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The Meaning of Life
A gripping tale of philosophy, literature and romance by Philip Bellamy.
Life is? Life is? Life is ... what? Tom Pick-Handell looked at the blinking cursor on his VDU and frowned. For the first time since he had started writing his Life Is series of romances for Drools and Swoon, he couldn’t think of a title. And, even worse, he wasn’t sure what to do with Nurse Jemima Spring and Doctor Lance Summers, his regular ever-loving, ever-bickering, chief romantic leads. He sat back and gave a deep sigh. It had all been so easy in the early days. He smiled, recollecting the accidental meeting with Augustus Axgrinder that had set the whole affair in motion. He had just arrived at the University of Westchester to take up his post as a Lecturer in Contemporary Philosophy and was loitering around the Staff lounge, rummaging through his pigeonhole for messages from the Faculty Secretary about room changes and collecting notes from students who had failed to attend his seminar on ‘Schopenhauer and his influence on Screwball Comedy’. Suddenly, he had felt a hand on his shoulder and heard a loud voice, with a distinctly Middle-European accent, declare:
“You must be Pick-Handell. I am Axgrinder. Together we make an unbeatable set of tools”, followed by a rasping, full-throated laugh. And he had turned, somewhat apprehensively, to see a round, red-faced, moustachioed and monocled face peering into his, with an uneven and incomplete set of teeth moving up and down in time with the laughter. “Fear not, my friend, I am your sometime colleague, Augustus Axgrinder, part-time teacher, but full-time thinker. I am paid, all too pathetically, to give classes on Ethics and Aesthetics to the humble minds that wish to soak up that which we, fancifully, call knowledge. Come, sit and talk. I will tell you about this institution, such as it is, and you will tell me your life story.” Later on, towards the end of this first téte-a-téte the older, more assured man had casually remarked in a much quieter, almost conspiratorial, tone of voice:
“I will be honest, my friend. If I relied on Philosophy for a living I would be, how does it go, ah yes, ‘up the creek without a puddle’. No, I eat because I write books that lots of people want to read. I can trust you to keep a secret, no? You have an honest face. I write romances for Drools and Swoon.” Tom had grimaced, remembering how his aunt Esther had passed over copious quantities of these books to his mother when she had come on her weekly visits. “Ah, I see you know the name. At least you are not one of these unworldly intellectuals who supposes that there is no literature outside of scholarly monographs and esoteric journal articles. Yes! I am not only Augustus Axgrinder, but also Dora Pinchback, Shereen Wallpenny, and, most recently, Agatha Flambard.”
Before Tom had been able to respond, Axgrinder had quickly added:
“I know what you are thinking, my friend. You are wondering why I am producing this inconsequential, mind-polluting trash, and not writing learned tracts. I would reply that you are an élitist cultural imperialist and a bourgeois. Let me express it more simply. How many times have you seen anyone reading Kant or Hume in public? How many women read and re-read Descartes or Spinoza? No, I am providing entertainment, and, in my own small way, enlightenment about the human condition. I am also making a good deal of money!"
Tom had tried to counter with clichés revolving around the sanctity of thought and reason; the broadening of horizons through ‘pure’ education and the imperious supremacy of philosophical rationalism. But, Axgrinder had remained unbowed. “You are still young, my friend. Still, ‘wet behind the earlobes’, is that not the correct expression?” He had not waited for confirmation or rebuttal. “You see only the promise of academic success; to climb the greasy ladder rung by rung: Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor and then, finally, to reach the top and scramble into a Chair at some notable and”, he cast his head around to left and right and lowered his voice still further, “worthwhile establishment. You see yourself with many published tomes on weighty subjects, no?” Tom had nodded. “Of course. And why not? There is no reason you should not do this also. But, alas, it is not profitable. The royalties on your monographs will not even pay for a parking permit! Believe me, my young colleague, if you want to see your family flourish in our capitalistic, consumer-driven society, I would seriously consider using your pen in a more rewarding way. Try fiction. My God, look at what it’s done for Jostein Gaarder!” He had given a loud roar, slapped Tom on the back, and then scurried away towards the food counter at the far end of the room.
He had casually mentioned his conversation with Axgrinder to Amanda later that evening.
“What a great idea. I bet you could turn out stuff like that”, she’d responded. “Oh, come on Mandy, what, in Heaven’s name, do I know about romance?” “Not a lot, I grant you. But, that doesn’t matter. These books are all written using the same formula: Boy meets Girl; Boy loses Girl, usually through an argument caused by some sort of misunderstanding; Boy fights to get Girl back; Boy and Girl end up together; Fade Out into Joyous, Everlasting Bliss. It’s easy.”
“Well, if it’s so straightforward, why don’t you have a go?”
“Because I can’t write and you can. Remember the stories you had published in the University’s Literary Review?”
“But that was years ago. Besides, they were meant to be deep, meaningful works of literature, not populist pap read under hairdryers or in a dentist’s waiting room by frustrated middle-aged housewives or lonely old widows.”
“God, Axgrinder was right. You are a bigoted, bloated élitist. What makes you think that the term literature can only be used to describe ‘serious’ authors like Woolf or Beckett? That’s not the real world, beloved. Most people wouldn’t recognise a Pirandello play if they fell into it. And how often do Proust or Tolstoy reach the top of the bestseller lists? Never. It’s always been people like Catherine Cookson or Barbara Cartland. And why? Because they’re not trying to be pretentious. All they want to do is entertain, to let people pretend that everyday life isn’t as bad as it actually is. Mindless escapism it may be, but that’s what the majority actually want. And, what’s more, you may be interested to know that Drools and Swoon books are now being accepted as important elements of popular culture. Even your fellow academics are writing theses about them.”
As he’d lain in bed later that night, Tom had begun to think about what Amanda and Axgrinder had said. He had thought about things like his mortgage, clothes for his daughter, his feeble income as a junior lecturer, and his prejudices. If there was money to be made from turning out these books, why shouldn’t he have a go? If it was just a matter of following strict guidelines, he could do that. Hadn’t he spent enough time wrestling with Symbolic Logic? He tried to recall the books his mother had read. They always seemed to be about Doctors and Nurses. What did he know about hospitals? Not a lot. But then what did anyone really know about hospitals? He could make it up as he went along. It was highly unlikely that a Professor of Surgery would ever read such books, so any factual errors would, most likely, go unnoticed. What the hell, he’d thought, it won’t interfere with my work. I’ll have a go.
However, before committing one word to paper, he’d gone about researching the type of books Drools and Swoon pumped out, so as to get an idea of the ‘house style’.
On his way home that same evening, he’d stopped off at the local branch library and found that a whole area of the Adult Fiction section was devoted to this particular genre. He had begun by circling around the fringes of the shelves on several occasions, in the hope that the gaggle of old ladies and shopping-laden housewives who were carefully selecting titles by the armful, might disappear before he made his approach. But, on spying that a stern-looking assistant was keeping tabs on his peregrinations from behind the Issue Counter, had decided it might be best to take the plunge and just join in the melée. One short, wiry old woman had even got round to asking him if he liked all Dorothy Celeste’s books as he snaked his arm over her shoulder and removed a plastic-covered copy displaying a picture of a young woman, her hair splayed out behind her in an almost horizontal position, being forcibly dragged off by a man wearing a Pirate costume. “No”, he’d blustered, “it’s for my wife. She’s ill and finds tales of barbarity and unbridled sexual aggression highly therapeutic”.
A few days later, Tom had sat in the Den in front of his computer, pushed his proposed journal article, ‘Deriding Derrida: The Construction of ‘Deconstruction’,’ to one side and had tentatively begun Life is a Ball by Esmerelda Stone, set in the Urology department of a large, metropolitan hospital. The first few pages had been tough. No amount of reading could prepare him for the actual process of trying to plot his way through one of these stories. At the outset, he’d approached it in his usual rational manner, drawing up a comprehensive sketch of the basic premise, then planning the development of the main ideas and their satisfactory resolution in an all-encompassing conclusion. But, he had soon come to realise that life and love were far from logical and could not be parcelled up like a neat, clinical thesis. He had sat watching the cursor for what seemed like hours before the solution came to him. He must not think like Tom Pick-Handell. This wasn’t a philosophical tract, but simply a yarn, a feat of the imagination. In order to get from the start at A to the end at B, he had to think like Esmerelda Stone. Forget categories, forget seamless webs and contiguous links, forget mental cul-de-sacs. For the purpose of this and all subsequent books, he had to pretend that he was someone else. Someone who revelled in the sway of the emotions; who saw love and romance as the answer to all life’s difficulties and shortcomings. Someone who could escape from the disappointing vagaries of the real world and enter one where dreams and illusions could indeed bring infinite pleasure and unmitigated success. As far as this exercise went, he had to stop being a philosopher and start being happy instead.
So, for the next few months, he had grappled with preparing lecture notes on Wittgenstein and Husserl while also trying to resolve the on-off, off-on relationship of Jemima Spring and Lance Summers. Naturally enough, he’d taken his philosophy very seriously and, ostensibly, had treated the novel as little more than light-relief, filling it with hackneyed clichés and predictable dialogue. Eventually, after two or three re-drafts, he’d submitted the finished manuscript to Drools and Swoon for consideration, fully expecting them to return it with a rejection slip. However, a few weeks later, to his amazement, he’d received a letter from one of the Commissioning Editors, Heather Courtney-Fish, stating that his book was being accepted for publication, and, moreover, that she would like to know if there were any more in the same vein (“no pun intended”).
And so the Life Is series was born. All Tom had done after that was to move the same two figures from department to department, while maintaining the same basic plot lines. In quick succession he had produced: Life is a Gas (Anaesthetics); Life is a Breech (Obstetrics); Life is a Spectacle (Ophthalmology); Life is Looking Up (Paediatrics); Life is a Wheeze (Respiratory Medicine); and Life is Short (Gerontology). As he had often quipped to Amanda: “Wherever Spring goes, Summers must always follow.” And the cheques had rolled in, supplementing their income to such an extent that they were able to buy a second car, begin acquiring various consumer durables for the home and heap new toys on Constance. He had even taken to going to the same branch library that he had used for his research, just to see if any of his / Esmerelda’s books were being borrowed. On one occasion, as coincidence would have it, the same old lady he had met on that first visit was busy mulling over Life is a Spectacle, surveying the cover, reading the blurb on the back, and flicking through a few of the pages. Tom hadn’t been able to resist giving her a gentle prompt. “ strongly recommend that one”, he’d said with a wide grin. “In fact, all of Esmerelda Stone’s books are definitely worth reading.” The old lady had immediately added it to her pile. Another 5p for the bank account, Tom had thought, as he’d motioned towards the exit.
However, things had all suddenly started to go wrong when he was working on Life is Wisdom, set in the Orthodontic Clinic. Somehow or other Jemima Spring was found, in one scene, reading Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, and, later that evening, during an intimate scene with Lance, expostulating on the theoretical flaws in Gadamer’s concept of Hermeneutics. When Heather Courtney-Fish had written commenting on the “clever twist of introducing a highbrow element into the proceedings”, Tom had felt relieved, yet somewhat perplexed. He was sure that he hadn’t meant to bring his professional expertise into the book, and yet there it was, in black-and-white. It was only after he’d sent in the manuscript of Life is Crazy (set against the background of the Psychiatric Unit) that he had realised just how far things were really falling apart. For one thing, he found, to his embarrassment, that during a lecture on Heidegger’s Existentialism, he’d begun quoting large chunks of dialogue from Life is Short to illustrate some of the most difficult and opaque ideas. Even raised eyebrows, quizzical looks and occasional giggles hadn’t deterred him from continuing in the same fashion until the delivery was concluded. Then, when he’d arrived home, he’d found a note from Amanda to say that she and Constance had gone to her mother’s “until you’ve got your priorities right and placed your marriage and your role as a father before those of a hack writer of romantic slush”. When he’d rung his mother-in-law, all she’d say was that Amanda was very upset and would need a little while to ‘think things over’, before finishing off by asking him to send her Esmerelda’s next novel as soon as it was published, personally signed by the author! And finally, to cap it all, a couple of days later, he’d received a letter from Heather Courtney-Fish which had said:
Thank you for the manuscript of your latest novel. However, there are a few things that need to be resolved before publication. I am becoming increasingly worried by the new turn your writing is now taking. While I felt that the references to intellectuals was an amusing divertissement in your last book, I am now concerned that a continuation of this approach is likely to be detrimental to the flow and rhythm of the plot. Who, may I ask, are Lacan and Foucault and what, exactly, do they contribute to the reader’s enjoyment of Jemima and Lance’s romance? Is it really necessary to spend over twenty pages discussing the merits or drawbacks of Searle’s notion of Consciousness, or over fifteen on Dreyfus’s critique of Artificial Intelligence? While I am sure these ideas are both sound and, no doubt, most profound, I really cannot see them being appreciated to the full by the majority of those people who usually purchase Drools and Swoon titles. What has happened to the innocence and lightness you displayed in Life is a Gas? Is it not possible for you to try and recreate the youthful, almost bashful, vibrancy of Life is a Ball? I am sure that there is still a lot of mileage in Spring and Summers, but please, please, keep the storylines less complex. I am enclosing the said manuscript for your attention and amendment. I await its speedy return with the requisite edits.
Yours, in admiration and expectation,
Naturally enough, Tom’s first instinct had been to contact Axgrinder to seek his opinion and advice.
“I see your problem, my friend”, Axgrinder had said after Tom had explained what had happened. “Of course there is no simple solution. One trick I have learned is to separate my writing from the other spheres of daily existence. If I had been you, I would have divorced myself from the fiction rather than from my wife.” Tom had scowled. “Just a joke, you understand. No! What you have to realise, Thomas, is that life isn’t like a Drools and Swoon book. The real world is often cruel, full of loose ends, and, unfortunately, unlikely to end happily. You are making money, yes? But you consider the costs have been too high in personal terms. You are beginning to confuse reality with make-believe, romance with philosophy. The boundaries are becoming blurred and difficult to distinguish. Is that not the case? Alas, I do not know the answer to this dilemma, because you have fallen into the same trap as many who now live in our ‘virtual’, hi-tech age. You must seek your own exit out of the maze.”
The following morning, bleary-eyed and with aching legs and fingers, Tom gingerly made his way downstairs. By using his customary set of interchangeable scenarios and repeating large chunks of dialogue from earlier Life is… works, he had somehow managed to get the new book, Life is a Bloody Mess, completed (and, perhaps more surprisingly, had been able to do so without referring to any philosophical concepts whatsoever). A few minor re-drafts here, a bit of tidying up there and he would send it off to Heather Courtney-Fish with a note explaining that it would be his last novel for Drools and Swoon.
He had made the decision near the end of the scene where, among the gore of the open heart surgery he was performing, Lance had just been handed a retractor by Jemima (who was also busily mopping his brow for the umpteenth time) and their eyes had met briefly but meaningfully. This was the moment when their passion was re-kindled, when the alienation caused by Lance’s innocent (and totally misconstrued) liaison with Jemima’s colleague, Serena Winter, in the linen store, would be banished forever, and they would re-confirm their love by walking off hand-in-hand down the hospital corridor and out into the first light of dawn. It was then that Tom realised that he no longer wanted to mix romance with philosophy or art with real life. What he actually wanted was his wife and child back with him; what he actually wanted was to concentrate on his career as a responsible and serious academic. To hell with Spring and Summers; he wanted a full range of endless seasons with his own family, and, yes, a whole shelf of scholarly texts bearing his own name and that sodding Chair of Philosophy in some prestigious University.
After a couple of hours sleep, a refreshing shower and a lot more black coffee, he phoned Amanda, told her that his days as a romantic novelist were drawing to a close and asked her to forgive his stupidity and selfishness. During the course of their conversation, Amanda admitted that she missed the comforts of her own home and that Constance was continually asking when she’d “be seeing all her Bunnies and Daddy” again, but still seemed reluctant to accept Tom’s apology or his pleas to return. By the time he’d rung off, the outcome was still undecided, with Amanda insisting that she’d need a bit more time to “ponder everything that’s happened”, but, to Tom’s ears at least, sounding far less resolute about it.
He went back upstairs and began the laborious process of editing Life is a Bloody Mess. A few hours later, he switched off the computer and began delving in among a morass of files and folders that lay in one of the cardboard boxes, finally extracting a thick, tightly-bound manuscript. He looked at the gold lettering of the title on the cover, ‘Postmodern irony: some philosophical perspectives on the diverse nature of subtlety and nuance’ and next at the peeling characters which comprised his own name, then brushed away some of the accumulated dust and casually opened it up. His eyes alighted on the epigraph that prefaced the work:-
“One should not dismiss the influence of irony in contemporary culture. It is always there, lurking; be it hidden in the verbiage of a text, the foliage of a landscape, or a cacophony of musical notes, its presence cannot be ignored. One must continue to search for it, no matter how long it takes.”
At that moment, he heard a key rattle in the lock of the front door, a creak of the hinges as it swung open and then the excited voice of Connie rushing up the stairs. He put down his thesis and smiled broadly.
© PHILIP BELLAMY 2004
Philip Bellamy is currently faculty librarian for applied social sciences and humanities at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.