Chapter 3
The Ford Jabbok

As an old man, Tolstoy said to Maxim Gorky, 'If a man has learned to think, no matter what he may think about, he is always thinking of his own death. All philosophers were like that. And what truth can there be, if there is death?' It is a good question, though I doubt if our own world would agree, for our Western society is profoundly escapist where death is concerned, condemning those who speak of it as morbid, and treating the subject as unmentionable, in much the same way as the Victorians treated sex. People do not die; they depart like trains bound for Portsmouth from platform seven at Waterloo. Yet I do not believe that anyone really succeeds in avoiding all thoughts of death by pretending that it does not exist; at some point in their lives, perhaps at two in the morning when unable to sleep, the fact that the remembrance which separates the small warm citadel of their being from the abyss of not being all around them is as thin as cellophane, must inevitably intrude upon them and threaten the false security of their pretence. One day, Tolstoy's question, 'And what truth can there be, if there is death?' has to be faced, and retrospectively I think that as I painted, gardened, played with my children – another daughter had followed the first – read, ate and slept, the bodies of the dead men I had known during the war stirred and began to sprout questions deep down within me. It was all rather like a passage in T.S. Eliot's Waste Land which I knew well and loved.

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet,
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where St Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying, 'Stetson!
'You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
'That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
'Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
'Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
'Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to man,
'Or with his nails he'll dig it up again.'
I didn't want them dug up again, my corpses, but they would not lie down or stop mumbling under my breath, 'And what truth can there be, if there is death?' They did not break the surface of my conscious mind for a number of years, only grumbled away below it, and occasionally flitted across my dreams like bats across the moon.

However, it was by no means only my corpses which stirred uneasily somewhere deep inside me; other things rose up, too, with sufficient force actually to break the surface of my mind and disturb its tranquility. It was not just that the longed-for peace was boring and not at all the same as it had been six years previously, but all sorts of little and not so little failures robbed me of some of the self-confidence I had had before the war, so that I no longer felt so much like a god or so sure of myself. Since I was not prepared to admit this, even to myself, the optimism which had been natural to me in the old days before the war – and even during it – died; in order to maintain an outward air of optimism, I began to wear a fixed grin like that of a drunk determined to go on enjoying the party even though beginning to feel a bit sick. Meanwhile, progress – the concept of Progress with a capital P – which had been one of
my gods, looked middle-aged and dowdy like someone who had done brilliantly at school but who had gone sadly to seed as the years had passed. In fact, all my old gods began to fray round the edges; sub-atomic physics had destroyed the foundations of classical materialism and its happy certitudes; the banishment of poverty – anyway, poverty by nineteenth-century or Calcutta or biblical standards - by the Welfare State had done wonders, but had failed to usher in paradise; compulsory free education had saved its magic wand over the darkness of the human heart, and nothing much had happened; slums had been cleared, some by bombs, and people still took drugs and murdered their wives (or someone else's) or killed themselves in housing estates with all mod. cons. Instead, indeed, they did so rather more frequently in the depersonalized sterility of tower blocks and municipal flats than they had in the solidarity of the old slums.

All this was a shock – painful evidence of the failure of a dread – and my post-war disillusionment deepened when I went back to some of the sources of the dread: to some of the books I had read ten years earlier, Winwood Reade's Martyrdom of Man led the field, for in it he had prophesied in 1872 that once religion had been destroyed by science, and man had taken control of his own destiny,

the earth, which is now a purgatory, will be made a paradise, not by idle prayers
and supplications but by the efforts of man himself.........Food will then be
manufactured in unlimited quantities at trifling expense.....Hunger and
starvation will then be unknown......Population will mightily increase, and the
earth will be a garden.....Governments will be conducted with the quietude and
regularity of club committees.....Luxuries will be cheapened and made common
to all; none will be rich, none poor. Not only will man subdue the forces of evil
that are without; he will also subdue those that are within. He will repress the
base instincts and propensities which he had inherited from the animals.....
Man will then be perfect; he will be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar
worship as a god.

I found that terrifying in its mixture of truth and error, and Winwood Reade was by no means the only humanist prophet to have been mocked by events. In similar vein, H.G. Wells writing as lately as 1926 after the First World War had done enough, one would have thought, to
destroy almost anyone's confidence in man's ability to solve all his problems 'with the quietude and regularity of club committees', had concluded his Short History of the World
by asking, 'Can anyone doubt that presently our race....will achieve unity and peace, that it will live, the children of our blood and lives will live, in a world more splendid and more lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of adventure and achievement?' Although I did not read it until much later, I felt like replying to Well's rhetorical question in much the same way as did the Australian Professor of Philosophy, John Passmore, in his book on The Perfectibility of Man (1972),
'Only too easily,' he replies drily, 'can we doubt whether our children will live in a world more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know. At best they will live in an air-conditioned box, at worst they will not live at all, or will live in a devastated world.' This seemed possible in the fifties too. Indeed, when Wells revised his Short History in 1946, he changed the last chapter and replaced it with one entitled, 'Mind at the End of Its Tether'. There he wrote, rather pathetically, that 'homo sapiens in his present form is played out.

The stars in their courses have turned against him and he has to give place to some other animal better adapted to face the fate that closes in more and more swiftly upon mankind.'

Reassessment was therefore forced upon me, as it had been forced upon Wells, and as my old certainties died new doubts were born. I was astonished, too, that T.S. Eliot could deny his 'Hippopotamus' written somewhere around 1920.


At mating time the hippo's voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church at being one with God.

The hippopotamus's day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way -
The Church can sleep and feed at one.

I saw the 'potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannahs,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.

Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.

He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyred virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the miasmal mist.

How could the man who had written that also write Murder in the Cathedral and the Four Quartets? The question defeated me, though it should not have come as such a shock as it did, for I had read the Quartets in the desert during the war and loved them without noticing how religious they were; though how I had managed to be so obtuse I cannot imagine. I was amazed, too, and irritated by the way in which Graham Greene, whom I had met once or twice with Mervyn Peake, could continue to espouse, even to flaunt, his Catholicism, and I could not believe that John Betjeman's high Anglicanism was anything but a rather superior pose; and that irritated me too. But my astonishment reached its peak as I listened to the celebrated discussion on the radio between Bertrand Russell and Fr Copplestone on the existence of God, for it seemed to me that Copplestone won the argument handsomely; and this did not irritate me as much as disturb me, shaking the very foundations upon which much of my thinking was based, and upon which indeed it had always seemed secure. Further demolition work in my head took place as I discovered that science, takings its cue from Heisenberg, had embraced uncertainty and chance, if not in the place of immutable laws, at least alongside them, especially in the sub-atomic world. Indeed, the furniture of my head was fast crumbling into dust, and the bright notional world in which I had been sure of everything, including myself, was beginning to become a place in which I no longer felt at home; I could not find my way in it any longer and, worse, I did not know why I was there or what I was.

For the crumbling of my internal model of the external world inevitably involved a crumbling, too, of my notional image of myself. In fact, now that peace had broken out on earth, 'there was war in heaven', as far as I personally was concerned, and in many ways it was less endurable than the earthly war had been. Hopelessly to mix my mythological metaphors, although I had not murdered my mother, as Orestes had, like him I had devoted myself so completely and obediently to the latest and most fashionable of the gods - in his case Apollo and in mine scientific materialism - that I had denied some of the darker and more fundamental forces, which had brought me into being and had thus offended the older gods. So, like Orestes, I found myself the prey of the furies, who were welling up from the depths and harassing me. It was no consolation that they also seemed to be harassing Western society in general, chastising it for its hubris and blind obedience to the upstart gods of the twentieth century. I was beginning to discover what Jung had meant when he had said that 'the devil too, was a creature of God, I had to read up on the devil. He seemed to be highly important after all'; and it infuriated me. For what was mythology doing making more sense of experience than reason? Yet it seemed to be doing just that, and in the process helping me to understand some of the powers that governed me and my world, while filling the vacuum left by the abdication of the more rational concepts which I had worshipped hitherto. All that was left of my previous assurance was a derisive smile like that of the Cheshire cat, while the mocking voice of George Meredith kept haunting me with the words, 'Ah! what a dusty answer gets the soul, when hot for certainties in this our life!' Sod him, I thought, sod him and his smug reflections! But my paintings became dark and ominous; sad pictures of people in braces and dark trousers on dimly-lit beaches with pale children and drab women and a far-off sea; men on the mud banks of rivers with old walls crumbling away behind them; families, full-face, unsmiling without much hope; bits of Florence and Siena, like dead cities, without people in the streets, empty and still; and they were not even very good paintings.

You have to turn somewhere when the furies are after you, as I tried philosophy again, only to find to my dismay that most of the currently accepted philosophers had retreated into the senior common rooms of ancient universities and had turned their subjects into a superior sort of word-game, which was not only divorced from everyday life but which stopped short of asking all the important questions posed by being alive at all. They had brushed them aside on the pretext that they were scientifically and linguistically meaningless. As I understood them, they were not merely protesting against the inadequacy of language, 'the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings' as Eliot had described it, but against the validity of certain kinds of enquiry, so that they seemed to be saying that to ask many of the ancient questions, which had engaged the minds of men from the moment they became men - questions which had been posed by philosophers from Socrates to Nietzsche about the meaning and purpose
of existence - was little different from asking 'Why is Australia?' Instead of bothering with such rubbish, philosophers had decided to confine themselves to analysing the results of scientific discovery, while eschewing metaphysics altogether. In retrospect, I think this may have been an unfair judgement on the linguistic philosophers, but I did not think so at the time, and perhaps there was some truth in it; for it was Wittgenstein himself, by far the greatest of them, who said that 'even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have not been touched at all.' Moreover, if Wittgenstein's friend and biographer, Malcolm Norman, is to be believed, 'Wittgenstein did not reject the metaphysical; rather, he rejected the possibility of stating the metaphysical.' If you do not count poetry and the other arts as 'statements', I am inclined nowadays to agree with that, for as Eliot knew, when put to such service 'words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish, decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, will not stay still.' They also suffer terribly from use and abuse; even the greatest words - grace, charity, beauty - become shop-soiled and tatty from much mouthing and over-exposure, until eventually they are emptied of their meaning by constant reproduction, as miniature plaster casts of Michelangelo's Pieta lining the shelves of tourist shops near St Peter's, Rome, are as dead as the dust they are made of. But at that time the questions I wanted to ask were too pressing for me to be put off by A.J. Ayer and his fellow academics with their fastidious doubts about language, and so I turned instead to older loves for help.

Russell still excited me by his sheer lucidity, but having heard his discussion with Copplestone I was less sure of his infallibility, so I dipped into the works of others, Whitehead again and Collingwood, who drove me back to look at some of the great figures in the fairly recent history of philosophy: Descartes, Kant, Hegal and Nietzsche. I even tried Karl Marx, but I did so with anything but an open mind, for two things prejudiced me against him; if philosophies like religions are to be known by their fruits, then the bitter fruit of Marxist ideas in Stalin's Russia and elsewhere had already filled me with distaste for Marxism, and this was reinforced by my growing disillusionment with the kind of nineteenth-century optimism about human nature upon which Marx seemed to have based his ideas. 'To see the glory of human nature,' wrote his friend Friedrich Engels, 'to understand the development of the human species in history and its irresistible evolution, to realize its always certain victory over the unreasonableness of the individual, we do not have to call in the abstractions of a God to whom we attribute all that is beautiful, great, sublime and truly human.' Phrases like 'the glory of human nature' sounded strange in the aftermath of Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka and the other camps, as indeed did 'the always certain victory over the unreasonableness of the individual' after the treatment of individuals by the state in the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere. Far more appealing than this socialist version of Winwood Reade's man-made paradise in cloud-cuckoo-land were the rumours I heard of Soren Kierkegaard, I say 'rumours' for I would not read him; he was a Christian, and that was enough to stop me from doing so; but I allowed myself to read about him, and his emphasis upon the profound insecurity of human existence, upon fear and trembling, and to my astonishment upon the need to doubt all beliefs to the point of despair in order to reach a mature understanding of what being human is all about, spoke to my condition, and to the post-war condition of the Western world, with such aptness that I was impressed in spite of myself.

I was equally impressed in spite of myself, as I paddled in the shallows of philosophy, by how many of the greatest of the philosophers had been theists; plainly, there were far fewer grounds for atheism than I had always believed, and indeed it seemed that intellectually some sort of theism actually made more sense of the evidence than did its antithesis. Of course, since science, with its insistence upon an objective approach to all problems, had gradually replaced theology in the minds of many people as the oracular source of all truth, atheism had become virtually inevitable; for if you embark upon all enquiries having already embraced objectivity as a postulate, you have predetermined that the end of our quest must necessarily be an object or a number of objects; since God by definition is not an object, you have therefore ruled him out of court before setting out in search of him. But up to the time when science began to dethrone theology, some of the greatest minds had affirmed their belief not only in the existence of some sort of God but also in their ability to prove that existence. From Plato and Aristotle through Augustine and Aquinas and Anselm to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz this had been true, and this fascinated me without in any way persuading me to agree with them. Similarly, I was fascinated by the so-called 'proofs' of the existence of God without for a moment being coerced into believing that God exists; they delighted me as an abstract intellectual exercise, and perhaps it was not surprising that they should have done so, for even Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy said of Leibniz's presentation of one of them, the so-called ontological argument, that 'although the argument does not, to a modern mind, seem very convincing, it is easier to feel convinced that it is fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.' But although they did not convince me of the existence of God, the traditional 'proofs' did convince me that it was not unreasonable to believe in some sort of deity; indeed, they convinced me that it might even be more reasonable to do so than not to do so, for, whatever else they might have been, the 'proofs' were eminently reasonable.

Traditionally, there were four of them. The so-called cosmological argument, put at its simplest, starts from the observation that everything in the world, every movement, every change, every event has a cause, and goes on to conclude that therefore there must have been a first cause, a prime mover. The second is somewhat similar; once again at its simplest it begins with the observation of order, pattern and law in the universe, and goes on to conclude that there must be an order behind it all, a creator of the observed order and also a final end or goal. The ontological argument, which Russell found so difficult to falsify, is both more abstract and trickier than the previous two; greatly over-simplified, it argues that since the idea of God, envisaged by human beings as the most perfect and necessary being possible, undoubtedly exists, and since non-existence would be an imperfection, God must therefore exist. Lastly, the moral argument for the existence of God sets out to prove that God, as the condition of the highest good, must exist, since we know of the existence of lower conditions of goodness, and therefore there must be higher conditions and eventually one that is highest.

Like Russell, I found it impossible to deny that all this was highly reasonable, but nevertheless I found it amusing and enjoyable rather than credible, as indeed I am afraid I found philosophy in general. To me it was an exciting and pleasurable intellectual game with virtually no connection with the real business of living, and from what I could discover it was much the same for many of the philosophers themselves. Wittgenstein was a notable exception, for having decided that philosophy fell short of grappling with all the real 'problems of life', he retired for many years from the philosophical scene in order to lead a life of great simplicity, first as a teacher in Austria, and later as a gardener in a Benedictine monastery where he slept in a toolshed. However, with the exception of a very few others like Kierkegaard and some of the Existentialists, the majority of the philosophers appeared to live lives which were indistinguishable from those of anyone else; and indeed why should they not
have done so? I was very far from blaming them, but I was also far from convinced that their philosophy was particularly relevant to the business of living, enjoyable as some of it was to read when one was in the mood for a little esoteric intellectual pleasure. Nevertheless, in retrospect I now realize that I had moved a long way from my original position of convinced atheism, and I was no longer at all sure that to be religious was virtually equivalent to being either obscurantist or stupid or both.

In fact, I was in much the same sort of agnostic position at that time as that described by Bernard Levin in May 1983 in The Times, when he wrote that he was 'one of those - and they are many today - who, without any definable set of religious beliefs, yet cannot persuade himself that life is an accident, the universe random, and both without ultimate meaning.' there may have been others, too, who took this view, but I did not know them, though happily my brother was one and my wife was another. Most people seemed rather to agree with Professor G.C. Simpson of Harvard University who said in 1950 that 'evolution turns out to be basically materialistic, with no sign of purpose....Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind.' A few took a different view, as did the American scientist and Nobel prize winner, H.J. Muller, who had written in 1943 that he believed that 'purpose is not imported into nature....It is implicit in the fact of biological organization'; but I had not read his book at the time. Nor had I read Nabokov's Lolita,in which my own feelings were even more accurately described by Humbert-Humbert, the ageing and somewhat pathetic paedophile, when he mused:

'Unless it can be proved to me, to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard and my putrefaction, that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North-American girl-child named Dolores....had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet, 'the moral sense in mortals is the duty. We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.'

Misery was too strong a word for my condition, but my painting was indeed melancholy at this time without being particularly articulate or much of a palliative to my weariness with the struggle going on inside my head; I seemed to have been wrestling with doubts and certainties, fears and failures, hopes and frustrations for years, and I was sick of them. Had I known the book Genesis as well then, or loved it as much as I do now, I should have been jealous of Jacob, who spent no more than one night at the ford Jabbok wrestling with his own problems and fears. I wish I had know it, for it is a marvellous description of a man at the crisis of his life wrestling with his own meaning and destiny.

And he rose up that night and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of Jabbok. And he took them and sent them over the stream, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him. What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

And he said, Thy name shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel; for thou has striven with God and men, and hast prevailed....And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for he said, I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. and the sun rose upon him as he passed over Penuel, and he halted upon his thigh.

I was no Jacob, and I did not even know with whom I was wrestling; if anyone had told me that it was God, I should have laughed. But as with Jacob, someone or something had touched the hollow of my thigh during the years of struggle and I was a changed man, even if I did not yet know it. So I, too, halted upon my thigh, and waited for the sunrise.


Antony Cyprian Bridge