Over Christmas, I was reading a book about the poetry of Louis MacNeice. The book was far too critical for my liking-- the author seemed to think MacNeice had written a handful of decent poems, at best-- but it reminded me of MacNeice's importance to me at a certain stage of my life. Indeed, he is still important to me, but there was a time when MacNeice's poetry more or less expressed my own philosophy.
MacNeice's poems dwell on the transience of life and the challenge of finding meaning in the face of death. He was an eternal agnostic, not only when it came to religion, but when it came to politics and all other grand unifying theories. Although an extremely cultured and educated man, he didn't even make a religion out of art (as many others do, being unable or unwilling to find a life philosophy anywhere else). He was as sceptical of aestheticism as of any other worldivew. However, culture was probably the closest he came to a religion.
Reading the book brought to mind, with renewed force, my own preoccupation with mortality and transience. These brute facts have always loomed over me and influenced my view of the world. How could they not, I wonder?
And yet, some people seem unaffected by these realities. Many people throw themselves into ephemeral controversies, one after another. Or become infatuated with the latest crazes in pop culture, which will be forgotten almost immediately.
It might be argued that even the enduring things are only comparatively enduring, and that, seen in proper perspective, today's headlines are no more ephemeral than some "timeless" book or poem. One may as well live for the moment: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
All the same, peoples' responses are different. The inevitability of death and the transience of all things might prompt some people to hedonism, or to wring the last ounce of experience from life. But they turn my mind towards traditionalism, and a horizon that stretches beyond us into the past and the future. If our lives are short, they can at least be lived against a larger backdrop-- family history, national history, customs and traditions, old books and paintings, and so forth-- which gives them greater dignity and meaning.
I'm baffled by the impulses that drove the May 1968 protestors in France. How long did they think this frenzy of renunciation could last? Did they believe they would be eighteen forever?
One experience which has straightened these feelings is that of visiting somebody seriously ill in hospital. I've had this experience on more than one occasion. I don't want to be too autobiographical.
For good or for bad, this has become to me a test of what matters in life: how the world looks from the side of a hospital bed, visiting somebody who may never leave the ward again.
Perhaps this explains my intense dislike of silence. I cannot join the panegyrics to silence, which seem almost universal. When I think of silence, I think of sitting beside somebody seriously ill in a hospital bed, desperately trying to think of something to say, but failing. The words of Philip Larkin apply:
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.
What do you talk about, when you are talking to someone who may not live out the month, or the week?
Someone once told me a story about visiting a relative in a hospital. The relative, who spent all day on her back, said: "I feel like all l I have left is that spot on the ceiling." (If that seems too heartbreaking, she also told me she'd later had the strong impression that the deceased relative's spirit had contacted her to tell her everything was OK and not to worry about her.)
My own experience is that, at such moments, the seriousness of a person's interest in the world around them makes a big difference. With someone whose whole world was bounded by their personal relationships and their own business, there seems to be little left to say. At least, I have found it hard to say anything. But with somebody who is interested (and, even more, invested) in politics, history, culture, sport-- anything, really, which is bigger than them, which provides a horizon-- there is much more to say. And how grateful we are for it!
I realize I might be accused of selfishness here. The reader might say: so it's all about your awkwardness, your embarrassment! And indeed I have heard that the dying often want to talk about their imminent death, but that their friends and relatives discourage them for their own reasons, projecting their own fear.
Perhaps. But how much can you say about a given person's death, in a purely private context?
(What about religion, you might ask? Well, perhaps none of this applies to somebody so otherworldly that their eyes are always on Heaven. But most of us, including religious believers, are not so otherworldly, and cannot help casting "one long lingering look behind".)
Besides, my time visiting seriously ill people has made me assess life, not only from the perspective of the visitor, but the perspective of the patient. I ask myself: what if I was the person seriously ill? Forty years from now, or even tomorrow? Would I want to cling to a bundle of personal memories, of personal relationships, none of which would outlive me for very long? Or would I prefer to feel connected to something larger, right up to the end? Indeed, it seems to me that this wider perspective even gives private experiences more depth. For instance, a friendship built upon a common cause, or even upon a shared serious interest, seems so much more meaningful than a friendship built upon having a good time hanging out together.
The death of Horatio Nelson, dying at the time of his greatest triump at the Battle of Trafalgar, and crying: "Thank God I have done my duty!", seems to me rather enviable. So (in a way) do the deaths of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising. Indeed, these were the example par excellence of a happy death when I was growing up!
A familiarity with Irish history influences my outlook in this regard. For a long stretch of Irish history-- from about the mid-nineteenth to the mind-twentieth century-- the death-bed scenes of statesmen, patriots, poets, writers, intellectuals, ecclesiastical figures, and others seemed to be almost a staple of Irish historiography, and more a triumphant curtain call than a tragedy. It didn't really matter what their particular ideals were-- it might have been revolutionary socialist, arch-reactionary, somewhere in between, or something totally different-- but they almost certainly had ideals. Now that we have passed from a heroic era, death has gone down in the world. I have attended a few humanist funerals, and always found them depressingly banal. As the notes of the last pop song fade in the crematorium, one thinks: "Well, that's it. There's nothing really left to say."
Perhaps I am completely wrong about this. Perhaps I will lie on my death-bed pondering how completely wrong I was about this all along. There is no way of knowing. But, for good or ill, I always have one eye on the perspective of the hospital bed.