One cold dark night there was a story about a knocking at the outer gate. Despite cries of Yes! Yes! Coming! someone still knocked and the snow that had piled on the gate was blown halfway up the door itself, with no meaning as to the blind knocking or the thick snow or why it did not stop. I knew I should be writing a straightforward story, or even a poem, but I didn’t. I should get back to words, I thought, plain words.
I had been looking at the New Testament in an 1801 edition of Johannes Leusden’s side-by-side (Greek and Latin) version, which I’d found on my bookshelf in a fragile state that did not allow the pages to be turned quickly. Little flecks broke off. I opened it at random to 1 Corinthians 10, a letter of Paul’s about idolatry. The letter spoke of people who wandered in the wilderness eating ‘pneumatic’ bread and drinking from a ‘pneumatic’ rock – or so I was translating it in my head, the word for ‘spiritual’ being pneumatikos in Greek, from pneuma, ‘breath’. Can either bread or rock be made of breath? Anyway who can drink from a rock? A sort of dreariness, like a heavy smell of coats, comes down on the word ‘spiritual’ and makes religion impossible for me. The page is turned. Flecks fall.
Before turning the page though, I noticed that Paul’s text, in the verse following the pneumatic rock, was at pains to identify the rock with Christ (that is, God) and to explain that the rock was ‘following’ these people through the desert so they could drink from it. How very awkward, I thought. I wondered why God couldn’t come up with a better water arrangement for these people and why Paul couldn’t find a more graceful image of God’s care. Presumably Paul wants people to seek and cherish God’s care? But to visualise the longed-for Other bumping along behind your desert caravan in the form of a rock might just make you morose or confused.
Confused and morose myself, not least of all because of that continued knocking at the gate, and in need of a fresh idea, I opened the Bible again and found Psalm 119:81-3. This seemed to be another text about people in the wilderness:
My soul fainteth for thy salvation: but I hope in thy word.
Mine eyes fail for thy word saying, When wilt thou comfort me?
For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes.
And all at once I recognised it as a passage I had worked on before, at a time when snow was not my concern – I’d been invited to give a lecture on (as I recall) ‘the idea of the university’, a topic about which I knew little, and so began to compose a lecture more concerned with the word ‘idea’ than the concept of the ‘university’. I’m not clear on whether I ever delivered this lecture: I can’t find it among my papers. Three days before the lecture date my mother died. I fell to my knees in the kitchen. Astoundedness was like a silvery-white fog that seeped up and over all those days. I had visited her only a week before, the long train, then bus, then taxi trip. She seemed OK. Forbidden by her doctor from her nightly glass of Armagnac she’d taken to dabbing it behind her ears. The word ‘idea’ comes from ancient Greek ‘to see’. Was there a way to get out of giving that lecture, I wondered.
Psalm 119:83 is an outcry: ‘For I am become like a bottle in the smoke; yet do I not forget thy statutes’ in the King James version. In more modern versions, ‘I am like a wineskin shrivelled by smoke’; or ‘Though I am shrivelled like a leather flask in the smoke’; or ‘I am useless as a discarded wineskin.’ The notion seems to be that without God the psalmist or his life becomes dry, sooty, wrinkled and worn, dark and dismal, parched, disfigured, miserable, bereft of spiritual moisture. There is a strand of tradition that reads ‘hoar frost’ in place of ‘smoke’ but no one knows what to do with that. The same week my mother died my boyfriend left. (Beware the conversation that begins: ‘Do you think people should be completely honest with one another?’) We’d been together a number of years but he was young and closeness to death made him queasy. Do I blame him? I admit I was not a very erotic person at the time. And well, my quotient of astoundedness was full. He drove me to the funeral and more or less kept going. I more or less waved goodbye.
There was no question I had to get out of giving that lecture.
The odd thing is, I can’t remember if I did or did not (get out of the lecture). The chronology is a blur. I do remember sitting in an armchair, at the very brink of an armchair, hands fisted in my lap, facing the professor of religious studies who had commissioned the lecture. I was pleading for a cancellation or deferral. He sat tightly contained on the far side of his big desk. He was pale. Alarmed. He may have been a priest. Tears poured down my face. I told him of my mother’s outlandish little red car coat. He was not a chaotic person. A large feeling of cul-de-sac filled the room. Beyond that I can recover only a few mental screenshots of me speaking about bottles and smoke to a dusty lecture hall of people with crossed legs, but these may be shards of some anxiety dream, not a credible memory.
Historically the first instance of the noun ‘idea’ in ancient Greek is in an epinician ode of Pindar (Olympian 10:103) praising an Olympic victor ‘beautiful with respect to his idea’, that is, in his appearance. Plato’s use of the word to designate things like ‘the form of the good’ is familiar. Slightly stranger perhaps, Demokritos’ choice of atomoi ideai (literally ‘uncut shapes’) to mean the indivisible elements of his atomic theory. Best of all is Matthew’s phrasing in the final chapter of his Gospel (28:3) to describe the look of the angel who came down from heaven, rolled back the door of Christ’s tomb and sat on it:
ἦν δὲ ἡ ἰδέα αὐτοῦ ὡς ἀστραπή
(The idea of him was like lightning.)
‘And his garment shone white as snow,’ continues Matthew’s Gospel, reminding me to go to the door and see who was knocking – has it stopped? – but there is a sense of suspension in the night air, as of a person not quite turning away to go back on their own footprints through the deepening snow. Snow can deepen fast on nights like this. The reason I went to visit my mother, the week before her death, was a dream I had. A young man in red epaulets was ministering to a room of restless guests who lay fully clothed in bathtubs. Waking suddenly (3 a.m.) I knew the young man in red epaulets as the night clerk in the hotel where I stayed when I visited her. Strange choice for a psychopomp, I thought, as hours later the train glided west in a weak tarnish of dawn. There was ground fog everywhere, then afternoon sunlight (the bus) so deep you could enter it as a lake. Finally a taxi gliding past people in their kitchens.
The weekend was spent watching her sleep, oxygen shunting on and off. When awake she glared wildly, or ate small dabs of ice cream or, once, spent a few minutes studying a photograph I’d brought her (of myself at a posh artist’s retreat on Lake Como) then said, ‘Why did you wear your glasses?’ I was not with her when she died. I assume the young man in red epaulets showed up and that he let her wear her car coat. She loved that red car coat.
Last thing: one Sunday evening about a year before all this we were on the telephone, my mother and I; it was just after we sold the house and she’d moved to the facility, where she was allowed a small sensible room and a few possessions. As we talked I was watching snow drift down the dusk outside, counting it, one hundred and five, one hundred and six, one hundred and seven, when out of a pause she said: ‘It’s funny to have no home’ – funny being a funny word for what she meant. I say this now to remind myself how words can squirt sideways, mute and mad; you think they are tools, or toys, or tame, and all at once they burn all your clothes off and you’re standing there singed and ridiculous in the glare of the lightning. I hung up the phone. I stared at the snow for some time. I expect she did too.