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Thursday, November 11, 2010

53. Intimations of mortality

‘When we are born we cry and weep; when we die we should smile.’

It’s a school day, but one with a difference. The Year 7s are at the beach – it’s Water Safety day. And some Year 10s - the VET Recreation class -is off on an excursion to Kinglake. But more significantly, today is Jacquie’s funeral. Jacquie had worked as an assistant in the school library for the last four or five years. She was quiet, shy, self-effacing, always friendly and helpful. She died of cancer a little over a week ago, and her funeral takes place today. Many of the staff are attending the funeral.

It’s now more than eight years ago that I saw the movie Where the heart is. One of the lines of that movie has remained with me, a kind of touchstone. It’s a line uttered by the central character, a girl named Novalee Nation (played by Natalie Portman) who manages to survive the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, a girl from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ who makes good, overcoming the odds to create a life that is full of meaning and integrity.
An online blurb for the film summarises its plot as follows:

Novalee Nation is a pregnant 17-year-old from Tennessee heading to California with her boyfriend Willie Jack, but is abandoned by him at a Wal-Mart store in Sequoyah, Oklahoma. Novalee has no job, no skills and only $5.55 in her pocket, so she secretly lives in the Wal-Mart until her daughter Americus is born six weeks later. Novalee decides to raise her daughter and rebuild her life in Sequoyah, with the help of eccentric but kind strangers. Based on the best-selling novel by Billie Letts.

In a memorable scene Novalee gives birth in the Wal-Mart store, where she has managed to take refuge for several weeks after her boyfriend dumped her. As I said, there is a memorable line; it comes like this: Novalee’s closest friend – Lexie - is also a battler; she is a woman who is easily abused because she is so needful for a man in her life, and too trusting of any man who pays her the least attention. One of these men molests her young daughters, and when Lexie intervenes, she is beaten up.

Lexie blames herself for what has happened to her daughters, and Novalee tries to comfort her.
‘What am Ito tell my children? How can I explain to them that their mother was so stupid – to let a man do this to them?’ Lexie asks. She is obviously filled with guilt about her own gullibility and needfulness, which have allowed this terrible thing to happen.

And in her response, Novalee talks about the reality of the human condition:
You tell them that our lives can change with every breath we take... and tell 'em to hold on like hell to what they've got: each other, and a mother who would die for them and almost did... You tell them we've all got meanness in us, but we've got goodness too. And the only thing worth living for is the good. And that's why we've got to make sure we pass it on.

Our lives can change with every breath we take...

In my recollection I changed that insight to: Our lives turn on a breath.

We live our lives as though we will live forever, and yet we know that death could be as close as the next breath we take. And that is a recognition that be depressing or uplifting. We can choose to live with the ambiguity, or pretend there is none. We can drown our sorrows, or live with constant fear, or live with constant joy.

I didn’t know Jacquie all that well. Four of her closest friends on the staff were at her side when she took her last breath. Some members of staff have been deeply upset by her death; some have soldiered on ‘as though nothing has happened’. But as our principal, Glennis observed: ‘We each grieve in our own way.’

Donne famously wrote: No man is an island ... so do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.
Each death is a reminder to us of our own impending death.
About which the European intellectual and poet, Jean Gebser wrote:
‘When we are born we cry and weep; when we die we should smile.’

I’ve just finished reading the Barry Jones autobiography, A Thinking Reed. It’s a door-stopper of a book, running to around 560 pages. And at a few points, his book has much to say about these matters. He begins by quoting Pascal’s Pensees (Thoughts)

Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.
All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.

At first I wondered at the image of the reed. But then I realised that it’s an apt metaphor – we are like the reed, in both our multiplicity and our frailty. The Bible suggests that our tenure is ‘three score years and ten’ – but that’s a mere statistic, one that is subject to the whims of the gods – or the quantum uncertainties of the universe. Whichever way we look at it – we are weak, frail creatures, and for all of our technological achievement, the Grim Reaper continues to wait in the shadows... Shakespeare put it thus: As flies to wanton boys are we to gods; they kill us for their sport ...

He’s in his eighth decade – he’s a child of the 1930s – Barry Jones has lived an extraordinarily full live. His good friend, Phillip Adams, believes he should be declared a ‘national treasure’; he’s certainly one of our public intellectuals. His interests are passions, and his passions are catholic; he is one of the few genuine polymaths, a jack of (almost) all trades, and a master of many. Popular culture and sport are virtually the only areas of human activity that haven’t possessed him.

Knowing how tenuous our lives are; knowing that the only certainties are death and taxes; and knowing that ‘our lives turn on a breath’ – how are we to live our lives? A Thinking Reed is Barry Jones’s account of how he has lived his life, how he has chosen to occupy his time. You can’t help but be impressed by the sheer enormity of his curiosity and his capacity to ‘map reality’ within his head.

In the introductory part of the book, he writes:
I was always preoccupied with the concept of ‘time’s winged chariot’, the need to act decisively and that there may be no second chances. ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal.’

But how do we choose how to spend our time? How do we decide what is worth attending to? Jones draws on Greek mythology – on the myth of Sisyphus – to state his position on this question. Sisyphus had tricked the gods – he’d managed, for a short time, to chain Thanatos to a rock. Thanatos, the god of death, was unable to move – and so – for a short time – humans did not die. Sisyphus’s victory was short lived; Ares, the god of war, grew tired of battles in which no man could die. So he freed Thanatos. The gods were very angry with Sisyphus for having dared to trick them – indeed, for taking away their power over life and death, , and decided on a cruel punishment: each morning Sisyphus was required to carry a huge boulder up a steep hill. It would take him all day to manhandle the boulder to the top. But no sooner did Sisyphus place the boulder at the top of the hill than it would roll down the other side. [In a famous essay, the French writer Camus likened the work of the writer to the punishment of Sisyphus.]

Barry Jones widens the Sisyphus reference to the whole of humanity; he writes:
Like Sisyphus, we are all condemned to carry loads. The major difference is the value of the contents. One bag may contain empty bottles, bits of rubble and old car tyres, while the other includes maps of the universe, the teachings of Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammad, the writings of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare, music by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, art by van Eyck, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hokusai, the insights of Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, cures to terrible diseases. We must choose which baggage accompanies us through life.

Towards the end of the book, Barry Jones examines his beliefs, the sustaining beliefs that enabled him to life such a full public life. His acknowledges his own shortcomings as a politician with honesty and dignity, but as the book draws to a close, there is much sadness. Rosemary – his wife of some 40 years – died three years before the book was published. Barry is, for the most part, silent about personal matters; but the depth of his loss and of his loneliness is only too apparent.
In the final section he writes:

The optimistic note on which I hoped to end A Thinking Reed, with autumnal light glinting on the leaves and hills of the landscape ahead, has eluded me.

Part of the reason for this lack of optimism must be the loneliness he feels; that and his knowledge that Thanatos is unchained, and his recognition that our lives do indeed turn on a breath. But it is his account of the current state of political activity and debate and the appalling dearth of intellectual content in the public discussion of important issues that most disturbs him. He writes of the betrayal of reason, and of the way in which the 10 second grab and the constant spin doctoring dominate public life.
For a man who has devoted his life to the careful and ordered accumulation of knowledge and understanding, and the use of reason and the careful analysis of evidence to find what is true, the current upsurge of mindless fundamentalisms and political decision making based on populist cant and focus group findings is a source of deep distress.

Phillip Adams is right: Barry Jones should be declared a national treasure.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post Barry. I must try to watch the film Where the Heart Is.
    Love Mish