Music of the Republic
You were with him in his final hours… Carolyn Forché, ‘Last Bridge’
Plato put a spell on you from the beginning. There were other stars buzzing about your brain which will soon be donated to science but he was the one who carried you over the world on his wings. I’m pretty sure we’re in the presence of the end. You’ve had no liquid. Your forehead is sweaty but cold. The kind Jamaican nurse who brought me tea says, It will happen in God’s time. Who are you now? You always said there’s no straight path to the self. Small chance of seeing anyone as they really are, the full bag of tricks without the projections we cast on each other unaware. Love, hope and need get in the way plus ways we protect our own selves for self-ish is following your own desires at the expense of someone else. I remember you finishing a half-cup of cold coffee saying, This is the first time, with you, I have found myself being selfish. I thought how strange, to want cold coffee. I didn’t know then that coffee was an absolute. You couldn’t live without it, hot or cold. Here we are, after all the absences, together. You breathing gently in your plastic boat of a bed, unconscious but never, not even now, an isolated soul. A self that has turned aside to sleep. You are draining the last of the wine at the autumn equinox, door hinge of the year, and we are by ourselves again. Maybe the self is a kind of daft Stonehenge. No one knows how the stones of our boundaries arrive. Maybe downriver on some neolithic raft or raised by magic – don’t we all, even philosophers, feel there’s a mystery somewhere in our past? Philosophy begins in wonder and anyway we’re stuck with them, each of us starting out from our own stone circle, throwing long shadows but with plenty of space between, room for mistakes, free will, warmth in your heart, and being delighted by small things. Your self as a spacey stone ring, aligned to movements of the sun. Lit up at midsummer, when the first dawn rays arrow in to the heart of the circle. Transformed at dark moments when our axis tilts furthest from the sun, and we see the last ray between uprights of the Great Trilithon. Conventions and ritual made you feel safe. They say Stonehenge was a place of healing too and when the right wind blows, the stones will sing. But what’s the real song of the self? For years, now, you have forgotten Plato’s name. You always said if you couldn’t do philosophy you didn’t want to live. But the gentleness and courtesy went on. As Heraclitus said when strangers turned up at the door of his kitchen (or does the Greek really mean, as you once told me, he was sitting on whatever a toilet was, in ancient Ephesus) Come in! For there are gods even here. When you still could walk, you witnessed another inmate howling, throwing herself about. That happens even here, despite the care. The violence of finding yourself lost, every minute a new forest of black holes, won’t go away. She couldn’t stop screaming and you went over, you gently stroked her arm. Even though mind has gone, there are still flashes when you care for someone else. Last time I came, I brought along a book of nursery rhymes and tried singing songs we’d sung. Of course, you didn’t know who I was but you recognised relationship and warmth. True to your scholarly self you were most absorbed by the index. You liked the pictures, lords a-leaping, cows jumping over a moon, but it was the list of words and their ever-mysterious connections that called to you. In the engraved twilight of your room, the memories unfold. My own self, to which you are central, is becoming a swirl of stained glass awaiting the illumination of love. You don’t have to shed tears to be crying, don’t need to be lonely to know how it feels. Everyone is exiled from somewhere, has someone they lost. I have sat by you eight hours in this small room as if it was the world. A you becalmed on God-knows-what inner sea while the Odyssey of your life runs backwards like a traffic camera recording all roads you have taken. They say when the heart stops beating the mind keeps working a while and memory cells are the last to go. For you, they went years ago. Dale mist has long settled in the valleys of your brain. Still, there are gods even here. For a moment it seems your eyes are open under their lids. But no, only silence. And your sleeping self, flowing towards the end. No pain. Just pistons of a train, gliding softly into the station where it began. Your breathing slows. The gash in the world created by your dementia is beginning to close like the slash of a knife in cream. Soon you’ll be what we imagine knowledge to be. A glimpse of the unseen. Dark, clear, true, and absolutely free.