"Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not."
We grieve. We grieve those we have lost. We suffer the lack - we grieve what we never had. At times in life grief is a torment and you are transfixed by pain, grasping at your chest which feels like it will burst. At other times it is a softer quality which may, to use Helen Garner's phrase, permeate like "an unassuageable longing."
Speaking personally, for all my faults I have always felt this deep calling and obligation to stand by people no matter what - even in strife, and especially at certain profound moments in strife, when the curtain in pulled back the other is seen, just like me, speaking out their pain. It is when we are most shattered that something greater shows itself: in my experience a deep love, compassion, and fidelity come to us. We see the mystery and preciousness of the other. Sometimes we have to wrestle hard with the pain if we are to keep our eyes open to this. It is the same of course in grief, but in a different way. It is hard to keep our eyes open. I have always tried to listen to my own grief and to be well with it and to learn from it. Sometimes I have failed miserably. That is the nature of being human - we all become overwhlemed, though we all show it in very different ways. I know that loss simply is loss - whatever is gained does not undo it, but I also see sorrow as a friend. It softens my heart, makes me more generous, able to listen, to see the heart of the other. To be haunted by sadness, as a quiet insight into our finitude and preciousness, might be painful but it is an important teacher.
I wrote this reflection after re-reading David Malouf's beautiful novel The Great World. It opens with the sentence, “People are not always kind, but the kind thing to say of Jenny was that she was simple.” Jenny is an intellectually disabled woman whose life we witness as the story shifts back and forth in time. Time is an important theme in the book. Another is our attempt to hold that which we love; an attempt which always fails because all is subject to time and so to passing. Those we love slip through our fingers and we are left helpless and in pain. In the case of this disabled woman Jenny, Malouf's use of her child-like language invites a loving attention to her inner-life. The way Jenny is revealed as one of us is a wonderful achievement of the novel, given that in daily life the inner depths of such people are often unseen and dismissed. But the cost of Malouf's clear vision is that we are pained to see Jenny lose too, like us, and in profound ways - we feel the depths of her loss. Without Malouf's lens our humane condescension might shield us from her pain.
Malouf's narrative reaches a height toward the end of the novel when Jenny finds a man, whom she has always disliked and distrusted, sprawled on the ground and dying of a stroke. She takes him awkwardly in her arms.
“He had his face down between her breasts. She could feel a wetness. She began to weep. She could feel his mouth down there and wished, if that's what he wanted, that she could feed him, but she had no milk. She had had no milk now for more than forty years. They had pumped it out of her with a machine. She had begged and begged them, those nuns, not to take it, and all that night had dreamt of mouths pulling at her, and she didn't care in the end what they were, babies or poddy calves or little lambs or what, that were feeding off the rich stuff her body had stored up, which had been meant to feed a creature, not to be squeezed out with a machine. And all the time, out there somewhere, her own little baby was going hungry; or if it wasn't, it was being fed some other milk, not the one that had been made for it special in all the world; and for the whole of its life, poor thing, it would know that and feel the loss – that the world had stolen something from it that it would never have. She had looked around wherever she went after that, believing she would recognise the face of that little kid she had had the milk for, and who might be looking for it still.”
The world steals from us – things we have lost, things we never had - and in both cases we cry out.
Malouf's novel constitutes a study in how the different characters respond to loss. Jenny's mother fantasises a heaven where every material good she has stored up is present, where her adult children are young again and sit around the table happily. That image is in radical contrast to the human beings she has raised. Jenny's mother will not accept nor find a way to love them in their reality, for she cannot stand reality itself and so retreats into a fantasy. She does not understand the magic of life. In the traditional magic trick - the disappearance and return of the coin - what you receive at the end, is never quite what was made to disappear. The magician takes from us an object that is precious to us. Then they make it disappear - we lose the thing we want or need so much, the object of our love. Then they return it to us and we think it is the same but it is something else. It takes time to discern the difference. The magic was never in the object, but in the relationship between us and the wonder that was invoked. We walk away from the original object without even realising the change, without seeing the true magic of the trick
Certain others in the book are hardened by loss, they become cynical, bitter, contemptuous. These are forms of self-protection, an anaesthetical turning-away of attention and consolation through distortion of vision. Yet others refuse to do this and remain lucid. Digger and his friend are an example of this contrast. Mid-way through the novel Jenny's brother Digger returns from the Second World War where he was a prisoner on the Burmese Railway, tasked with burning the corpses of his fellow prisoners. A friend asks Digger what he is doing in King's Cross, “hangin' about with this sorta rubbish?”
“It was the word he had used, rubbish, that Digger wanted to go back to. What came back to him at times, and too clearly, was that break in the forest and the fires he had tended there. It had given him such an awareness of just what it is that life throws up, and when it has no more use for it, throws off again. Not just ashes and bones, but the immense pile of debris that any one life might make if you were to gather up and look at the whole of it: all that it had worn out, used up, mislaid, pawned, forgotten, and carried out each morning to be tipped into a bin. Think of it. Then think of it multiplied by millions.
“What he would have wanted, given the power, was to take it all back again, down to the last razor blade and button off a baby's bootee, and see it restored. Impossible, of course.
“He wanted nothing to be forgotten and cast into the flames. Not a soul. Not a pin.”
As Digger admits, this is impossible. Malouf recognises the tragedy of the human condition: the contradiction between the preciousness of others, and the impermanence of all things, eaten away by the flames time, destroyed by the world. Through intimate objects Malouf turns our attention to the painful meaning of this continuous passing away: a razor blade for the husband's morning ritual, making his flesh smooth to the touch, a button from a baby's bootee. This is loving, maternal imagery brings us into a different relationship with life than the contempt displayed by Digger's friend. Digger sees with love, but of course that renders him vulnerable. It means the acceptance of the pain. Digger's friend refuses to accept the pain and attempts to pass it on disguised as hate. Digger accepts pain for the sake of love, and so he must suffer.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of a dear friend, who died young. I was a pall bearer. Her coffin was made of wicker cane, and as I carried her I could see and smell her through the gaps. To lift her down the steps of the church a steel handle was unfolded on the trolley. Juxtaposed with her lying there, the chrome machinery seemed cold, hard and mechanical. I was carrying her to a hearse which would drive her to a brick building where she would be burned. I had such an urge to rescue her, to open the coffin and lift her out. I felt broken inside. Of course I know that death is natural, a universal consequence of life, but it felt like an utter injustice – something wrong, something impossible to comprehend.
My friend was a talented philosopher academically, and more importantly in spirit. During the last week I have had imaginary conversations with her about death. These led to various reflections which consoled me and helped me accept her loss. But yesterday the physical reality of her body at her funeral shattered that. I came to view those consoling insights as evasions, protections against the sorrow, against being broken. I had defended myself against the horror and pain of her loss by reasoning and consoling the hurt away. Or so it seemed as I sat there sobbing before her coffin, with brokeness in my body. Today however, my body still aching, I realise that this last weeks' thoughts were also true.
I had to struggle before and during the funeral not to dissociate from the pain, and at times I had to give into that temptation a little - to let a fog overtake me as the only way of pulling myself together when my body felt like it was spasoming with grief. After all I was among others and the attention was due to her. I think however that had I not let the wrenching truth of what had happened enter into me as best I could, then I might have given over to avoidant consolations, clever insights serving as shields against the pain and so the truth. That would be a refusal to pay attention to the truth of my friend's death, to pay attention to her. And yet, as a consequence of facing this truth, I feel that I have reached a more lucid, genuine form of those initial consoling insights: truths about the naturalness of death; about the wonderful gift of living which demands an acceptable price, paid in mourning; and how anticipation of my own death is now forever transformed by a sense of following her to where she is (even if this notion of ‘being somewhere’ is purely poetical). The temptation to evasion by blindness, whether through hardening, or by clever insights, is always there for all of us. Loss and the grief can be teachers, but accepting the pain is a condition for being true to those (or that) which we have lost.
Of course the work of finding true consolation is always flawed, an ideal from which we constantly fall short. And yet it is something toward which we can make progress. It is human to delude oneself, to try to sweeten a bitter drink. Sometimes, for a time, pain is too much to bear. Nietzsche's claim that what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger is too often mere romanticism. Life can break people. More often its cruelty weakens us, at least for a time. But often we can become wiser, gentler, more loving, in the face of it, given time and a willingness to let suffering and love dwell together.
In honour of Georgie Smith, 1968 - 2014.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Maria Kreyn, Alone Together