Wednesday, 19 August 2009
Here, a little late in the day, is my response to Steven’s meme. I’ve been trying to write this for days but there have been no momentous events in my life that I could point easily to and say, ‘that was transformative,’ more lots of piddling little things. These little things often connect, but trying to disentangle them and then put them back together in a way that makes sense has had me in a bit of a pickle. Then, this morning, as I was coming to I remembered: ‘amor fati:’ from Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo. This, I realised, was the link I needed. The full sentence reads:
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be other than it is, not in the future, not in the past, not in all eternity. Not merely to endure that which happens of necessity, still less to dissemble it – all idealism is untruthfulness in the face of necessity – but to love it...
I don’t propose to deliver a lecture on meaning in Nietzsche, but I will say this: by ‘greatness’ he doesn’t mean what we think of, traditionally, as great. He doesn’t mean statesman-like, or conquering, he’s not talking about being seen as great by the rest of the world but is more talking about living a good life in the eyes of the individual living it. There’s no living for others in Nietzsche, as far as I can discern. Though, the thing about Nietzsche is that he is very open to interpretation because he was very much against dogma and absolutism.
When I first read this I didn’t experience a eureka moment, it was more of a ‘huh?’ But it was enough to make me read on and then read more. And as I did I got to thinking about myself and my own life. I had been brought up to ‘endure’. My mother was a Catholic and she believed that life was shit but if one didn’t complain one would eat at the banquet beside God in heaven. Being of mixed race in an all white working class neighbourhood I had had quite a lot to endure as I grew up: I got called names on a daily basis, boys threw rocks at me (really!), even a trip to the corner shop to get a pint of milk was fraught. But I endured, like a good Catholic. Then, like all good teenagers I rebelled. I stamped my feet at the injustices of the world and wailed about how people should be accepted for what they are, that appearances shouldn’t get in the way of what’s inside. This phase lasted until well into my twenties and, I have to say, made me pretty miserable.
At some point I began to accept the way things were and just live with them. By this time people had stopped throwing rocks at me and calling me names. The term ‘racism’ had been invented and no one wanted to be it. My appearance became, not an obstacle as once it was, but a calling card. But I was still pissed, something still grated, the world still seemed unfair. My acceptance was of the ‘it’s fucking shit but hey ho,’ kind.
Enter Nietzsche. I read everything of his, most of which didn’t make immediate sense but it bubbled away like pie filling in a slow oven until the above quotation mingled with other things and one day I thought: he’s telling us to love everything that has happened to us, big and small, good and bad, because all of life combines to make the person one is right now. It’s a bit like steak and kidney pie: although I love steak and kidney pie I hate kidneys, yet without the kidneys it is only steak pie which isn’t as nice.
There began a slow period of reassessment which goes on to this day. I like my life, I like myself, I’m glad I’m alive and like this. Sure, I wish I was better organised and that I didn’t procrastinate so much, I wish my obsession with detail didn’t get so much in the way, and life would be much more comfortable if I could get up early in the mornings and work during the day rather than slowly coming to some time around eleven, because I work better after dark. But these things are the little pieces of kidney in my pie, they’re horrid in isolation but without them the pie wouldn’t taste as good. With long enough cooking kidneys disintegrate and meld with the sauce that makes the pie so enjoyable. There have been some really big ones though, that along the way I have had to chew.
When I was six the prettiest girl in the school was able to convince our class teacher to steal from me my birthday Barbie, and give it to her. A child as ugly as I was could not possibly be in lawful possession of such a lovely new doll. It took a week for my father to get the doll back for me, by which time it was in a sorry state and I never played with it again. I remember this vividly, it was the first lesson in what was to be a long series on the importance of appearance. I learnt that appearance was currency, a door opener. Some people, no matter how much bollocks they talk, will always have a voice merely because of the way they look. For a long time I thought that was unfair. Later I accepted it and now I think thank goodness, for this has been a major factor in shaping the me I am today, without it I wouldn’t exist in my current state. I am not a natural beauty, but because of the, largely unconscious, work I have been doing all these years in this regard I am now able to convince pretty much everyone that I am. If Joanne had not stolen my Barbie I would probably be two stone heavier have far more wrinkles and have much less of an idea about what suits me – clothes, hair, make-up wise – than I do. It’s the details I attend to on an ongoing, daily basis, without even thinking about them, that creates the illusion. I have chopped, boiled and fragranced with garden herbs, this particular kidney: it is now the most velvety element in my sauce.
As a dark skinned, ugly child I was always considered stupid. No teacher expected anything from me. That seems quite unbelievable now, I know, but this was in the late 1960s and early 70s when England was still hanging on to its imperialist past and all the beliefs necessary to mercilessly overrun someone else’s country and annihilate their culture. You really couldn’t do that to someone you thought was as morally and intellectually worthy as you. I was a ghastly colonial. This was made resoundingly clear to me by a maths teacher called Mr Steer. He was one of those old military types, he looked like he had been a general at some point, and he hated me from the minute he set eyes on me. He openly mocked my ineptitude at every opportunity, he made me wash the class room floor on a pretty regular basis, he called me stupid to my face every time he saw me. And he never lost an opportunity to cause me actual physical pain: his ruler made regular contact with my face in full view of my classmates. So I learnt never to look him in the eye and never to even suggest that I might know the answer to a question, and this fed into all my classes throughout my school life. But sometimes I would be asked a question directly by a teacher and would have to give an answer. So, terrified of being mocked or even beaten (even the ‘nice’ teachers still believed in the purgative quality of violence) I ensured I knew the answer to everything I might possibly be asked. I rehearsed answers to possible future questions over and over. I checked them and rechecked them in multiple books, and for good measure I learnt how to reason clearly and carefully in order to explain how I’d come to a conclusion should I have got the answer wrong. I drove my poor parents insane with my questions. School was agony and I couldn’t wait to leave. When I did it was with one paltry qualification in English literature and I only got that because a new, young, enthusiastic teacher had come along and given us George Orwell and Alexander Solzhenitsyn to read. Once I left school I was really angry, I was sure I wasn’t stupid but I had no idea how to find out.
It took almost thirty years of trial and error but I’ve kind of got there. In my mid forties I embarked on a philosophy degree, and loved it. I was crap at essay writing (this tendency I have to try and cover every single eventuality can be paralysing, it leads to very tangly sentences that can take ages to sort out, not good for short deadlines) but it was enough to lead me to a post grad degree in writing, and my current incarnation as a writer. So I have a lot to thank Mr Steer for: because of him I learnt how to make sure of my sources, how to argue using reason – long before I knew what reason was, and the importance of communicating my ideas in a clear way. This kidney is still breaking down but is now so small I can take the odd piece with potatoes and, of course, the sauce of the previously described one. If it hadn’t been for Joanne teaching me the first lesson I wouldn’t have been heard in the first place: people only started to listen to me because they thought I was pretty.
But, of course, my main debt of gratitude goes to Friedrich Nietzsche because thanks to him I’m no longer enraged by the apparent injustice of the world (not the bits that affect me directly anyway, when I hear about how other people are, or have been, treated I am still apt to want to punch something). Now I have a beautiful crisp, golden pastry crust holding all the ingredients that make my life, kidneys and all, a pie worth savouring. Thanks Fred.