As children who had been home-schooled return to their schools here in England, and the tide of first vaccination shots spreads through the population, we seem to be at another critical point in the course of the pandemic. Schools, of course, have remained open for children of key-workers, but the return of the remainder of their pupils to the classroom is the first, big step out of lockdown. At the same time, it carries risks of increasing the circulation of the virus, hence much else will remained closed, and ministers and their medical and scientific advisors warn us to remain careful. A calculated balance is being struck of risks and benefits in the context of falling numbers of new cases, hospitalisations and covid-related deaths and rising numbers of people part-vaccinated, with the significant benefits that brings. The heightened juxtaposition many of us got used to at other points this year, of mortality and the ordinary goods of learning and socialising face-to-face, is back against a backdrop of cautious hope.
This moment puts me in mind of some of the main themes of the Netflix Film, The Dig. Alongside the excellent acting and Ralph Fiennes’ and Monica Dolan’s wonderful Suffolk accents, and interwoven with the interaction and tensions between people divided by sexism, norms of sexuality, class structures and prejudices, is the sharp juxtaposition of ordinary goods of shared life, (care, imagination, friendship, love, education and discovery) with the prospect of death, the disruption of all these things, and the threat to the bonds they can create, to the hopes invested in them.
They meet most prominently, of course, in Mrs Pretty. Already mourning her husband while caring for their son, having long delayed marriage and children to care for her father, she carries the burden of a project in which these two past shared lives meet: to excavate the mysterious barrows on the land she owns, as she and her husband had planned; a strand of identity from her own childhood, helping her father excavate the apse of the former Cistercian convent where she grew up. Long foreshadowed through the film, she discovers she has a fatal heart-condition, and has not long to live. It is too soon. ‘Not yet’, she tells someone (is it God?) while tending her husband’s grave. She has her son to cherish, enjoy and see through the war into adulthood, and there is not enough time.
They meet, too, in Basil Brown, the self-taught excavator and author, deeply learned in Suffolk’s soils and history, and in his craft, but despised by his employers. His vocation is always vulnerable because it depends on the availability of temporary work, the passionate pursuit of which strains the bonds of affection with his long-suffering wife. His place in the story of Sutton Hoo is equally perilous, threatened and for many decades completely obscured by the academic archaeologists who took over his dig.
The opened grave of the unknown Saxon warrior provides one of two deep perspectives into which the film places this theme of quotidian goods, the social structures that constrain them, and the mortality that surrounds them. The other is the cosmic perspective figured by Petty’s son, Robert’s love of rockets and the star-gazing into which Brown initiates him. Both set the ephemeral everyday struggles of Mrs Petty and Basil Brown for the things and the people they love within vast horizons of the reaches of space and the strangeness of the distant past, into which they journey through excavation and flights of imagination and sympathy.
Both perspectives relativise the present and its intense concerns, and they underline its ephemerality. Time turns wooden trays to sand, after all; Pretty’s cousin Rory tries to fix things in time even ‘as they pass’ with his camera, to preserve what’s vital, but we know there are limits to its powers. In the film, this ephemerality crosses with a wider limit to human capacity and achievement, a recognition, profoundly challenging to the vision of masculinity that was held out to Robert after his father’s death, that we all fail.
These cosmic and historical perspectives are linked to a theme which suggests something more, in the face of mortality and the ephemerality of our loves, through the figure of the voyager: the thought of an afterlife of motion. After all, reasons Robert Petty, Vikings and Space Pilots are the same: ‘they explore new lands and have battles in ships.’ (Yes, there are some problematic echoes here for anyone attuned to our colonial history, as the piece linked below points out). Those who buried the ship, Brown says, believed they were sailing somewhere, whether to the underworld or to the stars… ‘Wherever we go when we die’, adds Mrs Pretty.
At several points in the film, we are nudged to make figural and symbolic connections between Pretty and Brown and the people who made the barrow, and indeed with the king whom they buried there. These aren’t, I think, meant to be racialised connections (which isn’t to say it’s impossible for viewers to racialise them). The people who made the barrows are, it’s once implied, the forebears of the people of the time of the film, which does suggest kinship and ancestry, but not necessarily as a single racial or ethnic group. When they are elsewhere named as ‘Anglo Saxons’, a term which has a modern history of white supremacist usage which continues today, it is as those belonging to the strangeness of the past, in the same bracket as Vikings and ancient Egyptians. It is possible to put those two features together and make something disturbing, dangerous and exclusionary from them, but the film itself does not seem to do so. (For an alternative view, see this piece by Prof. Louise D’Arcens in The Conversation).
The connection in the film of its characters to the people who buried the Sutton Hoo boat and its passenger seems rather to be to those considered at once as strange, and other, and yet linked to our protagonists through place and common humanity. The effect of the connection is such that, to the characters who attend and explore their material remains, the past speaks to their personal existential dilemmas, but does not seem to be used to shore up a claim to racial superiority of an ethno-national group.
Brown makes a second symbolic link when, with his bicycle, in a small ferry boat, he crosses the same river they crossed to bury their king, the same river he crossed in the ship in which he was buried; the same river in which an RAF pilot, a latter day warrior, is submerged when his plane crashes.
But it is the boat-grave itself which carries the main symbolic freight in relation to our theme. That symbolic connection is suggested powerfully when Brown, proudly exhibiting the trench he has dug into the side of the first barrow, is suddenly buried alive when the side of the trench collapses upon him. They dig to meet the dead and the meeting, like Howard Carter touching the fingerprints of the builders of Tutankhamun’s tomb, collapses time. Just so, by collapsing the distance between the living and the dead, the event underscores the transient intensity of the present. It also reveals that the possibility of meeting the dead in death also haunts the Mrs Pretty. She asks Brown, after he is rescued from the grave, what he saw, and lingers on the possibility that if he did not see his grandfather, he was seen by him.
These two perspectives, the cosmic and the historical, come together in the most powerful scene of the film, one so loaded with symbolism that it teeters on bathos, when the ailing Mrs Pretty lies down in the sandy impression of the vanished ship which Robert, aided by Basil Brown, has transformed into a stately Starship sailing off into the cosmos to Orion’s Belt, to take the Queen home where she will be reunited with the King and await her son, the Space Pilot.
It is a symbolically climactic scene that realises most fully the symbolic connection between past and present around the themes identified here. It also closes the gap between Mrs Pretty and her son that has been created by her futile determination to protect him, who has already lost a father, from the increasingly evident and imminent prospect of her death. And in that way, it allows the viewers, too, to face her mortality and, perhaps, their own, and to face the question of what death might be, or onto what realm it opens out, if any.
It is a child’s fantastic consolatory conceit of an afterlife which resonates with adult interpretations of the burial and with adult questions about death. In an earlier conversation, Basil Brown puts forward another account: that death and decay are not the final word on a human life because humans participate, through culture, in something continuous which transcends them but also incorporates and carries forward their contributions to it. It is a consoling vision, albeit one which works best at a communal or corporate level, and it makes sense of their shared project of discovery, and Mrs Pretty’s gift of the treasure to the British Museum, so many people can see it, as a participation in that venture.
The notion of the dying as voyagers resonates powerfully with Christian liturgies for the dying, who are figured as voyagers toward the place prepared for them by Jesus Christ. These and other rites, such as Ash Wednesday services, and indeed Baptism and Eucharist, integrate a ritualised, sacramental recognition of the reality of mortality into an articulation of Christian hope centred on Christ’s resurrection and his defeat of death and all its powers and mercenaries. The acknowledgement and the hope to transcend death’s curtailments of loves, cares, projects and responsibilities are firmly rooted within the basic narrative of the faith, the forms worked from its various scriptural instantiations and cultural interpretations, and the scripts and affective colours bonded to them.
However, I sometimes wonder how far Christian liturgy and traditions of consolation allow room and resources to acknowledge the tensions explored, and the losses anticipated in The Dig without resolving them quickly into the narrative of hope and redemption. Some strands in Christian tradition seek to downplay the earthly loves and goods involved here in favour of those transcendent, heavenly, eschatological joys of union with God, anticipated in the life of ascesis and contemplation, or contrast the security of that destiny with the transience, confusion and suffering of earthly life and its goods. Cappadocian traditions of consolation, which some of my students have been exploring this year, exemplify this, I think. Others try to help mourners move on from grief to the joy that should be theirs in union with Christ, even now (see Ronald Rittger’s The Reformation of Suffering, for examples).
This week I’ve been discussing with my students the Reformed German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Sermon at Nathanael’s Grave. Schleiermacher preached it at the funeral of his nine-year old son, in November 1829, only a few years before his own death in 1834. It is an eloquent and moving refusal of some of these strands of consolation, married to an austere, apophatic post-mortem hope that resonates with The Dig, though anchored more firmly in dominical promises. We may want a fuller, richer hope than Schleiermacher, rooted in the resurrection, but we also need, I suggest, ways to recognise and mourn things like the things he mourns, the things Mrs Pretty mourns: time with the child he hoped to guide into social and spiritual maturity.
Schleiermacher might also have understood what Basil Brown knows, the importance of the continuity of human cultural connections deep into the material as well as the textual remains of the pasts. Perhaps one of the challenges for contemporary Christian theology, without letting go of its commitment to resurrection and the break with the reign of sin and death, without sanctifying or mythologising the past, is to pursue the recognition of that creative creaturely continuity.