Some comfort from Coetzee

When I’m distressed I write. I try to make sense of what is distressing me. I rarely succeed. Indeed, I may never succeed, but the process calms me: tapping the keyboard and seeing the words, no matter how incoherent, appear on the screen is comforting.

I try to read as well, but sometimes reading demands more concentration than I can manage when distressed. But today I’ve succeeded. I couldn’t read this morning, as I would usually do. Before showering or breakfasting I took a walk instead. I did “the Henry walk,” the walk I once did almost every day with Henry, our dog whom we loved. I still miss Henry, and I do the walk in his honour. The morning was beautiful, sunny but with yesterday’s storms bringing freshness to the air and foliage and leaving drops of water on the long grass.

This is what I read in J M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello when I could finally manage to read, after lunch.

“What is the future, after all, but a structure of hopes and expectations? Its residence is in the mind; it has no reality…the past is likewise a fiction. The past is history, and what is history but a story made of air that we tell ourselves? Nevertheless, there is something miraculous about the past that the future lacks. What is miraculous about the past is that we have succeeded—God knows how—in making thousands and millions of individual fictions, fictions created by individual human beings, lock well enough into one another to give us what looks like a common past, a shared story. The future is different. We do not possess a shared story of the future.”

I found comforting the thought the future “has no reality,” that it is “a structure of hopes and expectations.” The future of Britain has no reality. It can contain anything. It does, of course, contain my death and the death of all of us, but when and how are unknown. But for death the story is almost unknown. Can’t we shape it, create it together?

Then I’m not sure that I agree about the past being a “shared story.” There is, I suppose, a rudimentary shared story of Britain: “Henry VIII, a tyrant (but leave that out), freed us from the Pope. His daughter made us great. We had a civil war (leave that out too) but avoided a revolution. We led the industrial and scientific revolution and conquered much of the world, leaving behind our language, literature, parliamentary democracy, and just legal system—oh, and abolished slavery along the way. In the 20th century we won two world wars, the second standing alone, “an island nation,” for a while. And we gave the world the Beatles and won the football World Cup in 1966.”

Since then nothing much until our “independence day,” today.

This is the story that many of those who voted for Brexit would share. I recognise it too, but was the British Empire a boon or a curse? Both to degrees we could debate endlessly, but simple stories avoid contradictions. And the Great War? Who started it? Was it justified?

If we can share a highly simplified but empowering story of our past could we not do the same for the future? The referendum has, I suppose, offered two different pictures of the future—one largely a fantasy and resembling our past and the other not well drawn but carrying connotations of absorption (submergence to many) into a larger whole. But can we now sketch a common future? I’ve asked the question three times and will perhaps be denied three times.


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