Some Interventions in the Question of Living

/ by Sara Upstone

In the present moment, much of my life revolves around my kitchen fridge. This is particularly ironic because, as a sufferer of Crohn’s Disease, there is very little in it I can actually consume. Nevertheless, this fridge is papered with correspondence which is both pain and gift – a series of letters marking consultant appointments and dates for procedures. The pain of these letters is obvious, but intangible – they carry in them an inarticulate suffering, the obliqueness of which is written into the smooth, flat plane of their surface. Yet each letter also serves as a reminder of living. Each one brings me closer to my own mortality, viscerally reminding me of the precarious preciousness of being alive. There is a kind of warm weight in the middle of one’s chest that comes with this awareness: A hyper-corporeality more resonant than words.

There is, of course, nothing revelatory in the acknowledgment that consciousness of death makes one acutely mindful of life. To some extent we are, in the West at least, almost all caught in this relationship between life and death, in our predominantly secular age. There is nowhere to go, it seems. Yet despite our skepticism, healthcare and living standards allow us to easily slide into an arrogance of immortality that rivals evangelical religious belief, for its self-assurance, imagining the end of life as something distant to our experiences. There is nowhere to go, but that’s fine – we tell ourselves – because we are going nowhere.

I wonder whether it is this unsettling tension which means so many high-profile novels of the current moment are preoccupied with the blurred space between life and death, offering the possibility of immortality through magical resurrections or unfinished deaths, and consumed with great voraciousness, as they shore up our own denial of life’s finitude: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, with its graveyard of silenced, marginalized subjects; the deferral of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, with its haunting figure of an absent girl; or perhaps Ali Smith’s Autumn, whose pages we turn voraciously, to discover whether the elderly gentleman at is core is ghost or living, uncertain which of these is the more alluring possibility. Each of these novels offers comforting relativism, yet also speaks to how we might actively grasp living within the midst of the chaos of contemporary life. For Smith, this is a matter of the spectacular ordinary – the possibility to pull resonances and intensities out of the everyday, caught in dancing to a favorite record, or the transformative process of admiring an artwork. For Saunders, it lies in the potential of a common humanity, that what death reveals, through its indiscriminate action, might be translated into empathy with those we live amongst. For McGregor, it comes in difficult recognition of the naturalness of finitude, an appreciation of nature’s beauty as indissolubly connected to its inevitable cycle of growth and decay.

To ask questions about purpose comes with a certain privilege. Earlier this year, in a period of particularly bad health, I began researching my family tree: Attempting, like those contemporary writers I have been reading, to enact a resurrection. I wouldn’t have predicted that I would have found two women called Minnie amidst my ancestors, or indeed two women called Nutty! What struck me more forcefully, however, was not a spectacular ordinary, but rather a suffering ordinary. My grandfather was the youngest of 11: His mother, an illegitimate servant who probably never knew either of her parents, had her first child at age 20, and my grandfather at age 45. His father was one of 15 children, at least three of whom died in the first year of life. I wonder how this suffering ordinary must have shaped my ancestors’ understanding of living. I wonder, too, how much time they had for the privilege of reflection, coming within the context of a much more pressing awareness of the contingency of life, and the struggle to maintain it.

With this struggle too, ironically, perhaps came a certain kind of forgetting. Scan the media and one finds a plethora of life stories, often devoted to a lifetime of mourning a singular event. The loss of a child, or the death of someone in their supposed prime, has become, in the contemporary West, an exceptional event. For those in my family tree, there would have been an impossible level of mourning to take place, should they have lived as many do today – a repetition of losses that still happens across the world, but which rarely, in the West, touches us personally. Despite our freedoms, we are perhaps more than ever caught in living through our remembrances, the irony of liberation from struggle that has spawned a more tenacious kind of internalized suffering.

In his most recent novel, Nobel Prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro writes a powerful parable concerned with this problematic. The Buried Giant is the story of an old couple setting out on to find their son. They live in a world in which memory mysteriously no longer exists, and they can remember nothing of their son’s fate, or indeed of their own history together. All that remains are vague shadows. Their quest during the novel reflects upon their desire for their memories to be returned to them. They declare, stridently, that their relationship can survive whatever the past exposes. Yet when this happens, it is revealed that their son has died, and the novel ends with the couple’s separation – the old man slowly walking away, as his wife departs for the afterlife. In many ways, the hard, basic lives of the old couple, filled with loss, have only been possible because of a lack of remembrance. So Ishiguro draws attention to the privilege of our contemporary moment, in which our ability to relish our pasts and reflect on them is only possible with a present that allows such indulgence. But, equally, Ishiguro asks us, through this parable, to consider what it means to truly live. How, Ishiguro asks, is living impeded by our fascination with remembrance? How do we remember what is important for the future, without becoming trapped in the history we aim to avoid repeating? How is our engagement with the present – and, in particular, our capacity to love – shaped by living not in the moment, but in what has gone? Was living better when we moved more stridently forward, and remembered less?

Smith, too, in her own way, seems to be offering us these questions, in Autumn. While her earlier novels are populated with ghosts, it turns out that her elderly gentleman is, despite many indications, in fact alive, after all. Smith, then, turns her own modus operandi on its head, and gives us not a dead voice that we think is alive, but instead a voice that is alive that we presume to be dead. Explicitly concerned with post-Brexit politics, Smith seems to be telling us to stop our obsessive desire to resurrect the past and raise ghosts, and to instead write the kind of stories that will take us towards the future. There is work here to be done amongst the living. And it is a great privilege, despite everything, to be alive.

Sara Upstone

is Associate Professor of English Literature and Head of Department of Humanities at Kingston University, London. She teaches on both the BA English Literature and the BA English and Creative Writing, and is also course leader for the MA Literature and Philosophy. Both her critical and creative work is concerned with the intersection of identities and modes of expression, in particular ideas of embodiment, spatial politics, racial and gendered politics, and concepts of transgression. She is the author of 3 monographs including most recently Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2016), as well as 3 co-authored edited collections, numerous articles, and creative fiction and non-fiction. She is also the author of Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction (Hodder, 2017). She is happiest by the sea but lives in London with her partner, daughter, and a very musical cat.