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Park Bench

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Forever in our hearts

Sean O’Shea discusses the changing nature of relationships in the private sphere and in the workplace, appreciates the solace available in church buildings and asks if human beings are on their way to becoming an endangered species.

So I turned to the garden of love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briers my joys and desires.

 The Garden of Love, William Blake

I have been spending time on a bench on the West Hill and studying the dedications on the neighbouring benches. Many of these dedications are testimony to the longevity of loving partnerships and make me wonder if such committed relationships have become a thing of the past.

The evidence is not auspicious. Studies looking into the impact of modern society on our romantic lives have revealed that couples today are less likely to last the distance that those in previous generations enjoyed. In a world of short-term and zero contract hours the idea of ongoing commitment in both our public and private lives seems under threat, and the word ‘forever’ is acquiring a quaint connotation.

Recent figures from research undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies reveal that the average duration of marriage is now 8.7 years. And another survey reports that unmarried couples are likely to end their relationships within two years which is roughly the period that some psychologists define as the ‘romantic stage’ of love.

These social changes are happening at a time when the expectations associated with relationships as well as work output are escalating. The adverts in the Heart-line and Soulmates columns in the newspapers, and similar adverts on the internet, testify to the idealized specifications which people create for their potential partners and themselves. And the more time spent in the virtual world of the internet the more likely that fantasies prevail and the less scope there is for reality testing. It seems that  people can become stuck at the romantic stage, and may prefer to keep repeating this with different partners rather than moving on to the more mundane ‘covenant stage’, where they risk facing their own limitations as well as dealing with the disappointment, power struggles, negotiation and compromise associated with ‘real’ relating.

Statistics are inherently contestable but it does seem that relationships are, for better or for worse, becoming more challenging and precarious – as well as more transitory, thereby mirroring the changes taking place in the workplace. Hence ‘till death do us part’, like a job for life, has become a forlorn hope for many of us. And it seems from statistics available on single household occupancy that an increasing number of people, whether by choice or default, are now living on their own.

So benches dedicated to deceased loved ones who were once part of a long-term loving partnership are in the future likely to be a less common feature of our municipal parks.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

 Ode on Solitude, Alexander Pope

Demonstrating an extraordinary precociousness, Alexander Pope was a mere twelve years old when he wrote these lines. Involuntary solitude is a growing social problem, particularly amongst the elderly, but it can also be a door though which to pass, not just a terminus, and it is as essential for the writer as it is for the contemplative. Indeed it has been said that solitude can be one of the greatest ‘gifts’ that one can bestow upon another person, and when  incorporated in a relationship can  increase its resilience.

All Souls church - Clive Vale, Hastings

All Souls church - Clive Vale, Hastings.

Places of solitude – Tumbling Man

An ideal place to savour solitude is at church. These buildings may be regarded as a physical expression of the transcendental longings of the human heart, and though many are being gradually sold off because of declining congregations, they are at least being put to valuable use as centres for community, social and cultural activity.  A recent candidate for the hammer in Hastings has been All Souls, an attractive albeit slightly austere grade two listed building in Clive Vale. Out of curiosity I enquired about the asking price but the agents declined to offer a figure. I was advised however that if I was considering purchasing my personal church I would need to bear in mind that when there is graveyard attached the law requires that any human remains affected by building plans would become my responsibility and need to be removed and interred somewhere else.

In Medieval times Hastings featured a priory dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Remains of this were found in 1971 when the old Ritz cinema in Cambridge Road was demolished. The site is now occupied by an ESK store. The community of priests residing at the priory lived under the rule of St Augustine. As well as singing the praises of God by their daily recitation of the Divine Office in choir, they gave hospitality to pilgrims and travellers and tended the sick. Next time you pass by Cambridge Road if you listen carefully enough you may even hear the sound of their plainsong still echoing from the ruins.

An interesting church I recently stumbled across in my researches was the artist Chico MacMurtrie’s ‘Robotic Church’ in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn. Services held there are unusual to say the least and are hosted by robots. The most arresting of the robots is called Tumbling Man. Syncing the movements of his limbs to the movements of his observers, Tumbling Man is given life through the activity and movement of others. When deprived of these ‘others’ Tumbling Man falls to the ground until another visitor enters to stir him back to life and provide him with the mobility to upright himself. MacMurtie describes his mission as exploring the tension between art and artifice, man and machine, worship and widget. He ruefully observes that we are getting further and further away from human contact as we become more absorbed in our contact with machines.

Marx’s description of religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances’ is trenchant and persuasive  (Karl Marx, Selected Writings [KMSW] ed. D. McLellan ). However while I have long since abandoned the faith in which I was raised, I still have a thing about churches. I like the musty smell, the architecture and the silence available in these ancient repositories of ‘good news’.

Marx of course believed in the possibility of human emancipation in this life rather than salvation in a putative hereafter, and in the necessity to ‘overthrow all circumstances in which man is humiliated, enslaved, abandoned and despised’. (KMSW)   However his view of history as a struggle involving the progressive realisation of human freedom is now commonly treated with scepticism and dismissed as just another myth.

The Complete Manual of Suicide

The Complete Manual of Suicide.

Strange appraisals – Love labour and loss

The decline of belief in the religious interpretation of the world has included the rejection of the notion of sin. However there are secular equivalents to ‘sin’, chief of which are the imputed ‘deficits’ attributed to persons in our performance-obsessed culture. These include the perceived failure to be useful, to meet the impersonal input/output ratios defined by those to whom we have to sell our labour – and the failure to come through the more subjective but no less rigorous appraisals associated with contemporary relationship.

Appraisal rituals are reminiscent of the confessional. One is expected to admit to ones imputed weaknesses, show determination to correct ones mistakes and better one’s performance by positively responding to prescribed training or therapeutic interventions instigated by the employer. Continuous improvement is the order of the day. And the judgemental gaze associated with such rituals finds flaws with and fells many a ‘labourer’.

In the contemporary workplace, unlike the pastoral ethos offered to penitents, there is neither mercy nor forgiveness for those who fail to meet required standards. The consequent scars to a person’s self esteem may take time to heal, and can sometimes result in a damaging loss of confidence as well as potential loss of livelihood.

The most extreme examples of the obsession with performance in the workplace is perhaps Japan where an increasing number of workers are having work-related health problems, the suicide rates are some of the highest in the world and the Complete Manual of Suicide is on the bestseller list. Here people don’t seem to worry much about how they fare in their quest for ‘perfect partners’, as many report that they no longer have either the time or the energy for personal relationships.

I sometimes wonder when human beings will join the list of protected species, and how far down the line of dehumanisation and depersonalisation we will need to travel to reach the crucial tipping point. In the view of some postmodernist commentators we have already reached such a point. What is referred to as ‘the old humanist subject’, who once proudly claimed to be a free, or potentially free, agent and the creative author of his/her own existence and destiny, is pronounced dead – though how ‘dead’ remains a matter of debate (Against Postmodernism, Alex Callinicos).

However, when it comes to collecting the royalties which accrue from their often nihilistic outpourings, these cultural critics quickly reassert their own status as authors, subjects and agents.

With the development of capitalism Marx famously predicted the progressive diminution of the human spirit and eventual dissolution of all social bonds except the cash nexus. Given current social trends this aspect of his prophesy is well on its way to being fulfilled. However, human beings also demonstrate a capacity to confound expectations and creatively exceed the categories applied to them (The Excessive Subject, A New Theory of Social Change, M.A. Rothenberg). So, Homo sapiens may yet manage the evolutionary leap required to create not a utopia, but a more just, forgiving and compassionate world for all.


September 2014

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Posted 11:09 Thursday, Sep 11, 2014 In: SOS

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