“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” Rumi ‘A Great Wagon’
I wasn’t old enough to know what the ‘A’ stood for. I was old enough to be in the house with some degree of care for small sleeping children. I should have been in bed myself but, by accident, I got caught up mid-way through what I didn’t realise was the final episode of a TV dramatisation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. I was so anxious to get the end of it that I took the risk of getting caught but luck was on my side. The last of the credits were over when I was discovered. Nobody thought to ask what I’d been watching. I carried the mystery of the double ‘A’ like an exquisitely embroidered locked-box that turned out to be, in reality, a quest to find its key. Except the minute I found the key, I understood that the quest had been false. The young girl in the sitting room had understood very well the point of the adaptation* – ‘scapegoating’ ‘blame shifting’. As titillating as sex may be, particularly in a strict religious context, to an adult audience – that aspect was not what held my attention. The depiction of duplicity, betrayal and the relief of its outing did.
What TS Eliot said
“A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” TS Eliot
The world of words is a mess of letters – whether breastplate or not. Words like the ocean, and we appear as a collective to swim through them, hitting off riff tides and struggling with hidden currents – sometimes both at the same time – and I am willing to say on behalf of everyone that it is unlikely that we are ever on our own no matter how isolating an experience can seem to be.
The dictionary is at everyone’s disposal – and there is most assuredly nothing new under the sun. But yet, the old saw of Eliot’s which I’ve heard misquoted now and then these past few years, is not I think misquoted in the way I understand it. My take is that use of other people’s words that appear without acknowledgement in our writing are those that are well respected and so easily recognisable in their own context, that when we use them, it is an act of homage, an exploration of lineage – and also an uplevelling of our own work. The question of who we respect and why we respect them, I suspect, is at the heart of this piece of writing.
What I want to say, in the manner of Hester, and within a paradigm of dominant discourse and narrative controllers, a body could find their mouth moving, arms and legs at times, and yet feel like a bit player in a drama where they have little or no power of direction. Two kinds of silences emerge. The silence where the sense of all-rightness is so pervasive that those in the presence of it deny any vague stirrings of argument – and a carefully disguised silence – where words appear to be said but that happens through an act of ventriloquism so you could miss that the person themselves is, in fact, not the one who is speaking. That is to say that a hole ‘could be’ dug for ‘you‘ and ‘you‘ could be left there secula seculorum without a need for breath, bread or companionship. Now imagine that you have dug that hole for yourself (use the ‘I’ voice here and leave yourself there for a little while) – I bet you that having gotten over a little jag of despair, you will be planning a break for freedom? It may take some time, but I also bet that you will be successful.
There is a third silence, in the manner of Hester, a sacred dignified silence to be invoked when you or I or she or he or they acknowledge that we, whether individual or collective, are not in the conversation at all no matter how it looks. Where we have no choice but to let the circus of all-rightness be as it is, while acknowledging honestly that the only part we share in this is the strange presentiment of those around us who enthusiastically interact with us as if we are monkeys, we genuinely have nothing to say except this is not my reality.
When the Scarlet Letter is ‘I’
For all the shame or nondescriptness that may attach to it, I decided a long time ago to wear my ‘I’ proudly – whomsoever had ordained my embroidering of it, whomsoever might wear its counterpart, when there was no counterpart.
In another blog I asked the question of myself, and to anybody who might find it interesting, who do you write about when you write about ‘you‘ and who are you writing about if you aren’t writing about yourself? The question as it emerges from the person that ‘I‘ am is not at all as straightforward a high-moral-ground position as it might look on the surface. To be honest, it isn’t straightforward at all and it’s less about me than you might think. So I’m going to go back a little bit and say that the intention behind it – as a matter of guideline rather than unbreakable rule – is to honour my connection with my own experience as I perceive it to be as what I have to offer (such as it is), to attempt not to speak on anybody else’s behalf, rather, if it is possible instead, to inspire their own true speaking, to create a dialogue or an atmosphere of correspondance even if that is one-to-many rather than one-to-one. All is not all-right. I doubt it ever will be so if you are looking for somebody to make a case for that, you still haven’t found who you’re looking for.
But my ‘I’ can be more at odds with myself in its speaking than its silence. That’s what I have been finding. My complex relationship with my own identity makes this ‘I’ a shapeshifting kind of letter. Another way of saying this might be to say that when I’m speaking from the place of ‘I’ , ‘I’ might possibly be speaking from the stance of a commissioned scarlet letter – making it a double ‘I’. One is a stock character in someone else’s drama of all-rightness to whom I have been trying to smuggle in provisions and etablish escape routes, and the other ‘I’ is one, I have to be honest, whose best language, to date, has been silence. Authenticity, ‘I’ conclude at this particular pit stop on the journey, is a wild ride.
One little Indian: multiple identities and Minnehaha
I was younger – the too-little child who hangs around the legs of an older sibling and the older again boys next door. The game was Cowboys and Indians. I suspect both my sister and myself were designated ‘Indians‘ but she successfully argued a case for a less inferior role or went on strike altogether. I, very influenced by a beautifully illustrated version of Hiawatha, embraced with great excitement my position which involved being confined at a distance – entertaining myself with imaginary log canoes, waterfalls and wigwams – to make sure I didn’t create nuisance for the older boys who were at that time engaged in shooting each other in a part of the neighbours’ garden I wasn’t allowed to go. It’s funny how early we learn the ways of all-rightness and our place in the pecking order.
The thing is at this stage in the story my own ear is straining for some concrete context for all of this because this is how things ought to progress. A preamble to an outing of the non-taking-a-trip-out-for-the day variety. ‘I’ am now regarding myself as if I am separate from myself and am wondering – I would like this to get to the specifics. Is her particular beef gender relationships, a matter of Irish Politics, sex and/or religion, animal welfare, how the West was won, who is to blame when children meet cultural references too young?
It feels like there should be, at this point, a denouement where ‘I’, as the author of this, orchestrate some situation whereby a heretofore larger-than-life all-right other all-of-a-sudden rips open a tightly buttoned outergarment to expose the matching ‘I’ they’ve been wearing like the stigmata all this time. The little key that wept blood. But again, again, the finding, the exploring, the naming and the shaming in any context, the multiplicity of the concept of context, proves to be a false promise.
Scapegoating, blameshifting, duplicity, betrayal and an outing of that still holds centre stage. But, with great respect to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his truth-to-power resolution, my experience is that this isn’t how things fall out. Where there ought to be a scaffolding, there is an expanding silence. The only difference is that there is relief in this silence. Minnehaha, Madeline, or whoever, from beyond the grave or back from a multiplicity of deaths – some by her own acts of betrayal – and decades of laid-waste land is here and trying to figure out – as the true silence spreads out – what would ‘I‘ have been saying all this time if things hadn’t been as they were.
4’33” minutes was a mighty silence for a music composition. A minute does for unthinkable atrocities – how are years to be acknowledged?
Coming in mid-way through the final installment
“If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter.” – Rumi ‘A Great Wagon’
I haven’t grown much physically. Metaphorically speaking, here I am again, on my own while those in charge are out, younger ones sleeping somewhere in this house who are owed a duty of care not entirely mine to discharge, and I am pursuing a fascination that is bigger than its risk. All the notes of theatre in my voice letting me know that there is still some other in my ‘I‘. There are a lot of right things about wanting justice. My wish to be in a world that is just – to contribute to that – is not going anywhere. But, I must acknowledge that the ‘fight for it’ is also a place where the words ‘I’ speak are often not my own. And, in the offchance, there might at some future time be a noisy public confession in some context or other what happens afterwards anyway? In life, a wrong outed is rarely a precursor to harmony in relationships – individual or community. The usual best hope is to get away from somebody or a situation – and that can be, in itself, a significant victory.. but pyrrhic. Chop wood, carry water – a better future for the next generation. In the particular incidence of Hester, it probably makes no real difference. And that’s when the heart makes its first appeal to the voice to break its honourable silence. Name the losses and cry for all of them, all the years, how and where it truly hurt. Cry. A lot. My heart, that authentic ‘I’, unabsolved, uninstated, unrealised and moving slowly. I’ll meet you there.
*The adaptation had a slightly different agenda than the book, it felt, when I read the book later on. I remember the TV ending as being more dramatic and quicker to close. I can’t swear to it though.