Monthly Archives: November 2012

Not waving…

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

I first read Stevie Smith’s poem at school and could make neither head nor tail of it, yet this morning, lying in the dark, the lines above came to me and resonated. They seem to me to capture perfectly that sense of being trapped in a despair that is impossible to communicate. It is a commonplace now to observe that we say ‘I’m fine’ when the opposite is true, and yet the psychology of it is complex – it is not that we could just say instead ‘actually, I’m not fine’ and make all well – because one aspect of the despair is that you cannot say how you feel; you cannot in fact act to save yourself at all – you can only wave as you drown.

I was going to add  ‘ – and hope that your conventional gesture is understood as a cry for help’ but the point is that you do not hope for anything – that is what despair consists of. You hold two thoughts in parallel but can do nothing to bring them about: you think, ‘if only someone would come and rescue me, say kind words, simply touch me, all would be well’ yet at the same time it seems quite impossible for you to initiate such an act: you cannot say, ‘hold me, touch me’ – because somehow the asking would alter it, turn it from a gesture of love to – what? – one of pity, perhaps, or indulgence – ‘You are only doing this because I asked, not because you feel like it.’

How puritanical and ungenerous despair makes us! ‘What I want is a spontaneous gesture of affection which I have done nothing to elicit.’ And not only do you not hope, you almost relish the fact that you know the gesture will not be forthcoming, because that will prove that you were right to despair in the first place, that you are not loved, that no-one cares that you are drowning. It is easy to see the strong link that exists between pride and despair.

(At the back of my mind I wonder if there is not also a link between reason and despair: it seems to me that when I am at my bleakest, I also feel that I am being at my most rational: it is reason that persuades me there is no way out, reason that persuades me that action is futile – yet I do not say this to condemn reason (which seems to me a most valuable thing) but only perhaps to be wary of the use we can make of it – it is the perversity of despair that it uses our strongest tools against us, a point I will come back to).

It is little wonder that I did not understand Stevie Smith’s poem as a boy, though I was accounted good at English, and I’m sure I grasped intellectually whatever explanation we were given, at least sufficiently to reproduce it for an examiner (one of the great exercises in futility that we have allowed ourselves to mistake for education – by all means encourage young people to read poetry and make of it what they will and can, but don’t examine them on it; just let it do its work. Literature, Art, Music need no supporting structure: exposure and opportunity is the thing. Then, when people are enthralled, they will learn about it because they want to).

As a boy, I simply lacked the experience of life to – do what? – I am conscious of avoiding what seems the obvious choice of words, ‘to know what that poem meant’, because I am wary of ascribing meaning to something as if that was definitive (though, as a matter of fact, it is exactly that clarity we seek when we are young – ‘but what does it mean? How can he be dead yet still moaning?’).

When we are young our feelings are enormously powerful but without any subtlety (which is hardly to be wondered at): we really do feel we might die of a broken heart, and equally that we might soar to the heavens if only the right person would look at us the right way; in the same way, we want all our causes to be black and white – we are impatient with any suggestion of shading, any hint that there might be something to be said on both sides of the argument. We want to know the right answer (and not hear there isn’t one, or that perhaps there is more than one).

It is only with the unfolding of life that our feeling, like our palate, becomes more refined and we acquire a taste for the subtle rather than the strong (ask a young man to make you a curry if you have any doubt on this). But this is scarcely news. However, what interests me about my experience with the Stevie Smith example is the mechanism involved, because it strikes me as one that is of fundamental importance.

Rather than say ‘I knew exactly what Stevie Smith meant’ I would sooner say ‘that line resonated with me’. Now, this is no mere pretentious dressing-up of a plain concept in fancy language to make it (or the writer) sound more impressive – rather it has to do with that difference alluded to above, between the youthful desire for clarity and the more mature realisation that there is a lot to be said for vagueness, for being open to interpretation (Wittgenstein somewhere speaks of the error of ‘making the vague precise’ which is something else I shall return to).

When I say ‘resonated’ I am trying to pin down the feeling it gave me – a sense of recognition (what someone else of my acquaintance terms an ‘aha!’ – meaning the moment when something comes to you and makes you exclaim). What interests me particularly is what it is that you are recognising –  and it is notable that another exclamation we use in these circumstances is ‘that’s right!’ We sense a rightness, an aptness, in whatever it is – it rings true.

That ‘ringing true’ is, I think, our sharing in the artist’s intuition – it is the instant of seeing or sensing something like she did when she made the line – whether it is a line of poetry or music or in a drawing. (and it resonates rather than means because this is something the artist did and felt rather than set out to say) In similar circumstances we speak of  ‘seeing the truth of something’ and it is generally accompanied by a desire, not to explain whatever it is (which is often impossible), but to draw others’ attention to it – ‘just look at/read/listen to that’ we say, with the firm conviction that the same thing that has become apparent to us will become apparent to others (it doesn’t always work, of course – some people ‘get it’ while others don’t).

(In this connection, consider Eliot’s response on being asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” –  ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”.’)

It seems to me that I am approaching, by a circuitous route, something I spoke of the other day, namely St Patrick and the shamrock, and the mystery of what it is we understand when we grasp an explanation that is couched in metaphorical terms – but that is matter for another day.


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The Writer’s Task

Trawling through my chaotic file system, I came across this, which I wrote a while back – it has at least the merit of brevity (‘Brevity is the soul of wit – if you can’t be witty, at least be brief’) :

‘A character must do, not what I want him or need him to do (for the sake of the story), but rather what he would do in the circumstances – so, the author seeks to contrive the circumstances from which the story will arise, as it were naturally.’

Hmmm. Might just be something in that.

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More on Metaphor: St Patrick and the Queen of Tropes

If we are to rescue metaphor from the charge of disrepute, of being essentially dishonest, saying something is what it is not, then we have to look at it differently.

For a start, considering metaphor as a figure of speech is not helpful, for then it it is ranked with a host of others, most with uncouth-looking Greek-derived names, such as anacoluthon, syllepsis and zeugma (the terrible non-identical twins), metonymy, meiosis, synecdoche, aposiopesis and hypallage.  Being able to say which is which is seen as cleverness and commended (as I know – it used to be my stock-in-trade) while all the time the far greater game being played out under our noses is overlooked.

Even as a figure of speech or literary device, metaphor could be taught better. It is remarkable how many examples still use nouns – that sadly threadbare and moth-eaten old lion, who is forever ‘in the fray’ or ‘in the fight’ and for whom even Chambers can do no better than substitute a tiger. As Aristotle observed long ago, the real power of metaphor as a literary device lies in the choice of verbs: ‘this ulcer feeds on the flesh of my foot’ is the rather disgusting but effective instance he quotes, if I recall. Even the dear old lion gets a little breath of life if we say of someone that he mauled his opponent. Likewise if we speak of a crowd ‘surging’ we are likening it to a wave, with a suggestion of unified, fluid and powerful motion, though to be sure, familiarity has probably blinded us to that particular image.

Unexpectedness is certainly part of the effect of metaphor when it is used as a literary device: it is an implied comparison that works by substitution – we expect one word – ‘the chancellor spoke’ – but are given another – ‘he bleated’ – and by implication we are invited to compare the chancellor to a sheep. Put another way, a metaphor is an invitation to ‘see it like this.’ The masters of the unexpected in this respect were those same metaphysical poets that Vita Sackville-West refers to in her definition of metaphor. For them, it is all about wit and ingenuity, taking the most unlikely pairing and contriving to show a resemblance: Donne’s The Flea is a prime example –

This flea is you and I, and this

Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.

But the startling or ingenious comparison, though it may be what brings metaphor to most people’s attention, is only a small part of what it does, and not the most important. Where metaphor comes into its own is as a tool of thought, a way of understanding – that simple invitation, ‘see it like this’, will, if we follow it, lead us into some strange and remarkable places.

When I first started thinking of this seriously, some thirty six years ago, I was an eager student of philosophy, and that coloured my approach strongly. I was much under the influence of early Wittgenstein – his ‘picture theory’ of language – and wrestling with his somewhat later concept, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language.’ But what now enthralled me was another kind of use: the distinction between literal and figurative.

I had been thinking about Time, and was struck by the fact that there seemed to be no language proper to it – all the words we used were borrowed from Space, or spatial relations – Time had length, it was before and after, and so on. We could not speak of Time directly, but only in terms of other things: a clear instance of what Vita Sackville-West had described as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ My excitement at this was soon swallowed up in a greater one: it seemed to me that I had discovered the firm bank from which the bridge of metaphor sprang before it vanished midway in the fog.

It appeared to me that the literal meaning of all the terms which were applied figuratively to Time could all be explained, illustrated indeed, with reference to Space – in fact, I recall essaying an OHP presentation (don’t smile, it was cutting-edge in those days) to demonstrate this very point. What interested and excited me was the realisation that figurative use did not alter meaning; on the contrary, it relied on retaining the same meaning, but transferring it to a new context (and of course ‘transfer’ in Latin is etymologically identical to ‘metaphor’ in Greek). The meaning was not altered, but extended, from its original, literal context, where we understood it plainly, and applied to a new context, with the invitation, ‘think of it like this.’

There were two things in particular that excited me about this discovery. The first was the revelation that perhaps the most important words in the language were also the most overlooked: prepositions, the (literal) meaning of which could be demonstrated clearly and unambiguously using objects in space (I envisaged myself making my OHP presentation to a Martian). Prepositions, it seemed to me, denoted spatial relations: that is what they meant, how we understood them.

And prepositions were everywhere.

I was struck by just how many words had, as a key component, some preposition, though often in classical guise – substance, that which stands under (and compare the English ‘understand’ which literally means the same – how exciting is that?!) circumstances, what stands around, synthesis (putting together) analysis (literally, loosening up) symbolism (throwing together) preventing (coming before), the delightful adumbration, shadowing forth, metaphor itself, of course, a carrying over or across – the list seemed endless, and the presence of spatial relations as metaphorical components of words so ubiquitous, that as a young man I actually did envisage, as a piece of research, reading my way through the dictionary and making a note of all the etymologies that involved it.

It will seem a huge leap from that to speaking of St Patrick, the shamrock and the Trinity, but I recall making it at the time, because it seemed to me to illustrate very neatly the other thing that excited me about this discovery, namely that if all our metaphors were ultimately derived from spatial relations, then a three-dimensional world was implied in our language and, hence, our thought (implied, by the way, is another metaphor – ‘folded up’ – and I recall getting rather excited by the distinction between explication – unfolding – and explanation – smoothing out); but if all the imagery we used to understand what we could not come at directly (like Time) was drawn from the world of objects and space, did that not exert some kind of limit on thought itself? Were we really understanding new things at all, or only seeing them in terms of what we already understood?

Hence St Patrick, who famously explained the concept of the Trinity to the Irish king by using the shamrock: three leaves, three persons; but only one stalk, so one God. (It was a witty Irishman* who neatly embodied the counterargument to this, when a friend suggested that three men travelling in the one carriage provided a perfect illustration of the  doctrine of the Trinity – ‘ah no,’ says our man, ‘for that I would need to see one man travelling in three separate carriages.’)

The point is, of course, that the King goes away thinking he has grasped the concept of the Triune God, but in reality has only understood the structure of the shamrock. What had me near gibbering with excitement as a young man was the possibility that perhaps, in everything we thought, we were all being similarly duped.

*it was in fact an Englishman, Richard Porson – my apologies.

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Metaphor, Queen of Tropes or Dishonest Harridan?

I’m not saying it’s all metaphor, but it is, just about  – and vélophile though I am, if you were to press me on what our most important invention is, I would have to put metaphor first, even ahead of the bicycle.

It was something we were taught very badly at school: the focus was entirely on what distinguished metaphor from simile and how to tell them apart, as if the crucial thing was not what they did (which is essentially the same thing), but how they did it. To make matters worse, this approach presents metaphor as something distinctly suspect, not to say shady and dishonest: ‘You see, children, while a simile only says that something is like or as another thing, a metaphor says it actually is that thing’ (almost invariably followed up by the drear examples ‘he fought like a lion/the soldier was a lion in the fight.’) Regrettably, I find that Chambers – in all other respects the nonpareil of single-volume dictionaries – perpetuates this folly: ‘a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious person is called a tiger.’

This approach must have left many convinced, like Belloc’s schoolboy, that ‘metaphor’ is just a long Greek word for a lie, something no honest, plain-dealing person will have anything to do with.

Yet, as I say, metaphor is of central importance – not just as a ‘figure of speech’ (as they called it when I was young) but as a tool for thinking about the world, indeed for thinking about everything.

There are two definitions of metaphor that I have always kept by me since first I started to think seriously about the matter, which as accurately as I can reckon was about thirty-six years ago (on the upper floors of David Hume Tower, in a tutorial on Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, a book I have still not succeeded in reading).

The first is from Aristotle, from the Poetics:

‘ but the greatest thing is to be a master of metaphor, for that shows the ability to see the similarity in dissimilar things.’

The second is from Vita Sackville-West, from a book she wrote on Marvell. I do not have it to hand, but the gist of it is this – speaking of the metaphysical poets, she says that they saw in metaphor the means to express ‘the unknown and dimly suspected Absolute in terms of the known concrete.’

I think these definitions make a good complementary pair – Aristotle is, as ever, ‘so very nice and dry’ – he gets right to the heart of the matter, ‘seeing the similarity in dissimilars.’

There is a paradox here, certainly – how can dissimilar things be similar? – but it is one that is easily explained in terms of another invention of Aristotle, his system of classification, where things are grouped according to general similarity but distinguished by specific difference: there is superficial difference – as between people, say, or mammals generally – but underlying similarity (in their skeletons, or the arrangement of their organs). To be a master of metaphor, by Aristotle’s definition, is to have a penetrating eye, one that sees through the beguiling surface appearance to the likeness that lies beneath.

But it is Sackville-West who brings out the real power of metaphor, which is creative, and renews the paradox in terms that are less easily resolved – this is not about seeing the similarity in dissimilar things, it is about expressing ‘the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ Here, a metaphor is like a bridge firmly rooted on one bank that half-way across vanishes into a mysterious fog. (The etymology of the word is from meta– beyond, after and pherein, to carry – hence something ‘carried beyond’ or ‘carried across’ – a metaphor is, literally, a ferry (a word that is surely from the same root, ultimately, via the German, fahren) – so perhaps my image should be Charon on the Styx)

It’s a fair assumption that Sackville-West’s definition owes something to Shakespeare:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to heaven,And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

here is the same paradox restated: for what else is ‘expressing the unknown in terms of the known concrete’ than ‘giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’?

If I am attempting to rescue metaphor from charges of dishonesty, then it seems I am not doing a very good job – and nowhere is the whiff of disrepute that hangs about poets and poetry because of metaphor better expressed (with unintentional hilarity) than in the ‘translation’ of the Shakespeare speech above into ‘modern text’ that is found in *Sparknotes ‘no fear Shakespeare’ :

‘Poets are always looking around like they’re having a fit, confusing the mundane with the otherworldly, and describing things in their writing that simply don’t exist.’

Surely not people that honest folk want anything to do with!

That seems like a good point to stop for coffee….

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A note on ‘Table Talk’

As the heading says, this is an old story, and not just because I wrote it eleven years ago.

(At the time I thought having a story narrated by a table was pretty original, but I suspect it has been done before.)

Part of the inspiration for this, which is alluded to in the text, was a talk I heard on the radio (I think) which mentioned the Jewish custom of laying out the dead on the kitchen table. I associate this with ideas that I learned elsewhere, about tables as altars, and also something that sticks in my mind from a lecture long ago – ‘for the Jews, every meal was a sacrifice, and every sacrifice a meal’ – I find that a very pleasing, hospitable notion, which I feel ought to inform Catholic understanding of the Eucharist rather more than it does. What is more characteristically human than sitting down together to eat?

However, the main inspiration of this tale comes from three very old stories indeed: the first is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which I have blended with another, that of the Good Samaritan – I rather liked the notion that the two might be the same person. But the third story is the oldest of the lot, and the connection only occurred to me in the act of writing. I had always been troubled by the character of the older brother in the Prodigal Son, perhaps because I identified rather too much with him (the ingenuity of the parables is to wrongfoot the righteous: we identify with the Pharisee and the labourers who were hired first, rather than the publican and those hired at the eleventh hour).

So here at the end, the brothers become Cain and Abel.

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Table Talk : an old story

The old man’s whistling faltered; the young one took it up, moving briskly about the kitchen.

My world is weight and sound, things laid on me, voices around me, arms leant on me, legs stretched under. I know my place, so central that I am taken for granted, my absence unthinkable. Stories are told over me, and I bear the blows with fist or flat of the hand that anger with others directs at me as I bear the burdens, usual and unusual, that are laid on me: with patience and, as a rule, incuriously.

Sparse routine had so lulled me that I did not understand at first the bustle of excitement, the sudden assault with a hard-bristled scrubbing brush, the laying-on of the crisp weight of cloth, the speedy piling of plates and trenchers, jugs and glasses well beyond their common number, freighted well beyond their common weight – yet it was familiar: somewhere, far back, this had occurred before.

And more than once: down the years a lost world came back to me, a world of gaiety and noise, of music and frequent celebration; a different world in this same place, when the day was rarely without voices and activity of some sort, the woman humming to herself as she chopped vegetables, singing snatches of song while kneading dough, clashing pans in the sink; or deep in conversation with her neighbours dropping by to pass the time of day. Every evening, after the evening meal, conversation long into the night, a mixture of voices, older and younger, the clink of glasses, frequent laughter – and every week, it seemed, a feast or party of some sort.

Long gone now: all that ended with my first experience of a body, the woman’s, laid out on my length while family, friends and neighbours mourned. No other woman was brought to the house: there was only the man and his sons. Through the day they were elsewhere: at night they gathered round me for their meal, in silence as often as not. No more parties, no more neighbours dropping by: I dreamed the empty days away, the sun at morning through one window, at evening through another.

The boys were not alike: one, the younger, was all plans and dreams; the other dour, taciturn, addicted to work. He thought his brother shiftless, lazy; did not like the way his father indulged him, sharing his dreams and crazy notions. Did not like either his father’s generosity, which he saw as waste:

– You’d give everything we have away if I let you, to the first tinker comes to the door with a tale to tell. I wonder you are so gullible.

The younger brother had a notion: he talked his father round. The old man told his first-born son,

– I’ve a mind to give your brother that bit land, between the dyke and the trees, for his own. You’ll not mind that? There’s plenty left for you.

– There’s small hope of him doing anything with it, unless you count sitting on a rock staring at passing clouds a gainful activity.

– He’ll maybe be different if he’s something to work on his own account: we’ll see.

– I’m sure we will.

The older son turned out to be right; the parcel of land did not flourish under new management. Every night the older brother made sarcastic enquiry about his progress: were the crops in yet? Or was it to be beasts? Was he thinking of breaking the ground this year at all? Which boulder had the best view of the sky? The father listened in pained silence; the younger son did not respond, until one night he announced:

– Father, I’m thinking I haven’t made the best use of that land you gave me.

This drew a big horse-laugh from the brother. He spluttered broth all over me. His brother carried on, undaunted.

– Sooner than try to work it, I should make it work for me. My mistake has been to think myself a farmer – I’m just not cut out for it. With the money that land would fetch I could get myself an education.

– In what? Drinking and whoring?

– Hush, let your brother speak. He’s maybe right – a man should use his talents. An education’s a rare thing to have.

– With him it’ll stay rare. The bottom of a drinking glass is all he’ll study – that and flaunting city women.

– You’re over hard on the boy. His nature’s different from yours.

– That I can agree with. If he wants to leave, let him go – he’ll not be missed, for all the use he is round here. But don’t sell good land to pay for it. Let him make his own way

– The land’s his. I made it over to him.

– But not for this!

He brought his flat hand down hard. His father brought down his fist.

– Enough! Your brother can do what he likes with his own. He’s his own man now.

His father grieved to see him go, exacting oft-repeated promises to write and say how he was getting on. He parted with a glowing vision of the future:

– You’ll see. I’ll come back a made man, with gold in my pocket enough to buy that land twice over. Then I’ll settle down, and marry a wife and you’ll have grandchildren to cheer your old age.

– Goodbye, son – remember and write!

– Goodbye, dad – I will!

– Good riddance, said the brother, under his breath.

The years went over and they heard nothing. The son worked all day and the father grew old. No-one came to the house except the occasional beggar. If the son saw them first, he chased them away, but the father was always keen to hear their talk, just in case they brought some word of his other son. One day a travelling man leant in at the half-door to tell a queer story:

– It was like this, your honour, the man was no more than a heap of rags, covered in blood and dust. Plenty passed him by, thinking him dead already, or not wanting to get involved. But this young fellow he calls out to me, here, you, lend a hand – this man’s hurt. So we pick him up between us. Take him to that inn, says the young man. You can bet the innkeeper is glad to see us. What’s that? He says. None of that now, says the young man, very sharp like. This man’s hurt and he needs attention. Fetch some hot water and some bandages! That’s all very well, says the innkeeper, but who’s going to pay? I will, says the young man, as cool as you like, and takes out a purse full of coins. Well, that makes a difference, as you can imagine: the innkeeper can’t do enough now, sends his girls scurrying, fetches the water himself, helps the young man dress his wounds. They see him up to bed in one of the best rooms, and the young man says, here, take this for now, and if it costs any more I’ll settle up next time I come by. And he slips me something too, before he goes. As it turned out, the man in the bed was a rich merchant that was set upon by thieves, so he was well able to pay his own way, once his relatives turned up looking for him. Just as well, because the young man never did come back.

The old man, moved by the tale, had the beggar describe the young man to him, and at every detail he said: I knew it, I knew it! And whether because the tramp got the drift of what he was thinking, or because it was true, he said,

– Do you know what it is, your honour, he had a gliff of yourself about him, not a word of a lie, he might have been your honour as a younger man, he might indeed!

– I knew it, I knew it, repeated the old man, it’d be just like him to do a thing like that!

The tramp went away well-rewarded, but the other son was sceptical.

– Away, father, he could see that’s what you wanted to hear. These tramps aren’t daft, you know. Not like some, he added in an undertone.

All the same, the old man cherished the story, and never failed to tell it to any passer-by, in the hope it would bring fresh word of his son, but it never did. The evenings took on a ritual quality: the elder son would come in from the fields, they would eat, exchange predictable conversation, then at some point the old man would say:

– I wonder what your brother’s up to now?

To which the son would not respond. Then the old man would paint some scene in which the absent brother featured: a professor at the university perhaps, maybe a government minister; or a literary man, an artist, a musician; perhaps a merchant prince, with his own fleet of ships upon the sea, his caravans coming and going on the Silk Road. It was obvious from the variety and detail of these imaginings that they were what he spent his every waking hour thinking about. Sooner or later, however, they all led the same way:

– You know, I never can forget that story the tramp told about your brother – do you remember?

At this point the brother would stiffen: I felt it in his arms, resting on me, in his long legs stretched underneath. He said nothing, but I knew what he would like to say, because after the old man was gone he said it to himself, alone in the dark kitchen:

– Do I remember? Precious God, will you ever let me forget!

Then he would carry on in a wheedling, mincing tone, a mockery of his father,

– I’m always thinking how your brother helped that man, how like him it was to do a thing like that, if there’s one thing I can be proud of in my life, it’s having a son who’d do a thing like that. The way he dealt with that inn-keeper! O, my brave boy!

And he would slap down his hand in exasperation and disgust.

– Brave boy,  indeed – the wastrel!

One night, the father had just embarked on his usual course when instead of stiffening the son responded:

– I remember fine, father. But do you remember this?

And he put on his wheedling, old man’s voice:

– “Goodbye, son – remember and write!” “Goodbye, dad – I will!”

He left a pause, to let it sink in, then resumed his own voice:

– It’s been how many years now?

The father mumbled something indistinct.

How many years? Ten is it? How many letters in all that time?

Another mumble.

How many? A hundred? Twenty? O, surely one a year at least, surely one a year from your brave boy? No?

A sound now like sobbing.

– What? Not one? Not one letter in all that time?

More sobbing, something mumbled.

– What do you say?

An indrawn breath, a voice controlled with difficulty.

– What are you saying, son? Do you mean you think your brother’s –     … dead?

If he meant that, the son did not say so. He kept silent, letting the old man work out his agony alone, as if talking to himself.

– He did say he’d write – he promised – the first few years, well, maybe he was busy – but after all this time…

After a bit the old man got up. He went and stood a long time by the window, looking out.

– I fear you’re right, son – your brother’s dead, he said at last. Why else would he not write?

If the son thought there might be another reason he did not say so. It was a quiet house after that.

The old man’s footsteps altered to a slow dragging shuffle. He no longer sat at the window during the day; I would hear him muttering the tramp’s story to himself, but he never mentioned it again before his son. The years went over and in the Summer he sat by the half-door, dozing in the sun. In his waking moments he talked to himself in a low, barely audible drone, a sleepy sound like a bee.  I grew so accustomed to it that I only noticed its absence; as one bright morning, when the door clattered open and I heard his footsteps scampering away like a boy’s down the road, and coming back to me on the breeze inarticulate shouts and whoops of joy.

At the feast in his honour the returned one preserved a modest, self-depreciating demeanour. No, he didn’t quite make it to college; he squandered his substance, and soon found himself in difficulties. Pride would not let him write to tell of his predicament, the mess he had made of things. Eventually he came to his senses when he found himself competing with the pigs for something to eat. The rueful, humorous way he told it won everybody round – the more he reproached himself, the more they inclined to forgive him: they clapped him on the back, telling him how good it was to see him again, how just seeing him there made them realise how little it mattered what he did before, that was all behind him now.

Two things I missed in all that clamour: his older brother’s voice, and any mention of the old tale of the man rescued on the road. A few days later the older brother came into the kitchen to find the younger one already sitting there, in the first grey light.

– You’re here.

– I couldn’t sleep. It kept going through my mind what you must think of all this. I never expected it, you know. I made sure father would disown me, turn me out – I was ready to beg to be taken on just as a hand on the farm, a servant, anything. Instead he comes dashing down the road to meet me, lays on a hero’s welcome. I didn’t even get the chance to ask his forgiveness – he just waved it away. But I reckon you must find it pretty hard to take.

– Well, that depends – there was one thing I meant to ask – a story a tramp told father years ago – about a young man helping someone that had been beaten up: he always thought it must have been you.

– Well, I’ve been in a few scrapes in my time, I’m not sure I can remember them all.

– But this young man insisted on taking the injured man to an inn, and paying to have him looked after.

A sudden laugh.

– O, that! I remember now – it was ages ago, not long after I left here, as a matter of fact – I was really pretty green, just a simple country boy. This man is lying all of a heap on the road, so I did what I thought anyone would do – well anyone round here, at least – I went and picked him up. I just assumed that if we took him to the inn, someone there’d look after him – well you know how dad would always have people in that were passing by and looked in need of a square meal. Anyhow, it soon becomes clear that people didn’t act that way in those parts – the landlord just stands there, doesn’t so much as lift a finger to help us. “Who’s going to pay?” he says. Well, I was just about to get ripped into him about his social responsibilities – you’ll remember how I was always a great one for telling other people what they ought to do – when this girl appears in the doorway – his daughter, maybe, or a servant – and a prettier face and figure you never saw in your life. So all at once I wanted to do something to put the landlord in his place and impress the girl, so before I knew what I was doing I had my purse out and was ladling money onto the counter as if there was plenty more where that came from – as a matter of fact, it was just about all I had, but it was worth it just to see the change in the old villain’s face and the look I got from the girl. I got really carried away with myself. “Give him your best room,” I said, “ and if that isn’t enough, I’ll pay the balance next time I’m passing” – which was easy to say, as I didn’t plan to come back that way at all. Of course the irony was that I couldn’t afford to hang around, so I never did get any more than an admiring glance from the girl. I wonder if she still remembers me?

As the younger brother told the story, I felt the older stiffen in that same way he always did when his father told it – as if he could hardly bear to hear it. For a long time after, he said nothing, then

– Do you want to come and see that land of yours? The man we sold it to made such a poor fist of working it that he ended up having to sell it back to me, at half the price.

The two of them went out into the grey morning. A while later, the older one came back alone – I knew his step. He had a shovel with him that he set behind the door. The old man was in the kitchen, whistling.

– Where’s your brother?

– Why ask me? He’s his own man. As like as not he’s away again, now that the party’s over and there’s work to do. You know what he’s like.

The old man’s whistling faltered into silence. Then after a pause young man took it up, moving briskly about the kitchen.

© John Ward 2001

As you can see from the date, I wrote this a while ago. For a note on it, see here.

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Elective Causality

‘Myself when young did eagerly frequent

Doctor and Saint and heard great argument

About it and about: but evermore

Came out by that same door as in I went.’

(however, let us keep Omar Khayyam for another day)

Myself when young was much annoyed by David Hume, particularly his account of causality, so I am very grateful to Schopenhauer for showing me the error of his ways; but that too is a tale for another place.

What I want to consider today is the idea that you can choose to make something a cause or ground for your actions, a notion I have labelled ‘elective causality.’

On one level, of course, this seems paradoxical – when we speak of ‘cause’ in philosophy, we presuppose necessity – the effect is that which follows necessarily from the cause, the cause that which necessarily (and invariably)produces the effect: you cannot have the one without the other; we use this as a powerful tool in all sorts of reasoning.

(Though Aristotle offers a very interesting analysis of cause which I will look at elsewhere)

But here is another kind of cause: my son dies, by his own hand – what am I to make of that? The surprising discovery is that you can make of it what you wish. You could make it a matter for shame, a family disgrace, never to be alluded to, something best forgotten – I’m sure that has happened in reality; certainly it is a commonplace in stories of a certain period.

Or you could make it a ground for savage misanthropy, for hating the world as a stupid and meaningless place and human existence itself as something equally stupid and meaningless – and people have done that too, I am sure.

Or you might say: the only thing I can do is try to live better because of him, to let him be at my side, prompting me to take the better course, to do the daring or adventurous thing, even just to make the effort, for his sake.

It seems to me that there is a causal link here, and a strong one (being forged from love in grief) and yet at the same time it is something freely chosen (which is why it must be perpetually renewed, though I suppose that habit will strengthen it).

I’m sure there must be plenty cases of this – certainly there are in stories (Michael Henchard, in the Mayor of Casterbridge, makes his shame over the drunken sale of his wife at the hiring fair the ground for reforming his life)(I am also reminded of the Ninevites, who listened to Jonah (when he eventually mustered the courage to turn up) and repented).

It is interesting territory: people will look at a life and say ‘that event changed him’ or ‘that was a turning point’ – and what followed could be good or bad – losing someone you love might drive you to despair and ruin (“he really went to pieces after his wife died”) or equally it could be the occasion of improvement (“he’s a changed man since that happened – hasn’t touched a drop, devotes himself to charitable causes”).

I suspect that we are more inclined to see the operation of the will in the good cases than the bad, and that is reflected in the language we use: when the outcome is a bad one, we say someone was ‘driven’ to despair, suicide or the like, which makes it seem against the will; but if the outcome is good, we speak of the person’s ‘waking up’ ‘having his eyes opened’ – which seems to suggest a two stage-process: you come to see something, and as a result, you alter course. Though, to be sure, we do also speak of a person’s being changed – “he’s a changed man since that happened” – which does suggest an external force.

I am reminded that Shakespeare has an interesting take on the same idea, which he puts in the mouth of Edmund in King Lear:

‘This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star!’

All in all, an interesting subject for reflection, to which I will return.

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