Saturday, 20 November 2010

One in Fifty Thousand

[Author's note:  One of the biggest questions facing believers is the problem of pain and suffering.  There are no easy glib answers to this question.  It is clear that on a planet of fixed size, if there is birth there has to be death to make room.  But what if all pain were removed and death was always painless?  I have tried to imagine what this would be like in the following story ..]

One in fifty thousand is not much to worry about.  It is hardly worth concerning yourself when you go to sleep that one in fifty thousand will not wake up the next day, and you could be one of them.  One in fifty thousand will go to sleep, content and happy and painless, and will be carried off by the silent swathe that passes over the slumbering.  One in fifty-one thousand one hundred and thirty-five, to be precise, the statisticians have calculated.  It is so curious an exactitude that one may expect to live, on average for precisely threescore years and ten, just as it has been decreed in scripture, that many have seen this as evidence of the existence of God.    But the timing of the swathe for each individual has no pattern or apparent purpose; it favours not age over youth.  One may live to seventy and then expect to live another seventy.  One in sixteen may live to two-hundred and eighty, still looking the same as when they were twenty-one, and still expect to live another seventy.
We are supposed not to worry about this.  I am one-hundred and eighty-nine years old, and I am gazing at the sleeping form of my wife, Kate, a mere child of thirty-seven, and I am worried.  She is so beautiful and I love her so much it hurts.  It’s not supposed to hurt, but how can I not hurt and worry that she will be swept away without warning this night; that she will be taken from me just like the four before her?  Why not me first for a change?  I am supposed not to mind, for it says in scripture:

Husbands love your wives; wives love your husbands, but not to excess.  Be happy for them when they are taken away to greater rewards.  Do not mourn your loss, you who are widowed; your body remains unblemished and beautiful - you will find another partner who will appreciate the wisdom of your years that is contained in your soul but which leaves your body unmarked.

I dare not tell Kate how much I love her.  Such levels of love are unhealthy – they would start to poison her and she could lose her mind as I surely am losing mine.  In our lovemaking tonight, as in all other nights, I experienced a few fleeting seconds of exquisitely delicious pain at the apex of the act of union, and only then did I feel real – the wonderful balance of pain and ecstasy that is a release from the numbness of my meaningless existence.   I have wished many times that the end to lovemaking would bring death to both of us, in each other’s arms; such a release from the endless bearing of children, painless for the mother, but with each the potential to bring heartbreak when they are as likely as not to be swept away before you, as eight of my seventeen already have been.
I have identified that pain is the element that is missing, and I long for it.  That is why I say I am losing my mind.  I long for pain. I long for it to bring meaning.   And yet we all seem blessed (or rather cursed) with the inability to feel pain – the inability to feel real.  I try to re-create pain on my own; in the kitchen I slash a knife uselessly across my wrist, feel the slight sting, watch a few drops of blood come out, before, in a few seconds, the wound heals up, leaving no mark, and the stinging abates leaving only the mental torture that is inside my head.  If only it would leave a permanent mark, a scar so I could say on such and such a day I cut myself here to stop myself going mad.  But my wrist is as unblemished as it was a few moments ago – there are no visible memorials to map out my struggle.
 Why is it that we do not feel pain, as animals do?  Why is it that our existence is reduced to one of bland shallowness?  Some have said it is our kind Deity who cannot bear to watch His children suffer pain.  That He protects us from pain and disease, from age and infirmity because He wants our happiness, our joy, our gratitude.   Do I seem ungrateful?  I do not believe so, because I cannot believe such a Deity exists, for if He does, he cannot be good – more a sadistic monster who laughs at my torment and my expectation that it could continue like this for another seventy years.  No, such a Deity is not kind at all.  Would that the Deity would not be so cowardly as to protect us from pain, but would come down and live among us; stand alongside us in that pain.  That kind of God is one I could believe in.  But not the wimp and coward we are told to worship.  I reject such notions – there has to be a natural explanation of why we are preserved till we die, and why we die in exactly the pattern of the decay of  radioactive atoms.
I look again at Kate’s sleeping form beside me.  My arm is draped over her and I feel the perfect, womanly shape, and the smooth, regular rise and fall of her breast as she sleeps.  I want so much to shake her awake – to say don’t go there where you could be swept away like the other four.  Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me I cannot bear to lose yet another.  But she does not know what it is I’m going through – she does not appear to suffer internally as I do.  I shall not poison her mind and allow her to plunge into my turmoil.
I cannot continue any longer, Godless and hopeless. An end to life is all I want; not easy to achieve given the uncanny robustness of my body.  I get up from the bed, and pack a rucksack with heavy rocks from the garden. 
I now stand on the bridge over the river; the rocks will weigh me down, and ensure I don’t return to the top before my breathing has ceased.  I take one last look round, on the bridge top, at this pointless world, then launch myself towards the water, ready to embrace the nothingness that surely follows …
Suddenly I am awake.  My pulse is racing and there is a slight sweat on my forehead.  The nightmare is over, but as the pain starts to take hold, jabbing its vile spikes all over me, I know it is time for the next dose of morphine.  The nurse comes and administers the temporary relief.  Kate sits on my bed, holding my hand.  As the pain subsides, I gaze upon her face, no longer flawless as in her youth, but lined with the ever-advancing edge of age.  I don’t care – I can still see all her loveliness, and there is no reason why I should not tell her.  I put my arm around her waist and feel her warmth.  Our eyes gaze at each other and three unspoken words pass from one to the other.  In a few days’ time (it cannot surely be more than that) she is going to lose me, and she is ready.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


Quakers believe that something of God may be found in every human being.  That thought prompted me to dream up this modern reworking of a very old joke.

After a long, good, moral, and kind life, an atheist finally dies at a ripe old age.  Much to his surprise he discovers that there really is such a thing as God, and life after death, despite never having entertained such notions during his life.  Moreover, he discovers that God, whom he had previously been warned was a jealous and judgmental character, was in fact the source of the good that was in his life - and indeed he had lived a very good and noble life.

So, as a result, completely unexpectedly, he finds himself admitted to Heaven.  It is a wonderful place: a massive party with tables laid out with delicious food that never seems to run out,  and plenty of drink which you can drink without ever getting too drunk.  Laughter and dancing abound all over the place.

He takes a stroll around and comes across an immensely long wall.  Looking into the distance, he sees that the wall eventually disappears, like the horizon, and he realises it encloses a gigantic circular region.  Out of curiosity he puts his ear to the wall, and hears similar sounds of merriment coming from the other side.  Wondering what the purpose of the wall is, he calls over one of the angels who is serving the drinks, and asks "What's with the wall?  Who is it on the other side?"

The angel replies:  "That'll be the Christians.  They think they are the only ones here."

PS in the original version of the joke, it was the Catholics who thought they were the only ones there.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Our Labour Paused

Inspired by Carol Ann Duffy's new poem Silver Lining (hear the Poet Laureate read her poem here), I took some photographs, and wrote my own poem, which bears no small debt to "Silver Lining".  The weekend where the skies were so empty of planes felt like a pause at home; a pause that caused havoc for those stranded however, serving to remind us how dependent we are on a precious resource that is bound to run out eventually.

Our Labour Paused

Not in fifty springs
May I see the cherry-blossom thus:
Dancing against a plain and planeless blue,
Endless shades of white undulating the petals,
Stamens accosted by hoverings of wasps and bees;
Nature reclaiming the skies and continuing to work.

But this morning, deemed safe
To receive our own outpourings
Of earth's innards,
The blue infinities,
Criss-crossed with kids' crayons,
Streaked with white fragments
In straight lines, billowing to a dull blur,

Lovers, reunited,
Supermarkets, restocked,
Business meetings, rescheduled.

And for who knows how long,
Our labour, unskilled beside Nature's,
Propelling the world into our mould,

Friday, 2 April 2010

Does Suffering have a meaning?

Coincident with my daughter doing an essay for her English Literature coursework on Beckett’s “Endgame” on the proposition whether tragedy creates a sense of meaning to suffering, I find myself also pondering this subject – a fitting one for a Good Friday, when we remember Christ’s suffering on the Cross.  Rather than consider academically whether the literary genre of tragedy can create a sense of meaning for suffering, I shall try and consider the broader question of whether suffering has a meaning at all, or is it the the inevitable consequence of a blind, pitilessly indifferent nature , as Richard Dawkins has argued in “River Out Of Eden”?
Dawkins’s materialistic explanation has the merit that it is the easiest to understand.  If there is no God, then there isn’t the difficult part of explaining why such a God should allow suffering.
And yet, we all somehow want to find meaning in suffering – and some better explanation for it than random chance.  I do not know why this should be, and yet even in Beckett’s bleak masterpiece “Endgame”, there is this need to find some meaning, or perhaps someone to blame.  There is one point in the play in which three of the characters attempt to pray in silence to God.  After a short pause they all decide that absolutely nothing has happened.  The main character, Hamm, comments “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!”  This comment was originally censored in England when it was performed in 1957.  The objection was to calling God a “bastard”, and not to asserting that he didn’t exist, and the word was changed to “swine”.
Though this line is shockingly blasphemous, I think it’s pretty funny at the same time, and also very profound.  To call someone a “bastard” implies that you believe they exist, so the juxtaposition of this on an assertion of non-existence creates a paradox that makes us think.  Some part of our rationality wants to have someone to blame for suffering; it seems a blind indifferent universe isn’t sufficient to have a go at:  because it is not a person, you can’t call the universe a bastard.  Or it might be that the speaker is angry at God for not existing.  Why didn’t you show up and help us through all of this?  In the same way, one of the emotions experienced in the grief of bereavement is anger at the person who died – how dare they die and leave me alone?
So how does our religion deal with this big problem?  In a way it provides and doesn’t provide an answer at the same time.  The debate over meaning in suffering goes back to the most ancient times.  In the book of Job in the bible, there is much debate over the reason for Job’s immense suffering.  For his three so-called “comforters”, it is clear that they want to find a rational explanation for it.  They argue that Job must have sinned, and as a result he is suffering.  All he has to do is admit his guilt and God will forgive him.  In this, the suffering is seen as a consequence of Job’s actions.  But throughout all this, Job maintains his innocence – he hasn‘t done anything essentially wrong to deserve this.  In the final chapters of the book, Job is confronted by God, and yet still, no complete answer is given to the riddle of his suffering.  Instead God shows him the vastness and intricacy of His creation, and reminds Job of his ignorance – how little he knows, and how he wasn’t there when it was all put together.   In the end, Job realises this and states “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).  By the end, Job is vindicated and, but his friends have been foolish in asserting that there is a rational explanation – bad deeds and their consequences; and they are rebuked and have to seek forgiveness.
All of this seems to imply that suffering does not have a meaning, or that maybe the meaning of it is beyond our grasp.
How does this all change with the events we recall on Good Friday?  I have written elsewhere of Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” that one of the characters (Lucky) is an analogue for Christ, through which Beckett negates the idea that Christ’s suffering achieved any purpose.  In contrast to Christ’s last words on the Cross “It is finished!”, the last words spoken by Lucky in the play before his mock “death and resurrection” are “Unfinished ...”.  The hapless Lucky’s suffering has achieved nothing at all, and it proceeds after those events, and nothing has changed.  Likewise in “Endgame”, the first words spoken by Clov  (who is a kind of “suffering servant” to the central character Ham) are “Finished, It’s finished, nearly finished,  it must be nearly finished”, starting from the complete certainty of “Finished” and descending by degrees into uncertainty.  The suffering of the characters in the play goes on, day in, day out, the same farce day after day, seemingly without point and meaning.  The absence of belief in God implies that death can be seen as the end of suffering, and yet the characters never seem able to take that step.  In Hamm’s first speech, perhaps echoing the famous soliloquy of the similarly-named Hamlet, he states “ it’s time it ended, and yet ... I hesitate ...... to ... to end”.  And similarly for Hamlet, the stark debate “To be, or not to be” boils down to indecision – is it really a question of not existing anymore, or is there an “undiscovered country” (the afterlife) in which even more disturbing dreams may come than in this life?
While for Hamlet, the fear of what the afterlife may bring deters him from suicide, perhaps for Hamm it is still this innate desire to find meaning in existence, and the suffering that existence entails.
Does Christ’s suffering on the Cross provide an answer to all this?  Does His suffering have a “meaning”?  Traditionally the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – that Christ died in our place, and took the punishment that we deserved, is supposed to provide this answer.
But is the answer as simple as this?  In one sense it is.  All you have to do is believe and be saved; that much is clear from the Bible (see John 3:16 ).  But like many deep mysteries, there are always further layers to be explored. The most important moment, perhaps during the accounts of the crucifixion that we read is when Jesus says “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”  This is the cry of someone who suffers intolerably, and has no idea why.  In its fear and confusion, is it not somewhat similar to Hamm’s cry: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist.” ?  It carries the same sense of accusation in "why have you done this?"
So for me, as a Christian, it seems what this shows is that we still don’t know the reason why suffering exists, but we do know that God placed himself in the same position as us, of not knowing the reasons, and enduring all the fear, anguish and suffering that this entails.  Just as Job was innocent, so was Christ, and innocent people suffer for no reason.  What Christ’s death and resurrection show us is that one day we may find a reason, and an end of suffering.  God is not a non-existent bastard,  but a real entity who knows just as we do, what it is to suffer.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Comment moderation enabled

I regret to announce that I have had to enable comment moderation on this blog.  This is because some moron is leaving comments in Japanese that contain embedded links to Japanese porn sites, disguised as a row of dots.  This has continued despite the fact I have enabled the "Captcha" technology, so the moron has to sit there and manually enter the Captcha code.  I apologise for the inconvenience to any regular readers who might wish to comment.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Wisdom, Knowledge, and Information

In watching the "Lewis" TV detective drama last night ("Lewis" is the follow on series from "Inspector Morse") I was struck by the misquoting of a T.S. Eliot poem.  The sergeant (who is the "intellectual one" of the pair of central characters) states "Where is the wisdom we have lost in information".  On being asked what that was from he said "T.S. Eliot" as I knew he would.  However I also knew that the quote was slightly incorrect.  Two lines have been telescoped into one by the scriptwriter.  The correct quote is:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

I first encountered the second line during the literature review study for my PhD in Computer Science.  The quote was placed at the beginning of someone else's thesis that I included in the review.  The thesis in question was about techniques for visualising complex multi-dimensional datasets in order to spot patterns among a heap of numbers.  Thus it was appropriate to have the quote, because the techniques the author had developed enabled the extraction of knowledge from what would otherwise be a load of incomprehensible information that could overload us.

Modern technology has made it possible to get knowledge from a huge amount of information.  It helped me in finding the source of this poem.  I knew it was by T.S. Eliot, but couldn't remember which poem it was.  I attempted to speed-read my yellowing copy of T.S. Eliot's collected poems but didn't find it.  Then I turned to a search engine on the internet and typed in the quote.  In a fraction of a second I had a number of hits, and about the first hit revealed the knowledge I was looking for, that it was a chorus from "The Rock", and I was then able to find it in my book.  It is pretty amazing that out of the monumental quantities of information on the Internet, my simple search on Google could give me the piece of knowledge I was looking for.

However, the answer to Eliot's first question:  where is the WISDOM we have lost in knowledge, is far less straightforward.  If knowledge is a higher representation of information (which in computer terms is just a string of zeros and ones, but in Eliot's terms would probably just be a set of disconnected facts), then wisdom is perhaps higher representation of knowledge.

I have been thinking that in using "Knowledge" here, perhaps Eliot is referring to the Tree of Knowledge in the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall, in the early chapters of the Bible.

This knowledge represented a loss of innocence for the two characters; they realise they are naked - they feel shame.  And so, too for us, knowledge isn't always helpful, but can be put to destructive use.  Once the atomic bomb was developed, we had enough knowledge to destroy the planet.  Even without that, we may destroy things by pollution, causing catastrophic climate change, or possibly we shall run out of natural resources such as fossil fuels before alternatives can be found, causing widespread instability, famine and wars.  All of this comes about because our immense scientific knowledge allows us to exploit the earth in ways which it cannot in the long term sustain.

So how does one rediscover the wisdom that has been lost in knowledge?  It is not an easy question to answer.  The only one I can come up with is that we have to listen to our consciences.  C.S. Lewis writes in "Mere Christianity" of the "Moral Law", the innate sense of right and wrong that we all have built in instinctively.  We all know what is fair and right, and that somehow the right thing to do is to act altruistically.  Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, and now head of the National Institutes of Health, has also written about the Moral Law in describing his own conversion from atheism to Christianity in his book The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief

This moral law is the voice of our conscience, and C.S. Lewis says it is a gift from God, and for Francis Collins it was the realisation of this Law, to which we are all subject, and which nonetheless we wantonly and knowingly disobey much of the time, that was the key factor in the crumbling of his own atheism and acceptance (initially unwillingly) of Christianity.

We should always try and listen to this voice of conscience, even if what it tells us to do makes us unpopular or unfashionable, or even if it contradicts whatever dogma (religious or political) that we happen to follow.  Because the true voice of your conscience  (not necessarily the one you want to hear, but the one that you know in your heart is right) is the true voice of God.  St. Paul writes of this (Romans 2:14) in a wonderful parenthetical comment, a true piece of wisdom buried within all the other knowledge and information presented in his letter:

(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, because they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Right Hand Girl

"I'll be your right hand, Nicky."

I am lost for words at her offer.  Some would say she's pretty if you like that sort of thing.  I will describe her she has ginger hair descending in ringlets elfin features sparkling light blue eyes and an impish smile but it's not her looks that have led me to confess all my shameful secrets to her not her looks at all but something in the way she listens and seems to understand and accept me for who I am; no matter what she is there and she's listening listening listening taking away all my shame and still seeing my inner human being and her demeanour says that what she sees is ok.

She's given me a hand moving my stuff into my student room setting out all my photos posters books cups cutlery baseball caps videos beer bottles cider bottles wine glasses with that female flair that just always escapes me but which I recognize when I see it.  I show her my computer, its keyboard being my chief means of expression as my fingers dance instinctively over the keys in response to my thoughts; they know their own way to the keys without me trying to make it happen.  I tell her eagerly about how fast I can rap the words out and make the characters whizz up on the screen and she says Nicky you'd better take a look at this and my composure falls apart as she hands me a special notice in with the information pack that the University have provided.  

"It's a bit of a pain, isn't it?" she says but for me it's real physical pain and will reduce my essay writing to torture and struggle as the notice says that the University wants to clamp down on lax moral standards and in order to do this essays must not be submitted as a word-processed document, but written out by hand where they will be scanned by a machine for the tell-tale signs of evil sinister left-handed writing and I know I have no escape the slope the angle of the crosses the uprights the loops all screaming out the unmistakable signature of a left-hander and she knows she knows immediately just looking at me she knows that it's more than a bit of a pain and she says what's the matter Nicky and the gates of my shame burst open and it all comes flooding out.

I tell her of my friend Tommy at school on the day we're sent out to practice cricket in the nets it's an empty field and he cannot bowl straight nor can I wield the bat in a convincing fashion and after half an hour of frustration he just says oh to hell with this and bowls the next one left-handed and my stumps are scattered all over the back of the net.  I can't believe what he just did and I ask him you too? and he says you're a left aren't you I always thought so so why not let's be lefts together for a while and the next half hour is poetry of bat thwacking against ball hissing down the side of the nets and occasionally defeating me and smashing down the stumps until the schoolmaster comes along and sees two boys playing cricket as if reflected in a mirror and gets mad at us don't we know it's a sign of rebellion against God have we forgotten that our Saviour rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in the last week of his life and there was crucified for our sins and that our left hand playing is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the Psalmist it is a sign of our rebellion of our forgetfulness?

And I tell her of all the corrective therapy the practice practice practice of my clumsy hand under the minister's stern gaze as over and over again I scrawl out the fateful line of the prophecy if I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand forget her cunning if I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand forget her cunning if I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand forget her cunning and slowly page after agonizing page the letters begin to take better shape and the motion of the pen becomes more fluid but it still just doesn't feel natural but in the end he is satisfied with my progress and tells me I'm a good boy for trying so hard and that God will bless me for my diligence and devotion.  

But I go back to my bedroom and my wrist is aching with all the unnatural effort and I open my notebook take the pen in my left hand and with ease and grace write out these words if I forget thee O Jerusalem let my left hand forget her cunning if I do not remember thee let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy and tears of joy flow down my face as the skill of my left hand proclaims what is in my heart as I remember how our Saviour spent the last week of his life in Jerusalem and I know I know I know I have always remembered this above all other most precious thoughts and never did I ever rebel or put anything at all before God and nor did my tongue ever cleave to the roof of my mouth and I have always uttered praises with the utmost fluency and felt in the midst of all that praise a wonderful connection to God to Jesus to the Holy Ghost and I look at the tidy and polished handwriting and each curve each curl each embellishment of each letter is praise of my God and Saviour fashioned by my left hand.

Suddenly I stop in alarm why have I blurted this all out to this girl I hardly know she could be a spy from the Christian thought police or anything but she just looks at me and says Oh Nicky I'm so sorry I know a little of what you feel because I too have a secret I am ambidextrous I can write equally well with either hand so my guilty secret can be hidden if needs be. And she takes a pen and writes her name fluidly first with the right hand and then the left the left almost the same as the right apart from a slight difference in slant that could be detected by their clever spy machines.  She tells me it's part of her that must be expressed she can't hold it back but she can hide it and is safe from prying eyes.  And so she tells me she'll be my right hand and I'm to type up my essays on computer and hand her the script and she'll write it out long hand with her right hand and no one will ever know because she is on a different course to me so the tutor won't suspect.  I tell her I can't expect her to do all this just for me but she says she wants to do it because she is a little like me and wants to help out those who aren't able to hide like she is.

And so the little deception is carried out essay by essay term by term A plus by A plus and my university studies have become a joy and my private devotion to a God who accepts praise from the left hand as well as the right increases.  After the last essay has been handed in we talk and I tell her she is my best friend in all the world and can never forget how she has helped me to obtain a set of perfect marks throughout the year and how can I ever thank her enough.  Then she turns her pretty eyes upon me and I don't quite realise what is behind that extra sparkle and the fondness in her smile as she moves closer and suddenly her arms are wrapped round my shoulders and her lips are upon mine moving with a passion and urgency as she is trying to ignite a fire that won't start.  I draw back and I say I'm sorry Sue I should have told you before I like you so much but not like that in fact not any girl like that and I really should have said before because it's not as though there's any shame in it our religious leaders might be barmy about what hand you use to write but at least they don't have a problem when a boy likes another boy like that because they know it's not a choice and that love of any kind is a gift from God.

She is red in the face and embarrassed disappointment clouds her face and a tear starts to work its way down her cheek and I hold her to my chest and say there there it's alright I hope we can still be best friends because you're the best friend I ever had.  And as her disappointment subsides she says of course Nicky of course we'll still be best friends I will still be your right hand and I will help you to find love I should have known from the look in your eyes when you told me about Tommy at the cricket practice that he's the one you've loved all along isn't he what became of him?  

And I tell her that they never let us be together not because we were both boys because that is healthy and natural but because we were both lefts and our sinister influence couldn't be allowed to spread and eventually Tommy's parents took him away from that school and I never saw him again.  And now it's my turn to shed tears there is no prejudice against me for liking boys but it's still hard that nine out of ten boys I like are hetero and and nine out of ten of the rest of them are bigoted right-handers and possibly nine out of ten of that tiny remaining number won't like me back.  

"Then your lover will be one in a thousand!" she says "Isn't that romantic?" 

I tell her Tommy was one in a million. 

She pledges to help me find him again.

"I'll be your right hand in prayer too" she says.

Author's footnote:  I have several friends on the internet who have to a great extent struggled to reconcile their Christian faith with their homosexual orientation. Some managed to retain their faith, and some did not.   This story that poured out of me as a series of mini-tirades of  the pent up feelings of the character depicted, is affectionately dedicated to them.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Lucky the Suffering Servant – thoughts on Waiting For Godot

On Friday I attended the West End production of Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” at the theatre Royal Haymarket.  I had read the play in class at school, with little understanding, as one often does reading a play in school.  Then, on finding my daughter studying another Beckett play “Endgame” in her English Literature course, I was interested to revisit the play, which of course it is now possible to do via sites such as YouTube.  I remembered from school that one of the characters, Lucky, has only two lines in the play, of which the second is a tirade of 700+ words – which originally passed us by in class as the ravings of a madman.
Seeing it performed live on stage makes a huge difference to comprehensibility (as it often does in Shakespeare compared to reading it in class).  The production, which featured Sir Ian McKellen in the part of Estragon was quite brilliant – indeed riveting from beginning to end.  I had not expected such a bleak play to be so funny, and I suspect in the production perhaps the actors milked if for all the humour they could get out of it.  The sight of Ian McKellen eating a carrot in the manner of an old tramp, chewing disgustingly and spraying bits all over the place was as hilarious as his ability to produce just the right length of pause before the irony of his question “What are we supposed to do now we are happy?”
Indeed reviews have criticized the production for doing this – does the humour distract from the underlying bleak and terrifying message of the play?
I wonder, too if this different perspective might have something to do with the fact that in order to get the underlying message of the play requires an understanding of Biblical knowledge that has considerably diminished these days.  The incredible lack of knowledge was brought home to me recently watching a quiz show on TV where a contestant was unable to answer the question  “What J follows Matthew, Mark and Luke in the Bible?”
Perhaps it is because I am a Christian that I see Christian parallels (indeed anti-parallels) where in fact there are none to be seen.  I don’t know, but this is how it strikes me.
Throughout the play, the main point of existence of the two central characters, the tramps Vladimir and Estragon is to wait for the mysterious Mr. Godot, who doesn’t show up, twice.  It is not explained just who Mr. Godot is (there are endless debates as to whether Godot is meant to be God, but this is not clear from the play).  There is a repeated section of dialogue, like a refrain in a song of “Let’s go/We can’t/Why not/We’re waiting for Godot/Ahh!”  Is this trying to say that our waiting, perhaps for a salvation or deliverance that is never going to happen is what keeps us trapped and unable to move on?
Into the midst of this interminable waiting for something of which they don’t even know the meaning, enter, twice, two other characters, Pozzo and Lucky.  Pozzo is an overbearing bully, but ultimately a whining and pathetic character.  The ironically named Lucky is his servant, tethered to him by a rope round his neck, and perpetually carrying two heavy bags, which he does not put down, even when standing still.  It seems quite evident on seeing it acted that Lucky could be an analogue of the “Suffering Servant” described in the Bible of Isaiah 52-53.  To the outrage of Vladimir and Estragon, he is treated abysmally by Pozzo, who summons him with barked one-word commands.  When Vladimir and Estragon examine him, they see the clear evidence of mistreatment – the chafe marks of the rope round his neck, his slobbering mouth, his goggling eyes, the appearance of a half-wit, and the overall impression that he is on his last legs.  At this stage it is difficult to avoid the comparison with Isaiah 52:14 from the “Suffering Servant” passage.

... There were many who were appalled at him
   his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man
   and his form marred beyond human likeness.

However, this apparent parallel is the beginning of an anti-parallel.  It becomes more than clear that Lucky offers no hope, no salvation, and that there is no point to his suffering.  When commanded to dance, Lucky performs a bizarre and ungainly dance, which Pozzo reveals is called “The Net” – that Lucky believes he is entangled in a net.  Again one is reminded of the Biblical narrative of Jesus promising to make his disciples, who are fishermen that they will become “fishers of men” – those who are caught will be saved.  And yet the net in which Lucky is entangled is a prison from which he cannot escape.
When Lucky is commanded to think out loud, there follows a famous tirade, in a parody of academic discourse of over 700 words.  Some actors make the mistake of delivering it at breakneck speed as written in the text as a single sentence without punctuation.  However if delivered slowly and thoughtfully, the bleak meaning of the lines becomes clear; no matter what we do, we shall eventually fade away and die, and our labours will be left unfinished.  It is perhaps significant that the last line of the speech before the others silence him is the single word “unfinished ...”.  Again, as a Christian I cannot help but compare this to the final words of Christ on the Cross – “It is finished” (in some translations given as “It is accomplished”).  What had been accomplished was salvation – freedom from the slavery of sin and so forth.  But it is clear from Lucky’s tirade that nothing has been accomplished, nothing finished, nothing achieved.  Furthermore the other characters, especially Pozzo cannot even bear to hear the message, and protest and groan loudly, till they remove his hat, which robs him of the ability to think.
After the removal of his hat, Lucky falls to the ground face down.  The characters wonder if he is dead.  But they are commanded by Pozzo to “raise him up”.  Is this a parody of the Resurrection?  Lucky is raised up with his arms placed round the shoulders of the two tramps, almost as in a cruciform position, and he is given back the burden of the two bags that he has carried throughout.  If this is a mock “death and resurrection” it is clear that nothing has been accomplished by it – the same situation continues, and the hapless Lucky is required to continue bearing his burden (contrasting with the Christian view that the burden of sin was broken and destroyed by the action of Christ’s death on the Cross).
Pozzo and Lucky depart, prompting Vladimir to comment that this at least has passed the time, and Estragon to rejoin “It would have passed anyway”, for some reason – perhaps McKellen’s brilliant timing, drawing a large laugh from the audience again.  The first act closes after they receive a message from a boy that Mr. Godot will not meet them today but he would surely be there tomorrow, and they are to meet him in the same place.
In the second act, Pozzo and Lucky return again, but this time Pozzo is blind, and Lucky is dumb.  One is again reminded that in the biblical accounts Jesus made the blind see again, but here Pozzo complains that he once had marvellous eyesight, but then one morning woke up blind.  It is not clear, and the character cannot even remember if this happened the day before, or even if the events of the second act are a day after those of the first act.  Perhaps in the meaningless, pointless existence that is depicted, all the days blur into one.
The theme of suicide is regularly visited and referred to in the play, from the early mention of jumping off the top of the Eiffel Tower, to the final slapstick scene, where they test Estragon’s belt to see if it would be strong enough to suffice for hanging; the rope breaks and simultaneously Estragon’s trousers fall down, a corny and over-used comic gesture that is effective here in the dark context in which it is made.
In summary, it seems to me that what Beckett is trying to say in this play is that God, once perceived as powerful and giving purpose to existence is powerless to help us, and that Christ is powerless to save us.  All that is left to console us is the power of human companionship, as seen in the relationship between the two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon.  At the end of the play, a second message comes from the boy, exactly the same as the first; Mr. Godot will not see them today, but surely tomorrow.  The two characters decide to return with some proper rope to hang themselves, if, as now seems inevitable, Godot will yet again not turn up.
In the current production, there is a small additional “number” that has been inserted at the end of the curtain calls – Vladimir and Estragon dance together to “Underneath the Arches”, and in a nice artistic final touch, disappear from opposite wings, and the last thing you see is their two hats tossed into the centre of the stage.  In a way this seems again a consolation, celebrating the friendship of the two of them; I am not sure, however, that Beckett would have intended this more optimistic final touch.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A damp trip!

This picture was taken from the HST between Didcot and Reading. Due to the snow we decided to take a combination of taxi and train to get my daughter back to Reading University. The taxi at the other end was unable to drop us at the hall of residence. We had one huge case on wheels that didn't wheel too well through the impacted snow. The train to return was cancelled and we had to get a slow service. Then on nearly freezing to death waiting for a bus to Didcot we succumbed to the temptation to get a taxi back home. A damp and hassle-bound trip. The only redeeming feature being the obtaining of this spectacular sky at 125 mph from the fast train.
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Below is a picture of St. Patrick's Hall, Reading in the snow.  It was a lot warmer inside than outside!

From Jan2010

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Peace that Sustains

I  have been attending Quaker meetings over the past few months.  Although I still also attend a lively evangelical church as well, I am drawn to silent contemplation as a way of worship, self-discovery and discovery of God.  Perhaps in modern churches there is insufficient time put aside for silence, or maybe that is simply an expression of my preference.  Many seem to find spiritual fulfillment in the popular style of worship, with modern choruses and modern instruments, clapping hands, or raising them in the air in affirmation and worship.  But for me, I have often found that it does not fulfil that feeling of "otherness" that one expects from the truly sacred. I have seen such things happening at rock concerts, for example. And while people can be transported to a different place at a rock concert, for me, I want the transport experienced in contemplating the sacred to be different again from the secular.  But that, of course, is my own preference - my own best method for finding God is in silence.  Many might find the Quaker style of worship, with its long, long periods of people sitting in utter silence, to be too austere, or perhaps too lacking in direction.  Tastes and needs differ.

During the Meeting today, only two people spoke during the entire hour, and yet, at the end, when the meeting formally ends with handshakes from the people sitting either side of you, I was taken by surprise that the end had come of an hour unusually full and fulfilling, during which I was totally awake and aware, and at no time wondering how much of the hour had passed, or tempted to glance at my watch.

The second person to speak reflected on a current theme being discussed in Meetings; sustainable living.  The Quaker movement is very "green" in nature, and there had recently been some special studies on sustainable energy, and so forth, where the normal silent worship was supplemented with a prepared talk.  But this person wanted to reflect more on what sustained us. No dogmatic answers were given; it could perhaps be a spiritual belief, or a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature.  However Nature's beauty, it was pointed out, could seem like a mockery if one is in a bleak place, for whatever reason.  So what does sustain us?

I started thinking about this, in the silence that followed.  I suppose the first question to ask in thinking about this is "what is Us?", or "what is Me?"   I recalled a friend of mine who suffered a prolonged period of depression, often to the point of suicide.  What was clear was that she had no inner peace, and furthermore, no sense of the inner self.  Indeed she once told me "When I look inside myself, I see nothing."  This seems to be a common experience of people who suffer from depression.  The biologist Lewis Wolpert describes this in his book "Malignant Sadness", which is partly about his own depression.  It is interesting that Wolpert, who is an atheist, still finds it useful to use spiritual terminology to describe the exeperience of depression.  He writes:

If we had a soul - and as a hardline materialist I do not believe we do - a useful metaphor for depression could be 'soul-loss' due to extreme sadness.  The body and mind emptied of the soul lose interest in almost everything except themselves.  The idea of the wandering soul is widely accepted across numerous cultures and the adjective 'empty' is viewed across most cultures as negative.  The metaphor captures the way in which we experience our own existence.  Our 'soul' is our inner essence, something distinctly different from the hard material world in which we live.  Lose it and we are depressed, cut off, alone.

I find the passage extraordinary, in that this morning, in the quiet of the Meeting, I experienced the exact opposite - the exact thing that Wolpert says is lost during depression.  As I sank further into myself, I became more aware of a "me" that was inside all the time; that my body and mind were not empty, but were in fact very full of this inner essence, this "me", which indeed is distinctly different from the hard material world.  While a scientist may be able to describe what is going on in terms of electrical signals inside one's brain, that is not how we perceive it.  Moreover, Wolpert recognizes, albeit only as a metaphor, that the inner essence, or "soul" is a distinctively different thing from the mind.

It occurred to me that this inner self is something that perhaps we rarely experience to the full.  Instead, robot-like, we spend most of our time, and our conscious thoughts, reacting to things.  We feel excitement, anger, hunger, sadness, happiness, mirth,  intoxication, or we think about what we shall do next, where the next meal is coming from, and so forth.  But none of this is the "me" that is buried inside all of this.  When that "me" is experienced fully; when one is aware of this thing that fills us, what we feel is peace.

For those of us with religious beliefs, that peace equates to the Peace of God which passes understanding.  The reason it passes understanding is because it goes beyond thought, towards just being, and being aware of oneself, as a created being.  The philosopher Descartes famously said "I think, therefore I am".  But I would take it further than that.  "I am therefore I am" might be a more appropriate (albeit maddeningly mystical) way of putting it.  And in using the phrase "I am", one is also  reminded of the biblical verse Exodus 3:14, where God describes Himself: "I am that I am".  And as one of the tenets of Quaker worship is to find the light of God in oneself, this seems an appropriate place to end the development of the argument.

So what sustains "us"?  I don't know if I have the fullest answer (can any question be said to be answered fully?)  But I do think a big part of it is that Peace is what sustains us.  Anyone, believer or not can experience that peace, perhaps just by becoming more aware of the self that lies often buried under the automaton-like existence that results from the Hurly-burly of everyday life.

Having known it for what it is, I can still feel that peace as I write these words.  It does indeed sustain.