Since The First Pen Scratched
There are so many quotations I could use about a house not being a home without books, about how important literature and the access to books has been to one or another person of note, or fame, spanning countless years. Man has appreciated the written or illustrated thought since the first drawings appeared on cave walls, since the first pen scratched an impression on papyrus, parchment or vellum. I cannot think of anything worth putting my access to books on the line; nothing that I would gladly exchange for the pleasure of having a library, or being able to visit one with ease whenever the need or desire arose. But I have been surrounded by books in one form or another all of my life: bookshelves filled with countless examples have been the wallpaper of wherever I have lived, even during my years in the British army, even during the times when I have been travelling and effectively without a home to call my own. There are many other freedoms and privileges which I have grown to appreciate over the years, but none of them have been as important to me in my private life as books have been.
This may seem as strange way to begin a letter – although I freely admit that most of my letters begin strangely for those who are not yet used to my writing style – but it was the first thought which struck my mind when I read your letter. The first thought because I know the chapel library and your access to literature is one of the few freedoms that you have, one of the few privileges. At the same time I appreciate your reasoning for this slip down into the mire, even if I do not necessarily accept it. And I also appreciate the fact that you, now, understand the consequences of your actions, and the hurt those actions bring to other people. What you do to yourself is a matter for you, is a matter of your own free will and acceptance of the consequences. What you do to other people, those near and dear to you, those who will also be restricted through those actions, is another matter entirely. What you do to the memory of one who stood by you, despite his advancing years, through thick and thin, and supported you I hardly need mention.
No, I am not out to shame you, nor am I here to lecture you in any way; we do not know one another so well that I would assume such, and even if we did, it would not be my place. What is done is done, and we learn:
The river where you set your foot just now is gone – those waters giving way to this, now this
as Heraclitus wrote. Like the waters of a rushing river, the world is constantly changing, and we are changing with it. We learn, we react, we take action which causes reaction and, hopefully, we learn anew. In modern terms: we learn from our own mistakes.
Heraclitus also wrote:
What was scattered gathers. What was gathered blows apart.
This is the fate of man: all that he has patiently built will, with the passage of time, be destroyed, no matter how sturdy it may seem, no matter how well built. This goes for the knowledge of ages too: what we consider to be the wisdom of all time, such as Plato’s works, which were only rediscovered in Renaissance times, and gathered together again by people like Ficino and those who sought out the ancient philosophers, disappears and needs to be rediscovered. Things that we know, such as those things which you know, hide behind the mists of a momentary blackout, a few seconds of ill-considered action, a belief that no one else can possibly see the other side to the facade we give out normally. But Heraclitus also goes on further with some form of hope for the future:
Always having what we want may not be the best good fortune. Health seems sweetest after sickness, food in hunger, goodness in the wake of evil, and at the end of the daylong labour sleep.
There is a certain appreciation for that which we have lost, and most certainly a desire to regain it. So long as that which is gone is worthy of regaining, we should strive for it. At the same time, learning that some things are not worth sacrificing, not worth the pain given to others through our failings. The quotation I have on all of my letters, which you comment on, is from Cicero and translates, roughly, as letters should not be embarrassing or, perhaps, should not cause embarrassment, so I shall leave this theme to rest.
Relationships are difficult when people compare them to the ideal, to this idea of a whole family living in a small house in the suburbs with two cars, a dog and daily deliveries of newspapers and groceries. This is the ideal put out by television, by Hallmark films, by those who cannot see the individuality of each person, each family unit. I suspect that these ideal family units do not exist at all, except in the minds’ of Hollywood writers and studio bosses. I used to watch US and British films from the Forties and Fifties, what we call Film Noir today, and wonder that all the main characters lived in spacious apartments or manor houses and had servants to clean, to serve them tea, to answer the door when friends came to call. These, for the writers and, perhaps, for the audiences, were the perfect families, even when a murder was committed in their ranks, and that was often the theme of these films. Today the perfect family is seen as man and wife with two or three children and a dog, in a house which is represented by their living room and, occasionally, the kitchen. There is a couch in the middle of the set; the front door opens directly onto the living room, there is a flight of stairs to the upper floor directly behind the couch. If normal people do not meet this ideal, then they are not normal. At least, that is what television tells us and, of course, the information we gain from television is never wrong.
The reality is what we see about us all the time: those with spacious apartments are generally the minority, or have mortgaged themselves to the hilt. Families cannot afford such apartments if they have two or three children, and certainly not when they are approaching college age. One person working – the man, of course – is improbable today, because a single income family cannot pay all the bills. The majority of Americans do not live in the ideal family situation television portrays. An eleven year old is going to see this ideal family whenever the television is on. The stories around school from other children are going to be only the better ones, and those who live in the ideal situation are going to be those everyone wants to be friends with. Reality is not going to stand a chance even for second best. This ideal, impregnated as it is, cannot be achieved if one person is not present in the family; there is possibly the belief that if this was not so, if the family was complete, all would be like a sitcom on television: ideal and harmonious. It is very hard to get this false picture out of someone’s mind. It is very difficult to show someone that a situation is far better when it can be accepted, when two work on making the best possible out of their circumstances. Eleven is, perhaps, still too young for someone to understand the realities of the world and move away from the egocentric; and every child believes that the world revolves around them whether they get it from television or not. We are born selfish, it is a survival instinct; we learn differently as life progresses. Our selfishness disappears when we meet up with someone we wish to spend our lives with, or when we move out and have to make our own way in the world; whereby being selfish restricts the number of friends we gain and teaches us some very hard lessons.
This level of selfishness is not wrong. As I mentioned above, it is initially a survival instinct to ensure that we get enough food, that we are warm and dry, that we are protected above all others. It changes over the years, as we gain experience in the world, but still takes on hard to understand forms when it comes to dealing with the disparities between our own lives – as the selfish person – and the perceived easy life of a ‘complete’ family. It could well be that this schism between yourself and your daughter will last through into her thirties, into a time when she is in a relationship and has children and comes to see things through the eyes of a parent. It may well be that she wishes you to replace your grandfather in some way, especially if she was close to him. You have the advantage in that you knew him for many, many years more than she did: you can tell her the stories of good times before she was born. You can share something with her which she has never experienced, which no one else has experienced but you.
I disagree with the idea, which you write, that there will be no one left upon your release who loves you. You can be loved and resented at the same time and from the same person. And there are many people who can work their way through infirmities and still enjoy a long and prosperous life. I’m not saying that you should only look on the bright side, because that would be like the ideal family situation in a television series, rather that you should accept things for what they are and work to make them better. Your daughter is coming into that age where education is of prime importance, and your own reactions towards education would influence her, even if you do feel that there is a vast abyss looming between you. She will probably not want to talk to you about school, which is quite normal at that age even in a complete family, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t ask and show an interest. So long as you show an interest in her, the gap will not grow any wider. And if she doesn’t visit you? Ask after her through those who do visit; always show an interest; always praise where it is due but don’t condemn harshly when something goes wrong – as in: don’t preach! Show an interest without forcing yourself upon her, and show her that you are getting ready for your own ‘graduation’ in seven years time. But don’t expect too much.
Cicero and Pliny were high-ranking Roman officials two thousand years ago. Cicero was a politician around the time of Julius Caesar and the fall of the Roman empire and his letters and other writings give the reader a wonderful sense of the times. Like the works of Plato, they were rediscovered by the Humanists – and especially Petrarch – in the fourteenth century and formed possibly the greatest influence on Latin writing in Italy, and later across Europe, at the time. Pliny the Younger came on this side of the BCE / CE divide, and his letters cover such mundane things as political administration, the eruption of Etna and destruction of Pompeii – where Pliny the Elder, his uncle, died – and prosecution of the first Christians. They are worth reading not just because of their age, but also because of the many hundreds of references to other works and to a way of life which has disappeared now. The literary politician doesn’t exist anymore, and you certainly cannot count those who write their memoirs after a few years in government as being men of letters, it died out at the end of the nineteenth century to be replaced by career politicians only interested in re-election and little else. The thing about letter writers is that they portray history in a completely different manner to historians. The bulk of our knowledge of history comes from those reading documents and writing about the past, whereas letter writers such as Cicero, Pliny the Younger and hundreds of others, were writing at the time and give us a firsthand vision of the times. The victor, it is said, writes history; and clearly from the point of view of the victor. But the letter writer of the time is not looking back, does not have a partisan point of view, writes according to how they see it as it happens and from the fresh information that they have to hand. Perhaps that is why I enjoy reading letters and diaries rather than the bulk of history text books or even biographies and auto-biographies.
At the moment I am reading Anthony Gottlieb’s The Dream of Enlightenment, which is the second volume – after his The Dream of Reason – on the history of philosophy. After that I shall be turning to another work of historical interest – Peter Meier-Hüsing’s Nazis in Tibet – which covers a secret SS expedition lead by Ernst Schäfer. And then I am back to letters again, with Kathy Chamberlain’s Jane Welsh Carlyle and her Victorian World – which is the story of the letters of the wife of a prominent English historian, one which I have been looking forward to for some time. I first read her works when I was much younger – along with the letters of Thomas Carlyle, her husband – in an edition published shortly after her death.
I do not have a set routine in my life, other than collecting my post from the post office each morning, so the fact that my previous letters were all written on a Wednesday is merely a coincidence. Given the chance I write letters every day, always supposing that I have someone to write to or to answer, and read one or another of my books, but that is as far as routine goes. Lacking any set routine I can get out and about considerably more without feeling I should be doing something else or letting someone else down, although I do, of course, have things that I am required to do which some might see as being an obligation but I consider more of a pleasure. These things require my presence in Hamburg and Bremen every month, in Frankfurt or Bavaria four times a year and in several other cities in northern or central Germany three or four times in a year. An obligation, as I say, but one which I enjoy and do not see as being pressing or unwanted and which are always an enrichment. But I shall write about such things another time.