Kierkegaard mon amour

I’m not claiming to be uniquely troubled or worthy of special levels of pity. I realise these problems afflict all of us. That’s my excuse for whining on and on about myself: that you might see in me a kindred spirit, an exemplar of our common suffering. I’m someone you can compare yourselves to, perhaps identify with, and who might sympathise with you because I’ve felt the same.

Søren Kierkegaard is a fellow traveller, in this regard. (It’s kinship, not equality, of course: he’s the Father of Existentialism; I’m a schmuck.) He hunted through his own experience for philosophical truth, and, although he keeps resolutely to abstractions, in the two short works I’ve read, there’s a clear sense that he’s offering his own experience as an example, that the battle for the soul that he describes is taking place within his own breast.

Kierkegaard recognised that the vivid, living spirit inside you, the brilliant flame of consciousness, is indistinguishable from anguish. To be cognitive, self-aware, is to writhe and shrivel in tongues of fire, of painful memory and inarticulate feeling, but “the possibility of this sickness is man’s advantage over the beast, and it is an advantage which characterises him quite otherwise than the upright posture, for it bespeaks the infinite erectness or loftiness of the spirit.”[1] “Despair is a characteristic of the spirit, is related to the eternal.[2] That’s the price of admission. It is a gift to be grateful for.

“What occupied [Abraham] was not the finely wrought fabric of the imagination, but the shudder of thought” (Soren Kierkegaard, 2005, Fear and Trembling, London: Penguin, p9.)

Kierkegaard also understood the problem of the secret self. In her biography, Philosopher of the Heart: the Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard (2019)[3], Clare Carlisle discusses the difficulty the philosopher has expressing his interior truth:

“Religious people have to live conspicuously in the world like everyone else, though they harbour a ‘secret’ that is not willingly concealed, but impossible to express: ‘inwardness is incommensurable with outwardness, and no person, even the most open-hearted, manages to say everything’”[4]

And he used writing for an identical purpose to my own. Ms. Carlisle summarises:

“Writing is inseparable from this effort of self-understanding: it is through words as well as through silence that he brings coherence to the motions of the soul. Yet for Kierkegaard this is always a paradoxical exercise, revealing and concealing at the same time – like telling someone you have a secret that can’t be told. Writing gives his most solitary reflections a public aspect, exhibits the contradiction between his inward and outward life, brings his hiddenness into the open. He evasively offers to the world an image of himself to explain that he cannot be understood… ‘After my death,’ he wrote in his journal that year, ‘no one will find in my papers (this is my consolation) the least information about what has really filled my life’ … When Kierkegaard writes something truly private, he cuts it out of his journal with a knife and throws it on the fire.

            He is consoled by the thought of remaining hidden because he has been so afraid of being seen… Sheer anxiety compounded by high ideals”[5]

That’s pretty prestigious company to keep! All my own concerns are here: the sense of an enlivening despair that anguish and anxiety inspire; writing as a journey of self-discovery; the inability to communicate, to unlock and share the secret self; the solitariness in company, the fear of exposure…

There’s a sense, I think, that the integrity of the self would be compromised and weakened, if it was communicated. I understand that, too: once you have become used to solitary thinking, with a single point of view, you think your whole identity would start to crumble if brought to the attention of others. You’d start to become part of a negotiated, collective identity; You’d be changed; you’d lose yourself. That is a threatening idea, so to ‘keep it in’ becomes to ‘hold it together’[6].

It’s reassuring to realise that I’m not the only person who’s ever been concerned with these issues or thought them worth writing about; it’s humbling to realise how unoriginal and primitive my writing is, in comparison. It’s depressing to realise how dry a subject it can be!

Still, it’s nice to share something with Kierkegaard (not the high ideals, of course!)

Footnotes

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, 2008, The Sickness unto Death, London: Penguin, p11

[2] ibid, p24

[3] Clare Carlisle, 2019, Philosopher of the Heart: the Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard, London: Penguin, pp50-51

[4] the quotation Ms Carlisle uses is from his notebooks

[5] ibid

[6] I know: I’m far too much into Kierkegaard. I’m co-opting his work for my own purposes and it’s terribly presumptuous, but then, not understanding something gives you a lot of scope for interpretation!

They also serve who only stand and wait

Writing this, so many months after the Eating Disorders Clinic, after the dreadful betrayals, the cataclysmic rifts and alienations, the return: being reluctantly allowed back into the house, allowed a second chance; on this long, gently undulating journey of small advances and retreats, rehabilitation and relapse, I realise that I’ve been gradually drawn back into their lives. Although I’m prohibited from doing anything, I’m still involved with them: I’m interested in Jo’s work troubles; I am worried when Meggie argues with her friends; I’m so distressed when Danny’s distressed that I’m virtually wringing my hands.[1] I bear witness. Is this enough?

In a search for narrative structure (and writing always is) will this do as a hopeful ending?

Footnotes

[1] Parenthood is terror and guilt, folks (as I’m always saying)!

House-Spouse of the Year 2020

The problem with my policy of doing fatherhood, rather than being a father. was that it forced me into direct competition with Jo’s terrifying, unflagging industry. To this day, she strides through the door at around 6.30, kicks off her shoes, drops her smart jacket on the floor, gathers up a child, and whisks them off to talk through their troubles, while she puts a wash on[1].

She’ll also be working on her phone, in snatches, between supervising piano practice, checking homework, arbitrating in sibling disputes. She’s checking and sending emails, talking to colleagues, researching government policy, writing memos… I’m always walking in on the tail end of conversations that go, “To be honest, John, if the government white paper proposes half the measures they’ve been threatening, we’ll have to rewrite the whole capital bid…” She uses the language with ease, now. She says, “If you could get Catherine to action this…” and “The steer from the Home Office is…” I once heard her say, of a presentation, “I think you should tee off…” “TEE OFF”!? Jo’s never played a game of golf in her life![2]

As she does this, she’ll be striding around the kitchen, her phone held uncomfortably between cocked head and raised shoulder, emptying the dish-washer or cleaning the surfaces.

It’s not all hot air, either. Jo and her people devise and implement multi-part strategies, managing and co-ordinating any number of people, to respond to complex and varied problems and thus measurably better the lives, and future prospects, of large sections of society. They are highly effective, and, for all its business speak, their language is also meaningful and effective. It gets things done.

I, on the other hand, am a lazy fucking arsehole. I’ll have been in all day and still not have got the bloody wash on, because I’d been “trying to write” (sitting on my fat arse). If I was following my instincts, I’d lounge around all day in my jim-jams. When people came home from work demanding their tea, I’d say “get it your damn self!” But then, I’m a worthless prick.

Nowadays I know not to try to compete with Jo. I just haunt the background “being” a father. A morose and selfish one, like some inanimate object with “father” properties. If people don’t like it, fuck ‘em. I tried to be useful and it went horribly, horribly wrong, didn’t it?

Footnotes

[1] In fact, as I am writing those very words in the early morning, Jo has got up, immediately put on a wash, and is now scrubbing the bathroom floor!

[2] Notice how gendered such language remains. Golf still seems a very male past-time, so executives are expected to be men, I think.

Stranger in a strange land

To be worth something to my family; to do my duty, to compensate for my inability as a father or a teacher or a writer, or an LSA; to be included, I needed to work. For them. I needed domestic achievements to set against Jo’s career and parenting triumphs. I needed to cook, clean, wash the clothes, hang them out, go shopping, feed the rabbit: make myself indispensable.

These were demonstrably, measurably useful targets. They could be ticked off. They could be used to structure and control a life that felt wayward, that seemed to be getting away from me.

We live in a post-religious age, yet Love remains our objective, and family has become its most exalted institution. Tending to our family has become our most elevated purpose, but it is a practice. It begins in practical, physical actions that keeps our children alive: labour, breast-feeding, protection, cuddles. These expand, early on, into doing necessary chores – sweeping floors; chopping onions.

It’s unclear how such earthy roots lead to transcendence. The implication is that somewhere inside the experience, there must be an evolutionary, ontological leap, perhaps the way the brain, a lump of flesh tormented by chemical spasms, projects a mind and identity as a side-effect of its ability to self-monitor: a shimmering, electrical halo.

It was one of life’s inexplicable mysteries, but I hoped that, by tending to these foundational activities, I too would be subsumed into the profound, soulful existence family seemed to offer, despite how foreign it all seemed to me: Per Ardua Ad Astra. While the messiah is preaching, somebody still has to take the bins out, but they, too, are a vital part of his numinous project: salvation by the kitchen door: grace by means of a toilet brush. I could be like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, serving the spiritual by embracing an ignominious, quotidian reality.

But I didn’t really want to do it. I was too selfish, uncaring, lazy. I had to force myself, fiercely, nose to the grindstone. All the time. Without stopping, because the flip side of the doable is that, well, anyone can do it. if I didn’t, Jo would, weeping with the stress of it, but capable, nonetheless. And then where would I be? What would I be? Why..?

And I also needed to hide my reluctance – another secret. Every demand for tea made me swear, inwardly, as I hauled myself up to make it. I had to resist that and be constantly vigilant because it wasn’t just the unceasing effort of parenting and husbandry that was exhausting, but also, ironically, the effort required to hide it. At any moment I was likely to collapse onto the sofa groaning “fuck this!” and never get up again, revealing myself to be exactly the useless scrounger I’d been denying, an illegal immigrant in the land of industry. (I could be sacked. I could be deported!)

It was a paranoid and negative version of the immigrant mentality: the same lack of entitlement, but without the hopeful self-belief.

Kids, eh?

Making eye-contact is awkward for me. Its intimacy makes my eyes water. Even my closest relationships are conducted with eyes cast down. No doubt this comes from a mixture of temperament and how I was brought up to manage that temperament. My father, especially, is not effusive.

So a family home didn’t feel like my natural environment at first. I’d found myself marooned in an alien landscape full of…people, and I knew I needed to proceed with great caution.

It didn’t occur to me, though, that relationships with my own children, bonding with them, would be so intellectually challenging.  This was because, cleverly, I refused to think about it. When the future frightens me, I just shut down any predictive faculty and let it come on. Why ruin the present by pre-living the ruinous future?

You can’t just do parenting by instinct, though: bear-hugging them when they’re sad so they feel loved; bellowing at them when they are naughty so they learn how to be good. What if they’re sad because they’ve been naughty and you bellowed at them and they think the bellow was an exercise in arbitrary and tyrannical power because they can’t see why it was naughty in the first place, or need to protect their fragile egos, and now they think you are saying they are a bad person and they wonder if maybe they are, or you are, and are you abusive and/or are they worthless and evil, but they’re not properly aware that they feel this way, just that they’re sad and angry with you, so, even though they were the ones who were thoughtless and hurtful, suddenly you’re the bad guy, but they need to be comforted by you but you’re the bad guy, somehow, so how do you go about that, especially as you are sad because they are, and feel terribly guilty, and yet also angry with them for causing such a fuss, and have had no time to process it because this all blew up out of nowhere…?

You have to pick your way carefully through these things. It’s like balancing fiendishly complicated emotional equations, especially as they hit their teenage years.

Even Jo doesn’t always find it easy, but bonding is what she most relishes. Provoked into laying down the law, she’ll then spend hours lying all cuddled up in bed with the tearful child, talking it through. I tiptoe out of the room and leave them to it.

I’m used to it now, but at first, it was both mortifying and a relief to I leave it up to her. I knew I wasn’t throwing myself into parenting, exactly, but I tried to be supportive, accommodating and amiable, and let my relationship with the children go where it would, secure in the knowledge that they’d have Jo to fill in any emotional absence.

That isn’t enough, especially if you’re not the bread-winner. I regretted it; I felt neglectful, a bad parent[1], but I felt so overwhelmed that I didn’t feel capable of any greater engagement. And this made me feel lazy and uncaring.

When the children were small, my reliance on Jo meant that if she was in the house, somewhere, I could parent with (relative) ease. I knew I could call on her if necessary, but the minute she stepped out the door, I became a much stricter, more shouty dad. I worried about losing control, and the dreadful consequences of that.

I hoped I could compensate by being the dogsbody that families require. I could demonstrate my love by doing the necessary chores, running the necessary errands.

  • Footnotes

[1] In my mind, I am still about 15. Admit it, you feel the same. Every pregnancy is a teen-pregnancy: how did we end up in this situation?! We’re not ready!

An Anorexic Looks at a Biscuit

An example of anorexic overthinking:

  1. To eat the gorgeously yummy ginger biscuit is to give in to appetite; to indulge. You must resist it to show strength.
  2. But not to eat it is not to embrace recovery, to stay in your holt curled up and quivering with fear. It is to give in to anorexia and you must resist that, which is good because it means you get to taste that sweet and lovely gingeryness.
  3. But you suspect you are just using the sanctimonious language of wanting to recover as an excuse to get the biscuit, to indulge your sybaritic, luxurious weakness for biscuits, so you should resist the urge to eat biscuits, as a demonstration of strength of character.
  4. But that sounds like the treacherous mendacity of the disease whispering insidious un-logic into your ear, so you should resist that and eat the biscuit.
  5. Surely you can keep your hands off one little biscuit for five minutes, you spineless shit?! Resist it!
  6. Are you mad? It’s one little biscuit. What harm can it do? Eat it, enjoy it, move on.
  7. Eat it. Eat it.
  8. Don’t eat the biscuit.
  9. Eatthebiscuit. Resistthebiscuit.
  10. eat resist eat resist.
  11. Eatdon’teatdon’t Eatdon’teatdon’t Eatdon’teatdon’t.
  12. biscuitbiscuit biscuitbiscuit biscuitbiscuit biscuitbiscuit
  13. Bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis
  14. Bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis bisbisbisbisbis
  15. Bis bis.

Coda:

I’ve got it! I’ll have half the biscuit! (Let’s avoid the word “eat”.)

Or a quarter.

 

Or an eighth.

Robot Carer 6

And this brings us right back to The Servant. (Remember him?)

Family life, parenting, was so new and unfamiliar that I had no opinion on it at all. It was so far beyond my experience that I didn’t even know I had no opinion. It was an honour that I thought not of[1]. Jo blazed a trail, reading the parenting books and websites, discussing the issues with other young mothers, and I just drifted along in her wake, agreeing to her decisions, although I often had to (cack-handedly) enact these decisions, because Jo was at work.

Somewhere in my befuddled brain, I recognised the importance and the responsibility of the job before us. I knew I’d have to throw myself into the parenting of these precious, vulnerable, impressionable little creatures, but I saw this entirely in terms of externalised activity. I thought if I demonstrated love and care, if I expressed love and care and undertook the activities of love and care, love and care would be what the children experienced. Or I didn’t think. I vaguely assumed. My inner self existed, crouched, hidden, in a locked room, thinking and feeling nothing. I assumed this was the same for everyone.

I didn’t realise that the self is permeable. It doesn’t exist as a hard, unchanging nugget; sloughing off the rest of the world the way your waterproof skin does rain: water off a duck’s back. The self is spongy; it absorbs its environment. You are partly formed of the opinions of those around you: their values, their view of who you are, how you fit in or don’t: call a dog a bad name…

Humans[2] are so sensitive to the subtlest cues and signals, subconsciously, so empathetic to others – their sense of self, their experience – that they are almost telepathic. And they do this automatically. Starvation makes you lose it. That’s when you realise what miracles you used to perform. Every day. Even the most selfish of us.

“Such are the strange acoustics of the life of the spirit, such it’s strange spatial arrangement.”[3]

So, I think, somewhere in the backs of their minds, the children knew. They can tell a charlatan when they see one, a quack, a false prophet, a replicant, a simulacrum, an automaton, a hollow man.

It’s stored up, somewhere in their messed-up heads, waiting for the litigious therapist to unlock it. Then I’ll get my comeuppance. I wait in dread.

Footnotes

[1] Come on, you know where this is from! You did it at school!

[2] I rarely count myself among them.

[3] Soren Kierkegaard, The sickness Unto Death, 2008, London: Penguin, p.142. I don’t understand most of Kierkegaard. He’s talking about people’s relationship to God, or something; I am not. I’ve repurposed his words.

The Dangers of Down-sizing

Anyway, back to my main subject:

To recap: Jo had rescued me from Moloch[1], from the toad work[2], for the price of a sense of vocation. She, a woman born to nurture, was forced out of the home, her natural domain, to earn money. Her response was to single-handedly turn management into one of the caring professions.

I, with no particular inclination for its practicalities, found myself doing a lot more of the parenting, at least the mechanical parts of getting the children up and dressed, picking them up from playgroup and school, feeding them.

I felt (and feel) it was a price worth paying: better a drifting existence than one of intolerable pressure. Life, with all its variety, contains enough diversion to keep you going, most of the time, even if you wander aimlessly through it. If aimlessness seems too much to bear, you can go to bed. You’ll probably find something to distract you tomorrow, and if you don’t, well, life is short – not much longer to go.

The advantage of such down-sizing seems obvious. Somebody wrote to Mariella Frostrup’s advice column in The Observer because she didn’t relish the idea of returning to work after the lock down. That didn’t strike me as a subject worthy of writing to the papers. Isn’t it the human condition? Surely you experience this every Monday morning.

But work is terribly important to a sense of identity and for relationships. It is, apparently, where people conduct most of their significant, non-family relationships. We met a colleague and friend of Jo’s in the park on our daily walk (for once taken together.) She was a little shy and reserved at first, until a work problem came up. Then she visibly brightened, became authoritative, articulate, humorous. Conversation flowed easily.

Another of Jo’s closest work friends had a relationship with her entirely based on, and structured by, work discussions. Late at night, in drink, she’d move on to problems in her private life, but until then, the friendship was conducted through the language and the pre-occupations of business management. Now that she’s moved on to another job, the friendship has dwindled.

So, one feeling that carried over, for me, into the new phase of my work life was a sense of ineffectiveness and of helplessness. I’d gone from feeling inadequate to feeling unnecessary and insignificant. More than ever, I didn’t fit the traditional male role of provider. (Not surprising, given that I’d never even imagined having it.)

But to this was added a sense of guilt that, undeservedly, I’d been allowed this luxurious licence. Especially as I’d claimed it through failure.

Footnotes

[1] Apparently a Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice (according to wiki). I’m referring, of course, to the scene in Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927).

[2] “Why should I let the toad work/ squat on my life?” – Larkin, “Toads” from The Less Deceived, 1955.

Attempt at Covid-themed Political Journalism

I finished this yesterday. Not sure what to do with it.

Just after the 75th anniversary of VE, I’ll be the millionth person to link the 2nd world war to the Corona crisis, and I’m sorry. It was a coincidence that I’ve been reading J.B. Priestley’s morale-boosting Postscript talks, which he gave on BBC radio during that war.

His constant refrain was that the British people couldn’t be called upon to make enormous sacrifices just to re-establish the same rotten old order. The war effort was an opportunity to remake Britain in a better, fairer form. That was something worth fighting for.

Priestley’s supporters credit him with being instrumental in the push towards a more egalitarian society that lead to Labour’s 1945 election victory, then the establishment of the welfare state, and, most importantly now, of the NHS, whose heroes we applaud.

Today, awaiting an easing of Lockdown, I’m feeling similarly optimistic about our chances of dealing with a future invasion by a corona or flu virus. I’m still frazzled and falling over with the struggle and the stress of it, but it’s a sunny morning and I’ve remembered to take my thyroid and happy pills (mother’s little helpers), which always makes me feel better.

I think we’ve learnt lessons about how to manage this sort of attack. We need easy and constant communication between nations, sharing information and using the WHO and other pan-national organisations to provide us with an early warning. We need to act in concert to develop tests so we can contact-trace the spread of the disease and attempt to quarantine it. In Britain, we’ll need to identify, isolate and support the most vulnerable. We’ll have to develop the structures and technologies to do this, and hold them in readiness to respond swiftly to new variants, with new infection profiles, so we can develop and mass-produce new vaccines. We also need to think about how to soften the impact on the economy, because, yes, it’ll cost.

We were warned about this, as we have been, repeatedly, about that other monstrous, bastard child of consumerism, climate change. In both cases, we knew and acknowledged the scale and impact of the problem, but refused to think about it or do anything. We left it to our future selves, because the market demands that costs be deferred to maximise profits and we have invested so much in the hope of those profits. Preparing for future problems would incur unacceptable costs, now, for no immediate benefit.

But all debts defraud our future selves, or our children. We have increasingly allowed the primitive principles of capitalist exchange to govern all aspects of civic life. Everything has been given a monetary value. The state has been shrunk and most of its functions have been sold to the private sector. The purpose of government has become merely to facilitate business. It serves the market rather than maintaining it for the country’s use. Administrations point to resurgent economies as proof of success, ignoring the fact that governments’ remits are far wider than that.

The coronavirus has shown us that we can no longer live in this manner. The childish idea that all we need to do is allow unfettered trade and that will magically solve all our problems is now palpably false. One day soon a new, even more virulent pandemic will emerge; One day soon, we will be overwhelmed by such extreme weather conditions that food production will catastrophically fail. And we will be wholly unprepared.

No part of the fragmented private business system will have the ability or the will to steer and organise the global effort required. It will need governments, over-arching organisations which, with the consent of the people, have the scope and capacity to co-ordinate so many aspects of society, from medical responses, to healthcare, to security, to food distribution, to financial aid packages.

I’m not advocating revolution: all revolutionaries are closet fascists, but It will need people of vision, determination and administrative control who will not be intimidated by the asset-stripping profiteers of big business. Because all this will need money, which means tax and probably deep-rooted financial reform. Governments must get over their crises of confidence, their fear of upsetting those who threaten to take themselves elsewhere. They should be offered stable, nurturing, and well-funded governments that they, too, must support. Government is everyone’s insurance against catastrophe.

And it will need co-operation and compromise not jingoism. All around the globe, nationalist demagogues have risen to power on the hot air of baseless indignation and xenophobic resentment, helped along, of course, by lies and disruption. These aren’t the skill sets we need, right now. The countries most likely to develop, manufacture, or acquire life-saving medical equipment and medicines are those most able to share expertise, information and technology, who can most easily collaborate and pool resources; the countries most able to weather the coming economic storm are those with the strongest links of mutually beneficial trade and co-ordinated economic relief.

And here we are, about to hit a Covid-19 recession, amplified by a Brexit recession. Isn’t it time we re-thought our exit from the EU? And before you tell me how humiliating it would be to creep back, cap in hand, just remember that sometimes you may have to swallow your pride to save your country. Our great national humiliation came when we revealed what mean-spirited, ungrateful and blindly arrogant little xenophobes we truly were. Now’s our chance to rise to the challenge, as Priestley would no doubt have said, and do something positive for our country!

 

Haiku in the hope of an easing of lockdown

Sunrise early May

All flame and palest duck egg

Clouds of lilac grey

 

Just before sunrise

A muted bloom of russet

On the chilly ground

 

Above the skyline

Blazing – the risen sun

like a young god

 

Tree trunks east facing

Receive the early sunlight

Like benediction

 

First timid sunlight

on fissured bark: fingertips

Trace a well-known face.