Friday, May 25, 2007

Apophatic



There is a book on my shelves, its spine somewhat light-faded, bought many years ago at a time when its title excited me; packed up, unread, before a move; unpacked and re-shelved afterwards, the gold lettering still able to raise a frisson of promise and excitement – an undiscovered country awaiting the leisure to explore it. Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. I kid you not.

Middle-age presents temptations and sins unanticipated or imagined in youth and frequently, nowadays, I find myself bringing “boredom” - by which I suppose I mean accidie - to the Second Plank after Shipwreck. It is a crime to be bored, a sin against all three of the theological virtues – far more pernicious than the unsubtle misdemeanours of vigorous early manhood. The thought of Art and Scholasticism brings it on in topmast-high, unconquerable waves.

It is dispersed somewhat, for a while, in the hortus conclusus of the Divine Office (Deo gratias) but also by kindred spirits, among whom I number Philip Larkin. This sometimes surprises friends, who imagine I’d find the black thread of godless despair running through all of his work repellant and indigestible. Not a bit of it. He’s indispensible to me. My wife knows why.

“Happiness writes white” he is alleged to have answered, confronted with the accusation of wallowing in gratuitous, whinging miserablism. The accusation is of course, false. Only eupeptic souls who lack, in Alan Bennett’s phrase (Bennett being himself the perfect reader of Larkin) that “fully developed capacity never quite to enjoy oneself” of which all three of us became conscious very early in life, could ever be so obtuse and fundamentally humourless as to bring it. I relish the music of his lugubrious misanthropy (“mug-faced wives, glaring at jellies”), the exquisitely placed provincial middle-class locutions (those who produce the word “ironic” here are the same people who call Gregorian Chant “relaxing”), the cold-eyed refusal to admit that there’s much else for it in an empty universe but to “flay thy neighbour, as thyself”. Larkin’s godlessness is precisely that, having very little to do with “atheism”; today’s shrill proponents of which would, it’s absolutely certain, have bored him rigid. In this he’s a far better representative of his age than a Richard Dawkins or a Christpher Hitchens. Who, after all, but a preposterous bore would waste his time propagandising for the banal and self-evident?

And yet, as with Wilfred Owen, “the poetry is in the pity”. Pity is everywhere, and it's perfectly genuine:

The Old Fools

What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's strange:
Why aren't they screaming?

At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end,
And was all the time merging with a unique endeavour
To bring to bloom the million-petaled flower
Of being here. Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show that they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines -
How can they ignore it?

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can't quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun's
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here. For the rooms grow farther, leaving
Incompetent cold, the constant wear and tear
Of taken breath, and them crouching below
Extinction's alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is. This must be what keeps them quiet:
The peak that stays in view wherever we go
For them is rising ground. Can they never tell
What is dragging them back, and how it will end? Not at night?
Not when the strangers come? Never, throughout
The whole hideous, inverted childhood? Well,
We shall find out.

Dementia, of all the manifestations of human suffering, presents perhaps the greatest challenge to Christians. I mean this in a double sense: most obviously that my (mostly) non-practicing wife, having spent her nights lavishing inexhaustable patience and compassion on people whose illnesses frighten and repel the majority of us, will have a great deal more to show on the Last Day than me, with my finely-honed theological principles; but more: where is the immortal soul, with its irreducible personhood in all of it? What answer can one make to epiphenomenalism when it’s so obvious that integral personality disappears in precise proportion to the disintegration of the tissues of the brain, turning (in the words of a friend) a beloved and vivacious grandparent into an unrecognisable old sinner?

Art, like real theology, exists for the truth. My faith tells me that the soul of a demented man remains intact and inviolable, its operations no longer mediated, but impeded and suppressed for a while within the purgatory of a failing organism; but Larkin’s poetry is true, too. It’s a true representation, unmarred by any puerile polemic, of a godless universe. I need, periodically, good, strong doses of it.

8 comments:

Pseudo-Iamblichus said...

You have been posting so little lately, but when you do, it is such a gift to my day.

Thank you.

Moretben said...

Thank you Arturo - and thank you for your good wishes.

Ttony said...

Thank you for this. It answers the question I've always had: why does Larkin speak to me so clearly when in life and belief we share so little?

A point, for any reader who doesn't know Larkin (or Bennett too, for that matter) is that he knew what he didn't have: his mate Kingsley Amis was the same.

Non-belief is as multifaceted as belief: is it a parallel spectrum or part of the same spectrum?

(Moretben, Philip Larkin and Alan Bennett was a trio I had never thought of before. It feels like a meme: connect three people, two of whom are obvious connectees; over to you.)

Hilary said...

An interesting observation from the dying father of a friend of mine. He said that his greatest suffering was watching himself disappear as a personality. He said in one of his periods of lucidity, that he could see himself, as if from the outside, forgetting and being unable to place faces, and drifting mentally. Of course, what it seems to imply is that there is an intelligence, perhaps qualitatively different from mere material intelligence, that was doing the observing. He was still who he was, watching himself deteriorate. There was someone there.

The great Anne Roche Muggeridge, authoress of one of the best examinations of the collapse of the Church, resides now in a state of dementia that requires enormous amounts of drugs to control. She is hospitalized and incapacitated. And yet, when I visited her with her husband John, it was perfectly clear that I was meeting a person, not seeing an object.

We prayed the Rosary with her, and were not sure if she could understand what we were doing. At the end of it, though, she made the sign of the cross.

There is someone there, even without a personality. There is more to personhood than we imagine, and thank God, for we can imagine so little.

Hilary said...

Actually, I used to talk with John a great deal about Anne and her spiritual condition. We agreed that it was more than possible that she was existing in a state of living purgatory, and that she had likely given her consent to God for this condition. She knew something terrible was happening to her, long before her condition became acute and she needed to be hospitalized. She was enough a Catholic to know that she would be better off doing her Purgatory on earth in life. Consent to the suffering that we can't escape, consent for a particular purpose (even if that purpose is only to live in a state of obedience to the will of God) is probably one of the highest graces. I fear even being asked such a thing.

Jonathan said...

You've put my feelings into words (I've watched my father-in-law go this route, dying a couple of months ago, and am now seeing my father embark on it).

This is horribly tentative, and doesn't necessarily lead anywhere, but I'll throw it out just in case.

Does 'soul' = 'personality'? I'm by no means properly acquainted with St Thomas's 'take' on this, but I'm not sure they're the same thing, or even that the personality is, so to speak, a direct outcropping of the soul.

But I'm not sure where to go from there.

Sue Sims said...

Just realised that I posted in the (default) persona of my son, who normally uses this machine. I'm not Jonathan, and if you go to his site, you won't find it terribly edifying!

Anonymous said...

"Life is first boredom then fear". I suppose that Faith at least mitigates the latter. But, oh yes, boredom, the bindweed of middle age.

Mr Bleaney