New-age festivities

Twentieth-century archaeology has placed the development of Stonehenge firmly in the prehistoric era – long before the Druid culture – placing the structure as contemporary with Bronze-Age Greece (maybe 2000 bc) in the 1950s, and then in the 1970s with new carbon dating techniques, a much earlier date of about 3500 bc was proposed, suggesting a long occupation of the site over 1,200 years with the largest stones being put into position towards the end of that period.23 What this has meant for the interpretation of the site is that all documentary material is irrelevant to its interpretation: there can be no correlation with any reports from the ancient world, because the site predates them all. The only inferences that can be made, are to be based on highly ambiguous archaeological material. The alignment of the stones suggests that the cycle of the Sun was important for the builders, and the modern Druids continued to celebrate the summer solstice here, despite the fact that, now, no one believes that it was any sort of Druids who built the place. They have been joined by, and are now hugely outnumbered by, crowds of people for whom it seems to be a good idea to be at Stonehenge for the solstice. It would be a mistake to ascribe to them any coherent or cohesive set of beliefs. Clearly their number includes some who have an interest in the occult, and others who embrace some sort of pantheistic paganism. The site is seen as a suitable focus for the projection of emotions connected with ecological concerns, and there is a consensus feeling of pacifism and opposition to nuclear energy, along with a feeling that the site can put one in touch with emotions that are deep-rooted in humanity, but from which one tends to be alienated in the modern world. Alongside these people there are others who have a general idea that something exciting is going on and want to join in, as part of an instinct to gather in crowds – which does seem to be something deep-rooted in humanity. Along with the growing numbers of people who want to witness the sunrise at the summer solstice at Stonehenge, there is an increased awareness of the fragility of the stones and the archaeological evidence around them, and a police presence has made itself, sometimes intrusively, apparent as the non-legitimate users of Stonehenge have been kept at bay, while the respectable Druids have been allowed to perform their ceremonies – a strangely perverse use of state powers to sustain the expression of an interpretation of the site that is well known to be wrong.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described an everyday ecstatic experience: ‘Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thought any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the point of fear.’24 Such an experi­ence can be explained to oneself as aesthetic, or spiritual, or in some other way but there is no doubt of the value of such experiences to the person who has them. One would hope to arrange one’s life in such a way that this kind of experience is possible, though it is not always predictable. Stonehenge has developed a capacity for being able to induce this kind of experience, by putting people in touch with a range of states of mind that they do not ordin­arily encounter. By being in the presence of stones that date from before the advent of nation states or any current civilization, it is possible to entertain ideas of generalized kinship and connectedness with the most fundamental aspects of humanity and of the heavens, with which the stones seem to be aligned. It would be possible to induce these feelings by other means, but the set of ideas that can be brought into play around Stonehenge seem to be peculiarly conducive to them. It is not the case that any of the ideas are neces­sarily ‘correct’ in historical or scientific ways, but there is no doubting that the ideas, when connected with the place, are productive of states of mind that are to be valued. They are sought out at some personal cost by the people who congregate there. It is because such places as Stonehenge can give rise to such experiences that they are valued above the common run of things, although there are other values that also supervene, such as those that follow from the structure being very old, and therefore being something that we should conserve for the sake of what, in future, it might be possible to learn from it about our distant past. If we make it impossible for the crowds to congregate at Stonehenge, then we prevent the building from doing what it can do, and therefore prevent it from having real living cultural value, confining it to the status of a relic that has had value in the past.

John Dewey writes well about such matters in his book Art and Experience (to which the current volume alludes in its name). He makes the point that aesthetic experience starts in everyday experience, and the objects of aesthetic value that are exhibited in museums, are special cases, not the typical cases on which to base an aesthetic theory.25 It is when one is fully united with one’s environment that one is most fully alive.26

To grasp the sources of aesthetic experience it is, therefore, necessary to have recourse to animal life below the human scale. The activities of the fox, the dog, and the thrush may at least stand as reminders and symbols of that unity of experience which we so fractionize when work is labor, and thought withdraws us from the world. The live animal is fully present, all there, in all of its actions: in its wary glances, its sharp sniffings, its abrupt cocking of ears. All senses are equally on the qui vive. As you watch, you see motion merging into sense and sense into motion – constituting that animal grace so hard for man to rival. [. . .]

There is much in the life of the savage that is sodden. But, when the savage is most alive, he is observant of the world about him and most taut with energy. As he watches what stirs about him, he, too, is stirred. His observation is both action in preparation and foresight of the future. He is as active through his whole being when he looks and listens as when he stalks his quarry or stealthily retreats from a foe. His senses are sentinels of immediate thought and outposts of action, and not, as they so often are with us, mere pathways along which material is gathered to be stored away for a delayed and remote possibility.27

This conception of the ideal human state is remarkably close to that described by Winckelmann, when describing the kind of life lived in ancient Greece: ‘Behold the swift Indian outstripping in pursuit the hart: how briskly his juices circulate! how flexible, how elastic his nerves and muscles! how easy his whole frame! Thus Homer draws his heroes.’28

This direct and immediate link between the person and environ­ment is something that we unthinkingly have with the everyday objects that surround us. It is something that we cannot have with an object displayed in a museum. As Dewey said: ‘When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life-experience.’29 What this means for Stonehenge is that it is one part of our cultural inclination to bracket it off from actual life-experience, and conserve its remains as well as possible. There is no question of restoring the building to its original use, as we no longer know what that was, so another part of our cultural inclination would be to welcome a new use for the building, and as it is a public building, it should be a public use. It seems that a suitable use has grown up around the monument at the solstice, and there are reservations about it. The only serious reservation is that archaeological material will certainly be lost, as there is a continuing need to improve facilities at Stonehenge and, now that even grains of pollen can help in an archaeological survey, there is no doubt that digging-work for temporary or permanent buildings will entail the loss of something, even though it could well be some­thing we would never notice having lost. There is unlikely to be serious damage to the large stones that are the focus of attention, as they are respected, hard-wearing, well-recorded, and have already been damaged by souvenir-hunters from earlier centuries. The problem for those charged with administration of the place, is where to strike the balance between the need to preserve the object and the desire to support its continuing cultural vitality. The two main forces at work do not engage with the same sets of concerns, but are incommensurable with one another, and so the question cannot resolve into a single correct answer, but must involve a number of values that are to be held in balance – an ethos. The part of the problem to which Dewey draws particular attention is what is lost when we close the ‘great work’ away from what it can do, so that in fact we can no longer experience what it was that made it great, or anything remotely equivalent. In this respect the Druids and the new-age festival-goers have captured for themselves something of the immediate aesthetic impact of the building-in-use, and if that has the kind of charge described by Emerson above, then there can be no doubting that some real feeling has been released. If this feeling is strong, then no doubt it can con­vince people that it must have been the original purpose of Stonehenge to produce such energies, mistaken though that conviction would be.

Updated: 3rd October 2014 — 1:37 pm