I want to write about the impact of this on feeling, or the ability to feel. The circumstances may be different (comparing amongst ourselves, or, alternatively, with the severity of what has been experienced at other times or in other places), but I think the effect may be similar in kind. I’ve thought of three examples, among the best studies of such a predicament.
I want to know: how can I get myself out of my own inner lockdown, but also how can we help others? How are we going to carefully come out of this?
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
For Jean-Dominique Bauby, locked-in syndrome was a medical condition in which he found himself trapped after suffering a major stroke in 1995. Like Oliver Sacks’ accounts of the patients whom he treated for neurological conditions, I find Bauby’s story incredibly resonant, even for those of us who have not experienced anything approaching what he suffered in the last years of his life.
After awaking from a coma, paralysed from head to toe, the only function that is left to Bauby is that of his left eye, which he is able to blink. He uses this to communicate that his mind is unimpaired, and ultimately is able to translate his thoughts, by blinking to select letters of the alphabet to be re-formed into words.
Bauby receives much love, help and support in the months that follow. But there is only so much that anyone on the outside can do. The gift of the book he has written is that it gives an insight into how he kept himself alive, beyond what the medical profession could do for him. He has to choose what to do with his mind:
A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.
It is not just about recalling moments of beauty, or thinking of cheering things. That is a big part of the project of survival, but it is not the only aspect. Bauby also has to be honest with himself, because what is at risk here is the slippage into ‘resigned indifference’. That, too, is a protective mechanism but it stops the life-flow even more than the physical paralysis could do. Instead, there is vital and active self-control here, for both resentment and anger are emotions which, left to themselves, feed themselves and grow. Bauby needs them to do their job, and no more.
I am thinking about the energy available to Bauby too. The effort that it must have taken to blink his way steadily through these communications must have been exhausting. But at the same time, emotions are a kind of energy, and he needed to keep these activated, whether good or bad, to buoy him up; to help him maintain that ‘level’ that he mentions.
I wonder, in this context, what our own version of Bauby’s eye might be. Perhaps, in fact, it is still a kind of eye contact: allowing ourselves to meet someone else’s glance even when it is easier to pretend they’re not there. Allowing ourselves to witness the life that is visible to us just beyond our own threshold. Willing ourselves to acknowledge it even when it is perplexing and painful.
A Tale of Two Cities
Doctor Manette is introduced to us at the point at which he is about to be rescued from his imprisonment. For nearly eighteen years he has been in solitary confinement, not knowing what has become of his little daughter, who will by now have grown. He has suffered without accusation or trial.
In every aspect of his being, Doctor Manette betrays the effect that this treatment has had on him. His voice ‘was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain.’ In the extreme, this is what happens when parts of ourselves go unused, for a long time. He has so little left that there is nothing to replenish that echo, to set the sounds ringing again.
With the help of his daughter, who is part of the rescue party, Doctor Manette does recover something of his former self and activities when he is brought to safety to England. But much of the novel explores the threat of Manette’s trauma resurfacing, given that we learn he will neither talk about those lost years, nor can he later recall how he recovered from them. His friends, those who look out for him, worry that although he doesn’t talk about it, these experiences are often on his mind, but that he is afraid of opening up the subject for fear of what might thereby be unleashed.
Sometimes, he gets up in the dead of the night, and will be heard, by us overhead there, walking up and down, walking up and down, in his room. Ladybird has learnt to know then that his mind is walking up and down, walking up and down, in his old prison. She hurries to him, and they go on together, walking up and down, walking up and down, until he is composed. But he never says a word of the true reason of his restlessness, to her, and she finds it best not to hint at it to him. In silence they go walking up and down together, walking up and down together, till her love and company have brought him to himself.
There is something very moving about these repetitive motions in the novel’s account of Doctor Manette. When, later on, he suffers a relapse, he returns to the work with which he had occupied himself in the prison: making shoes. The work is a habit to which he clings, providing him with a kind of mechanical order where there is no order, and a sense of purpose and action where there is no human fulfilment or interaction. Dickens shows how careful we must be in trying to correct these anomalies of behaviour, even if they seem to be unhealthy. There is much care, above, in the way Doctor Manette’s daughter simply accompanies her father in his walking up and down, without questioning it. Her intuition is right: it is not the time for challenging or probing the habit. Her father’s deepest need is for the balm of ‘her love and company’, which he had lacked, among many other things, for so long. And she communicates this not through talking, but through accompanying him many a time, ‘in silence’, through his distress.
Dejection: An Ode
Coleridge has been hearing the notes of the throstle, and gazing at the sky’s ‘peculiar tint of yellow green’, but keeps coming back to the same conclusion:
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
And at the close of the following section of the poem:
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.
Within, there is only ‘this dull pain’, ‘a grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear’. Who can say what this pain or grief is about? It seems to have become so familiar that such a question is past relevance. The only thing that matters now is that it is present, and weighs heavily. It is a ‘void’ without shape or form, unlike those ‘outward forms’ that Coleridge so wants to be able to connect with.
It is interesting that the poem is entitled ‘dejection’, because actually that word doesn’t appear in the body of it. Instead the word that is repeated a number of times, within, is ‘joy’. I don’t think this is meant as an answer to the dejection, but it does serve as a direct counter to it, coming from another angle. Coleridge calls joy ‘this beautiful and beauty-making power’ and it is as if he uses the poem to awaken joy, calling upon it as a reminder, making a claim upon it. It is as if this invocation brings the musical excitement of joy back into the poem, and so this is what Coleridge wishes upon his friend in the last verse: ‘With light heart may she rise … Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice …’ Joy is the connection-maker, the necessary link between within and without, which we must try to wish upon each other.