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secret scriptureI’m coming at Sebastian Barry from all angles. I read his earlier novel, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty” (1998) many years ago, fell headlong then into the snare of Irish history, a history that both fascinates and terrifies, the history of Ireland being as violent and as turbulent as my own life has been peaceful and uneventful.

And then I picked up the Last Scripture:

What can I tell you further? I once lived among Humankind, and found them in their generality to be cruel and cold, and yet could mention the names of two or three or four that were like angels. I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.

So Rosanne McNulty tells us in the The Secret Scripture. Roseanne is a hundred years old, and has been the patient of an insane asylum since her twenties, but for no reason her psychiatrist, the kindly Doctor Greene can adequately get at. Her records have been lost and no one seems to remember anything about her. And unlike many of the sad demented creatures in his care, he finds Roseanne articulate, and gifted,… but also elusive. Told between the pages of Rosanne’s secret and not always reliable diary, her “accounting of herself”, as she puts it, and the pages of Greene’s daybook, we learn of a woman deeply wronged. We learn of the fiery divisions of the Irish civil war, and of a pathological theocratic religiosity that has turned people into stones of unfeeling cruelty, all in the name of a dubious respectability, and an ungodly godliness.

In spite of her great age, there remains sufficient evidence of the beauty she once possessed. Indeed Roseanne’s beauty was always a knife to her throat. Married to Tom McNulty in her youth, but disapproved of by his mother, Roseanne is wrongly suspected of infidelity, and banished by the McNulty clan to a lonely existence in a tin shack on the edge of nowhere.

The parish priest, affronted by her refusal to convert to Catholicism becomes her Nemesis. He petitions Rome and has her marriage annulled, so Tom can wed again. Roseanne is nominally a Presbyterian, though not religious, but identity is everything in the Ireland of the nineteen twenties and the thirties – Catholic, Nationalist, Protestant, Loyalist,… your choice could get you a bullet in the back, or a price on your head. And for a woman labelled “immoral” by the priesthood, the fate could be even worse,…

Tom’s brother, Eneas, haunts the story in the background. Briefly a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, for lack of other work, there’s now a price on his head and he spends his life on the run, but makes a brief appearance in Roseanne’s story, sufficient to leave her with child, before he disappears for good into the conclusion of his own tumultuous history, as told in “The Whereabouts”.

The next thing we know Roseanne is committed to the asylum, the fate of her child unknown. And now the asylum is crumbling, like Rosanne’s own life, stumbling towards it end. Doctor green must oversee the removal of his charges to a new hospital, or put as many as possible out into the community in order to save money. Will Rosanne survive moving to a new place after so long in the old one? And if she has been wrongly committed, as Green begins to suspect, how can she possibly be released at so great an age, and with no one to own her?

Roseanne and Doctor Greene have known each other for a very long time, but for all the natural sympathy and mutual respect between them, he knows very little about her life before the asylum, her secrets held close to a degree he finds almost pathological. Slowly, and in the midst of his own private tragedy, and personal failings, Greene begins to unpick the mystery of Roseanne’s life,…

Winner of the Costa Award in 2008, this is a well loved story, much respected by critics. There is a film version knocking about but I’ve not seen it. It’s not well spoken of and a rotten tomatoes rating of just 32% suggests much subtlety was lost in the translation. If you haven’t encountered the book yet, do look out for it. It’s a deeply moving and life-affirming story, beautifully written.

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durleston wood cover smallIn the dreams of men, encounters with an unknown woman are significant in that she represents a meeting with the image of the man’s soul, and sets out the state of development of his psyche, also the state of his relations with, and his knowledge of women. A sickly soul-image in dreams is an obvious sign something is wrong, similarly if she is wearing chains, or in some other way restrained or imprisoned.

We see it depicted in art as St George, come to release the maiden from where she has been chained to a tree and is harassed by the phallic dragon. George kills the dragon, more metaphorically the Ego, which releases the maiden, the soul, into a more constructive relationship. Without undergoing this fundamental mythical journey every man is going to struggle with aspects of himself later on, and not just in his relations with women.

The chained and sickly soul-image is a symbol. It does not mean she is lacking energy, quite the opposite in fact. But the energy is misdirected by a man’s lack of understanding of himself. It is a powerful force erupting from the unconscious and being projected out into the world, affecting the way he sees things, the way he sees women.

He notices a female, is attracted, besotted, obsessed, unaware what he’s seeing is a manifestation of something inside of him. This is partly how attraction between sexes works. But say we hit things off with the object of our desire, make love, get married, come to know her as a mortal woman, you might think we had then slain the dragon, that is until the soul projects herself onto someone else. Time and time again. If we have by now settled on our life mate, such serial infatuations can be troublesome, even dangerous. But rather than acting on them and potentially ruining our lives, the soul is inviting us to withdraw the projections, to dissolve them, and in doing so restore the power inwardly, allowing her the means of manifesting herself more in consciousness, thus aiding us in seeing the world more clearly and with a little more wisdom.

All of this sounds a bit odd. But there are precedents in stories, in myth, and in practice.

In Durleston Wood, the protagonist, Richard, has returned to his home village after a failed marriage, and takes up a teaching post at his old school where he finds himself in love with his headmistress. For a time he recognises this infatuation for what it is and does not act. Instead he basks in the sweet melancholy of its futility while taking long, lonely walks through the titular Durleston Wood. But in the wood is an old house, part ruined and overgrown, and living in it, kept prisoner there, possibly, is a woman he’s seen wearing the cuffs and chains of BDSM role-play. She’s apparently the sex slave of another man, and she invites our hero to rescue her, to take ownership of her,…

Houses are significant in Jungian psychology. They are the place of abode, both physically, and psychologically. In Jung’s own dreams, the rooms of the house represent aspects of the self. If your abode is dilapidated, as it is in Durleston Wood, it suggests a psyche in distress through neglect. Work on restoring such an abode is likewise suggestive of work upon the psyche, a process of healing. Thus Richard moves into the house in Durleston Wood, performs his restorations and releases the chained woman. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Work on the psychological aspects of the self do not in themselves guarantee the correctness of one’s direction thereafter. Indeed it can be a bit of a roller coaster. For certainty in navigation, you need wisdom as well, but it certainly gets things moving.

In Durleston Wood, free to your e-reader, sometimes sold in mangled form by pirates on Amazon – oo-arrr!

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marniesnip

There is no time,
When from time to time,
We chance across each other’s path.
No chance either,
Not really,
In this,
The scheme of how things lie.
There is only an eternal sense,
Of blessing,
Of stillness,
And sacred elegance.

Today we stand apart,
As always,
Mute,
But across this void of timeless time,
And empty air,
In my heart,
And in my deepest soul,

We dance.

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Lavender and the Rose Cover

Another in the occasional series, looking at the themes expressed in my various works of fiction. 

Moving on, getting on, forgetting the past, embracing change, living in the present moment – and all that. It’s good stuff, stuff I tried to get at in the Road from Langholm Avenue. And to be sure, all these things are attainable, the material world navigated safely as needs be without falling over in despair at the pointlessness of existence. At least for a time.

But as we get older, something else happens, some call it an existential crisis, others simply the menopause. But as I see it, youth, inexperience, and just plain ignorance has us accepting without question the allure of an essentially material life, rendering us blind to the fallacy that it is entirely sufficient for our needs – the pursuit of money, lifestyle, the bigger house, the bigger car, the exotic travel destinations. It isn’t.

If we’re lucky we wake up and realise material things don’t satisfy us for very long, that we can live an extravagant lifestyle, a life all the adverts would have us aspire to, and still be as miserable as sin, still craving the next big thing. But you can’t go on for ever like that. Clearly something is missing. We need a bigger story if our lives are to mean anything.

Some find that bigger story ready made in the various world religions – usually a story about a supreme being and an afterlife to help make sense of the suffering we endure in this one. We can then explain our lives as a trial imposed upon us, the reward for which will be riches in the next life. Or we can explain it as a preparation for a higher level of existence, again in some non-material hereafter. And all that’s fine for the faithful, because religions do provide comfort in times of need, but what if you’re not faithful? What if all of that sounds ridiculous to you? What if the logical inconsistencies of such a set-up cause you to take out that barge pole and prod all religions and their scary religiosity safely out of sight. Life simply is what it is, and then you die. Right?

Well, maybe.

But what if you sit down one day in an existential funk, and something happens? Let’s say the doors to perception are flung wide open – just for a moment – and you’re given an utterly convincing glimpse of a universe that’s somehow greatly expanded compared with the narrow way you normally perceive it? How so? Hard to describe except lets say, for example, time drops out of the equation and you’re given the impression of an infinite continuum in which there is no difference between you and whatever you perceive, that your mind is independent of both the physical body and the physical world, that indeed your mind is a subset of a greater mind that is both you and not you at the same time.

How would you deal with that?

Well, you’d probably think you were ill, or just coming out of a semi swoon or a waking dream where we all know the most outrageous nonsense can be made to feel true. So we come back to our senses and carry on as normal. Except we find our perspective on life is subtly altered. We are drawn to ideas that might explain our experience. We explore it first through psychology, because it was a kind of mind-thing we experienced. So down the rabbit hole we go,…

And there sitting at the mad hatter’s table we discover Carl Jung, sipping tea and reading a book called the Yijing, which he lends to us, saying that if we are not pleased by it, we don’t need to use it, and we’d worry about that except he also tells us famous quantum physicists have used it too, though they don’t like to admit it. Then this Oriental connection takes us to ancient China and another book called the Tao Te Ching, then to religions that aren’t like other religions, to Daoism and Buddhism which are kind of hard to get your head around. But while everything you learn explains some small part of what you experienced, nothing explains the whole of it.

So you put some rules to it yourself, create a quasi-logical structure for this strange new universe you alone have apparently discovered. Before you know it, you’ve invented your own religion and it all falls apart again, victim to the inconsistencies you’ve imposed upon it yourself. It seems the moment you put words to things you limit their potential to within the bounds of your own perception, and what you perceive actually isn’t that much when compared with what’s really out there, or to be more precise in there, because it’s an inner experience that leads us to this taste of the infinite where there’s no such thing as or in or out anyway.

The Lavender and the Rose comes out of this shift in perception, but without structure it would make no sense to anyone else – just two hundred thousand words of mindless drivel that would bore anyone to tears, so we accept the vagueness and the mystery, and we weave a story around it instead, a love story, several love stories, blur the boundaries, throw in some visions, some Jungian psychology, basically a lot of muse-stuff and conquering of the ego, that sort of thing. Add in a bit of Victorian costume drama, play about with characters having more than one identity, play the story out at different points in history, play it out in alternative universes where even the present moments can pan out differently, and then try to make it all hang together as an interesting story – about what can happen when you start living magically, and with others who are similarly inclined. Then explore ways the mystery can be coaxed to your aid, and discover how, if you get it wrong it will shun you for a decade. Learn how to navigate its endless ambiguities, how to see the world as no one else sees it, and still get by without getting yourself sectioned.

Such is the irresistible allure of something other.

And as with all my stuff, if you are not pleased by it, at least it hasn’t cost you anything!

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flolI can’t believe it’s twenty years since this book came out. I was in the Lake District on a walking holiday. A bill for car repairs the week before had left me a bit short and I calculated that after food and petrol I’d have about a tenner to spare. I spent £5.99 of it on this book for company in the evenings. It took me close to the wire, but it was money well spent. I don’t remember any of the walking now, I just remember reading this book in the B+B.

One part is set in a rural suburb of Dublin and describes the relationship between young Nicholas and his father, a man who gives up a steady but uninspiring career in the civil service in order to paint. He believes God has called him to do it, but it’s a calling that also plunges his family into poverty. Then we have Isabelle, growing up on a small island off Ireland’s west coast, her childhood overshadowed by an incident in which her musically gifted brother was struck down by a life-changing seizure, and for which she nurses a deep, though irrational, wound of guilt. She’s a bright girl but flounders when away at boarding school in Galway, squanders her chances of university and settles instead with a cloth merchant, Peader. By turns passionate and cold, tender and violent, Peader is not a good match, but Isabelle goes along with it, thinking of it as her punishment for past sins.

For most of the story Nicholas and Isabelle live entirely separate lives, and it seems impossible they’ll ever meet. But we know they must because in the opening of the book we are told, somewhat enigmatically, Nicholas was born to love Isabelle. It’s a mystery why or how, but all that’s just what’s on the surface, the bare bones, if you like, and it’s a tiny fraction of what this novel is about. The author’s characters are drawn from humble lives, the kind of people you wouldn’t second glance on a bus, yet through their struggles they take on such noble and god-like proportions it’s hard to see the world in quite the same way again.

We have Nicholas’s father, on the edge of madness, gaunt, white haired, messianic, striding into the west in broken old boots with his paints and his easel while his family starves back home. Ordinarily we’d dismiss him as a selfish old fool, but through Nicholas’s eyes, though at times he hates his father for what he’s done, his overriding love for him elevates their story to the rank of an Homeric Odyssey. And Isabelle’s father, a small-island schoolmaster, sometime poet, and semi-drunk, raising his pupils with kindness and compassion, and a dedication such that they will not be looked down upon by their mainland peers – another small life, but for all of its obscurity it is also heroically huge and inspirational.

Religion runs strongly throughout the book, God being ever present in the workings of fate, in the lives of the characters and the events that touch them. The characters wait on signs that will tell them what to do, they interpret them as best they can, and they have visions, see ghosts via the medium of dreams or delirium – all of this in the sense of a folk religion that’s been overlaid with a tradition of Catholicism. You can read the universe and your life as a meaningless, or you can see it as something more, something epic in which fate and love are bound together, a visionary experience of life in which we are invited to take our part. The choice is ours. The latter adds colour and meaning to our days on earth, and makes a kind of mysterious sense of things, if only in retrospect, while the former adds nothing.

There is only one priest in the story, and he shuns the idea of miracles, is afraid of them, would rather the Bishop had the pleasure of them, and when the miracles start to happen, the protagonists literally shut him out. It’s more that God is in every stone of Ireland, in the breath of the wind, in the mist over mountain and bog, a God that is immediate and personal. It’s a book that stirs the spirit and ravishes the senses. It is not a romance, but it is deeply Romantic, and the language is lyrical, pellucid, utterly mesmerising. This is one of the most powerful and compelling works of fiction I have read, and I have re-read it several times now, always something fresh leaping out – a passing observation, a few lines of description triggering an avalanche of revelation.

The moment when the author reveals how Isabelle and Nicholas are finally going to meet will take your breath away and it’ll have you laughing as much out of relief as anything else. But this is not your usual “will they won’t they” kind of story, the kind to be forgotten as soon as the last page is turned. The ending is subtle, powerful and, like the rest of the book, rich with meaning, and it leaves you wondering.

It’s a story you’ll be carrying around in your head for a long, long time.

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loversI took a dip into the world of Instagram poetry, fell promptly headlong into the purple prose of a million broken hearts. Clearly I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be young. To be sure it’s a terrible thing, this compulsion we have to seek completion in another human being, and to have them seek a reciprocal completion in us. And like all compulsions it’s such a rich ground for disaster, for rejection, for betrayal, for the object of one’s desire not to return one’s feelings, or even know one exists. Okay,… so I’ve been there, written plenty for that genre in the past. Fortunately though there was no Internet in those days and a Boots’ diary had to suffice.

If I’d had the Internet back than, it would have been tempting of course to lay my heart bare, as many young ‘uns obviously do today, either as a plea for mercy, revenge against the one who did or did not love me, or as a beating of my chest and gnashing of teeth to Aphrodite. But I’d also like to think even my younger self would have recognised the indignity in such a thing. When relationships backfire, for whatever reason, and no matter how mouthy or cutting the other party gets, a gentleman is always better keeping his own counsel.

This is not to say love is not a beautiful thing, for a man in love sees the world differently. He can describe it from a heightened state of consciousness, a world that bears no resemblance to the same one described through shades of depression. But try as I might I could not find poetry like that on Instagram, only the petulant and possibly inebriated jottings of a million midnight Bridget Jones’s, lamenting the ups and downs (mainly downs) of their thing for Mr Darcy. As a forum for my own words then, I feel somewhat out of place, a veritable crustacean tiptoeing through a frightful wail of the fretful and the tenderly aged.

My apologies if one of those bleeding heart poems was yours, but I can assure you, at some point you’ll get hitched, you’ll find “the one” and hopefully have children with them, and then your life will change. You’ll have other things to worry about, to pine about, to cry about, and if you still possess the urge, it’s thus the poetry will change throughout the summer and the autumn and finally the winter of your life.

Like those teens posting their fevered “I love you’s”, it’s still a desire for connection, for completion that drives us in later life. But the love felt by youth is more a cunning deceit of Nature to get us to pair off and make babies. What we seek to connect with, actually, we find only to a small degree in others, and the younger we are the more we are likely to mistake it for the real thing and grow dissatisfied by it. The real thing is the mystery of Nature itself, the mystery of life. The hunt for it is an existential quest, and there are no reliable pathways leading to it from the material world. Instead, we must rely on imagination, conjuring up those parts of ourselves we would perhaps otherwise be afraid to be seen out with in public.

The love poem is of infinite value to its author of course, but unless it opens the reader up to more than the author’s misery, there is little of broader worth in it, only the author’s future embarrassment when things finally pick up and he looks back on the bad times. I’m glad I kept mine private.

For me the poet is someone wandering that great tideline of the world after the ebb. Indeed a beach is the ultimate metaphor for this mysterious liminal zone, the mysterious line between reality and imagination. Now and then we come across a curiosity washed up, say a bit of smooth-worn driftwood. We revel in its shape and its exquisite feel as we turn it in our hands. We cannot describe the forces that have shaped it, yet in the feel of it we intuit the nature of something divinely beautiful, far beyond our understanding. Then we turn to our companion, our imaginary reader, and we say “Wow, what do you think of this?”

Relationships confer a degree of self reflection, but it’s not the essential thing. After all, there’s no point being in love if you’re rendered suddenly blind to everything else that’s going on.

Oh my heart is like a red-red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June,
If I could only say the same for yours,
I’d be humming a different tune.

Bu-Bum.

 

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onchesilbeachThe story opens in 1962 with a young couple, Florence and Edward, honeymooning in a hotel, near Chesil Beach, in Dorset. It’s their wedding night, and we first meet them at dinner, each privately contemplating the imminent consummation of their vows.

It’s clear they’re deeply in love, also clear there’s a conflict that bodes ill for their future. Edward is more sexually experienced and is almost swooning with desire at the prospect of completing himself with the woman he loves. However their courtship thus far has been rather chaste, but his love and his anticipation of their future lives together has made the waiting bearable, while at the same time stoking his expectations. Florence on the other hand is sexually repressed and secretly appalled by the idea of what’s to come, but through her love for Edward, she hopes she can manage sufficiently to at least get by.

The consummation is a disaster. Florence is left feeling disgusted, and Edward humiliated by her disgust. She rushes out of the hotel, runs along Chesil Beach, eventually huddling down in the fold of a smooth worn tree trunk that’s been washed up and here she considers her future. Meanwhile, Edward sets out to find her. This is the culmination of their story, the details of which are told in retrospect as we go along, finally to arrive at this critical moment when Edward catches up with her and they begin to talk.

Florence might easily be branded the guilty one here, but what crime is it, to be frigid? Yet it might also be said she deceived Edward over her distaste for intimacy throughout their courtship, that if she’d come clean with him he might reasonably have thought twice and married someone else. But at the opening of their foreplay we see she is not entirely disconnected from her carnal nature, that if Edward had only been more patient and, dare we say, a better lover, the night need not have ended so badly as it did.

His attempted rapprochement with Florence does not go well either, neither seeming able to say what they actually mean. The hurt gets in the way of their love, and the wrong words keep coming out. Finally, Florence, filled with self loathing and guilt, rejects her sexual nature, telling Edward they might still be together but he would have to find “that kind” of pleasure elsewhere, with other women, a suggestion Edward finds appalling. The marriage is over.

The story concludes with a brief flash forward to their futures, lives maturing along entirely separate lines. They do not see each other again after that fateful night, yet Florence still thinks of him, and he of her, both looking back over their lives from that moment in their youth, their love still invisibly binding them. The power of the story, for me at least, is the feeling that if only he had said this or she had said that, or both been more open, patient, understanding, their love would surely have led the way to a fulfilling life together. It was a prize worth the fighting for, but they allowed it to slip through their fingers.

The regret I felt on closing the book was palpable, and I am still thinking of it, wondering how I would have dealt with the situation, had I been in Edward’s place. How would I have viewed Florence’s frigidity and her eventual disgust? It’s seems churlish I would have rejected her out of disappointment at her lack of skill or even any vestige of apparent aptitude in that department. Surely, I would I have tried to find other ways of loving her, perhaps seeking to melt her over time into an appreciation of the desires she was clearly capable of, had I only been sensitive enough to realise it. Or maybe, like Edward, the humiliation I would have felt in that moment would have been too great a hurdle for my younger, Ego weighted self to overcome. But of course, neither of these characters actually existed and it’s a testament to McEwan’s prowess that he can so easily convince us that they did. I don’t know if that tree ever washed up on Chesil Beach, but I imagine it did, and I imagine Florence still sitting there, and I’m walking towards her, wondering what to say. And this time I’d better get it right.

Altogether, an emotionally powerful story of two very human characters, all the more poignant for not ending well, as is always the way I suppose.

But don’t let that put you off.

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