The world outside myself

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Sometimes I wonder if modern life is just too busy. At such moments I come over all Zen and turn off my laptop and pop music, lie down on my futon and just gaze up at the ceiling, luxuriating in the thought that I don’t have to do anything all day. I lie there, think my thoughts and before I know it I’ve drifted off to sleep. I generally wake up a couple of hours later feeling groggy and vaguely guilty at having wasted the afternoon, feeling even less ‘Zen’ than when I lay down.

These attempts to live with a less busy mind are always thwarted by one thing or another and usually I just fritter away my free time. For example, this morning on the internet I looked at old photos of Joseph Stalin and a photo of a pretty young female Soviet soldier, directing traffic in some bombed out city at the end of World War II. Then there was a photo of 17-year-old John Lennon with his much-nicer-than-Yoko-Ono girlfriend Cynthia. Next was a photo of a dead Bali Tiger, possibly the last one before its species went extinct, followed by a photo of stick-thin Asian men sprawled out in some dirty opium den in Singapore. Then there were photos of Shackleton’s voyage to Antarctica.

I came across a 1947 photo of a woman who had thrown herself off the Empire State Building and landed, face upwards, on a parked car way below. She was dead, of course, yet seemed miraculously unscathed, neither mangled nor bloody as she lay on the crumpled roof of the car she had just wrecked. Who in their right mind would end things that way rather than with pills? Not someone like me who’s afraid of heights. Just for a moment I had to ask myself whether the Empire State Building still existed; Ah yes, It was those other two that went down 18 years ago.

I then read the latest Brexit news and some research claiming that the shape of your lips says something about your personality. I read about a Southwark pub called The Tabard which Chaucer made the starting point for the pilgrims’ journey in his Canterbury Tales and which was remarkably still standing in 1878 when a photo was taken shortly before its demolition. Wow! I thought, a pub that appeared in England’s earliest literature that had survived into the modern age of photography, around half a millennium later! Well, kind of. It turns out that the original pub had burnt down in the 17th century and was rebuilt in the same place which, on reflection, maybe isn’t the same pub at all. I pondered that this was rather different from, say, the Ship of Theseus, whose planks were replaced piecemeal over decades and thus can sort of be viewed as the same ship.

Then I looked at photos of John Dillinger, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and Bonny and Clyde and surmised they must have been a rough lot in those days, something I often tend to forget. After that I watched a very old movie of a sleigh ride in Tsarist Russia, before the Revolution changed that country forever. Then there was an early documentary showing 19th century, bowler-hatted Londoners walking over Blackfriars Bridge, which put me in mind of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland, in which ghostly people flow over London Bridge: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’. Similarly those bowler-hatted men in the video were all now dead. This in turn reminded me of another of Eliot’s poems, Four Quartets, in which he mysteriously says:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.

O-kay. William Faulkner said something similar when he wrote, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’. I don’t understand what either men were getting at but I still haven’t completely dismissed their ideas as nonsense. It might be that the ideas are profound but my tired 60-year-old brain with its average IQ and Secondary Modern education just can’t grasp them.

Then I had lunch.

Was this all just too much random noise to take in? Surprisingly, no. As I ate my scrambled egg on toast I thought about the two hours I had just spent looking at pictures and how they had left an intimation of the vast richness and scale of the world. I suppose it was a mild sense of awe, though nothing to get too excited about.

Needless to say even this mild sense of awe soon faded, leaving me in my default mode of dreamy self-absorption. In theory I sort of know there is a big impressive world out there with a very long past and probably a very long future but I’m generally not conscious of knowing it. But while that mild sense of awe lasted, the sense of vast time stretching before and after did make me question whether the Zen injunction to live ‘here and now’ isn’t perhaps a little parochial. Maybe Darwin’s grander overview of creation is more worthy of aspiring to. Or even T.S. Eliot’s vision near the end of Four Quartets when he says:

… history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

‘History is England’? I know, I know. But this is poetry!

I think Eliot meant that the place and time you now find yourself, whether that be in a secluded English chapel in England on a winter’s afternoon or somewhere else, you are always caught up in history, like a spider in a web, and consciousness of that fact is humbling and awe-inspiring.

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