Monday, August 24, 2009

The Search For Self in The Gathering

With my psychologist’s or psychotherapist’s hat on, I wish to explore this novel exactly as search for self-identity. In our course on Counselling and Psychotherapy one of the main areas of study is Personal Development and Lifespan Learning. When I was researching this area two of the books I read, which have become well-known studies of middle age, were Passages by Gail Sheedy from the mid-nineteen seventies and New Passages by the same author from the early or mid-nineties of the last century. These are two books worth reading as they are written for the general public and fall into the category of pop psychology or self-help very readily. They are exactly about what the title of this post says, viz., the search for Self; the search for meaning in life; the search for purpose; the journey to self-realisation or self-actualization; the working out in an existential rather than an intellectual way of an ability to live comfortably in one’s own skin.

In a way that’s what the novel The Gathering is about. However, as it is a work of art, it is at once that and so much more. To say that it is only that is of course to do a grave injustice to this lovely novel. A work of art or a work of creative imagination is many things at one and the same time. It is, as it were, multidimensional. Here in this little article what I wish to do is only to elucidate some points on the quest to meaning in our lives - that much and no more.

On Her Feelings of Grief at the loss of her brother Liam:
I think the following is a brilliant description of the effect the death of someone close can have on you:
“I am a trembling mess from head hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling - somewhere between diarrhoea and sex - this grief which is almost genital.” (Op.cit., 7)

On Love:
“There are so few people given us to love. I want to tell my daughters this, that each time you fall in love it is important, even at nineteen. Especially at nineteen. And if you can, at nineteen, count the people you love on one hand, you will not , at forty, have run out of fingers on the other. There are so few people given us to love and they all stick.” (Ibid., 15) “And what amazes me as I hit the motorway is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy - and we all do it, all the people beetling alone between the white lines, merging, converging, overtaking. We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even though they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.” (Ibid., 28) “…this embarrassment of dead flesh, and the still breathing love that was in Ada’s body, a love that did not know where to go.” (Ibid., 65)

On Old Age, Ageing and Mortality:
“She knows because she is my Granny, and when she put her hand on my cheek I felt the nearness of death and was comforted by it. There is nothing as tentative as an old woman’s touch; as loving or as horrible.” (ibid., 17)
“There is something wonderful about death, how everything shuts down, and all the ways you thought you were vital are not even vaguely important. Your husband can feed the kids, he can work the new oven, he can find the sausages in the fridge, after all. And his important meeting was not important, not in the slightest…” (ibid., 28)
“I look at my hands on the railings, and they are old, and my child-battered body, that I was proud of, in a way, for the new people that came out of it, just feeding the grave, just feeding the grave! I want to shout it at these strangers, as they pass…” (Ibid., 79)
“… she knows that growing old, with all its disappointments, does not suit Nugent.” (Ibid., 135) “Rebecca comes back to me. Her face is full of unshed tears and I take her outside the room for a minute. The other room is occupied by the coffin so we have nowhere to go except the stairs, where we sit while my gentle drifting daughter weeps in my lap for something she does not understand… She is insulted in her youth, by the proximity of death…” (Ibid., 200)

Loveless Sex:
“Tom had sex with me the night of the wake - as if Liam’s death had blown all the cobwebs away; the fuss and the kids and the big, busy job and the late nights spent strenuously not sleeping with other women. He was getting back to basics: telling me that he loved me…exercising his right. I love my husband, but I lay there with one leg either side of his dancing, country-boy hips and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered.” (Ibid., 40-41) “The last time I touched him was the night of Liam’s wake. And I don’t know what is wrong with me since, but I do not believe in my husband’s body anymore.” (Ibid., 73)  

Strength to Cope with Life:,

On Liam‘s suicide: “He was a terrible messer. He was always full of it. He just couldn’t get it together. He had a good heart. He was always there. He was the best of company, we will say. Oh! But the wit. He had a tongue in his head, there’s no doubt about that. But he was very sensitive. It was a sensitivity thing with Liam. You wanted to look after him. He was not able for this world. Not really.” (Ibid., 44)

“I could smell the settler he had before he came in the hospital door. I could smell his lunchtime wine and last night’s beer. But there was also some metabolic shift, a sweetness to his blood and breath that I did not recognize. He didn’t eat much, those last years, his body already cycling on alcohol…” (Ibid., 55)

“The school was named for Dympna, an ancient Irish princess who refused to marry her father. When her mother the Queen died, Dympna’s father looked all over the kingdom but could not find a bride. Then his eyes lit upon his own daughter. Dympna escaped with her father-confessor, all the way to Belgium, where her father-the-king caught up with her and chopped her head off. What a fantastic story. St Dympna is the patron saint of the insane, Sister Benedict said, because her father was insane to want to marry her. Of course.” (Ibid., 128)
“There is a big white house on Lambay Island - Georgian at a guess, and worth gazillions. I saw it first, it must have been from the beach, the day we went with Ada the day we went to visit our mad Uncle Brendan. And it kicks into me, this fact that Ada’s son lost to Largactyl and squalor. How many years of it? He probably died wondering who he actually was.” (Ibid., 156)
“We were always given to understand that our mother’s brother was too good for this world.” (Ibid., 157)

Pain and Suffering:
“Children do not understand pain; they experiment with it, but you could almost say that they don’t feel it, until they are grown. And even then, it seems, we always feel pain for the wrong thing. Or so it has been with me.” (Ibid., 129)

“Liam took his underpants off because they were not clean. He took his socks off because they were not clean. He probably thought, as the cold water flooded his shoes, cleansing thoughts.” (Ibid., 142)
“Your Uncle Liam was not old, Emily. He was sick. Do you hear me? Your Uncle Liam was sick, sick in the head.” (Ibid., 175)

Personal and National Shame:
“My brother had strong ideas about justice, but he was unkind to every single person who tried to love him. ; mostly, and especially, to every woman he ever slept with, and still, after a lifetime of spreading the hurt around, he managed to blame me. And I managed to feel guilty. Now, why is that? This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family - a whole fucking country - drowning in shame.” (Ibid., 168.)

Chaos and Chance:
“This is what I sense as I look up the stairs to the room where we were all conceived: I sense the chaos of our fate - or not so much a chaos as a vagueness - the way that no one could find a groove. And I remember how proud we were. And how loyal. And they way we all stuck together. And wasn’t that just great!” (Ibid., 187)

…My head twists away from whichever side of the church is more interested in my grief, only to show it to the other side. Here it is. The slow march of the remaining Hegartys. I don’t know what wound we are showing to them all, apart from the wound of family. Because, just at this moment, I find that being a part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive.”

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