Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The God Reflex - Spirit

And in the end, well everything will just end. The beauty of creation, the void filling light will be snuffed out by a war which wrenches the world asunder. The many headed beasts will rise out of steaming hot oceans, the lamb’s blood will be spilt for no reason and the four cantering horsemen scattering pestilence, famine, brutality and the final, final death for all humanity will appear on the blood red horizon at the end of the anti-Christ’s reign. The good work, everything we’ve ached for will collapse into an abyss where the very fabric of reality cracks open and, maybe, the good will be reborn, to try again. To try better, to fail better.

‘I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the world,’ is a bit of dramatic flag waving to for tension’s sake from Flash Gordon, but, somehow, the impending end always feels plausible. Indeed the apocalypse fills fictions to overflow, words and images slip over the top of the page, the screen, and into a sticky puddle in our lap. As Stan Lee would have said, ‘this one’s got it all true believer’: The eternal battle for all humanity! Goodness versus the devil! Satan and the endless hordes of the flies rampaging up a local high street accosting boy scouts and traffic wardens alike. It’s particularly prevalent in science fiction and fantasy. For genres which seem intent on distancing themselves from the routine rules of the world they’re also the keenest for God and his adversary to crop up in some badly disguised form or other. All those stories I absorbed as a child of heroes and villains, and the fight over evil - nothing sums them up like the end of existence hanging in the balance, from the first Star Trek to Galactus looming, hungrily over the ozone layer. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is essentially revelations boiled down into an allegory about small boys trapped on an island. The underlying unnervingness of this is what makes it work for some many, for so long. Even CS Lewis in his Narnia books, despite the overt Christian tub-thumping, understood that the apocalypse is the end we fear the most because we don’t truly believe in it.

Perhaps this was partly why I studied history, by which I don’t mean the social details of a fifteenth century French Nun’s daily habits, but the grand, sweeping narrative arcs. Whilst all those nuanced details of mundane existence flesh out the past and give it life again, it was the politics, the wars, the murders and the power which really fascinated me, all those years ago. At the centre of it all, at least for medieval Europe, was the Catholic Church and its all threatening dogma: ‘be good, else come the last battle you’ll finish in the fiery pits for eternity’s duration.’ Hell was only ever a heartbeat away.

Numerous princes and irritants, dissidents and doubters were labelled the anti-Christ whose coming heralded the beginning of a thousand year reign by Beelzebub over the Earth. It’s only after the Devil’s millennia that things will really go tits up. My favourite candidate for the anti-Christ is Frederick Barbarossa, an early thirteenth century Holy Roman Emperor who dared to challenge the might of Rome in a fit of todger waggling and for ever more, according to legend, sleeps in a cave somewhere in Sicily, his broken body healing, his defiant soul surviving, awaiting the time become the harbinger of the end once again.

‘Look after yourself,’ my Mother said, some time ago as I was leaving to return to the big smoke. ‘You’re not indestructible.’

‘Yes, I am,’ I replied clambering into my car. ‘Well,’ I grinned cockily, ‘I bounce at any rate.’

But things catch up with you and sometimes you don’t quite bounce high enough. Sometimes you just pitter out.

Last week I had something of a meltdown. I’d been working hard, pushing myself both at work and with my writing, but predominately at work. Twelve hour days have been frustratingly familiar and then I write in the evenings and I neglect my life and still I don’t seem to get any closer. The point is always inching further away and so I am sacrificing things and what for? For nothing. For nothing but something half-forgotten, an argument to which no-one else is listening anymore.

I was, at my desk in central London, four and a half hours sleep for the second night running and getting eight-six emails in less than an hour, both my desk phone and my mobile ringing and a stinging, streaking white hot pain starts to pulse along my arm. I persevere, but a problem arises and I can’t think how to rectify it.
It’s a problem of my own making, something that’s happened because I didn’t have time to do it properly because I’ve got too much work to do and, for a moment, I just don’t know what to do. It feels as though my head is going to burst; literally it feels as though the skin at my temples is going to split and a throb that reverberates around my rib cage seems to contract.

I’d been to the doctors a couple of days before, not because I am ill, but because my girlfriend, rightly, thinks it’s probably not a bad idea to be registered with a GP. So I got an early registration appointment with the nurse a little after seven and as I waited, I worried about what I should be doing at work. During my check up I seemed fine until she took my blood pressure which was high. She took it again and tutted. She told me to unstress msyself and come back in three months.

‘Am I having a heart attack,’ I momentarily wonder as though that’s going to add to my problems and then I manage to calm down and realise that it’s a mild panic coupled with some fucking painful repetitive strain injury.

Bounce, bounce, bou-.

At home, that evening, I feel weighed down, as though my heart is pumping iron fillings through my blood stream. My girlfriend is endearingly sympathetic, yet I worry that such self-induced collapse can only be tolerated for a short while before it simply becomes a character failing. A spirit that refuses to relent only goes so far before it becomes frustratingly stubborn.

A bit like David Cameron being suicidally stubborn over Europe. Still, at least Nick Cleggs found some spirit again and spoken up. Admittedly it some old spirit, dried and crusty on a used tissue, but at least he’s speaking up again, trying to be heard over the distressed nation. Maybe he’s the one the anti-capitalist protestors should be looking to? Probably not, but they do need someone. Or perhaps just themselves.

The holy spirit, the holy ghost, is the third and final part of triune which makes up the Christian God almighty. Without the spirit there is no god, just mysterious paintings of an old man amongst clouds and legends of a bastard crucified. And yet this part is the hardest to define, the trickiest to understand. It is both the element which brought life into Mary’s womb and an ethereal notion of truth. It has both practical function and also is abstract to the point of incomprehension. It is but the word and the word is God and the words are what bring about our God reflex.
It’s always the words which haunt, which linger, which inspire, which hate, which love, which fight. Peel back the layers of everything and without language, there is nothing.

What is spirit? We talk about people having a lot of spirit, so it is the woman I saw sprawled on a zebra crossing at seven-thirty Tuesday evening, her skirt risen up the rim of her waist length fake fur jacket, big-arsed tiger print knickers gleefully displayed, quietly singing muddled songs from the Sound of Music to herself? No, that’s just drunkenness. High spirits is nothing but an excuse. Real spirit is something else.

Perhaps it’s the stoic, acceptance of life during wartime that many of our grandfathers would have had. They went off to fight and some came back, but many didn’t. Many may have been shocked into horror and lost, but many just got on with life. As though it was something you had to do. Me? I just go to work and I can’t really handle that. I guess it’s something that’s been lost over the generations, slowing being ebbed away at as life becomes more comfortable and your fucking iphone having insufficient signal to stream video is an infringement on your basic human rights.

Evelyn Waugh wrote a lot about spirit, I think, both holy and otherwise. He wrote some deft, slightly bitter comic turns too, but Brideshead Revisited – which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently – is about man’s spirit and its fruitless defiance in the face of the holy spirit. Waugh was a convert as a man and he wanted to expose clever, cynically, envious, glutinous Charles Ryder to the innocence and loving malevolence of faith.

I’d forgotten what a wonderful novel it was, words to bring meaning to life more than abstract aspirations to saintliness, but the real world cast on paper. It had been years since I read it, but Brideshead just seemed to swell up from the deepest recesses of my brain and as some point over the summer my own work swerved away from being a relatively straightforward noir-esque murder mystery and something which wrapped in all those eternal themes that Waugh encircled in a single family. I’m not writing about Christianity, but I think I am writing about ideals and about heroes. Not fictional ones, not anymore, but about those people whom we let control our lives, who dominate us, and for whom our flesh is weak even if our spirit is strong.

I think I’ve been trying to expose the shallow adoration for others that we all instinctively have. Rather than be reliant on someone else, someone wonderfully marvellous who will be just as fallible when the mask slips, perhaps we just have faith in ourselves. I think we expect too much, we believe in the impossibility of others and so when we can’t reach their fake standards we are disappointed. Remember everyone is a fiction to some degree.

I don’t know what Samuel Beckett though of God, other than his comment about his most famous play: ‘I wrote Godot. If I’d meant God, I would have written God.’ One suspects that maybe he wouldn’t. Regardless of his religious views, he has another point to make: I found an old postcard the other day showing a man discovering that the heavy sack of grain over his shoulder has been leaking. ‘No matter,’ it says at the bottom, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The God Reflex 2 - The Son

Afterwards the light reached itself to every corner of the new found existence, stretching and yawning its way across the once invisible universe bringing the first vestiges of life with it. There was stillness, aside from the change from black to the unnamed not-black, and there was silence. Everything was still empty, but the emptiness has potential. A potential which, eventually, was filled with the movement and noises of shuffling, snorting creatures, the penultimate of which stumbled on two legs and was named Adam, forged in his creator’s image. The first son, the forgotten son, the less favoured child than his younger brother.

The God Reflex, if it even exists at all, means that in those moments of despair and panic, much how Adam would have felt awakening in the garden, we cease to be rational beings. Suddenly we, if only briefly, are prepared to believe in that which we’d previously dismissed. For an instant we have faith in the stories we learnt as a child. We believe in more than just the moral principles of religion, but in the mythos and magic that lie at its heart. Those stories that have been told and retold, shaped by events and agendas. And us. And then, like the moment before existence, like the silence before the Large Hadron Collider actually works, when all life pauses, ends and restarts, we return to our previous state. Just twenty-first century cynics again.

It’s not so unreasonable to believe in stories that are clearly impossible, is it? I used, once. When I was a child I believed in everything I read. In the past, before we came to the cusp of the future.

My belief, my faith, in the future changes almost day to day. Sometimes it’s easiest to just think that everything will work itself out. More frequently, the coming hardships, and therefore the need for some sort of life plan, seem unavoidable. New studies show that most people think they will be worse off than their parents; the unrelenting growth pattern where the next generation always enjoys more frivolous fun and a healthier lifestyle, appears to be ending. Strangling personal debt and unemployment beckons for the young; a housing market that climbs further away; longer working lives; worse pension benefits; soaring costs of basic commodities like fruit and vegetables, gas and electricity monopolised to maximise profits before the resources dry out; a swallowing, gaping refusal to accept that the planet is dying and every word I type, every song I listen to, every book I read all contributes to the capitalist, consumerism, selfish self-destruction of all life.

In such circumstances who would want the future, who would bring more living beings into the world?

And yet I can see the joy in the faces of my friends and family who have children, who have future. The pride and devotion they feel towards one whom came from them, but perhaps for the unconvinced, it is better to remain without? After all, provision for myself is likely to be difficult, why should I knowingly cause a dependant to suffer? To place the burden for my old age onto another who never asked for anything, who never existed until I chose to release myself into the gene pool?

My girlfriend and I went to see We Need to Talk About Kevin the other Sunday night. It’s a rare incident for me to see a movie without reading the book first - although, to be honest, I’ve no real inclination to read it. My girlfriend refers to this animosity towards best-sellers and popularism in general, as cultural snobbishness. Well, okay, so it sort of is, but I also feel that, since those books will be around to read in the future, and others might not be some sort of prioritisation is in order. Besides, somewhere along the line Lionel Shriver just started to irritate me. There was something strangely aggressive about her approach to marketing which I found disturbing.

Anyway, it was hardly relaxing end of the weekend viewing. Whilst it was indeed prettily directed and neatly acted I found the sense of foreboding doom difficult to ignore. It was like a relentless voice from above signposting the devil in all our spawn, a thundering arrow jutting down into the middle of the narrative declaring that was possible would be inevitable. It’s just what happened to people, okay?
The movie did, once we’d pulled apart the plot and style, force us into a vague conversation about children and the complexities of being a parent. My standpoint has always been unashamedly ambiguous sprinkled with cruel jokes about keeping infants in plastic boxes in the cellar, but this has only ever been a distraction technique. All the gags and socially unacceptable statements can’t hide my internal unease, my lack of a plan.

Maybe I’d have more decisive clarity if I had a life plan. Maybe, maybe not, but the world keeps getting in my way. Events, dear boy, events, conspire against me and I’m not single-minded enough to plough on regardless. Those that do have that drive also seem to have this faith that the world will always, stutteringly but ultimately actually, improve. That’s something which seems to be as flawed, or at least as unproven, as a faith in divinity. Huh, I make myself sound like life has been one long hardship, but then I look up from my keyboard as glance around my world. In the main it looks pretty damn good. Different from how I once expected, but very fine indeed.

Is there any point in having a plan when the pace of change over the past hundred years has left a world utterly unrecognisable from the one our great-grandparents were born into and who’s to say it’s going to slow down. Society and the ways in which we interact with reality have shifted into something inconceivable at the end of the First World War. But, whilst change still advances at a pace I find almost impossible to keep up with, the expected end point has shifted from a utopia to a dystopia in the same period of time which I spent at infant school. The lucky few, the so-called one percent, will continue their personal advancement whilst everyone else finds themselves relocated to down amongst the Morlocks in the sewers.

Perhaps this in itself helps to explain the God Reflex? That when the world’s demise appears inevitable in one form or another then at least there is another life to be embraced, an afterlife of perfection and enchantment, once you’ve negotiated the oft forgotten notion of purgatory. Everyone, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, passes through that temporal punishment, where the good and evil are purged from one another, torment tests the worthy for the advancement up the divine ascent to heaven whilst the others spiral down to the fiery pits. But for all of us there is the opportunity of perfection, something better than an ever degrading human existence, to be snatched.

Whatever his personal opinions on the church, Dante lived in fourteenth century Italy and so the concept of a better world in the next was pressingly desirable. Life would have been moderately short and filled with far more difficulties than running out of coffee or a jam on the motorway so what came next important. In the same way, a son was crucial to continue the lineage. They came next too, only on the Earthly plain. Legacy and the next life; the lines become blurred as the two interlock like reincarnation.

Perhaps that explains my reticence. I worry that I expect a son to be better than me. Not exactly a hard feat, but still an unnecessary burden. Is that what Jesus, Adam’s sort of younger brother, was supposed to be? Better than humanity’s creator, its saviour?

Whilst I am in no way trying to compare myself to anyone else’s deity or the so-called son of God (although I’m sure there are those out there who would expect me to do just that), I worry that I have been something of a disappointment, or at least a mystery, as a son. I lack a career; I lack offspring of my own; I am far away and unable to engage with family responsibilities fully; I feel as though I am yet to do anything of worth to justify this self-indulgence.

No, that is not fair. I know my family, my Father, love me and are proud of my meagre achievements. They don’t begrudge me my independence and nor do they expect me to feel guilty for it. Kevin is guiltless, that’s what seems so alien about the character. He’s so utterly free from remorse whilst his mother drowns in a sense of self-indulgent shame, a personal affront which implies immaturity below her years and experience.

I wandered through the protest camp outside St Paul’s the other evening, on the way home via London Bridge station after a few beers with Ben. It was eerily quiet and yet defiantly full of people sheltering inside their tents, deep breaths echoing out into the open night sky. The plastic pseudo canvas flickered in the reflected up lighting illuminating the domed tower high above them. As I walked, I remembered an anecdote I’d read recently. The main complaint about their protest against capitalism is that they don’t know what they want instead. If you go to a restaurant and your steak is disgusting you don’t have to eat it. You also don’t have know how to grill an amazing steak to know you want something different to what you had before, something better.

You don’t have to know exactly what you want in life, but it doesn’t hurt to always want something better and sometimes helps to acknowledge that you can be more than one thing. It is possible to be both the son and the father without losing traits of either.

Which makes me wonder whether you can also be the final component of the trinity?