The meaning of life

with TS Eliot.

Everyone should do a meaning of life post occasionally. I refer to Portrait of a Lady, in which despite the first person pronouns, the young man reading the comics and the sporting page may not be Eliot himself. Yet it speaks to me most insofar as I am that young man, or the older lady.

I shall sit here, serving tea to friends

I have many memories of things going well, but one in particular, finding and making the perfect legal argument to win a difficult motion, and ten thousand pounds. My feelings, drives, intellect came together to achieve what I wanted, and it felt good. It still does, in retrospect, and I am aware of people whose working lives contain many such days- as well as a great deal of work to reach the standard where it is less of a fluke for them.

I don’t know. What do you think? Working in a challenging, rewarding job, where pleasure in success generally outweighs the frustrations- possibly, it is not the external circumstances which matter to anyone, but their own ability to take pleasure exceeding their frustration. It’s not what happens, but how you see it. Any expectation that that brilliant day would be often recurring for me was doomed to failure, but its memory is pleasurable and there are pleasures now.

The lady imagines life without her friends. “Nightmare!” Actually, it being Eliot and this particular lady, she says “What cauchemar!” I did not have the internet when I first read that. I get a feeling of making the best of it. She is so glad to have found such a sensitive young man, she says, and he realises, or imagines, or worries that it is not so, they do not have the intimately empathic understanding she imagines. Though why should his judgment be better than hers? She sees potential in him he denies. He is less than she imagines, he thinks, lolling in the park, reading the funny papers.

Velleities and regrets…

Her life is odds and ends, and what is his? She may talk of Michelangelo, but not write a thesis or give lectures; perhaps her observation of the Sistine chapel gives new insight to another of the young men she invites to entertain her. As my observation of the Baptistery in Florence pleased the Bishop of Beverley once.

Stacking the shelves of the supermarket may give a well-deserved sense of achievement, and so might tapping out a blog post, or getting a few Likes. And the world is full of contingent delights- dare eat the peach, and its juice may overwhelm you, or it may have gone soft without properly ripening, and that must be good enough. It is good to be her, able to appreciate Chopin, and he, wondering in horror Is that all there is???? might only realise that his own mediocrity is good enough, too, long after. This young man reads in the park, perhaps killing time until dinner at the Drones’, rather than working in the bank, or the publishing house. I read that happiness for the young is excitement, for the old, contentment, and that makes sense.

It is better to be alive than not. Any meaning one must find in what is, rather than what might be or what one ought to want. We are only living, and never “partly living”, and no Archbishop can save us.


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