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Script for audio journal Volume 1 Everybody's Story

SQ 8 Sylvia

Entry 8: Sylvia I first read The Savage God, by A. A. Alvarez, in 1974. This book was the first time I had encountered an examination of the subject of suicide which was actually readable and I found myself gripped by the long section on Sylvia Plath, the American poet

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who had married Ted Hughes. Now, Hughes I knew, from college lectures, to be a much-admired poet dealing with themes associated with nature and, in particular, the unreflecting savagery of animals- but I knew nothing of his wife’s work.

Seeking out a copy of Ariel, published posthumously in 1965, I started reading, and re-reading, those dark and brilliant poems. I also sought out other poems and works by her, including The Bell Jar, a novel which details the female protagonist’s inexorable mental decline, several suicide attempts, institutionalisation and Electro-Convulsive Therapy. The novel is, obviously, semi-autobiographical and after a year or so I felt impelled to write a song about her, using images from her poems to help construct the lyric.

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The Greek philosopher, Socrates, argued against suicide, for most part, but ended his life by drinking a hemlock-infused potion: a penalty for having been found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety. He saw himself as a gadfly, someone who would sting the state into righteous action. Well, the state reacted as we all do when a stinging insect attacks. Kill it or shoo it away!

The Athenian jurors who voted for the death penalty probably thought that Socrates would take the opportunity to flee before the sentence was to be promulgated. Socrates, however, deeming himself to be a true citizen with a horror of life outside the city-state and obedient to the rule of law, drank the hemlock, turned to his friend, Crito, and said I owe a cock to Asclepius, see that the debt is paid.

He remains the true ideal of an Athenian citizen, reverencing the gods and punctilious about paying debts. Asclepius, is the god of healing and perhaps Socrates is intimating that death releases the soul from the body and its attendant ills, particularly as one ages. Four centuries later in Palestine, Judas flings the blood-money he has accepted for hisjudas betrayal of Jesus back at the temple priests and hangs himself in despair. They use the tainted money to buy a potter’s field and bury him there.

Dante, in The Inferno, places Judas in the deepest circle of hell where Satan chews on his

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head eternally. The Gnostics, on the other hand, reasoning that he set in train the salvation of the world, view him as the greatest of all the Apostles. Is there any surprise that one of the most compelling and enduring contemplations of suicide was written 400 years ago by William Shakespeare? You can count in the hundreds of millions the number of people who can complete the line: To be or not to be.

The absence of illness or adversity may not be sufficient to answer the question posed by Hamlet in the affirmative, but clearly if one is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune one might choose to end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to by taking arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. But is it the end? For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. Indeed, and in that pause do most of us not acquiesce and resign ourselves to grunt and sweat under a weary life because of the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends. Is this an invitation to martyrdom? A vindication of altruistic suicide? Itgreater-love is certainly a high bar, and one that many have cleared. The stories of soldiers throwing themselves on a grenade to save their comrades and similar tales of heroic self – sacrifice are seen as justifications for self-slaughter by most people. An example of this is

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Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, who volunteered to take the place of a prisoner who was selected to die of starvation in an underground bunker with nine others as a reprisal for an escape from Auschwitz.

The swap was agreed and Francisek Gajowniczek, who had cried out in anguish for his wife and family, lived for a further 53 years, attending the beatification and later canonisation of Kolbe where the pope at the time, John Paul II, declared him to be a Christian martyr. In 2011, Jessica Council, a 30-year-old pregnant mother, refused cancer treatment in order to give her unborn child the best chance for survival; she died, leaving behind a husband, son and a newborn child who is alive today because of her sacrifice.

 

Sylvia
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Script for audio journal Volume 9 Autumn Road

SQ 107 Progress

Entry 107: Progress– At entry 73, I referred to a cartoon from the sixties by Ron Cobb,a-cobb-caartoon3 entitled Progress, the upper panel shows two cavemen brandishing bones at one another. Then, dividing the upper panel from the lower, is the word Progress. The lower panel shows two men in suits; one has a pistol with which he has just shot his rival dead. This song inserts a few more panels outlining the history of war.

Originally entitled Pentagon Progress, I thought, afterwards, this was unfairly restrictive and just adopted the Cobb label (even though the US accounts for 75% of the world’s total expenditure on the military but only 0.04% of the total a-cobb-road-kill-ron-cobb-19724population of the planet). In 1972 Cobb composed a cartoon showing road-kill in the Australian outback; lying at the side of the road, among the litter and detritus of road-users, was an aboriginal tribesman and a kangaroo as a road-train sped off, oblivious into the distance.

Almost 45 years later, it still packs a punch. Worth a look, too, is a three-panel depiction of uranium mining in Australia by Fiona Katauskas: panel one- a hole in the ground with the caption, Mine; the second panel an evena-mineoursfionakatauskas larger hole in the ground with the caption, Mine; finally, a facility filled with radioactive barrels with the caption, Ours. Of course, the picture is not one of total gloom: if you haven’t yet checked out Hans Rosling on TED talks, you’re denying yourself a wake-up call about the real state of the world.

a-chimp-imageOver ten years ago, Rosling demonstrated that medical students in Sweden performed worse than chimpanzees at predicting mortality rates and other indicators of progress. Most westerners still have mid-twentieth century notions of us and them about the developed world and the third world: this despite the increasing evidence of Asian tourists at our iconic sites.

Half a billion Chinese are middle-class with disposable income that would turn many westerners green with envy. India is close on thea-chinese-tourist heels of its large neighbour, so it’s probable that we will have a new middle class of one billion plus before too long. Elsewhere in the world, even in sub-Saharan Africa, there is increasing wealth and better health. By the middle of this century, many of the people who just assumed that the largesse was theirs, only, may look longingly off-shore at the greener grass in foreign fields.

While bad news fills our screens, behind the mayhem, there is quiet progress in many areas of social development worldwide. Loathsome regimes (you know who you are!) are no longer able to conceal their barbarities from the ubiquitous smartphones- affordable by a-micro-imageeven the poor.  Micro-finance schemes liberating women from servitude, pro-active prosecution of predators who have felt safe indulging their pedophilic appetites in poorer countries, and the slow awakening in developed nations among the blue-collar workers that they have been played for saps by their political elites, are all signs of the times that provide a counterweight for the doom and gloom scenarios to which we pay too much attention, perhaps.

Or so I hope. I am a hopeless romantic, I guess. I have, at my desk, a reproduction of thea-alter_1060x400-1060x400 icon at my local church as I write this- which is a tempera and gold leaf on gessoed board measuring 100cm by 70 cm. It depicts St Joseph and his stepson. It stands ignored, for most part, for most of the year, squashed between my printer and my 20.5 inch display monitor. There is something in the pictorial relationship that catches me, though.

How this old guy, depending on a dream, travelled over hard ground to register a birth, and then fled into the land of original slavery to preserve a promise for the ages. Whether you believe it or not, it is a potent archetype of selflessness that cannot be gainsaid. Men, males, of most species, kill the progeny of other males to establish their dominance. Joseph took his mother and him in- a big deal then- and taught him an honourable trade. Of course, today, digital disruption would consign his humble woodworking skills to the bin and spit him out like so many others.

a-iss-imagejpgCrucifixion, like so many other methods of mass killing, would be lost in the plethora of statistics the UN so conveniently keeps. So, where is all the good news? Here it is. All around us: In every land, from the circumpolar wastes, to the savannahs, to the rain-forests, to the cities, to the vast plains, to the islands and archipelagos, to the deep-ocean submersibles and to the International Space Station, let us affirm that there is a point to all of our endeavours; that there is an end to the dark travails so many of us endure;, that there is a reason for all us to cheer.

As Oscar Wilde, recalling Socrates, so wisely wrote:

Our ambition should be to rule ourselves, the true kingdom for each one of us; and true progress is to know more, and be more, and to do more… Progress.

 

Progress