London: ‘Please don’t pass me by’
During a long-ago performance of Leonard Cohen’s remarkable song, ‘Please don’t pass me by’ he included the words:
‘… I sing this for the children of England, their faces so grave
– and I sing this for a saviour with no one to save.’
The song was performed live (in London) in 1970. My sense is that the faces, the faces of the children of England, are no longer quite so grave.
Note: The words that immediately preceded the lines are:
‘Please don’t pass me by,
for I am blind, but you can see,
yes, I’ve been blinded totally,
oh please don’t pass me by.
Well I sing this for the Jews and the Gypsies and the smoke that they made.
And I sing this for the children of England, their faces so grave. And I sing
this for a saviour with no one to save.’
Miserere (Paris 10eme)
Once a year in Paris the authorities arrange for all the visitors and residents to enjoy ‘Heritage days’. Various buildings, usually closed to the public – such as the Elysee palace and Balzac’s house – are open for visits; so are museums and churches and lovely mansions. It’s a delight (provided you can beat the queues and actually get to see the interiors of these exclusive buildings).
The Church of Saint Laurent in Paris 10eme duly opened its doors over the weekend of the Heritage days and I wandered around looking at the austere grandeur of the place. I always like the flickering votive candles and the dark tragic paintings of the old masters. I like the mood of devotion; I admire the technical brilliance of the artists.
Just down from the column upon which hangs a memorial highlighting the pain of ‘Miserere’ was another sombre carving with the inscription:
Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu, pourquoi m’as-tu abandonné?
(My God My God, why have you abandoned me?)
The terrific moral philosopher Neil Richards (with whom I worked) would often ask a rather similar question. He would demand: ‘Where was God when this happened?‘ The ‘this’ to which he referred took as its subject genocide, barbarism and the awfulness of terrorism. He agreed with Freud’s remark that ‘the mistakes of philosophers are merely absurd’ whilst those of religion (and totalitarian ideologies) are always ‘dangerous’.
Sky on fire: 2014
Of course, my parents exerted a massive influence upon me. My mother embodied an old-style theory of child-rearing which held that one of the best ways to strengthen the character of a boy was to treat him with contempt and derision. Caustic love – a design to temper the soul. My mother deployed an excellent but now antiquated vocabulary: for example, I was variously a ‘ninny’, ‘benighted’, a ‘wretched boy’ or a ‘popinjay’. My mother was a kind of emotional flamethrower and I had to construct my defences accordingly.
When she was widowed and nearing 80 years of age my mother decided that she’d had quite enough of this ‘bally’ life; she was fed up with living and told me that if she had the courage she would end it all, she would kill herself. A few weeks later she was dead.
I mention my mother (for whom I still guard astonishingly strong feelings of attachment) because I was reminded of her as I read Rachel Kushner’s novel ‘The flamethrowers’. Taking one’s own life was unexpectedly made salient – and made salient in a way that contrasts markedly with my late mother’s attitude towards suicide: one of the central characters in Rachel Kushner’s novel, a woman (I do not know her surname) who is both a performance artist, existential philosopher and waitress, asserts that in human conduct the three most cowardly acts are:
‘ … to exhibit ambition, to become famous, or to kill yourself.’
In the end I don’t think it’s easy to defend this claim (some fame, for example, is really recognition for a highly valued and worthwhile achievement) but I do like the way the proposition, in part, serves as an antithesis to the kind of culture we’ve brought into being.