philosophical dimensions -- won the almost equally prestigious Whitbread Prize in 1990.
Children of Darkness and Light follows a somewhat world-weary but not yet cynical London journalist to the north of England, where a group of children are rumored to have seen the Virgin Mary. Other rumors surface: the children, apparently refugees from Central Europe, are encamped near a nuclear power plant and may have been exposed -- perhaps even deliberately -- to radiation. A few local people are in communication with the children. They also seem to know a surprising amount about the journalist, Harry, and to be interested in the same scientific and philosophical questions -- concerning chance and pattern in nature and the effect of the observer on the observed -- that haunt him.
Harry is restless in his marriage and half-heartedly chases other women. He also drinks too much. But he hasn’t yet petrified, or putrified; he’s still open to the unexpected. The two plot lines fuse somehow (it’s a little vague), and the mysterious children bring Harry, his wife, and his son back together. He picks up the threads of another story he had covered years ago in Yugoslavia, also involving children, nuclear radiation, and an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Now he finds himself in the thick of the Bosnian war and encounters an extraordinary woman who, if she is not the Virgin Mary, is a contemporary equivalent.
The novel is not quite so nebulous as all this makes it sound. Some scenes are hilarious; some -- a sadomasochistic orgy, for example -- are vividly horrifying. Many images are luminous or piercing, and there is not a stale phrase or a banal sentiment. Harry’s final reflections are enigmatic but do resonate within -- and not only within -- the novel:
What I had learned from the children in Cumbria ... was how by being shown so obviously the self-destructive ways of the grown-up world they might be learning what they were up against and not only in others but in themselves: and they needed to use the knowledge if they wished to stay alive. They needed to manipulate, to dodge: in this they were what might be called children of darkness: but it had seemed to me ... that they were also taking on an aura of light. They were finding out, that is, that if they trusted it then the world would work for them ... and that there were at least some grown-ups who saw patterns within darkness and light.
Explaining their decision, the 1969 Booker Prize judges wrote of Mosley’s Impossible Object: “In some ways and places everyone thought it strained, miscalculated, even absurdly pretentious; but ... everyone found too that the author’s method could produce resonances so strange and fine that the novel was not to be set aside.” That verdict can stand as well for Children of Darkness and Light.