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Firmament or Fear?

All the world’s a prison. The necessity to work, the necessity to interact, the constant voices in the ear, faces in the face, the absence of fruitful work, the absence of any work, the repetition of similar days.... Financial insecurity adds to the effect, maybe is the cause. Poverty shrinks the ecosystem. The sky becomes a canopy stretched over a small landscape. You focus on possibilities rather than desires.

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (1)

Fear, not death, is the burden in this case, but fear covers all eventualities. You dwell on cessations and withdrawals; injustice seems universal, effort futile; the future is somebody else’s realm. The atmosphere is close, as if thick from compression. And then something else happens. You become aware of others. The hunched old lady braving the city centre streets, bent double over her plastic bag, vulnerable as a baby. The raped girl. The political exile. The old man in a remote cabin deep in the American mid-west. The accidental political prisoner who preserved his humanity regardless of privations.

Instead of destroying my personality, prison preserved it, reshaping it a little, perhaps, but at least I never forgot who I was. (2)

The world is as small as our capability to apprehend it. So much is perception. There’s a free fashion show in the main concourse of the shopping centre, and the sight of those tall, lithe young models doing all the catwalk moves is, for the drooped-eyed matron, an infusion of glamour. She recreates the feeling in a cheap bottle of nail varnish. In reduced circumstances one becomes either resentful or creative, pro-active or apathetic. Welcome to the economic prison, the blind spot in every marketing programme.

Trapped within a small view, imprisoned by the round of routine and the work accepted as master. Forgetting, when the toes touch the floor each morning, that there are many other roads to walk. (3)

In prison, camaraderie is tenuous. Instinctual notions of superiority and inferiority remain. Where survival is restricted, people maximise their own chances. Some diminish and can only look inward, some fight, some wheedle. Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian politician kidnapped by FARC in 2002, was obsessed by time. When she was elected to the House of Representatives, her father told her that she would have 126,144,000 seconds during her mandate, meaning that she should use each one. Accordingly, when kidnapped, she was obsessed with the passing days, made a huge effort to acquire books, kept a forbidden radio and made several escape attempts. Her ‘proof of life’ was not a photograph but an action, living every choked moment. There were other prisoners and the atmosphere was frequently tense. Where they might have given each other support, they often did deals with their captors to get personal favours. Ingrid admits to having always wanted the largest portion at breakfast, discovering in herself hatred, greed, envy and selfishness. Faith—religious, political and personal—kept her going.

Without ideology, prison is prison indeed. One imagines a perfect time, when happiness existed in some nebulous form. The psyche is ruled by the body’s automated responses. But one doesn’t need actual imprisonment for this. Any situation can be conceptualised as containment. One could define one’s life by what’s not available. This might even be a comfort. What can be done in this environment? What can you achieve with these inadequate tools? You are blameless.

There was a time when there was just One. Moods, vagueness and illuminations flowed unchecked, sanctioned by the fact of their existence. That was the neo-natal state, but freedom, it seems, was not to last. Now there is a constant sense of being contained, even crushed. (4)

I am contained, whether in the open air or inside, by my body, by the sky. The Truman Show and The Matrix posit nothing unfamiliar. I often imagine the world as a plaything in the hands of a giant—a ball, maybe, that is shaken and throws us all about at random, or more imaginable, a computer game. What would happen if I made her car crash—like this? A button is pressed. Smash! Death, grief, court cases.

I’m waiting for a compass and a map, to be dropped from the sky by envoys from a loving homeland. Maybe it’s all a game in the hand of a giant and I’m to be the hero. (5)

Life, we are told, began with bacteria in an anoxic medium. The bacteria created oxygen and us. They still create us, they are a huge part of us. Mitochondria are bacterial cells and carry the genes that are us. Consider the mitochondrion. It is enclosed by two membranes and has its own DNA. The few protozoa that lack mitochondria have been found to contain mitochondrion-derived organelles. An organelle is a unit contained by a thin membrane contained by a cell; it is to the cell what an organ is to the body. Small as it is, the mitochondrion performs many functions that regulate the whole organism.

To be an entity, distinguished from the environment, requires a barrier to free diffusion. The necessity of thermodynamically isolating a subsystem is an irreducible condition of life.... It is the closure of the amphiphilic bilayer membrane into a vesicle that represents discrete transition from nonlife to life. (6)

Without enclosure, nothing happens. Does this mean that all life is a sort of prison? Aren’t we even coerced into survival by reason of having bodies, built by those little bacterial dictators and the genes that, according to Richard Dawkins, use us as hosts?

I am a spot
Jostled in a pixelated world.
Why do I walk? (7)

Is our craving for freedom an atavistic memory of anoxia or a reaction to an oppressive system? What motivates us might be unavailable to our consciousness—a conglomerate global puppeteer. Prison first, then harder prison, then maybe harder still. Life is a series of containments, some salutary, some torturous, some fatal. The difference between inside and outside is hard to define, and when I feel a pressing on my head, when I sense that closing in of air, it might or might not be the ambience. Where does an effect begin or end? Who or what is the jailor?

Happenings are always outside.
                     Strange, when I see no walls. Where is the place of occurrence? (8)

That is not to say that we mustn’t fight. Resistance can be the best proof of life. Just that the solution may be more important than the cause, and attitude more important than reaction. When the task is clear, at least there’s direction. Otherwise we must devise a daily routine. But it’s preferable to expand the moments, somehow create an openness in ourselves whether or not there are walls, barriers or constant assailment from outside.

In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some God paints the image in the firmament of the soul? (9)

We live in a megabody that trundles immeasurably. We are just a speck in its tail end, without any hope of perspective. What then? Consider what can be considered. Look at what surrounds us, befriend. I don’t think we control our lives, but we can try to turn the process into a hero’s challenge, feed ourselves something different—wherever we have the means to find food.

A knife tip presses through the sky and keeps cutting. Its gleaming blade holds my attention. I cast a line through the gap and climb through. As I thought, there are other worlds. (10)



(1) Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert, London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1973, p. 63. (La Peste first published 1947, by Gallimard.)
(2) Malika Oufkir, Freedom: The Story of My Second Life, New York: Hyperion, 2006, p. 29.
(3) Máighréad Medbh, Savage Solitude: reflections of a reluctant loner, Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, no. 127, p. 54.
(4) ——, opus ibid., no. 104, p. 131.
(5) ——, opus ibid., no. 237, p. 249.
(6) Harold Morowitz, quoted in Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis, What is Life?, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1995.
(7) Máighréad Medbh, Savage Solitude, opus cit., ‘One’, p. 13.
(8) ——, poem, ‘the second of april’, unpublished.
(9) Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Idealism’, Selected Essays, Introduction by Larzer Ziff, London: Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 62. (Originally published 1841.)
(10) Máighréad Medbh, Savage Solitude, opus cit., p. 251.

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