Monday, August 24, 2009

The Search for Self in Moon Tiger

Search 2 In today’s post I wish to discuss the theme of search for meaning in the novel Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. I have reviewed this novel in the immediately previous post.

Death in Life: “Fortunate mother. Sensible, expedient mother. On her dressing table stood a photograph of Father, trim in his uniform, eternally young, his hair recently clipped, his moustache a neat shadow on his upper lip; no red hole in his stomach, no shit no screams no white singing pain. Mother dusted this photograph every single morning; what she thought as she did so I never knew.” (Op. cit., 6) History killed Father. I am dying of cancer of the gut, relatively privately. Father died on the Somme, picked off by history. He lay in the mud, I have learned, all one night, screaming, and when at last they came for him he died on the stretcher…. (Ibid., 6-7) People die; bodies disintegrate. But death is intolerable. So you propose, ingeniously, that if the body is preserved either actually or symbolically, if it is hidden away and provided with the equipment of daily living (Lively is here writing about the burial of the ancient Pharaohs), then death will not have happened. Something - soul, ka, memory, whatever you like to call it - will live forever. You give this shadow-thing all it had in corporeal life, its furnishings, its jewellery, its servants, its food and drink, and from time to time it will come from whatever eternity it inhabits to take sustenance from its shell. A complicated interesting idea. You keep the dead with you forever and deny the possibility of your own annihilation.” (Ibid., 114)

Grief: Lively is also good on grief. Her heroine Claudia H. never really does get over the death of her war-time lover Tom. The grief persists throughout her life, even though she had since married and had a daughter. She muses: “Is nausea always a part of Grief? Who am I o know? I have never been thus before. Grief-stricken. Stricken is right; it is as if you had been felled. Knocked to the ground; pitched out of life and into something else.” (Ibid., 129) Claudia lies in bed with the light on and a book in her hand. The book is a pretence that is not working, and presently she lets it fall. Her mind and body howl. All that she can normally keep tamped down springs into life. She aches and howls for Tom. It is not that he is ever forgotten, but mostly emotion is dormant; it lies quiet, biding its time. And then every so often something brings it raging forth, and she is back ten years ago, back in the Cairo summer, back with the raw new truth of it.” (Ibid., 150) …history as illusion. I experienced there (Egypt) the most violent outrage. I lay in bed mourning for Tom, but during the hours of daylight, the hours in which I listened to well-fed complacent men and women designing the future and re-arranging the past, I was infuriated. Now, I would be cynically amused. Then, young - well, relatively young - I wanted to assault them with their own blueprints and statistics and assessments. (Ibid., 152) After recovering from a serious accident Claudia H. reflects: I came back from that Madrid hospital with bruises, a healthier bank account than I had ever had and a wonderfully concentrated mind. The world astonished me. I looked at the green water of the Channel, at the seagulls hanging above the ferry, at the rust of a railing and the curve of a deck chair, and these things had the intensity of great art. In Cairo in 1942 I raged at the continuing universe; I walked, on that appalling day, beside the Nile and the whole beautiful place was an offence - the life, the colour, the smells and sounds, the palms, the feluccas, the kites endlessly circling in the clear blue sky. Now that it was merely myself who was still alive, I forgave the universe its indifference. Magnanimous of me. Expedient also, you may say. (Ibid., 167)

Futility of Control - A Lesson for the Ego Tom, speaking in his war-time diary: I think of how once I was brash enough to believe that I could dictate to life instead of which it has turned on me with its fangs bared. I think of all the things I haven’t done and all the things I intend to do still. I think of C., who features in most of these. (Ibid., 204)

Many voices in Search of an Identity:
I shall use many voices in this history. Not for me the cool level tone of dispassionate narration… why not after all? Beliefs are relative. Our connection with reality is always tenuous… I am by nature sceptical - a questioner, a doubter, an instinctive agnostic. In the frozen stone of the cathedrals of Europe there co-exist the Apostles, Christ and Mary, lamb, fish, gryphons, dragons, sea-serpents and the faces of men with leaves for hair. I approve of that liberality of mind. (Ibid., 9)

Many Selves:
Again, quite in keeping with the contentions of Carl Gustave Jung, Lively comments: Thus, in general, Jasper. In my head, Jasper is fragmented: there are many Jaspers, disordered, without chronology. As there are many Gordons, many Claudias. (Ibid.,10) “I am who I make myself,” says Jasper. (Ibid., 63) And just before her death reflecting on the life and death of Tom, her War-time lover: You are left behind, in another place and another time, and I am someone else, not the C. of whom you thought, the C you remembered, but an unimaginable Claudia from whom you would recoil, perhaps… I am twice your age. You are young; I am old. You are in some ways unreachable…But you are also, now, part of me, as immediate and as close as my many other selves, all the Claudias of whom I am composed; I talk to you almost as I would talk to myself… You asked me to make sense of it. I can’t. (Ibid., 206)

Archaeological Imagery:
Almost as if to mirror one of the Freudian preoccupations, Lively sees herself as examining her life in layers or strata: At the moment I’m dealing with strata. (Ibid., 12)

The strata of faces. Mine, now, is an appalling caricature of what it once was. I can see, just, that firm jaw-line, those handsome eyes and a hint of the pale smooth complexion that so nicely set off my hair. But the whole thing is crumpled and sagged and folded, like an expensive garment ruined by the laundry. The eyes have sunk almost to vanishing point, the skin is webbed, reptilian pouches hang from the jaw; the hair is so thin that the pink scalp shines through it. (Ibid., 20)
Or the insight here. I find this an interesting take on life: History is of course crammed with people like Mother, who are just sitting it out. (Ibid., 21)

Language and Meaning:
When Claudia’s daughter tells her that there must have been dragons once, considering that the word for them exists, Claudia muses in her own mind on language and meaning: “Precisely. The power of language. Preserving the ephemeral; giving form to dreams, permanence to sparks of sunlight.” (Ibid., 9)

Mythology and the Human condition:
There is a touch of Camus in Lively’s style, and the following piece is very reminiscent of the French Algerian writer, though, of course, Camus wrote of Sisyphus, not of Prometheus: “So I shall start with the rocks. Appropriately. The rocks from which we sprang and to which we are chained, all of us. Like wretched thingummy, what’s-his-name, him on his rock? “Chained to a rock..” she says, “What’s he called?” And the Doctor pauses, his face a foot from hers, his little silver torch poised… “An eagle,” she states. “Pecking out his liver. The human condition, d’you see?” And the Doctor smiles, indulgently. “Ah,” he says. And he parts her eyelids with care, and peers. Into her soul, perhaps… Prometheus, of course.. Mythology is much better stuff than history…” (Ibid., 7) “Are you all right?” Lisa says. “No,” says Claudia. “But who is?” (Ibid., 61) “Giving presents is one of the most possessive things we do, did you realise that? It’s the way we keep a hold on other people. Plant ourselves in their lives..” (Ibid., 110)

Many truths, not one, and History leads the way:
Lively is philosophically sound; well, at least philosophically up to date: Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested. I well remember the moment in which I discovered that history was not a matter of received opinion. Or, take this understanding (or misunderstanding; unique take on it anyway) of history here: Egocentric Claudia is once again subordinating history to her own puny existence. Well - don’t we all? And in any case what I am doing is to slot myself into the historical process, hitch myself to its coat-tails, see where I come in. the axes and muskets of Plymouth in 1620 reverberate dimly in my own slice of time; they have conditioned my life, in general and in particular. (Ibid., 29) Time and the universe lie around in our minds. We are sleeping histories of the world. (Ibid., 65) I’ve grown old with the century; there’s not much left of either of us. The century of war. All history, of course, is the history of wars, but this hundred years has excelled itself. How many millions shot, maimed, burned, frozen, starved, drowned? (Ibid.,66) My body records also a more impersonal history; it remembers Java Man and Australopithecus and the first mammals and strange creatures that flapped and crawled and swam. Its ancestries account, perhaps, for my passion for climbing trees when I was ten and my predilection for floating in warm seas. It has memories I can share but not apprehend. It links me to the earthworm, to the lobster, to dogs and horses and lemurs and gibbons and the chimpanzee… (Ibid 166-167) There are traces here of the mysticism espoused by John Moriarty, RIP. I have written about John in these pages before. John also believed, being a sui-generis Christian mystic - I’m probably being tautologous here as mysticism does imply some certain eccentricities - that our bodies recapitulated in their very essence all of our past from the very origins of life.

On being imprisoned by time:
Because I cannot shed my skin and put on yours, cannot strip my mind of its knowledge and its prejudices, cannot look cleanly at the world with the eyes of a child, am as imprisoned by my time as you are of yours. (Ibid, 31)

Lack of Clarity: Like Camus, Lively is baffled by the lack of clarity in the world:
And suddenly for me the uniform grey pond of history is rent; it is fractured into a thousand contending waves; I hear the babble of voices. I put my pen down and ponder; my headings are not nice and clear in red ink. I get 38% (fail) in the end of term exams. (Ibid., 15)

Language and Meaning:
Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms. (Ibid., 41) (Remember Claudia is an old dying woman): I was talking earlier about language I have put my faith in language - hence the panic when a simple word eludes me, when I stare at a piece of flowered material in front of a window and do not know what name to give it. Curtain. Thank God. I control the world as long as I can name it. Which is why children must chase language before they can do anything else, name the wilderness by describing it, challenge God by learning his 100 names. ‘What’s that called?’ Lisa used to ask me. ‘And that? And that?’

On The Church:
“Well,” said Jasper, “it does no positive harm I dare say.” Oh no, none at all; just as well to belong to several clubs, you never know which may come in useful. (Ibid., 55)

On God:
“Let us pray…” says Claudia. “Huh! twice in my life have I prayed, and a fat lot of good it did me. Or anyone! God shall have a starring role in my history of the world. How could it be otherwise? If He exists, then He is responsible for the whole marvellous appalling narrative. If He does not, then the very proposition that He might have killed more people and exercised more minds than anything else. He dominates the stage. In His name have been devised the rack, the thumbscrew, the Iron Maiden, the stake; for Him have people been crucified, flayed alive, fried, boiled, flattened; He has generated Crusades, the pogroms, the Inquisition and more wars than I can remember. But for Him there would not be the St Matthew Passion, the works of Michelangelo and Chartres cathedral. (Ibid., 56-57)

Memory and Imagination:
I remember reading one of the University Sermons of the great John Henry cardinal Newman where he contended that the way we believe is as much as mystery as to how we remember. Interesting contention. However, he never thought that how we remember is quite fickle, and that, consequently, how we believe could be just as fickle. Anyway, Lively is interesting on memory and sees it very much a thing of the imagination. We do not remember childhood - we imagine it. We search for it, in vain, through layers of obscuring dust, and recover some bedraggled shreds of what we think it was… (Ibid., 43.)

Wonder and Astonishment: On the desert:
And I saw the stark textural immensity of the desert, the sand carved by the wind, the glittering mirages. It had the delicacy of a water-colour - all soft grey-greens and pale blues and fawns and bright browns. Beautiful and indifferent; when you began to see it you saw also the sores round the mouths of children, the flies crawling on the sightless eyes of a baby, those sights and those smells. (ibid., 75)

War and Boys
Wars are fought by children. Conceived by their mad demonic elders and fought by boys. I say that now, caught out in surprise at how young people are, forgetting that it is not they who are young but I who am old. Nevertheless, the faces of the Russian Front, the million upon million dead Germans, dead Ukrainians, Georgians, Tartars, Latvians, Siberians are the plump unlined faces of youths and are the faces of the Somme and of Passchendaele. The rest of us grow older and tell each other what really happened; they, of course, will never know, just as they never knew at the time. The files of newspaper libraries are stuffed with these baby faces, grinning cheerfully from the decks of troop ships, from train windows, from stretchers. (Ibid., 104)

On Animals and Humans:
I have quoted my favourite contemporary philosopher, John Gray, many times in these posts. I will quote him again here. Gray prefers to refer to the human being as the human animal. I am in complete agreement with him, because when we use the former expression we tend to inflate and magnify beyond all proportion the importance of humankind vis-à-vis the animal world, forgetting all the while that we firmly belong to that world. I have long believed that the way we treat animals mirrors the value we put on human life or, more correctly, the human animal. Psychiatrists have long reported that many murderers have been animal-abusers at some time in their childhood. And, why aren’t we surprised? I remember my own mother saying things like “You wouldn’t do it to a dog,” when she would have heard reports on the news of man’s inhumanity to man. She’d also say, “You wouldn’t put a dog out in this weather.” We peasant Irish always respected our animals as do peasants everywhere I should imagine. I am using the word peasant in its sense of being a true country person. Anyway to return to Lively’s novel. Here her lover Tom is speaking:
“You can always tell how civilised a country is by its treatment of animals,” says Tom, “The Middle East rates about as low as I’ve seen so far.” (Ibid., 105)

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