A wonderful interview with one of my favourite authors.
Stoicism is in vogue – this 2000-year-old philosophy has been popularised in recent years as a kind of ‘lifehack’ – it’s an extremely seductive idea in a world where people feel like they have so little control over events both in their own lives and in the World around them, because it helps people get over their feelings of impotence – to ignore those ‘impressions’ which one has no means of influencing or changing.
When learning about Stoicism there are 3 people you need to know – Roman statesman and advisor to the Emperor Nero, Seneca; the so-called ‘Philosopher King’, Marcus Aurelius (Joaquin Phoenix’s Dad in Gladiator) and Epictetus, a former slave who taught Stoicism in Rome. All three of these wrote and spoke about Stoicism more than 300 years after the Stoic philosophy was founded at the end of the 4th century BC.
I highly recommend reading both Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s Letters but this post is about Epictetus and his Discourses.
Epictetus didn’t actually write anything, and the Discourses are essentially lecture notes written up by one of his pupils, Arrian, who also helpfully summarised the 7 books of Discourses into a short book called the Enchiridion, or Handbook. Of the 7 books written for the Discourses, only 4 actually survive. Each book is split into short explanations about how to live a good life through constant reflection and the forming of good habits with chapters such as ‘What is the essence of the good?’, ‘On contentment’ and ‘That we should approach everything with circumspection’. What the Stoic philosophy boils down to is:
‘Some things are within our power, while others are not.’
This is our ‘Sphere of choice’ – a split between the internal phenomena which are within our control and external things which are not. Internal circumstances such as our feelings and opinions are well within our power to control, which means that no matter how terrible something that happens to us is, it is only our internal reactions to these events which makes them bad: external events therefore, cannot be intrinsically ‘bad’:
‘It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them.’
This makes a lot of sense and has been put to great effect by people in the worst possible circumstances; a modern example is Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW in Vietnam for 7 years – physically and psychologically tortured, he put his survival down to putting his knowledge of Stoicsim into practice.
So, according to Stoicism, there is no point is worrying about things which are beyond our control (IE Externals) – why be distressed, anxious, frightened about something you have absolutely no control over? Epictetus and the Stoics say you shouldn’t – and that if we can train ourselves to think like that then we will live much happier lives.
Here’s an example of putting Stoicism into practice in our modern lives: You are stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get home but you are barely moving; the clock is ticking; you’re starting to get frustrated – huffing and puffing and swearing under your breath; you can feel your heart rate increasing and you’re starting to sweat. Beep the horn, punch the steering wheel – you’re extremely p!ssed off… but why? You can’t control the traffic – it is what it is and no amount of frustration will get you home sooner – in fact it may cause you to do something rash and cause an accident or even a fight. So accept it – it’s an external – you can’t control that but you can control your reaction to that. Stay calm, make the most of the time you think is being wasted by training your patience or listening to an audio version of the ‘Discourses’.
In Epictetus’ Stoicism it is not enough to read about it and to tell others about it (he frequently castigates those ‘philosophers’ he sees as talking the btalk but not walking the walk) – one must put what one has learned into practice every hour of every day and act in accordance with Stoic principles – perhaps a straightforward proposition until you realise the extremes this goes to.
I think Stoicism is a wonderfully attractive method for living in the modern world but it has been the victim of cherrypicking. First of all, Stoics believe in God and Fate – everything happens for a good reason, which is not entirely palatable to a lot of people. Secondly, when considering the tenet above that one should not concern oneself with ‘Externals’, it begs the questions about what, if any, limits can be applied to this.
Epictetus though, is quite specific about this – it doesn’t matter how horrendous something is – if it’s an external then it’s an external and should not be fretted over. Here’s an excerpt from the Handbook, chapters 14 and 11:
‘If you want your children and wife and friends to live for ever, you’re a fool, because you’re wanting things that aren’t within your power to be within your power, and things that aren’t your own to be your own.’
It’s an entirely logical statement but surely a stretch for most people to be able to accept the death of their loved ones, and I doubt most people who follow Stoicism today can truly be that consistent.
So Stoicism may not be something that most people can take on entirely, but in the Discourses and Handbook we can find tips for living a ‘good’ life and for cutting down on the stress and anxiety of living in our modern society.
I often come back to Seamus Heaney’s Nobel Prize speech and found myself thinking about it again yesterday on the first day of the year:
When I first encountered the name of the city of Stockholm, I little thought that I would ever visit it, never mind end up being welcomed to it as a guest of the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Foundation. At the time I am thinking of, such an outcome was not just beyond expectation: it was simply beyond conception. In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. Ahistorical, pre-sexual, in suspension between the archaic and the modern, we were as susceptible and impressionable as the drinking water that stood in a bucket in our scullery: every time a passing train made the earth shake, the surface of that water used to ripple delicately, concentrically, and in utter silence.
But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signalling too. When a wind stirred in the beeches, it also stirred an aerial wire attached to the topmost branch of the chestnut tree. Down it swept, in through a hole bored in the corner of the kitchen window, right on into the innards of our wireless set where a little pandemonium of burbles and squeaks would suddenly give way to the voice of a BBC newsreader speaking out of the unexpected like a deus ex machina. And that voice too we could hear in our bedroom, transmitting from beyond and behind the voices of the adults in the kitchen; just as we could often hear, behind and beyond every voice, the frantic, piercing signalling of morse code.
We could pick up the names of neighbours being spoken in the local accents of our parents, and in the resonant English tones of the newsreader the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions, the numbers of planes lost and of prisoners taken, of casualties suffered and advances made; and always, of course, we would pick up too those other, solemn and oddly bracing words, “the enemy” and “the allies”. But even so, none of the news of these world-spasms entered me as terror. If there was something ominous in the newscaster’s tones, there was something torpid about our understanding of what was at stake; and if there was something culpable about such political ignorance in that time and place, there was something positive about the security I inhabited as a result of it.
The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way. Then as the years went on and my listening became more deliberate, I would climb up on an arm of our big sofa to get my ear closer to the wireless speaker. But it was still not the news that interested me; what I was after was the thrill of story, such as a detective serial about a British special agent called Dick Barton or perhaps a radio adaptation of one of Capt. W.E. Johns’s adventure tales about an RAF flying ace called Biggles. Now that the other children were older and there was so much going on in the kitchen, I had to get close to the actual radio set in order to concentrate my hearing, and in that intent proximity to the dial I grew familiar with the names of foreign stations, with Leipzig and Oslo and Stuttgart and Warsaw and, of course, with Stockholm.
I also got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot. And yet the platform here feels more like a space station than a stepping stone, so that is why, for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air.
I credit poetry for making this space-walk possible. I credit it immediately because of a line I wrote fairly recently instructing myself (and whoever else might be listening) to “walk on air against your better judgement”. But I credit it ultimately because poetry can make an order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being as the ripples that rippled in and rippled out across the water in that scullery bucket fifty years ago. An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew. An order which satisfies all that is appetitive in the intelligence and prehensile in the affections. I credit poetry, in other words, both for being itself and for being a help, for making possible a fluid and restorative relationship between the mind’s centre and its circumference, between the child gazing at the word “Stockholm” on the face of the radio dial and the man facing the faces that he meets in Stockholm at this most privileged moment. I credit it because credit is due to it, in our time and in all time, for its truth to life, in every sense of that phrase.
To begin with, I wanted that truth to life to possess a concrete reliability, and rejoiced most when the poem seemed most direct, an upfront representation of the world it stood in for or stood up for or stood its ground against. Even as a schoolboy, I loved John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” for being an ark of the covenant between language and sensation; as an adolescent, I loved Gerard Manley Hopkins for the intensity of his exclamations which were also equations for a rapture and an ache I didn’t fully know I knew until I read him; I loved Robert Frost for his farmer’s accuracy and his wily down-to-earthness; and Chaucer too for much the same reasons. Later on I would find a different kind of accuracy, a moral down-to-earthness to which I responded deeply and always will, in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, a poetry where a New Testament sensibility suffers and absorbs the shock of the new century’s barbarism. Then later again, in the pure consequence of Elizabeth Bishop’s style, in the sheer obduracy of Robert Lowell’s and in the barefaced confrontation of Patrick Kavanagh’s, I encountered further reasons for believing in poetry’s ability – and responsibility – to say what happens, to “pity the planet,” to be “not concerned with Poetry.”
This temperamental disposition towards an art that was earnest and devoted to things as they are was corroborated by the experience of having been born and brought up in Northern Ireland and of having lived with that place even though I have lived out of it for the past quarter of a century. No place in the world prides itself more on its vigilance and realism, no place considers itself more qualified to censure any flourish of rhetoric or extravagance of aspiration. So, partly as a result of having internalized these attitudes through growing up with them, and partly as a result of growing a skin to protect myself against them, I went for years half-avoiding and half- resisting the opulence and extensiveness of poets as different as Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke; crediting insufficiently the crystalline inwardness of Emily Dickinson, all those forked lightnings and fissures of association; and missing the visionary strangeness of Eliot. And these more or less costive attitudes were fortified by a refusal to grant the poet any more license than any other citizen; and they were further induced by having to conduct oneself as a poet in a situation of ongoing political violence and public expectation. A public expectation, it has to be said, not of poetry as such but of political positions variously approvable by mutually disapproving groups.
In such circumstances, the mind still longs to repose in what Samuel Johnson once called with superb confidence “the stability of truth”, even as it recognizes the destabilizing nature of its own operations and enquiries. Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen seventies in another small house, this time in Co. Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home-not only those by the Provisional IRA in Belfast but equally atrocious assaults in Dublin by loyalist paramilitaries from the north. Feeling puny in my predicaments as I read about the tragic logic of Osip Mandelstam’s fate in the 1930s, feeling challenged yet steadfast in my noncombatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweetnatured school friend had been interned without trial because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology. In a poem called “Exposure” I wrote then:
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead, I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, a grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne
Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once in a lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.
In one of the poems best known to students in my generation, a poem which could be said to have taken the nutrients of the symbolist movement and made them available in capsule form, the American poet Archibald MacLeish affirmed that “A poem should be equal to/not true.” As a defiant statement of poetry’s gift for telling truth but telling it slant, this is both cogent and corrective. Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself. We want the surprise to be transitive like the impatient thump which unexpectedly restores the picture to the television set, or the electric shock which sets the fibrillating heart back to its proper rhythm. We want what the woman wanted in the prison queue in Leningrad, standing there blue with cold and whispering for fear, enduring the terror of Stalin’s regime and asking the poet Anna Akhmatova if she could describe it all, if her art could be equal to it. And this is the want I too was experiencing in those far more protected circumstances in Co. Wicklow when I wrote the lines I have just quoted, a need for poetry that would merit the definition of it I gave a few moments ago, as an order “true to the impact of external reality and … sensitive to the inner laws of the poet’s being.”
The external reality and inner dynamic of happenings in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1974 were symptomatic of change, violent change admittedly, but change nevertheless, and for the minority living there, change had been long overdue. It should have come early, as the result of the ferment of protest on the streets in the late sixties, but that was not to be and the eggs of danger which were always incubating got hatched out very quickly. While the Christian moralist in oneself was impelled to deplore the atrocious nature of the IRA’s campaign of bombings and killings, and the “mere Irish” in oneself was appalled by the ruthlessness of the British Army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the minority citizen in oneself, the one who had grown up conscious that his group was distrusted and discriminated against in all kinds of official and unofficial ways, this citizen’s perception was at one with the poetic truth of the situation in recognizing that if life in Northern Ireland were ever really to flourish, change had to take place. But that citizen’s perception was also at one with the truth in recognizing that the very brutality of the means by which the IRA were pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based.
Nevertheless, until the British government caved in to the strong-arm tactics of the Ulster loyalist workers after the Sunningdale Conference in 1974, a well-disposed mind could still hope to make sense of the circumstances, to balance what was promising with what was destructive and do what W.B. Yeats had tried to do half a century before, namely, “to hold in a single thought reality and justice.” After 1974, however, for the twenty long years between then and the ceasefires of August 1994, such a hope proved impossible. The violence from below was then productive of nothing but a retaliatory violence from above, the dream of justice became subsumed into the callousness of reality, and people settled in to a quarter century of life-waste and spirit- waste, of hardening attitudes and narrowing possibilities that were the natural result of political solidarity, traumatic suffering and sheer emotional self-protectiveness.
One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.
It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. I remember, for example, shocking myself with a thought I had about that friend who was imprisoned in the seventies upon suspicion of having been involved with a political murder: I shocked myself by thinking that even if he were guilty, he might still perhaps be helping the future to be born, breaking the repressive forms and liberating new potential in the only way that worked, that is to say the violent way – which therefore became, by extension, the right way. It was like a moment of exposure to interstellar cold, a reminder of the scary element, both inner and outer, in which human beings must envisage and conduct their lives. But it was only a moment. The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.
As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note. The very gunfire braces us and the atrocious confers a worth upon the effort which it calls forth to confront it. We are rightly in awe of the torsions in the poetry of Paul Celan and rightly enamoured of the suspiring voice in Samuel Beckett because these are evidence that art can rise to the occasion and somehow be the corollary of Celan’s stricken destiny as Holocaust survivor and Beckett’s demure heroism as a member of the French Resistance. Likewise, we are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art.
Which is why for years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture. Blowing up sparks for meagre heat. Forgetting faith, straining towards good works. Attending insufficiently to the diamond absolutes, among which must be counted the sufficiency of that which is absolutely imagined. Then finally and happily, and not in obedience to the dolorous circumstances of my native place but in despite of them, I straightened up. I began a few years ago to try to make space in my reckoning and imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous. And once again I shall try to represent the import of that changed orientation with a story out of Ireland.
This is a story about another monk holding himself up valiantly in the posture of endurance. It is said that once upon a time St. Kevin was kneeling with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross in Glendalough, a monastic site not too far from where we lived in Co. Wicklow, a place which to this day is one of the most wooded and watery retreats in the whole of the country. Anyhow, as Kevin knelt and prayed, a blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree. Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.
St. Kevin’s story is, as I say, a story out of Ireland. But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas. By which I do not mean merely to consign it to a typology of folktales, or to dispute its value by questioning its culture bound status within a multi-cultural context. On the contrary, its trustworthiness and its travel-worthiness have to do with its local setting. I can, of course, imagine it being deconstructed nowadays as a paradigm of colonialism, with Kevin figuring as the benign imperialist (or the missionary in the wake of the imperialist), the one who intervenes and appropriates the indigenous life and interferes with its pristine ecology. And I have to admit that there is indeed an irony that it was such a one who recorded and preserved this instance of the true beauty of the Irish heritage: Kevin’s story, after all, appears in the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis, one of the Normans who invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, one whom the Irish-language annalist Geoffrey Keating would call, five hundred years later, “the bull of the herd of those who wrote the false history of Ireland.” But even so, I still cannot persuade myself that this manifestation of early Christian civilization should be construed all that simply as a way into whatever is exploitative or barbaric in our history, past and present. The whole conception strikes me rather as being another example of the kind of work I saw a few weeks ago in the small museum in Sparta, on the morning before the news of this year’s Nobel Prize in literature was announced.
This was art which sprang from a cult very different from the faith espoused by St. Kevin. Yet in it there was a representation of a roosted bird and an entranced beast and a self-enrapturing man, except that this time the man was Orpheus and the rapture came from music rather than prayer. The work itself was a small carved relief and I could not help making a sketch of it; but neither could I help copying out the information typed on the card which accompanied and identified the exhibit. The image moved me because of its antiquity and durability, but the description on the card moved me also because it gave a name and credence to that which I see myself as having been engaged upon for the past three decades: “Votive panel”, the identification card said, “possibly set up to Orpheus by local poet. Local work of the Hellenistic period.”
Once again, I hope I am not being sentimental or simply fetishizing – as we have learnt to say – the local. I wish instead to suggest that images and stories of the kind I am invoking here do function as bearers of value. The century has witnessed the defeat of Nazism by force of arms; but the erosion of the Soviet regimes was caused, among other things, by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of a kind that these stories and images enshrine. Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space. In spite of devastating and repeated acts of massacre, assassination and extirpation, the huge acts of faith which have marked the new relations between Palestinians and Israelis, Africans and Afrikaners, and the way in which walls have come down in Europe and iron curtains have opened, all this inspires a hope that new possibility can still open up in Ireland as well. The crux of that problem involves an ongoing partition of the island between British and Irish jurisdictions, and an equally persistent partition of the affections in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish heritages; but surely every dweller in the country must hope that the governments involved in its governance can devise institutions which will allow that partition to become a bit more like the net on a tennis court, a demarcation allowing for agile give-and-take, for encounter and contending, prefiguring a future where the vitality that flowed in the beginning from those bracing words “enemy” and “allies” might finally derive from a less binary and altogether less binding vocabulary.
When the poet W.B. Yeats stood on this platform more than seventy years ago, Ireland was emerging from the throes of a traumatic civil war that had followed fast on the heels of a war of independence fought against the British. The struggle that ensued had been brief enough; it was over by May, 1923, some seven months before Yeats sailed to Stockholm, but it was bloody, savage and intimate, and for generations to come it would dictate the terms of politics within the twenty-six independent counties of Ireland, that part of the island known first of all as the Irish Free State and then subsequently as the Republic of Ireland.
Yeats barely alluded to the civil war or the war of independence in his Nobel speech. Nobody understood better than he the connection between the construction or destruction of state institutions and the founding or foundering of cultural life, but on this occasion he chose to talk instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement. His story was about the creative purpose of that movement and its historic good fortune in having not only his own genius to sponsor it, but also the genius of his friends John Millington Synge and Lady Augusta Gregory. He came to Sweden to tell the world that the local work of poets and dramatists had been as important to the transformation of his native place and times as the ambushes of guerrilla armies; and his boast in that elevated prose was essentially the same as the one he would make in verse more than a decade later in his poem “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”. There Yeats presents himself amongst the portraits and heroic narrative paintings which celebrate the events and personalities of recent history and all of a sudden realizes that something truly epoch-making has occurred: ” ‘This is not’, I say,/’The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland/The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’ ” And the poem concludes with two of the most quoted lines of his entire oeuvre:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
And yet, expansive and thrilling as these lines are, they are an instance of poetry flourishing itself rather than proving itself, they are the poet’s lap of honour, and in this respect if in no other they resemble what I am doing in this lecture. In fact, I should quote here on my own behalf some other words from the poem: “You that would judge me, do not judge alone/This book or that.” Instead, I ask you to do what Yeats asked his audience to do and think of the achievement of Irish poets and dramatists and novelists over the past forty years, among whom I am proud to count great friends. In literary matters, Ezra Pound advised against accepting the opinion of those “who haven’t themselves produced notable work,” and it is advice I have been privileged to follow, since it is the good opinion of notable workers and not just those in my own country-that has fortified my endeavour since I began to write in Belfast more than thirty years ago. The Ireland I now inhabit is one that these Irish contemporaries have helped to imagine.
Yeats, however, was by no means all flourish. To the credit of poetry in our century there must surely be entered in any reckoning his two great sequences of poems entitled “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War”, the latter of which contains the famous lyric about the bird’s nest at his window, where a starling or stare had built in a crevice of the old wall. The poet was living then in a Norman tower which had been very much a part of the military history of the country in earlier and equally troubled times, and as his thoughts turned upon the irony of civilizations being consolidated by violent and powerful conquerors who end up commissioning the artists and the architects, he began to associate the sight of a mother bird feeding its young with the image of the honey bee, an image deeply lodged in poetic tradition and always suggestive of the ideal of an industrious, harmonious, nurturing commonwealth:
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
I have heard this poem repeated often, in whole and in part, by people in Ireland over the past twenty-five years, and no wonder, for it is as tender minded towards life itself as St. Kevin was and as tough-minded about what happens in and to life as Homer. It knows that the massacre will happen again on the roadside, that the workers in the minibus are going to be lined up and shot down just after quitting time; but it also credits as a reality the squeeze of the hand, the actuality of sympathy and protectiveness between living creatures. It satisfies the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis, the need on the one hand for a truth telling that will be hard and retributive, and on the other hand, the need not to harden the mind to a point where it denies its own yearnings for sweetness and trust.
It is a proof that poetry can be equal to and true at the same time, an example of that completely adequate poetry which the Russian woman sought from Anna Akhmatova and which William Wordsworth produced at a corresponding moment of historical crisis and personal dismay almost exactly two hundred years ago.
When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:
At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.
Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.
But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the “temple inside our hearing” which the passage of the poem calls into being. It is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called “the steadfastness of speech articulation,” from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats, it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.
Which is a way of saying that I have never quite climbed down from the arm of that sofa. I may have grown more attentive to the news and more alive to the world history and world-sorrow behind it. But the thing uttered by the speaker I strain towards is still not quite the story of what is going on; it is more reflexive than that, because as a poet I am in fact straining towards a strain, seeking repose in the stability conferred by a musically satisfying order of sounds. As if the ripple at its widest desired to be verified by a reformation of itself, to be drawn in and drawn out through its point of origin.
I also strain towards this in the poetry I read. And I find it, for example, in the repetition of that refrain of Yeats’s, “Come build in the empty house of the stare,” with its tone of supplication, its pivots of strength in the words “build” and “house” and its acknowledgement of dissolution in the word “empty”. I find it also in the triangle of forces held in equilibrium by the triple rhyme of “fantasies” and “enmities” and “honey-bees”, and in the sheer in-placeness of the whole poem as a given form within the language. Poetic form is both the ship and the anchor. It is at once a buoyancy and a steadying, allowing for the simultaneous gratification of whatever is centrifugal and whatever is centripetal in mind and body. And it is by such means that Yeats’s work does what the necessary poetry always does, which is to touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed. The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.
‘Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters’ is a film about the life of the great Japanese author, Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a superstar of Japanese literature, writing many novels, plays and short stories – he even dabbled in modelling and acting. However, Mishima was a traditionalist and nationalist, who lamented and fought against the ‘westernisation’ of Japanese culture – he actively called for a return to traditional Japanese values and the samurai spirit.
His masterpiece is the Proustian tetralogy, ‘The Sea of Fertility’. On the very morning he finished writing the final volume, ‘The Decay of the Angel’, he went to an army barracks with members of his far right-wing militia and tried to start a coup. His speech to all the troops from the roof of the barracks was an embarrassment however; realising he was not going to get the support he needed, he barricaded himself inside the barracks and committed Seppuku – a samurai form of suicide by which the victim uses a special knife to cut into and across the abdomen.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tackles his life by interweaving scenes from 3 of his books – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses (volume 2 of ‘The Sea of Fertility’) with biographical episodes from his own life.
The film was never given a general release in Japan due to pressure from far-right groups who were unhappy with the film’s portrayal of Mishima, particularly as a homosexual. Most surprisingly about this film is who was behind it – it was produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and its soundtrack was written by Philip Glass – yet it is an almost unheard of curiosity.
On the way back home from the camp/school, a scene from ‘Miracles of Life’ came back to me; I say ‘came back to me’ but in truth, it was such a harsh and defining moment in Ballard’s mythology that it was never far away from thought during my search.
After the war ended and the Japanese waited for the Americans to arrive in Shanghai, Ballard would leave the camp and walk back into Shanghai, especially to see what had become of his family home. One such time as he was walking along the railway track he came to a guard house where he witnessed the torture and (he expected) death of a Chinese man who had been tied to a chair by a Japanese soldier outside, despite the war being over. I won’t re-write the whole scene here but I had an urge to find where that true experience had happened.
I thought about the railway line I’d been along on my way out to the camp – that was the original Shanghai-Hangzhou line which the young Ballard had walked along in the days after the war.
So I retraced my steps and went back to the walled-off segment of track. At one end near the old airport terminal was an old building standing right by the track; it had a platform in front of it and I imagined the Chinese man seated and tied up, in despair and knowing his life was about to end, as a young white boy stared and slowly walked by, too scared to do anything. Could it have been right there? Who knows, but it was a reminder of another, brutal, terrifying world that Shanghai had once been, and in my own interpretation of events decades before and involving people I had never even met, this was the spot.
As I cycled back past Longhua temple and to Xujiahui an air-raid siren started whirring. It was only when I got back home that I found out it was the anniversary of the end of the war – when Japan finally surrendered and Ballard would soon leave war-torn Shanghai behind and move to an even more alien land – England – and the great writer he would become, inevitably affected by the first 15 years of his life in Shanghai.
One September morning a few years ago I got up early and cycled away from my flat in search of JG Ballard’s childhood.
I was armed with a 1930s map of Shanghai as well as a modern version. I’d watched a BBC documentary following Ballard back to Shanghai in the early nineties the day before and had watched ‘Empire of The Sun’ again so it would be fresh in my mind.
The streets were fairly empty as I pedalled towards my first goal – Longhua Temple, which was just the other side of Xujiahui from where I lived. During Ballard’s internment Longhua Temple’s pagoda had been converted into a flak tower, each of its levels holding anti-aircraft guns. It was well signposted and simple to find as the site now also holds the Longhua Martyrs Memorial, commemorating the Chinese resistance of Japanese occupation. The pagoda itself had been moved and rebuilt a good kilometre from its original position which to me negated its significance. An entire book could be written on the subject of China’s historical memory, but suffice it to say at this moment – if something old or ancient is bulldozed and even forgotten about, all that needs to be done is for it to be rebuilt with modern means and materials and its historicity is continuous and undeniable: a bit like if Hadrian’s Wall was knocked down and rebuilt from scratch and people said it was nearly 2000 years old…
Nearby the pagoda, I cycled through bare alleyways – everything around had been demolished and lay waiting for developers. I saw a row of makeshift houses and huts offering scooter repairs and recycling (common services in old areas of Shanghai for some reason!) and made my way towards them over the canal. To my surprise they had been positioned on top of railway tracks which were visible between the huts; I followed the line as best as I could make out and came out onto a busy road. In front of me lay the former terminal building for Longhua Airport – its distinctive shape and tower long-since converted into shops.
Longhua Airport will be familiar to readers of Empire of the Sun as the airport where the young Ballard would watch from the camp the Japanese fighters taking off, and where he began to dream of flying himself. When I first went there, the airport runway was blocked off and being used as a place for coaches to park; in the years since I’ve seen it completely developed with office buildings and shopping centres being built over it. Today, names like Airport West Rd and the distinctive shape of the terminal are the only indication that an airport was ever there.
I continued following the partially submerged train tracks past the terminal building and along Longheng Rd. From here, the tracks were completely sealed off. I could see the tracks over the wall which were overgrown and rusted – it must have been a long time since they’d been used. At the end of the road the tracks went over a closed bridge across the busy Longwu Rd – on the opposite side someone had hung their washing across the unused train line. But I didn’t want to continue exploring the tracks – that was for later in the story – that was for after the war. I turned left onto Longwu Rd and went in the direction I thought the POW camp would be.
I don’t why I had gone out so unprepared – perhaps I wanted the feeling of discovering something for the first time – but in the case of the camp where Ballard had spent most of the war and that served as a backdrop to the events of ‘Empire of The Sun’, I knew it’s approximate location (past the airport) and that it had been returned to its original function as a school. In my mind I had the image of the school as it appeared in the BBC documentary 20 years earlier. The 1930s map I had of Shanghai didn’t go this far out so I had no idea how long I’d be cycling around before (if ever) I found it.
I cycled past Shanghai Botanical Garden which was one landmark on my route and which told me I was at least going in the right direction. A few turns, wrong turns, u-turns and then I saw it – the gates of Shanghai Middle School with its conifer-lined avenue leading to the familiar image of the old camp headquarters. In front, the flower bed that flew the Japanese flag was still there (minus the flag, of course).
Being a Sunday, the school was closed; not that the guard at the gate would have let me in anyway. I cycled along the perimeter and peered in where I could, imagining the young Ballard being on this spot more than 60 years ago…
JG Ballard’s experience of living in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in WW2 is well known to many through the Steven Spielberg film ‘Empire of the Sun’. But to work out the true events of his childhood in Shanghai, and to separate the facts from the fiction is not easy because of the different versions – some of which overlap events with different narratives and some which tell different branches and ‘versions’ of the story.
It is not hard to get confused and even mythologise his Shanghai story because of the many versions:
‘Empire of the Sun’, the novel
‘Empire of the Sun’, the film
‘The Kindness of Women’, Ballard’s sequel to ‘Empire of the Sun’ whose first chapter is set in Shanghai at the end of the war.
‘Miracles of Life’, Balllard’s autobiography.
Various interviews with Ballard – particularly a BBC documentary following him returning to Shanghai for the first time since the war in the early nineteen-nineties.
My specific interest in retracing the young Ballard’s steps started several years ago when I found by chance that an old house I had walked by hundreds of times had been the Ballard family home.
It was just starting to be renovated and turned into a restaurant. Located on Panyu Rd near Xinhua Rd it is a typically out of place but perfectly fitting architecture for that part of Shanghai – a European-style house with its triangular awnings and faux-Tudor facade that was built in the former International Settlement in Shanghai’s then far-western city limit.
When looking at a pre-1949 map of Shanghai, it’s quite easy to see familiar layouts of roads that exist today. But one glaring difference soon becomes obvious – the names of the roads. After the Communists won the civil war and the country isolated itself, all the original, colonial names of Shanghai’s roads and avenues were replaced – either with the names of Chinese cities, provinces, mountains and ‘revolutionary’ names or, in the case of a small few, transliterated into Chinese characters. So the first thing you need to track down Ballard’s childhood home at 31A Amherst Avenue near Columbia Road is a pre-PRC map.
I remembered Ballard writing about the view from his bedroom window beyond the edge of the city where he could see burial mounds; today, this part of the city is considered central and is completely built up – the burial mounds long levelled and likely churned up for the foundations of tower blocks.
About 5 years ago the Ballard house was renovated again – this time completely tearing out the original fittings, window frames and even walls. Its grand garden where Ballard would have played has been cut in half with a large greenhouse-like structure which is used for weddings and other large parties.
The front of the building seems like it has always been the front, with its facade and driveway facing the modern Panyu Rd. But actually, for Ballard, the front door was on the the other side of the building – today accessible by a narrow tree-lined alley off Xinhua Rd; the original doorway is still there but completely filled in and with a wall built in front of it – it feels like a metaphor for the old Shanghai which is subtly preserved but not lived; neither destroyed but equally, not acknowledged. Incidentally, Xinhua Rd is the modern name for Amherst Avenue and means ‘New China Road’ – a common road name and phrase used across the country post-1949. If you wander west along Xinhua Rd you’ll see, like in other parts of the old International Settlement and former French Concession, plaques stuck to the stuccoed walls of remaining old villas explaining the architectural styles and construction dates and occasional famous former residents of the buildings. Immediately it strikes the Ballardian that there is no such plaque outside his house, even today after it being well-known by fans that one of the 20th century’s greatest English writers had lived there as a child.
If there was no collective memory of Ballard living there then, I wondered, what about all the other places he described? Did those places remember JG Ballard?
In the next two parts I will be writing about the treasure hunt I embarked on to find the places of Ballard’s youth for myself – from his home on Amherst Avenue to the prisoner of war camp and airport that fill most of the scenes of ‘Empire of The Sun’.