Category Archives: grief

reflections on bereavement

The saddest pachyderm?

rhinoship

This fine drawing is by the Netherlands-based artist Redmer Hoekstra –

(see more of his work here:  and his web-page here)

As a friend of mine observed, the rhinoceros looks very sad – perhaps he is reflecting on the fact that being a boat and still having to walk seems the worst of both worlds.

Is the rhinoceros the saddest of all pachyderms? It is hard to think of a jolly one, certainly. They do have a naturally down-in-the mouth look – consider Durer’s:

bsl_durer_rhinoceros_channel_624x351

But when it comes to sorrow, surely EV Rieu’s little hippopotamus takes the palm, though he is not in a drawing, but a poem:

The Hippopotamus’s Birthday

He has opened all his parcels

 but the largest and the last;

His hopes are at their highest

 and his heart is beating fast.

O happy Hippopotamus,

 what lovely gift is here?

He cuts the string. The world stands still.

 A pair of boots appear!

O little Hippopotamus,

 the sorrows of the small!

He dropped two tears to mingle

 with the flowing Senegal;

And the ‘Thank you’ that he uttered

 was the saddest ever heard

In the Senegambian jungle

 from the mouth of beast or bird.

I think that is an excellent demonstration of the power of poetry. On the face of it, it is absurd; a certain sort of adult would classify it as ‘nonsense verse’ and say dismissively that ‘it is meant for children’ – though it might give them pause to know that EV Rieu was a distinguished classical scholar, the initiator and editor of the Penguin Classics (to which I, like many others, owe my first acquaintance with the Iliad and the Odyssey).

But it is far from nonsensical, for all that its subject matter is a baby hippopotamus being given a pair of boots for his birthday – for me it captures perfectly a very particular set of emotions that many people will recognise at once: it is not simply that the present, which had promised so much, turns out a disappointment; it is the little Hippo’s poignant realisation that it was meant to please, so he should do his best to seem grateful.

And at the same time as being desperately sad, it is also very funny, as so many human situations are: ‘The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel’ as Horace Walpole observed; though here I would change ‘think’ to ‘see’.

Everything we are shown looks funny – Hippopotami, those rather moomin-like creatures; the trappings of the birthday party; the absurdity of (a) giving a pair of boots to a hippopotamus and (b) giving a pair of boots as a birthday present to a child (though perhaps some children might welcome them); and all this is backed up by the rhythm of the first six lines, which captures the near-hyperventilating excitement of the little hippo culminating in the huge exaggeration (which nonetheless expresses precisely the full undiluted strength of childhood emotion)

He cuts the string. The world stands still.

and then –

A pair of boots appear!

we do not know whether to laugh or cry.

The absurdity does not add to the pathos, it is essential to it. What is more ridiculous, more emblematic of futility, than an ill-judged present? It is not only the receiver who is disappointed; the giver too hoped for a quite different outcome, invested just as much joyful expectation in that moment of grand unveiling that went so sadly awry. There is no malice here: everyone has acted from the best of intentions, yet it has all gone amiss.

What lends this poem its depth – what makes it ring true, to my ear – is the complexity of emotion in the second verse. We are familiar with another image of childhood, the spoiled brat, who receives a perfectly good present and behaves abominably, screaming and throwing tantrums because it is not what was wanted; what we have here is more subtle. The little Hippopotamus has been well brought up: he knows not only what he does feel but also what he is supposed to feel – and the two are at odds; this is his initiation into the grown-up world, where we must weigh the feelings of others against our own.

And what is more agonising than the realisation that the disappointment you feel results, not from any spite or indifference, but someone’s sincere attempt to make you happy?

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An altered landscape

The world is a different place when people you know are gone out of it: it is as if the roads and railways to familiar places had been closed, the towns themselves removed from the map, the landscape changed; the course you took for granted, always assumed would be available to you, is shut off, inaccessible. The old familiar path, the well-trodden way, is barred. You can no longer go there any time.

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FRATER AVE ATQUE VALE

Image

Brendan John Goulding Ward 24 November 1946 – 6 January 2013

(photographed by his niece Kate at his niece Veronica’s wedding)

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Requiescat in Pace

In happy remembrance:

Being a Pantoum for my brother on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday,
commissioned at exceptional cost* and in several colours
from the pen of Master Thomas Gymcrakke

Happy Birthday Tractorman!
First and finest of the bros!
You do the very best you can –
you keep us all upon our toes.

First and finest of the bros!
You are the master of the sea –
you keep us all upon our toes,
though villains steal your mug for tea.

You are the master of the sea
 unswayed by favour or by fear
 though villains steal your mug for tea
 a steady course you always steer.

Unswayed by favour or by fear
you do the very best you can:
a steady course you always steer –
Happy Birthday, Tractorman!

* I beat him down from a guinea but 11/4d was the very least he would take

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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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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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Anodyne

Anodyne: it’s an interesting word. Strictly, it means a medicine that allays pain, as its etymology suggests, being from the Greek for ‘painless’, or ‘without pain’. A good thing, then, you would think; so it is interesting to consider how it has come to have a pejorative sense, particularly as applied to literature.

Pain and suffering are at the heart of human existence, an inescapable part of life, a puzzle and a mystery: we do not like to suffer pain ourselves, and still less can we bear the thought of pain inflicted on those we love – so how can ‘anodyne’ be a disparagement when applied to literature (or indeed to any art)?

I think I have stated the reason already: pain and suffering are not only part of life, they are bound up with the central mystery of existence – what is Man that is born to die? Why must people suffer? when Midas (he of the golden touch) asked the satyr Silenus what was the best a man could wish for, he got the chilling reply ‘not to be born at all – and the next best is to die young.’

You cannot leave pain out of books, suffering out of Art, because you cannot take it out of life, and Art (in its broadest sense) is our response to being alive.

It is of particular interest to me, as a writer of ‘fantasy’ literature, to consider how Art – music, painting, poetry, literature – reconciles us to suffering. It is not by providing an escape or turning away; it does not pretend the pain is not there, it puts it in its wider context, which is Life itself: and Life (though we often forget this and fail to see) is amazing, marvellous, wonderful.

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Absalom, Absalom!

Patrick James Joseph Otto Ward 18.2.91-5.7.12

Our beloved son Patrick, photographed by his big sister at his cousin’s wedding.

‘The king therefore being much moved, went up to the high chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went he spoke in this manner: My son Absalom, Absalom my son: would to God that I might die for thee, Absalom my son, my son Absalom.’

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