Wordsworth knew it. Saatchi knows it. There is no getting over death, no moving on

The popular wisdom is that we must move on. Achieve closure. When I hear the word “closure” I reach for my revolver.

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape