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Michael Harlow


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Extract, Letters from Adjoining Rooms

Dearest E.,

. . . You say, how art thou this day? Oh, hell, I would say deadly, even deathly, but Madame for the brightness in it, a touch, I will say every day these days is like Sunday. Ding-a-ling from the bottom of the road, No 3 Sulby, and the church that reminds me of a Pious Haus in Zürich: ‘Bim-Bam, Bim-Bam’, and Amen. How? you say; oh well, a fine day for walking-out but not to throw stones at birds (Padre Johnson, Samuel, & bless him for his care). No stones, none; at least not the throwing kind, though I am much in favour, let it be said, of the kind that make small songs or a sound polished by generations of men. But – the throwing kind, no, never. Such wise birds as there be on this hill may back at us toll such surprising bird-song cannonades! And, I’m for that on Sunday, a holy salvo, or any day when birds are waiting in the trees or on the high-wire loops that keep the powerpoles from taking off on a march across town. Right. A domination of birds: nesting in the eaves, Villa Powell, the rain-spouting (water birds for ‘water music,’ is it?); why even under the chimney’s hat of all places, hear it, wing-beat vibrato a robe of shivers in the ceiling. Help! They have taken over the house’s head . . .

. . .

But: where was I before these fine singers of the day took over (no ‘bare ruined choirs’ here, chum, no Poverello of Assisi, either . . .), nesting down inside the alphabet? I had meant to say & verily dear E. that I am sorry for the death of your dog copping it under the wheels of a car. I am, and if it don’t sound too heavy or sententious, then I guess every death is an instruction . . . How else to keep it at least companionable? Of which, ‘companionables’, these days there are one or two. So . . ., it’s nipping into the library, and up the escalator, turn left, slip around the corner without even a side-wise glance, and over to where Papa Freud and the good Doktor Jung hang out – shelved. But, mind you, & proper it is, too – not next to one another. That would never do. The ‘Crown Prince’ split fairly early in the piece, & he had reasons. There it is: a ‘Family’ rebellion to be sure; the Son rising up to deny the Old Man – classic stuff & far older even than a ‘lover’s quarrel’.

. . .

But, here I am again: now, down the escalator, Freud tucked under one arm, Jung the other, & not a cop in sight! Thinking . . . what would happen if I managed to throw a ‘faint’, one of those convenient psychoanalytic swoons as dear ole Freud did in times of crisis. Thrice – a trinity of swoons to be exact, that we know of, & O, la, subsequently made much in the Litterachoo, & Gesundheit, too! Death-experience imitatio? Knocking out the Conscious, closing down on the untidy and threatening? No mystery there, it seems. One could do worse, it seems to me, than thinking about mortido. Hell, one could be planning, for example, to stay alive forever in Taihape! In any case, a very insistent and persuasive dragon at any age, in any clime. Eros and Thanatos. And very much about this house these days; love poems turning into death songs with astonishing ease; the death-side of forty to be sure, prediction waits inside the body, etsi? And, not so long ago . . . sitting at the kitchen table I was, a shade of soul went ‘walkabout’. Like a very quick trip, down, in a lift. Some trip, some lift is all I’ve got to say.

. . .

Yes, a tough old gentleman Freud, and he had his reasons. Fond of such reminders as, ‘If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death’. Neat, that -- & stoic. Which I think he lifted from someone else but made his own, savaged as he was for years by the cancer that ate away his jaw; & acquainted as he was (some might say intimately, and let them . . .) with numerous demons he wrestled with for years. Todesangst: he was obsessed by the thought of his own death, was he ever. When he was 3 and on a train chugging from Freiberg to Leipzig, he recalled seeing for the first time lamp-posts that made him think of ‘souls burning in hell’. Precocious stuff for a toddler, or perhaps not. And later, when still a young man, changing his name from Sholom to Sigmund, ‘cheating the angel of death’. And this one – from his Paris days when he went to study with Charcot – a wary Freud in his hotel room testing the green curtains that surrounded his bed to see if they contained arsenic! . . . But, here he is – selfstyled ‘cheerful pessimist’ – at 81 in a letter to Marie Bonaparte, musing at his approaching death in his old age (‘my superannuated imprudence’), resigned & stoic as Prometheus at it all: ‘The moment a man questions the meaning and value of life, he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence; by asking this question . . . I ‘m afraid I am too pessimistic. I have an advertisement floating about in my head which I consider the boldest and most successful piece of American publicity: Why live if you can be buried for ten dollars?’ That, -- at graveside, so to speak; & one kind of echo, das Kind, when he was all of 5 weeping, as he says, out of ‘sheer disappointment’ when no one could or would answer his question, ‘What was there when there was nothing? . . . I knew also what my favourite mare was doing. I had no insatiable curiosity about sex, but I wondered what became of the dying greyhound, and the infinite gave me headaches.’ Wow! Some kid, some question; worth every brass razzoo of that ten dollars, what?
And so it is: Eros and Thanatos, that fine cosmological pair. Company they will keep under the sign of Vlaminck’s Tie, & with other estimables, riddles, & revised Greek koans that have got in among the cracker-jacks. Where else?

And so, dear E., from this Flatlands parish to you in Nude Plimouth, one or two words from the good Fathers of Scete, and a wise gang they were, too. Next time you’re in ‘sweet repose’ (quies) & thinking perhaps to loft one or two balloons of prayer, here’s Abbot Agatho of whom it was said, ‘that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.’ But wait – here’s one of the Brethren coming up from the Valley of Cells: ‘If you see a young monk by his own will climbing up into heaven, take him by the foot and throw him to the ground, because what he is doing is not good for him.’ And that, as they say, is That!

            Yrs, love, xxx

 

From Vlaminck’s Tie (Auckland/Oxford UP, 1985)
Michael Harlow
 


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Last updated 24 March, 2005