Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…
I’ve had this ditty in my head most of my life but only now learn that it has an interesting provenance and subsequent life. You can read the Wikipedia entry on Antigonish here.
Imagine though, if you woke up day after day and there was someone who was always there, who looks like you, moves like you and goes everywhere with you. In many ways, that’s what the self is, a strange combination of a sensed body, consciousness, ‘an imagined past’, moving through the world.
At the Marlowe Theatre this week, I met a man who not only was there, but there twice. In front of his flesh-and-blood face was a melancholy monochrome version. One man stood straight, the other had poorer posture but looked smart in his tie and would straighten up and look perky on request. In my last post, I wrote about the shadow-self, which is invisible other than by its influence on our behaviour but this was something else – a disturbingly physical version of another human being, existing symbicotically with his creator. The man-that-was-there-twice was called Peter John-Morton, his non-speaking version, Ridley. Peter’s project is fascinating and his thesis focuses on our relationship with objects. You can read about it on Peter’s website here.
For me though, the fascination was with the poetic potential of the piece and how it could illuminate our sense of self in the world. Peter told me how, out and about in Canterbury, Ridley was variously acknowledged and ignored. Ridley does most things we do but not everything and those gaps articulate vividly elements of being human. For example, he picked up and drank from a bottle of water but didn’t swallow and immediately I was struck by his lack of internal organs, those mechanisms of digestion and excretion, inhalation and exhalation operating in me as I write this and you as you read it. They are essential to being alive. Antigonish, other ghosts and the man not-there-on-the stair are similarly missing that bodily element of being alive. Ridley was spookily alive in that he moved through the world but his persona is purely external. He has no inner life, whether physically or in terms of thought.
The encounter set up many trains of thought about the body and how we experience and write about it. Ridley’s lack of flesh reminded me of the pleasure anorexics describe in seeing bones through skin and I realised that the metaphor of ‘seeing the bones’ is one I’d been using for myself about recent writing. In therapeutic writing, people often work with the notion of masks, the personae we all wear in the world. Peter was wearing a literal mask over his entire self. In Writing Works, there is a whole chapter where practitioners talk about therapeutic writing on the theme of masks and personae.
The poem that keeps occuring to me is Delmore Schwarz’s The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me, in which he explores ‘the withness of the body’. It also set up an echo with The Layers by Stanley Kunitz which opens ‘I have walked through many lives /some of them my own’. And Pablo Neruda’s ‘We are Many’. There are no answers of course, just an infinite number of interesting questions reflecting down a hall of mirrors.
(I met Peter and Ridley at the excellent Lifting the Curtain event organised by Kent University)