Six Months In The Inner Life, Diary Extract, November
Six Months In The Inner Life
by Thomas Jackson
November 1st. All Saints. While taking the dog out today a flight of wild geese passing overhead and felt sharp stab of happiness at this lovely sight. The steady hastening onwards, the elegant necks stretched out in gaggling concert, the beauty of the broken arrow formation, the delicate symmetry of their positioning, the regular beat of the wings, the perfectly synchronized speed of flight; it was the abstract mathematical underpinning of this epiphany of being that moved me so much.
At odd times during the day kept trying to perfect my ‘Tony Blair visits George Bush’s ranch and gets a go on George’s buggy cart’ face. It’s coming on.
The trees along Stanley Street are on fire with the glory of autumn. How fitting. With the passing years I treasure these great feasts as they come round more and more, and Christianity means more and more. Why is this, I wonder, for this cast of mind has stolen up on me unawares. Well I guess it’s partly because of my interest in science, which now reveals to us truths about life infinitely more marvellous than anything we could ever have dreamt. All life, it appears, is a single network, all sorts of different organisms yet in a sense one thing. An insight in prayer this morning. At the level of the DNA in my cells I am surely encountering the most intimate part of myself, the abstract schedule of information that directs my being, myself in its most essential and concentrated form, my soul surely. Yet at this very point, where I am most intensely myself, I share over 98% of my DNA with chimpanzees ( 80% with other mammals, 44% with fruit flies, 40% with nematodes and so on right down to single-celled archaeobacteria ), in fact with the whole of life that now exists and, perhaps, with what has ever been. I’m not sure about that, I’ll have to consult some genetic biologist. Most of my genes are the same as those of the rest of life. But this isn’t simply a collection of physical nucleotides, it’s encoded information. Information is not physical, it is ideological. DNA is a code and you can’t encode bits of stuff, only ideas ( There were no actual U-boats in the enigma codes, only ideas of them. The instructions encoded in DNA are in no sense material things ). At this most basic material level of myself I encounter the immaterial. Yet whereas physical things are both different from each other and physically separate from each other because two different things can’t take up the same area of space, ideas are different from each other but not separated. America and Russia are physically separated from each other in the material world, whereas my ideas of them are different but inseparably part of my one single mind. My knowledge of the offside law and my understanding of Kant’s categorical imperative are not separate bits of my intellect. Ideas don’t take up space and are not excluded from each other by it. In other words, at the level of the cellular nucleus I am at one and the same time most intensively myself yet also I am in my own unique way at one with the rest of life. In a sense, I am the rest of life, as each cell in my body is uniquely itself, yet at the same time, because it contains not only the bit that’s switched on in this particular cell but all my DNA, it is the essence of my whole body. This is surely the fundamental mystical teaching. This is that, as the Hindu swamis say. The gap between the banality of our everyday lives and this great wonder of life itself in which we share is so great, I cannot believe that it all finally comes to an end with the zimmer and the bus pass. In the light of these marvels now revealed by science, it is more reasonable to believe, so I think, that life is not only a single material network but a transcendental manifold, and that not only humans but every hippopotamus, tiger, cat, bat, fly and flea will be resurrected, and everything that exists will, while remaining itself, become God, hence this feast. Not just All Saints but All Life. God, Aquinas tells us, is existence. The whole of creation is groaning, says St Paul, while it waits for its release. Science, it seems to me, is increasingly not disproving but breathing new and yet more wondrous life into the ancient dogmas of the Church. So it makes me not less but more of a Christian. Anyway, in spite of the wickedness of the popes and the ghastly statues, I dearly love the Catholic Church. As many Catholics do, I feel it is our dearest home.
November 2nd. All Souls day. To pass from October to November is like shutting a door and going into a quite other place. In October are the last cupfuls of sunshine and lovely fleeting summer beautiful still, but with the passage to November there is a different atmosphere, a drama in the air, a sense of being in contact with a deeper dimension of nature. This year I feel in contact with the mystery of November as never before.
Great smoking towers and jagged shards of thunder-black cloud, brilliantly lit at the edges with metallic and menacing hard yellow light. Then sheets and sheets and sheets of rain.
Why do I love the darkness of November and December so much? The deep plunge down to Christmas. It doesn’t at all feel like the simple absence of light, just the nothingness of cold and vacant inter-galactic space. But rich, fascinating, full. Is it that every hibernating beast and sleeping bud somehow sends out some subliminal cheep of hope for resurgence next spring, and somehow we can feel it? Perhaps it is a faint reflection of the darkness before the beginning of the universe. All those stars and planets and beautiful life forms must have been waiting potentially in that darkness, somewhere
After the rain Roy passes, wheeling Shirley along for her daily outing. They are my nearest neighbours. Shirley has had a severe stroke and they know that any time she could have another and that would almost certainly be the end. But out of this disaster they have lit a bright fire of love. Roy wheels her along as if she were the Queen of England. Not that you would know any of this from the way that they talk about each other. They argue and shout at each other constantly. ‘Madame ‘ere’ says Roy ‘doesn’t realize she’s defective in the legs’. ‘And ‘e’s defective in the ‘ead. What can you do with an idiot like that?’ Shirley ripostes. They are from Bradford and, like exiles everywhere, they faithfully perform the rituals of their native land. Every Friday fish and chips are partaken, the perfect archetype, the Platonic exemplar, ‘them fish and chips we ‘ad in ‘arrogate that time’ recalled, the inferiority of merely Lancastrian fish and chips lamented. ‘What do you think of Gordon Brown’ I say to Roy as he passes. ‘Gordon’oo?’ They dwell on a remote island of love.
I was wondering again to-day about whether there is any sense in my thinking that the information in DNA is not physical but ideological. I’ve never met a biologist who can see remotely what I’m talking about, so, as I’m not a trained biologist, doubtless I’m wrong. But the biologists aren’t trained mystical theologians either, indeed many of them would regard mystical theology as the greatest nonsense. They would simply say that DNA codes instructions for replicating itself, and find that fully explanatory. But I still can’t see that an instruction can have any meaning unless it conveys an idea. If I say ‘sit on that chair!’ I can think of my words as a disturbance of the air by sound waves, but clearly there is more to my command than that. Words contain meanings which cannot be reduced to marks on paper or sound waves. I cannot see that, if DNA instructs, the same is not true of the nucleotides, perhaps even the biological words one might say, of its code.
November 3rd. Saturday. To Manchester for evening mass. As usual the priest goes on and on about how wonderful John-Paul II was. I gnash my teeth. The man in front of me who is wearing a Manchester United shirt turns round and stares at me. Perhaps he was disturbed by the gnashing. I’ve been reading about the terrible tortures they imposed on Edmund Campion. First he was was tortured in Topcliffe’s own house. Queen Elizabeth used to like to hear all the details. Then they racked him most dreadfully in the tower. Then they hanged, drew and quartered him. It is unspeakably dreadful that Catholic Christians burnt their opponents alive and Protestant ones hanged, drew and quartered them, all in the name of the Sermon on the Mount. You would think Christians would be too ashamed to go out in public.
I imagine myself standing up and shouting at the priest
‘What about the burnings under Bloody Mary?’
‘It was a long time ago’.
OK’ I shout back ‘What about the Vatican’s support for the torturers in Chile and Argentina?’
‘You’re wrong there’ shouts the priest.
By this time the congregation is in pandemonium. Manchester United takes out a revolver and shoots at me from point blank range but somehow miraculously misses. A statue of Jesus falls crashing to the ground shot straight through his bleeding heart. The pro-Bloody Mary faction have by now barricaded themselves in the vestry and are raking the nave with machine gun fire. The air is full of the drifting scattered leaves of hymn books. Just For Today floats past. ‘City till I die but I forgive you’ I shout at Man United. At this point Our Lady descends from her pedestal and lobs a tear gas canister into the melee. Spluttering and gasping we all stagger to our feet for the creed.
November 4th. A very dark, cloudless and moonless night with a most glorious profusion of stars, from which I can hardly take my eyes. What a strange thing that we should feel such intimate emotional connections with these cold lights. Each on its own would just be an intellectually interesting point in the sky. It is only when they are seen together that their great wonder is revealed. Later, in my prayer, gave myself with a kind of melting delight to this connective beauty. Later still, utterly ravished by the curves of Penny’s body. Is there a connection between these manifestations of beauty? Surely, yes. The atoms that make up the human body were, after all, once in the hearts of stars. Perhaps one strand in the emotion we feel when under the stars is a kind of homecoming.
November 6th. Michaelmas daisies still and the smoky aromatic smells of autumn. The subtle air is rich with the interweaving scents of every flower and fruit yielding up its essences. The faded scents of summer rise again to a kind of sharpened second life in the cooling days. Part of the extraordinary pleasure we derive from these rejuvenations of experience is that they come to us burdened with the sense that, human from humus, we belong to the earth. It is as if for a moment we recover a lost corporal knowledge. As, when visiting an old school room that you haven’t entered for forty years, the smell of floor polish brings flooding back sharply felt gusts of a past happiness. As if, for a moment, we are transported back to some blessed phase of evolution when, already knowing that we know, we still shared the life of the animals, and smell, not vision, was our chief mode of being in the world. Are such sensual enrichments tokens of a still greater reality? Or are they the merely accidental bounties of a freakishly and gratuitously evolved consciousness? The mere thought, I find, that they even might be the expressions of – and an access to – an existence itself, a universal real, an essential beauty that is not merely thought but corporally known, invests such felt pleasures with a sensed implication, a ringing depth that, whether true or not, I increasingly cannot do without. What nonsense this will seem to the average secular materialist.
Overheard on the train: ‘Of course, when he brings in mice and voles he doesn’t mean to hurt them’. The neat and precise farms and grazing beasts rushing past the train window are clarified into glory by the sharp distilled light of oncoming winter, as if re-imagined by Piero della Francesca.
How I love my dear country and yet how divided I feel about it. John Major’s stuff about village greens and warm beer and Billy Bunter was all sentimental twaddle of course ( though he was a dear man and I revere him ). But I’ve a soft spot for George Orwell’s old maids biking to church through the morning mist. It’s the decency really. And the countryside. The birds. The flowers. The old churches. So maybe John Major was right. And yet it was from England that so much of the harm that is now engulfing the world first came. The communion of nature and humanity replaced by the money manacle. But this is still a most wonderful country. Every inch of it my home. Perhaps soon, as Philip Larkin lamented, the whole boiling – this still beautiful land flashing past the train window – will be all under concrete anyway.
Feeling guilty today as, despite my determination not to give way to the ‘nothing’s as good as it used to be’ attitude that it is so easy for the disgruntled senior citizen to slip into, I spent all yesterday afternoon profligately indulging ‘it was better in the nineteen fifties’ feeling. Cavalry twill trousers, tweed jacket, buff waistcoat, check shirt, club tie, brogues, brylcream. Woooooooaaaarrrrgh!
An Occasional Report from the World of the Arts.
No 1. Rubbish. By Nakasho Wotsupya
( There is a pile of rubbish. )
Commentator: Is this a pile of rubbish or are my eyes deceiving me?
Australian Feminist Art Critic: That’s precisely the point.
Comm: You mean that my eyes are deceiving me?
Fem: You think it’s just a pile of rubbish. It’s not. It’s art.
Comm: Well it looks very like rubbish to me.
Fem: This is an ultimate statement. It takes the most empirical of residues, the most apparently meaningless stuff you can think of, OK? Rubbish OK? And by a willed cognitive act bestows meaning upon it. There’s no meaning out there digger. There’s only meaning in here. Inside your head, mate. What it means is what we mean to mean. This is a radical illustration.
Comm: You mean that this is a metaphor for the heap of rubbish that is society?
Fem: Kickboxing kangaroos! For pity’s sake no! Society’s a heap of rubbish all right, yeah. Yeah sure. But art pointed that out long ago. Dada was saying that. Pre-Warhol was saying that. Art’s moved on a long way since then. Now the artist is exploring what it means to be metaphysically alone in a godless universe.
Ciomm: A godless universe?
Fem: Yeah sure. God’s dead, right? So without humans the universe is just there. It’s meaningless. It’s a heap of rubbish. Then humans come along. In the old days before science and that stuff we used to think the meaning was out there. Already given, OK? God said ‘This is what it means. Let it be. It’s good’. But now we know better. No God. Sorry mate. It’s us who make the world mean. Whatever we decide it’s going to mean. That’s what artists do.
Comm: How, exactly?
Fem: The artist looks at the heap of rubbish and shouts out so loud the rest of humanity can hear her “Mean, you bastard”. Come, on, try it.
Comm: You want me to shout “Mean, you bastard”?
Fem: Masturbating marsupials! Try “I rename you the Niagara Falls.”
Comm: I’ll stick to “Mean you bastard”. ( He shouts at top of his voice ‘Mean you bastard’. ) No,I don’t think it’s doing anything for me.
Fem: Sorry, mate. You’re obviously lacking in talent.