Autumn Journal on Autumn Journal: 19
- By Michael Thurston
(Photo: Diane Diederich Photography)
A clear, cold winter morning dawns and London’s pigeons, night-shift workers, breakfast cookers, and babies are all up and moving. “O what a busy morning,” abuzz with engines, wires, machines, and butchery: “The housewife . . . Watches the cleaver catch the naked / New Zealand sheep between the legs.” Amid the commerce and commotion, MacNeice finds his mind turning back to his breakup, to lost love no longer recognizable as the love into which he had fallen. Time and busyness and the slow erosion of routine have moved him from the excitement of September and the fresh heartbreak of October to a complacent December chill: “The hypnosis is over and no one / Calls encore to the song. / When we are out of love, how were we ever in it?”
He is so over her.
Time and routine do help us through losses, whether of love or of loved ones. This truth, perhaps, helps to explain the odd appearance, early in section XIX, of a khaki cap and its (apparently or implicitly quoted) explanation:
That was Dad’s, Dad was a plumber –
You hear that dripping tap?
He’d have had it right in no time.
No time now; Dad is dead,
He left me five months gone or over.
It’s not clear who is being channeled here (MacNeice’s own father was not a plumber, of course; he was a priest and bishop in the Protestant Church of Ireland), but the passage links death and breakups. We recover in, through, and with the help of time, but there is also always something there to remind us (in the Naked Eyes circa 1983 sense as well as the kept khaki, a metonymic trace, hat where the beloved head once was).
The unnamed speaker’s lingering grief, the present absence of the dead plumber emphasized by the dripping tap, suggest that MacNeice may protest too much about how well, how really, really well, he is doing in Nancy’s absence:
Now I could see her come
Around the corner without the pulse responding.
Or, a few lines later:
When we meet, she need not feel embarrassed.
Now I am free of the stars
And the word ‘love’ makes no sense.
Oh yeah, he’s over her all right.
One doesn’t want to overread a single line or image, but that New Zealand sheep is something of a punctum here. I use the word as Roland Barthes does in Camera Lucida. In this discourse on photography, Barthes famously writes: “The second element which will disturb the stadium I shall therefore call punctum; for punctum is also: sting, speck, but, little hold—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” A cleaver between the legs? Yes, that pricks. And it suggests that MacNeice still feels wounded, emasculated even. Which makes it make even more sense when, in the section’s closing lines, directly addressing his lost beloved, he not only says “on this busy morning, I hope, my dear / That you are also busy,” and not only wishes her luck, he also says that the party that he thanks her for left him more thirsty than he had been before, calls her “my blizzard who had been my bed,” and retracts that “dear” as “against [his] judgment.”
I worry that I’m making MacNeice’s lingering feelings for, about, Nancy seem like a bad thing. In the larger thematic fabric of Autumn Journal, though, it is good that he continues to be pricked by the knowledge of her presence in the city, rankled by memory, a little aggrieved. In earlier sections, we have seen emotional distance and dispassion, abstract intellection, both dismissed as Platonic idealism and linked with a social and political autonomy that, while perhaps desirable because it leaves the subject unencumbered, is held to be morally suspect. Feeling, on the other hand, whether affective or bodily, is a form of connection: with the sensory world, with others singular and plural, with community. Feeling is the preferred Aristotelian way. In resentment, we might say, begins responsibility.
Michael Thurston is the Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Helen Means Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.