All the Living and All the Dead in Myfanwy Frost-Jones’ Film Unsustainable | Written By Sarah Long

What kind of case is a case of a ghost? It is a case of haunting, a story about what happens when we admit the ghost-that special instance of merging of the visible and the invisible, the dead and the living, the past and the present-into the making of worldly relations and into the making of our accounts of the world. 1

The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818) by Caspar Friedrich pitches man against the backdrop of the world. In a scene famously charged with emotion and passion, he captures the overwhelming greatness of nature. A sublime experience. A greatness that cannot be measured. The sky and the sea. A timelessness. Emblematic of the late 18th century Romanticism movement, the painting depicts a theurgical reconciliation of man and nature. Through a beautiful duologue, man achieves a kind of prelapsarian harmony. A refusal to engage with the Industrial Revolution, at that moment thriving, Romanticism heralded the dawn of a new religion: the self. Our Wanderer is a monument to ipseity.

In Myfanwy Frost-Jones’ Unsustainable, the viewer is presented with a ‘sad Wanderer’. Here is a man looking out at a body of water, overwhelmed by its mass with his shoulders slumped; Friedrich’s swashbuckling hero is but a spectre. Here is a man without bravado and frozen in fear. Frost-Jones’ depiction of an encounter between man and nature is also underpinned by the sublime experience, not with Romantic awe of nature as in Friedrich’s painting, but with Gothic terror. Nature is presented as a place of fear and haunting. As the voiceovers—detailing historical accounts from Cromwellian land surveys to primary reports of The Famine (An Gorta Mór) to recent UN biodiversity declarations—garble into one another, a feeling of dread is created. It seems the Romantic pursuit of the self married with the Industrial Revolution in the end, and now man is on a one-way march towards ruination.

Frost-Jones presents her film as a double-screen projection. The image transitions to a derelict stone house accompanied by the word ‘conclusion’. The ruin acts as a quasi-gravestone for the story of man. Focusing on the self was perhaps not the wisest path to have chosen. The freeing individualism glorified by Romanticism was gobbled up by Capitalism and now we have done irrevocable damage to our environs. It is hard not to feel the anticipation of doom, echo the ‘sad Wanderer’ and slump your shoulders in dejection.

The proclamations and surveys of the actions detailed to have been undertaken on the landscape remind us of how each action continues to haunt the land. The figure, alone and standing on the shore, conjures images of stories of drowned seamen and ghostly lovers that flood Irish storytelling, such as the man who frequents Poulaphouca or the woman haunting the seaside in Sinead O’Connor’s song—‘Jackie’I’ve been washing the sand with my ghostly tears/ Searching the shores’ —and countless other tales of lost souls. Across all these stories, there is a similar narrative; a tragedy so profound occurs that the dead come to be in communion with the living. Why is so much of Irish folklore concerned with the consequences of an action or event repeating itself upon the landscape?

Ireland, and Kenmare, where Unsustainable is situated, is a land haunted. Kenmare, as the film accounts, is a landscape heavily affected by An Gorta Mór. Frost-Jones captures a landscape blanketed by snow, reminding us how much is preserved in the land. It is disconcerting to recognise that this plain is where one million perished. Joyce’s great epitaph to the short story The Dead (1914) is evoked—‘as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead’. The living and the dead, or as Gordon Avery coins it, the ‘dead and the living’, the recognition that this is an ever-evolving story that we are within, it’s all happening here upon the terrain, this great epic is thundering along somewhere, but to where? The landscape is the living witness of the story of man, and is fated to be the only survivor.

 

The film is accompanied by an installation of an infinity box containing potatoes. Small, leathery tubers sit in a white frame under a harsh spotlight, mirrored ad infinitum. Potatoes reproduce asexually and so there is a propagative, earthy survivalism associated with them. Of course, they have also become almost a metonym for the An Gorta Mór itself, the crop’s failure being the cataclysmic event that exposed the country’s poor to the non-existent mercy of the British Empire. Ireland is a land haunted. We are a country that is coming to the tail end of a decade of commemorations of the foundation of our State. These remembrances’ focus seems to be on political ideology rather than a recognition of the physical impact of our actions on the landscape they occurred on. The consideration is placed upon attributing the country with a historical weight rather than acknowledging how our past shapes how we interact with our lived environment. As Mark Fisher notes, ‘those who can’t remember the past are condemned to have it resold to them forever’. 2 The state sponsors a history divorced from the reality of the land and what it has absorbed from a history of colonialism, famine and extensive farming. We remember The Burning of Cork City, but do we consider the impact a fire of this scale had on the environs where we continue to live?

Fisher identifies two directions in hauntology:

The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat’, a fatal pattern). The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). 3

Where does the idea of the fall of humanity sit in hauntology? Is it the second sense, a threatened coming undermining our ability to act now in the elusive present to prevent it? Do we resign ourselves to ‘a cancellation of the future’? 4 Or is it the first sense, where we have a compulsion to repeat a fatal pattern? Again, why is so much of Irish folklore concerned with the consequences of an action or event repeating itself upon the landscape? Perhaps we should listen to these stories and appreciate how our actions have long-lasting consequences; Nature doesn’t forget the deeds of the dead in favour of the living.

In 1923 the neo-Romantic W.B Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yeats’ poetry strongly identified with the Irish landscape. In 2023 will we continue to passively look back and forget to consider what condition this landscape is in now as we champion a man from over a hundred years ago? Or will we actively unmarry Romanticism from the machine and create a new movement that resituates ourselves within nature in order to sustain ourselves? Pray for the wanderer; pray for me

 

1 Gordon Avery, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (U.S.A: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) p. 24.

2 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (U.K: Zero Books, 2014) p.33

3 Idem, p.27.

4 Idem, p.18.

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