Wednesday, August 16, 2006

As Wild As They Come

As Wild As They Come

“He never entered a room. He exploded into it," says Trish, and she is right. Some complain about Old Dick, the former deputy headmaster, because he always managed to bring chaos to whatever class he entered. Others delighted in the sheer wildness of the man, his unpredictability, his larger-than-life qualities, his sense of life as being something to be grabbed by the throat. However, Trish is not complaining. She belongs to that class of people who are content with observing life in a fairly objective manner. A rare and good breed is Trish, unlike the rest of us who fall into either of the two main categories of either liking or hating Dick. I decidedly belong to the former, those who liked the irreverence of the man, his boisterous, passionate and unbridled nature. He said directly whatever was on his mind without a care as to whom he hurt or amused or bemused.

"Jesus," said Joe Quinn, "if that man was still working today he'd be sued or sacked for sexual harassment. He's still the adolescent he was when he was at school." Be that as it may, Old Dick was a character, ruddy faced, bald, short and tubby. He always appeared as if he had just walked straight in from the bog. There was a wildness about him which some of us felt sure was shared with the wild asses of the West of Ireland. "That man has taken so many punches in so many pubs that he'd shame a world class boxer," said Tom McDermott. Old Dick was a traditional Culchie. He was brought up the hard way; he walked to school in his bare feet in the summer months of his childhood and cycled miles upon miles of bohreens to get an education at the not-so-local schools. If there was no toilet on the train after a hurling or football final it didn't cost him a thought to pee out the windows of the low doors. To listen to the language that simply rolled off his tongue was to be entertained by a first-class performer. This Culchie had words at will, a writer's sense of their proper and correct use and a comedian's sense of their effect on his audience. Old Dick was made to entertain, to be centre of the company, to hold forth with gusto and unleash his tongue like a strong wind in a stuffy room. It's such a pity he's retired and gone. Still, that's life.

Cultivate the sense of the wild in your heart. That's what the lecturer had said, the professor of literature who was also a creative writer. I remember a philosopher once telling me that, too, a long time ago. There is a lot of truth in it. Once when I was working in Galway helping in this drop in centre for the marginalised, that is those who had in some way fallen out with society, I met many a wild person. I vividly recall Mad Mick, a tall black haired itinerant, who used to come into our centre every night. Mick was at least six foot tall and wore a shock of black hair which was long and very fuzzy, but never unkempt. Wherever Mad Mick had lain the night before never seemed to have destroyed his wild curls. It was as if the very wind was whistling through them, bringing them to life. He spoke nineteen to the dozen recounting his exploits as a farm hand all over Ireland. The whole house was captivated by his stories and his songs. One thing I remember especially well about Mad Mick is that words never got in the way of a good story or song. It didn't matter if he couldn't pronounce them correctly. Neither did it matter if he hadn't quite got the correct word because Mick could always make up a new one. There was freedom in the wildness of his sun-scorched face. He always reminded me of someone who had just walked out of a bush.

Free spirits, yes that's another name for the wild ones, are those who are in touch with their instincts, with the gut. Never expect a free spirit to conform, I remember an old teacher once telling us. What a marvellous term “free spirit”, not tied down to routine or driven mad by the rules and ties and tyrannies that society places on the rest of us. I wish I could be one of their number. They love risk; in fact it would seem that they court it. They seem to be able to quit jobs so readily because they either hem them in or suffocate their creativity. I remember a vivid image offered at a group meeting: the silhouette of a man, or woman, with coat slung loosely over the shoulder heading up a mountain. Yes, there is freedom in that image alright.

I remember a former pupil of mine, Tom Delahunty, who is a real free spirit. He always reminds me of a friendly dog. I don't say this in any derogatory or pejorative sense. Rather I allude to those animal instincts which Tom keys into so easily. Everything comes so naturally to him. Falling in love is second nature to him and going to bed not merely a matter of getting some sleep, if you follow my meaning.  Like all free spirits, he lives for the moment, he seizes the day. No opportunity to make love will escape him. I wonder who the new girl in his life is now.

I suppose dancing has to be one of the most particular and peculiar characteristics of this freedom of spirit or wildness. As I type this page my friend Todd is on his way to a night club where he'll dance the night away. Dancing must be one of the most primitive and ancient of human passions, tapping into the rhythms of the great unconscious, into those basic instincts.  In a novel I read recently, which I have already discussed at some length in these posts, Eneas McNulty’s mother dances when she can find absolutely no meaning in life. (see The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty) What's unleashed is certainly greater than the hormones, though I love George Bernard Shaw's contention that dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire! In many a sweaty and smoke-laden room, lit with all kinds of psychedelic lighting, arms and legs and hips describe curves unknown to the complicated mathematics of modern computers. It's rather hard to reduce the instincts to binary numbers. When fingers explore the continents of desire we're dealing with more than imaginary numbers! We're dealing with raw passion and consummation and release. Yeats's old line comes to mind: "How can you tell the dancer from the dance?" Indeed, sometimes the dance takes over and becomes something greater. Oh Christ, leave the metaphysics out of this! Get on with the job of exploration. The free spirit always scores and metaphysicians never really make love. They're too busy trying to work out the meaning of the whole thing. In the meantime the woman has got tired and gone home.

But the wildness of the dance lingers on in us from our ancient ancestors, and sometimes the dance of the living becomes a dance of death. There have always been victory dances which glory in the death and destruction of the enemy. Did not William Golding get it so right in Lord of the Flies where he has the boy Simon ceremonially and savagely done to death by a gang of rival boys in a grotesque dance macabre? There is such a thin line between the dance of excess and drunkenness and the dance of destruction and death. Recall the ancient Roman god Bacchus, the Latin equivalent of the Greek Dionysus, the god of wine and excess. There is wildness and creativity for sure in the Bacchanalian or Dionysian element, but if left totally untempered by the rational and logical element, traditionally called the Apollonian element, after Apollo - the god of intelligence and of understanding, as well as healing, music and poetry - all forms of chaos will burst forth. Be that as it may, it seems to me that traditionally all societies, which of their nature are highly organized entities or systems, suffer from a surfeit of the rational and the ordered. A healthy society must allow the safety valve for that native wildness that belongs to us all. Otherwise we end up with a very frustrated and angst-ridden, if not violent society, because that native and natural wildness is suppressed and repressed.

This native and natural wildness finds an expression where we have humankind at play - homo ludens as some scholar rightly called this aspect of human nature. I suppose that's what the modern psychologists mean when they speak about rediscovering the child within us. At play we discover a very basic and elemental identity at our heart's core. We tap into this when we ride a rollercoaster at high speed up and down and around great curves of track, plunging and plummeting into real or imagined abysses or when we career down slides of all shapes and twists and heights into pools of water. Today there are so many young and not so young kids addicted to computer games and play stations. There is no limit to our ability to distract ourselves when we want to. In short, we love to play. Even if it's only playing a game of patience on one's own. Without a doubt playing can become serious, too. Witness the violence on football fields of all codes. Play, when taken too earnestly, can lead to cheating, violence and enmity.

We play when we use our humour, too. A sense of humour is one of the most humanising qualities we can possess. It can save the day literally. A word in jest can often defuse an angry exchange and prevent its being blown out of all proportion. A self-deprecating sense of humour can also be a useful skill in interpersonal relationships. To take oneself too seriously is surely one of the worst sins. It leads to all sorts of problems, ulcers not the least of them. In hospital humour can bring perspective and healing, and often the most seriously sick possess it in abundance.

Wild, yes that is a lovely word really. My friend Tom's little six year old boy is wild, but Tom says he wants to discipline him, not break his spirit. Young Mark is a free spirit. He needs to be tamed, not broken. To rediscover the wild streak in oneself is to rediscover the child in oneself, and this is essentially a healing activity. It brings many images to mind: running through the fields and hills as a youngster, carefree and happy; scoring your first goal; learning to ride a bicycle; diving into a fresh pool of water; singing songs; reciting poetry; playing your first tune on the piano or whatever. The list is endless. Maybe, too, it's less about doing things than about an attitude of mind, a very personal, unique, particular and peculiar outlook on life which is singularly one's own. Being wild or childlike is more to do with being happy to be oneself, to be happy in being different and unique.

It is my belief that J.M. Synge managed to capture the magnificent sense of the wildness of the Irish or Gaelic character.  His characters did not speak with what was later pejoratively termed “stage Irish” accents.  Rather they spoke with the rhythms of the Gaelic tongue transferred and transformed into their spoken English, and with the power and rhythms of nature itself.  In fact they are at their best when describing the elements of nature in all their wildness and pristine beauty.  In The Playboy of the Western World Synge eulogises the wildness of the imagination and life of the quintessential wild boy – Christy Mahon.

It's all about being at home in your own body, accepting your limitations, cherishing and developing your gifts - it's also about helping others to discover and develop theirs, encouraging both yourself and others in that endeavour we call life. Old Dick, Mad Mick and Christy Mahon and all the other real free spirits I've been lucky enough to meet were irrepressibly themselves and that, my friend, is no bad thing. Let's drink and sing to their health!


N.B.  The names of characters in the above piece are entirely fictitious – they are rather composites of people whom I’ve met over the years.   The above picture is one I took at Cefalu, Silicy, April 2006. The Wild Waves Crash - Le onde furibonde di Cefalu

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