Marching to Stand Still


We know something about the unconscious symbols at play in nursery rhymes. We’ve probably had an inkling since we were children that there was something dark and deeply troubling about them, even back then. Have you ever had the impression that nursery rhymes were written by adults for adults? The masque of innocence uncovered, the face of the grown-up beneath is etched in toil and trouble, revealing the awful and inescapable reality that we adults have had to live inside our minds for much longer than the children who chant these rhymes with such abandon. Minds collect bric-a-brac. They grow top-heavy with the accretion of let downs, compromises and all the hangups that give our maturing minds their characteristic chemistry. Whether we occupy them or they us, our minds one way or another need taming. Like redcoats, they need a good dose of disciplining. That, though, is easier said than done.

Speaking of redcoats and nursery rhymes, let’s take the Grand Old Duke of York, as an exemplar. As every child knows, he had ten thousand men. He marched them up to the top of the hill, and he marched them down again, and when they were up they were up and when they were down they were down, and when they were only half way up they were neither up nor down.

If that’s not a metaphor for the psyche, I don’t know what is. If marching foot soldiers uphill and downhill isn’t mood swings at their mildest or bipolarity at its most severe then I’ll be a cock-a-doodle do. Yet, it’s the bit in the middle where the rearguard bump into the vanguard and all ten thousand of them end up neither here nor there, that’s the part most psychologically revealing. For what is that if not a euphemism for ennui? What other language but French could coin a word for every turning of the emotional screw? Ennui: the condition which has a stranglehold on all ages but none more so than these queer middle years.

Neither up nor down – feeling nothing but listlessness and that persistent feeling that even though life is there for the living, we bumbling redcoats are not bearing up to the living part as briskly as we are to the existence part, a part, which by the way is incidental to living, as the heart beats whether we are truly living or not.

I remember Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham, in American Beauty. A lame-o whose highlight of the day was jerking off in the shower; who has lost something, although he cannot quite trace where the tributaries of that loss come from; a man – crucially – who didn’t always feel this sedated.

Tapping on the door of forty-four. Tis a funny age to call an age. At the juncture we’re squeezed between competing me-s: the rational me, the aspirational economic man; the irrational me, the passionate man. Those mental mudslingers wage a titanic shitfest struggle in the dual mind of me-me (the organism who is trying to make sense and meaning of it all) to claim the undisputed crown of quintessence, quintessence being the fifth element, the alchemy of true living. Was the choice to incubate the living part of life for X years to chase the $$$liquidity$$$ that seduces one into thinking that ‘you can do anything, go anywhere with money in the pocket and in the bank’ worth it? Hardly surprising given the ramped up role that monetarism plays in the lives of the average you and me. Better to be a rich man in a poor environment? Or a poor man in an enriched environment? No brainer – tis better to be a man of adequate means who is enriched by his environment.

How to assuage the nagging doubt that profound life choices we deem at some point along life’s journey to be far-reaching are actually really blinkered. Or that life choices that satisfy immediate needs are really the most visionary of all? To thine own self be true. That truism is as discerning in the New age as it was in the Elizabethan. Yet, when are we supposed to begin to do that, to be true unto ourselves, to wear the cap that fits? At what point do we know that we are really marching (whether up or down is irrelevant) rather than – like the Grand Old Duke’s Men – standing still?


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