ON BEING BETWEEN TWO MINDS
Sitting at a corner table in The Grapes of Wrath, I am confiding to Joab Comfort that I feel I am living my life the wrong way round. ‘I had a mind of my own as a child. Now I am so unsure of myself that I’m seeking your advice. And worse, I act against my own interests. When I want something badly I usually find myself going for something else.’
‘Yes, I noticed we came for a drink and you ordered crisps.’
‘And I don’t even like them. They catch in my teeth.’
‘Wanting to do one thing and doing another. You should see someone.’ And he recommended Theresa Woods. ‘A lapsed Positivist. She lives in
When Theresa Woods opened the door of the basement flat I thought she was the cleaner. Her headscarf had a pin sticking out under her ear. The mop in her hand was to remove cobwebs, she explained. ‘I can’t see clearly out the window. Though it’s only a blank wall, it’s my blank wall.’
She wasn’t much older than me, which was a bit disappointing. I like to show-off to my contemporaries, and what I needed was help. So to be distract myself, I took the mop from her, and asked, ‘Where are the cobwebs?’
‘It’s all in the mind.’ As she drew the lace curtains and turned on a tequila lamp I hid the mop in a droopy banana plant. ‘I have drunk and seen the spider’, she added.
‘Shakespeare’, I said.
Theresa Woods sits me down on a pouffe shaped like a toadstool, and as she talks she walks around the room waving an imaginary cigarette. A large broach with a Celtic design fastening the thigh-split of her plaid maxi-skirt allows her legs to breathe. She tells me ‘that though being between two minds is a serious condition it has worthy precedents’. And cites no less than Hegel, whose complete works line the wall behind her. The other walls have hanging carpets with Bridget Riley designs. A bright idea that has faded. The floor is stone and must be cold under her bare feet.
‘Hegel maintains that there is a limit to logic, and that’s the point when the ambiguous takes over. You find yourself with a claim and counter-claim, equal and opposite, and you entertain both sides of the same question simultaneously. You have two options. Embrace the uncertainties of life and wait for fate to intervene. Or, on the horns of hesitation, the precept to do something about it counters the ambiguous, and you say, sod it, this will take forever. And you get on with what you were going to do anyway.’
Some months previously, my landlord, Mr McFee, the eternal student, gave me Kafka’s fable, ‘A Common Confusion’, to read. The plot was the same as The Blue Angel (1932), I told him, only sexual negotiations were replaced by business. McFee was not impressed. ‘You missed the idea. It is the clearest expression of ambiguity that I have come across. Kafka concludes that when wavering moves on from being an instinct to a perception, it tells you something has to be done about it. Ordinary everyday life has to be got on with (or got away with). Franz, for instance, had his job in insurance claims.’ I had been put wise to Hegel’s ‘precept of hesitation’, without realising it. But conserved my tongue.
I’m between two minds to say to Theresa Woods that Hegel (or Kafka) is immoral, and restrain myself. ‘I suppose as a good teacher Hegel had to be willing to listen to both sides of every argument, and accept the possibility that he could be wrong. Even so, is ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ a question not to be asked? Do you believe in the law of non-contradiction?’
‘I don’t mind being contradicted, if that’s what you mean. I’m not a Moral Philosopher, who believes all you need to do is go straight to the answers at the back of the book of life, and that gives you licence to do what you can’t be held responsible for. Where’s the moral in that? For me Plato’s Good is a matter of preference rather than principles, a matter of taste rather than dogma.’
I want to cry ‘snap’ but instead snap back. ‘What you say Hegel said is almost ridiculous. Juggling the various possibilities in the air until one falls to ground is a ‘spurious infinity’, as Hegel calls it. It could go on forever, or come down at the drop of a hat. Better to trust your instincts and go for ‘genuine infinity’. Emily Dickinson put it better than Hegel:
My life closed twice before its close;
it yet remains to see
if Immortality unveil
a third event to me.’
Theresa nods, approvingly, I think, as she takes off her glasses and closes her eyes. ‘What do you think of Van Morrison? He is Irish. My ex-partner thinks he’s him. We first made out to his version of Kurt Weill’s ‘Poor Jenny’. Do you know it?’
I don’t say it’s really Brecht. ‘Poor Jenny, bright as a penny, but she couldn’t make up her mind.’
Theresa pulls off her scarf, and shakes her hair which is surprisingly blond given her eyebrows. My mind is made up.
‘The Blue Angel is on at the early evening show in the Everyman Cinema. Would you like to come?’
Without hesitation, she puts on her sheepskin coat, and remarks, ‘What I like about a blank wall is that you know when you hit it. When everything is up in the air you are in free fall. It’s the prime duty of any kind of self-respecting thinker to understand that there are things which cannot be understood.’
‘So we are left in confusion?’
‘Far from it. We know what we don’t understand. Let’s go.’
I paid for the tickets.
The rendezvous with Theresa Woods and Marlene Dietrich marked my transition from a life of the mind to one where approximations are lived with from day to day. Dreams of reality have a rude awakening, and your mind is made up for you by what is possible. Joab would call it growing up.