Thursday, 31 March 2011

Like to a little kingdom

This essay’s permanent home is now here:

Like to a little kingdom
On private scales of insurrection

I no longer recall where I came across my latest copy of Julius Caesar, but I’m reasonably certain it was here in Fukuoka. Ten days ago, the book called out to me from its shelf as I was passing by; I took a few steps past before giving in, and then brought it down to the study. I noticed (I had forgotten) it has a bookmark in it: a ticket with the name of a wine bar in Stratford-upon-Avon. The place it marks is one of Brutus’ well-known asides to himself, in his garden, as he struggles with the tension of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council, and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

The act of looking, when I did, into this copy of this book at this passage, set in motion a string of associations. Whoever owned this book before me seems to have taken it along to Stratford-upon-Avon, to the Vintner wine bar, which is the latest occupant of a building that may have been where Shakespeare bought his wine. (A wine trader set up shop there in 1600; Shakespeare likely retired to Stratford around the time the Globe theatre burned down, in 1613.) Curious to see if the bar was still in business, I looked it up in a Google map, and there it was: a very attractive little place, with lots of polished brass and a tapas bar. In the Google street-level view, a woman who looked remarkably like my mother had been accidentally photographed glancing at the front door. This copy of Julius Caesar is a 1986 reprint, which happens to be the year I went to England (although not to Stratford-upon-Avon); I arrived a couple of weeks after the Reagan Administration’s bombing of Libya. I took the book off the shelf on the 20th of March, which was the anniversary of the 2005 Fukuoka earthquake: a magnitude 7 quake that was centred on a point offshore about fifteen or twenty kilometres away from my study. Some of the worst damage occurred in a part of town that had been built over a section of Fukuoka Castle’s water defences; construction of the Castle itself finished in 1607, which was around the time Shakespeare bought his house in Stratford-upon-Avon. The earthquakes and bombing campaigns of March 2011 are ongoing.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing | And the first motion – in Shakespeare’s English, the acting refers to the doing of the thing, and the first motion to the impulse behind it. Brutus, of course, is thinking about the plot to murder Caesar, and he calls it a dreadful thing. We should be careful with this dreadful: careful to distinguish between the modern colloquial ‘dreadful’, as something very bad, and the old, formal ‘dreadful’, as inspiring dread or reverence. The word points to awe and terror: the emotions that arise from confronting things that are larger than what we are. Brutus is caught up in a very specific kind of suspense: that of waiting for the event in which he will act to change the course of history. But dreadful things are not limited to people in his rare condition: this little passage marked off in my book by the Vintner’s ticket also describes the general effect of suspense on the mind, while we wait for a certain beam to fall, while we wait for a dreaded, anticipated event to arrive. Before 20 March 2005, I had never experienced an earthquake of any great force. Once it started, once I understood that a truck had not hit my house but the earth itself was moving, I entered the state of dread: standing below a beam between the living room and kitchen, wondering when the movement would end, wondering if the beam would hold. In an earthquake of great strength, one has a lot of time to experience dread: the shaking goes on for much longer than I ever imagined it would. As it was happening, I understood an awful helplessness, that I was in the power of something far removed from the scale of human agency, that the earth would not stop moving to answer my concern about a single beam. Between March and the end of April we experienced a series of aftershocks, some big, some small, including a magnitude 5.8 ‘after-quake’ on 20 April. That one came in the early morning, when I was still in bed, and on the second floor of this old house, about five metres away from the bookshelf that held my latest copy of Julius Caesar. The second floor of an old house moves around quite a bit when the earth shakes. For many months after, little shudders in the house, the quite natural little shudders native to an old building, served as the first motion of an earthquake fear: would it continue? How big would it be this time? What of the beams, and all the bookshelves?
Between a dreadful choice made and the actions that result from it; between a perception, an understanding, that something dreaded can indeed happen, and its arrival: all the interim is | Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream. This word ‘phantasma’ refers to an illusion, a vision, a dream: something that is not real, but that is nonetheless presented to the eye. We are capable of creating within ourselves the phantasmas of what we fear: for the first year I lived in this house, I perceived a ghost inhabiting the space below the stairs and in the wall of the kitchen; in the second year, I learned that my ghost was a weasel, and I frightened it away by holding a ringing alarm clock up against the wall in the evening in spring. Since the earthquake, both ours in Fukuoka and this month’s quake in the north, I have imagined the ghost of my study and books as a heap of rubble, and experienced the hideous dream of choosing what I might take hold of in flight if this house were to collapse around us. (In reality one is not to take anything: the act of salvaging something of the pre-quake life in flight is a sure-fire way to wind up dead under a mountain of debris.) This phantasma is not something that will be put to flight by an alarm clock, but distractions cause it to recede from the foreground of daily life.
The genius and the mortal instruments | Are then in council, and the state of man, | Like to a little kingdom, suffers then | The nature of an insurrection. The private insurrections between soul and body – The genius and the mortal instruments – are wildest with the narrowest and most personal gaps between the acting and first motion: wildest, because a perpetual state of strife cannot go on together with a healthy mind; and both the soul and body have an interest in maintaining themselves together with a healthy mind, yet neither will be willing to lose ground in the face of dreadful things. And yet, as time goes on, and strangely so, this insurrection wears itself down as we become ever more aware of all the dreadful things that can happen, that will happen, as the field of the phantasma becomes the waking dream of everyday life. The scale of private insurrections lessens with every moment lived, with every moment we survive; although the inner council can be called back into session at a moment’s notice, convened by an outer stimulus, one that recalls us to possibilities we normally keep in deep recess.
Walking down the street on the morning of the 20th of March, an hour or so after I took my latest copy of Julius Caesar down from its shelf, I suddenly heard the air raid sirens going off. The local traffic, and the people in the town, all carried on with the progress of their motion as though nothing had been heard, as though the sound of the sirens had been a waking dream. Later on I was reminded that the 20th of March was the anniversary of the earthquake, and presumably the sirens had been sounded as a memorial. That was when I noticed I had forgotten the date of our earthquake, and the time. The daily experience of dread, the suspense, the private insurrections and the hideous dream: all these had passed away without my noticing. During an aftershock on 20 April 2005, when I knew nothing of the Vintner wine bar in Stratford-upon-Avon, and when Julius Caesar was still in its place on the second floor, I was seated in this chair with my main cat on my knee. He has since passed away, but at that time, when the shaking had continued for longer than my little kingdom could allow, as I convulsively clutched at his fur, he looked at me with calm eyes, to say that all would end in its good time, and that we were doing fine, because we were alive.