Colette, the French novelist, put it best: “I’ve had a wonderful life. I only wish I’d realised it sooner.” It saddened me to hear the late P G Wodehouse dismiss his own books as froth, whilst it was left to the more elevated writers to “dive right in” and seize misery with both hands. But there’s nothing profound about misery. Misery is a commonplace which we can pick like apples from an orchard. It is the consummate expression of delight that elevates us, and is rare.
Here’s something from James Reeves:
“The writing of a fully expressive poem, whatever the theme, can only bring the true poet happiness. Happiness and suffering have their origin in the same cause – an excess of feeling, sudden or gradual, brief or long-lasting. The dividing line is soon crossed. The poet’s abnormal sensitivity makes him a pioneer of feeling, painful or pleasant; the value of poetry lies in the discovery of new emotion.”
Trenches or not, a moment’s respite from First World War shelling drew a jewel from Siegfried Sassoon:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields; on; on; and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears, and horror
Drifted away… O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Of course, Edward Thomas’s ADLESTROP has been a source of continuing joy for me – as it has for everybody. No matter if the poet’s enchantment, like all enchantment, celebrates by its very definition what is fleeting:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express train drew up there
Unwontedly: It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
I count it as the saddest failure of my own work that I cannot glorify these tiny moments of epiphany. I suppose that, like Ozymandias, I’m too concerned with the big picture; and the big picture reveals nothing of the detail that makes it live. When in the back of my mind I had Adlestrop, all I could come up with was an expression of my own isolation:
DAY AND NIGHT
It’s night, when one needs love like blood,
And a city is an iceberg of lights,
The air throbs, roars like a distant bear.
The finger of one’s mind, in indolence,
Retraces the schema of old streets
Their excess of purpose – redundant as
Antique newsprint. I like to sense this imprint of
Bustling, forgotten hands: the surfeit of detail in a frosted
Frieze, or else a silent mausoleum in its zone;
With dolls’ house windows that will not surrender
My own reflection. I like it all.
As a child, I wore my life like a nettle
I looked out with blistery eyes
As if a scourge (as if one scourged)
Not wanting to be found.
Of late, I’m more resilient.
I watch this house of mine fall dark:
I draw it round me.
Outside, perhaps, a crusting of friendships
Of issues grown pale – or rather, simply remote.
I remember now. It happened one afternoon.
There’d been a downpour. Briefly, the clouds parted,
And in the blaze, the city shone as if pearl
For a moment, as if cleansed – as if life itself had been
Cleansed – all purged, all forgiven. For a moment, I felt
Glad to share what was soundless, timeless:
Proud to be there.
It is my shame to be different
But I don’t know how to live in bad faith.
I wish I could walk among the rest, be one of the rest
Find my solace in a seamless absurdity, but rather,
Those shackles have slipped away. For me, you see,
There is a dissonance in one’s heart, if one has purpose:
A tension, or a null that must be fed:
One needs to have some private absurd –
Some folly dimly grasped, giving one the appetite to carry on;
There’s nothing left, once vision and apathy melt together, resigning one,
In lean despotic light, to be an outsider at life’s busy midnight feast.
Spare me the sun, this glazed horizon, this eternal present.
How frivolous is life, if shorn of meaning
How short a life, how long a day.
Life, for me, is perplexing and fortuitous. I cannot purge from my mind the image in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, in which the hero realises that the queasiness he feels as an accidental tourist through life’s journey is not within him, but that he is inside it. My book Dead People on Holiday was written over a ten-year spell of, it seemed, one misfortune after another. Really, what the collection sums up is my thirty years of reflection on what it means to be human: by which I mean the nature and implications of consciousness, or that the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle was wont to call “the Concept of Mind.” For these are eternal questions, which have perplexed human beings since Neanderthal times. How can what is living one moment, be non-living the next? By what mechanism or qualification does what was never alive become sentient, or at least come to mimic the nature of what is alive?
The cruel reductionism of science dismays me, although a good deal of my writing has its basis in science. One day I found a strange paperback of anatomical waxworks. Eighteenth Century, I think they were:
Beneath the feverish chintz of
Someone else’s living room
I contemplate my own mortality,
And the thought of it wearies me.
The dowdiness of blood, you see,
Disappoints me. Especially dried blood.
Especially viscera, reclaimed by scorched earth,
Dry as dead love. We know what it’s all
For. We know what we
Amount to, each of us.
But here’s a book. A book “for the true book”,
Or so its authors would have said. The annals of
La Specola, of Florence, all in wax.
A museum, it was, of human guts. I hadn’t
Heard of it. Tussaud’s the name we recognise.
Your eternal Madame, grim and primly zealous –
Making death masks of the guillotined nobility.
One moment, dignity: the next, a flying cutlet!
…As she arranged her poison peepshow (with
The sober ostentation that marks out policemen,
Hostesses, and, I’ve no doubt, the torturer):
As bloodied baskets tumbled in her lap,
So too it was that quiet Italians
Plumbed the inner man, the map.
“Our subject has been hanged.
The anatomy will begin.”
How well they knew their trade,
The old anatomists –
Cutting fresh flowers from wards
Of plagues, and pestilence, and those irrevocably maimed:
Pregnant mothers, with hair as bright as straw:
Soldiers, lovers, those who had succumbed
With apoplexy in flagrante:
Now sliced apart with deft swift knives
Before their harvest might be claimed
By browning putrefaction:
Melting away like jelly in
The brassy Florentine sun.
So fast the craftsman had to work,
Plundering at his transitory feast:
Sculpting, moulding, tinting as each cadaver,
Slippery as eels, succumbed to naked air
Charged with the zest and vice of incense.
Five hundred corpses (or two thousand)
No one knows how many the project once devoured.
Now several dozen waxworks are what’s left:
Eyes in a daze, as if in wait
For an early-morning cup of tea;
Or else, wide-shut, as though – because they’re flensed –
They’ve stumbled on the Bronx or Balham platform
And dropped their season ticket. Timeless commuters,
Are these; lamed and kept in aspic.
Their butchers, meanwhile, nosed out what they’d sought.
Rationalists, seeking a moment of vindication, must like
Jesuits make their best use of rationed time. It is significant,
I think: their most brutal excoriation.
It concerns a young virgin.
They’d got her now. Every morsel of her, these men
Owned. They’d tried her, known her, had her,
Layer within layer. So much for the eternal feminine.
She sprawled, bereft of angels. Soon to come, and
Promised for the next act: maggots must burst,
Spontaneously formed, out of her forfeited lights
– As everybody said, and would say for the next
One hundred years, they should.
Who came to loot, upon this silent ground?
What mortified potential, could its wreckage speak of?
Signor Fontana, head of those who
Came to scavenge truth amongst old meat,
Compelled by his voracious appetite,
For vindication he pressed on inside
And left in wild surmise.
Trying to shake free the lyricism of what was mute
(As one must always do, with natural worlds)
Through its seductive symmetries,
Promiscuous, beguiling as they are.
Inviting too much sense, as they must do,
And not too little. For such must be the way
Of all fortuitous, uncrafted forms.
What could the pieces mean?
One principle was sound to guide the
Cutting of a blade, one uncorrupted article
Of faith: the search “for law-like regularities”.
Stealing what had been sanctified, in
A chancel of virgin sense, of
Unredeemed significance. Self-effacing, the men
Ravished, yet still with a gaze of awe and wonder,
Before the elements could ravage, what time itself
Must shortly pulp. Perhaps they looked for the
Soul; which Galen, greatest surgeon of
Antiquity, had adduced from blood vessels
Knotted in a cow. This time there was
Nothing. Still, it was no matter.
To understand a dream one must first know
The terrain of the commonplace.
Think what instead they found:
Sepulchral polypi, that threw aside their fronds to
Embrace the sea. Banners and wreaths, arbours of
Bone, that seemed to tower and hold tight; fingers of
Flesh that reached like suckling mouths: or like
Soft rooted buds, eyeless, rapturous, blind.
Arteries and nerves,
As tall as funerary sycamores –
Cryptic and profligate as the rest of it was –
And here or there a foetus, compacted like a nut
Now destined never to unfurl, or to make good.
But materialism, you know, brings its own magic –
Or at least, the allure of function.
Consider each mechanism, still, within your secret
Self: the valleys of hair attuned to make
The most delicious pleasure;
The sure, rococo poise to bones in a joint,
Unknown, until some act of violation
Brings their ensemble to the light.
Or a curve of enfolding form, voluptuous in its
Perfection, superfluous in its rightness, needless
In its subtlety, excessive in its resource – it does
Not need to be so good. Florid,
Exuberant almost…as if it’s not for us
Still less for the divine
Yet simply, for itself.
I glimpse, through my mind’s eye, machines:
Strutting and proud upon dry dunes
Under a blazing noon. And so I’m back
Full-circle, with my own demise.
It is decay that makes us human, keeps us
Barely so. It’s not corporeal form.
All life is with us, huddled in
Degrees of smallness.
There is no infinite variety.
Instead, a requiem
Upon one note.
It brought me no pleasure to realise that, if you could observe human activity from another planet, we would look no different from lice clinging to the flanks of an animal. Not that I view human endeavour as worthless, or vile. But its splendour (or such that it occasionally attains) derives from its triumph over an essential Absurd. Albert Camus, the French Existentialist, was inspired by the plight of Sisyphus as the fallen Greek hero was condemned to roll the same rock up the same hill, for every day of an infinity.
Sisyphus concludes that all is well. Each atom of his stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
…Here was my take:
THE EMPIRE OF LICE
As they conquered the summit of a living face
They knew it was preordained,
An answered prayer: too good to be by chance.
So much was here – for meat and warmth –
A promised land, with just enough (in
Tribulation) to make you doubt the
Godhead, so to test one’s mettle and one’s faith.
Above you shone the sky, and wheeling light.
Beneath, the quantifiable
Resonance of stones and joints –
Like a big, dark, heavy bell –
Subversion, primal and profane.
Regrets were bad. They made you feel
Your skull had been cleaved by an axe.
We’d all glimpsed Hell; a season there was a
Commonplace, and mortal life was short enough.
One might be plucked down, or tumble from a
Precipice (without justice, without reason, purpose)
From this seeming Empyrium of voluptuary, marbled
Skin, and blood that was yours to take by right.
And yet, there was no value to a life that had not been
Confessed, reclaimed. Yes, there were teeming voices
No better than your own; lost souls no more redeemed
Than yours: not bad, but choked with the grubby moral
Grey of muddling self-interest. Not bad, no; but it was
Feckless to count on them: on faces that toiled so close to
Stones that they were stone themselves. There was no glamour
In them: no prospect of renewal: no chance to spin careers, in
Silk, for those who really, barely were alive. Nothing to leave
You gasping in hope, or dizzy with revelation
Like a child. Oh no. Instead
They’d leave you spitting a lifetime’s
Disappointment, stuttering through that metal
Clench of rigid, mortified jaws.
The sky, the sky.
Without it, there was
No tapestry to life, no texture, even:
Only unleavened monochrome, causing us to
Seek solicitude, not solitude. Not daring to
Take dread in both hands, and make it
Fight on our side; make it force the boulder
For us, one more time, like a great, angry spring.
Instead we’d seek a more enduring magic.
Bemused by temporal love (and what had seemed a
Timeless moment, so hard won, yet simply a bruise
On the passage of our mortality): instead, we’d dote
In our dotage, spoon-fed without the need to speak,
Blameless: because (untouched, unsullied, uncurled
From our larval ball of endless childhood) we had done
Nothing, tried nothing, gained and lost nothing.
For, how could a louse know?
It is through death (of one kind or another) that we grow;
The noble rot of follies, of our best and brightest intuitions,
In soft dull air – in the sort of hour when nondescript and
Unrecorded creatures die their quiet deaths –
Laying a bloodied trail to grave, ineffable loneliness.
A long time ago I spent six years of my life studying what they like to term, “The mind-body question”. Here is not the place to bore you to tears; but briefly: if I had to look for hints as to what the final answer might be, I might nominate two authors: Donald Davidson in Mental Events, and Daniel Dennett in Conditions of Personhood. To cut a long story short, human intentionality is logically insulated from the sphere of causal explication. Rendered into something like English, what that means is that conscious being is a qualification, Mind an endowment made possible through language. No such thing as the soul. No Will o’ the Wisps to flit across the marshes.
Therein is our sorrow. Within forty minutes of our dying the special connexions between the neurons of one brain have all dissolved, leaving the imprint of humanity lost forever.
MY MOTHER’S DEATH
My mother, as usual, judged it best.
The day before her funeral, in a gibberish of legs,
A fly refused to die on her bathroom sill.
Out of its time, come February, but still
Raging against the dying of its light;
My mother’s house (corporeal husk of one now cool to the
Touch) retained its warmth: my destination, in a six-hour
Journey into loneliness. My plan had been: she might be
Ashamed to die, if I stayed camped beside the hospital bed
Or else she might draw energy
From me, by some osmosis, fanciful or futile – anyway,
It didn’t happen. She chose her moment
(Waiting until, for an instant, I’d slipped aside)
And then she slipped away herself.
“Peaceful,” one’s supposed to say; though I should
Call it moribund. I knew I’d seen her scratch, and moan,
Cognizant, at least of her distress, struggling to be comfy:
Until, in the wingbeat of an insect, nature betrayed her.
Michelangelo, it was, who said that death meant nothing.
It had no hold, so long as we held on
In the mind’s eye of the living. But it is love
That has no span, no currency, beyond an extant memory.
Each age recedes beyond remembrance
And our maimed minds are all that’s left for reckoning.
Oh yes, let’s cling to the detritus of forfeited lives
Like a lost child. Let’s hoard the memories, the papers
And pictures yellowed as pulled teeth. Let’s fight,
As an infant fights off sleep, and frightful dreams – thinking
We might forestall time’s withering recession.
You’ll tell me: Death is the hard edge
That whets a life, and hones it into shape.
Tell me how a dozen figures stand behind each living face:
How, in our dust, an unborn forest lies asleep.
Tell me of death’s necessity, how winter must
Precede each spring; say, Let’s be grateful for
(However briefly) sentience can rise above
This surge of all-enveloping darkness:
Yet I have lost my dearest friend,
The warm spark at my core is up in smoke.
I shiver with the cold, the cold of bones.
To tie up today’s offering with some unusually wistful Sartre: “Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth”. It seems to me that almost anything worthwhile in life has to do with cheating death – if not our own, then the deaths of those who will follow us. If I can find an excuse for my contribution to human woe, it might be this. Friedrich Nietzsche lifted from the theatre of ancient Greece an interesting conception of tragedy: that it’s there, that you must look life’s horrors full in the face before you can rise and give your own cry of affirmation. “Yes, this is how things are. This I face and accept. And now, here am I.” Only then you will know, as Anaïs Nin knew, that Life shrinks and expands in proportion to one’s courage.
Stephen Jackson’s poems and images are taken from his book, DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY