Chapter 2: Pleasure & Pain
Consider this: our philosophic poet had never drunk coffee, had never tasted chocolate, had never even dunked a plain biscuit in a nice cup of tea at the appropriate mid-afternoon hour. Almost incredibly he yet contrived to be happy – happy with his two-storey seaside villa, his panoramic views of unspoiled countryside, his secluded garden; happy with honey from his own hives, olives from his own trees, and vintage from his own vines; happy even with his gentle wife, doting daughters, modest servants, kindly friends. Enviable happiness in any age. A kind of blessed Equilibrium. Now imagine what felicity would be his if only he were able to enjoy a post-prandial espresso and an amaretto – such pleasure that the gods themselves would envy.
A coffee and a biscuit. A modest al fresco treat. It’s personal, but all the more important for that. Some people think answers can be found in books, but books don’t have answers, only explanations. Bitter coffee and sweet biscuits on a clear Spring afternoon – here in the corner of this cobbled piazza, beneath this old café’s tattered awning, on top of this wobbly plastic table – here, too, is the realm of knowledge, sensual and spiritual, the realm of truth. Nothing that can be captured in words, but true nonetheless. So close the book, take a sip, nibble, chew, swallow. Savour every morsel. Wet the tip of your finger (discreetly of course, you wouldn’t want people to think you uncouth) and gather up every crumb. Pinch that funny undersized handle between thumb and forefinger and drain that little cup right down to its syrupy dregs. The last slushy sensation of a good espresso – incomparable. Quite possibly too much caffeine and almost certainly too much sugar, but only if you measure what’s good for you in calories. Breathe the air, watch the world go by, chat about nothing with your loved ones, smile at passing strangers, wave and say hi if you feel moved, relax. Feel this other way of knowing. A percolation. An infusion. It’s personal – but not subjective.
What would you say to our poet, if he happened to pass by your table? Would you waylay him, invite him to join you, order him a coffee? Would you tell him what a fan you are, to keep up the good work, that he’s on the right track? Yes, indeed, the universe really is rationally explicable, everything really does consist of fabulously minute particles and void. Would you praise him as an architect of the modern scientific method, commend his bold rejection of the supernatural, marvel at his far-sighted contempt for the superstitious? Or would you caution him that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamed of in his reductionist philosophy?
Whatever you might have asked, now is the wrong time. His back is playing up again. Another morning bent double over manuscripts, examining, scrutinising, selecting, epitomising – fingers black with ink – then thinking, thinking, thinking – hard, focussed thought – casting thoughts into metre, selecting words, rhythms, sonorities, dissonances – and only then at the climax of a painstaking process – writing. Two lines, sometimes three, perhaps even four entire lines on a really good day. Building the argument line by logical line, images and words stacked ever so carefully on top of each other, a great edifice inching ever higher. Poetry reaching for the stars, eternal monument to rationality. Inexorable verse – but murder on the back.
Verse merely a function of rules governing syllable placement; but poetry – actual poetry – something quite different again. Verse the result of arranging atomic alphabet characters in specific positions; but poetry – real poetry – a transcendent property, like love or Beauty, something not definable in terms of mere mechanical versification. Correctly align syllables according to the rules and you have verse; but to achieve poetry – genuine poetry – required something, something ineffable, something indefinable, some hard-to-grasp third thing yet somehow intimately bound up with the shapes and sounds of those metrically aligned syllable strings. Humour me for a while, if you will, and consider these, our poet’s own words in his own language:
nec prorsum vitam ducendo demimus hilum
tempore de mortis nec delibare valemus.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand it. Read it over again, and as you do savour the sounds of our poet’s own thoughts. A preponderance of plodding spondees adds weight to a weighty sentiment; the unusual, almost uniquely Lucretian word hilum placed emphatically in the final foot of the first hexameter; the contrast between ‘life’ (vitam) and ‘death’ (mortis) strengthened by identical positioning before the mid-line caesura; assonance and alliteration holding the paired lines together, especially the repeated ‘d’s of the near-synonymous demimus and delibare; the thought running on with enjambment and hyperbaton … the multiplicitous subtleties of Latin verse hidden now from all but a fortunate few, those rare readers sufficiently exercised in the language of Cicero and Caesar, Virgil and Horace; the language of Bede’s Historia, too don’t forget, of More’s Utopia and Newton’s Principia, not to mention the Vulgate, the Magna Carta, and the Carmina Burana. For everyone else a translation is doubtless required. Why should you be expected to know how to read such arcane stuff after all? It’s a sine qua non of modern educational theory that this useless and redundant language, ceteris paribus, is of no value per se when vernacular translations mutatis mutandis are freely available ad nauseam.
‘Prolong your life as much as you like, you’ll never diminish by even one little fraction the duration of your death’. That’s about the gist of it. Or, to reduce it to a handy refrain: We’re all gonna be a long time dead. But what use a translation when mere meaning is only a part of the original? See how much has disappeared: the rhetorical effects and linguistic nuances, the underlying verse structure, the very idea that this is poetry. And what of the words themselves? Let them float freely, disempapered atomic films, ghosts in the wind of history, with fewer and fewer minds attuned to pay them any heed. O tempora, o mores!
His back hurt, more and more, as faster and faster the fiery ball of pain at the base of his spine pulsated. A spasm caught him, made him groan and writhe. Muscles punishing him for years of misuse. All those countless hours bent over his desk. The red wine hadn’t helped. Sharp flashes coursed up his spine, pricking at his brain. He felt nauseous. The end of gastronomic serenity. Sic transit prandium. Gladly he slid crabwise from his seat to lie shaded by the pergola, flat out on the cool flagstones, burning eyes covered by the white napkin. The flashes now shooting stars, harbingers of dread from the depths of inner space.
Memories. Atomic films. The perspicuous teaching of Epicurus: every physical object continually emits thin films of its surface atoms, as the peelings of impossibly thin layers from an onion. These films move through the void and, being themselves so rarefied, pass easily through other less refined objects until a mind (or, in popular parlance, a soul), which itself consists of singularly fine and receptive atoms, encounters them and registers them. But our minds are continually bombarded by such films; clearly they cannot notice every one. Only when our consciousness makes an effort to focus its attention does it perceive particular films. When such impacts are from recently formed films we call them perception; when they are from older films they are memories.
A memory of his mother and father. Blood and screaming. The impossibly massive form of the soldiers: stolid, implacable titans from a mythological age. Inhuman. Blood everywhere in the atrium: bloody stains on the murals, bloody rivulets across the floor tiles, blood curdling in the water of the ornamental pool. His father’s body, slumped as if in a drunken daze; his mother bent over him, screaming, screaming. Blood on her hands, her dress, on her face, in her hair. The soldiers watching, swords out of their scabbards, but immobile. As immobile as Venus in the corner, conferring perpetual benediction with her painted smile. A bloody handprint on the hem of her stone robe. But still she smiled – blessings to all – unmoved by a wife’s anguish.
Memories. Atomic films. Actual atoms emitted from the bodies of his long-deceased mother and father flying through the void eternally. His father’s death agony captured in its every contortion, every bubbling gasp of breath from a torn throat, still present in the air around him, hovering, waiting to be noticed. A horrifying prospect. But the inescapable consequence of the Master’s doctrine. Now the films crowded in on his heightened awareness: more deaths, forcing themselves on his unwilling consciousness: Virginia and Lucretia, Turnus and Tarpeia, Remus, Socrates, Dido and Iphigenia, Patroclus and Hector, endless deaths waiting only for a receptive mind to notice – a gasping Agamemnon as his guts spill out, torso shattered by the blow of his wife’s axe; Hercules flaying his own skin with knife-like fingers as the poison burns into his body; the world-shattering shriek of Uranus as his own son unmans him – deaths from the beginning of time swirling forever in the void. Traumatised, bloody atoms in perpetual motion. Phantoms. A universe of ghostly images just waiting to be seen. Blood throbbed through the veins in his temples, each pulse a sickening blow. Blood all around, in the air, floating through walls, hovering every way he turned. No escape. He groaned and brought his knees up, raised hands shielding his face, pressing, the napkin formed into a mask underneath his soft, ink-bruised fingers. He thought he was going to vomit. What a waste of a good lunch.
He did not vomit. The floating phrase recurred: ‘Prolong your life as much as you like, you’ll never diminish by even one little fraction the duration of your death’. The thought was supposed to make him feel better. Oddly, it didn’t. But at least it distracted him from the nausea. His legs and arms relaxed into a supine pose. Intellectually he understood that an eternity of nothing awaited everyone; that his parents were suffering no longer; that premature death was hardly to be lamented, so infinitesimally brief is the difference between the shortest and the longest lifetime; that attempts to prolong life were futile, laughable even, when set against the vast span of unconscious foreverness that existed before birth and again after death. And yet, for those very reasons this tiny allocation seemed all the more precious, all the more cherishable. The merest whisper in a hurricane, the smallest grain in a desert – comical – but each uniquely ours; its loss a regret. A wound that time, even the longest lifetime, could never heal.
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[Go to Chapter 2, Part 2]