The weekend began with a beheading in France, the machine gun massacre of sunbathing European tourists on a Tunisian beach, and a suicide bombing at a Shia Mosque in Kuwait. For me, as is usual under such circumstances, and powerless as I am to make a difference to anything, I am left to make an assessment of the sky, and decide if it is falling, or if the world has always been like this, because the fourth estate can always find a story of depraved violence from somewhere in the world to numb my soul and make me afraid.
So what do I do? I take an old, broken and rather unpromising timepiece, one that hasn’t run in decades and looks about ready for the bin, and I dismantle it. Inside I find the intricate treasure of a Swiss movement, shockingly pristine within a shell now cracked and caked with layers of decay. And amazingly, fingerless and freed from the festering strait jacket of its former function, the mechanism comes at once to life. I give it a clean, the tiniest bit of oil, and its runs with all the sweetness of a – well – of a Swiss watch.
I’m embarrassed writing about this, this weekend, when so many mourn the loss of loved ones, embarrassed I could find no better way to spend my time than by tinkering with this old instrument of time. It isn’t that I do not care – indeed I do – but what can I do? What should I do? If my children were listed among the dead the challenge would be all but impossible, I know: the challenge of forgiveness, the challenge of not rising to hatred.
This mechanism, beautiful as it is has outlived its case from which the chrome sheen is now un-serviceably pitted and flaking away, lifted by the salt-sweat of past labours. It seems improbable to me so much effort should have gone into assembling such a fine movement, the very heart of the machine, only to put it in a vessel as prone to wear and imperfection as this one. The dial is stained and illegible beneath a murky crystal that has taken on the yellowing of age and the deep scoring of long misuse. Without opening the case and peering inside, the watch would have been dismissed as hopeless.
And the metaphor? Because there must be one here, or my fascination for this old thing tonight is a vain irrelevance. I suppose the nearest I can come to is that beneath the workings of the world there is a jewel that is the human spirit, but when the old ways are worn out, the old displays, nothing good can come from maintaining them. We have to let them go. The exterior is meant for show, it is impermanent, and vital as it might seem at the time, it is not the essential thing.
I lived through decades of Irish Sectarian violence, which seemed a terrible evil, that men could do what they did to other men and women and children in the name of an idea, yet it compares as child’s play to the scale and the depravity of the acts now reported on our tea time screens.
“And what shall we make of it?” opines the grave-faced lady on the six o’clock news. Well, as much as you possibly can, no doubt, comes my cynical, time worn, day worn reply – perpetrator, manipulator and media, ever lustful partners locked in their eternally perverted embrace. The effect upon the psyche of one damned thing after another, since the turning of the century has been unrelentingly, abrasively debilitating; it has been fear inducing, confidence sapping. Or did it begin even before then? Has it not always been this way? Always the need for an existential threat?
Man is the danger, said Jung. Mass insanity, in one shape or another, is never far away.
Or do we overstate it? Do we overly-conflate the act of the world’s lone, crazed killers with a darker subplot threatening world domination? With what? What is it? What unspeakable horror of the collective imagination is breaking through into the world now? What kind of inundation? The subjugation of women? The violent repression of every creed or culture that turns away from this cult of death? Black, the colour of death. The severed head its symbol. Rapine. Torture. Fear of the foreign stranger. The sacrifice of the goddess of mercy upon the pyre of literal, Old Testament beliefs. It is every fear we have ever had and suppressed, now emerging from the dark lake of the unconscious, like the dance of crazed, ravenous demons.
What am I to do?
I put the mechanism back in its case, fix the hands in place to tell the time once more. It stops, as if in outrage at its re-imprisonment. Take it out, it ticks lustily again. But what place the beating heart without a serviceable body to beat in?
I set it aside for now, keep the beating heart safe for other times.
If forgiveness is not exactly to love, then it is at least not to hate. To hate is to engage on equal terms with depravity.
Other news this Friday night. Florence and the Machine headlines at Glastonbury. Now that is good news!
Ah, times like these: