Live by the pen, die by the pen
edited: Thursday, August 02, 2012
By Vincent Mulder
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2012
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just another essay
In the early years of this blog, I would dash off new posts with ease. I wasn’t setting out to be a writer, only to express the simple sweetness of life as I felt it in the moment, with a little speculative reflection thrown in. I was embarrassed to confess my joy openly, to avoid setting a barrier against my reader. It had a fourfold cause: the sudden discovery of good health, love, material sufficiency, and freedom from care. That was seven years ago. Sometimes I’m in low spirits these days, under the weather as in my last, following a whole month of rain.
My immediate neighbourhood is not immune to the suffering in the world, as I said then. We’re all in this together. But I’ve wanted to rise above it in my writing, paint only the silver linings, never the black clouds. I should take a lesson from Fernando Pessoa. The very title of his main prose work The Book of Disquiet shows the source of his own inspiration. Here’s an example of what I mean:
I asked for very little from life, and even this little was denied me. A nearby field, a ray of sunlight, a little bit of calm along with a bit of bread, not to feel oppressed by the knowledge that I exist, not to demand anything from others, and not to have others demand anything from me—this was denied me, like the spare change we might deny a beggar not because we’re mean-hearted but because we don’t feel like unbuttoning our coat.
Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I always will be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place… I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Souradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!...
I should add, in case you are not familiar with Pessoa, that his narrator is semi-fictional, the book is sub-titled A Factless Autobiography, and was merely a set of manuscripts in a trunk till posthumously edited and (brilliantly) translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith. The above extract is fragment no. 6 in the Penguin edition. His entire theme is the wresting of a peculiar kind of joy from a vast realm of irksomeness, by means of a flight from the world into imagination. I have always found him a joy to read no matter what his theme; and I have wished like him to be able to write fluently from the depths of any kind of mood.
As I see it, the task of the writer is to be generous to the reader. I have joined a new writers’ group, here in my home town. It’s a wonderful thing, I may talk more about it later, but it has made me realize many things, whether or not they were raised in the two meetings we’ve had so far. We all joined, I guess, because we wanted to share our difficulties and help one another. It’s only a couple of months since I sneered at the idea. The others are more into fiction, but I think it makes no difference in the end. One writes to provide fodder, to enrich the reader’s life, if only for the time it takes to absorb the words. Even the simplest entertainment is a gift from the performer to the audience. I could digress with many examples but—restricting ourselves to literature—consider P G Wodehouse, the polar opposite to Pessoa. What could be more comforting than his “cloudlessness”, as Martin Amis calls it? In a review of a new edition of Sunset at Blandings, Amis continues:
The only moment of anomie I can recall in his fiction occurs in an early short story, when Jeeves, prompt as ever, brings Bertie Wooster his usual whisky-and-soda at six o'clock. ‘It’s the bally monotony of it all,’ complains the alienated Bertie, ‘that makes everything seem so perfectly bally.’ Bally, by the way, is a public-school diminutive of ‘bloody’. Even here, you see, things aren’t that desperate.
Right now, I’m having to force myself to write. My soul is undergoing some kind of botheration; is trying to tell mind, but mind fails to understand. I should say that it’s the body which gives voice to soul, if only we know how to listen. Body carries messages from soul to mind, through feelings, emotions, physical symptoms. Symptoms make us go to the dentist, doctor or priest—or in any event, to take the wisest action we know. Our primitive ancestors, and the other animals, have been equipped with instincts for self-healing. We are far from that simplicity. Our body prompts us to take needful action and can do no more till mind listens, and when we surrender ourself to the wisest remedy we know, it stops sending symptoms. We feel no more pain. This is the Placebo Effect, but if it isn’t enough to meet the soul’s demand, the effect is only temporary.
My doctor doesn’t believe the above, of course. It occurred to me yesterday that something has been clouding my perception of the simple sweetness of life that used to provide my daily inspiration; and it’s been going on for months. On a whim, I checked the “live-longer” prescriptions I’ve been taking daily against various cardio-vascular contingencies the doctor thinks I’m increasingly prone to at my age: to look at their side-effects. If some of those hit you, you wouldn’t want to live longer. I thought my body might be complaining against these powerful drugs, and decided to give them a break. Within two hours, I felt back to my old self. Ha! The placebo effect works in reverse. Time will tell.
The body and soul, as opposed to the shifty and makeshift mind, never ask for immortality. It’s governments and doctors who take competitive pride in increasing longevity; recklessly ignoring the problems it causes at every level. Nature in its wisdom favours the cull. Man in his stupidity puts a spanner in Nature’s works.
Yesterday I heard on the radio about a study which has proved that people with chronic depression and anxiety live shorter lives. That seems a blessing to those involved. I’m sure some of them don’t find life worth living unless aided by known killers such as alcohol, tobacco, recreational drugs, risky sex and poor dietary choices; or suicide. Who am I to disparage their choice?
Lead author Dr Tom Russ said: “The fact that an increased risk of mortality was evident, even at low levels of psychological distress, should prompt research into whether treatment of these very common, minor symptoms can modify this increased risk of death.”
A “low level of psychological distress” is plain ordinary unhappiness, but they diagnose it as anxiety and depression of course, and say it’s an illness, which they can treat with anti-depressants. Another spokesperson at the same organization, the Wellcome Trust (funded by a drug company) says:
This study highlights the need to ensure they have access to appropriate health care and advice so that they can take steps to improve the outcome of their illness.
Why? Not to alleviate unhappiness, but to make them live longer. And the methods prescribed to make them live longer would be “lifestyle changes” (stop drinking smoking, recreational drugs and all the other deadly things) and take the prescribed antidepressants so as to stay unhappy and live longer. You might think my logic is at fault there. Aren’t antidepressants known as “happy pills”? That’s just humorous sarcasm. Another press release issued today on the same radio programme claims that: “Antidepressants save lives”. Yes but another survey, quoted on the same news item, has found that the town of Blackpool in Lancashire has England’s lowest happiness rating as well as the highest use of antidepressants.
Beware doctors and lawyers! They have their own ambitions and agendas, like politicians, financiers and marketeers. May you and I, through writing and reading, maintain soul-to-soul exchange, reaching across space and time. I pray we keep our integrity, resist the corruption of truth for short-term ends, paint the bigger picture, stay fearlessly close to all-wise Nature, whose children and heirs we are.
Let writing be my drug, both medicinal and recreational.