Any few days ago I hinted I might reveal the secret of happiness, fulfilment – and doubtless how to carve a career for your hamster in Motion Pictures. This came as an impetuous boast, coming from one who called his latest book, Dead People on Holiday. I remember telling one gentleman what the title of the book was going to be, and it was if his whole face went into spasm.
My title was meant to inspire a frisson of curiosity, amusement and mild foreboding. It came from an off-the-cuff comment by the television producer Terrance Dicks, who went on to invent Doctor Who. “The Living are just dead people on holiday.” It could have been worse. As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put the matter:
Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.
Any human life exists in the acknowledgement, however tacit or for modern man taboo, of its own extinction. This ecological necessity is what frames a life, what gives it shape and purpose, but it gives us an awful accountability, culpability, for each wasted day. To quote William James:
The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and we do not need Adolf Eichmann to remind us of the droves of our fellow men, slaves by their own consent, who are happiest taking orders, or dispensing orders of the most petty and poisonous kind: who live on yet in what Carl Jung called “the sin of unconsciousness”. The fact that you have persevered thus far persuades me that you are not of that mould. Still, to quote a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh – not that Walter Raleigh, but the Edwardian journalist:
I wish I loved the Human Race;
I wish I loved its silly face;
I wish I liked the way it walks;
I wish I liked the way it talks;
And when I’m introduced to one
I wish I thought, What Jolly Fun!
The self-appointed jury, although still reconsidering its verdict with news of every fresh atrocity or unsung feat of compassion, on the whole seems rather to be against the Human Race, viewed as a collective noun. “Amusement”, observed Alexander Pope, “is the happiness of those that cannot think.” “Most people”, declared Oscar Wilde, “are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Schopenhauer went further: “We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.” Or perhaps there’s less recrimination to be found in the blameless fatalism of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
My own opinion of the human race, you may be surprised to hear, is a respectful one. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out: Life is nasty, brutish and short. Maybe not now, when the worst we have to fear in England is ingrained social injustice or the sting of the dentist’s needle. History was forged by us, the “little” people – generally by those who received the least possible credit. And if we disown what Hobbes has to say, then we discredit the courage and Herculean tenacity of those like us who have gone before, the predecessors without whom there could be no modern world for us to wallow in, no cosy refuge for us to be vaguely amused by, or with which to be vaguely bored and dream of uses for the Tesco Clubcard.
Here by W H Auden is one of my favourite poems:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen; skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing; a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
John Keats, the poet we’re meant to associate with mellow fruitfulness and truth as beauty, made clear that – for him – the existence of suffering was life’s only fixed component. Over a century later another poet, Theodore Roethke, surmised that it was in a dark time (and in that alone) the mind began to see.
At this point, I sense people’s stomachs beginning to turn. Isn’t it self-evidently true that most people at least try their best? What is so shameful about being in love? What’s so deluded or frivolous about happiness?
To which I reply: nothing at all; so long as these feelings are the real thing. If they are for real, these are the best things in the world. If they true for me, authentic to me, then it does not matter whether they are valid for anyone else: in the wide world. It is the need instead to maintain a delusion of hope at any cost that fails to enchant me – that cruel monster of falsehood, and the slavish conformity to demonstrable untruths which it must demand from its adherents and its victims.
Of course, Karl Marx used to say that Religion was the opium of the people. But that doesn’t seem to be the case now: at least, not so long as we stick to this side of the Atlantic. The truth is more likely that people are coerced into being addicted to the mirage of happiness at any cost. This is the icon they nail to the living room wall in the same way that we used to bang up prints of tearful clowns or Trechnikoff’s Green Lady, or those Athena posters from the Nineteen Seventies. If happiness could not be found in this life, then there had to be a sequel in which we lived happily every after. Yet as belief in an afterlife seems also to be losing its thrall, so the quest for euphoria (I cannot call it fulfilment) becomes itself evanescent – fortuitous, by definition: a quick fix. Gawping recently at late night television, I was promised the answer to my dreams – and the secret, it emerged, lay in toning my “Abs”. Paradise, on the Shopping channels, is all about “Abs”. These and a cure for red wine on the carpet.
The trouble is (and here’s the rub) that happiness doesn’t come from a happy medium, and it never did. It won’t spring gratefully from our quiescence, our satiation, our being full to the brim. It’s boredom that comes from quiescence. There is no Arcadia. There is no transcendence or even respite, except for the briefest moments. Peace is what we wring from the end of turmoil, the surmounting of adversity. Joy is what we find in what we could never have dreamed might come true. It is by definition not the norm.
It’s claimed that one of the characteristics of Britishness is its tolerance of the outsider; yet I wonder how much we can afford that to be true in the English-speaking world. When dollars and cents are the bottom line, you can’t afford the risk of those who might fail to fraternise with the American Dream. As for England itself: we haven’t space for misfits in this rabbit hutch of an island, at least not now. The motto of Johannes Brahms, the German composer, was “Frei aber fröh” – being free, being alone. “To be an adult is to be alone”, said Jean Rostand. But not with the price of land in London at its going rate.
In Europe things are different, or they used to be. In German culture of the Romantic era, a key figure was Der Einsame: a solitary being wandering in nature, drawing fortitude and consolation from his solitude. He was the distant onlooker, shrinking from the crowd in its far pavilions; a spectator to scrutinise (without emotion, without sentiment, without moral judgment) our human affairs. And this notion brings me belatedly to a poem of my own; which I repeat from earlier this week (with due apologies) because it is the nearest thing I have to a signature:
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.
And yet the Outsider is something that Society needs. The outsider is the sounding board for what everyone else takes for granted: the outsider holds up the mirror that allows the rest of us to see our own face as truly it is. After all, even a Dictator will allow you to agree with him.
Little wonder that so many of our visionaries have had what would now be stigmatised as mental illness. Not only Keats and Brahms, both of whom endured what is now laboriously termed, “Bipolar Affective Disorder”. In the language of our forefathers, who remembered how to call a spade a spade, Brahms and Keats were “lunatics” – literally so. Not only them – not only Mozart and Einstein, who are now said to illuminate “the schizotypy mind”. Over the last decade, genetic evidence has come in for sure of the link between genius and profound emotional or cognitive disorder.
Another of my favourite passages comes from Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminal psychologist who was busy towards the end of the Nineteenth century. In his monograph The Man of Genius, Lombroso declares:
As Mirabeau said, “Good sense is the absence of every strong passion, and only men of strong passions can be great.” Good sense travels on the well-worn paths; genius, never. And that is why the crowd, not altogether without reason, is so ready to treat great men as lunatics, while the lettered crowd cry out when – as I have attempted to do here – this general opinion is attached to a theory… It must be added that moral insanity and epilepsy which are so often found in association with genius are among the forms of mental alienation which are most difficult to verify, so that they are often denied even during life, although quite evident to the Alienist.
Just as giants pay a heavy ransom for their stature in sterility and relative muscular and mental weakness, so the giants of thought expiate their intellectual force in degeneration and psychoses. It is thus that the signs of Degeneration are found more frequently in men of genius than even in the insane.
Dickens, Beethoven, Picasso, Michelangelo, Schumann, Balzac, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Berlioz, Puccini, Elgar, Handel, Goya, Michael Faraday, Virginia Woolf, Erik Satie, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, Edward Lear, Gogol, Tchaikovsky, Ludwig Boltzmann, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Van Gogh, Baudelaire, Salvador Dali (as if you couldn’t have guessed), Sigmund Freud (as if you couldn’t have guessed), Florence Nightingale, Goethe, Sylvia Plath, Mussorgsky… how long do you want me to carry on?
I think I’m in danger of feeding you a red herring here – not least because, in every public talent show which currently infests our primetime weekend television, frenzy is deemed to be a satisfactory counterfeit for technique. Excess was never a valid substitute for anything, or even an excuse. Either you have craft, or else you have nothing. When you forfeit structure you forfeit language itself; and your audience has nothing to see or hear from you but a small dog yelping in plaintive self-pity at the back of a yard. As Brahms himself puts it, “Without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.” So, no. The only point I’d like to make tonight is that outsiders, whether they were made proud or ashamed or consigned to life’s outer margins, have created the luminous cultural horizon across which the rest of us scrabble like monochromatic ants, or crabs, or dutiful beetles, or more feasibly like unborn embryos, kicking our sleep.
Don’t be frightened of your isolation, but make it magnificent. Jack Kerouac, the Beat poet, put it thus: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” Or, if you’d prefer a bit more Nietzsche, “No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. ‘Giving style’ to one’s character – a great and rare art!” And as consolation he adds, “One must have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
What does interest me tonight in which the creative voice might choose, quite consciously, to adopt the guise of the Outsider. Søren Kiekegaard, a Danish philosopher, placed himself deliberately in the role of “gadfly”, as he expressed it; and he was far from being alone. William Wordsworth too flirted with personas (masks, if you like) that could say what the poet himself could barely countenance. So you see: the artist as joker, the artist as flirt, the artist as agent provocateur: the artist in his confessional, the artist at his most profound self-interrogation. Anything for the journey, life’s journey; and anything for the dialogue – whatever savour or spice the dialogue will take.
When around the Millennium I first became passionate about poetry, I was touched by a moment of melancholy scrutiny from D H Lawrence:
I look at the swaling sunset
And wish I could go also
Through the red doors beyond the black-purple bar,
I wish that I could go
Through the red doors where I could put off
My shame like shoes in the porch,
My pain like garments,
And leave my flesh discarded lying
Like luggage, of some departed traveller
Gone one knows not whither.
Then I would turn round,
And seeing my cast-off body lying like lumber,
I would laugh with joy.
Perhaps you can begin to see why I want to incinerate every Haiku yet written. If you too yearn to strike out as a writer: choose the subject that means more to you than anything else. This is how to make first contact with your own voice, your inner voice, if you like. The rest comes from a musical ear, and endless practice. But if, later, you want to learn how to spin a damned good yarn: look at how a world-class conjurer delivers his tricks, or how a top-of-the-bill comedian paces his lines. There is as much to be learnt from cabaret and sharp comic timing as there is from Somerset Maugham or King Lear.
It’s true, then, that the artifice of art has much to do with guile. Here’s another poem of mine, which concerns a geriatric ward in a hospital. It has to do with grief, but also with technique, with mechanisms by which all arts work. The technique heightens the grief, but also subverts it in suggesting other levels: subterranean levels that are never acknowledged, yet which persist like soiled and filthy earth. What I wanted was a huge tracking shot, like a camera in an epic film, which swoops down to microscopic detail. The trouble is that the transition from the macroscopic to the microscopic is invariably banal – banal as human suffering, as banal as I am myself. So there’s a tension here between poetic form and encroaching chaos, extinction. And perhaps that – for certainly not melodrama – is the true essence of Tragedy.
I called this one He Said, She Said:
He arrived, in a blue January twilight
At this great space: this measureless pavilion, epic
And austere. Within it (lost), the murmurings of
Still-beating hearts: microcosms, these, as if a thousand
Dew-drops where, in a day, seasons of life and death were
Played out – intimate, ephemeral, unacknowledged.
At the big door he baulked; merely a novice, in this
Cathedral for the dying. One of the Sisters glanced:
He blanched, and lowered his gaze.
In upper wards the satellite channels prattled,
Television by the dead, for the dead. But not down here.
Here there was silence without dignity, at a time
When dignity was all there was to cling to.
Here was a mollusc of metal and puny plastic filaments,
A reticulated organism, perhaps; at whose numerous
Intersections little gobbets of flesh might move and stir,
Punctuated from time to time by sacs of brownish fluid.
In the corner, with a head
Like a busted bag, the elegant lady
He knew, twenty years since, from an evening
Watercolour class. Somebody senile fell back from
Ranting at an extinct cousin. But first, dear Reader, to bedside
Watch. There’s no response, as (quiet as a choirboy)
He folds his coat, and perches on it. At length
He says, “Would you like to hear some nice news
About me?” Pause, and the rattle of distant tea trolleys.
Finally she says, “We’ve been waiting thirty-nine years.”
At this moment it is evident that,
Contrary to all prior intimations, Elvis has not
Left the building. As for the seated one, his back
Makes a low arc and, as if to himself, he murmurs,
“Now I know you’re going to be all right.”
All art is about a journey, a journey of one kind or another; even if it’s only what the painter Paul Klee called “going for a walk with a line.” And if there is no unfolding revelation, no soaring arch of endeavour, no light at the end of the tunnel: then you have for the sake of hope itself to make something up. When I needed to write precisely one hundred words of hype for this new book of mine, here’s what I came out with:
“The living”, they say, “are dead people on holiday”. Stephen Jackson’s book is a ten-year testimony to one man’s living death, concluding in acceptance and the chance of a kind of rebirth. The poetry here pulls apart the melancholy of encroaching age and irredeemable failure, with a candour which for most of us has to be kept stifled, silent, perhaps barely even thought. Yet this is a book to surmount despair. If these are life’s ashes, from them a phoenix can rise. “Tight and life-affirming,” this poetry has been called; with a richness comparable to John Donne’s…
…Enough to make me cringe. In my defence, you know the drill. Of course the poetry of this collection was not written as a cycle. Nobody writes in cycles; such self-conscious imposture and affectation would be the kiss of death. ‘Cycles’ are for critics. My poems were written piece by piece and then assembled like Lego. Truth is, that the notion of a ten-year quest here is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin.
There were two men in a railway carriage, Hitchcock explained. One was wielding an enormous suitcase. “What on earth’s in that?” asked the other. “Oh,” the first passenger replied, “it’s my McGuffin.” “What’s a MacGuffin?” “It’s a device for shooting lions in Scotland.” “But there are no lions in Scotland.” “Well,” the first man concluded with a scratch at his ear, “then that ain’t no MacGuffin.”
Really, as I know I suggested a couple of days ago, what the book concerns 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?
One bright summer evening I was listening to some Debussy, and the idea came to me for what was to become the penultimate poem in the book.
As I contemplate the waste that is a living mind
The moon, thin as a sabre, darkens in the sky.
More slender than my fingernail
Or so I want to think –
As if I could truly snatch it down;
As if my being here, and now
Could matter more than a folly of flies
Dancing towards the extinction of light
On a puddle. Above me: the veins of a cirrus,
Livid a moment ago,
Drained bloodless now;
Grey gossamer of a blush turned to dust.
Walt Whitman did not fear self-contradiction.
He was large: he contained multitudes.
So let me find a way to dignify myself and cut the loss,
As he did –
No more, I’ll plead, than any scanty face on Southwark Bridge.
Conspirators, we seem to be, if only in oblivion –
Each of us slipping, by insidious degrees,
Into an empire of levelled shade.
My neighbour says your inner voice keeps bright, it stays the same;
Only the flesh falls, she says. Yet even laughter thickens, wheezing
Like a superannuated gramophone,
Piping your chronicles of wasted time, of hollowed afternoons,
Into ears of those who, less than ever, need to know.
But I need to believe that the fact and act of thought
Are more than fortuitous.
I want to believe that somebody out there cares.
I have to believe I have the right.
I’m a middle-aged man
As now I never tire of saying.
They should have told me years ago
How consciousness is tyranny
And how predestination sets you free.
Let fly the caged bird
From chattered words.
To take flight needs no vindication.
A dance lives in, and on, and for, itself –
Don’t pull it down.
There is no recklessness, in a dominion shorn of purpose:
Its dynamic is serene, complete:
Balletic tension, wrought of spontaneity and determinism
Is what holds it fast: causeless, and requited by itself,
All meant to be, and nothing meant at all:
As the great space of creation outpaces us all,
It does not need us:
If evening envelops, as it does,
An oceanic shoal of little worlds
– cooling like basalt, or labradorite –
It is no matter. They will come back again:
Unworded, heedlessly, not needing words
After we are gone.
Infinity does not speak to us.
It does not give obeisance
It will let us go.
As the moon incises its great arc into night
It does not die, it will return:
And clouds, flecks that melt upon creation’s face
Will flutter still like feathers
In their immemorial clime,
Or fall like petals
In the unremarked epiphanies
Of wordless things
Long after we have ceased to know.
Don’t fret about your own, diminishing sentience –
The transience of it, the loss of it,
As what has come from nothing goes to nothing;
To be dead is no worse than to be unborn.
So don’t waste time on me
When I am done:
Don’t reach towards my light
For there’ll be none,
No more than from an ant burnt by a match;
But rather, seek out the light of the world
And find, with necessary impertinence
Of all ephemeral, existent things,
Your own, your transitory moment in the sun.
It is through becoming part of this community of compassionate scrutiny and sharing that we know we are not alone. It is through years of such epiphanies that we come at last to join the human race: the real human race, the knowing human race, with its knowing joy – and that is to say, joy for grown-ups. It’s not for me to say whether one word of my work has the slightest intrinsic merit; but if I can bring a the memory of a smile to another face, or persuade another human being not to repeat my own mistake, then perhaps my efforts have not been in vain?
I should like to finish with two grown-up poems; the second of them written by a man who was eighty-five years old. But first, a piece by Sylvia Plath when first she became a mother:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.
Last of all, a poem from Stephen Spender. This one’s about dolphins:
Happy, they leap
Out of the surface
Of waves reflecting
The sun fragmented
To broken glass
By the stiff breeze
Across our bows.
Curving, they draw
And serifs with
Lashed tail and fin
Across the screen
Of blue horizon –
Of their delight
My heart within.
Across this dazzling
The dolphins write such
With power to wake
Me prisoned in
My human speech
If I can leave you with one word tonight: Courage. But now it’s two in the morning, and I leave you to the happiest of dreams.
Imagery and Stephen Jackson’s own poems are taken from his book, DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY