The Last Twist of the Knife

Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dealer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Use this warning as a stimulus for a piece of persuasive, discursive or imaginative writing that expresses your perspective about a significant concern or idea that you have engaged with in ONE of your prescribed texts from Module A, B or C.          

Here is what we cannot say: life is an imposition upon those who do not yet exist and who, by being born, are thrust into a dreadful world of sleepless exhausted and ceaseless, vicious self-awareness. Life, as they say in True Detective, is being thrown into the meat-grinder.

Do you have children? Then you have done more than put riders on the carousel of suffering. You have sculpted the horses, skewered them with the carousel poles, wound up the tinny music that hides the screams. You have built the lie, gilded it, and drafted in more victims.

Now imagine being told this in a classroom full of teenagers whom you’re leading through Eliot’s poetry. Fifty eyes on you, wanting to see you justify it all. Of course you’ll punish the accuser. Of course you’ll say this misery is subjective. Of course you’ll back down from your platform and tell them it’s only a poem and oh look, the bell’s about to go. They’ll file out and you’ll wonder – what the hell just happened?

It started with a discussion about insomnia and Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night.’ Animals don’t suffer insomnia. Only people combine the physical discomfort of sleeplessness with our big brain’s awareness of what happens when we can’t sleep. Only we can project forward and fear the sleepless future, the madness attendant on insomnia.

And clearly, you said, the persona in Eliot’s ‘Rhapsody’ is already showing signs of that madness. Talking streetlamps, dribs and drabs of French, the obsession with time. The tortures of the human memory, which is an incredible thing until the mind to which it belongs malfunctions.

And then what? A night-time world full of grotesqueries, ‘the madman shaking a dead geranium’, things strange in themselves and made stranger by incorporation into the exhausting logic of the persona’s insomnia-addled brain. The crowd of twisted things.

It’s the modern condition, says one student, upon whom you turn the smile of a teacher who recognizes their own words. It’s the result of a world too crammed with new inventions, and the punishing demands of the world of work. It’s the isolation of the tiny human consciousness in an unnatural state – the state of the city. It’s alienation.

Yes, yes, and yes, you nod, feeling vindicated that your own interpretation of Eliot’s poetry, carefully pushed into the gaping beaks of these little chicks who will regurgitate it into carefully-organized body paragraphs, has been so thoroughly digested. This is the poetic fantasia which shows us what life is really like, under the skin, on the flip side of the waking world, in the private moments where you allow yourself to sag under the massive lie of it all. It’s like Banksy, turning his trademark existential misery on a Singin’ in the Rain streetscape, showing how life wears down and warps one tiny consciousness.

You’re pretty chuffed. You anticipate some good essays at the end of the year. This bunch really gets it.

So why, the kid goes on.

Why what, you beam.

Why have kids, if this is what life’s like?

Well, you say, thinking of your own well-adjusted brood. Well, it’s not like that for everybody. Eliot lived at a difficult time in history. He had trouble with relationships. Look at ‘Prufrock.’

In ‘Prufrock’, says the kid, at least he seems able to laugh at himself and all the other epiphany-pushing wanker Modernists. This, ‘Rhapsody’, this is like mental illness. Hallucinating, sleepless, cut off, hyper-awake. But still required to keep his end up. Shine his shoes, account for himself. Pay his way. Fit in and contribute.

You feel uneasy, faintly, and wonder where it’s all going. How could this be refocused for an essay? Maybe, you say, maybe the persona is a kind of caricature of things we think and do, but it’s concentrated into one poem. Life isn’t really that exhausting, that grotesque.

But it is, the kid persists. I’m often sleepless. The world usually seems at least this weird to me. And when you come across someone else who’s experienced it it’s a relief. What bothers me is how we read this together, agree that life can really suck for at least one person – who’s not even that unusual – just because of the ordinary stuff; work, girls, sleeplessness, ugly surroundings. And then we just park this in some classroom. We’re supposed to be learning for life, but in everything else about the school day we’re told the opposite. Or we’re told how to manage The Suck. Nobody addresses the obvious truth: that if this is what life is like, or even can be like, then you have no right to give it to someone else.

Well you don’t have to, you tell him. You can go and live your life any way you want.

But I’m interested in you, he says. You obviously agree on the interpretation: life really can be this terrible. What would you do if your kid was the one wandering about at night, listening to talking streetlamps, thinking the moon had face powder on,  going to bed every night knowing that he has to wake up and face the lie the next day?

This isn’t about me, you say stiffly.

Yes it is, he says. It’s about you and everyone else who gets all rhetorical when you’re interpreting stuff and exhorting us to develop our own meanings, and then does the exact opposite to what you’ve just said. It’s about not acting consistently with what you put over as some kind of philosophical truth. Remember, it only needs one case to make it valid – if even one person has a life like the persona in ‘Rhapsody’ – or ‘The Hollow Men’ or the Magi, or any of the poems – then how can you possibly justify the risk of bringing a kid into a life like that?

Is there a point to all this, you say wearily, wishing for a staffroom coffee which seems less bitter than this kid. Or do you just want to call me a hypocrite?

Just that life’s not worth it, he says without a smile. If there’s even one person who wound up enduring nights like this, that should be enough to stop everyone from having kids. It should plug that running tap of pop psychology and pep that we get in assembly.

Speaking of which, you say gratefully …the bell.

And they leave, and you leave, and the classroom sits empty, until you see them tomorrow and are confronted again by students who want you to be consistent with the meaning you see in the poetry.

The last twist of the knife.


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