My nerves are bad tonight (and likely to remain so until Wednesday)

I’m a fairly greedy and promiscuous reader these days—though yesterday I was worryingly pleased to see that, of the ninety-nine books read so far this year, fifty were written or edited by women and that the one I’m most likely to finish next is by a man, which will give me an even hundred, precisely fifty-fifty, though unplanned and unintended, so no credit to me, obviously. I remembered the Beckett character who observes: ‘I’ve always had a mania for symmetry’: having knocked down a man met in the forest and kicked him in the side, he is now manoeuvring  himself into a position from which he can kick him in the same place in the other side.[1] Symmetry is often pleasing but I’m not afflicted by that particular mania – not, at least, to that extent.

A greedy reader, as I say, and with a pretty strong stomach – but just lately I find that I can’t bring myself to read anything substantial about the imminent U.S. election. My nerves won’t stand it. And I’m not even American. I accept that we don’t have much to celebrate, given our own corrupt and incompetent government, but democracy seems even more threatened there and in more violent, urgent and brazen ways. Much of it, in any case, is quite mysterious to me: those Evangelicals proclaiming a Christianity which bears no relation to any version of it that I’m familiar with; the aggressively overt voter suppression, seemingly performed with impunity; and the undisguisedly partisan judges who make my understanding of that phrase ‘the rule of law’ just a little wobbly.

T. S. Eliot—American citizen, later British citizen and almost exactly half of his life spent as each—wrote:

“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.[2]

Yes, one is tempted to say: Good answer, I share that general suspicion.

David Jones (born on this day in 1895), having survived Mametz Wood, trench fever and much else, unsurprisingly had a touch of the same thing as the speaker in Eliot’s poem, writing to his friend Harman Grisewood on 14 February (‘St. Valentine’s Day’) 1938: ‘I think if I could only get not having the worst type of nerves and could work at painting or writing (Bugger—O did not know this had a drawing on the back—it is my leg. I drew it as a study for a thing I’m doing—bugger! I want it, but can’t write this letter over again—well, I shall have to send it as it is and do my leg again if I want it) I should be quite happy alone always.’[3]

Too much in the way of nerves or too little? I recall this line by P. G. Wodehouse: ‘Whiffle on The Care of the Pig fell from his nerveless hand, and he sat looking like a dying duck.’[4] None of us, surely, wants to look quite like that.

But I think that one of my favourite literature-related nerves items is the passage in Allyson Booth’s fascinating Postcards From the Trenches, where, referring to Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘A Postcard from the Volcano’, she writes: ‘Like the children who pick up bones without stopping to consider that they once strung nerves and housed passions, we read modernism without fully realizing the extent to which it handles the bones of the war dead.’[5] Yes. Here’s the Stevens poem:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once  
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes  
Made sharp air sharper by their smell  
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones   
We left much more, left what still is   
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow   
Above the shuttered mansion-house,   
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look   
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is . . . Children,   
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems   
As if he that lived there left behind   
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,   
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.[6]

‘And what we said of it became/ A part of what it is’. Wonderful.

Hold your nerve, America. Please.


[1] This is Molloy, of course: The Beckett Trilogy (London: Picador Books, 1979), 78.

[2] The Waste Land, ll.111-116: The Poems of T. S. Eliot. Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue (London: Faber & Faber, 2015), 59.

[3] René Hague, editor, Dai Greatcoat: A self-portrait of David Jones in his letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), 84.

[4] ‘The Crime Wave at Blandings’, in Lord Emsworth and Others (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 29.

[5] Allyson Booth, Postcards From the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 17.

[6] Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Vintage Books, 1982), 158-159.