19 July 2011


Narcissism is the ordinary investment each of us has made in an idea of our own perdurable and particular being.  Wounds and threats to that ideal personal image of being-in-the-world produce a special category of suffering, a category which the Buddha called dukkha (pain), and which we speak of by names like dread, despair, angst, doubt, anguish, and sometimes diagnose as depression.  The Waste Land, which Eliot insisted was "a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life" rather than a statement about the cultural moment he found himself in, is structured as a pilgrimage or quest which passes through despair--

                    On Margate Sands. 
                    I can connect 

                    Nothing with nothing.

--towards, not restoration, but some new register of [possibly hopeful] being, preliminary to the Four Quartets.  Along the way Eliot offers us a memento mori--an evocation of existential suffering--rarely surpassed: "I will show you fear /In a handful of dust."

Elizabeth, in John McGahern's first novel The Barracks, suffers.  Having returned from London to the Irish village of her youth, living in her new husband's police barracks, she finds herself in a marriage constituted of a kind of despairing love without true contact and a life overburdened by caring for three stepchildren who will always see her, she thinks, as a poor replacement for their dead mother.  Elizabeth suffers:

     It was her will alone kept her working.  She could see no purpose, no anything, and she could not go on blindly now and without needing answers and reasons as she could once.  Her tiredness was growing into the fearful apprehension that she'd lost all power of feeling: she could no longer feel the sticky dampness of the stuff she was kneading with her hands or taste it if she touched it with her tongue or see it other than through a clear covering of glass--it felt as if the surface of her body had turned dead.  She was existing far within the recesses of the dead walls and gaping out in mute horror...

For some weeks she has refused to take account of discovering 'cysts' in her breast, afraid to confirm that she has cancer, but fear has compounded her unhappiness, and now she is merely going through the motions.  Over the next two pages the children return from school, eat, and go out to play; soon afterwards, one of her husband's colleagues returns to the barracks, and after some desultory chat, lights a cigarette.  And suddenly, her mood lifts:

     Surely the evening was coming, the light turning, blue with the cigarette smoke, the aroma an evocation of a thousand evenings where her life had happened while cigarettes were smoked.  The starkness of individual minutes passing among accidental doors and windows and chairs and flowers and trees...gathered into oneness in the vision of her whole life passing in its total mystery...Growing up on a small farm,...the long years in London, her marriage back into this enclosed place happening as would her death in moments where cigarettes were smoked.  No one, not even herself, could measure it by slide or rule.  No one could place a finger on it in judgement...Her life was either under the unimaginable God or under the equally unimaginable nothing; but in that reality it was under no lesser thing; and the reality continued, careless of whether the human accident was a child waking up in terror or two people bored together, whether it was the rejoicing of a marriage or a man listening to the radio and smoking and a woman turning the pages of a newspaper.
     She rose to pile wood on the fire in a deep joy, to sprinkle and sweep the floor...

What has happened?  The aroma of cigarette smoke has entered her fortress of solitude through the sense of smell, that sense least susceptible to conscious elaboration or revision, and freed her from the tyranny of unfeeling selfhood and of the perpetual present--which is the only grammatical tense that narcissism recognizes.  Notice also in this passage the words accident and mystery, both heretical to narcissism.  Recognizing that she is under no lesser thing than reality, something unimaginably greater than herself, Elizabeth has been restored to Memory and Time, to variety and duration, and also to the possibility of ending.  Later, after treatment for cancer, she heads home from the hospital:

     Already she was dreaming of meeting them in the summer evening.  Every known name and mark on the road set her nerves shivering.  She was going home, and it was such a thing to have a home to go to.  What did it matter that she'd have to adjust herself bitterly to the lonely reality of it later, for if that reality wasn't there, how could she ever know the ecstasy of these hours that burned every boundary down?

Those burning boundaries are the walls that narcissism raises between singular and plural, self and stranger, frozen and flowing: perhaps even between being and non-being; and Elizabeth has an extraordinary capacity for vaulting those walls into the Vast.  McGahern's memento mori is not a religious admonition to remember the eternity of the soul in the body's hectic transience, nor the cold comfort while depressed that death ends all suffering; rather, Elizabeth is reminded as she is dying that life brings pain and pleasure both, that death and life are everyone's lot, that each of us is subject to time, and that every life is uniquely valuable, none worthier than another.  McGahern conveys an austere vision of what it's like to transcend the straitjacket of narcissistic despair into the comfort of embracing one's ordinary mortality, even as it's coming through the door.