It is difficult when one isn't a human sheep to conceal the fact that one is different. And yet, at the same time, it would be even more difficult to admit that one was different to a human sheep. This fact I have come to realize all too poignantly during my occasional visits to Mrs. Daly, an old widow who lives in another, generally more affluent part of north London than I, and whose acquaintance with some of my relatives in Ireland led one of them to put her in contact with me several years ago. Consequently I was to receive, over the years of my residence in London, a number of invitations to visit Mrs. Daly, most of which I accepted, though with certain definite qualms, since, as I soon discovered, this old woman was by no means a kindred spirit but, rather, the converse of one, as I hope to explain. But not knowing anyone else or having any other contacts to speak of, I was prepared to spend a few hours, once every three or four months, in the company of a person whose petty-bourgeois mentality proved to be at such variance with my own rather more radical, if not proletarian, one. Since she would invariably cook me lunch, and quite a good lunch at that, I considered it expedient to persevere with her small-chat, thus saving myself the price of a meal in one or another of the local cafés.
But perseverance it certainly was and, often enough, the strain of having to listen to her opinions and beliefs was so great ... that, fearful of snapping, I would feel obliged to excuse myself from her company and spend a little while longer than usual in the toilet. Occasionally too, when even that stratagem proved inadequate, I would exempt myself from her company altogether and dejectedly return, by way of a flat-fare bus, to my single bedsitter in Crouch End. There I would endeavour to recover from the old woman, vowing to myself that never again would I accept an invitation to visit her! And yet, the next time one came - usually in the form of a short letter wondering how I was and inquiring whether I'd like to come over for lunch one day - I would succumb to the temptation and ring her up to confirm my willingness to do so on a specific day - usually a Wednesday. I would later regret this decision, but never went back on my word. I was as though under a spell beyond my control.
And so, when the dreaded day arrived, I would be prepared for the worst. I knew that her conversation had its limits and knew, too, how easy it was for her senile mind to wander afresh over the same retrospective ground on each occasion. There were, to be sure, a number of recollections concerning her late-husband and family which had acquired, over the years, the status of an obsession, an idée fixe, and I was invariably destined, on each succeeding visit, to witness most of them for at least the fifth or sixth time, though I graciously refrained from reminding her of this somewhat humiliating fact! As her guest, it was my duty, I reasoned, to grant her the privilege of an attentive ear. Though this duty became diluted in the course of time as, growing over-familiar with her memories, I permitted half my conscious mind to wander off at a tangent, so to speak, while with the other half, more usually the emotional half, I mimicked the semblance of undivided attention. And yet, if I was prepared to show patience with such foibles of old age as were to be found in Mrs. Daly's fixed repertory of reminiscences, I drew the line where matters connected with my own interests were concerned, rushing to their defence or charging into the attack with something approaching passionate conviction, such as even someone so obtuse as my hostess couldn't fail to appreciate! I refer here, in particular, to religion, which was the most consistent source of friction between us - Daly esteeming Roman Catholicism, I, a free spirit, advocating the virtues of transcendentalism, neither of us giving an inch of ideological ground to the other. Here is an example of a typically heated conversation: "But Matthew, how can you not believe in God? He made you!"
"I refuse to accept that!" comes my rejoinder. "The God to which you allude, namely 'the Creator', is an abstraction from cosmic reality and has no existence except in relation to the subconscious mind. In all probability, He was originally derived, knowingly or unknowingly, from the governing star at the centre of the Galaxy, since monotheism presupposes a centralizing tendency commensurate with the real beginnings of civilization. Our ancestors inherited Him from the ancient Hebrews, who called Him Jehovah, and then transformed Him into 'the Father' in order to accommodate both a Mother and a Son, namely Christ. He's an anthropomorphic figure with, in the traditional iconography, long white hair and a flowing white beard to stress his age."
"Yes, but didn't that cosmic reality make you?" Mrs. Daly objects.
"I refuse to accept that a star, any star, even one as intrusive as our sun, had any part to play in my birth or in fashioning my bodily form," I tell her. "If one chooses to equate the governing star of the Galaxy with 'the Creator', which, however, would not be exactly theologically orthodox, one will come to understand that it had a direct hand, so to speak, in creating smaller stars and planets, since they must have arisen from the explosive origin of each galaxy in what we now regard as the central, or governing, star. But if stage one of evolution was responsible for creating stage two, if the stars led to the planets, then it's difficult to see how subsequent stages of evolution, from plants to animals and on to man, could also have been created by it, since they arose at considerable evolutionary removes from the direct influence of the one huge star in each galaxy on the formation, through explosive extrapolation, of the millions of smaller ones, and over a period of millions of years. In fact, they constitute a series of ever more radical falls from it, using the word 'fall' in its morally opprobrious sense."
It is obvious, by this juncture in the conversation, that Mrs. Daly has completely lost track of my logical progression or is unable, for reasons best known to herself, to comprehend it. Yet she has a stock counter-argument to hand, which my reference to stars has engendered, and now she hurls it into the fray by asking me: "But who created the stars, or the governing star of each galaxy?"
"Not 'the Creator'," I reply. "For the stars arose from gaseous explosions in space, and before those explosions took effect ... there was nothing but potentially explosive gas at large. You can't conjure-up a 'Creator' out of nothingness, the void of space. And neither can you equate 'the Creator' with those gases, as if they alone were responsible for the smaller stars and subsequent planets. For gases come and go, and after they've gone ... there would be nothing left to pray to there. Thus the stars are at the root of evolution, even if they owe their existence to explosive gases."
"Well, I can't agree with you," Mrs. Daly confesses, somewhat truculently for a woman of her age. "God made the stars and He also made you. And you should be grateful, as I am, for all the blessings He has given us! I am constantly thanking God for the use of my sight, my hearing, my sense of smell, my good health, the use of my arms and legs.... Really, Matthew, we have so many things for which to be grateful!" (It is almost as though she were afraid that she would lose the use of her senses and limbs if she didn't keep offering-up prayerful thanks for them, and that her advanced age has more than a little to do with it, since they're now manifestly past their prime and therefore not quite what they used to be!)
At this more critical juncture in the conversation, however, the argument will either terminate or take a different line, since I am unable to apply rational persuasion to such irrational faith. I attempted to indicate that God, in the rather basic sense she meant, is a theological entity connected with the subconscious, but she persists in ascribing the creation of the Universe and all that is naturally in it to this abstraction. She won't see that before the stars there was nothing, and that stars, or certain stars, were responsible for the emergence of planets. She prefers to think theologically and, like all psychically backward people, she mistakes this theological idealism for reality. As I said, a sheep. The product of many decades of clerical conditioning. Whereas I am a free spirit. I cannot impress my intellectual superiority upon her for, stupid old woman that she is, she would simply think I was being impertinent and presumptuous. She cannot see me in my true light, as a philosopher-king and potential leader. To her, I'm also a sheep, but a younger one and therefore someone who should abide 'the counsels of the wise', meaning, principally, herself. She would not like to believe this isn't so. It would reflect poorly on her.
But I reflect poorly on her even while she is talking. I find this attitude she adopts of always wanting to thank 'the Creator' for the use of her limbs and senses a base and, on the whole, somewhat pagan one. Thank you for the use of the natural, what stems from the natural, and what pertains to the natural. Ah, but religious evolution has to do with a lot more than that, even on the Christian level! It has to do, namely, with what aspires towards the supernatural - in a word, the Divine Omega. Religious evolution stretches, in a sense, from the Father to the Holy Spirit via Jesus Christ. It doesn't end in the compromise realm of Christianity, in which flesh and spirit tend to balance each other and a diluted paganism co-exists with a diluted transcendentalism ... in fidelity to egocentric dualism, Christ being a sort of 'Three in One' in his humanistic relativity. It progresses on up to a post-humanist orientation, eschewing all reference to a 'Creator' and refraining, in consequence, from endorsing an attitude of thanksgiving for natural phenomena, one's own included. For only by overcoming the natural will evolving life on earth eventually attain to the supernatural, in transcendent spirit. Such is the irrefutable logic of religious evolution. But it isn't a logic that Mrs. Daly shares; for she, after all, is a Catholic and Catholics, being Christians, are perfectly entitled to give thanks to 'the Creator' for the use of their natural assets, not to mention the produce of nature in general. Old Mrs. Daly is especially good at this, as I hope to have indicated, and her feminine, sensuous nature is doubtless part of the reason. Another part must be her status as a fairly affluent petty-bourgeois widow, with a nice little pension to draw on and every incentive to take good care of her health. Eating good food, not just any food but only 'the best', is one of the ways she takes good care of it, and I have had reason, over the years, to be amazed at the expense to which she will go to ensure that only 'the best', or what she considers such, finds its way onto her table.
"I've always said that if you buy only the best, you can't go far wrong," is an aphorism dear to old Mrs. Daly's heart, and I have heard it said on more than one occasion, too! Not for this thanker of 'the Creator' to buy margarine, when she can obtain the best butter with the funds available to her! Not for her to eat sliced bread, which she considers spurious, when she can buy a nice home-made uncut loaf rich in calories instead! Not for her to buy thin little dehydrated apple pies wrapped in cellophane, when she can make fat juicy ones in her own kitchen! Oh, the list is virtually interminable! No wonder she revolts against my attitude of preferring to cultivate the spirit than to stuff the flesh!
But that, of course, is how I see it. From her point of view I don't cultivate the spirit at all because, unlike her, I don't attend church but remain aloof from it in the belief that I know better and have no need of orthodox faith. No matter if I should protest that Christianity isn't the end of the religious road, but merely a stage along it, and a pretty ambivalent stage at that, Mrs. Daly refuses to accept my opinion and insists that only by returning to the Church will I find salvation, that only in the Church will I be able to feed my spirit. No matter if I vigorously protest this narrow point-of-view, there is no shaking her conviction that the Church alone is right and Catholicism the one true faith!
Oh hell, what disgust and exasperation overwhelm me at these moments! How I loathe this old woman for her sheep-like narrowness of mind, her lack of evolutionary perspective, her petty-bourgeois philistinism, her love of nature, her religious limitations, her denominational bigotry, and a hundred-and-one other things which burden my 'Steppenwolfian' soul with morose feelings! How I long for the wide-open spaces of an intelligent mind with whom to communicate for once! It would never occur to her that my spirit is being fed when I read books, write aphorisms, listen to music, contemplate art, meditate, play my guitar, etc. Oh, no! To her way of thinking I don't feed my spirit at all. And ... all because I refuse to go to church!
Well, what can one say? A genius confronted by a sheep - it's terrible! There is no possibility of understanding. One simply wonders why one should have allowed oneself to get dragged through the mud of her opaque mind all over again. Is one under an evil spell?
I met a number of other people at this old woman's house in the
course of time, friends as well as relatives of hers, but they were none of
them particularly inspiring.
Occasionally her daughter, Maureen, would be there on vacation from
That might be true, but I wasn't prepared to enter into the argument, since I had no particular interests at stake. But when the conversation turned to my religious beliefs and I was requested to give an outline of them, it soon became clear to me that a new argument was about to erupt, this time between Seamus and myself, since he protested my contention that life ceased with death and, true to his petty-bourgeois nature, insisted that death wasn't the end, that the spirit could survive it and soar to the Other World.
"But have you ever seen a spirit leave the body of a dead person?" I incredulously ask him, knowing full-well that spirit wasn't connected with phenomenal appearances.
Seamus wisely shakes his head. "Can't say I have," he confesses. "Yet I refuse, all the same, to believe that this life is the only one. It seems to me that we're here to fulfil a purpose, to work out an individual destiny, after which we proceed, at death, to the spiritual world."
All very Christian of course, and half-true in its paradoxical sort of way. Though still falling short of what I knew to be the literal truth!
As does another thing Seamus says, after I've voiced an unflattering opinion of his belief: "There have been a number of accounts of the Other World from people who left their body behind and proceeded, at death, to the higher plane. I read quite recently of a man who, having died, recognized his body lying prostrate on its bed as his soul hovered above it. There he was, a discarnate soul, looking down from the other side of death at his corpse! But it transpired that he wasn't ripe, apparently, for the Other World; that he still had a mission to fulfil on earth, so he was obliged to return to his body and come back to life, which, for several months thereafter, weighed heavily on his soul as it adjusted itself to bearing the burden of his flesh again."
This is the gist, recounted in a touchingly credulous fashion, of one of Seamus's revelations concerning life after death, and I must confess to not having been particularly inspired by it! There is, of course, the possibility that the example cited by him involved a man who hadn't really died but had simply fallen into a deep sleep, from which he was eventually to awaken with the recollection of a dream, involving levitation, which he then mistook for a revelation concerning the Afterlife. There is also the possibility of the whole episode being nothing more than a hoax upon which some unscrupulous person sought to capitalize at the expense of joe public. This would doubtless apply to a number of accounts of life-after-death which exploited the general ignorance of most people concerning such things, in the interests of personal profit from a sensational story. Where it is believed that one cannot prove either way whether or not the spirit survives death, there's obviously sufficient incentive for some people to produce fabrications on behalf of survival theories. Seamus, however, isn't really in an intellectual position to know the truth, whereas I, having spent many years struggling towards it in the development of my philosophy, believe I am. I know that there is no chance of a relative mind being able to accommodate itself to absolute mind at death, since death is the cessation of that mind in consequence of the termination, for one reason or another, of physiological support. There is no reincarnation either, though this oriental theory provides us with a useful metaphor for emphasizing the inability of relative mind to co-exist with absolute mind in the Beyond.
As to Seamus's story of the account of a spirit looking down on its corpse from the other side of death, I was obliged to protest this matter by informing him that such a situation would be quite impossible since, unless this spirit had a pair of eyes in its head, which is most unlikely for something beyond the senses, it would be incapable of identifying anything outside itself, spirit having nothing whatsoever to do with appearances but being entirely essential - wrapped-up in its own noumenal self-consciousness. I could tell, however, that my argument, despite its reasonableness, would have very little influence on Seamus's judgement, such as it was, and that he would continue to believe such accounts of posthumous life as a matter of course, much the way his grandmother, another sheep, was convinced that she would be saved at death, and this in spite of her life-long commitment to the 'best' food, supplied and eaten, I should add, in copious quantities!
Well, good fucking luck to them! These simple people are entitled to believe what they like, since they exist within the Christian civilization as insiders and relate, in their different ways, to what it upholds. I also exist within this civilization but, being a Steppenwolf rather than a sheep, as an outsider, for whom such beliefs as life after death have no substance. My better knowledge obliges me to rebel against their bourgeois beliefs as well as to realize that not being a sheep but a philosopher-king and potential shepherd is as difficult a cross to bear as any, especially when one is more the victim of sheep than their master, as one certainly is in this context! Another civilization and another flock, and one might be on top. In this damn civilization one is simply outside - a dissident without the power to alter anything!
Ah, but that is the social macrocosm. I have been describing, for the most part, the social microcosm, as applying to my periodic visits to old Mrs. Daly. I could never quite understand why I allowed myself to get dragged into successive humiliations-on-a-religious-theme at her hands, or at least so I thought. Now, however, I know differently. It wasn't just that I needed some company and, if only to escape my solitude once in awhile, was prepared to tolerate virtually anyone, even someone so incredibly opaque as her. There was more to it than that, and I only realized exactly what it was on the occasion of my last visit. I recalled that she had an upright piano in the front room and asked whether I might have a go on it. I hadn't touched a piano in years, though I had once been a keen and passably accomplished player. No doubt, that was why I had a vague hankering, on this occasion, to get the feel of a keyboard under my fingers again. Nostalgia was pervading my soul and I wanted to give-in to it. Mrs. Daly, however, wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the idea, probably because she preferred to talk and was half-afraid that, were I to set the piano keys in motion, I would disturb her nearest neighbours and thereby invite some kind of retaliation, either then or, more likely, later that day, after I had left. Accordingly, she attempted to dissuade me from making the attempt. But, contrary to my usual acquiescent nature, I insisted that I proceed. And so she had no alternative but to comply with my wish, though not without remarking, in a brazen attempt to dampen my enthusiasm down a bit, that the piano was very old and seriously out-of-tune. Nevertheless I succeeded in obliging her to lead the way into the front room and, when there, to lift back the piano lid. At last, I thought to myself, an opportunity to form some broken chords again!
"It's very out of tune," Mrs. Daly repeats, more for her own benefit than mine, I figured, as I sat on the piano stool and applied both hands to the tentative formation of a descending sequence of major and minor chordal structures, quickly coming to the conclusion that the notes weren't really very out-of-tune at all but, on the whole, perfectly in-tune. I ranged over the entire length of the keyboard, black as well as white keys, and felt, probably for the first time in the entire history of days spent in Mrs. Daly's boring company, genuinely excited by what I was doing. Not for years had I touched my old love, the most accommodating of instrumental whores, and now my piano-starved fingers were tucking-in to the notes with something approaching lecherous appetite. Mrs. Daly, however, appeared anything but pleased by circumstances not quite under her control, and hastened to remind me that it was only an old piano which had got rather scratched up, thanks to one of her young nephews, who had used the lid for a playground on several occasions. And to confirm this regrettable fact she gently returned the lid to its original closed position, obliging me to withdraw my love-sick fingers from the acquiescent keys.
"There, you see?" she declares, pointing to a few small scratches superficially etched into the woodwork on top of the lid. "I'll have to get someone to come and polish it all over again." And then, abruptly changing track: "Was that music you were playing?"
"Just a jazzy improvisation," I modestly confess.
"Not music, then," Mrs. Daly rejoins, in her customary snobbish fashion.
"Well, music of sorts," I aver, preferring to ignore a definition of music which applied solely to printed scores.
"And did you ever take lessons?" she asks on a faintly sceptical note.
"Indeed I did," I smilingly reply. "For five long years."
She looks as though she doesn't quite believe me. "This was at school, was it?"
"No, privately," I correct, conscious, as ever, of the snobbish implications in the old widow's assumption, but determined not to allow myself to become unduly contemptuous of her. For by now I was beginning to feel an uprush of psychological relief from some remote quarter of my mind, such as I had never experienced in connection with Mrs. Daly before. And then, as quick as lightning, I realized that something I must have wanted to do all along, namely toy with her piano, had just taken place, in consequence of which I was now free of a nagging subconscious ambition. It was as if a spell had been broken and I no longer had anything to keep me there. To Mrs. Daly's surprise, I remarked that I would now have to be going, since the time was getting late and I had one or two personal things to attend to before the afternoon was over.
"But it has only just turned three-thirty!" she protests, turning desperate eyes towards the nearest clock. "I was about to get you some tea!"
This, of course, was something she normally did at around this time, thereby obliging me to persevere with her conversation until gone four. "Yes, but I've got to go to the local library today," I obdurately inform her, as I proceed, without further ado, to the hall in order to retrieve my coat.
"Well, do come again soon, Matthew," she politely insists, before I could open the door and bid her a curt goodbye.
"I'll try," I assure her. But, deep down, I felt this was the last visit I would ever pay her. For I had broken the spell and now I was free. From now on, her house would hold absolutely no attraction for me!