Thursday, 9 August 2012

Tell us how you feel, Hecuba

We still need catharsis, we are addicted to it, but it isn't morally improving anymore.

Nowadays, sometimes more out of self-gratification than sympathy, we like to vicariously experience other people's extreme emotions and subject them, whether jubilant or suffering, to instant inquisition. Empathy is recognized as a professional tool that could sometimes be mistaken for politeness ("I hope your  journey here was alright?", "I'm sorry about that") and as a fashionable attribute, usually mistaken for compassion.

Traditionally this sort of feelgood factor used to be regulated, produced artificially through dramatic representation, a consensual imaginative act given the morally improving name of catharsis. Only the emotion aroused in the audience was real. How the actor and dramatist achieve their ends, through application of techniques or painful substitution of themselves, does not matter; it is the powerful mystery of their art. 

The intoxicating effects of this emotional communion were acknowledged in ancient Greek civilization by associating theatre with, of all the gods, mood-altering, self-gratifying, subconscious-dwelling Dionysus, not the rational Apollo, overall patron of poetry and the performing arts. The same experience has been undergone by mystics of all religions, reproducing the passion of sacrificial gods and saints. The downside of this was scapegoating and witch-hunting, practices condemned by modern society.

We still need catharsis, we are addicted to it, but it isn't morally improving anymore. Sated with simulated realities, we demand confessions from real living persons. We are angry and suspicious if they deny us with "no comment" or "how the **** do you think I feel?" The description of feeling has become an evasion, more vital to us than the real thing. 

We do not always make a moral distinction between sharing someone else's joy and our own Schadenfreude. We applaud ourselves for feeling empathy, like trainee professionals awarded extra marks for showing it to patients or clients, regardless that compassion as a virtue is not enjoyed, but given to alleviate the suffering of others. We are upset if anyone suggests our interest is motivated by addiction to gossip rather than selfless concern about other people's lives and deaths; a good murder is as alluring as a wedding. 

It's the modern secular game, the coveting of souls for entertainment. The thrill wears off; we need to move on to the next one. Like tragedies in five acts, the limits of compassion for an individual are set for the comfort of the wider community. What's Hecuba to any of us, or us to Hecuba, after three hours?  

"How do you feel?"

Detail of Antonio Tempesta's print, c.1600, of Hecuba, the inconvenient mourner who took her grief too far for the communal good, lamenting over the corpses of her children.
Please don’t ask me: “How do you feel?” In the garden of how I feel nothing....
grows but tears and groans and bitter aloes. I cannot speak my sorrow: it swells inside me, poisoned tumour choking words and ulcerating thoughts. 

In the garden of how I feel, there is no light; shade, not sheltering, skulks like punishment in mandrake screaming corner. Rustling in mildewed leavesof rats running to gnaw nerves’ endings. They drag their tails and leave their stench. No wonder nothing grows.

Please don’t tell me, fresh amputee, crawling to closed door: “You must move on”. The past shifts tectonically; in violence of absence nothing looks the same that was seen before through someone else’s eyes. Memory’s disfigured by severance; my only voluntary movement, long journey in catacombed mind to rediscover what’s gone.

Metamorphosis in a new garden: replant the wild and tender flowers she loved. Replicate the ancient art of sweet disorder, heart breaking colours out of stone and clay. A slender straight-backed gallantry, swaying of summer stems as she stands high in the branches. The mystery of patterns  changing in dappled light; the way to make-believe the most while having little.
a column of bitter tweets
Please don't tell me what to feel.
“You must move on”,
they honk at me.
Move on where? I'm immobilised.
There is no on.
I do not see their horizon;
only black and grey whirling
round my head and feet,
dark space full of violence.

Do they mean
Deny the dead beloved ever lived?
Throw them out because they’re not perennial?
Fix affection on someone new, I’m told,
like a parasite creeping up new host.

Please don’t ask how the dying are
unless you really care.
Empathy has a shelf-life,
like a nurse’s milk
gone sour.
After first act of drama,
long-term illness becomes
Credit’s lost condoling, “Ah!
the Silent Killer”
before anyone’s died,
if next year, too proud to lock a door,
they heartlessly sneer
when asked to account
by the Still Alive
for landlord’s duty of care.
Rolling pyschotherapist's eyes,
these supercilious, judgmental types,
window-makers into other people’s souls,
never think they are being seen right through.

"We'll do her shopping for her" blagged new neighbours,
while their DIY and Hi-Fi kept her awake
their dog left alone distressed and distressing yelped,
After she was dead, rather than condole, they arraigned:
"mad bitch, mad bitch,
who jumps on the floor
in the middle of the night,
mad bitch whose laughter
turns to crying,
mad bitch, it's got to stop".

Compassion for an individual
must have limits for the greater good.

Someone else thinks I’m disobliging:
“Can’t your father look after her instead?”
is demanded with asperity
when I don’t fit in their diary.
Adult mistaking father-figure
for domestic fixture
dumbfounds me.
I found out when I was eleven
that a parent is not a given.
I do not believe in household gods -
though I heard a banshee
knock a mirror off the wall,
saw vase and candlesticks
spewed like lava on my bed.
(No fear of that: only the mice and rats
that scurry shitting whipping evil tails.)

After the funeral - and that’s a farce,
business numbers swopped at the bar,
undertakers flirting at lych gate,
most expensive handbag competition,
who loved her most award -
people want you to move on.
Time that heals everything is too slow
for body clocks today.
After three months, even friends get impatient.
Grief is now a stigma, my badge of shame
Move on means I think Snap Out Of It:
“You should be over it by now”
as if regret for whom you love is a short trip
across borders strictly controlled.
Tainted, you’re an unwanted stain
at the back of other people’s minds,
unlucky, tedious, untouchable.
(“Her husband died a year ago; it’s time
she stopped going on about it” - 

what's Hecuba to any of us after five acts?)
Not to be outcast,
you pretend you’re getting better,
try to hide the anti-social haunting inside.

Modern manners demand sublimation.
We pay to weep for Hecuba,
grieving mother turned into dog,
disturbing the neighbours with her howling,
or beat breasts for celebrities we’ve never met,
but we must not feel the suffering of our own loves
after they are dead.
They are now a dream of fiction, too;
absence less felt than phantom limbs.
I would like to mourn with elephants
who remember their dead
while on the move
and do not tell each other what to feel.

Missing and regretting and loving
beyond recall is a hunger
never fed, a tapeworm that will not die,
a sickness and a ravenous ulcer.
What you are and how you love
is in your gut, the first centre
of our feeling,
our oldest brain.
I try to replant the yearning garden
but sweet flowers do not grow soon
in bitter soil and acid rain.
I want to scream GIVE ME TIME.
A wise man tells me, “It’ll take five years”.

I cannot see the end. 

As soon as big-name disease is diagnosed,
paid marauders prey on you.
Blundering among doctors and nurses
who are attuned to their vocation,
who listen to patients’ needs
and not their own,
aho see the boundary of clinical
and personal,
are community healthcare practitioners
who recognize no boundaries at all.

Uninvited acts of intervention,
home visits of disruption,
behaving as if divinely annointed
without the milk of human kindness.
Brash and bloated with job description,
sometimes obese with clinical power,
they desanctify our last human right,
our end of life,
depersonalize the dying,
breach every clause of  patients’ charter
hanging above their heads.
The hospice that ensured she’d die
without dignity.
didn’t even get her name right
or carry her up the stairs to home.
(“We don’t do lifting” said a volunteer.)
Two days later she was dead.
No explanation when I complain.
 “We’re sorry you feel that way”:
Formula for non-accountability.
 “You need to move on”, they say.

For friends, no safe neutral land,
no written codes for giving and accepting help -
we must feel the way along
the barbed wire mesh of obligations.
The rescue for which we are most grateful
is being understood.
Often doing nothing is the kindest thing;
but only the brave dare risk
virtue that has no interest in showing itself,
kindness that has no reflection,
waiting and watching that yields no thanks,
the love of another
more than image of ourself,
kindness that mends
with invisible threads.

But when it’s unwanted, help’s a bane.
I’m turned inside out by the meaning well.
Like charity fundraisers ringing you at home,
they push in when most you want to be alone
Not content with spectator’s view,
they want to be in the show,
share spotlight in drama
in which they have no part -
they’ll gatecrash weddings, births and deaths
because in the plight of others
is their food for self-esteem.
Sometimes in their hunger to be useful,
they miss the turning from kind to cruel.
They’d run over your dead body in a race
to win I’m A Good Person TV show.
Tacit sympathy and watchful waiting
do not earn them Brownie Points;
Blinded by their own torch
on the quest for a worldly crown,
they do not see the mark of hallowed ground,
they do not hear the murmured prayers,
and intrude on sacred hours with their solicitude.
I hate them for making me feel ungrateful.
I hate them for my fear of hurting them
I hate myself for being just the same.
afraid to let them see my inner, angry, ugly self.

Hell is paved with good intentions;
kindness of those who think
I will be happier
if I’m more like them.
We label what we fear and do not understand
to make it tame.
We want others to be the same.
When I tell them how I feel,
they tell me I am wrong.
Extremes of emotion are put down
to abnormality of growth,
not an individual truth.
When I relate experience,
not the norm,
they tell me I am wrong.
They tell me what to think and feel,
with missionary zeal:
out of pity for my suffering
they shove their own world-view
in my face,
They’d rather trust an institution
than my testimony;
an unreliable witness to my life,
mad not to be the same as them,
made mad by their denial.
What labels me, negates me.
I think it’s their way of staying sane.
I shrink away; I dare not start holy war,
not in their house.
When I’m dying, like a cat
I'll turn away and hide.
How I feel was described millenia ago.
My wailing is like the jackals and my mourning
Like the ostriches or owls,
Why have you forsaken me,
This is my soul’s darkest night,
cannot be said today without devaluation.
Metaphors that once illuminated the vale of tears,
now block its way.
Everyone is grief-stricken,
heart-broken or devastated
by loss of life, a job or a game;
Maelstrom and Vortex are muscled superheroes in tights;
The Abyss is a wrestler or science fiction,
no longer our primal home.
We don’t know why Hecuba turns into a dog,
human voice swallowed up by grief,
eyes blazing with revenge,
disfigured by suffering, ugly inconvenience
howling through our civilized land.
Emotional expression must be younger
and more commercially pretty than that.
Infinity looks containable;
stress a fashionable affectation;
suicides (on the rise) inexplicable.
Even irony, exhausted, is the new cliché.
Language and customs are over-amplified,
No-one dares admit they hear the throttled cry
and whiplash sigh in anguish.
No-one listens to the pauses where true feeling rests.

After scattering ashes, it's “Move on”,
saddle up love and grief,
wild horses broken in by human fear.
Atavistic mourning, 
morbid and avenging
- skeleton statue climbing up the tomb,
blood turned into flowers,
flowers into blood,
drummed heart beats -
feels more true to me
than roses wrapped in plastic,
sterile thanksgiving and goodbye rhyme.

Banning unlikely resurrection promises,
none of the words I’d chosen
for others to say at the funeral,
come near the majesty
of what should be expressed;
words, instantly thrown away,
are funeral flowers, beauty contaminated,
unacceptable to hospital wards.

 - “Be histrionic as you like at the funeral”;
display of emotion is socially approved there
- but not alone at home, in bed at night,
nor in the street, outside the shops,
nor by the river in the dark,
the places where other animals freely howl -
purpose built 1930s crematorium
generously provided for regulated
No, thanks. Obstinate, ungrateful,
I will not act being my real self
in front of people I know,
parade bleeding heart on a tacky stage set,
give up tears I cannot control
for entertainment
at the end of the pier
My feelings are not fit to be seen;
they'd hang, unseemly entrails,
letting down the mood.
Rather, avoid a messy scene,
embarrassing for everyone,
easier to sublimate with banal chat:
 “Have a glass of champagne.
How nice of you to come.”

Funeral is a piece of theatre,
ritual, not transubstantiation.
She knew what was real
and what was not.
Only in music from another age
do I find consolation of harmony;
manmade tones of such solemnity
carry a meaning unspecified and vast;
or a catchy dance tune from her youth,
wistful melody that stays in the head
sobs in time with laughter
of someone who never aged or ceased to dance.

                    - her smile in old photos
                    uncovered, of her young and smiling
                    in gleeful hope,
                    the look of hope eviscerating me -.

Funerals, despite their mordant farce,
fulfill their catharctic purpose for some;
others give thanks for a life;
or, spotting colleagues, work the room;
some find a therapeutic module,
borrow the dead person for roleplay
in which a lost child finds an ideal mother
or an unmarried man, a wife.
Someone else steals another guest’s good deed,
to use as an alibi for lingering too long over a drink;
respect for the dead forgotten in an addict’s lies.

Social decorum weighing on a funeral,
gives malice diplomatic immunity,
and good consciences no rest
from worrying what to say,
how close to step.
White knights, dutiful, guard elderly bereft,
or serve drinks when paid staff fail.
Their discretion is the bravest virtue.
But always there’s a Fairy Carabosse or two:
“It’s your do, darling, you find the wheelchair access”
A man pushing stroke victim
(Speechless, mind in prison we cannot guess)
replies to my confusion at narrow door;
either he wants me to become hysterical
or he’s forgotten this is not a pub crawl.
Later, standing beside the wife who could tell on him, :
solicitously he says: “Phone us if you need help”.
She means it; he speaks cant.

Unobserved obsequies suit me best;
for her, there should be a sylvan pagan pyre;
or her body covered in flowers
on a boat rowed to Avalon;
none of these allowed.
For eighteen months I’d been preparing,
knowing she was dying, hiding it from her,
guarding and nursing and lying;
storing sorrow behind a dam,
planning when she was gone
to let the waves roll unseen
into a wide ocean,
not like this;
coursed by shame
into subterraneous
red streams,
bitterness flows in me.

My private vigil already vexed,
funeral is stageplay to exalt her
in front of her friends;
not to show or speak of feelings
fathomless -
a family tradition in the female line,
pride and shyness
mistaken for imperviousness.
I dared not drop a tear, for one released
would burst the banks and flood us all -
just as well, as there’s a weeper outdoing Hecuba
while my grief is dumb.
Rather, to avoid a messy scene,
embarrassing for everyone;
 “Have another glass of champagne" I say
to someone who doesn't want one.

She who could not be possessed before death
        is free for all now,
        re-interpreted, objectified.
Intellectual property transferred to public domain,
jealously appropriated for self-therapy
        out of keeping with her reticence.
 “Mine, she was mine” strangers cry
I don’t know the boundaries any more,
I have no rights to ownership.
(When someone not my brother says
“She was like a mother to me”,
I wonder if they’d say to a widow
“He was like a husband to me”)
Their love for you has no room for mercy
for me - but it’s not my death, not my show -
“I’m more upset than you!” -
unhappiness in a verbal competition.
(Once it was sartorial:
I remember my mother joking,
after my father’s funeral,
about the size of the ladies’ hats,
and realizing she was not really amused.)

Friends want to hug; I recoil.
Noli me tangere,
I am made of glass;
a touch will shatter me.
I want to spare them
awkward moment
of not knowing what to say
when nothing can console;
I need space and time;
I disappoint them.

In my defense,
stiff upper lip,
nowadays deformity,
was once good manners.
I do not please everybody.
If people don’t see you cry,
they think you are OK -
or mean and undemocratic.
Too right: my grief is for private viewings only;
I don’t have sex in public, either.
My heart’s too full for me to speak.
Someone said I was arrogant
not to confide in them;
a solecism in compassionate society,
        I could not talk while I drowned,
        I could not tell them “How” -
        I cannot pause
        to define
        while I’m falling -
barely able to talk,
scrabbling for a rope
at the bottom of a well,
I say what I think they want to hear:
“I’m fine”.

                                                Someone brags he’s taken a mobile photo
                                                of my tongue hanging out.