Books – they’re a man’s best friend. Patient and eager to please, they lead us into the light.
I realised this recently while convalescing at home, the victim of an illness less of body than mind.
It started with a familiar feeling: I wanted to write – desperately, truly, madly – but I didn’t know what. As I sat and pondered the options, my eye fell on a magazine I’d been reading whose theme is topical.
Okay, I thought, here’s my chance to take a stance on a hot button issue, on the most pressing problem, they say, of our age.
So I settled back to give it some thought.
Gazing out at the clouds racing across the sky – as if I could see the climate changing and not just the weather – I tried to make sense of my impressions.
I’m aware, first of all, of the scientific argument, neatly stated by NASA:
The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.
I know, too, of the consensus in scientific circles, the one in which ninety-seven percent (to be precise) of actively publishing climate scientists agree that ‘climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities’.
The evidence, I realised, should sway me, should spark outrage and action. And yet it doesn’t.
Only a little. Truth be told, I sympathise with the sufferers without being truly touched.
Feeling sick at heart – am I some kind of monster? – I turned away from the window.
In desperation I looked to my bookshelves where, like a dog in waiting, one work leapt out at me: Peter Watson’s Ideas, a history of ideas ‘from fire to Freud’.
Unable to locate ‘climate change’ in the index, I turned at random to the chapter on romanticism. And there, in a book bought fifteen years ago but barely opened since, I found what I was looking for.
The real aim of romanticism, the underlying aim, had been set forth by Keats, who wrote poetry, he said, to ease ‘the burden of the mystery’ . . . Whereas the scientists tried – or hoped – to explain the mystery, the romantics relished it, made the most of it, used it in ways that many scientists could not, or would not, understand.
So, I thought with relief, I’m a romantic.
I mean, the signs are all there.
In my view the world can’t be analysed or fully explained; it can only be experienced directly or seen through a glass, darkly, reflected in the workings of the human mind.
Nature to me is more metaphor than model, even if the metaphor often used is that of a model. ‘We live in a world we create ourselves,’ the philosopher-poet, Johann Herder, once observed. (Herder him?)
Only the arts, I reckon, can ‘ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where,’ Shelley wrote, ‘the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar’.
I’ve said as much in a song:
You can cut it all up
And weigh it all out
But when you put it together again
You leave the meaning out
You can test all the theories
Check all the facts
And still the truth
Gonna slip through the cracks
(Nothin’ Adds Up)
Clearly I can’t rely on rationalists – scientists and journalists – to help me make sense of the world: they simply don’t speak my language. I have to look elsewhere for help.
Short of ideas, I turned back to the bookshelf.
This time a play jumped out of the pack: Shakespeare’s King Lear, a story wracked by a fabulous storm. I opened my Arden edition and began to read. Before long I found what I was looking for: ideas and images that made my impressions much clearer.
In Lear the heavens are in tumult because human affairs have fallen into disarray.
‘Nature finds itself scourg’d by the sequent effects,’ the Earl of Gloucester declares.
Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond crack’d ‘twixt son and father.
Deceived by the fine false words of his two eldest daughters, Lear spurns the one who truly cares but flatters him not.
‘I love your Majesty/According to my bond,’ Cordelia tells him, ‘no more nor less.’
Having broken this bond, Lear is lost; assailed by wild and stormy weather, he wanders the heath, succumbing to madness. Later, when Cordelia is murdered, he dies.
Are we too doomed, I wondered. After all, aren’t we destroying that which sustains us, just like Lear?
But then I pondered the sub-plot of the play, which seemed to say something more. Can we not, I thought, take heart from Gloucester’s fate?
Blinded by egotism – he too has betrayed his one true child – the remorse-ridden Earl is led to the ‘brim’ of a cliff at Dover, where he leaps but does not fall, the actual edge of the precipice being a little way off. Thus is he reunited with his son.
Earlier on Gloucester had, with astonishing insight, given voice to my feelings.
‘Heavens, deal so still!’ he cried,
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly
Greed, profligacy, heartlessness – is it any wonder nature rises against us?
Then, finally, there is Gloucester’s other implicit assertion: that by seeing things feelingly we can reconcile rationalism with romanticism and come to more fully appreciate what we have. This, and a little luck, might keep us one step ahead of oblivion – assuming, of course, that we are perched merely on the ‘brim’ of the precipice and not on its outermost edge.
Feeling better, I took my dog for a walk, safe in the knowledge that books are surely a man’s best best friend. For, unlike our furry favourites, literature guides us through dim thickets of thought and out into the light of the world, the one true home of humanity.