Let us speak, then, of remembrance. After reading what Maurice Saatchi told Bryan Appleyard last week about the grief he still suffers a year after the death of his wife Josephine Hart, whose book Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry has just been published, I’ve found it hard to think about anything, not even the American presidential elections, except love, its ravages, the price we pay for it, and the terrible, sacramental obligations it imposes on memory.
Obama v Romney – did that matter? For some of us the politics of the heart will always trump politics of any other sort. A three-stanza Thomas Hardy poem entitled “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” quietly lays out the priorities. “Yonder a maid and her wight/ Come whispering by:/ War’s annals will cloud into night/ Ere their story die.” Don’t be put off by the archaisms: they are meant to resonate through the ages with the plain echo of the eternal.
You can just about divide humanity into those who care more about war’s annals and those who care more about the whispering couple. I’m not convinced the division can be made along gender lines, but by the rough calculations of publishers anyway, it’s chaps who want to read about the annals and chicks who want to read about the maid and her wight. Which puts me with the chicks.
To say that the Maurice Saatchi interview was heartbreaking would be an understatement. It tore the heart apart. Maurice Saatchi has not recovered from his loss. He does not want to recover from his loss. He lays a place for his wife at mealtimes, arranging the newspapers in the order she liked to read them. He visits her grave every morning and eats his breakfast there. I don’t doubt he talks to her at length. I believe that I would do the same. I sometimes imagine the conversation. What I cannot imagine is rising, leaving, talking to someone else. See yourself at the grave of the person you love most and you see yourself as frozen as the ground you kneel on. Better, of course, and more likely, that I go first, but when I think of my wife at my grave, speaking to the stones, I feel I must spare her what Maurice Saatchi calls the “incomparable nightmare”. It isn’t necessarily selfish to believe it’s kinder to be the one who survives.
Ghoulish, all this? Absolutely not. The popular wisdom is that we must move on. Achieve closure. When I hear the word “closure” I reach for my revolver. “You want closure, buddy? Then here it comes.” Maurice Saatchi calls the very idea of moving on “a monstrous betrayal”. Language is always the measure, and the phrase “moving on” tells you what’s wrong with the idea. It is insentient, it lacks the knowledge of experience, it describes the emotional progress of an automaton. Moving on is what a policeman gets you to do when you’re blocking the traffic. Whether one does, in the end, move on is mere contingency. Things have their way with us and we don’t always live up to our promises to ourselves, let alone to others. But in principle I’m on the side of going nowhere.
The Austrian essayist Jean Améry, who was interned in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen, rejected the triteness of getting over things. “Nothing has healed,” he wrote, 25 years after the camps were liberated. It goes against the grain, in these self-help, vacuously optimistic times, to reject as demeaning the concept of making oneself better, but Améry was an implacable opponent of a natural progress towards cure. Perhaps you could say that after Auschwitz he didn’t see how it was possible to believe in nature at all. “Man has the right and the privilege,” he wrote, “to declare himself to be in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about.”
It’s a bold stroke, not vitiated by the perhaps inevitable fact of Améry’s suicide, to call a refusal to be healed a “privilege”.
Maurice Saatchi doesn’t talk with that bitterness. He would feel more intuitive sympathy, I suspect, with the spirit of Wordsworth’s great love-troubled poem “Surprised by Joy” which, given Josephine Hart’s crusading passion for poetry, they must have read together. “Surprised by joy – impatient as the wind,” the poem begins, “I turned to share the transport –.” Nothing could be more natural and instinctive. The poet is swept up in an enthusiasm which he wants to enjoy with someone to whom he is devoted; he turns without thinking – the unthinkingness being the very proof of how accustomed the love is – only to realise in that moment that the beloved person is not there.
The jolt of that shocking realisation is wonderfully rendered in the poem’s startled, broken rhythms, but the pain of loss is not all it’s about. “Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind.” That’s almost an apology. It is not because I forgot you that I forgot you were no more, it is the opposite. Faithful love keeps you forever there. “But” – and this is the cruellest “but” of all – “how could I forget thee?” Forget to remember that you were dead, that is.
We are deep now into the paradoxes of remembrance. Which is the greater fidelity: thinking the loved one is still alive in her vividness, or never forgetting that she isn’t? “But how could I forget thee? Through what power,/ Even for the least division of an hour,/ Have I been so beguiled as to be blind/ To my most grievous loss.” I bet Josephine Hart loved “the least division of an hour”, measuring with agonisingly precise scrupulousness what memory owes but scarcely ever repays.
Move on, Mr Wordsworth? It’s precisely because he unwittingly had that he couldn’t forgive himself. What liberation from the torment should one wish Maurice Saatchi? It’s an impertinence even to ask the question.