Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 1

I crossed the Bridge of Sighs. 

            And no, I wasn’t in Venice.

            I was in Glasgow.

            It was Easter Saturday morning, and I’d decided to take a walk out to the Necropolis—the Bridge of Sighs being what they rather grandly call the short service road leading to the entrance gates. Laura was in town having her hair done and we were meeting up for an early lunch in the Merchant City, giving me just over an hour to spare. 

            Glasgow’s Necropolis isn’t just any old graveyard but a real city of the dead, a mass of columns, obelisks, mausoleums, chapels, crypts, rotundas, and urns clustered on the sides of a steep hill that lowers over the great grey cathedral. From the top of a towering column blackened by a hundred years’ worth of soot the grim reformer John Knox looks down on the whole assembly as if announcing the triumph of eternity over time – and I suppose that the well-heeled Victorian townsmen who paid for it all really did hope that these monuments would ensure that their civic deeds and private griefs would live on forever in marble, granite, and stone. But the respectable dead who are taking their eternal rest here were serious Protestants and there aren’t too many weeping angels, tearful infants, or other concessions to emotion such as you’re likely to see south of the border. It’s all very solemn and straight-faced and always seemed to me to speak more of mortality than resurrection.

            Having got all that off my chest, the fact is that there aren’t many better views over the city, especially on a beautiful April morning like this. Down there it was a normal Saturday, humming with the noise of traffic and shoppers, but up here it all blended into a gentle distant murmur. There was a hint of warmth in the sun that occasionally broke through from behind the drifting mounds of picture-book clouds and I even had to take off my scarf and loosen my jacket. Not bad for Scotland in early April. The trees that sheltered the winding paths that led up to the crest of the hill were freshly in leaf and there were clumps of daffodils and narcissi in full flower. Nature, at least, seemed to know something about resurrection. 

            It might not be the most romantic of graveyards, but it still, inevitably, prompts thoughts about mortality. It has several times struck me that if those who paid for all this stoneware really thought their money would buy them an eternal memory, they were very, very wrong. Just a hundred and fifty years on and many of the inscriptions have already been eroded to the point of illegibility, mausoleum gates have rusted and come off their hinges, stonework has peeled and cracked, and vandalism and graffiti have mocked the devout hopes of the subterranean inhabitants.

            Nothing last for ever. That’s it. What more is there to say? Well … for a start there was Dostoevsky. If nothing lasts forever, if death is just the end and nothing more, what was he doing in my life? Dostoevsky … Solovyov … who else was going to start turning up from … from—where, exactly? Weren’t his visits some kind of proof of … well, something?

            I wasn’t surprised—it was predictable almost—that, as I thought these thoughts, I became aware that someone was standing next to me: someone—that is, Fyodor Mikhailovich. I turned to look at him but he too appeared to be absorbed in looking out over the city, holding his hat to his chest while the light wind ruffled his straggly hair. For some minutes we both stood in silence.

            Eventually I was the one to speak.

            “So. If you weren’t standing next to me, Fyodor Mikhailovich, I’d be tempted to say ‘That’s it’. The end. I mean death. But here you are.”

            He didn’t respond immediately but continued contemplating the view, though he did nod his head in acknowledgement.

            “I mean, all these people wanting to be remembered for ever, but for the most part, no one now really knows who any of them were. I suppose their children remembered them, and maybe their grandchildren, but most of their grandchildren probably died a century ago. Everything gets forgotten in the end. All the effort they put into these monuments … all their protestations about eternal memory … all in vain, really.”

            “Memory’s never in vain,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich softly, without turning towards me.

            “Yes, but even memory gets forgotten in the end, doesn’t it? I mean we remember people like you or Beethoven or Shakespeare or Caesar … but the vast majority of us just get forgotten. And even if our names appear on some gravestone or can be found in some archive, no one really knows anything about the life represented by that name, do they?”

            “You’re in a very sombre mood today—and after everything we’ve talked about,” Fyodor Mikhailovich remarked.

            “I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not depressed or anything. It just seems to me that this is how it is. It’s simply a matter of facing facts.”

            “And these facts don’t affect you now the way they did back in November?”

            I grimaced.

            “Maybe it’s the spring weather that makes the difference?” I said a little shamefacedly, remembering the somewhat melodramatic thoughts about death and the meaninglessness of life that were the starting-point of our conversations.

            “Hmm,” he said, “if only everybody’s existential despair was as easily cured as that.”

            “I’m sure our conversations have helped,” I replied quickly, not wanting him to get the wrong impression.

            He raised his eyebrows and breathed deeply.

            “So what do you think? Is it worthwhile remembering the dead? Or should we just forget them, seeing that they’ll all be forgotten in the end anyway, the sooner the better?”

            “No, not at all. We can’t help remembering them. I often find myself thinking of my parents and others I’ve known who’ve died. It’s part of being human, I suppose. But I don’t think it really leads anywhere. I mean, it doesn’t prove anything, does it?”

            “Should it have to ‘lead anywhere’ or ‘prove anything’?”

            “You mean, it’s worth doing for its own sake?”

            “As you say, it’s part of being human … to remember one another, to keep each other in mind. And even if it doesn’t prove anything, isn’t that the very heart of love? Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that forgetfulness leads to exile and memory to redemption? I didn’t write it, but it isn’t a bad summary of some of my ideas.”

            “Redemption? That’s quite strong, isn’t it?”

            “Let’s walk a bit,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich. I nodded and we turned and continued slowly along a gently curving path leading up the hill.

            “Let me put it like this,” he continued, putting on his hat, “much of what goes wrong in the world goes wrong because people forget. Did you notice what I said about old man Karamazov, that he almost forgot his children when they were growing up and the truth is that his forgetfulness and neglect did as much to set the whole catastrophe in motion as his drunkenness and lechery. And that’s also why Alyosha taught his young disciples to treasure the memory of the good deed they’d shared and why he insisted that such a memory can nourish us throughout our lives and go on giving us hope—not only that life is worth living but also that it’s worth opening up to each other in love. Remembering those moments of goodness reminds us that if we can experience love once, we can experience it again.”

            “Yes, yes,” I agreed, thinking back to The Brothers Karamazov. “And Zosima too, doesn’t he talk about the importance of memory, especially childhood memories, like his own memories of going to church or reading Bible stories?”

            “Exactly. Those are the kind of memories that provide the basis for a good and wholesome life.” He sighed and then paused. For a minute or two we walked on in silence. It was getting towards midday and I could feel actual warmth from the sun (in Scotland, after months of winter, that’s worth mentioning).

            “The sorrow of it is,” he resumed, “that some children have few enough such memories and many have even more powerful memories of cruelty, sickness, or loss—though perhaps—I like to think—there’s no life completely devoid of some good memory, if only we know how to find it and hold on to it and treasure it. That kind of remembering may even be a more effective route to healing than reliving our traumas. In fact, if we don’t have the perspective of some good memory, remembering our traumas is probably only ever going to be destructive. Fixating on evil and forgetting the good is just what the Devil wants.”

            I was tempted to say that ‘fixating on evil’ was what some of Dostoevsky’s critics had complained of in his writing, but we’d touched on that in an earlier conversation and, anyway, a more interesting question suggested itself to me.

            “But how do we know which memories are good and which are the ones we should be holding on to?” I asked. “I mean, some memories are obviously bad and maybe some are obviously good, but what about Alyosha’s early childhood memory of being held up by his mother to the icon with the light streaming through the window? That sounds like a good memory at first—but, then, at the same time, she was having one of her hysterical fits and someone comes in and snatches him from her, which, I imagine, would have been terrifying for a small child. You seem to suggest that this memory played an important part in shaping his personality, but how could a memory like that lead to something good?”

            Again he fell silent.

            “Yes, yes, yes. Human life is always mixed. But I think that what he remembered was the icon, the light, and his mother’s love—even though her love was perhaps unbalanced, confused, and desperate, as human loves often are.”

            “So maybe it’s a good memory because of the way he remembered it  … because he remembered it with love.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich punched his right fist emphatically into the palm of his left hand and shook his clenched hands energetically.

            “Exactly! If we remember with love, then what we remember will be love!”

            “But that’s circular …”

            “And why not? Love begets love. How else would it work? But we mustn’t stop there … with the childhood memories that is. We must do all we can to remember the good—the love—in each other throughout our lives. Even remembering the good in those we don’t know.”

            “How do you mean?”

            “Don’t you remember how Zosima told the monks that when they prayed, they should pray for all those who, unknown to them, were dying at that very moment. Even if you can’t name them, even if you know nothing about them, even if no one knows anything about them and they’ve been forgotten by the whole world, remembering them before God is a good thing.”

            “But does it achieve anything?” I couldn’t help asking—again.

            “Who knows? What do any of us know of the consequences of what we do and don’t do—but it’s a good thing. It increases love. It binds us that little bit more closely together. It keeps us connected to God. But living like that, keeping humanity connected in loving prayer isn’t at all easy. It’s hard enough remembering what we should be remembering in our own lives. Even Alyosha, so nearly a saint—and perhaps he would have grown up to become a saint if I’d managed to finish his story—even Alyosha forgot about his brother Dmitri at a crucial moment and so he too contributed to the final denouement. As for me, if I’d really remembered what Anna Grigoryevna needed and deserved from me, then I’d never have gone to the roulette hall. I was so busy pursuing my idea of becoming fantastically wealthy or, at least, escaping my debts, that I simply forgot about this real, living person who loved me so much and to whom I owed so much. No, remembering isn’t easy. Truthful remembrance is only possible if you’re prepared to face up to your guilt and responsibility—as I said in our very first conversation. But when we forget, that’s when things go really wrong.”

            He paused and turned round again to look back towards the city. When he continued, it was almost as if he was talking to himself.

            “I think that science tells us that all matter is subject to entropy, everything is gradually slowing down and will end by collapsing into an unmoving and immoveable mass. I don’t believe that—science has been wrong before—but it does seem to me that it’s a good image of what remembering is like, an unending struggle against entropy. In the spiritual sense, of course. 

            “And, naturally, it isn’t easy. We all need help; trying to struggle forward on our own is never going to succeed. This is what’s so difficult for you children of Western individualism to grasp—you all want to do it in your own way. You may argue about what the prayers of the Church can achieve, but one thing they do achieve is that you’re not left to remember on your own—and our individual memories are not so very strong. But the Church prays for all and reminds us, each of us, to pray for all, to pray for our dead, for example, for all sufferers, for those we love, and for our enemies.”

            He gestured towards a nearby gravestone that was etched with the image of a downturned torch.

            “In the ancient world, as I’m sure you know, the dead had to pass through the water of forgetfulness on their way into the underworld, forgetting the world they’d left behind and being forgotten by it.  But if, as Christians, our hope is that we will rise and be with Christ, sharing the light in which he lives, then we must strive to overcome forgetfulness and remember.”

            “Remember what, exactly?” I interjected.

            He laughed.

            “Ideally, everything! All that has been, all that is, and all that will be! But seeing it all in His light.  ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ He said, meaning that we might start by remembering Him. Even when we’re burning in the furnace of doubt.”

            After another brief pause, he continued again.

            “You see, that’s what I was trying to do in my novels. Just that.”

            “Sorry, I don’t follow—just what?”

            “Remember everything. And remember it in His light and in such a way that my readers could share those memories too.”

            “I still don’t follow … Weren’t your novels fictions—you yourself said in our first conversation that they were all ‘made up’? I remember that quite clearly. I think you even said they were lies. So how can they be memories? And even if they were your memories, they’re not my memories, so how could they help me remember everything in my life in ‘his light’, as you put it?”

            As on several previous occasions, I realized even at the time that my questions could have come across as quite aggressive, but I also sensed that he wanted me to be honest and say what I thought—to be less ‘English’, as he’d said on one occasion.

            “You’re right,” he said. “This needs some explaining. If you bear with me, I’ll do the best I can; though, remember, I was never a philosopher, only a novelist, a writer—of fictions!”

2 thoughts on “Conversation 7: ‘We are all here’. Episode 1

  1. Hello everyone; the narrator’s reflexions on that cemetery speaking “more of mortality than resurrection” reminded me of a passage in “Les îles” by Jean Grenier (a 1933 essay), which reads (I’m really sorry to anyone reading this who doesn’t understand, I don’t have an English translation; you can find it at the beginning of the chapter “Mouloud the Cat” though, if this book has been translated to English which I’m not sure) : “Quand j’étais enfant, le cimetière me faisait peur. Il me paraissait même en plein soleil, sombre et noir, avec quelque chose de gluant. Adossé à une colline, face à un horizon de vallée et de mer, il contrastait par ses ifs noirs avec le vert du ciel, de la prairie et de la mer. Je n’y entrais qu’une fois par an, à la Toussaint, avec mes camarades de collège. Le directeur, un prêtre osseux, aux yeux durs, nous y menait ce jour-là après les vêpres des Morts. Des marchands de marrons et de chrysanthèmes encombraient l’entrée. Il pleuvait, ou plutôt une brume très fine et très froide se réduisait en eau et voilait le paysage. Le prêtre allait droit à la grande croix de granit (souvenir de mission) qui portait cette inscription sur le socle : Ave crux spes unica. Nous nous rassemblions autour de lui; et, de sa voix coupante, il disait les litanies des Morts. Vraiment, ce jour était sans espoir; et l’unique espoir dont parlait l’inscription me paraissait aussi affreux que les choses dont j’étais entouré et dont j’étais tout prêt à désespérer. Non pas même à désespérer, puisque je n’arrivais pas à les tenir pour réelles. Frêle décor, pouvait-il faire illusion à cette minute à un esprit trop détaché de son corps, pour parvenir à (the following verb is in italics/underlined) croire ?”

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    1. Thank you Amélie. Although the text doesn’t emphasise this, a remarkable thing about the Glasgow Necropolis is that, at least in the part from the first half of the nineteenth century, there are relatively few Christian symbols or even biblical inscriptions. Most are from the classical world: the urn, the down-turned torch, the pyramid, the obelisk.

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