LYING IN A HAMMOCK AT WILLIAM DUFFY’S FARM IN PINE ISLAND, MINNESOTA
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
What are days for? Philip Larkin, once asked, giving himself and us an equally unadorned, straightforward answer:
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
The question might equally be phrased as “What is a life for?”, a life being in essence a collection of days filled in various ways. If days are envisaged almost as containers, like bottles holding wine or vinegar, or websites containing articles, or stomachs or intestines holding respectively food and waste matter, then our lives are, in some sense, an agglomeration or repository of these contained-experiences: the wine-store, the url, the digestive system with all their quirks and peculiarities.
If we are to weigh in and comment on whether a man in his 40s, lying in a hammock at a friend’s farm, watching the day go by is “wasting” his life, we probably need to have some kind of notion of what he should be doing instead. If waste is a kind of misuse, a dissipation, or misapplication of energy, the energy that courses through our bodies while we are alive, that get-up-and-go we herald with our first piercing, post-partum scream and finally let go of with a death rattle, then presumably we also need to have some idea of what it means to not-waste a life. If Wright’s exclamation at the end of the poem (“I have wasted my life”) stands for more than just a rhetorical flourish, if it in fact undercuts and in some way lays waste to everything presented before and after it, then the poet, and by extension the reader, might want to spend some time figuring out what we mean when we say that someone has “wasted their life”. Waste here implies a mind that has been distracted from valued and meaningful activities towards something less valued, less meaningful. But if that’s the case, where is the traction in all this? What might the speaker of this poem have been focusing his attention on other than the natural world around him as he lies in his hammock? This in turn requires us to consider the metrics we might use for assessing a life lived non-wastefully, constructively, creatively, which is to say, a flourishing life, whatever that means for you in the human context.
In a key scene from Mike Leigh’s film Naked, the ne’er -do-well drifter Johnny played by David Thewlis whose life is unspooling from one misjudged interaction to the next, spends some time with a security guard called Brian played by Peter Wight. The ten minutes we see in the film reputedly came from hours and hours of improvised method acting between Thewlis and Wight, as is Mike Leigh’s creed. Of all the interactions that Johnny has on his lopsided Odyssey through the streets of Dalston in the late 1990s, this one stands out for us, maybe because Johnny has met someone who at least, or at last is willing to engage with him and his unceasing logorrhoea, made up of hot-takes, and piss-takes, pontifications and provocations. Johnny is like a social media feed 20 years before the phenomenon became prevalent: helter-skelter, vaunting, erratic, and at times utterly deranged. Especially when taken out of context – which pretty much everything he does and says, is; his whole existence unfurling in the space of the film as a desultory and context-less entropic slide into self-destructive debauchery and oblivion.
He is not someone who would ever seek therapy, but I think his conversation with Brian is as close to therapeutic as any conversation gets in this film where lost souls engage with, beguile, seduce and exploit other lost souls in aimless and arbitrary ways. There’s a line from Kim Addonizio’s poem The Singing that captures Johnny’s plight, which of course is ours too in some way, otherwise we would not be as moved by it as we are:
All I can do is listen to the way it keeps on, as if it’s enough just to launch a voice
against stillness, even a voice that says so little, that no one is likely to answer
with anything but sorrow, and their own confusion. I, I, I, isn’t it the sweetest
sound, the beautiful, arrogant ego refusing to disappear?
Johnny and Brian’s conversation feels like one of the few “sane” conversations in a film freighted with exchanges that are more readily played out through the dynamics of co-dependence, narcissism, predation and even sado-masochism. Brian’s willingness to listen and ask searching questions, his relatively quiet, accepting manner offers Johnny a much needed, but all-too brief moment of respite and sanctuary in the middle of his chaotic freefall that we are witness to in this film.
“So what is it that you’re guarding?” he interrogates Brian.
JOHNNY: You guarding space? That’s stupid, isn’t it, because someone could
break in there and steal all the fucking space…and you wouldn’t know it had gone,
BRIAN: Good point.
Brian doesn’t rise to Johnny’s challenges in the way that other people do. The other people in the film are either intimidated, irked, or frustrated with him, or are pulled into Johnny’s Power Games, as matter might be pulled into a black hole, becoming embroiled in his passing fancies, which usually involve sexual designs if one is female, or a zero-sum version of The Prisoner’s Dilemma played out via intellectual oneupmanship, with Johnny vaunting how much he knows or has read, or can refer to, versus the meagreness of his interlocutor’s supramundane gleanings.
Brian, very much like a therapist here, tries to listen as patiently as he can, attentively engaging with the stray soul he’s found shivering on the steps of his workplace, perhaps in the hope of imparting some balance and cohesion to Johnny’s life, or perhaps because it’s a welcome respite from monitoring an empty building. Although in the process I think he discovers that Johnny too is a kind of empty building, filled and galvanized by any fleeting thought, feeling, or emotion that passes through him. In this way, Johnny is a kind of Everyman, for we, you and me, dear listener, are not especially different to Johnny in this regard.
At the beginning of their meeting, Johnny tests his new conversation partner with a little metaphysical jig:
JOHNNY: It’s funny being inside, innit? ‘Cause when you are inside, you’re still actually outside, aren’t ya? And then you can say, when you’re outside, you’re inside…because you’re always inside your head. Do you follow that?
BRIAN: Yes. Sometimes when I’m sitting here, I turn the lights off, sit in the dark. That always makes me feel like I’m sitting outside.
JOHNNY: So, what do you do with yourself here every nighttime?
BRIAN: I read, and I think.
JOHNNY: What do you think about?
BRIAN: I think about my life.
JOHNNY: And is that horrendous for you?
BRIAN: No, certainly not.
JOHNNY: Is it horrendous for your wife? Are you married, mate?
BRIAN: Well, technically I’m married…although my wife is 5, 919 miles away
and I haven’t seen her for 13 years.
JOHNNY: It’s all going very well then? Where is she?
BRIAN: She’s in Bangkok.
JOHNNY: Saucy. They’re not worth it, are they? Whores and harlots. When was the last time you had a fuck? Is that an embarrassing question for you?
BRIAN: It is, rather. Yes.
JOHNNY: I’m sorry.
Brian is one of the few people in the film Johnny is unable to get a rise out of. Not because Brian is attempting to evade him or police him. Ironically, even though wearing a uniform, the trappings of a security guard, he is the least on-guard, guarded, and guard-like of anyone in the film, either in terms of guarding his authentic self (what he says, thinks, and believes in his heart of hearts), but also in terms of what he does, how he conducts himself with others and in his role as warden and watchperson.
He is, an irony not lost on him, literally taking care of (guarding) an empty building, a building you might say that doesn’t need anyone to take care of it. And yet like all the self-care actions that we undertake for our own empty buildings, our intrinsically empty selves, the ritualistic habits of caregiving create a kind of carapace which we identify with. Psychotherapist, podcaster, gardener. All of these formalized in some way or officiated, role that sometimes require capital letters to give them their full weight: Security Guard, Human Being, Citizen (the identity list goes on and on).
Every two hours, Brian is required to make his way to one of 23 electronic sensors dotted around the building and log-in using a special device. “My existence at this moment, on this spot, is now trapped and recorded,” he explains to Johnny, “Twenty-three moments, 23 sites, every two hours.” Brian both sees and also presents himself as a quiet, deliberate, indoors- Sisyphus, someone who has made his peace with the meaninglessness of inner-city, late-capitalist employment, versus Johnny’s more scattershot version of nihilism, debauchery, and psychosexual power-plays.
Johnny could be doing this job too, but he would rather ad-lib his way through the time allotted to him. Or maybe this is his destiny, determined by his genes and his developmental background, perhaps also by economic and social deprivation, determined to wing his way through life in a fraying flap of of entropy and happenstance. Both men live lives of alienation and detachment, but on very different sides of the moral and ethical track.
Johnny half-jokingly, half-mockingly comments after Brian has explained his role: “Congratulations.You’ve succeeded in convincing me that you do have the most tedious fucking job in England.” But at least Brian has some kind of a job, something to think about other than his next drink, or smoke, or fuck, which for Brian translates into a short-term (day-to-day) purpose of sorts, as well as a means to an end, a more-distant goal which he formulates as the desire to one day purchase a cabin somewhere in the woods, somewhere he can retreat for a quiet, reflective retirement. At least that’s the dream. Johnny, as far as we can tell, doesn’t have any dreams, any aspirations beyond the present moment’s fight and flight scurry.
Brian listens patiently to Johnny’s conspiracy-theory rants about Nostradamus, and how the three markers on our bar codes correspond to “the number of the beast” as prophesied in the apocalypse, how the upcoming total solar eclipse on August 11 and the interplanetary shifts that will follow this suggest end of world portents: “On August the 18th, 1999,” he blusters, “the planets of our solar system are gonna line up into the shape of a cross. which just happen to correspond to the four beasts of the Apocalypse…as mentioned in the Book of Daniel. Another fucking fact! Another fucking fact! Do you want me to go on? The end of the world is nigh, Bri.The game is up!”
Interestingly, these portents only seem to apply to Johnny, who with the assistance of alcohol and whatever drugs he can lay his hands on, whatever woman he can inveigle or force into having sex with him, is, at least in this snapshot of his life, ecstatically unravelling.
I am reminded by Robert Kane, whose affable and and lucid lecture series The Quest for Meaning I am listening to at the moment with much pleasure, that Thales of Miletus, who might be considered as the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, structured his whole cosmology around one of the more unstable elements: water. I talked in my last episode of Poetry Koan about entropy and chaos, how the word chaos itself is etymologically rooted in the idea of a chasm, a gaping void, and is as Hesiod and the later biblical writers reminds us, the place where we all start from. And no doubt finish. No matter what lives we’ve lived, wasteful or otherwise.
Chaos and entropy are our birthright, and perhaps even our birthmark, the foil against which all our classifying and codifying, our building, expansion, and evolution uneasily finds itself reflected or more likely fragmented. Our lives often endure in the way that a building constructed on sand or a swamp might endure, at first self-importantly erect, “seeking the bubble reputation”, but ever-so slowly sinking over time until and we reach that seventh age envisaged by Shakespeare and all who came before him, the age “that ends this strange eventful (or uneventful) history: second childishness and mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
It is this watery, swampy terrain that western philosophy starts constructing its ideas around ethics, which is to say, how one might waste or alternately not-waste one’s life. Another way to put this might be: how to make best use of our lives. The last words that Brian leaves Johnny with are “Don’t waste your life!”. He has to repeat this message as Johnny is distracted at the time, but the message does catch up with him for a second or two. However, just like all the wisdom we read and that is passed onto us, as in the odd line of a poem, or a piece of prose, or a podcast droning in the ears while we go about our day, most of it washes over. I think this is why I’m really passionate about learning poems like Wright’s Lying In A Hammock by heart, repeating like this over and over again, until the wisdom it contains, sticks in some way. Even if for an hour, or a day at most.
This imperative, “Don’t Waste Your Life” runs all the way through our so-called modernity, from Rilke’s You must change your life, which closes his poem the Archaic Torso of Apollo, to Wright’s I have wasted my life (no doubt directly echoing the Rilke), onto Mary Oliver’s determined to do / the only thing you could do — / determined to save / the only life that you could save which rounds off her Rilkean and Wrightean influenced poem The Journey.
Once you start looking for it, you see this waste-not imperative embedded in so many works of film and literature. Take a recent film, Vivarium, which turns the standard human life-cycle into a kind of horror story, but without altering the contours of its protagonist’s lives in any way from the norm. Two people fall in love, they move (or are moved) into one of the umpteen, samey suburbs that most of us now live in, a place where every house and every garden looks pretty much like the next. They raise a child, who grows into a man, who eventually buries his parents. And so the cycle of life continues. The couple are so busy trying to escape their condition, their life-condition, the life-condition of post-capitalist human animals, that they forget for the most part to live, forget to reach for a berry, to seize the day, and make of their lives the best they can. All their focus is on escaping the life that doesn’t measure up to the life they wanted, expected, had talked and dreamed about. They waste their lives by fighting against the life they have been given. We all do this to some extent.
The first major Greek philosopher, Aristotle, perhaps recognising that imperatives don’t make for great conversation (patriarchs and law-makers of the world take note) offers us some causal challenges as honey for the self-conscious human mind, always tangled up in their existential koans of like and dislike, worth and value.
If you are unsure about whether you are wasting your life, Aristotle would say, ask of yourself, or rather ask of your experience of life, the following four questions (which I try and remember in case I want to ask myself or a client these questions, with the acronym FAME):
1. FORM: What form does your life take? What is its arrangment, shape or appearance? The form of a table harks back to its design. Is your life a simple, scandi-fashioned IKEA form or something more rococo?
2. AGENT: What influences or affects your life and guides you to choose different paths or projects? Is it culture, is it another person, a system of ethical guidelines? The agent for a table might be someone building the IKEA flatpack, or applying a coat of sealant to its untreated wood.
3. MATTER: What does it consist of? What is it you’re doing (saying, thinking, eating, writing, producing) from day to day in this and for this thing you call “your life”? The material cause of a table is wood, screws, and fixings. What do we consist of, other than human meat. The most problematic aspect here being: what is this thing we call mind, or consciousness, how does this matter?
4. END: What is the purpose or good that this thing, or this life seeks? For a table, its purpose is that of being a flat surface on which we can work or dine. But what is the final cause of Brian or Johnny’s life, or of James Wright’s life, on this day in which he sways back and forth in the sun and breeze at William Duffey’s farm?
I find it intriguing that this wheel of wisdom-loving investigation which we call western philosophy (philia being the love part, and sophia the wisdom part) commences with chaos, the chasm, the void, but why should this surprise me. We start from that place of entropy and emptiness too, and no matter what we end up doing with our lives, it is to chaos -plans gone awry, trauma, ageing, sickness and death (the void)- to which we return.
Is it no wonder then, that we should be drawn to different forms of purpose-seeking, teleological forms you could say if you want to sound clever: telos meaning the end, aim, or goal and logos the explanation or reason. Part of this must work as a defence mechanism, a response to the anxiety generated, often unconsciously, by our lives, like everything else in the universe unravelled and unravelling. To read the history of philosophy is to read of how a culture was formed through a value-seeking quest, a quest we have been plugged into for the last two to three thousand years at the very least. Which is not to say human beings didn’t ask themselves this question beforehand, but maybe not in the same way as the more modern, cosmopolitan animals of ancient Athens and Rome did.
When Brian says to Johnny “Don’t waste your life”, when James Wright exclaims, “I have wasted my life”, another way of putting this might be: beware of living a life with no telos or logos; no aim or goal, no explanation or reason. This is the life Johnny is quite patently engaged with, an anti-teleological one, ruled by bodily drives, and entropy. Perhaps a fancier way of saying this is that Johnny’s life, and perhaps also that of James Wright in this poem is more phenomenological than teleological, a life lived instrumentally, in the way of a puppet but without a puppeteer (I don’t think Johnny believes in God); or as a pawn on a giant chessboard called Dalston, but without any chess-players. He is a victim to his own experiences, as many of us feel ourselves to be: cut loose and disoriented, not guided by any organising principles we can simply and coherently articulate. Maybe this is why there are more than 30 million podcast episodes floating around on the internet. Maybe this, including the one you’re listening to now, is part of that quest.
Or maybe there are two different dimensions of value being explicated in this poem. For most of the poem we are in the phenomenological or experiential dimension, especially in the first few lines which offer us an incredibly evocative visual palette of bronze and black and green, before moving into the more abstract realms of empty spaces: the ravine, the empty house, the sound of cowbells seemingly unattached to any cows.
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
Notice the use of those definite articles in the first two lines (“the bronze butterfly…the black trunk”), as if this was the only bronze butterfly and the only black trunk in existence. Such is the anchor and ballast of focused attention: anything we give that attention to blooms, as if by magic, into a more than sufficient significance. As if it were the only one, or at least, the only thing filling up our lives completely at this moment. Which of course, given the right kind of attention, it does.
But then at the end of the poem we cross over into another dimension that seems to be less about the moment-by-moment pleasures and stimulations of our lives (part of which involves our minds distractedly pursuing one thought, image, sound, or taste after another) but rather something more holisitic, that encompasses other dimensions, other ripples, or rungs of value.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life
THE THREE DIMENSIONS OF VALUE
I am tempted here to use the analogy of a ladder when describing these different dimensions of value, but that would indicate a hierarchy of values, which I don’t necessarily subscribe to. I remember once going to have some therapy with a well-known, well-respected Grand Old Man of British existential psychotherapy, who lectured me for half of our 50 minutes on his Ken Wilberesque hierarchy of self-actualizing paradigms, implying of course that he was on one of the upper rungs, whereas poor old suffering me was stuck on or in a lower, more poky-minded place. I resented him and his explanatory frameworks at the time, but maybe he was right.
Ethical systems often stress social goods and values as their more elevated, aspirational goals: how we treat each other, and what we owe to each other. When ethics talks ladders, and it often does, the bottom rungs of the ethical ladder seem to be about giving ourselves pleasure and avoiding pain. But the higher up we go, so our standard ethical narrative suggests that the more we put our own needs to one side, and begin focusing on what’s happening around us, as well as our deepest, wisest selves, the closer we too might paradoxically get to flourishing as individuals as well as a species. We see this in a small way with Brian, and other characters in the film, trying to care for Johnny, even though he offers neither gratitude or reciprocity. But maybe it is enough to give oneself to another even in this small way, which no doubt renders some ineffable value back to us, even if that value is something we cannot easily quantify.
Perhaps this stems from our biological story. Parents often talk about how having children reframed or even completely upturned the self-focused, self-centred lives they’d been living up till then as predominantly pleasure and fame-seeking creatures. W.H. Auden reflecting on the idea that we’re put on this Earth to help other people, commented somewhat archly “but what are those other people put here for, i don’t know.” Perhaps he’d forgotten that on the morning in question, in which he wrote this, he had eaten toast, and butter, and marmalade, and drunk a cup of tea with milk. All of this came from the skills, talent and labour of other people, not through his own efforts. The corona virus pandemic has shown us that if it’s a throw-up between another poem being written and published, or bread, pasta, rice being harvested, packaged, and delivered to a supermarket, then even Wystan Hugh Auden might opt for something he can put in his mouth rather than his eyes.
So let’s look a little bit more closely at these dimensions of action, or behaviour, considering each dimension of value in our lives as holding within it, like a Russian doll, like our spatial dimensions, every dimension preceding it. There is no higher or lower here, and yet each more ample, less binary dimension tells us something about what might be lacking in the dimension preceding it, as well as the inner freedom and expansiveness afforded by a second or third dimension as opposed to a first.
Without going back to ladders, think of this in other spatial terms. For is there not more elbow room in a two-dimensional rectangle than in a one-dimensional line segment. Even more so when we bring in the 3-dimensional cube. Perhaps one way to not get waylaid by hierarchical ethics and blame-games against those whose lives exist more on the “lower rungs”, we need rather to think of the inner-spaciousness that virtue ethics affords us. Given the choice, wouldn’t any human animal prefer to live in a large, bright, airy room rather than a tiny little cubbyhole of concerns, the cubbyhole you could say of binary liking and disliking. This being the first dimension.
THE FIRST DIMENSION: LIKE/DISLIKE
The first dimension, as I’ve suggested, might be envisaged as a line that stretches between two poles of good and bad, liking and disliking. It is also the first dimension in our creaturely lives. As soon as we exit from the womb, we experience this dimension, as well as starting to build up a repertoire of behaviours to cope with it. We scream and sob when we feel discomfort or pain. Even before language, our most basic values and disvalues, are established in the body: as feelings or sensations we like or don’t like. We learn to smile, and babble, to move about freely when we are experiencing the good. And we learn to scream, and cry, and moan, and fall into frozen states of apathy and forebearance, or to fight, to clamp our teeth even around the nourishing nipple, when we experience things that feel bad to us and in us. Over time, these things become fixed concepts of good and bad, and so we become moral beings.
In the poem, the butterfly on the black trunk, the sonic but also spatial arena of distant cowbells, the alchemical horse-droppings “blazing up into golden stones” are all presented to us as positive, valued experiences, or entities in awareness; entities that in and of themselves appear to have some intrinsic value. But towards the end of the poem, these start to shade into disvalue, with darkness and homelessness hovering, followed by that possibly forlorn final interjection: I have wasted my life! Although in contrast to all that has followed, the final line of the poem seems to sit in the ear more ambivalently than the face-value assertion of its words would suggest. Perhaps this is because at the end of the poem we are moving into the second and third dimensions of value.
THE SECOND DIMENSION OF VALUE: MEANS TO AN END
If the first dimension is a single plane extending from good to bad, from like to not-like, from joy to suffering, then the second dimension is perhaps more like a square or rectangle, as in a map or one of those instruction leaflets that comes with your IKEA flatpack; or some other object requiring construction. In this second dimension, value expands from the subjective, binary like/don’t-like experience into the realm of action and practical engagement with the world, into things we call activities, pursuits, purposes, projects, as well as attachments and relationships with others.
Instead of the subjective good and bad of the first dimension, the liking or not liking of a particular shade of butterfly, the almost magical play of light on horse-droppings, or the comfort of a hammock compared to a mattress, we are now able to consider the success or failure, the feasibility and workability of our plans and intentions, our actions in various spheres, as well as all relationships that we engage in with others. This second dimension of value is more likely to be measured by the fulfilment or non-fulfilment of a valued pursuit. The first dimension is simply about feeling and valence, the second is rooted in a kind of what’s-in-it-for-me, or maybe what’s-in-it-for-us pragmatism. Did this valued action I was planning to carry out happen, or didn’t it. Did it work? Did it meet a need? Are tweaks required to get it to work more effectively?
We may also, when we are in the second dimension be willing to override primary, first-dimensional values (especially discomfort and pain) in order to achieve our secondary gains. Keeping our bodies fit and healthy takes a good deal of effort, which is experienced by the mind as unpleasurable at times: our heart-rate speeding up in exercise, as well as sweat, shortness of breath, and muscle-ache. The mind soon begins to complain when the body is put under stress or strain. Writing these words, as I am doing now, sometimes there is flow, and they emerge quite easily, but often sentences proceed in fits and starts. Writing, as with many creative projects, can often feel like stumbling from one sentence, or thought to the next, attempting to capture those inchoate, and sometimes inaccessible ideas in prose or poetry.
The second dimension of value is really useful in that it is always focusing us on means and ends. To what purpose is James Wright lying in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm writing this poem? Indeed, what may be the “purpose” of any creative act, especially when there are always more concrete, practical tasks to be getting on with?
This is especially true for the biographical context of the poem. Having read bits and pieces of James Blunk’s biography of Wright, I discover that in August 1960, Wright (alcoholic and philanderer, as Blunk paints him) brings his family to Robert Bly’s farm in Minnesota to be near to his friend and mentor. On the day in question, Bly and Wright drive over to Bill Duffy’s farm on Pine Island. Duffy had gone off to Tangier to teach, which is perhaps why the house in the poem stands empty. Bly had been asked by Duffy to do some maintenance work on the farm, and so explains Blunk, “while [Bly] and a carpenter drained the plumbing and built a new cellar door, among other chores, Wright retreated to a green hammock that hung between two maple trees at a distance from the house” and began to capture the perceptions that became this expansively titled series of short lines called “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”.
In the circumstances, and perhaps thinking from the second dimension of value, that cellar door sounds like a more useful activity to be getting on with than writing a poem, especially to William Duffy, the owner of the farmhouse. But maybe if you’re born with the name Wright, a certain kind of nominative determinism kicks in which overrides such concerns? What can a Wright do but write, right?
THE THIRD DIMENSION OF VALUE: ASPIRATIONS AND IDEA(L)S
We can now in retrospect say that Wright’s time was, at least in the light of his literary output, better spent writing his poem than building and installing cellar doors. Especially this poem, which of all the poems he wrote, is perhaps the one he will be remembered by. Which is to say: the name James Wright will be remembered as an attachment, or a reference to this poem. If he had been called Jeremiah Finkelstein, that name would be remembered alongside the poem. Just as we remember the name of a park in which we found a fossil that now sits on our bookshelf. For the poem has over the years become a touchstone to many, and will continue to give pleasure and provoke thought long after that particular cellar door crumbles.
It’s usually the other way round. Poems, as is the case with most works of art, have the life-cycle of mayflies, generated and then gone in less than 24 hours. Very few poems, an infinitesimally small percentage of those written, go on to be published. And of those published, an even smaller percentage, perhaps as small as 0.000000000000(keep on saying zeros for a minute or two)1 of that cohort get to be anthologised, or shared to the extent that they become familiar to many. Poems that are not just read briefly and soon forgotten, but cherished, imitated, learnt by heart, and talked about in essays, podcasts, and radio programmes.
This poem was probably generated from a first dimension value (“I would rather lie in a hammock and write poetry, than do maintenance work on my friend’s farm”), but we are also perhaps moving here into the third dimensions, which is that of aspirations, and a more wisdom-loving, experiential focus, a telos, a purpose, which is to say an ethical aspiration, expressed by Ideals, Ideas, and also notions about Identity. Wright sees his purpose, his identity, as that of a poet, not a handyman, and so he uses his “god-given” energy to write a poem rather than sorting out the plumbing in William Duffy’s home.
I sometimes like to bracket the L in the word IDEAL, just to remind my self that this Ideal Self, or Day, or Partner, or meal, is like all ideals, a kind of mirage, a fantasty, a dream. The ideal is 99% idea and only 1%, or less, active or action-focused. Yet the ideal often feels tantalisingly close, as close as most of the things that surface in our minds, that virtual space between our ears. But let us not foget, other than the part of that space filled by brain-meat, it is, we are intrinsically empty. We are empty buildings through which thoughts, emotions, body sensations, aspirations and all our ideal ideas pass.
Our minds struggle to see their ideas and ideals in that way. Instead they either draw us towards action with hope of fulfilment, or torment us by holding up a mirror to our insufficiencies and lack of progress towards the idea(l). “The man who first saw nothing / drew a line around it,” writes Alan Dugan in his poem On Zero, that zero line, also a shape, encompasses all our ideas and ideals, becoming “the mouth of the horn of agony,/ the womb all matter tumbled out of in the first / meaningless avalanche of the concrete…”. Perhaps it is this Ideal James Wright that haunts this poem, a poem written by the more slovenly, indolent James Wright, which then through a self-critical back-and-forth results in that last searing line about dissipation and waste.
In the third dimension we are in a of space transcendental experience, where there is always a sense of the utter rightness and revelatory significance in an impression or a thought, accompanied by an ineffable slipperiness in how to communicate this understanding to anyone else, even a future self who is no longer in that state anymore.
There is also a kind of alchemy at work here too, of turning shit (“the droppings of last year’s horses”) into gold. Surely whatever we do with our lives, no matter how productive they are, we are always going to be comparatively lacking in respect to the numinous perfection of this pastoral scene, the kind of scene, even when not a pastoral one, that is often conjured up, or fleetingly glimpsed in our own minds. Which is also the reason why we both cherish as well as guard our Idea(l) Selves in the very depths of our minds and hearts, lest they be tarnished or become faded and illegible, as they often do, through the chafing and chastening of our less-than-ideal circumstances.
NO ONE ON THEIR DEATHBED EVER SAID: I WISH I’D SPENT MORE TIME AT THE OFFICE
Let me introduce to you another wastrel, Wiley Silenowicz, the alter-ego, and protagonist of many of the stories and novels of Harold Brodkey. I am listening for the third or fourth time to Michael Cunningham reading Brodkey’s story “Dumbness is Everything” on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, marvelling at the line-by-line fecundity of the piece. The story has no plot per se, encapsulated in the space of an hour or less, in which Wiley and his girlfriend Orra, both drunk, drive home, stop the car so that she can pee, and end up having sex on a lawn behind a suburban house.
“I have to pee,” she said. “And I don’t know if I can walk.”
I put my arms under hers and kind of pulled-shifted her until her thighs were spread, until her legs were mostly in a sexual posture. She was usually verbally forward, the aggressor in speech, but physically she was passive and full of waiting—perhaps that was a style back then. Her heavy head, her marvelous skin, her hair pressed against my cheek. I lifted her skirt and got her panties off—over the one high heel. The night air, the bright albino watchface moon with its blurred random wholeness, the stiffly assaulting breeze, and my head ringing with drunkenness, of course—it is all a lost world now, those farms so near New York City and my youth and drunkenness.
The relief at not being dead and the social immensities of the time, the nearness-and-distance in the view of that vast, restless rural, semi-rural district and its local yeomanry, and the strangeness of the hour and of being in love.… Farming was merely part of what locals did; they worked, had businesses. Our escape, our elevation on this high ridge which was not fashionable—which was for outsiders (but it was beautiful, this land set so high) everything was fictional and touched with brevity and with a greatly skewed, faintly Gatsbyoid romance.”
Just like Wright’s poem, the story exists as a kind of double-helix, in that its sentence-by-sentence DNA can be elaborated into a whole life, a world, a universe. Brodkey famously or infamously took 40 years to write his novel The Runaway Soul, which turned out to be a bit of a bloated, damp squib, though I report this from reviews and hearsay, not having read it myself. But then neither has Michael Cunningham, a lifelong fan and friend of Brodkey. It is Brodkey’s stories that are perhaps his true legacy, maybe because each one of them packs in a novel’s worth of reflection and sensory explication, written in a style that is half crushed velvet, half glittering quartz, embedded occasionally with the odd, stray razor blade.
This story was one of the last Brodkey wrote when he was dying of AIDS, and perhaps it is for this reason I am thinking about it in relation to this idea of wasting or not-wasting a life. There is a notion that at the end of our lives, we look back and are better able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, the “real” gold from the fool’s gold: even if that happens to be glorious foolish sunlight reflected off horse droppings – that which enraptures us in the moment, but perhaps doesn’t endure. Is Brodkey’s gold, as he perceives it on his death bed, or at least his near-death-writing-desk a drunken fuck from four decades back? If so, then Wiley is perhaps no wiser than Mike Leigh’s Johnny, who like Brodkey, is worldly, witty, linguistically dextrous and sharp. But not wise. Perhaps they both lack wisdom? Pulled from one liaison to the next by the first dimension of being (like and dislike), Johnny is ruled or at least hauled along by sexual desires, and oneupmanship. Is this what Brodkey’s character Wiley is also about?
Cunningham reminds us of Oscar Wilde’s idea that “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” Another word for power could also be control, one of the most compelling of self-cures for anxiety, a state which often feels like a loss of control, which is why it upsets us to the extent it does. Johnny, perhaps because he feels so out of control, needs to control others, especially women. He does this in ways that are predatory and utterly dismissive of the golden rule, whereas Wiley, it seems, is more about reciprocity and mutual advancement. The women in Johnny’s life are treated as means to an end, the end being sex, but this is not the case for Wiley, at least I think not, having listened to this story a few times.
I think this is because this story shows us that the worth of a life is never really what the narrative we shape to convey our lives is “about”, although we often present our lives to others this way. Rather, the worth of a life, seems to be more about the richness, the freedom, the fecundity and flexibility, the multi-facetedness of different perspectives and experiences. Johnny’s debauchery has a 2-dimensional quality to it, perhaps because it is always an escape from feelings, thoughts, and circumstances. Wiley’s debauchery is much more three-dimensional, encompassing as the third dimension of value encompasses, ideas and ideals, as well as sentence after sentence of exquisite inscape, that word created by Gerard Manley Hopkins to describe landscape of our own inner being.
“The capstone of third-dimensional value,” a set of values pertaining to our ideals and aspirations for ourselves and the kind of lives we want to lead, writes Kane, “is excellence of action or achievement in various practices and forms of life.” Brodkey’s sentences again and again express this value. It is Brodkey’s sentences, his facility with language and ideas, and the inclusivity of where he opens himself in the story to memory, perception, and insight that for my ears reside wholly in the third dimension. At one point in the story, Wiley says, maybe somewhat glibly that “in a way, a life’s story would be A Book of Fucks—wouldn’t it?” Well, it might, and perhaps Brodkey has written an important chapter in that book of fucks. Perhaps on his deathbed. And remember this story was written close to that moment. Do we see here Brodkey re-reading his Book of Fucks captured in memory, in order to find in it the solace that we are all seeking, both whilst living life and towards the end: the kind of solace which provides answers to those eternal value-driven questions:
Am I wasting my life?
In what ways have I wasted it recently or in the past?
And does any of this, even these questions themselves, matter?
I am starting to think more and more that they do. I also don’t believe that Brodkey spent his last moments on this earth leafing through the book of fucks in his mind.
Although both Brodkey’s alterego Wiley, as well as Johnny exemplify lives marked by vast quantities of intoxication of one sort or another, braggadacio and sex, Brodkey’s sex and intoxication has what I can only call a more expansive, wisdom-seeking, self-conscious, and multivalent quality to it, one that situates his intoxicated mind and body within a whole world, or universe of potential. Whereas Johnny, who is also wanting some of this epiphanic transcendence, marked as it often is by a glorious escape from the bounds of limited and suffering, self-focused entrapment, is left grasping at .
The Third Dimension of value has some of this expansiveness baked into it. Robert Kane notes that the Third Dimension often asks us to think about Virtues, Excellences, Ideals, and aspirations. By “mastery, he means the experience of doing something as-well-as-we-can, and by “contribution,” orienting some of our actions so that play a valued and indispensable role in the community or form of life with which one identifies. I think this is particularly exemplified by the virtue we refer to as Humility. Mary Oliver writers in her essay “Upstream”:
Butterflies don’t write books, neither do lilies or violets. Which doesn’t mean they don’t know, in their own way, what they are. That they don’t know they are alive—that they don’t feel, that action upon which all consciousness sits, lightly or heavily. Humility is the prize of the leaf-world. Vainglory is the bane of us, the humans.
I think Hopkins would have liked this passage. The Indian-American psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar in his wonderful book Silent Virtues summarises in a helpful way the attitude of a virtue like humility, which he extrapolates from readings in theology, psychology, as well as literature as enmbodying five key traits:
(i) a self-view of being ‘nothing special’ without a masochistic disavowal of one’s own assets. Which is to say: the humble person might recognise and be grateful for the talents they have, but also recognise that they are, in the grand sweep of human history as well as the present milieu, one of many, many people who have something akin to these talents. And that often the recognition of talent is separate from its modes of practice
(ii) an emotional state of gratitude and tenderness
(iii) an attitude of openness to learning and considering one’s state of knowledge as non-exhaustive
(iv) a behavioural style of interacting with others comprising attention, respect, and politeness
(v) an experiential capacity for surrender and awe
I guess one way of assessing what aspects of our lives cleave to this virtue is by seeing what we do through its lens, and that of other values. To what extent are our meaningful projects, practices and rituals about trying to master a certain way of doing or being, as well as about contributing something to others as part of our personal quest? This too is a kind of bid for power, but you could argue, a relatively benign one.
One can develop or aim for a certain kind of mastery in architecture, physics, medicine, law, music, painting, chess, teaching, but equally Kane reminds us “in being a good accountant, or auto mechanic, a fine police officer, carpenter, nurse or engineer, a loyal employee, caring parent, courageous soldier, generous donor, fair judge, honest shopkeeper, patient arbitrator, grateful friend or responsible citizen.”
Whatever Wiley or Brodkey’s failings are, and there are many, Wiley seems to know what he’s about and what he’s aiming for in his one wild and sickness-curtailed life. Johnny does not have that moral compass, or any kind of compass for that matter. He is, as far as I can tell, but please tell me otherwise if you have other thoughts on this, simply carried along by life. Which is to say: carried along by chaos and entropy. And maybe that’s true for all of us to some extent.
And yet, and yet, here I am going to pull the rug out from under my own pseudo-philosophizing feet, for I do hold a kind of wild, unreasonable hope for Johnny, which I think is largely suggested by the closing seconds of this film, where we see him, having just stolen some money from one of his good samaritans, painfully hobbling down the road with an almost beatific smile on his face. It is in this moment that we perhaps witness in him the eternal trickster, whose harum-scarum, anarchic and often anti-social attitudes and actions, are incendiary but necessary interventions in a world grown aloof and phlegmatic through the unqualified, uncritical assimilating of whatever received beliefs and values happen to be trending on our social media platforms. Lewis Hyde is really good on this quality, and it makes me want to reread his book Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. Let’s read it together.
I think another way of understanding the closing moments of this film is to watch Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, which although it was made in 1932, still feels incredibly fresh, funny, relevant, and anarchic. It is also one of Mike Leigh’s favourite films, and I have no doubt he had the Fred-Flinstonesque, Homer-Simpsonesque character of Boudu in mind when he and Thewlis were creating the character of Johnny together. I’m not going to go into all of this now, as I think I’ve pontificated enough for today, but I would urge you to watch this film, which is a delight from start to finish. The final scene of Boudu Saved From Drowning works in a similar way to the final scene of Naked, in that I think it encapsulates the spirit of these trickster figures who I’ve been musing on in this podcast today: James Wright in his hammock wondering if he’s wasted his life; the lost-to-himself, and the chatter of his own mind Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked; the irrepresible Wiley in the short story Dumbness is All; and finally the holy fool Boudu in Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, embodying a kind of primal entitlement.
You’ll also find there a link to something I do in my professional capacity which I call The Life MOT, which tries to encapsulate in a handful of one-to-one sessions with me, an experiential and wisdom-seeking quest, designed to ensure that you are using your life in a way that might create in time for you a greater sense of fulfilment, contentment and flourishing. If that sounds good, check it out, and give me a shout if you’d like to explore more of this with me.
Watch Naked online: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vyX7Mx3y0idvlXvuVRaDCdb2n0bbrzb6/view?usp=sharing
Watch Boudu Saved from Drowning online: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vyX7Mx3y0idvlXvuVRaDCdb2n0bbrzb6/view?usp=sharing
Listen to Michael Cunningham read Brodkey’s “Dumbness is Everything”: https://podcasts.apple.com/dk/podcast/michael-cunningham-reads-harold-brodkey/id256945396?i=1000373199681