Newsletter 43 (17 April 2020)
This morning on the short walk to my office there was a beer bottle on the grass verge (interestingly it was an Italian beer called Moretti). I picked it up. I carried the bottle carefully in my left hand, put it in the green bin at the back of the flats (of which one is the office), opened the front door with my right hand, and went immediately to wash my hands; not quite immediately, as I turned on my computer first, right-handedly. While I was washing my hands I found I could not remember how I had opened the lid of the bin: perhaps with my right hand? So now potentially, my keys, two door handles, a switch and my keyboard were all points of possible contagion. I tried to imagine lifting the heavy lid of the bin. Would it have been possible with a left hand while holding a beer bottle? My memory is like Emmental cheese, full of holes of different sizes. I would like to say this is only ‘at the moment’, but I suspect the condition has been here some time, and will be something to live with. I could not recall precisely how the bottle got into the bin. I had failed the new protocols, the new rituals.
Several nights I have lain in bed waiting for the first bird to sing (a dunnock, I am fairly sure, whose trickly little song is still just inside the threshold of my hearing), and have meanwhile convinced myself that I’d worked out a plan for a newsletter, only to wake later to find nothing there. I remember reading that Tennyson was plagued by the feeling that brilliant night-time thoughts were being lost in this way, so he forced himself to scribble them down, only to find in the morning that they were meaningless rubbish. So, I am not particularly worried by these disappearances.
With regard to the contagious door-handles, I gave up worrying about them too, and reverted to my morning computer rituals, finding no one had emailed me, except for a dozen or so items of spam, cheap van hire, offers of enormous loans to Learn Italy, or Italian hotels offering hope for the future or recipes for making tagliatelle. A game or two of solitaire to find out whether my luck is in or out. And then – big mistake – the news websites…
A book started several times but recently finished (only 117 small pages; not too long to tax my currently poor concentration) is A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Unsurprisingly in discussing the art of Siena (a city which had to abandon its plan to build the largest cathedral in Christendom), he deals with the Black Death of 1348: ‘it moved at such a pace, and the ferocity of its assaults was so stunning, as to make one wonder if the pestilence were not a tactful and thinking intelligence, one constantly plotting how to confuse and overwhelm its victims. But of course it had no consciousness, no ill motive, but rather advanced with outrageous indifference, doing its own good work for its own good end, unthinking, dispassionate, neither concerned with the possibility of defeat nor elated by its conquests.’ Estimates vary as to how many people died, between thirty and sixty per cent of the population of Europe. Plagues came back time and time again during the next centuries. Both artists of the great fresco of Good and Bad Government in the Palazzo Pubblico, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, died in the first wave. It changed the art of Siena, and Europe, into something darker and more gloomy, more preoccupied with death and sin, for it was soon seen as God’s punishment of humankind for its failings. Saint Roch or San Rocco enters many an altar piece, baring his bubonic leg, as the leader of a new band of saints in a new iconography of disease. According to legend he worked with the stricken, and when stricken himself, was expelled to the woods, where his wounds were healed by the miraculous licking of a dog; he is also the patron saint of dogs.
I am a person of surfaces, superficial if you like, and it goes against my grain to believe that a microscopic particle of nastiness can lurk on a door knob, find its way from my rubbed eyes to my lungs, and then choke them up. It seems as incomprehensible and even meaningless as the discovery of stellar bodies a million light years from our earth. However, I am doing my level best to take it seriously and behave accordingly.
As for death, this inevitably crops up as a subject for thought in the early hours. I can think of worse ends than that offered in our current situation. It’s blameless. Relatively quick, especially in contrast with the stingy encroachment of dementia. At home it would perhaps be more difficult than in hospital, where one would be probably comatose and perhaps surrounded by angels in space-suits. And yet I’ve got so much still to achieve! Learn to play the Goldberg Variations on the piano like Glen Gould (at the moment I can do the groaning but none of the finger-work). Or perhaps the trumpet with the middle-of-the-road but absolute expertise of, say, Buck Clayton. Or perhaps learn to draw with the speed and economy of Tiepolo, or the cheeky verve of Picasso, or – you name the artist.
I’d intended to write about the different ways in which the imagination is given form in words or in the pictorial arts, a topic that has often bothered these newsletters. But I got waylaid by a discarded beer
bottle. Instead, here is the poem I might have used as an example of the poetic imagination, a bit of which came in another newsletter. It is one of the few by Wallace Stevens that I think I understand.
Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself At the earliest ending of winter, In March, a scrawny cry from outside Seemed like a sound in his mind. He knew that he heard it, A bird's cry at daylight or before, In the early March wind. The sun was rising at six, No longer a battered panache above snow . . . It would have been outside. It was not from the vast ventriloquism Of sleep's faded papier mâché . . . The sun was coming from outside. That scrawny cry — it was A chorister whose c preceded the choir. It was part of the colossal sun, Surrounded by its choral rings, Still far away. It was like A new knowledge of reality.