Friday May 15, 2009
I’m sitting in the bus. Behind me two people are talking about something or other. They seem fairly animated, but to tell the truth, I’m not listening very hard, because I’ve got my nose buried in a book. That’s the great thing about public transport. You can’t read at the wheel of a car, and I think that if I ever decided to renounce travelling by train and bus for travelling by car, my daily reading time would be cut in half. Anyway, I’m busy reading, and behind me the two people are talking away about whatever it is that they are talking about, and suddenly one of them says, “Get real!”
I look up from my book, and see the sunlight glinting on the reservoir as the bus turns onto the road into town. Get real, I think. What a strange thing to say. I think about this for a few moments more, then I go back to my book.
Get real: this imperative is one that you meet with a lot. Lately I’ve been keeping my ears tuned for it, or for variants of the same thought: from grim-faced politicians who talk about facing up to contemporary realities, to the poster for a new novel about one of the 10,000 kinds of misery possible in human life, written by a writer who, apparently, “tells it like it is.” And it seems to me that in all of these related imperatives there is something that looks very suspiciously like a world-view. Getting real, in this sense, is clearly not about noticing the light glinting off the reservoir. If anything, it is about putting such things to one side, and turning one’s attention to these 10,000 kinds of misery. Getting real is, it seems, about putting to one side all reasons to be cheerful, and staring long and hard into the dark heart of existence.
Except that, even in saying this, I fear I am guilty of the same world-view: how easily the words “the dark heart of existence” came to mind! And to be sure, there is a great deal of suffering in the world, and any responsible perspective on life must, I think, pay heed to suffering. Yet at the same time, this “get real” attitude, an attitude that sees suffering as at the heart of things, and that takes it as the fundamental condition of existence, is one that I am not convinced by. Life, this idea leads us to believe, is essentially something tragic; and if there are to be such things as peace, calm, happiness, joy, pleasure, kindness, generosity and any of the other things that might make life worth living, then these are things hard-won, snatched from the jaws of suffering. They are pinpricks of light that never fully illuminate the darkness of the stage on which we move.
No doubt this is a compelling story: tragedies often are, not least because tragedies have heroes, and we sometimes like to imagine ourselves as heroes. But, susceptible as I admit I sometimes am to such tales, when it comes down to it, I’m just not convinced. Life is not, at root, tragic. It is not, at root, anything at all. Tragedy – and its reverse, the assertion that, despite appearances to the contrary, we live in the best of all possible worlds – is a matter of interpretation, a matter of the kind of storytelling we do. And whilst I think storytelling is an essential part of what it is to be human, the desire to tell stories about life in general is one that impoverishes our sense of the world, and that dulls us to the complexity of things. The “get real” attitude may even be one that manages to close us off to suffering: because if we see suffering as a fundamental condition of existence, rather than something that happens, in certain times and in certain places, under certain conditions, then we can find ourselves almost overwhelmed, despairing of ever being able to respond, or shrugging our shoulders and saying “Well, what do you expect? It’s a tragedy, after all…”
So the next time I hear the words “get real”, I’ll try to ask myself this: what kind of story am I being cajoled into accepting? And in what sense, if any, is this story real?
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