#4: To Leave this World Is to Enter It
Jack Sargeant on Delay by James Newitt.
“Croatoan” – message found carved on a tree following the disappearance of settlers at the Roanoke colony, circa 1590.
The fantasy of escape, of leaving everything behind, travelling far off the map, into uncharted territory is seductive, but even amongst the bravest, these dreams are rarely realised. In 1971 eighteen-year-old Jane Cooper left the certainties of suburban Canterbury, Melbourne, and travelled as far south as she could. To Tasmania, and then, further still, to De Witt Island. Colloquially known as the Big Witch, the island is a mere 8km from the Tasmanian south coast, but the tiny island, which rises 340 metres from the ocean, lays in the zone known, in honour of the extreme winds, as the Roaring Forties. For months the great Southern Ocean forms a near-impenetrable barrier, the weather – day after day of rain, averaging 240 each year – notable for its wintery storms even in summer, massive waves bombarding the Big Witch. Here the teenager settled for a year, despite warnings from authorities.
Opening with a line sung from Harry Robertson’s folk song The Antarctic Fleet, which details the experience of whalers lonely and cold, and deep in the bloodied violence of their work, James Newitt’s I Go Further Under draws upon Cooper’s story but uses this as background to an elemental gothic exploration of isolation. The young woman, seemingly world-weary, and an old bearded fisherman travel to the island, neither speaks, and the grey-black summer waters churn around the small boat. On the beach, the girl is left with her meagre belongings. The rocky coastline seems primitive and unformed, the tortured woods of the interior pulling at her as she walks through the small island forest that will be her home. Simultaneously, geo-surveillance technologies chatter, and even here near the bottom of the bottom of the globe, mapping the isolation.
I Go Further Under creates an uncanny atmosphere in which an unpeopled landscape presents illusions of life, but existence here seems alien and unforgiving: a bloodied chunk of fish on the boat, an underside of a mollusc that resembles some Lovecraftian black rotting meat, a pink worm wriggles, even a sealion seems strangely-monstrous as it basks upside down amongst the rocks. Simultaneously, in shallow tidal pools the combination of light and stone gives the water the bloodied timbre of slaughterhouse guttering. The pulp from a fruit becomes a fleshy, seeded and deeply visceral flesh palpation wiped across the girl’s cold hands. Notably, when the ocean or wind falls to silence the soundtrack buzzes with endless flies. To be alone, far away from human contact, to rarely hear another voice, could for many to be a manifestation of torture. The isolation the rugged landscape of De Witt offers invariably echoes the grim psychological demands the penal colony inflicted upon prisoners removed far from society and the harshness of life for those who still work on the brutal Southern Ocean.
The work opens with text that emphasizes the geographical move south, the opposite direction from the Equatorial tropics. She is driven south, towards the barren, untamed, and windblown. Compelled to move. The island forms a primal landscape, an un-paradise that becomes the place where the individual can vanish, in contrast to the ethnocentric conceits associated with tropical beaches. On De Witt there is no trace of human habitation. For the protagonist it lays far away from the machinations of men.
The soundtrack – with its whispered voices, bird song, wind, ocean, electronic drones and hums, augmented on occasion with other sounds – further emphasizes the experience of the uncanny and the elemental. A desolate loneliness is at play, except in electing to remove herself from the everyday world of society and community, the young woman has taken a voluntary vow of isolation, a contemporary manifestation of asceticism. But while the ascetic elects to retreat from the pleasures of the sensory world in order to meditate on the sacred, the protagonist of I Go Further Under has not renounced the material world, rather she is immersed in the physicality of the everyday; she swims in the ocean, she feels the cold, she builds fires, she huddles in her clothes against the howling wind. There does not appear to be a spiritual quest at play, so much as a pure negation of the contemporary world.
But the island, despite its extremes, also serves to protect the young woman, as the fisherman whispers; she is “a little witch in the arms of the Big Witch.” There is perhaps something of the faery tale in such a relationship, the girl is protected by the mercy of the landscape in which she has placed herself. Moreover, this relationship suggests that rather than being separate from the landscape the protagonist, in her isolation, is becoming incorporated into it. The island, from the imposing ocean cliffs to the woods, offers security, comfort, like a mother comforting a child.
In the tree trunk carved by the British colonists the single word: “Croatoan” (in some versions of the story the tree was carved with the more affirmative “gone to Croatan”1 ) was all that remained of the one-hundred North American ‘settlers.’ Nothing was heard from them again. Some say they joined the local tribes, others that they faced madness or death. All possibilities hang over this colonial vanishing, but in the carving of that short phrase there is more at stake. An affirmation in the possibility of electing to cease to exist within a defined boundary, a moment instead of possibility. I Go Further Under: moving south, beyond all trace of humanity, into the promises of the Big Witch, seems impossible, but the gesture to move further into the world into the vertigo of nature becomes a move into the invisibility of existence itself.
1. For more on the idea of Croatan as a manifestation of the Temporary Autonomous Zone see Hakim Bey, T.A.Z The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Autonomedia, 2003 (1985), p.114-116.
Delay exhibited at Contemporary Art Tasmania 9 June – 15 July 2018 in partnership with Dark Mofo 2018.
Jack Sargeant is the author of numerous books and articles on underground film and culture, including Against Control (Eight Millimetre) and Flesh And Excess: On Underground Film (Amok Books), he is the program director for the Revelation Perth International Film Festival, and a curator.