The Trick of Life

If you happen to live in a bijou cottage, as I do, it is imperative that you become as expert in the art of stowage as the captain of a submarine, the more so if you are a bibliophile, as I am, otherwise, like a sufferer of Diogenes Syndrome, you will disappear under a welter of paper.  So you learn to use the space.  If you must store stuff in boxes, then box clever.  But it is not enough to move things around.  That is merely to rearrange the Titanic’s deck chairs.  You have to cast stuff overboard, or at least in the direction of the charity shops.  You must let go.  So periodically I declutter.

I underwent this cathartic experience during the week just gone.  I found myself looking at ancient photographs and letters from people with whom I have long lost touch.  It made me a trifle maudlin; I think the psychiatrists would say I was “dysthymic”.  If the experience was a tad discombobulating, I can’t say it was unpleasant.  On the contrary I was reminded of episodes in my life that were extremely rich and rewarding.  But I hardly knew it at the time.  The thing about looking back to the past is that all the angst you may have experienced there and then is expunged.  It’s all done and dusted so, at least as far as the past is concerned, you are beyond harm.  You just see a record of the good times.  Why didn’t I know how lucky I was?

I am a worrier.  I am Claudio, a young gentleman in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.  In Act 3 Scene 1, Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna counsels him:

Happy thou art not,

For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get,

And what thou hast, forget’st…

Thou hast not youth nor age,

But as it were an after dinner’s sleep

Dreaming on both…

So one is a passive observer of one’s own progress through life.  But it seems to me now that the trick of life is to live in the present.  The past is immutable and the future, invisible, has yet no existence.  So live now.  Carpe diem.  Temperamentally, I was never any good at this.  I remember when I was a child I would say to myself, “If only such-and-such were not the case, I would be perfectly happy.”  Such-and-such might be a tiresome chore, classmate, social obligation, or some nameless dread I’ve long since forgotten.  Winston once said that of all the things he worried about, most of them didn’t happen!  True enough.  I have a notion that if some worry of my younger self had been magically spirited away, I would just have found another.  So the worry itself was not the real issue, it was just a kind of “objective correlative” for a state of mind that was fundamentally angst-ridden.  I think on the whole my pals thought I was relentlessly upbeat and irritatingly cheerful, yet it was all a front.  I was at heart a melancholic.  The soundtrack to my life was the second movement of Arthur Honegger’s Second Symphony.  If you listen to it you will doubtless sympathise and say to me, “You poor sod.”

I used to think that if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t make such a pig’s breakfast of it.  Now I’m not so sure.  I would wake up in the untarnished tenement of my younger manifestation only to find the angst still present.  The Duke again:

Thou art not certain,

For thy complexion shifts to strange effects

After the moon.

Plus ça change.  But one thing I would do differently.  I wish I’d known that I didn’t have to take on the whole world on my own.  I would ask my mentors to teach me life skills.  Of course that could well have backfired.  I don’t suppose my mentors were living in the present any more than I was.  Their whole motive and purpose was to forge our cohort into something utilitarian for the future.  So keep a stiff upper lip, Campbell, and get on with your Latin declensions and your trigonometry.

It has become fashionable to talk about inner turmoil, in terms of “mental health”.  Royals of the younger generation do so, unlike their senior counterparts.  I’m not at all sure that it is always – or even commonly – useful to think that unhappiness is pathological, that you must have a disease because you feel anxious or fretful.  Shakespeare clearly thinks it’s the norm, the human condition.  A generation ago people sought solace in the church, through song, meditation, prayers of intercession, and benediction.  Nowadays, people visit their therapist. 

But it has been good to declutter.  I may still be trudging my way through the slow movement of Honegger 2, yet, just once in that movement – this is so characteristic of Honegger – we experience a moment of the rarest magic.  It is transitory.  Almost immediately, the melancholy returns.  Yet, unmistakably, for that moment, the sun came out.                                   

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