On escape

Well, do not be afraid. The trouble is not yet; the trouble is to come.”  – Arthur Ransome, Old Peter’s Russian Tales

I occasionally have insomnia: a restless, broken night that leaves me feeling worn and shaky. I drop off quickly and soundly but then awaken shortly later, perhaps 1 or 2 am, through a disquieting blankness, gradually into consciousness and middle-of-the-night anxiety. The darkness lies heavy and still, and I recall the ironic comfort offered by Lemony Snicket, reassuring me that I am not alone in my wakefulness because “somewhere in your bedroom shadows, there is something moving.”

During these bouts of sleeplessness, I peer down into the abyss between what I think should be, and what is; what should be and what will be. “Should” is a monster more dangerous and damaging than any concocted by Universal. In the grip of “should” I imagine my escape to another place, another life, with other people and another me – a better, stronger, smarter, beautiful witty confident compassionate talented successful admired flawless me –in short, I imagine myself in Solla Sollew. Other times I imagine surrender, oblivion, the promise “that when you’re lost you will never strain”  – the enticing painless nothingness of nonexistence.

These two extremes amount to the same thing: escape. Escape from “out of this world and into another…”

I’m reminded of this passage early in the diary of Etty Hillesum, in which Etty describes a memory concerning one of her professors:

It was a few hours before the Dutch capitulation. And suddenly there was the figure of Bonger, shuffling along through the Skating Club, blue-tinted glasses, singular, heavy head tilted to one side and looking toward the clouds of smoke that came floating across the town from the faraway oil terminals…. I can’t remember the precise words we exchanged. It was that afternoon when people thought of nothing but getting away to England, and I asked, “Do you think it makes sense to escape?” And he said, “The young have to stay put.”…. And next evening at Becker’s, the first thing I heard was, “Bonger is dead!” I said, “That’s impossible, I spoke to him last night at seven o’clock.” And Becker said, “Then you must have been one of the last people to speak to him. He put a bullet through his brain at eight o’clock.” …. And Bonger is not the only one. A world is in the process of collapse.

Not the world – but a world is in the process of collapse.

My own view is that this is still the case: a world is in the process of collapse.  Where others see a temporary recession from which the economies of our spoilt overdeveloped nations will be flogged back into movement, like the mottled corpse revived by Victor Frankenstein, I see instead the inevitable crumbling of the collective delusions of modern life, and the institutions that have sustained them. And I think that the trouble for us is not yet; the trouble is to come.

Most people I know find this uncomfortable, and unnecessarily negative, so I try to keep it to myself as much as possible. Who would wish for themselves the unwelcome role of Cassandra?!  But I can’t pretend it away inside myself, so I am left with this: if a world is in the process of collapse, then what world remains? There are as many worlds as there are people, so which world shall I dwell in? There’s only despair on the surface – deeper down the resources are infinite.

Fear and Should are the same monster, threatening me with the trouble that is to come. As the horse of power in the story says, the trouble is not yet – it never is. Likewise another famous Holocaust diarist wrote from her Secret Annexe in Prinsengracht, “Think of all the beauty that surrounds you and be glad.”

Bonger chose to put a bullet through his brain while Etty chose to remain in Amsterdam and face the Nazi occupation through to her own death a few years later, writing all the while of her inner striving for redemption and loving kindness. In her last postcard to friends – flung from a train enroute to Auschwitz – she writes “I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car….We left the camp singing….We shall be travelling for three days. Thank you for all your kindness and care.”

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