Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Parents and children/Dying is easy, comedy is hard

Reading the first reminded me of the second.  

Anne Carson

One cold dark night​ there was a story about a knocking at the outer gate. Despite cries of Yes! Yes! Coming! someone still knocked and the snow that had piled on the gate was blown halfway up the door itself, with no meaning as to the blind knocking or the thick snow or why it did not stop. I knew I should be writing a straightforward story, or even a poem, but I didn’t. I should get back to words, I thought, plain words.

I had been looking at the New Testament in an 1801 edition of Johannes Leusden’s side-by-side (Greek and Latin) version, which I’d found on my bookshelf in a fragile state that did not allow the pages to be turned quickly. Little flecks broke off. I opened it at random to 1 Corinthians 10, a letter of Paul’s about idolatry. The letter spoke of people who wandered in the wilderness eating ‘pneumatic’ bread and drinking from a ‘pneumatic’ rock – or so I was translating it in my head, the word for ‘spiritual’ being pneumatikos in Greek, from pneuma, ‘breath’. Can either bread or rock be made of breath? Anyway who can drink from a rock? A sort of dreariness, like a heavy smell of coats, comes down on the word ‘spiritual’ and makes religion impossible for me. The page is turned. Flecks fall.

Before turning the page though, I noticed that Paul’s text, in the verse following the pneumatic rock, was at pains to identify the rock with Christ (that is, God) and to explain that the rock was ‘following’ these people through the desert so they could drink from it. How very awkward, I thought. I wondered why God couldn’t come up with a better water arrangement for these people and why Paul couldn’t find a more graceful image of God’s care. Presumably Paul wants people to seek and cherish God’s care? But to visualise the longed-for Other bumping along behind your desert caravan in the form of a rock might just make you morose or confused.

Confused and morose myself, not least of all because of that continued knocking at the gate, and in need of a fresh idea, I opened the Bible again and found Psalm 119:81-3. This seemed to be another text about people in the wilderness:

My soul fainteth for thy salvation: but I hope in thy word.
Mine eyes fail for thy word saying, When wilt thou comfort me?
For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes.

And all at once I recognised it as a passage I had worked on before, at a time when snow was not my concern – I’d been invited to give a lecture on (as I recall) ‘the idea of the university’, a topic about which I knew little, and so began to compose a lecture more concerned with the word ‘idea’ than the concept of the ‘university’. I’m not clear on whether I ever delivered this lecture: I can’t find it among my papers. Three days before the lecture date my mother died. I fell to my knees in the kitchen. Astoundedness was like a silvery-white fog that seeped up and over all those days. I had visited her only a week before, the long train, then bus, then taxi trip. She seemed OK. Forbidden by her doctor from her nightly glass of Armagnac she’d taken to dabbing it behind her ears. The word ‘idea’ comes from ancient Greek ‘to see’. Was there a way to get out of giving that lecture, I wondered. 

J.M. Coetzee

She is visiting her daughter in Nice, her first visit there in years. Her son will fly out from the United States to spend a few days with them, on the way to some conference or other. It interests her, this confluence of dates. She wonders whether there has not been some collusion, whether the two of them do not have some plan, some proposal to put to her of the kind that children put to a parent when they feel she can no longer look after herself. So obstinate, they will have said to each other: so obstinate, so stubborn, so self-willed—how will we get past that obstinacy of hers except by working together?

They love her, of course, else they would not be cooking up plans for her. Nevertheless, she does feel like one of those Roman aristocrats waiting to be handed the fatal draft, waiting to be told in the most confiding, the most sympathetic of ways that for the general good one should drink it down without a fuss.

Her children are and always have been good, dutiful, as children go. Whether as a mother she has been equally good and dutiful is another matter. But in this life we do not always get what we deserve. Her children will have to wait for another life, another incarnation, if they want the score to be evened.

Her daughter runs an art gallery in Nice. Her daughter is, by now, for all practical purposes French. Her son, with his American wife and American children, will soon, for all practical purposes, be American. So, having flown the nest, they have flown far. One might even think, did one not know better, that they have flown far to get away from her.

It's a bit much: from the LRB to the NYRB... "from the LRB to the NYRB"

Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

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