Nobody heard him, the dead man, But still he lay moaning: I was much further out than you thought And not waving but drowning.
I first read Stevie Smith’s poem at school and could make neither head nor tail of it, yet this morning, lying in the dark, the lines above came to me and resonated. They seem to me to capture perfectly that sense of being trapped in a despair that is impossible to communicate. It is a commonplace now to observe that we say ‘I’m fine’ when the opposite is true, and yet the psychology of it is complex – it is not that we could just say instead ‘actually, I’m not fine’ and make all well – because one aspect of the despair is that you cannot say how you feel; you cannot in fact act to save yourself at all – you can only wave as you drown.
I was going to add ‘ – and hope that your conventional gesture is understood as a cry for help’ but the point is that you do not hope for anything – that is what despair consists of. You hold two thoughts in parallel but can do nothing to bring them about: you think, ‘if only someone would come and rescue me, say kind words, simply touch me, all would be well’ yet at the same time it seems quite impossible for you to initiate such an act: you cannot say, ‘hold me, touch me’ – because somehow the asking would alter it, turn it from a gesture of love to – what? – one of pity, perhaps, or indulgence – ‘You are only doing this because I asked, not because you feel like it.’
How puritanical and ungenerous despair makes us! ‘What I want is a spontaneous gesture of affection which I have done nothing to elicit.’ And not only do you not hope, you almost relish the fact that you know the gesture will not be forthcoming, because that will prove that you were right to despair in the first place, that you are not loved, that no-one cares that you are drowning. It is easy to see the strong link that exists between pride and despair.
(At the back of my mind I wonder if there is not also a link between reason and despair: it seems to me that when I am at my bleakest, I also feel that I am being at my most rational: it is reason that persuades me there is no way out, reason that persuades me that action is futile – yet I do not say this to condemn reason (which seems to me a most valuable thing) but only perhaps to be wary of the use we can make of it – it is the perversity of despair that it uses our strongest tools against us, a point I will come back to).
It is little wonder that I did not understand Stevie Smith’s poem as a boy, though I was accounted good at English, and I’m sure I grasped intellectually whatever explanation we were given, at least sufficiently to reproduce it for an examiner (one of the great exercises in futility that we have allowed ourselves to mistake for education – by all means encourage young people to read poetry and make of it what they will and can, but don’t examine them on it; just let it do its work. Literature, Art, Music need no supporting structure: exposure and opportunity is the thing. Then, when people are enthralled, they will learn about it because they want to).
As a boy, I simply lacked the experience of life to – do what? – I am conscious of avoiding what seems the obvious choice of words, ‘to know what that poem meant’, because I am wary of ascribing meaning to something as if that was definitive (though, as a matter of fact, it is exactly that clarity we seek when we are young – ‘but what does it mean? How can he be dead yet still moaning?’).
When we are young our feelings are enormously powerful but without any subtlety (which is hardly to be wondered at): we really do feel we might die of a broken heart, and equally that we might soar to the heavens if only the right person would look at us the right way; in the same way, we want all our causes to be black and white – we are impatient with any suggestion of shading, any hint that there might be something to be said on both sides of the argument. We want to know the right answer (and not hear there isn’t one, or that perhaps there is more than one).
It is only with the unfolding of life that our feeling, like our palate, becomes more refined and we acquire a taste for the subtle rather than the strong (ask a young man to make you a curry if you have any doubt on this). But this is scarcely news. However, what interests me about my experience with the Stevie Smith example is the mechanism involved, because it strikes me as one that is of fundamental importance.
Rather than say ‘I knew exactly what Stevie Smith meant’ I would sooner say ‘that line resonated with me’. Now, this is no mere pretentious dressing-up of a plain concept in fancy language to make it (or the writer) sound more impressive – rather it has to do with that difference alluded to above, between the youthful desire for clarity and the more mature realisation that there is a lot to be said for vagueness, for being open to interpretation (Wittgenstein somewhere speaks of the error of ‘making the vague precise’ which is something else I shall return to).
When I say ‘resonated’ I am trying to pin down the feeling it gave me – a sense of recognition (what someone else of my acquaintance terms an ‘aha!’ – meaning the moment when something comes to you and makes you exclaim). What interests me particularly is what it is that you are recognising – and it is notable that another exclamation we use in these circumstances is ‘that’s right!’ We sense a rightness, an aptness, in whatever it is – it rings true.
That ‘ringing true’ is, I think, our sharing in the artist’s intuition – it is the instant of seeing or sensing something like she did when she made the line – whether it is a line of poetry or music or in a drawing. (and it resonates rather than means because this is something the artist did and felt rather than set out to say) In similar circumstances we speak of ‘seeing the truth of something’ and it is generally accompanied by a desire, not to explain whatever it is (which is often impossible), but to draw others’ attention to it – ‘just look at/read/listen to that’ we say, with the firm conviction that the same thing that has become apparent to us will become apparent to others (it doesn’t always work, of course – some people ‘get it’ while others don’t).
(In this connection, consider Eliot’s response on being asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree” – ‘I meant, “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree”.’)
It seems to me that I am approaching, by a circuitous route, something I spoke of the other day, namely St Patrick and the shamrock, and the mystery of what it is we understand when we grasp an explanation that is couched in metaphorical terms – but that is matter for another day.
2 thoughts on “Not waving…”
In the early 1980s, a pop group appeared in Melbourne, calling themselves ‘Not drowning, waving’
I recognised the reference (Lord knows why) but have only ever considered it in an Australian context. If you get into difficulties at a beach here, you float on your back and raise one arm. That signals that you are in trouble, and the lifesavers on duty will start a rescue. Even the most wilfully thick bogan will not spark a false alarm in this way.
When looked to see who Stevie Smith was, I was more puzzled; there was nothing to indicate she had ever left the UK. Whether the signal came from US Lifeguards to Oz Lifesavers or vice versa hardly matters – how did Smith know of it?
I don’t think there’s any reason to suppose Smith did know it – the point is surely that a cheery wave to the beach is all it is seen as, which only works in a context (i.e. here in Britain) where it is not understood as a signal with the specific meaning you describe. So the people cheerfully wave back, thinking he is ‘larking about’ – which here means being high-spirited, I think – there is no suggestion that he is pretending to drown: he is just thought to be having a good time, and wanting everyone to know it. In the same way, we accept the conventional response ‘I’m fine’ at face value, even when it means just the opposite.