On the day I begin learning this poem, I take a walk to visit my mother and father who live in South Harrow, about an hour and a half away on foot. The suburban landscape I walk through plays along with my by-hearting: the night is indeed falling, much earlier now, Autumn cannot be denied, and here’s the bridge crossing the railway lines, and look! Just past the small South Harrow Christian fellowship church, a sunflower of all things, straggly and etiolated, propping itself up against a sign in the station car park.
I stop to commune with it for a while, Max dragging at the leash. How did it come to be here? Voices of Romanian labourers congregating to one side of the car-park reach my ears, and I think of the sunflower seeds they are always eating, cracked by their teeth from the salt-encrusted shells to accompany an after-work can of beer (Tyskie, Perla, Żywiec: we share a similar taste in Eastern-European libations). I wonder if one of those stray sunflower seeds might have dropped in that somewhat barren patch of earth and by some kind of miracle, the daily miracle of seeds “out in the wild”, requiring no horticultural husbandry from us, taken root? A seed fed on nothing more than rainwater, sun, and whatever nutrients might be found in the clay-like soil of these parts. A seed like this line from Merwin’s Thanks for my head and heart.
We might stop on a bridge for all sorts of reasons. As an elevated vantage point, they allow us to better see what it is happening in the distance, or below us. Bridges serve the human great ape much as trees might our simian brethren. Bridges give us wings, but we also recognise alongside this how wingless, how rooted to the earth and our earthly concerns we still are. In another poem, Echoing Light, Merwin writes: When I was beginning to read I imagined /that bridges had something to do with birds /and with what seemed to be cages but I knew /that they were not cages”. Which of course plants in our minds the idea, that in some way, they are.
Bowing from the railings suggests a more precarious locating of the human form than bowing down next to the railings. Are we bowing, or preparing ourselves to jump? Too far out in our lives, not waving but drowning?
I am also thinking of that wonderfully melancholic poem by Franz Wright The Only Animal (“only”, a word so close to lonely) which begins: “The only animal that commits suicide / went for a walk in the park…”. The curious human animal that we are sometimes stops on a bridge to bow with gratitude at the vistas around her, but at other times that bowing, seen from afar, may be a preliminary motion before driving our bodies over the edge in order to smash a suffering mind against the tarmac below. Again, how interesting that this corporeal gesture denoting a form of spiritual surrender in a bid for transcendence, might also indicate another kind of surrender to the Inner Dictator of the mind and whatever the messages relayed to us by this part of the psyche that weighs so heavily.
The same night I walk over to have tea with my parents, with these words now gonging around in my mind, I rent Harold and Maude, having remembered that Harold Chasen (played by Bud Cort) spends most of the film metaphorically bowing down from the railings, staging elaborate fake suicide attempts in order to secure from his brittle and self-absorbed mother some authentic concern and attention. He eventually finds the unconditional positive regard he is looking for (that we are all looking for) in Maude: a 79 year-old woman and concentration camp survivor who seems cut from the same purple-with-a-red-hat cloth of Jenny Joseph’s narrator in her poem Warning:
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
The Cat Stevens soundtrack is both delighful and grating after a while. The various suicidal set-pieces (especially when Harold continues to enact his elaborate attempts in front of the three fiancées that his mother wishes him to marry) are hilarious. And the ending truly touching.
If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you. But let’s just say that even Maude has an achilles heel when it comes to her remarkable resilience, a fear of senescence that seems impervious to what for the most part appears to be an ironclad joie-de-vivre. I think she would recognise that fear in this poem by Dannie Abse called The Old Gods.
Michael Wright, no relation I believe to Franz Wright, reminds us in musing on The Only Animal, that in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James makes a distinction between once-born souls and twice-born souls. “The first come to faith easily,” Wright summarises, “ and see a harmonious world sustained by a benevolent God. The second struggle their way through doubt and suffering and find a different kind of faith on the other side.” The first, biographically at least, is William Stanley Merwin. The second is Franz Wright, and I guess I’d include myself in there, as would Michael? If Merwin is on that bridge, he is bowing in a kind of prayer. His twice-born spiritual doppelganger however is hunched over in a different frame of mind, contemplating his own non-existence: “the space I took up here / scarlessly closing like water.”
In America and the UK, almost twice as many people die by suicide as are murdered. Once the Inner Dictator of the mind gets a grip on us, we can very quickly become our own worst enemy. More than a hundred years ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim realised that suicide cannot be explained away simply as an excess of suffering. Durkheim realised that social integration is often an arbiter of how close we get to contemplating or carrying out self-slaughter. When we feel part of a social group, we are less likely to kill ourselves, no matter how burdensome the thoughts, emotions, or even physical pain that might grind us down. Working people are less likely to commit suicide, equally parents of children, people who are married, even unhappily married folk.
And who might be bowing before leaping? Those of us who have moved often to pursue educational opportunities or employment, or a better way of life, are more likely to commit suicide, Durkheim would argue. I am now almost 50, and I suspect I won’t have another opportunity to build the ties I made and left behind in emigrating, and then living in a variety of countries until my late-20s. Thomas Joiner calls this state of being “thwarted belongingness”.
In 2001, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed this century-old finding up by reporting that frequent movers are one of the more significant predictors of suicide. I have a dog-child who I would never abandon, and I wouldn’t want to give my mother the kind of grief that comes with losing a child, but my life and indeed a lot of our lives now, even more closely matches Durkheim “recipe” for suicidal behaviour, than it did in 1897 when he published his groundbreaking work on this topic.
Belonging and affiliation as a vaccine against suicidal loneliness shows up in other ways too. When a city’s football, baseball, basketball, or hockey teams—professional or collegiate—win a national championship, there’s a temporary decline in the suicide rate. Conversely, after a loss, suicide rates goes up. Similarly in times of national crisis social connectedness increases and so the rates fall. They did so during both world wars, after 9/11, but increased soon afterwards. Nobody killed themselves for a full calendar week after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. People don’t kill themselves in concentration camps. As hellish as that existence is, Maude knows this, at least they’re in it together. After a trip to the Penny Arcade, where Harold has noticed how effortlessly Maude attracts others to her, her special charisma, Harold comments: “You sure have a way with people.” “Well, they’re my species,” Maude replies, as if commenting on breathing, how natural her sociability feels to her, how unnatural to Harold and me.
Perhaps another important distinction between bowing in prayer versus in defeat and dejection is the attitude we have or cultivate to ourselves. The Merwins of this world, to quote again from the William James distinction, “are not distressed by their own imperfections: yet it would be absurd to call them self-righteous; for they hardly think of themselves AT ALL.” The emphasis of the capitalization suggests a kind of wonder towards the rarity of this state. Is it not the norm to be preoccupied at any given moment with our own thoughts and feelings?
One term for this is self-absorption, as opposed to self-reflection, self-awareness, and introspection. Absorption is a 16th century word, from the Latin absorbere ‘swallow up’. When we are self-absorbed, it is as if one part of the self (perhaps that part that is lonely, despairing, hopeless) ingests, and thereby imperils or even destroys, other parts of us that are able to hold hope for our lives, gratitude, and even wonder. What to call that self-absorbed part of us? Lots of labels have been tagged to it: egocentricity, narcissistic-functioning, pathological self-focus. I find the most useful way to think about this part of the self is as “the conceptualised self”, or self-as-content, as opposed to self-as-awareness, the observing self, the transcendent self.
There’s a simple and I think quite illuminating exercise from Steven C. Haye’s new book A Liberated Mind that helps us to experience this distinction. It involves writing down three statements about ourselves (I am ____), two positive, two negative, and then doing some reflections around these. I’d be interested to hear how you feel your sense of self shifts (or doesn’t) if give this exercise a go.
Perhaps the difference between bowing in prayer, or bowing forward like a hungry ghost to gobble up one’s life is can be better understood by the distinction James makes when discussing Whitman’s ability to remove from his writing “all contractile elements”. Bowing in gratitude or humility, we contract our bodies to express to ourselves and to others that we are only a cog in the vast, mystical interplay of life. We bow as a mother might to protect a child, or a living shelled-mollusk to elaborate its pearl. We bow as a form of surrender, which does not, I’m thinking here especially of Emmanuel Ghent’s wonderful paper on this, necessarily imply defeat. Whereas in self-absorption, the contractile element is more like a trap snapping shut, a holing in, or a holding onto fear, worry, self-criticism, or whatever other ways our minds try to communicate with us their concern for how we might be living our lives, a concern that so often sounds like a kind of telling off.
James elaborates on this more expansive bowing thus: “The only sentiments [Whitman] allowed himself to express were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person, not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them, but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and women, life and death, and all things are divinely good.”
So the Whitmanian/Merwinian “I” is an expansive-I, bowing down as it were before the recognition that all our suffering is shared by and reflected in every member of our species. Whereas the Wrightian-I is crippled in some way by the exclusive burden of his suffering. “Your great mistake is to act the drama / as if you were alone” the poet David Whyte starts his poem Everything Is Waiting For You, another bit of telling-off to my ears, but perhaps a necessary one:
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings.
These words sting because they are a challenge to self-absorption. A quality I have a good deal of (you may have noticed).
Here’s William James doing something similar:
“The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What less helpful as a way out of the difficulty?”
True Bill. But if, as you recognise, we are perhaps talking about a characterological difference here (Whitman and Merwin probably scoring quite low on Neuroticism), then perhaps we can also have some compassion for all of us souls who are not waving, but drowning, not bowing but keeling over, or even willfully throwing themselves over the bridges of their lives? Maybe I might even have a little bit more compassion for my own.