A Divine Comedy
By Jenny Diski
Picador Copyright © 2000 Jenny Diski
All rights reserved.
And at the end she is lachrymose.
She lies propped up with cushions on a thin mattress, barely covered with a light cloth, open-eyed, seeing nothing, waiting, it seems. She is ancient, so full of years that they pool for want of space in pockets of her loose flesh, dragging it earthwards, decade-heavy pouches drooping under her eyes, at her jaw, neck, her slack breasts, hanging belly, limp thighs; substanceless sacks but weighted with the years her slight frame can no longer support under the relentless pressure of gravity. Intermittently, she weeps: silently without any sudden surge of passion or obvious cause, as if the tears were welled already, brim full behind her shrunken eyes, and leak like spillage over the lids whose muscles are not strong enough to dam them up. Eyes sunken, verging towards colourlessness, rims margined red without lashes. When she speaks, beginning to answer the questions her concerned visitors put to her, she does so also without passion in a cracked, whispered monotone, then stops to allow the tears to course down the deep folds and crazes in her cheeks. Sometimes she dabs them away with a cloth, sometimes she leaves them to drip and drench the small pillow under her head. The tears stop as abruptly as they start, and then she looks up at her questioner with a finished expression, as if her answer had been fully completed by the interrupting tears. What she conveys more than anything is bafflement. Her weeping, the manner of it, lacks a direct cause, is unattached to a single thought, a particular regret. These are tears that come of their own accord, like breath, interrupting speech, thought, and regret.
We are there to sit with her in her final hours, and to honour her for her long life, for her achievements. She is a great, the very greatest of old ladies. Now she is as old as it is possible to get and we are hungry for her conclusions. We want the wisdom she must have gained through such a lengthy life so full of incident. We do not want her to die without telling what at last she knows, without passing on what she has understood from it all.
One of us leans forward with the question that must be asked. 'When you look back ...'
She stares at her questioner for a second, trying to focus on the mouth as if the words it had spoken clustered around its lips and with an effort she might arrange them into sense, but then, giving up, her eyes wander. When she returns to the face, it is smiling warmly at her, conveying appreciation and encouragement, willing her memory into speech. But when you look carefully, you see her eyes are glazed, not reaching the affirmative face at all.
'... back over your life—the extraordinary events you've lived through, the people, the changes, the love, the loss, the influence you've had—what stands out for you as the central thread?'
We wait expectantly. She senses it finally, and her watery eyes stop seeing whatever she was seeing in the middle-distance and return to the present and to her questioner whose question hangs in the air, though it is doubtful if she heard it.
Finally she speaks, though without any apparent reference either to the questioner or the idiotic question.
'I wish I were dead,' she says. And she drops her head and covers her face with her damp cloth as the incidental tears seep from her eyes once again.
The company gasps and then falls into an embarrassed silence. The encouraging smiles die on their faces. Our foolish question hangs frozen in front of us. Slowly, they begin to rise singly and in pairs, and shuffle awkwardly towards the light outside, trying not to show their eagerness to leave.
She still holds the cloth to her face. I squat down beside her.
'I'm sorry,' I say uselessly, and touch my palm against her skeletal shoulder. She looks up slowly, sees me, and places the hand holding the damp cloth over mine. I cover this hand with my own other hand, feeling bone and slack skin, without any padding of flesh in between. There is no sign of her former distress in her face as she searches mine now to see if I am someone familiar. She looks quite composed and yet suddenly the tears come again. When they stop, as abruptly as they started, she looks up and speaks confidentially.
'It was all endings. Always. Endings, starting and ending, but no conclusion.'
She looks directly at me with the hint of a question in her eyes, then lifts one tiny scrawny shoulder in a shrug that is no more than perplexed.
'Nothing else ...'
Her eyes glaze again, and the pressure of her hand between mine lessens. It is no longer in contact with me, though it continues to lie where it had been placed. Her eyes still look in the direction of my face, unfocused.
Now these are the generations of Terah: Terah begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran begat Lot. And Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.
In the beginning there was love. No. Love comes early, but not quite at the beginning. In the beginning, and in each of our beginnings, there was the precursor to all else: interruption. This is how love starts. But, for a few fleeting moments, life was free simply to be—when it had no need even of innocence. In the beginning, before the interruption, there was life itself.
And it was good — — —
— — — Damn impertinence! Who dares to speak of the beginning?
Before the beginning, when they were nothing, when nothing was, before the word, before the number and the chapter, before before and after, before he, she and us, before I am that I am, before I will be what I will be—I was, and before I was, I was, when nothing was. And I, in that nothing, of that nothing, a blankness, hovered and haunted the swell of vacuity. In the formlessness and the void, yes, and before it—I was. Before the incoherence, before the unity, before the separation—I was. Before the narrator, before the narrative, before the end implied in the beginning, before the beginning set in motion by the end—I was. Before the story, before the account, before the clarification, before the alibi, before all motivation to explain, before because—I was!
And what had been for an eternity, might have remained for an eternity of eternity. And nothing had its say. And it was good.
Yet I made the beginning, in the very beginning. That beginning. I separated and categorised, I called forth kinds, kind after kind. In order, I made order, so that the one could follow the other, and the next could come after the last. I made what came before to sustain what came next. I made a system. I made regulation. From stasis, I made homeostasis. Light from the darkness. Above from below. Dry from wet. Growth: seed seeding, fruits fruiting, seed seeding. Time: dawning, setting, dawning. Animation: fish swimming, birds flying, insects crawling, herds flocking, beasts stalking. Replication: fruit fruiting, seed seeding. Abundance.
All this I spoke into existence. Before the beginning, before the word, before the deed, before the I am, I made all this. And still it was good — — —
— — — The beginning of the world (before the beginning, all our beginnings, is none of our concern. A matter of mere curiosity for later, much much later)—the beginning, I say, of the world: an endless day in a garden filled with comfortable warm air riffling across bare skin. The scent of honeysuckle hangs for a second and then drifts past. Bees laden with pollen, making a lurching, overburdened flight back to the hive, hum more and less loudly around her head, coming and going.
But now a silhouette suddenly obscures the sun, looming over, blanked by shadow, and gathers her up into its arms. This is how the beginning of the world—all the languid protracted days of her infancy—was interrupted. The memory is fixed: sharp in the detail apprehended by the senses, yet filled with blank grey shadows of overwhelming power. A small but growing consciousness absorbed the signals of her environment: in it, but more than in it, feeling, sensing, taking in her surroundings in a way that made her distinct from them. Then the great shadow, obstructing the light, overhanging her, throbbing with deep, undulating sound, taking her up, putting her down, quite separate from the environment that merely was around her. The shadow—more than her equal, as she was more than the equal of her surroundings by her apprehension of them.
The shadow, or shadows, came booming into her existence and altered her circumstances, changed the world about her, changed her own condition in it from hot to cold, wet to dry, outside to inside, light to dark. Alteration without reason. More than the world, more than herself.
So long ago, but the memory would always stick, of the sweet sharp scent of the honeysuckle, the wafting air on her skin, though, of course, the knowledge that it was honeysuckle smelling and air moving or bees that hummed is from another time. There would be many honeysuckled warm days at memory's disposal to provide the sensual detail with names. The overhanging shadows, however, existed only back then, and sometimes in her dreams. Well, it doesn't matter. The picture of the beginning of the world works whether it has been painted in retrospect or truly exists as a frozen moment of a time before memory had organised itself into meaning.
Out of the overweening anonymous shadows identity eventually emerged. First the fact of their otherness from her, then the knowledge of her otherness from them. Then their otherness from each other. And gradually, the world-altering knowledge that, although she was not them, she was of them and not the honeysuckle, the wind and the bees. The knowledge that the shadows' power to change the nature of her existence, for all her present powerlessness, was to be hers too. Possibility entered the beginning of the world, and with it, desire.
Which made her—let us acknowledge the pattern of the world—one with the honeysuckle and bees after all: driven. Hungry for ... striving after ... needful. But with the exceptional addition of an increasing self-knowledge that transformed desire into will. At what point, at the beginning of the world, did she stop simply being at the mercy of the omnipotent shadows and begin actively to wish for their intervention, and then, inevitably—let us acknowledge the pattern of the world—to dream of becoming an intervener herself? The longing to become them would have been born. And then the shadows would have become the objects of her desires. Pure life was interrupted by desire. Will? Free will? The birth of love.
Father, mother, others. In a garden, or a courtyard. Obliterating shadows that walled her off from the rest of the world. Surrounded by a wall of love. Later, that would be later, when the words came – the wall of love, the naming of the shadows. She was shown belonging, what was hers by default, and learned attachment. Eventually, when she and the garden were alone together, existing neutrally side by side as they had in the beginning, she understood that the shadows would intervene and intensify her life. Lifting her into the air, where she didn't belong, where she depended on willing arms continuing to hold her safe from the downward pull of the earth. Voices soothing away anxiety. Laughter. If you are cold, we will make you warm; hungry, we will fill you; hurt, we will comfort you; alone, we will enclose you in our wall of love. And soon, she learned to look forward to their intervention in her existence. To look forward. To long for their presence. Being alone in the garden became a lost world of the eternal present of the very beginning. The first loss.
Now there was a future where the shadows might be imagined. With the future, and what it could bring, came the desire that displaced the present. And she was theirs. A beautiful, elegant system: the creation of time and attachment to form the glue that holds us to others. The evolution of love, a.k.a. longing, a.k.a. needing. Striving to belong, aching to be loved.
The father. So large, enclosing, the deep timbre of his voice, an assurance past doubting. No harm could come to her while he blotted out the sun. Yet had she been concerned that harm might come to her before she felt his protection? I doubt it. The protection and the felt need for it came together. What was there to be afraid of before she was told that there was nothing to be afraid of while he was around? The father remained a beloved shadow. The mother—easier to grasp as a reality. The comfort was there as practical improvement. It wasn't her very being, but her doing that kept the child safe at the beginning of the world. It was easier to predict the mother's re-entry into her world. The father was the more magical, the more powerful by virtue of his intermittent and arbitrary interventions. The longing for him was the greatest. He was the least biddable. Uncertainty kept her desire for him intact and her love unconditional. Uncertainty would always wield a special power over her.
That is how it was and is, and we go on to live in the world as we have to. Everyone does. Did and will. It is what all times have in common. It is the way of the world. Yet, though we all live in our times as we must, some have to do it harder. Oh, yes, there are those of us who make more fuss about it than others. Who knows why? Dysfunction, you might say. Born like it, I'd say. Starting out with a furrowed brow as if, even swaddled, some little creatures know it isn't going to be easy, well before they know what the it they're facing is. This is as much as we are given to stand up against the way of the world — — —
— — — And then I made my great error. I made sentience. I made self-consciousness. I made I am. Whatever anyone might say, I did not know what the consequences would be. Until I made the world, there had been no consequence, only inconsequential eternity. How could I have known? There was no distinction between eternity and the fact of my existence, not until the stirring of consciousness that separated me from it. The first separation.
In my separateness, I toyed with eternity. I divided and rearranged the void and came up with creation. I created. I made a world as self-sufficient as eternity, but more than that, unlike eternity, capable of reproducing itself, and dependent on a creator for its original existence. A marvel. Now I was a maker. Now, distinct from all else, having made all else, I was.
And here, innocence and curiosity got the better of me. I was, but what I was I couldn't say. My existence was defined by all that I had made and was not: eternity, earth, and growing, creeping, flying, flocking, stalking life. I was none of these. I had made these. They lived, creatures of my imagination, without knowledge of what they were, how they had become, who had brought them into being. And who had brought them into being? This question was brought into being also. The first question.
There are no mirrors in eternity. I made a mirror. I imagined a likeness. I created a humankind. I breathed my own self-awareness into the nostrils of the man/woman and set them above all other creation, as I was above all creation, including them. I placed them in a garden, sustained them with all that I had made before. And then, thinking nothing of it, I separated the man/woman into individual entities. And as if that was not enough, I gave them the Word, so that they might name for themselves all that I had created, and so that, being conscious, being self-conscious, they might recognise each other as other and call one another by name. I made two I ams, because in all eternity, there had never been two I ams before.
My mistake. My miscalculation. Just one I am would have been sufficient. The one would have given me the relation I wanted. The human singleton would properly have reflected its creator, and shown me to myself. But how could I know the danger of a doublet of self-awareness? In all existence, such a thing had never been. I was too besotted with my beautiful system of self-replication to consider the possible results of the self-replication of two awarenesses.
Be fruitful and multiply, I told them. Have dominion, I said, meaning, be like me, in order that I might know what I am. But so they should know where we all stood in my scheme of things, I made a prohibition. Just one. Simply so they understood that I was in a position to forbid. That, though they were in my likeness, though they had dominion over the whole earth, it was my earth and they were still my creatures. I invented don't.
It went well for a while. I watched as they lived. I saw myself in their existence, separate from their world, eating it, seeding it, enjoying it. I walked with them in the garden. I learned what it was to have the company I had invented for them. I spoke to them, heard the sound of my own voice, and the sound of other voices speaking to me. But self-awareness and even a limited dominion turned out to be a dangerous gift. As I had invented prohibition, so they invented disobedience. My fault, you could say. My single rule was arbitrary, a sign of nothing more than rule itself. The prohibition was merely the map of our relations, the first relations. But it gave them ideas. It gave them the notion of opposition, and I discovered they had an innate flaw in that respect. Don't niggled at them until they came up with defiance, and in doing so they became more to each other than they were to me. With that first disobedience, everything changed. They made a new word: they made us. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Only Human by Jenny Diski. Copyright © 2000 Jenny Diski. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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