Wednesday, 26 October 2011
There is a moment you have to remember to look up on the train ride to Newcastle: it is the sight of Durham Cathedral. Just passing it makes the whole journey worthwhile and if it is a sunny autumn day with the leaves in their full Andy Goldsworthy outfits it is pretty close to sublime.
The cathedral I am used to passing more regularly is Ely, which always takes my breath away. Ely is as delicate as a spider's web. It has something of the enchanted palace about it. In certain lights, when the sun is particularly dazzling, it hardly seems there at all. Durham is a kind of miraculous fortitude, a series of ascending statements that transcend reason.
All this talk of enchantment and miracle. What do we mean when we talk of these things? My journey was chiefly taken up reading through Howard Jacobson's Booker-winning, The Finkler Question, which looks and reads like a novel but is, in effect, an enquiry into Jewishness and what, if anything, constitutes the Jewish soul. I don't think he uses the word 'soul; but that is what it boils down to. In asking, as characters do throughout the book in one way or the other, what the peculiar condition of being Jewish is, they naturally consider the history of persecutions, the astonishing successes in material and spiritual terms, and the sheer tenuous survival that is never quite assuring enough. It is particularly concerned with Jewish anti-semitism, which begins as anti-Zionism, then passes into a form of self-purgation, the emptying out of an identity that can never quite be emptied out. All this is done with a very smart acerbic wit, but also a sense of melancholy and human understanding. Not to forget terror and foreboding.
On the way home, I put down the book, pick up my iPod and listen to Beethoven's String Quartet, op 132, which is one of the greatest pieces of music I know, a piece in which you can hear Beethoven ask the same question over and over again as motifs are repeated, turned upside down and inside out, that question being, or so it seemed to me on that part of the train ride: Is there a soul? Is this it? Is that it? And if I move it up an octave or run it through in minor, or shift the harmonies around a little so nothing looks as though it's quite decided, will that be it? And some of the notes rise from a great profound depth that shakes through your lower body, and some race up in agitated cries up in the endless blind allies of the ears and nerves before returning and transforming into something else. That tentative quiet beginning grows a little more certain, then rushes into action before reconsidering and setting out again and again. Am I putting this right? Have I really phrased the question properly? And is this an answer?
I suspect it may be a hoary old cliché but the artist Beethoven puts me in mind of is Rembrandt. The same introspection, the same endless self-questioning. Is this the soul then? Is it instead that other thing? And does it exist at all? Does it, like, make sense, dude?
Yes, dude, it does at certain times. At certain times it is as if nothing else existed, just the soul with its undefined limits, and whether it is your individual soul or some altogether more complex thing in which that which is you is not divided from the world but is somehow the world looking at itself, well you're not going to know.
But Ely and Durham and Beethoven and even all that neurotic anxious scrabbling away at the bare foundations of being just to check they exist at all in Jacobson and all those Finklers, are evidences that will not be easily dismissed.