Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’, Hauntology and Acceptable Types of Lying

heart stabbed with a pen


I’m rereading, for the fourth time, Laline Paul’s ‘The Bees’. Its subject, Bees, is one I love revisiting and the writing style is untaxing. It’s a work of anthropomorphic fiction, same genre as ‘Watership Down’ or ‘Duncton Wood’. But, the switch from mammalian to insect protagonist means Paul is less reliant on mysticism for plot than a lot of these books. The alien nature of a hive provides all the drama of the story. Indeed, the only big step away from proper, believable bee science (other than the anthropomorphicism) is the conflation of two subspecies of domestic honeybee.

The book has been a huge success, both critically and commercially. Paul deserves this. But the language used to praise the books has sometimes been worth questioning. I’ve heard the word ‘pastoral’ used, which seems out of place. There are no shepherds. The feel of the book is claustrophobic, sweatily cloistered, with more of the feel of a convent or a space ship than Arcadia. Pastoral has to mean more than ‘it has trees’.

Another word I’ve heard is ‘lyrical’, and again, this book isn’t that. Part of its charm is its directness. It is paced like a commercial thriller, every chapter has a piece of capital P plot. There’s no room in it for meandering play with language. It doesn’t want or need musicality.

But I also hear what the critic is pointing towards. There’s a fullness here, a kind of abundant license taking we might call ‘poetic’. Laline Paul is not, as far as I know, a bee. But when she writes about a worker bee’s experience of the queen’s hormonal control as a type of ecstatic ‘mother love’, I believe her. Or, rather, I find the image so evocative, so suggestive of the genuine mysteriousness of other types of life, that I don’t mind being lied to.

I spend a lot of time thinking about lies and writing. My witchcraft practice is a kind of very pretty lie. My novel has involved a lot of lying about very real events. There are types of truth that don’t fit into the facts.

Until very recently, I used the language of hauntology to explain this. I’d talk about truth in terms of ‘ghostliness’ and Derrida’s ‘infinite deferral’. The ambiguous relationship between representation and truth imagined as a doomed séance, ghosts co-mingling but never touching. Truth as a phantasm that can’t quite be grasped or refused, not living or dead.

And that works, as far as it goes. But it’s started to bore me. It’s very clever, maybe even ‘true’. But it doesn’t sit right. The feeling of the image is too gloomy.

Hauntology rests on the idea of absence, of the endlessly retreating real, just beyond reach. It feeds a sort of nihilism. I agree that selves, words, ideas do not have fixed edges or centres. I agree that things are never self-same to themselves. I agree that truth is slippery. But the denial of identity doesn’t have to be read in terms of emptiness. The great potential in the gaps of language don’t feel like an emptiness to me anymore. It’s not that the words are empty, it’s that the truth is too enormous to live inside them.

This is an old understanding, almost mystic. I’m not being novel here. The Tao is both the formless and its manifestations. God is both Ain Soph at the top of the tree and Malkuth at the bottom. A lot of people, clever navel gazing people, have looked at the world and said emptiness and infinite possibility are the same thing. I’m not wise enough to expand on the work of the sages. But my experience, in this moment, is that truth is not slippery like a ghost. It is slippery like a Turkish wrestler covered in olive oil, and it is big, and I can’t get a handle on it, and the act of grappling means I am frequently thrown to the ground and frequently aroused. I am not scrabbling after ghosts. I am cheerfully adrift in multiplicity.

I’ve reached the end of my language here. Let’s return to facts. Laline Paul is not a bee. She, and all writers, are liars. But it’s not an absence of truth, it’s something else. Something we should have a German word for. Not a white lie — nothing in the text is intended to deceive. Not Terry Pratchett’s ‘lies to children’ — Paul isn’t laying down groundwork for something that I will eventually understand. Paul isn’t offering me a route to actually understanding what it’s like to be a bee. Annaliese Mackintosh, whose genre blending memoir/fiction practice was very helpful in shaping my thoughts here, spoke to me about Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’ at a literary festival last year. But this isn’t that either. Paul isn’t reaching for the ‘emotional truth’ of being a bee. This is an act of total projection. It is totally honest about its falsity.

What is the word? Fable, perhaps?  But even that feels too pedagogical. Too clearly moral. I need a word that means ‘a fiction that points to the mysterious unknowable in’. A koan? A lie-that-enlarges?

I don’t know. But I know when I read her book, and I go out into the garden, the blank spot of a bee’s mind is made enormous to me. A mystery that doesn’t tell me anything about a bee, but which makes me aware of all I don’t know. She is telling me a lie, but it is forcing me to look at a truth. I feel my limits, and I push against them.

I genuinely don’t know what a bee would make of that.

Witchcraft for Writers

I don’t want to write a primer on Witchcraft. I don’t want to have to write about whether I believe in the supernatural or ghosts or Bach flower remedies. I don’t.  I want to write about spells and power. I want to write about the feelings I have when I am alone in the night walking along a river. When I am singing quietly, so the people in the houses don’t hear me, when I am saying out loud all the things that people should be saying to rivers. Witchcraft is about memory and language, and using these things in ways that subvert the status quo. Witchcraft is recognising the things that we are not supposed to notice.

witchraft for writers spell nature baphomet

Witchcraft is acknowledging that I am not that different from the wind, that there is not a clear line separating the breath in my body from the breath in a thundercloud. Witchcraft is setting up a ritual to remind me of that solid, scientific fact when I can’t feel it in myself. Sometimes we have to spell it out.  As I write there is rain falling outside. It falls. It nourishes. It is laughing in the gutter. I see myself.

Witchcraft is allowing myself to not just be ‘myself’, is accepting what the Buddhists and Existentialists have been saying forever, letting my boundaries dissolve so thoroughly that there isn’t a thing to be bound anymore. It’s taking that conceptual freedom and running with it. I am not a man. I am a tree. I am a swear word. I am a wine drunk divinity crowned with starlight. I’m a poem.

Witchcraft is not just feeling though. Witchcraft is me setting an alarm so I wake up early and remember my dreams. It’s adorning myself with symbols in a secret language. It’s not just the imaginative leap of becoming other, it’s the physical things I do to anchor my imagination’s reach into this body, this time. Witchcraft is the steady transformation of my life into a marker. I am trying to find a path. I am trying to be a path. I am looking to become ‘a visible sign of an invisible grace’.

In the mornings I wake up and I light a candle for the gods I believe I am. I pray.

River of honey,
sweet first light, bird song at morning,
kind Muse,
I am making a home for you.

Be with me.
With my hands I am
clearing the path before your procession.

I am laying down my hours before you
To mark a road.

Postcards for MPs


So, everything is awful. Global warming has probably crossed the threshold. Police keep killing black people. There’s a concentration camp for gay men. Bees are dying. Idiots are launching missiles by fiat. It’s all very, very frightening. And the way we ingest news now, via Twitter probably, means that it’s overwhelming. Despair is palpable. I wake up in the mornings and I read the terrible things that are happening and I feel like I’m drowning. And then, to feel like I’m doing something about it, I tweet. Which… doesn’t actually stop the situation, it just makes more tweets. Which other people then read, and also feel powerless. It’s like right thinking people have locked themselves in a room just so they can cry at each other.

This doesn’t feel like a workable strategy.

You know, I have over a thousand people following me on Twitter? I think almost all of them are anti-austerity, anti-racism, anti-all that other bullshit. That’s a lot of people in agreement. Why do we all feel so alone with it then? Why, when there are so many of us, do we feel like there is no point in speaking out? Signal boosting and reporting is great, but what comes afterwards? What are we actually meant to do?

Something is better than nothing. Mostly, at the moment, I do nothing. I just feel bad, as if feeling bad were a route forward instead of a cul-de-sac. I’d like to try something different.

This summer, I am going to start sending postcards to my MP. I’m going to make a ritual of it. On Sunday morning, before I notice my hangover, I’m going to sit down and write four postcards.  One to Sarah Newton, my local Tory, and three for other relevant MPs. That’s it. A concrete, helpful action.

Here’s why it’s better than tweeting:

  • It takes up their time. Tweets can be ignored, MPs have to reply to post.
  • And a record of your correspondence is kept. It provides evidence against which they can be held accountable.
  • Even if your MP is one of those UKIP monstrosities, time spent writing back to you is time they can’t spend being proactively evil. #WasteHisTime2017
  • It puts your message with people who actually have the power to change things.
  • It lets you use fancy stationery.
  • It’s concrete action. You’ll feel better. Trust me.

PLUS, because I am a genius, the postcards still get to be on Twitter anyway. There’ll even be a hashtag, #Postcards4MPs, because I want this to be a habit and I’d like other people to join in. For the cost of 4 stamps and 4 index cards (less than £2.50 a week?) you could stop feeling like a victim (no shade) and start feeling like Lesley Knope. I’ll even look up some people for us to write to each week. It's only a little thing, and no, it doesn't match the scale of the problems. But if all you're doing is panicking and tweeting, this is a step in the right direction, right?

So yeah, that’s my idea. I’ll see you on Sunday.