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.


  1. I saw you saw elsewhere that your routine has been pretty locked down for the past two years. Do you think this may account for your urge for adventure?

    Circumstances have propelled me around the place for the past number of years. I would like nothing more than a cottage in the west of Ireland that I would never leave again!

    1. No, this blog post represents my long-held outlook rather than a more recent one. I suppose I can understand the cottage fantasy, contra what I said, but I could never share it!

  2. Superb. One of the best things of yours I've read (high bar). Will read this again and again, I think. Thanks so much for writing and posting it.

    Got me thinking of passage in LotR when, having reached Rivendell in the course of their journey back to the Shire, Sam expresses his love of the Elvish realm to Frodo: “There’s something of everything here, if you understand me: The Shire and the Golden Wood and Gondor and King’s houses and inns and meadows and mountains all mixed.”
    Frodo agrees. But then he says ‘Yes, something of everything, Sam, except the Sea,’ Frodo had answered; and he repeated it now to himself: ‘Except the Sea.’ The Sea is death, I think: the last adventure, the ultimate repose.

    1. Thanks Mick! Your comment really made my day. This post meant a lot to me so I'm glad someone really liked it.

      Didn't J.R.R. Tolkien say every story was ultimately about death? I think he might be right! I remember as a kid, reading Lord of the Rings and finding it strange that some people might never see the sea in their whole lives.

  3. Many things to ponder over in this theme. From poems to good old Catholic unity (temporary?) there are so often inspirations to be drawn the most in retrospect it seems. Why then are human dreamery or poetic imaginative strolls deemed as mere nostalgia?

    Thank you for keeping the tradition of posting also the longer deep water odyssées now and then, and not least in grandly deferring the "too much" analysis ditch - for free interpretations´ benefit!

    1. Thanks Thomae! I'm glad some people like these kind of posts. And maybe nostalgia is not the worst thing in the world after all.