Sunday, 5 February 2012

The dangers of materialism.

'Earth, man. What a shit hole!'

Johner, a character in Alien Resurrection.

'What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.'

Shakespeare, Hamlet

'All sex is bestiality.'

CW, in an email

Despite having grown up on a diet of E.O. Wilson and Gerald Durrell, Johner's assessment of our beautiful pale blue dot succinctly expresses my feelings on the subject of the home planet. From the scum that floats in a greasy layer on our poisonous oceans to the scum who peddle porn, religion and other drugs to our not-yet depraved children, our world is surely a shit hole sans comparaison.

Saturday dawned bright, cold and crisp. I know this because, highly uncharacteristically, I was awake and alert at dawn, packing up my papers after a week spent trying to bash a round peg into a computationally square hole (more of which in another post). Saturday, I need hardly add, was the day of the first snowdrop sale of the season, at Myddleton House. What do you mean, you hadn't heard? Myddleton House is the former home of E.A. Bowles, one of those almost impossibly lucky healthy, wealthy and clever nineteenth century English gentlemen-of-leisure whose passion was plants. Myddleton House is now in Enfield (the house hasn't moved but Enfield has). Need I go on?

Snowdrop sales ought to be the subject of some social-wannabe-scientist's PhD thesis because they are little maelstroms of human vice, with greed, lust and envy to the fore. I was fourth in the queue when the gate was opened at 10.30am and by 10.33am I had bought about 30 new snowdrops, mostly from the incomparable Glen Chantry nursery. Even so, several that I'd wanted had sold out by the time I'd  fought my way to the front of the line at stalls I visited after cleaning out Glen Chantry. Those of you who know me will not need to be told that this is my idea of fun. I can't remember the last time I experienced 15 minutes of such unalloyed pleasure. Two of my purchases, 'Big Boy' and 'Fanny', are illustrated below. So far as I know there isn't yet a snowdrop named 'Cunt' or 'Knob' but surely it's a matter of time before someone with a sufficiently developed sense of irony comes along.

Galanthus 'Fanny'

Galanthus 'Big Boy'

 Coming 'home' is almost always guaranteed to extinguish any glow of warmth that has, against the odds, been kindled in my increasingly ample breast. On this occasion, my evanescent glimpse of happiness was snuffed out by a particularly surly greeting from my wife (who has been pushed beyond the brink of reason and reasonableness by me and whom I do not in the least blame) and an email from an old friend, announcing that his partner had died after four years with motor neuron disease. 'It is good news really although it does not feel like it yet', he said, and I wanted to cry.

In 'The World According to Garp', John Irving describes how his fictional mother's funeral is hijacked by her feminist friends and he ends up dressing in drag to gain admission. I have thought about whether it is fair to write about the private tragedies of friends in a public forum, however unlikely it is that anyone will ever read this. In the end I decided that John - 'no man is an island' - Donne had it right when he argued that we are all diminished by and perhaps complicit in every tragedy and that speaking out is the right thing - or at least an acceptable thing - to do.

As it happens, X's death (or rather her illness) is one of a trio of tragedies, soon to be joined by a fourth, that I have become aware of in the last couple of weeks. Motor neuron disease is a foul condition, reducing most sufferers to mentally alert prisoners in a physically inert shell. By the end of her life, X retained control over only a single muscle in her body - that in one eyelid. Before the onset of the disease, X was a brilliant and successful linguist. Her partner, my friend, nursed her in their home, at great personal cost, throughout her illness with a devotion that beggars belief.

The second death was reported to me by a mutual friend of mine and the man whose son, T, had died. The boy, who I suppose must have been five or six, had been diagnosed at birth with severe epilepsy and was given a prognosis measured in weeks or months. In the end, as the moving email circulated by his father described, he died quietly within a few yards of his oblivious parents who could not literally chain themselves to his bedside and so were not there when he had his final seizure.

A few days ago I had an email from another friend, reporting that a man I knew slightly had committed suicide. I had stayed with this man and his male partner in the USA a few years ago and had been shown immense hospitality, though I was practically a stranger at the time. Who knows what S was thinking when he shot himself dead but I am reasonably confident that his sexuality, or more precisely, the dissonance his sexuality caused in him and those he was close to, was to blame.

How on earth is one supposed to react to these three events? A brilliant academic, in the prime of her life, is struck down by motor neuron disease and gradually reduced to a brain-in-a-jar, so that her death, when it comes after years of suffering, is universally perceived as a 'blessing'. A boy dies, silently screaming for help, which his parents, only a few yards away, are too late to give. He never knew fully what it is to be human. A young man, tortured by who-knows-what demons, walks into the woods and blows his brains out, leaving a note for his bewildered and unsuspecting partner.

None of these events is surprising, if one is a materialist. In fact, one expects the temporary defiance of entropy that we are pleased to call 'life' to end miserably and without warning. The single most mystifying aspect, to me, of this sordid, everyday story of human affairs, is the final sentence of the email from T's father, a man who was once a good friend of mine: 'Blessed be the name of the Lord.'

There is really nothing funny about any of this, yet I am irresistibly drawn to the (true) story told by the philosopher Daniel Dennett about a recent brush with death. He had a major heart attack and survived only thanks to some cutting-edge and swift surgery. While he was recovering in hospital he wrote an article designed in part to disarm the inevitable suggestions that he had recanted his atheism while in extremis. Some of his friends, he wrote, had said they'd prayed for his recovery. 'Thank you.' He was too polite to reply. 'Did you sacrifice a goat too?'

Dennett is one of those supremely rare people - how I envy him - who really gets how the world works and yet seems to be having an enormous amount of fun. My old friend W, confronted with the unspeakable and ineluctable reality of human experience, has tied himself in knots to deny the truth that is staring back at him from his late son's blank eyes. We are animals. We are born without reason; we live without purpose and we die, alone. Materialism is austerely beautiful but it isn't comforting.

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