IT DOESN’T MEAN CONSTIPATION
I have been thinking about many and various things lately, here in leisurely Kythnos, but you’ll be pleased to know not about mortality, ill health, loose teeth, poltergeists, sexual perversion (OK, I’m lying with that one) or constipation. By the way, did you know that the Portuguese word constipacao emphatically doesn’t mean ‘constipation’? Isn’t that incredibly interesting? I personally think it’s inordinately interesting, and have told various people in various countries on average twenty times a year, and never failed to stop them open-mouthed in their meandering tracks…
I have been thinking of two things principally. The first being of those wild and whimsical fantasies that develop a bizarrely independent life, and a momentum of their own. The second being the idea of ‘solipsism’ which is certainly one of the nicest and assuredly most instructive words, in the English language.
First things first. A few days ago my adopted Kythnos kitten Billy Bob, developed some interesting and indelible muck around his top lip. It really looked as if he was trying to cultivate a pencil moustache, and given that he is only three months old, the effect was aesthetically striking. I tried removing it with a brand new Brillo pad (just joking) but not only did Billy Bob not enjoy this protracted cleansing process, I couldn’t get rid of it anyway, no matter how long and patiently I rubbed away. I briefly thought about dabbing him with typewriter Tippex, but thought ah bollicks, who cares about it anyway, other than maybe exacting Ione if she were here, and wanted Billy Bob to look his dapper best. And Ione is in Mexico, so I can just lie and lie and lie about BB’s appearance, as I’m not on bloody old fb, posting updated profile photos of my touchingly beautiful face or BB’s equally stunningly handsome fizzog (like, not like? kiss, not kiss?). For sure, BB doesn’t care a damn about his appearance, nor does his stalwart buddy and newly expansive and all but cigar-puffing playmate, Cousin Rex. CR has gone from withdrawn mute to major uproarious antisocial lout in my sitting room, a sign of his massively improving mental health and possibly the subtly deteriorating counterpart in mine.
Here is a convincing symptom of my growing malaise, and I promise I am not making this up. A few days ago, I looked at Billy Bob and his smudgy moustache, and said to him:
“Aha. I see you’ve got a job as a Hitler impersonator, have you?”
Billy Bob blinked, and wrinkled his excellent little tash, and did not deny my accusation. And of course to state the facts clearly, anyone less like Adolf Hitler would be hard to find, as BB is one of the gentlest of feline souls alive. For example, to imagine Billy Bob as anti-semitic, is laughable.
Later that same day, Cousin Rex was looking a bit painedly melancholy, God knows why, maybe because in existential terms it was easier all round to be a permanently morose autistic mute if your name was CR, and being happy all day was for him, after all, a bit of an exhausting and depleting ordeal. So, still full of my amiable fantasy, that was assuredly all mine, and no one else’s, I addressed Billy Bob again.
“It’s OK, “ I admonished him gravely, “doing Hitler impersonations all day, Billy Bob. But really what you should be doing is cheering up Cousin Rex…”
What is epistemologically important is, that for the few seconds I was saying it, I was entirely believing it. I was caught up in an absurdly whimsical imaginative fantasy, but for a few seconds it was my watertight ontological truth. Objectively Billy Bob had never even heard of Adolf Hitler, and even if he had he would not have known how to imitate him, nor why it would be something notionally amusing to a riveted human audience. I mean can cats or even kittens ever be said to be amused, or to seek to amuse human beings they come in contact with? They will play with you right enough, but I have never seen any cat or kitten smile, in the same way I have seen a dog smile. Nor could poor old BB, even though he loves him dearly, ever lucidly resolve to cheer up Cousin Rex by taking thought, girding his loins, and generously distracting him from his mordant melancholy, which in any case had clearly passed within about ten minutes, as I suddenly noted the deviant little bugger dancing gleefully on and fouling up my printer paper. I bawled something horribly obscene at CR, animadverting that he was, decorously put, ‘an absolute son of a whore’ which was not only highly inaccurate, but was embellished with other very ugly and unseemly epithets, some of them in Cumbrian dialect. And remember that CR is not only a Greek, he is only a few months old…
I am 64 and have an Oxford degree in Sanskrit, Avestan and Old Persian, and have won the Dylan Thomas Award, and have reviewed translated fiction for the (truly excellent) Literary Review. Yet I seriously believed as a literal truth for a few seconds, that my rescued Greek street kitten Billy Bob, was frittering his hours away doing Reichsfuhrer impersonations. For once my parents’ headshaking and very nosy neighbour had been apparently right back in 1975, when she shook her incredulous head at the worrying news that I had recently taken a lowly factory job. It confounded all her colossal quantity of adamantine certainties, and led her to comment angrily, All that bloody education, all that taxpayers’ money has been bloody well wasted!
Far from it. I bet she will never write a blog post, or even a quill pen missive, where the Portuguese word ‘constipacao’ and the English word ‘solipsism’ appear in the first two paragraphs. But her aside, I have two relevant observations to make here. When you are a tiny child up until the age of say about ten, you regularly play at pretend games don’t you? You are a cowboy or a nurse or a doctor or a battle soldier, or a Mummy or a Daddy (still quite a tolerable little role play, especially if you are dramatically unrestrained, and even when you are 64) and for that time you inhabit the identity entirely. It is not the case that you are a six year old psychotic, because of course you can snap out of the role at will, and without any disjunction, and then re-enter the same role with equal facility.
In artistic terms Charles Dickens was a master at making comedy out of this kind of imaginative fantasy. Remember Pete Postlethwaite brilliantly playing one-legged Silas Wegg in TV’s Our Mutual Friend, he who sat outside the posh people’s house, with his scrawled sign saying he would run errands for a paltry remuneration? Destitute Wegg had got it into his laughably snobbish head, that he had strong connections with the posh household, none of whom he had even spoken to. He even gave them invented names and gradually took it for granted that that was what they were called.
Yet he knew so little about the inmates that he gave them names of his own invention as: ‘Miss Elizabeth’, ‘Master George’, ‘Aunt Jane’, ‘Uncle Parker’ – having no authority for any such designations, but particularly the last – to which as a natural consequence, he stuck with great obstinacy.
As for solipsisms. The dictionary definition is not as convenient as my own version, which is that a solipsism is a stuck and irretrievable scenario, a case of a dog determinedly chasing its tail but never ever getting there and doomed to fail. A paradigm solipsism would be the case of the people who we class as Bores. I have thought lots about this word and this quality of personality, and as a novelist I find it truly fascinating (yawn, how fucking boring of me, what). But instead of defining what a bore is, because we all know what a bore is, we should reflect on the fact that one reason a bore is boring, is because he or she does not know that he is boring. It is a stuck situation and a solipsism. Someone who perpetually monologues in a tedious and repetitive manner, does not know that they are tedious and repetitive, because if they did they would stop being so.
The more interesting thing is that Bores like everyone and everything else in life, are functional and structural entities, meaning they are subject to sociological and biographical influences as much as anyone and anything else. Two examples here. An amiable and at times likeable man of about 60, who I knew very well back in the UK, call him Dick, was definitely boring, and to be as consistently dull as he was, seemingly oblivious to the fact. He had an armoury of clichéd verbal formulae, which is a sure sign of emotional as well as other kinds of dullness. In any five minutes, when explaining any sequence of ideas or connections about say house-building or tax or savings or getting on with your grown up kids, he would always say at least ten times, ‘at the end of the day’ meaning, ‘so in sum, this is how I see it’. He could have varied it with, ‘So you see’, or ‘So isn’t it true that..?’ Or even, ‘In short’ or, ‘To sum up’. But he didn’t, and to the end of his days he will be saying ‘at the end of the day’, and thus being ineffably boring.
However life is full of surprises, and one day I saw Dick coming out of a house where lived a man who I knew to be infinitely more boring than Dick was. This amazingly boring individual’s idea of a gripping narrative, was to tell me blow by blow, in an exhausting bleating Lancashire accent, how precisely he redecorated his teenage son’s bedroom, agonising and consulting over flock or silk wallpaper patterns, not forgetting prior patient deliberation over emulsion, gloss and satinwood paint colours, and oh, no, shoot me down if I’m wrong, but not neglecting the dear old sand paper (cheaper at Tesco than Asda) and the white spirit(cheaper at Asda than Tesco), all as part of the fulsome and encyclopaedic and doorstopping package.
But guess what Dick said to me with such a woeful look?
“I used to think I was the most boring man in the world, till I talked to that man in there! Listening to him, I really lost the will to live.”
Voila. A bore who knew that he was a bore… and thus he had temporarily freed himself from solipsism.
Finally the tale of a woman who was turned into an apparent bore, through no fault of her own, meaning it was structural circumstances and the sociology of the modern western nuclear family that had made her the way she was. She was a friend of a friend, and let’s call her Jane. It was around 1980 that her husband Will deserted her, and left her a jobless single mother aged 30, with a new baby. A conscientious parent living on meagre benefits, and with no extended family or any other support close to hand, for the next 5 years i.e. up until 1985, when she was 35, she stayed in every night alone in her Leeds bedsit and looked after her son George.
Came one night in June 1985 where remarkably she had a bit of spare cash and had found a reliable babysitter for her 5 year-old boy. Even better, she had been invited out for a drink with a bunch of women friends and one or two of their partners. She knew one of the women, called Fay, through George’s school, for Fay too was a single mum, though in her case with her very supportive mother just round the corner.
Jane duly turned up at the lively pub, and was bought a drink and listened attentively but a little anxiously to the hectic conversational hub. It was bloody great if a little bit challenging, being out with people her own age for the first time in five bloody years, was it not? What were those two awful totemic words she always found such a fretful pain in the backside, if you were living on benefits and spent a lot of your life with a 5 year-old watching only repeats of Tom and Jerry that she had first watched as a child herself in 1958? Ah yes, Social fucking Skills. Three words in fact.
Suddenly a pause came in the table’s conversation, and someone said they really liked Jane’s earrings, and they all looked to pretty and likeable Jane to see what she had to say for herself.
Jane opened her mouth…
And it stayed like that… ever so rigid and ever so wide open. It stayed precisely thus as she waited what seemed geological aeons for her brain and her vocal chords to say something.
But absolutely nothing came. She was just like a fish, with a gaping completely soundless maw.
And yet she was not a bore. And it was not a solipsism in her case. She had, quite simply, forgotten how to talk.
To anyone other than 5 year-old George that is…