Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Honourable Road to Perdition.

I was seventeen and an officer cadet at the Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. One day I developed a throat infection, and the ruling powers, not wanting the infection to spread, confined me to a bed in the sick bay for two days.

The sick bay was in a quiet backwater of the grand old building, a place well apart from the highly pressured environment in which officer cadets normally function. The windows looked out not onto the river, or the parade ground, or the sports fields, or the gymnasium block, nor into the stuffy ambience of classrooms – the places where learning was learned and purposes filled. They looked instead into a cloistered world of mellow stone and leafy walls, a peaceful world in which I never heard a sound or saw a person walk during the two days of my confinement. And the only person in the room was me.

I filled my time with reading and musing, musing and reading, and one of the things I read was a magazine article about the search for the historical Arthur. What impressed me most was the illustration that accompanied it. It showed a knight and his lady in Dark Age attire riding down a woodland path away from Camelot or some other towered place. It was done in the style of a Gustave DorĂ© woodcut, such as he did for Idylls, though whether it was one of his or not I don’t know.

What I do know is that it impressed me more than any other picture I have ever seen. It swept me almost bodily into a profound understanding of my personal reality in which the road must be built on duty to that which is right; in which the watchword must be truthfulness; in which pledges must always be honoured and ethical values upheld. It’s a difficult road which promises pitfalls and failures, and even the successes are apt to be painful. The Grail in the mist ahead is faint and undefined, and often disappears altogether. You don’t know what you’re searching for; you just hope you’re going in the right direction.

Failure inevitably evokes guilt, and guilt comes riding with a message from the sages: ‘You must forgive yourself,’ they declare, delusioned by certainty. ‘You must see failure as a natural part of being human.’ The second part I can agree with, but not the first. The very concept of forgiveness strikes me as insufferably arrogant, for what right do any of us have to forgive anything? What happens happens. How we feel is how we feel. There is only observation, perception and emotional response. Somebody once asked me during the darkest episode of my life: ‘Can you not forgive her?’ I could only reply: ‘It isn’t a matter of forgiveness. I can only accept or not accept as the feeling takes me.’ On that occasion the feeling did not permit acceptance, and so it sometimes is with guilt.

But the road goes on, echoing the words of poets and balladeers. For where is there a Grail to be found, holy or otherwise, in the mundane world of politicians, professionals and TV pundits?

On which note, have a small quotation from Tennyson and his Idylls, partly for the prettiness of the language and partly for the sake of familiarity:

The world of Arthur and the Round Table is crumbling. Many of his best knights are dead, others dispersed, the Queen is gone to a convent and the land become unsafe again. He’s just returned from defeating a ruffian in the north country.

That night came Arthur home, and while he climb’d,
All in a death-dumb autumn-dripping gloom,
The stairway to the hall, and look’d and saw
The great Queen’s bower was dark. – about his feet
A voice clung sobbing till he question’d it,
‘What art thou?’ and the voice about his feet
Sent up an answer, sobbing, ‘I am thy fool,
And I shall never make thee smile again.’

As I said recently, this world is no place for an idealist.

*  *  *

Having got that off my chest, maybe now I can get back to weightier matters, like whether I remembered to put mayonnaise on my salad tonight. I did.

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