There is a phrase in German, often used when a general discussion awaits, or when someone just wants to ramble on about anything in conversation, and it can be translated as talking about God and the World which, I think you’ll agree, seems to cover practically anything anyone could possibly want to talk about rather succinctly. As I read that you are interested in writing about the minor, almost insignificant topics of life and death, love and hate as philosophical themes, this phrase came to mind. I could go on further and state that I am that curious person you are looking for, and any other Englishman reading this would laugh at me and agree: I am indeed a curious person; a strange person with a wide range of interests who, to set the word straight, is curious about his surroundings, about life, death, love and hate, amongst other things. I am filled with curiosity, and an innate need to find answers or, at the very least, to find a path which could, one day, lead to an answer, whether I am the one who finds it or not. It is, another commonly used phrase, the journey which counts, not the destination; I have made many journeys without necessarily ever reaching a final destination.
This history will never come to a close. Any history worthy of the name can neither be saturated nor closed.
I am taking Jacques Derrida out of context perhaps, but I see what we are doing, where we are going, be it in life or merely in a conversation about life, as being a history. History in the making becomes, quicker than many of us would necessarily wish, history. Every single journey we undertake is partially completed as soon as we take that first step.
The main problem with talking about such a wide range of subjects – note that I say talking here – is how quickly we become lost. In writing, of course, it is different: we have the ability to go back over our words, to correct, to amend, to expand or delete. The spoken word is a one-time opportunity, once taken it cannot be withdrawn once more, cannot be denied despite what so many politicians would gladly claim, their words being taken out of context, twisted, pout to a use other than that which they wished. In letter writing, which is my personal passion, we are conversing with another person in an almost immediate manner whereby, at least with hand written letters, the words are laid to rest on paper, and remain there for interpretation. Letter writing, when done from the heart, can be a form of verbal conversation unless, as is possible with modern technology, we go back and review what we have written, rewrite those parts which are obtuse, which are wrong, which potentially put us in a bad light. Letter writing is, generally, not for publication, not a series of learned articles designed for the eyes of a wide audience, and we can exercise our minds in a philosophical sense with all manner of themes to our heart’s content. We can begin with a minor subject, a small particle of something massive and world-changing, and explore it over a few paragraphs, over two or three pages perhaps, with a freedom article writing, public speaking and even college work do not allow. And if we have chosen the right partner, if we have found someone who is willing, and able, to enter into the discussion, who can throw their own ideas without mental or other hindrance into the pot and stir it, then we have begun a journey of real delight.
On the other hand, with such all-encompassing subjects as love, hate, life and death, it is possible to enter into the sort of debate Socrates is famous for holding, where the subject matter flies from one area to another until those arguing against one opinion are found to have changed their course, the opinion, and to be supporting exactly the opposite. Sometimes it is necessary to cut down into the very flesh of a proposed argument or theme, to try and find its core and then tackle this, if it can be agreed upon what the central theme, the very heart of the matter is. Are we talking, when death is the subject, about the act of dying; about methods of dying; about the morality of suicide; about assisted death; religious symbolism and death; the afterlife; the immortality of the soul; methods of internment? Are we talking in a philosophical sense, deconstructive, Freudian, neo-classical? Is our line Socratic, Christian, Atheist? Do we follow the beliefs of the Greeks and Romans with their countless gods, or the Hindus with more than five thousand, the godless, those that believe in alien spaceships or reincarnation and Nirvana?
How about the more earthly side of death, with legends. It is said that the ghost, or shade, of Guy de Montfort remains on trapped in limbo to this day, for the crime of killing his cousin Prince Henry of Cornwall. He is, it is said in the legend, immersed up to his neck in the burning waters of Phlegethon, one of the five rivers of Hades, and the heart of his victim was consigned to the banks of the river Thames in London, stored in a wooden box.
… seeming to rise from the boiling flow
Up to the throat. He showed us one who kept
Off to one side. “Within the bosom of God
He stabbed another’s heart, and it has dripped
Blood ever since upon the Thames.”…
Alighieri Dante has such a way with description, even when translated into English, that I could not resist this and, having lived in London for many years, I am sure one or two areas of the city really are portals leading to the dark realms below, where we are bound to find the unfortunate man – who died in Sicily in 1291 – regretting his sins forevermore. Or, if you wish to take your catalogue of punishments from the Legend of Er, for one thousand years (ten times the length of a human life, which was judged to be one hundred years). If that is the only crime for which he was condemned, our great great great great (great) grandchildren could meet up with his soul in a new body, enjoying a new life or, at the very least, hoping to live a life freed of the stain of sins which got him cast away last time.
To be fair, de Montfort was avenging the deaths of his father and brother at the time, but he should have picked a better place than the church of San Silvestro in Viterbo, and especially since there was a papal election being conducted at the time, and the building was full of Cardinals and, if that wasn’t bad enough, both King Charles of Sicily and King Philip III of France were in attendance. As witnesses during a trial I have the feeling they would have been believed over the claims of an Englishman and his brother, having seen them with their own eyes, swords drawn and covered in blood.
And should you choose to discuss life over death, which is also a good choice in my humble opinion: one life? Many lives or the manner in which we live our lives? Would you seek out a society of people with a set ideal for their lives or, perhaps, someone who has truly lived:
No interesting life is easy or without profound pain, and Baudelaire’s harrowing life was also his poetic treasure chest of experience
as Willis Barnstone tells us in his foreword to a selection of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal and takes us a step further by telling us that:
He is the sickly fated lover of the beautiful and the exotic outcast. He is damnation and salvation. He is the misfit with fellow city misfits.
With such a character recommendation, how could anyone turn the man away from their door? And what a life he must have led, to achieve such a biographical description in a work which should have been celebrating the excellence of his poetic talents. But, as Baudelaire himself writes:
Our sins are stubborn; our repentance, faint.
We take a handsome price for our confession,
Happy once more to wallow in transgression,
Thinking vile tears will cleanse us of all taint.
I am sure we could delve into the lives of countless people, known and unknown, famous or infamous, and find something good, something bad, something which could have gone in a different direction had they only decided to take the left hand path rather than the right hand, spoken one word instead of another, climbed out of the right side of the bed on that fateful morning. The accident of birth and heritage, the advantages of wealth and position: so many aspects of life which could be considered, written about, discussed. It is an unending task. Had I, for example, believed my countrymen and schoolteachers back then, while I was still young and impressionable, I would never have gone to France at the tender age of fourteen, alone and unprepared for the culture shock of finding a society, a whole people, so similar to my own, despite the dire warnings and assertions of my peers. If that had not happened, I would probably not be sitting comfortably in my library, in my own home, in a small town in northern Germany, taking advantage of the pleasures of letter writing. Come to that, if certain of the school teachers had been more successful in their ban on young, impressionable school children reading authors who were considered well outside their age group, I probably wouldn’t have a library. And I most certainly wouldn’t be plagued by a multitude of references, cross references, quotes and citations from countless published works which justify, or dispute, practically every word I write, every idea my mind entertains.
But I digress, as usual when writing and my thoughts begin to follow paths not planned when I first open the blank page and make my choice of which subjects to try and write about. Or, better still, write the first words and see where the adventure will lead. Is there one special method for writing letters, especially to people you have not yet had the pleasure of writing to or hearing from? This is also something which interests me, and some others, not just on a practical level, but also in a philosophical manner. The manner in which we write, the subject matter we choose, the type of paper and envelopes employed, the places where we feel most comfortable writing are all instruments in creating the finished product, in selling us – the writer – to you – the reader. How much of a difference does it make when letters are hand written, and thus seem to be more personal and intimate, over those which are typed, and could so easily be used time and again by those too lazy to create anew. Perhaps the acceptance of typed letters is gaining as more and more technology takes younger people away from real letter writing and into the instant gratification world of social media. I certainly hope so, but from a very self-serving point of view, in that I now have to type; holding a pen steady and hand writing my letters, much as I would love to and although I promised myself a lifetime ago never to change, is nigh on impossible now. And when I do hand write, no one answers, as they cannot read what has been scrawled across the page. I used to joke that my hand writing looked as if a spider had fallen in a puddle of ink, and then dragged itself across the sheet of paper, I was probably the only person in the entire world – or, at least, amongst those I used to write to – who found this comparison amusing. As the then Princess Elisabeth wrote to King Edward VI back in 1549:
For the face, I grant, I might well blush to offer, but the mind I shall never be ashamed to present.
But it isn’t about physical appearance – at least, I hope not – but about communication, about conversing with those who have an interest in life, in sharing experiences, in being themselves above all else, and who try to articulate themselves, try to find soul mates, if you will, to share and to expand their knowledge, passions and, eventually, wisdom. So much better, I think, than just writing a diary every day and not being able to gain any input from another human being. Not, of course, that most diary writers wish another person to read their words; whatever is within those covers tends to be of a more private, confidential nature, but I have always considered a personal journal restricting, and that although I have kept one myself since 1988 and keep it to this day. And I am loath to think what society would be like today were it not for the great and wonderful diaries, the personal recollections, of so many people who have trodden this earth in centuries past, and taken their thoughts, their experiences, their knowledge with them into the darkness of unending night.