Sunday, 4 December 2016

Glimpses of a Far Off Country

Dennis Potter’s last interview, which he gave to Melvin Bragg, was perhaps one of the most moving I have ever read. He knew, at that time, that he was living on borrowed time. On 14 February 1994, he had learned that he had terminal pancreatic cancer which had metastasised to his liver. It was thought that this was a side effect of the medication he was taking to control his psoriasis.

Everyone is going to die, but Potter lays out this paradox in stark terms, and points out how we ignore this for the most part, and just carry on with life. We do not stop all the time and think about our own mortality, which is probably a good thing, because were we to do so, we would not do anything, and could be paralysed by the knowledge, and the futility of existence. Instead, we are “locked into” our lives, playing them out as if this was a never ending story, as if we were immortals. This is the strange difference between us and other animals, who are sentient, yet do not have a sense of their own future extinction.

“We all, we're the one animal that knows that we're going to die, and yet we carry on paying our mortgages, doing our jobs, moving about, behaving as though there's eternity in a sense. And we forget or tend to forget that life can only be defined in the present tense; it is is, and it is now only. I mean, as much as we would like to call back yesterday and indeed yearn to, and ache to sometimes, we can't. It's in us, but we can't actually; it's not there in front of us. However predictable tomorrow is, and unfortunately for most people, most of the time, it's too predictable, they're locked into whatever situation they're locked into ... “

But Potter remarks that every so often, events conspire to shake us out of this illusion, and there is an unpredictable element to life. Knowing he had a little time to live, he spoke of how the present became so much more vivid for him, of how he appreciated every passing second rather than giving it not a second glass as time moved inexorably onwards.

“Even so, no matter how predictable it is, there's the element of the unpredictable, of the you don't know. The only thing you know for sure is the present tense, and that nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I'm almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.”

And this the passage which most describes his experience, which shows how this impending sense of mortality is impinging on his existence:

“Below my window in Ross, when I'm working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It's a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it's white, and looking at it, instead of saying "Oh that's nice blossom" ... last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. “

“Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know...”

It reminded me of passages in Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful book “The Farthest Shore”:

“They went on in silence. But Arren saw the world now with his companion’s eyes and saw the living splendour that was revealed about them in the silent, desolate land, as if by a power of enchantment surpassing any other, in every blade of the wind-bowed grass, every shadow, every stone. So when one stands in a cherished place for the last time before a voyage without return, he sees it all whole, and real, and dear, as he has never seen it before and never will see it again.”

This is when Arran and the Mage Ged stand in the dry land of shadows, the land where there are only the shades of self, unknowing, uncaring and lost. Le Guin too, by Ged, has a comment on the gift of knowing death, of our limitations, of the fragility of existence:

“…But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes; it is gone, a wave on the sea.”

But while we exist, we can celebrate existence. This is born out again in “The Farthest Shore”:

“As Lookfar approached the islands, Arren saw the dragons soaring and circling on the morning wind, and his heart leapt up with them with a joy, a joy of fulfillment, that was like pain. All the glory of mortality was in that light. Their beauty was made up of terrible strength, utter wildness, and the grace of reason. For these were thinking creatures, with speech and ancient wisdom: in the patterns of their flight there was a fierce, willed concord. Arren did not speak, but he thought: I do not care what comes after; I have seen the dragons on the wind of morning.”

And the Mage Ged has a similar experience of the present:

“And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet would I remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”

There are experiences which give life richness despite its finitude. They are perhaps what C.S. Lewis called joy:

“In a sense, the central story of my life is about nothing else ..... it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure.”

“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic; and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally be called unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then, joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.”

In more concrete terms, he called it “a desire for our own far-off country”:

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things--the beauty, the memory of our own past--are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

No comments: