Monday, August 28, 2006

Barefoot On Plate Glass, Stamping

I once wrote a short story in the immediate aftermath of a break-up. I called it 'If That's What You Want', a reference to the carefully expressed and in the end entirely justified skepticism of the other party's mother. It is a nasty, bitter piece of work, full of recriminations and snide little asides, and without much redeeming literary merit. I wrote it with the help of the consumption of the better part of a bottle of whisky, but that was as anaethestic as much as for dutch courage. About the only decent passage of writing in the entire thing was stolen from Graham Greene's 'The Human Factor'. The novel is I suppose classic Greene: a tired man, who really wants nothing more than to be left alone, forced into bargains he hates to have to make, ends up sacrificing the only thing that really matters to him in order to save it, and, quiet and forlorn, not wanting and unable anyway to make a fuss, drifts out of the world. I took the last two paragraphs, where the hero - and he is a hero, in his supremely ordinary way - is talking to the wife he left behind on the telephone.

‘Oh yes, I’m not alone, don’t worry, Sarah. There’s an Englishman who used to be in the British Council. He’s invited me to his dacha in the country when the spring comes. When the spring comes,’ he repeated in a voice which she hardly recognised – it was the voice of an old man who couldn’t count with certainty on any spring to come.

She said ‘Maurice, Maurice, please go on hoping’ but in the long unbroken silence which followed she realised the line to Moscow was dead.

It was more than a little melodramatic to, as a twenty year-old, portray the end of a relationship that was barely more than a month old anyway, if in its second incarnation, to the lingering hopelessness of a man exiled from all that he ever cared for. It was even more melodramatic to send it to the person it accused of having done the same thing to me and expect critical reflection on it. About as melodramatic as calling a blogpost 'Barefoot On Plate Glass, Stamping', I'd guess.

About a fortnight ago, Russell Arben Fox wrote this piece celebrating his thirteenth wedding anniversary. I don't believe in the institution of marriage in the same way that Russell does. There's a Billy Bragg song that gets it almost perfectly right, and then precisely wrong, within the space of five lines:

...What makes our love a sin
How can it make that difference
If you and I are wearing that bloody, bloody ring

If I share my bed with you
Must I also share my life...

Exactly, and, well, if you're thinking about getting married, probably yes. Despite my resistance to the idea that there is something sanctifying about making certain promises in front of a secular or religious official - as if the promises you make to each other, implicitly and explicitly, even the expectations that inevitably gather around anything that lasts for long enough, somehow didn't matter - I like what Russell has to say about marriage, and, to my mind, by extension, long relationships. Particularly this:

I can't even imagine what might otherwise have been, or what may have been missed or what perhaps could have been better.

It's not quite a general truth, I think, because we can imagine, play with throwaway fantasies to our heart's content, but it is close enough, and exactly because we can do it to our heart's content. The pleasure of wondering to no particular purpose is only really available when any possible purpose the wondering could have is safely at arm's length. Otherwise it can be paralysing, a plethora of possibilities all terrifyingly on the edge of tumbling into actuality. I might never have done a graduate degree if it wasn't for the other half, but whatever could have been had I not is gone now, something I can, should I choose, happily explore without having to worry about what it would actually be like.

The other half has been having commitment issues recently: they're supposed to be being resolved in Italy over the summer. In many ways, I'm a creature of habit - I have a croissant and then an espresso and a cigarette almost every morning, for example, and have for years -and so I find the idea that the prospect of carrying on as we are is potentially terrifying in a way quite mystifying. But in a way not. Part of the attraction of relatively settled arrangements, like I would hope the other half and I can have, at least qua relatively settled arrangements, is that they foreclose the set of possibilities, make the world manageable, comprehensible even, by restricting the range of things to be worried about. That attraction trades on a fear of the infinite, on a worry about how decision procedures fail when there's too much evidence. That, though, is just the reverse of a fear of a world in which there's no decision procedure, where an infinite set of options collapses back on itself, presenting one path stretching on before you endlessly. They are inescapably twinned, generating and re-generating each other through their need for a contrast, a world without restraint but nothing to act on and a world full of objects to act on but no means of doing so.

So. The other half is frightened of the years stretching ahead, wondering what else might have been. I am frightened of exactly the same thing, in its opposite form. So what do I do? I lose my temper, I am rude, I am sullen: I deny myself all the advantages of time spent together bar those that are the problem in the first place. Barefoot on plate glass, stamping.


Russell Arben Fox said...

Touching, honest, heartfelt, thoughtful: this is an observant and wise post, Robert. As you can imagine, I like in particular how you explore the options that I think, for religious and philosophical and other reasons, are best: "The pleasure of wondering to no particular purpose is only really available when any possible purpose the wondering could have is safely at arm's length"; and "Part of the attraction of relatively settled that they foreclose the set of possibilities, make the world manageable, comprehensible even, by restricting the range of things to be worried about." Both of these comments reflect true and good principles, I think: it is right to be settled, placed, and--to a degree--enclosed in one's life. There are ends and loves that cannot be known, I believe, unless one decides to become the sort of person who can be fully and finally known by another, and be perfecting knowing of one's place in return.

Anyway, thanks for the link, and I hope things work out in a way that makes both you and your other half happy.

Ben said...

I'm also a create of habit - I prefer certainty, stability, drifting along in what one might call a 'mature' relationship.

Then again, I just saw an old Sixth Form friend at the weekend, who was just dumped by her long-term/live-in boyfriend after he realised he couldn't marry her (or, probably, anyone else I might add)

Sometimes one may just need time to consider alternative possibilities in order to reassure oneself that the path one is on is right - much as you took a year out rather than 'drift in' a DPhil, but then came back and went ahead with it anyway - presumably now more certain it is for you, and unplagued by doubts you may have had otherwise.

Maybe the transition from thinking it so, to doubting, to a more certain certainty is something like the Hegelian dialectic that leads to a more certain, stable, long-term and mature relationship.

Whatever, I also hope things work out well for both of you, whatever happens in the short term.

Rob Jubb said...

Thanks, both of you. Che sera, sera. Hegel and Graham Greene in an agony aunt letter: who would have thought it possible?