Monday, July 29, 2013

I Live Here

"Alone, even doing nothing, you do not waste your time. You do, almost always, in company. No encounter with yourself can be altogether sterile: Something necessarily emerges, even if only the hope of some day meeting yourself again."
- E.M. Cioran


I watched Martin Amis on the BBC's Hardtalk recently, where he spoke about how he enjoys being in the public's headlights occasionally, granting an interview or joining in discussions and debates, but that his chosen vocation and its demands for solitude always pulls him back where he knows he belongs - in a room, alone.

Amis wondered if a writer must have a taste for being alone. Such a regard for solitude is unique among writers (and religious ascetics), and none went as far in its accentuation and celebration as Philip Larkin. In so many of his marvelous poems he shows off the advantages of not just solitude but also for selfishness.

‘None of the books have time’

None of the books have time
To say how being selfless feels,
They make it sound a superior way
Of getting what you want. It isn’t at all.

Selflessness is like waiting in a hospital
In a badly-fitting suit on a cold wet morning.
Selfishness is like listening to good jazz
With drinks for further orders and a huge fire.

1 January 1960


But even in some of his more innocent poems, like "Autobiography at an Air-Station," in which Larkin captures perfectly the stressful boredom of airports, you can find lines like

Ought we to smile,
Perhaps make friends? No: in the race for seats
You're best alone. Friendship is not worth while.


Or, in "Autumn," which establishes its autumnal mood as a kind of life-condition:

Like a London court one is never sure of finding

But none the less exists, at the back of the fog,
Bare earth, a lamp, scrapers. Then it will be time
To seek there that ill-favoured, curious house,
Bar up the door, mantle the fat flame,

And sit once more alone with sprawling papers,
Bitten-up letters, boxes of photographs,
And the case of butterflies so rich it looks
As if all summer settled there and died.

1953


And in other poems, like "The Life With a Hole In It," Larkin returns to the scanty options that life offered him:

When I throw my head back and howl
People (women mostly) say
But you’ve always done what you want,
You always get your own way
— A perfectly vile and foul
Inversion of all that’s been.
What the old ratbags mean
Is I’ve never done what I don’t.

So the shit in the shuttered chateau
Who does his five hundred words
Then parts out the rest of the day
Between bathing and booze and birds
Is far off as ever, but so
Is that spectacled schoolteaching sod
(Six kids, and the wife in pod,
And her parents coming to stay)…

Life is an immobile, locked,
Three-handed struggle between
Your wants, the world’s for you, and (worse)
The unbeatable slow machine
That brings what you’ll get. Blocked,
They strain round a hollow stasis
Of havings-to, fear, faces,
Days sift down it constantly. Years.


But Larkin returns to his insistence that such a life is, after all, what he wants, what he needs:

Best Society

When I was a child, I thought,
Casually, that solitude
Never needed to be sought.
Something everybody had,
Like nakedness, it lay at hand,
Not specially right or specially wrong,
A plentiful and obvious thing
Not at all hard to understand.

Then, after twenty, it became
At once more difficult to get
And more desired – though all the same
More undesirable; for what
You are alone has, to achieve
The rank of fact, to be expressed
In terms of others, or it’s just
A compensating make-believe.

Much better stay in company!
To love you must have someone else,
Giving requires a legatee,
Good neighbours need whole parishfuls
Of folk to do it on – in short,
Our virtues are all social; if,
Deprived of solitude, you chafe,
It’s clear you’re not the virtuous sort.

Viciously, then, I lock my door.
The gas-fire breathes. The wind outside
Ushers in evening rain. Once more
Uncontradicting solitude
Supports me on its giant palm;
And like a sea-anemone
Or simple snail, there cautiously
Unfolds, emerges, what I am.

1951?


Larkin knew the inevitable allure of society, while seeing through it. Its chances for escape, if only for awhile, were a grim replacement for the surety of solitude.

Vers de Société

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us? In a pig’s arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid –

Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown

Straight into nothingness by being filled
With forks and faces, rather than repaid
Under a lamp, hearing the noise of wind,
And looking out to see the moon thinned
To an air-sharpened blade.
A life, and yet how sternly it’s instilled

All solitude is selfish. No one now
Believes the hermit with his gown and dish
Talking to God (who’s gone too); the big wish
Is to have people nice to you, which means
Doing it back somehow.
Virtue is social. Are, then these routines

Playing at goodness, like going to church?
Something that bores us, something we don’t do well
(Asking that ass about his fool research)
But try to feel, because, however crudely,
It shows us what should be?
Too subtle, that. Too decent, too. Oh hell,

Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse
Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course –

19 May 1971

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