We read Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazurus this week. But I’m not going to say much about the poem, a) because it’s better that you read it for yourself, and b) because this week I feel like writing about our lively discussion. I will say this, though: the poem is masterful in its economy. It clocks in at just over 400 words yet it cuts to the bone. I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that it opens you up like a wound, with its stinging self mockery at another failed suicide attempt, and its railing at medical resurrectionists drunk on their own power.

We know that Sylvia Plath desperately wanted not to live; not to have to keep coming back to the ‘same place, the same face’, to be made a spectacle of, again – a miraculous live act with scars to show for her troubles. It’s just that this poem is such a force of life!

Lady Lazarus was meant to whet the appetite, but it proved rather too satisfying for that. And so we were forced to bring a very different – more think-y, less emotional – part of ourselves to attend to Checkov’s The Bet, his short story about a greedy banker who one boozy evening bets two million that a young lawyer will never manage to remain in self-imposed solitary confinement for five years.

The lawyer, high on the party spirit, ups the ante and pledges to remain incarcerated for fifteen years. This malignant bet arose out of a rather silly dinner conversation about Capital Punishment and whether it would be better to die instantly or be imprisoned for life and have one’s death prolonged interminably. The lawyer is in no doubt which side he stands on: ‘To live anyhow is better than not at all’, he says, before signing away his freedom.

Reading this story you get the sense that Checkov was indulging in a thought experiment, that he was struck by the idea of putting a price on the relinquishing of a life, and simply following through on the What If? logistics of the matter.

At any rate, what he imagines is this. That the prisoner is restive and lonely for the first year of his confinement and seriously studious in the second. In his fifth year he does nothing but eat and drink and lie on his bed muttering angrily to himself. Sometimes he sits down to write. Other times he cries. In the middle of the sixth year he throws himself into the study of languages and spends the next four years perfecting six of them. Then, in his tenth year, he sits immovably at his desk and reads the Gospels, following on with great works on religion, philosophy and science. In the next few years, he reads books desperately, the way a drowning man grabs greedily at one spar then another.

The banker, meanwhile, spends the same years speculating wildy. His fortunes dwindle and he begins dreading having to fulfill his end of the bargain. Cursing the bet and fearing bankruptcy his thoughts take a murderous turn. Why, he thinks to himself, the only solution is to become executioner. He will take the lawyer’s life before he can claim his reward.

With every intention of carrying out this deed, he steels into the lawyer’s prison cell on the eve of his freedom only to find him asleep at his desk. Beside his sleeping form is a letter that he’s written to the banker. Snatching it up, the banker is astonished to find the lawyer confess to despising ‘freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world’.

For fifteen years, he writes, he’s been studying mankind, and in books he has lived a thousand lives and found wisdom beyond reckoning:

 ‘I have drunk fragrant wine, I have sung songs, I have hunted stags and wild boars in the forest, have loved women…beauties as ethereal
as clouds, created by the magic of your poets and geniuses, have visited me at night and have whispered in my ears wonderful tales that have set my brain in whirl. In your book I have climbed to the peaks of Elburz and Mont Blanc, and from there I have seen the sun rise and have watched it at evening flood the sky, the ocean, and the mountain-tops with gold and crimson. I have watched from here the lightning flashing over my head and cleaving the storm-clouds. I have seen green forest, fields, rivers, lakes towns. I have heart the singing of the sirens and the strain of the shepherds’ pipes; I have touched the wings of comely devils who flew down to converse with me of God….In your book I have flung myself into the bottomless pit, performed miracles, slain, burned towns, peached new religions, conquered whole kingdoms….’

 

This wonderful passage reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Last Man who actually does all these things in his immortal years of roaming the Earth. But Shelley’s Lionel Verney is desperately lonely. In a heart beat he would trade all his wisdom for a companion to share eternity with. Still, there is a tremendous bathos in the idea of encompassing so much worldly experience along with the inevitable melancholy that attends having nothing left to do.

The same passage made Stella think of anchorites, who like the young lawyer, managed to turn incarceration into an opportunity to soar. Checkov’s banker, she said, mistakenly thought confinement would kill a man slowly, whereas it had exactly the opposite effect.

But, objected Angie, the lawyer may have won the bet, but he did not prove his point. His contention was that it was better to live anyhow than not at all, yet it transpired he did not (could not!) live ‘anyhow’. He lived carefully and deliberately, imposing on himself disciplines and routines, setting himself challenges and goals. What he learns ultimately – that he despises the world he was once at home in – was not the lesson he expected to learn.

Otis thought that the lawyer’s disdain for everything worldly, was not a damning of the world in general but of the banker’s life and values specifically. It is the banker, in his ostensible freedom, he pointed out, who behaves as if he’s under a sentence of death. He dreads the moment he will have to liberate the lawyer as the moment of his own ruin – a metaphorical execution if ever there was one. There is no humanity in this banker: when he read the lawyer’s ‘testimony’ he weeps. But these are not tears of compassion, or remorse. He is weeping for himself, for the unexpected reprieve he has just won. How can one not despise the values that have made him this way?

Clive thought the story had a damning moral about how readily we are capable of throwing away a life. Squandering it in meaningless activity, expending energy and resources upholding worthless values. For him, the story was all about how we choose to live our lives – about the individual choices we commit to and the consequences that follow. Various other people in the group were puzzled. So Clive explained. The lawyer’s letter to the banker, he felt, effectively damned us all.  Especially when he writes: “You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth and hideousness for beauty.” Exchanged heaven for earth.

Clive said these lines put him in mind of an allegorical illustration of the difference between heaven and hell. In Hell, he explained, the wicked are tormented by starvation because they cannot feed themselves with the only tools given them – inappropriately long-handled wooden spoons with which they find it impossible to direct food into their mouths. In heaven, meanwhile, the virtuous, who have the very same spoons, have solved the problem by using the clumsy devices to feed one another.

Advertisements