Entry 37: Harlequin’s Poles- Several bodies ago, I read Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktock Man by Harlan Ellison. Now, isn’t that an appropriately sci-fi opening sentence? The belief that the human body turns over on a cellular (or is it atomic?) level every 7 to 10 years has whiskers on it, of course.
George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to one of his novel’s wrote in 1905, Physiologists inform us that the substance of our bodies (and consequently of our souls) is shed and renewed at such a rate that no part of us lasts longer than eight years: I am therefore not now in any atom of me the person who wrote The Irrational Knot in 1880. The last of that author perished in 1888; and two of his successors have since joined the majority. Fourth of his line, I cannot be expected to take any very lively interest in the novels of my literary great-grandfather.
Interesting thought: can we shed responsibility for our actions as easily as we shed skin cells, I wonder? Richard Feynman, one of the truly great minds of 20th Century science, relates, once in Hawaii, I was taken to see a Buddhist temple. In the temple, a man said, “I am going to tell you something that you will never forget.” And then he said “To every man is given the key to Heaven. The same key opens the gates of Hell.”
He went on to write, in an essay entitled The Value of Science, the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out – there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.
One of the dances he was remembering was the fact that he, as a member of the Manhattan project, was one of the architects of the Atomic bombs that obliterated the centres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
But let’s go back to Harlequin and the Ticktock Man. We have all the time in the world; unlike the dystopia of the short story where human beings are rigorously regimented and where falling behind schedule is punishable by having that time taken away from your allotment of that precious commodity. When your time runs out, the Ticktock Man switches off your heart- although whether your heart was ever really a going concern is a question posed by this piece of speculative fiction.
The image of the harlequin reminds me of the reality of my employment for more than 40 years. My life was punctuated by bells as I rushed from class to class or class to staffroom or staffroom to class, always behind, arms full of exercise books not yet marked, the Ticktock Man pursing his lips as, once again, I stumbled into the classroom to be faced with faces waiting with me for the summons of the next bell.
Like a lot of people, clowns have not been a joyful memory from childhood but a vision that has usually had ambiguous overtones. Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” is one of the most memorable clown variants and in The Great Dictator the great comic showed greater insight than most of his contemporaries in satirising the contemptible Nazis and their odd-looking leader. The representation of the clown as trickster plays to our dislike of those in power and we cheer when pomposity is punctured yet remain wary of the jeering japester who capers on the edge of our comfort zone sneering sardonically at our incapacity for truly independent action; the sad ordinariness of us.
But there is respite from the mundane humdrum of the daily round that consumes us from the tick of eyelid snapping open to the tock of it drawing down the blinds on another rotation. And that respite takes many forms. For some, it is the opening of a novel at the exact spot where the promise of swift submersion beckons like a lover’s arms; for others, closing the door on the world to resume a passion (or hobby) suffices. For only a few does it comprise what occupies most of our waking hours. Which explains the persistence of poetry.
As Carl Sandburg says, Poetry is a sliver of the moon lost in the belly of a golden frog. Or, as he more mischievously defines it, Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits. An interesting, final definition, Poetry is a dance music measuring buck-and-wing follies along with the gravest and stateliest dead-marches. Collins dictionary defines buck-and-wing as a boisterous tap dance, derived from Black and Irish clog dances. Dance, like music, is inextricably bound up in time yet together they conspire to overcome its tyrannical hold on our existence.
So let’s dance on, oblivious to the Watcher at the window, waiting for the music to stop; waiting for the process to resume its relentless tick-tock goose-step, to take us over the edge of everything that ever was.