On Growing Up and the Great Apnoea

One of the many iniquities of growing into fatherhood and middle years is a growing intolerance for anything resembling horror, even in the form of entertainment. To be fair, I have never enjoyed horror much, and barely got through reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven without a shudder. But in a broader sense, I have noticed a physical intolerance in me even for high-brow stories that have unhappy endings, whether or not they are inhabited by ghosts or demons. Owing to the correlation between what is considered art cinema and unhappy endings, I have more or less had to exclude anything from Cinema Nouveau or of French or German cinema-chic origin since the birth of my daughter. But it used not to be like this for me.

At the age of eighteen I had the fairly unique advantage of both not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and of parents who, whilst applying pressure to some extent, were reasonably liberal in their outlook. I never wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. Given the freedom to choose the subjects of my studies at university, I chose, pompously, and without a hint of irony, what I considered to be a classical education. That is to say, an education made up of subjects that I considered a young person during the Renaissance may have studied.

The modern equivalent, for me at least, included Mathematics, Psychology, Physics, Astronomy, and English Literature. It rapidly became evident, however, that by far the most inspiring of these subjects, not least owing to the more laissez-faire demeanour of the students, was English Literature. The classes were heated, the books were fascinating and the ideas spilled over into discussion at coffee shops that could turn into vehement arguments late into the night. We were sort of the literature version of the Big Bang Theory characters, only it wasn’t String Theory we were debating, it was Semiotics, Derrida, and just how amazing Albert Camus’ The Outsider really is.

It was incredible to us that people were not forced to read The Outsider at gunpoint so that they could be made more human through the experience.

We had our unspoken captains, and the kind of arrogant sneering attitude towards our lecturers, fellow scholars whom we viewed as unread, and Bachelor of Business Science students in particular, that made us deeply unpleasant to be around. It was the obsequious within our own ranks who suffered the most. They were the sell-outs who would be openly jeered in class, especially if they asked pedestrian questions. Yet, in spite of my kow-towing to the contemptuous disposition that was de rigueur adopted by our group, and very much unlike what I found in the Mathematics and Physics courses, there were girls to talk to.

One of these girls was a cut above the rest. She was intense, she read more than me, she was opinionated and she could be very dismissive. And she wrote poetry. We met at a literary festival. We began a relationship. She fascinated me. Not only did she write poetry – she wrote poetry backwards – literally. Pasted on all four walls of her room in an Observatory house in Cape Town, she had hand-written poems that could only be read using a mirror. I would hold a mirror to the wall and I would slowly dissect her lines. She once wrote a poem that had something to do with patching a square quilt “over the hole in my soul you made”. I remember experiencing a frisson of intense egoism on reading these lines until realising like a bolt had gone through my torso that the poem may not have to do with me.

Her favourite poet at the time, and to some extent the favourite poet of every young woman possessing a tortured soul, was Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath, who had written the poem Daddy, which is to say a poem that one regrets having read at the moment of reading it because it can never be unread. It is that disturbing. Sylvia Plath, whose father was a Nazi, who married Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate, was the hero of many a young woman who suffered from the distinction of reading as a teenager, rather than shopping and dressing. She committed suicide at the age of 30, in 1963, not long after the birth of her second child. She is described by a police officer coroner as suffering from “an irrational compulsion”, having “thrust her head far into the gas oven”. Her very name became iconic. We said “Plath”, not “Sylvia Plath”. She was our version of Jimi Hendrix, our version of Jim Morrison.

Despite the horror of her manner of suicide, despite her two children left in the house, and despite the pain experienced by her then estranged husband, she took on for both previous and subsequent generations a strangely iconic status. Much like we have made icons of other men and women that that were young and brilliant and who died horrifically at the peak of their powers. Whilst she remained our hero, even in the 1990s, Ted Hughes, her husband, suffered. He had written about her death to a friend shortly after her suicide, “That’s the end of my life. The rest is posthumous.” He spent literally the rest of his life re-inscribing her name on her tombstone to include “Hughes” in a perennial battle with radical feminists who would periodically destroy the inscription.

Suicide, like a cross-generational time-travelling demon, followed him through his life. His second wife murdered herself and her daughter, and the son he had had with Sylvia Plath hung himself in 2009. We went on reading Daddy, and willing ourselves to even an iota of the talent she possessed.

This led of course to further introspection as to whether there is something more to just ending it all quite suddenly in the pursuit of emulating greatness. None of us to my knowledge wished to actually commit suicide. For one thing we would have to actually do something of significance first, before contemplating just how to be immortalised through a single act of destruction. The writer A. Alvarez offered scant reprieve from the general idea. He made a book of it, so to speak. The Savage God, published in 1971, the year of my birth, is a personal journey into the notion that suicide is deeply connected to genius, that in fact it is a requirement for genius. Or at least it is the unfortunate by-product of the depression and mental self-torture that afflicts the brilliant. Perhaps it is the self-torture itself that makes for brilliance, offering a fresh, very painful, perspective, compared to those not afflicted. 

He wrote: “One of the most remarkable features of the arts in this century has been the sudden, sharp rise in the casualty-rate among the artists. Of the great pre-modernists, Rimbaud abandoned poetry at the age of twenty, Van Gogh killed himself, Strindberg went mad. Since then the toll has mounted steadily.” At the time I first read this, it all seemed so obvious, as obvious as an epiphany. It explained everything. You had to be complicated and tortured and cantankerous and unpleasant. This made you an artist. My critical faculty at the time did not ponder the dearth of statistical reasoning in his argument, nor did it pick up the blatant fact of the book being substantially about Sylvia Plath, told from the perspective of a friend trying to understand her death. The litany of the canonised who had come to some awful early end does not ring true today, but rather reads as a desperate attempt to connect dots.

Suicide and death, like twin sisters, we adopted and confronted them with bravado. Because that is what we did: it was an attack on fear, and we were crusaders against fear, both in ourselves and others.

Being a parent today, with a 2 year old child, my crusade has whimpered to a halt and I am encamped in a lager, fending off the false demons that constitute fear. I have no wish to actually go out there and confront them and nor do I think it would be interesting to do so. I cannot today watch a violent movie. Where we used regularly to head off to the Labia Theatre in Cape Town to watch films like Betty Blue and La Bete, described without irony as a French erotic comedy-horror-drama, I can now barely get through Die Hard 4. Anything with violence gives me the shudders. It seems so unlikely now that I ever got through the horror of watching Irreversible, or the even more abhorrent Requiem for a Dream, after which I recall I violently threw up. 

Sport, perhaps, like art, is populated with genius. And, like art, it is populated with enigmatic suicides. One might even say that there exist in the realms of kicking a football for a living, or driving in a circle for a living, or cycling around France or Italy, all for a living, a few, a very few, artists. There is an inscrutable quality that an ordained sample of sportsmen and sportswomen possess, that allow them to transcend the boundaries of the game. And their genius too, like Sylvia Plath’s, may have haunted them to some dark side that is the necessary antithesis of their genius. Like a face with two sides, an earth of two hemispheres, a right-angled triangle with its hypotenuse.

Marco Pantani was such an artist. His is a story that, whilst tragic, provides a counterpoint to the banal, pondering, bovine-like arrogance and obsolescent disregard for the art itself which Lance Armstrong exhibited, and continues to exhibit, in inhabiting his sport. Armstrong once said, in one of his many pseudo-philosophical diatribes: “Nothing goes to waste. You put it all to use; the old wounds and long-ago slights become the stuff of competitive energy.” His is a world of countless “slights” and many “wounds”. His is a world that is reactive to horror, which can only exist in relation to the outside world, a mental space that needs the outside world to feed off. He is like some gargantuan disabled elephant seal-like beast that floats through the ocean feeding on the plankton and life of others.

Pantani’s route, whilst also a story made sad and tragic through doping, was self-murder. The artist, as Matt Rendell in his book The Death of Marco Pantani describes him, is “miniscule and flamboyant, prone to dart, fish-like, out of the pack and disappear into the blue.” Matt Rendell at points in his book becomes overcome with admiration and takes on the quality of a died-in-the-wool Maradona fan, albeit a rather literate one. “And that was how he won,” he writes, “free-diving within himself to greater depths and darknesses than others dared, surfacing barely alive, tasting blood, from the great apnoea.”

The great apnoea – the horror I embrace in youth, and that I balk at in middle life – a suspension of external breathing. Pantani once said, in what he meant as an explanation for winning, “I love the mountains, but in the moment of exertion, I’m filled with deep hatred. So I try to shorten the suffering.”

by David Buckham – 3 July 2013

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