Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Memories of the Movies

Not quite that long ago, but not far off it...

The first film I saw in the cinema was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, in 1984. I was six years old. I remember that I wanted to see Star Trek: The Search for Spock. My parents told me that it was "all talk", and that I would find it boring. Even all these years later, I feel a mild pang of regret about this. Movies can’t have too much dialogue for my liking. However, they were probably right. All that earnest talk of phasers and warp speed would doubtless have been over the head of a six-year-old.

We went to see it in the Savoy in Dublin's O'Connell Street. I can very vividly remember glimpsing “the silver screen” for the first time. As John Keats might have described the moment : “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, when some new planet swims into his ken…” The screen was already alight with images, as a previous screening of the movie was coming to an end.

I can legitimately say that my first movie had me on the edge of my seat—literally. I didn’t realize that the seat folded down, and I spent that time sitting on its upturned edge. I was spared the embarrassment of anybody noticing—eventually, I worked it out for myself.

I'm surprised at how clearly I can remember the movie, in which the adventurous archaeologist falls into the clutches of an Indian cult which practices human sacrifice. A scene in which all the characters are hanging from a rope bridge is particularly vivid. Although Temple of Doom was a PG film, it got criticized for its darkness and violence. I wasn't in the slightest bit scared or traumatised, however. I was in raptures!

I'm sure that, whatever film we’d gone to see, my reaction would have been the same. The cinema was an experience unlike any I’d had before. The screen was so big, the theatre was so dark, the decor of the cinema was so plush and elegant, that I was awe-struck . Going to the movies was a bigger experience than any I'd ever had before, and somehow it made life itself seem more exciting. The world never looks more promising than it looks through the window of a cinema screen.

I encountered Indiana Jones again when I was twelve, this time in The Last Crusade, but I hardly remember it. Nostalgia is an unpredictable thing. Despite his major role in my early cinema trips, the name “Indiana Jones” doesn’t conjure up the slightest glimmering of nostalgia in me.

Around the same time, I went to see a cinema release which was surrounded by more hype than any other piece of entertainment I can remember. This was the first Batman movie starring Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. Although I remember enjoying the movie, the thing I recall most vividly is the sight of a life-size cardboard Batman in the lobby.

When it came to movies, I was quite a connoisseur even at a young age. Since my brother was a fan of the Biggles books, which featured an English flying ace, we all went to see the movie version. Even at nine years old, I knew it was terrible! In an effort to make the old-fashioned stories more modern, time travel and a rock soundtrack were added. Critics, audiences, and one little boy in Dublin were all equally unimpressed.

No such reservations applied to Young Sherlock Holmes, a movie which imagined Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson meeting as teenagers. This boasted the first computer-generated character in screen history—during a hallucination scene, a stained glass knight leaps from a church window and attacks an unfortunate cleric. But it was the strong script and the cosy Victorian visuals that impressed me most. This trip to the cinema was also memorable because me and my brother should have been in school—but my mother, resigned to the fact that we’d played truant, brought us to the cinema instead! I’m sure I gained more from that day out than I would have from my classes, anyway.

The magic of the movies extended beyond the walls of the cinema itself. I remember how avidly I used to follow the cinema listings in the Evening Herald. The chick-flick Dirty Dancing seemed to dominate them for weeks and weeks, and I imagined it must be the biggest blockbuster of all time. I’d never heard of Gone with the Wind, which still holds the record for most cinema tickets ever sold.

I was enthralled to hear second-hand accounts of trips to the movies, too. A family acquaintance told me that she’d fallen asleep in the cinema—watching Batman, as it happened. I was scandalized. How could anyone waste a moment of a trip to the movie? And I must say, all these years and hundreds of cinema trips later, I’ve never once fallen asleep at a movie—even when the film deserved it!

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Fears of an Eighties Kid

I've started reading Lord of the Rings again. It's a book I've read at least twice in my life-- once when I was very young (perhaps as young as seven), and again in adulthood. Despite this, I don't remember the details of the plot that well-- not all of it, at any rate.

I'm very familiar with the opening chapters, though. I read the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring again and again in my childhood. The second chapter, "The Shadow of the Past"-- the exposition-heavy chapter where the wizard Gandalf explains to the protagonist Frodo the true nature (and peril) of the magic ring he has inherited-- has always been one of my favourite passages of fiction. The scene is set in a cosy front room on a sunny morning, but Frodo is chilled to the soul by Gandalf's story. "Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark coud rising in the East, and looming up to engulf him."

Reading those lines brought me back to my childhood, and the fears of my childhood.

It was one memory in particular that sent me into this reverie. I used to visit the farm-house of my aunt Kitty (RIP), who lived in county Limerick in the south-west of Ireland, for my summer holidays. She was an avid reader of trashy magazines and tabloid newspapers, and I gorged on them when I visited her.

One morning, reading such a tabloid, I came across a report that an experimental laboratory had somehow managed to mix cancer with a virus. The newspaper report suggested it was only a matter of time before this virus escaped from the laboratory and became a pandemic. I remember standing under the eaves of the house, after reading this, and being gripped by fear. Even then, I was conscious of the contrast between my bucolic surroundings-- a quiet farm on a summer's morning-- and the apocalypse I was imagining. It was very similar to the contrast between Frodo's cosy home and Gandalf's terrifying tale.

Young as I was, I knew that tabloids were sensationalist, so it didn't take me long to get over this scare. But something about my aunt's farm seemed very conducive to getting the spooks. It happened on many other occasions.

On another occasion, I'd read a story about Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. According to the story, Jackson's "spiritual advisor" had warned him that he was putting his soul at risk by playing with demonic forces. The magazine showed a large colour still from the music video, which was undoubtedly creepy. Again, I have a vivid memory of standing outside the house on a sunny morning and getting a cold blast of "daylight horror".

My aunt and uncle told me a story (true, for all I know) that an old man's face had been seen in the wallpaper of the bedroom in which myself, my brother, and my mother were sleeping. The way I interpreted this was that, upon staring into the wallpaper, the pattern "resolved itself" into an image of the old man-- much as you suddenly "see" a hidden image in a visual riddle. Somehow, this seemed much creepier to me than the other interpretation (which only occurred to me years later)-- that a photographic image simply superimposed itself over the wallpaper. I avoided looking at the wallpaper.

My biggest Limerick scare came upon reading an article about the Third Secret of Fatima- I think it was in Ireland's Eye magazine. The article suggested that the Third Secret of Fatima predicted the end of the world, and that it was going to happen in 1992-- the very year in which I read the article.

I remember lying awake that night and waiting for the bombs to fall. We were going to return to Dublin the next day. I desperately wanted to get back to Dublin, as I knew the fear of apocalypse would seem silly there. But in the silence and darkness of the Limerick countryside, it felt very believable.

Nuclear war was a terror which haunted my childhood and early teens. Doubtless every eighties child experienced this, to some degree or other. Somewhere I encountered the claim that, in the event of a nuclear attack, the first thing that would happen would be a black-out. Every time there was a power-cut, I was terrified it was the precursor to a nuclear attack.

My fear reached its height on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War. I was thirteen years old. Some sadistic adult had told me that, if the Americans attacked Iraq, "You can put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye". I can vividly remember the newsflash in which the invasion was announced. It came during a football broadcast, and the first image was an American soldier in silhouette.

That night, I lay awake until morning reading David Copperfield for the first time. "This world was so wonderful for so many centuries", I kept thinking, as I read. (Even the adversities of David Copperfield's early life seemed gloriously romantic, compared to the imminent apocalypse.) "Why are we going to destroy it all? How did it ever come to this?".

When the bombs didn't fall the first night, my fears quickly evaporated.

(I can barely imagine the terror that the recent false alarm in Hawaii must have created.)

I had many dreams about the announcement of a nuclear attack on television. The sheer inevitability of the thing was the greatest horror-- there would be no chance of escape, not even an outside chance. It would jut be a matter of waiting to be incinerated. I often had nightmares which ended with the bombs visible outside my window.

I wonder how many of my readers have seen "A Little Bit of Peace and Quiet", the eighties-era Twilight Zone episode in which a housewife comes into possession of a medallion which can freeze time? Spoiler alert....in the final moments of the episode, she freezes time just as a nuclear missile is about to hit her town. To me, that was blood-curdlingly terrifying, too terrifying for fiction.

It wasn't only nuclear war that petrified us in the eighties, of course. It was also AIDS. (Back then, the name of the dread disease was always rendered in capitals.)

I was only really beginning to learn about sex when AIDS came on the scene. I remember reading that it affected both homosexuals and heterosexuals, and I had no idea what those words meant-- I assumed that a heterosexual was someone who slept around, and that a homosexual was someone who only had sex with a single partner. I think this was a pretty good guess, in retrospect.

I can remember one Irish current affairs show in which a panel and a studio audience were all discussing AIDS. It gave me a sense of crisis, of something enormous unfolding, a civilizational threat.

The real horror of AIDS was that one single drop of HIV-infected blood was a death sentence. I spent a long time thinking about this. I remember wondering whether, if one were pricked in the hand with a HIV-infected needle, one would have time to chop one's own arm off in order to stop the spread of the virus through the bloodstream.

I envisioned a future where the vast majority of people were HIV-infected. It seemed inevitable. The public information campaigns did a good job of explaining that you couldn't catch it from kissing or from toilet seats-- but how many other ways that seemed to leave! And besides, could you really trust such assurances?

In sixth class (when I was twelve), I heard the urban legend of AIDS Mary-- the woman who leaves the grisly message "Welcome to the world of AIDS" for someone she has infected. In the version I heard, I'm pretty sure it was some kind of infected booby-trap rather than a sexual encounter. But I'm pretty sure I heard it in the presence of our teacher, and I don't remember him dismissing it.

This ad (which was broadcast in Britain, but we got the British TV stations) only made the disease more terrifying. It still gives me the shivers. What were they thinking?

I can't remember worrying much about the hole in the ozone layer, which was the ecological scare of my childhood. This despite the fact that my teacher in fifth and sixth class (when I was eleven and twelve) was something of a hippie, and wrote a school play dedicated to the subject-- a musical, as a matter of fact. I was one of the extras. The narrative shifted between the present and the future, and the extras (who appeared in the future scenes) were a chorus of zombie-like creatures who were all dying of skin cancer from the sun's ultraviolet rays...or something like that. It was a grim production, but it won us first prize in an inter-school drama competition. I don't remember being in the slightest bit bothered by its subject matter. Was I sceptical, or did it just seem too far away in the future to worry about? I'm not sure.

Not all my fears were naturalistic. One evening, sitting in a field with a group of local kids and listening to them tell scary stories, I heard that Satan himself could be summoned if you said the Lord's Prayer backwards. I lay in bed that night desperately trying not to say the Lord's Prayer backwards, but my mind kept forming the first few syllables nonetheless. I despaired at the thought of going through life without ever thinking my way through the whole thing, in spite of myself.

Did I really believe that this would summon the Devil? I don't think so. I was in my early teens at this stage. But fear is a strange and perverse thing.

Much earlier, in my childhood, I can remember looking at a pile of stuff which had been covered with black plastic, in our hall, and knowing that there was nothing underneath. But I was still scared that there was.

In my first year of secondary school, when I was thirteen, I heard one boy tell another boy (as we were changing back into our clothes after P.E., or gym class) that deep-sea divers excavating the wreck of the Titanic had seen these words written on its hull: LEAVE US IN OUR WATERY GRAVE. I can remember feeling a physical chill as I walked home that afternoon...but it was a rather pleasant one.

There are so many other childhood fears I could mention. The strange thing is that I remember most of them fondly...in retrospect, they were quite exciting and enjoyable. Perhaps the night reading David Copperfield and waiting for a nuclear attack was an exception.

Did my irrational fears end in my teens? Well, apart from phobias, they pretty much did. The last real irrational scare I experienced was when I went to see The Ring (the American remake) in 2002, in the Savoy cinema in Dublin's O'Connell Street. As most of my readers may know, this movie concerns an enigmatic video which, once it's viewed, causes the viewer to die within seven days. I remember walking out of the cinema thinking: "I wish I hadn't seen that", and lying awake that night in genuine fear.

But that was the last time my imagination terrified me. Ever since then, it's been prosaic fears!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Plurality by Louis Macneice

This poem is copyright of Louis Macneice's literary estate....therefore I am taking a bit of a risk reproducing it here. But I can't believe I'm taking the bread from anybody's mouth, especially as it is freely available elsewhere on the internet. Of course, I'll take it down if anyone from the Macneice estate asks me to do so.

Before I came to believe in God, my view of the world was very similar to Macneice's warm but fatalistic humanism. Although I believed humanity was an accidental by-product of meaningless cosmic forces, I still believed the human race was noble and admirable. Life was absurd, but in facing up to that absurdity and asserting our humanity in spite of it, we could find meaning. Macneice's image of the bird in flight, as a symbol of the "eternal" (so to speak) in the momentary, was the closest I could come to a belief in eternity.

Now that I'm a religious believer, I still identity with Macneice's worldview in many ways. I've never ceased to consider myself a humanist. I've never accepted that we should cede that word to the atheists.

Parmenides (as you may well know already) was a pre-Socratic philosopher who believed that time and change were illusory, and that only the Absolute really existed. In this he was the opposite of Heraclitus, who believed that only the flux existed.

(Heraclitus and Parmenides were talking about metaphysics. Admittedly, when we draw on those metaphysics for social and cultural analogies, we're departing from the realm of philosophy, and we may be taking their names in vain. I'm going to do this, anyway, as I feel it's in the spirit of the poem.)

Heraclitus's philosophy is quite at home in our modern world, where the denial of any essence (be it nation, gender or personhood itself) is common. One of the reasons the symbol of a snow globe is so important to me is because it symbolizes permanence and essence.

Parmenides would seem to be much less relevant to our time. And yet I find myself coming back to this poem (which might as well have been called "Against Parmenides") again and again, and cherishing its defence of change, seasonality, and the particular. It's easy to identify the Heracliteans of our age. It's a lot harder to identify the Parmenidesians..There's Eastern religion, of course-- presumably everybody now knows the joke about the Buddhist monk who asks the hot dog vendor to "Make me one with everything". Buddhists and Hindus, as far as I understand them, both want to escape from the illusion of personal identity and merge with the Absolute. That sounds like death to me.

But I don't think the Parmenidesians in our midst are quite so philosophical or high-flown. I think the reference to the "dead-white universal" is significant here. A drab universalism is typical of our age. Nothing is special or to be loved in itself....everything is equal...everything is ultimately the same. Even something like the Good Friday licensing laws in Ireland must be torn down, because one day of the year cannot have a special character...men and women cannot have distinct privileges or responsibilities...and so on.

Ultimately, don't Heraclitus and Parmenides leave us in the same limbo? There is only the flux, or there is only the Absolute. Change is everything, or change is illusory. But, in both cases, anything separate or discrete or special loses its reality.

I've put my favourite passages in bold. I can't read the closing lines of this poem without breaking into tears. "A species grown rich by seeing things as wrong and patching them, to which I am proud that I belong". Indeed!

It is patent to the eye that cannot face the sun
The smug philosophers lie who say the world is one;
World is other and other, world is here and there,
Parmenides would smother life for lack of air
Precluding birth and death; his crystal never breaks—
No movement and no breath, no progress nor mistakes,
Nothing begins or ends, no one loves or fights,
All your foes are friends and all your days are nights
And all the roads lead round and are not roads at all
And the soul is muscle-bound, the world a wooden ball.

The modern monist too castrates, negates our lives
And nothing that we do, make or become survives,
His terror of confusion freezes the flowing stream
Into mere illusion, his craving for supreme
Completeness means be chokes each orifice with tight
Plaster as he evokes a dead ideal of white
All-white Universal, refusing to allow
Division or dispersal—Eternity is now
And Now is therefore numb, a fact he does not see
Postulating a dumb static identity
Of Essence and Existence which could not fuse without
Banishing to a distance belief along with doubt,
Action along with error, growth along with gaps;
If man is a mere mirror of God, the gods collapse.
No, the formula fails that fails to make it clear
That only change prevails, that the seasons make the year,
That a thing, a beast, a man is what it is because
It is something that began and is not what it was,
Yet is itself throughout, fluttering and unfurled,
Not to be cancelled out, not to be merged in world,

Its entity a denial of all that is not it,
Its every move a trial through chaos and the Pit,
An absolute and so defiant of the One
Absolute, the row of noughts where time is done,
Where nothing goes or comes and Is is one with Ought
And all the possible sums alike resolve to nought.
World is not like that, world is full of blind
Gulfs across the flat, jags against the mind,
Swollen or diminished according to the dice,
Foaming, never finished, never the same twice.

You talk of Ultimate Value, Universal Form—
Visions, let me tell you, that ride upon the storm
And must be made and sought but cannot be maintained,
Lost as soon as caught, always to be regained,
Mainspring of our striving towards perfection, yet
Would not be worth achieving if the world were set
Fair, if error and choice did not exist, if dumb
World should find its voice for good and God become
Incarnate once for all. No, perfection means
Something but must fall unless there intervenes
Between that meaning and the matter it should fill
Time’s revolving hand that never can be still.
Which being so and life a ferment, you and I
Can only live by strife in that the living die,
And, if we use the word Eternal, stake a claim
Only to what a bird can find within the frame
Of momentary flight (the value will persist
But as event the night sweeps it away in mist).
Man is man because he might have been a beast
And is not what he was and feels himself increased,
Man is man in as much as he is not god and yet
Hankers to see and touch the pantheon and forget
The means within the end and man is truly man
In that he would transcend and flout the human span:
A species become rich by seeing things as wrong
And patching them, to which I am proud that I belong.
Man is surely mad with discontent, he is hurled
By lovely hopes or bad dreams against the world,
Raising a frail scaffold in never-ending flux,
Stubbornly when baffled fumbling the stubborn crux
And so he must continue, raiding the abyss
With aching bone and sinew, conscious of things amiss,
Conscious of guilt and vast inadequacy and the sick
Ego and the broken past and the clock that goes too quick,
Conscious of waste of labour, conscious of spite and hate,
Of dissension with his neighbour, of beggars at the gate,
But conscious also of love and the joy of things and the power
Of going beyond and above the limits of the lagging hour,
Conscious of sunlight, conscious of death’s inveigling touch,
Not completely conscious but partly—and that is much.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Endeavour and Repose

“Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond all words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on quests and fight lost causes. And neither thing, neither the quiet home life nor the perilous adventure, has ever brought me any content.”

P.H. Pearse, unfinished autobiography

I recently announced that I intended to write fewer idiosyncratic blog posts. Well, that is my intention, but I'm going to set it aside right now. This is going to be one of my most introspective pieces. Perhaps my regular readers especially enjoy those....I'm not sure. Anyway, here goes.

I've been pondering on idylls of repose and security, as well as their opposites-- idylls of endeavour, exertion and risk. It's extraordinary how powerfully both of these idylls speak to my imagination, and also (I believe) to the collective imagination of humankind. 

Take a look at this image:

Now look at this image:

Don't these two images pretty much sum up the gospel story? Perhaps the image of Christ on the cross is more iconic than the image of Christ carrying the cross. But I think the Crucifixion is also an image of exertion and strain. Apparently, victims of crucifixion have to continually push their bodies upwards in order to breathe. Our Lord, it seems, would have been struggling on the Cross, rather than immobile. But even aside from that, the pain and humiliation of the Crucifixion is certainly at the opposite end of a spectrum to the serenity and security of the Nativity.

For as long as I can remember, my imagination has been beguiled by the thought of perfect safety on the one hand, and of the utmost adversity on the other. (I don't know what other word to use than "adversity"-- "danger" doesn't seem to fit, neither does "exertion", although the atmosphere I'm evoking includes all of them. I hope the idea will become clearer as I go along.)

I'm not the first writer to ponder the duality of these two themes. It seems to pervade the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson, as I will show with reference to a couple of his mots famous poems. Ulysses and the Siren by Samuel Daniel is another poem which dramatizes the opposition between struggle and repose.

This whole theme came into my mind because I've been haunted, over the last few months, by a line from Edgar Allen Poe's poem "To Helen" which I've put in bold:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

As the reader will notice, the duality of delicious safety and thrilling peril is present in this very poem. (I think this is one of the greatest poems ever written.) The last three lines of the first verse express, as well as any words ever written, the bliss of gaining sanctuary and refuge after storm and strife. The reader of the poem can vividly imagine the gentle lapping of the waves carrying him home.

The line "on desperate seas long wont to roam" excites me more than any other line of poetry in the English language, with the exception of only one: "The wild fingers of fire are making corruption clean" from Laurence Binyon's "Burning of the Leaves". I would put them on a par with each other, as my joint favourite lines of poetry.

In fact, "On desperate seas long wont to roam" combines the poetry of peril and the poetry of repose in a single line, since the desperate seas are being seen in retrospect.

I've been repeating this line to myself, over and over, for months now. It gives me a hunger for stormy waters. Whenever I'm facing some intimidating prospect, meditating on this line changes my perspective on it, so I actually relish rather than dread it-- or relish it and dread it!

However, I'm being carried away by my theme, rather like the narrator of Poe's poem being carried by the waves. So I'm going to be more methodical, and examine some images of repose and endeavour, respectively-- and how they've excited by own imagination.

First off, I'm going to take the example of repose, since that's the more challenging theme. It's easy to admit to a thirst for adventure, but less easy to admit to a thirst for safety.

And yet, I will readily admit that I have felt this all my life-- a deep yearning for safety, for shelter, for repose, for seclusion. I find this idea, not only pleasant, but actually thrilling.

I've had a vast number of fantasies on this theme, from my childhood onwards. Perhaps my favourite was the fantasy that I was the master of a huge network of underground tunnels and caverns. I knew my way around this network, but nobody else did. Nobody could find me there; I could easily escape from anyone pursuing me. I used to fantasize about this at the age of ten or eleven.

Another favourite fantasy is that I'm aboard a space station orbiting the earth, or somewhere in outer space. I'm either alone on this space station, or accompanied by a completely trusted crew (though they are out of sight). In these fantasies (all my fantasies are vague rather than vivid), I'm usually monitoring what's happening on the earth, or in the space around my station, on a bank of video monitors, while being delicious invulnerable myself.

in my childhood, I also fantasized about being the Dark Lord Sauron in the Lord of the Rings books. It wasn't that I wanted to be evil. It was rather that I liked the idea of Sauron sitting "on his dark throne", and sending his minions out across Middle Earth to do his bidding. Sauron was the unseen primary antagonist, and that gave him a much greater air of mystery and dark glamour than any of the other characters.

For the same reason, I admired Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes stories. I remember being incredibly excited by these words in "The Last Problem" (the story where Sherlock Holmes was killed off before being resurrected in a later story). They might have excited me more than any piece of prose, before or since:

He is the Napoleon of Crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows every quiver of each of them.”

In my early teens, I discovered poetry. One of the poems I fell in love with, and one that is very relevant here, was "The Chorus of the Lotos Eaters" by Lord Alfred Tennyson. As I've mentioned already, the conflict between the contemplative life and the active life was a central theme in Tennyson's work, and is frequently highlighted in Tennyson criticism.

In "The Lotos Eaters" (of which the "Chorus" is a part), some of Ulysses's retinue returning from the Trojan War are urged to remain on an island by its inhabitants, who eat the lotos flower and thus remain perpetually drugged. The poem is a wonderful evocation of safety, refuge, escape, the dream-world, and sleep.

The poetry of languor has never been expressed better than in this poem. I'm tempted to quote it all, but I will merely quote the opening lines:

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass,
Or night-dews on still waters between walls
Of shadowy granite, in a gleaming pass;
Music that gentlier on the spirit lies,
Than tir'd eyelids upon tir'd eyes;
Music that brings sweet sleep down from the blissful skies.
Here are cool mosses deep,
And thro' the moss the ivies creep,
And in the stream the long-leaved flowers weep,
And from the craggy ledge the poppy hangs in sleep.

At the time I discovered this poem, I was continually fatigued and sleepy. I was about thirteen years old. I don't know whether it was the physical changes of puberty, or whether it was the fact that I wasn't getting enough sleep, but I kept struggling to stay awake in class. The lines

Music that gentlier on the spirit lies
Than tired eyelids upon tired eyes

spoke to my depths. They actually made me feel even sleepier than I was already. I had a recurring fantasy, at this time, of simply walking (magically unnoticed) out of a class-room during a lesson, stepping into the class-room next door, and sinking into a four-poster bed with silk sheets which happened to be there, waiting for me.

I've said that nobody ever expressed the poetry of languor better than Tennyson. Perhaps not, but Algernon Charles Swinburne comes pretty close in his "Garden of Proserpine":

Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds' and spent waves' riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams;
I watch the green field growing
For reaping folk and sowing,
For harvest-time and mowing,
A sleepy world of streams.

I am tired of tears and laughter,
And men that laugh and weep;
Of what may come hereafter
For men that sow to reap:
I am weary of days and hours,
Blown buds of barren flowers,
Desires and dreams and powers
And everything but sleep. 


From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

The typically Swinburnian flourish brings us to another aspect of this languor, this desire for perfect repose. In it strongest forms, it is very close to a death-wish, to the fantasy of the ultimate peace and the ultimate escape. Quite surprisingly, this desire was put into very eloquent words by the poet Philip Larkin, who is well-known for his fear of death:

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flag-staff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes away from death -
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.

If this seems grim, it might be borne in mind that the fantasy of death is rather different from the reality of death. The fantasy of death is to "pass upon the midnight with no pain", perhaps not so much into oblivion (to say nothing of the afterlife) as into some idealized dream-state.

Dreams, indeed, are another form that this yearning for perfect seclusion and refuge might take; or, more accurately, the idea of dreams rather than the reality of dreams, since dreams themselves are often anything but a refuge.

On this blog, I've often mentioned my love of Prospero's "Such things are dreams are made on" soliloquy, from The Tempest. The first time I read that speech-- in a bookshop, as it happened-- I was overwhelmed by the most delicious and dizzy sensation, as though I was floating, or as though the entire world was lighter than air:

Our revels now are ended. 
These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 
Are melted into air, into thin air: 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. 
We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.

Dreams are a sanctuary like none other, because they are utterly private and inaccessible. Indeed, the same thing could be said of all our thoughts. Consciousness is the ultimate sanctum, and no surveillance or embarrassment or political correctness can penetrate it.

I'll make one final observation about my fantasies of safety. They always involved some antagonist, some outside force, which was unsuccessfully seeking to "get to" me in some way. Indeed, I enjoyed the idea of hiding from my enemies, and of having enemies to hide from. And this seems typical of the idyll of security. For instance, the impotent malice of Herod lies over the Nativity scene itself. In a less dramatic key, the very notion of cosiness always seems strengthened by stormy weather outside, or some other adversity which unsuccessfully assails us.

So much for security. What about adversity, exertion, strain, risk?

Well, this fascination seems less difficult to explain, since it's the basis of every adventure movie, every computer game, and almost every piece of fiction ever written.

In my own case, the Easter Rising of 1916 may be the tale of heroism which had the biggest influence on my worldview. At the back of my mind, always, this story lingers; a small "band of brothers" make a stand against an overwhelming force, encounter little but derision from the public, put up a heroic fight, suffer a glorious defeat, and are ultimately seen to have achieved a moral victory, or at least to have passed a torch on to another generation. Perhaps this is why I feel so much at home in an embattled minority, or fighting a losing battle.

Ireland's participation in the 1990 soccer World Cup in Italy also watermarked my imagination. This event was significant to me in so many ways; my memories before the 1990 World Cup are fragmentary, while afterwards they are more continuous. The sense of national togetherness which gripped the Republic during the World Cup (we had never qualified before) has remained my ideal of national life ever since. This is the first time I saw that a nation could be like one extended family, or at least seem like one.

But it was the action on the pitch which is most relevant to this post. I was impressed at the way the games were replayed and analysed, over and over, on television. It's very similar to the way the 1916 Rising is "replayed" over and over in folklore, ballads, and historical writing. Such events seem to happen in a thicker, more concentrated, more vivid reality than the rest of life. Or even in a different stream of time-- we might call it mythical time.

The visual spectacle also had much to recommend it. The athletic male body straining with effort is a glorious sight. I realize that making such a statement might put me under suspicion of homoeroticism. I can only hope my readers are above such an interpretation. I specify the male body because the female body, although aesthetically superior in almost every other way, doesn't seem to have quite the same lyricism in this way. I read a lot of soccer magazines in my teens, and the photographs of soccer players frozen in action have lingered in my imagination as sublime embodiments of endeavour, of a man facing his adversaries and pushing himself to his limit (I won't add "and beyond", because that doesn't mean anything).

An important aspect of the 1990 World Cup was that it was held in Italy-- that is, abroad. Such moments of destiny seem best encountered in a strange land. The Iliad (a story which has had a profound influence on all of us, directly or indirectly) seems the perfect example of this. The Greek heroes went to Troy. Their defining drama happened in a strange and hostile place. It's as though a person only becomes fully themselves, and can be seen most clearly, when they are illuminated by the flames of war in enemy territory.

The combat, of course, can be rhetorical rather than physical. The same atmosphere is created by debates, whether they are formal events in a lecture theatre, or debates that are dispersed over time and place. One of the reasons I dislike the vogue for "dialogue" is that it denies us one of life's great pleasures-- that is, adversarial debate. (I hasten to add that "adversarial" doesn't have to mean bitter, angry, no-holds-barred, or all-or-nothing. Adversarial debate doesn't have to be any of those things. It can be perfectly civil, even cordial. An adversary doesn't have to be a hated enemy.)

The analogy between the 1990 World Cup (and the 1994 World Cup in America, for which Ireland also qualified) and the Iliad is a rather close one. The Irish players going to Italy would have all played for different clubs (mostly in the UK), and would have all played against each other, but were now united against a common foe-- just as the Greek heroes sailing to Troy would have been from different (and often warring) polities. The same is often true in debates; for instance, various "camps" of Catholics are united when it comes to a debate with atheists or secularists or Protestants.

In mentioning this, I'm not making some trite point about unity. (After all, such logic carried to its extreme would mean we should all be united all the time.) I'm, interested, rather, in the curious new perspective afforded by facing a common foe, and afforded also by seeing familiar figures in an entirely new setting. I'm reminded of a passage I came across as a child, in an intriguing kids' novel called The Coat-Hanger Christmas Tree:

Suddenly she felt she didn't know her mother at all. She felt the way she had once when, not expecting to see her, she came upon her in the museum the day Marianna's class was visiting. That time she had had this same funny feeling of knowing, yet not knowing her mother. Her heart had pounded. She didn't want to speak to her. She had pretended she had not seen her. She was awfully familiar and awfully strange at the same time..just like now, when Marianna had learned for the first time that her grandmother had died on Christmas Eve.

That experience, of seeing somebody familiar in an unfamiliar context, is both distinctive and (I believe) profoundly significant. It's almost as though we are seeing the person for the first time. They seem, at one and the same time, smaller and more precious.

And the same thing applies to our own selves. The old chestnut about a backpacker going off to "find himself" in India or Tibet or the Australian Outback is not completely ridiculous. The paradox is that, for all the lure of security and solitude and familiarity, we really have to venture into the unknown to encounter our deepest selves. Our own outline is sharpened against the strange backdrop.

We can see examples of this in intellectual history-- for instance, the history of Christianity. Catholic doctrine became more itself, more sharply defined, as it encountered Greek philosophy, gnosticism, Arianism, Protestantism, rationalism, and so forth. To call all of these encounters "dialogue"would be ridiculous, but that's rather beside the point.

When it comes to the poetry of adventure, let me once again turn to Tennyson. His poem "Ulysses" is one of my favourites, and one I've often discussed on this blog. I particularly love this passage (note, again, that it's adventure and adversity seen in retrospect):

I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

I'm also greatly moved by St. Paul's words in the Second Letter to the Corinthians:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

It isn't just adventure and danger which belong to this part of the discussion. I'm similarly excited by adversity and opposition. Being a life-long contrarian, I've always been exhilarated by the spectacle of (almost) anybody going against the stream, braving ridicule and stigmatization and hostility. (With this caveat: that they should be really going against the stream, and not only in a superficial and relative way. For instance, when the Russian feminist band Pussy Riot desecrated a cathedral, they weren't really going against the stream, even if public opinion in Russia was outraged and even if some of them were jailed for it. In international terms, they were emphatically going with the stream. The same principle applies in the case of some left-wing priest outraging his parishioners or his religious superiors, but winning adulation in the media. Well, you get the picture.)

The spectacle of somebody going against the stream is not only exhilarating, but strikes me as world-creating, world-preserving. The world is a bigger place because somebody has made a stand, because someone has defied some effort to contract it. The contrarian holds the sky aloft.

This is why, even though I find the idea of safety thrilling, I'm just as thrilled by the idea of going deep into enemy territory. (The very phrase "deep into enemy territory" delights me.) I can't really understand someone who wants to escape to an enclave of traditionalism. In terms of the Irish situation, I would find no pleasure in going to live in some thatched cottage in an obscure village, where everybody went to Mass and perhaps even spoke Irish. That seems to me no more than a hold-out, a retreat, hiding in the last pools of tradition before they also dry up. (If, on the other hand, a new community was to be formed from devout Catholics and/or Irish speakers, especially in the very depth of modern suburbia, that would be something quite different...)

In any case, I enjoy being in enemy territory. I love arguing with everybody in the room, when it comes to a matter of principle or belief. I wouldn't do it simply for the sake of it, but-- luckily-- that's never been necessary, since I've generally found myself in that position spontaneously.

The phrase "in at the deep end" is one I find tremendously evocative, as is "cast out into the deep" (Luke 5:4), a phrase St. John Paul II often quoted in discussing the New Evangelization.

And I love reading about other people who've gone against the stream in their own day...for instance, Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and Christian convert who died in 1990. Or Mary Whitehouse, a British campaigner against smut and graphic violence on TV, who was utterly excoriated by the liberal media. Or even my own father, who campaigned against Ireland's entrance into the European Economic Community in 1973. I enjoy listening to first-hand accounts of battles of the past-- especially losing battles.

Finally, in terms of the atmosphere I'm trying to describe here, I should mention exertion, industry, effort. This stirs my imagination primarily in the case of some creative endeavour. To take one example, I'm tremendously impressed by writers such as Isaac Asimov (or G.K. Chesterton) who were incredibly prolific, and who produced a massive corpus of work.

And so...

Having said all that, how do I finish? Having described these twin fascinations, I'm reluctant to drum up some kind of final message to leave you with. After all, I'm not trying to point a moral. I'm simply trying to paint two atmospheres which I find endlessly compelling. I suspect that others also find them compelling, given how often they feature in human culture. To come down on either side, or to try to reduce them to some sort of synthesis, would be both anti-climactic and insincere. If none of this means anything to you, you are doubtless bewildered; but I hope that, in some breasts at least, I have sprung an echo.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thank you!

Thanks to the reader who went me the picture calendar. Very much appreciated and a lovely surprise. Thank you!

It's always nice when people send me things, but I'd hate to think anyone ever felt obliged to dig into their pockets...I'm very appreciative that people read the blog, comment, pray, etc. 

This year I'm planning to try to make the blog a bit less idiosyncratic and hopefully a bit more solid, with more researched and informative articles, on the subject of Irish Catholicism. I might try to push it more on Facebook and Twitter. So sharing there, or elsewhere, would be appreciated.

I have another article coming out in Ireland's Own soon, about C.S. Lewis. The editor said it would come out at the earliest opportunity in a monthly issue (as opposed to a weekly issue). That would be my third article in Ireland's Own, which pleases me.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Sale-of-Work

On several occasions, I've obliquely mentioned a sale-of-work that I attended in my childhood and its significance to me, without explaining what that significance actually was. It's even become a bit of a running joke (to me, if to nobody else). Well, today is the day....it's been a while since I wrote a proper post on this blog, and now in the fading embers of Christmas, it seems like a good time to get back into it. And this seems as good a subject as any.

I'm assuming everybody knows the term "sale-of-work"....lots of other terms are used for the same thing. Jumble sale (probably my favourite), bazaar, bring-and-buy, and rummage sale are the ones I can think of right now. In fact, the sale of work I'm recollecting here was not called a sale-of-work at all, but rather a "margadh saothair", which is the literal Irish translation. The reason the Irish language term was used was because it was taking place in my school, which was an Irish language school.

It wasn't just one, actually. I can remember attending at least two, and perhaps more. 

Given my dislike of drawing things out for effect, I'm going to tell you straight out why I was so inspired by this sale-of-work. It was its informality. I was enthralled to see things being bought and sold outside the usual setting of shops, supermarkets and shopping centres. The absence of officialdom and bureaucracy thrilled me.

But "informality" doesn't really do it justice. Whatever is at the back of a child's delight in play, or indeed an adult's delight in play, was at the back of my delight in the jumble sale. After all, a child playing with a toy house or a toy car is not playing with it simply because he can't get his hands on a real one. The toy is not simply a substitute. The fact that the thing is a replica, a scaled-down version, is part of the pleasure. At least, that's how I remember it from my childhood...and indeed, it's how I feel today, contemplating something like a doll's house or a model ship. There is an inexplicable delight in seeing something recreated in another mode. Keith Waterhouse wrote an excellent article on a local "button fair" in which he makes the same point....the appeal of the button fair, he claims, was not the rides themselves (which were terrible) but the miniature replication of a cash economy using buttons.

And yet, my fascination with the sale-of-work goes even deeper than this delight in replication.

I think it boils down to the sociological distinction between Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), a distinction explained in this Wikipedia article. Another website explains the difference thus:

In the rural, peasant societies that typify the Gemeinschaft, personal relationships are defined and regulated on the basis of traditional social rules. People have simple and direct face-to-face relations with each other that are determined by Wesenwille (natural will)—i.e., natural and spontaneously arising emotions and expressions of sentiment.

The Gesellschaft, in contrast, is the creation of K├╝rwille (rational will) and is typified by modern, cosmopolitan societies with their government bureaucracies and large industrial organizations. In the Gesellschaft, rational self-interest and calculating conduct act to weaken the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and religion that permeate the Gemeinschaft’s structure. In the Gesellschaft, human relations are more impersonal and indirect, being rationally constructed in the interest of efficiency or other economic and political considerations.

I suppose that, if I'd grown up in a rural village, a school sale-of-work wouldn't have seemed any great matter to me. But growing up in a sprawling suburb of a capital city, where all public places were impersonal and rather daunting, made it seem a very great matter indeed. The intimate scale of the event, and the fact that most people knew each other, gave it a very different flavour to most events I'd ever attended.

And I think this may have been the source, or one of the sources, of my lifelong yearning for a society that is bound by ties of sentiment rather than ties of expediency. This is why I am a nationalist.

I can imagine somebody arguing that it's simply impossible to recreate the atmosphere of a village over an entire nation, that modern conditions don't allow for it, that our society has become impersonal and formalized by its very nature-- a supermarket rather than a sale-of-work.

But I'm simply not convinced of this. I can remember growing up at a time when Ireland remained basically a Catholic, nationalist country. It made a difference. At least, it made a difference to me. The starting-point of public discourse (by which I mean everything from a televised debate to a newspaper cartoon) was that tradition and community were things to be cherished, rather than a threat to one's individuality. I do honestly believe that a difference in perception, in imagination, can make a profound difference to everyday life.

Well, my discussion of the sale-of-work has been entirely abstract so far. I will turn to discussing the actual event, although I should warn the reader that there was nothing distinctive about this sale-of-work.

It was held mostly in the hall at the centre of the school. Stalls were ranged all around the sides of the hall. There was a wheel of fortune, which impressed me greatly. There were home-cooked goods. I think there was candy-floss, although I might be imagining that.

One year there was a bouncy-castle in a class-room, although this ended badly when one girl smashed her head against a corner where the ceiling turned upwards, and began to bleed profusely.

There was also a Santa's grotto in another classroom. A long tunnel draped in black plastic led to it. This excited me as I've always loved tunnels, corridors and passages of every sort. By this time, I was too old to visit Santa. In fact, I passed my childhood without ever paying a visit to Santa's grotto. I don't regret this-- I think I would have found it embarrassing, as I found most experiences back then. But it does make Santa's grotto somewhat exotic to me.

It was at this sale-of-work that I first learned the word "bargain". It was used by my cousin (whose mother is Filipino, incidentally). She told me she'd found lots of bargains. I understood from the context and filed it away mentally.

I manned one of the stalls temporarily. I was wearing a comically enormous pair of shades that I'd won as a spot prize. Some kid asked me where he could buy a pair. I was surprised at his implicit approval, because I was wearing them rather nervously, thinking I might be mocked for it.

I can remember some of the things I bought in the sale-of-work. I can remember a kind of model shop, which was little more than a rack. It was made my Bluebird. I can also remember buying a huge toy bull, upon whose back I could fit an extraordinary number of my action figures. Most of all, I remember a Transformers annual (or yearbook, as Americans might say). An "annual" is a special edition of a comic-book. This particular annual contained the story of the "Headmasters", a particular type of Transformer whose head detached and turned out to be another figure. The story of their origin (as related in the annual) began on the planet Nebulos, and I can remember it featured a parliament called the House of Peers. "Peer" was another word I'd never encountered before, but I took the wrong meaning from it-- I thought it meant noble or aristocrat. Well, I suppose it does, in some senses. Eventually my sister had to put me right.

Everything I acquired in the sale-of-work had a particular atmosphere attached to it, ever after-- I was acutely aware that it had belonged to somebody else before me, and that gave it a certain glamour. It was an early example of my fascination with the folk-life, with everything that is handed down, transmitted, passed along from hand to hand, or mouth to mouth, or soul to soul. Rather than decreasing a thing's value, that tends to increase it, in my eyes. Hence my traditionalism.

But you know what? I don't think I've been to a sale-of-work since those dim and distant days on the planet Nebulos.