Sunday, 27 November 2016

Auld Mortality

Auld Mortality

Just when we are safest, there's a sunset-touch,
A fancy from a flower-bell, some one's death,
A chorus-ending from Euripides--
And that's enough for fifty hopes and fears
As old and new at once as nature's self,
To rap and knock and enter in our soul,
-- Robert Browning, Bishop Blougram's Apology

On Wednesday last, I visited the doctor and was prescribed penicillin, which I have never had problems with before. I took a tablet with a cup of tea at work.

Within half an hour, it felt as if someone had turned the heating up. I’d been to another office to talk to a colleague and it seemed as if their heating was on full blast. It felt so hot, and then I realised it was me – my face was bright red, and felt like a furnace. At the same time, my hands started to itch, and were starting to appear mottled, and my chest didn’t feel very good either.

A quick Google revealed these were classic symptoms for a penicillin allergy, which usually occurs in this form within an hour of taking the drug. Apart from some cereal and a cup of tea, I’d had nothing else to digest, and taken no other drugs.

So time to leave work, because by now I was looking rather like Colonel Finch. Finch was a teacher of French at Victoria College, and I actually found him quite a pleasant man, but when he lost his temper in a class, his face and head (he was bald) would turn an extreme red colour.

It was off to see the doctor who decided after looking at me, to give me an epinephrine injection in my leg, and showed me how to self-administer it if I needed another dose.

What is scary about a nasty adverse drug reaction is that it is still inside your system and there is no quick way to flush it out as it takes effect.

There was a tragic case in 2006, where six healthy young men were treated for organ failure within hours of taking part in the early stages of a trial for a drug. The eight men in the test were injected at two-minute intervals, leaving very little time to assess its impact on one person before moving on to the next.

Mine wasn’t as bad, and quick action by the doctor prevented it from getting worse. Meantime I’d checked and found that the half life of the antibiotic meant that it would be almost completely out of my system within 7 hours.

But it makes you stop and think. It is the “sunset touch” that Browning mentions, that suddenly blows all certainty away. Suddenly you are on top of the precipice, looking down, and all the plans for days ahead are put aside.

Job’s lament comes to mind, where the future seems very bleak.

"Why then did you bring me out of the womb? I wish I had died before any eye saw me. If only I had never come into being, or had been carried straight from the womb to the grave! Are not my few days almost over? Turn away from me so I can have a moment's joy before I go to the place of no return, to the land of gloom and utter darkness, to the land of deepest night, of utter darkness and disorder, where even the light is like darkness."

And then there is that great hymn to nihilism, the book of Ecclesiastes:

“Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well. Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun. However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless. You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.”

“Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigour are meaningless.”

“Anyone who is among the living has hope--even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”

It is very bleak, and reflects a world which doesn’t have any idea of pleasant Pagan Summerland, or Heaven after death. All that remains is the grave.

The same bleak but beautiful ending comes at the end of T.F. Powys “Darkness and Nathaniel”, where Nathaniel who had loved the light, is on the point of despair.

It is one of Powys “Fables”, one of the most pagan, and while set in the same country village settings of so many of his tales, this is also a mythical tale, exploring deeply how we come to terms in the end with our own mortality, something which we will all have to do at some time or another.

Nathaniel rose up, meaning to fetch a piece of rope wherewith to hang himself, when a voice, that was bold, gentle and loving, addressed him thus— "Nathaniel," said the voice, that was most pleasant to hear, "Nathaniel, do not despair. You make me unhappy by allowing yourself to be so sad, only because you have no candle. It is not I, Darkness, but rather Light, who has done you all the harm. He is ever a busybody, a crier of hope when there is no hope, a liar and a meddler. What, by the Almighty Powers, has all your fine adoration of Light done for you? Your hopes fall about you like the broken rafters from a burning roof, young children cry out against you, your flowing tears moisten your beard, and all because you worship the wrong colour."

A peace, such as Nathaniel had never experienced in his life, now gladdened his mind, he looked lovingly into the mild eyes of Darkness.

"Darkness," he said, "tell me why I have always been afraid of you?"

"You have never understood how I love you," replied Darkness, "or else we should long ago have been friends, for as you know now, I am able to give you the loveliest thoughts that ever man had."

Nathaniel placed his hand upon the table, he felt a box of matches and a candle that he had placed there but forgotten. He went to the cottage door and threw the candle and the matches out into the rain.

"Speak yet again, Darkness," said Nathaniel, "for your remarks interest me."

"Dear Nathaniel," said Darkness, "the friend whom you have served so faithfully has been your ruin. Your God-like understanding, your simple and yet wise way of life, has been scoffed at by the Ignorant, and what are they—the fools—but only the feeble and cowardly reflections of proud, garish Light?"

Nathaniel held out his arms and Darkness embraced him.

'"You will be the happier," observed Darkness. "Once in the darkness one learns to love what is profound, lasting and sublime. 'Let your light shine' should rather be, 'Let your darkness deepen.' "

"Light, when he was my friend, was always promising me pleasure," said Nathaniel, holding Darkness yet nearer to his bosom. "Every morning he would say to me, in his light and airy manner, 'Run out now, Nathaniel, on the moor or in the lanes you will meet a maid who will call to you to come to her.' Dear Darkness, have you anything to give""

"I give eternal longings," replied Darkness, "and after that true happiness."

"And what is true happiness?" asked Nathaniel.

"Death," replied Darkness.

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