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Thursday, 25 November 2010

On Being (Feeling) Posthumous

In a recent conversation I suddenly heard myself say that I was feeling ‘posthumous’. It just came out – as words do – and it puzzled me, surprised me, and in a way upset me. I’m not sure what I meant – though that isn’t an unusual experience – but it did feel on the one hand a bit melodramatic and maudlin, and on the other hand somewhat understated.

Posthumous’ – ‘occurring after death’; ‘published after the author’s death’; ‘born after the father’s death’. None of these three definitions seems to fit what I was thinking, feeling, intuiting. And yet I won’t give it up, this glancing knowledge of something I don’t yet fully know - as if glimpsed through the corner of my eye, or at the edge of a mirror, or in a dream. You try to look, to see it full on, but it’s already gone. Do we dismiss that moment of elusive knowing – put it down to imagination, or tiredness, or melancholia, or however we are accustomed to rationalise away our intuitions – or do we pursue it, track it, let it lead us where it wants us to go?

I pull down a few books from my shelves and find that the Roman lyric poet Horace has the line Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,/ labuntur anni in Book 2 of his Odes: speaking of the futility of hoarding up treasure, he has his narrator lament ‘Alas, Postumus, Postumus, the fleeting years are slipping by...’

So this - it appears - is what is going on, alas. It’s about growing older. (And I seem to have needed a two-thousand year old poem to help me understand it.) And together with this now immediately mundane bit of self-knowledge, there’s the suggestion that it’s time to distribute the treasure – or at least not to save it up for some mythical future...

Feeling posthumous is about having lived a certain number of years and having had a certain range of experiences and having gained a certain amount of understanding – and yet recognising that the world has moved on, is moving on, will move on, and all that treasure inside becomes redundant (or I fear it will) in the light of what that transformed world seems to value. I don’t watch all those popular TV shows with dancing celebrities and avaricious home-improvers and super-chefs and royal weddings and aspiring wannabes competing for fame. That’s not the ‘reality’ (so-called) that moves or intrigues me. And I don’t do Facebook or Twitter or own an iPad (or even an iPod) and my mobile phone doesn’t let me go online or pick up my emails on the go. I still use a camera with the sort of film inside that needs to be sent away to be processed. I can’t keep up, in other words, with the 21st century.

I seem to be more interested in what went on a century ago than what happened last week. For example Kafka’s Diary entry for ‘10 o’clock, 15 November [1910]’ which reads, in its entirety, ‘I will not let myself become tired. I’ll jump into my story even though it should cut my face to pieces.’

I suppose that blogs have replaced diaries in the 21st century. But ‘jumping into my story’ is still an aspiration for any writer. Kafka’s self-lacerating prose is heart-rending, arresting, unsurpassed in its precision of feeling and its capacity for observation and self-observation.

16 December [1910]. I won’t give up the diary again. I must hold on here, it is the only place I can. I would gladly explain the feeling of happiness which, like now, I have within me from time to time. It is really something effervescent that fills me completely with a light, pleasant quiver and that persuades me of the existence of abilities of whose non-existence I can convince myself with complete certainty at any moment, even now.

All the energy and glow and dizzy speediness of youth, all the media-driven drawing-to-our-attention of the ephemeral and superficial, all that ersatz immediacy and manufactured relevance – it leaves me far behind in its breathless rush away from what is deeper, truer about our human situation: our personal fragility, our inner richness, our only-ever-partial self-knowledge, our lack of control over our destinies, our dependence on each other – in other words, the stuff of poetry, and literature, the stuff of the Bible, all that wisdom that can only be gleaned, if at all, over time and with experience.

All that stuff the irrelevance of which I can convince myself with complete certainty at any moment, even now. A conviction that leads me to feel posthumous.

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