Reflections on 2018… ambiguous loss

I am listening to the On Being podcast that features this week a conversation with Pauline Boss on the meaning of ambiguous loss and how there is a myth of closure in our cultures of impatient striving and ceaseless ambition. There does not need to be an end to grief or to loss. We have to, we do, live with loss and grief, without end, and should really stop pressuring ourselves to close off the sadness, the mourning, and the endless search to make sense of our losses. We need to learn “to be comfortable with what we cannot solve.”

Strangely, this attunement to ambiguous loss followed listening to two contrasting podcasts in the morning. The first was an interview with a former politician, Victor Perton, who has made out of the ruins of his parliamentary career a new business of optimism. He has written a book, The Case for Optimism, and everyday tweets out an optimistic thought. I once wrote a blog called the Happy Pessimist (now taken down, but the text saved to my private collection) with a twitter handle of the sad optimist, so you would not think I would take well to Mr Perton’s ruthlessly Panglossian view of the world. There is, of course, some truth to his view of matters – we do, after all, enjoy such extraordinary affluence and access to so much knowledge and so many means of self-flowering. Yet the Case for Optimism shuts out the sadness of ambiguous loss, and tries to shame it. How can you be sad and grieving on this sunny day with an iphone in your hand, when somewhere in China a billion people have been lifted out of poverty? 

The other, contrasting podcast I listened to was a Poetry off the Shelf on Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is the centenary of the publication of his poems, which was brought about twenty years after his death by the then Poet Laureate and now forgotten, Robert Bridges. Uncannily, during the week, I was reading Hopkins, and posted his poem, “The times are nightfall, look their light grows less“. He is one of my favoured writers, and – strange isn’t it? – he too was barely known in his lifetime, like good Emily Dickinson and other beloved writers of my fate.  The sound-world, the old Anglo-Saxon internal rhymes in the line, the archaic invention of the word-land created a world of magic – captured beautifully in this old sound recording by Cyril Cusack – but the religious sensibility, in my younger years, did not sing to me. But he is a poet I have known since childhood, from an old paperback edition bought by my mother, perhaps in her university days, and so who is inseparable from my own grief and ambiguous loss of this year. But a few years back, during my long dark night of the soul, I discovered the terrible sonnets – which Hopkins shared with no-one, and that Bridges only discovered as tear-soaked drafts after Gerard’s death – and then his rhapsodic, mad sadness struck me as a bell. Then I learnt by heart the terrible sonnet, “No worst there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief” and wandered the streets of Fitzroy as a broken man while whispering the sonnets sotto voce beneath my rebellion against reason.

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

That line – O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall/  Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed – is the rejoinder to every Panglossian optimist like Victor Perton. It is the cry from the mad depths where dwell those who do not deny ambiguous loss, who do not yield to strict ambition’s orders to present a sunny facade of positive, optimistic plans to the world.

This year has known ambiguous loss, and at times I have shared the “sad heart of Ruth when, sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn” (Keats, Ode to a Nightingale). My mother died in February, after some years of slow disappearance from memory and sentences due to dementia. Late in the year, my partner’s brother’s partner died a shocking early death, brought on by a brain tumour that seized her from the midst of vibrant art. And the world of culture and politics has grown more alien to me. Increasingly, I see a world sinking in its over-production, and the beauty I seek in the world is disappearing in battles and ruins and screaming matches between urban gangs played out against a “melancholy, long withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world” (Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach).

But the world is getting better, they say, and I cannot deny my life is comfortable, peaceful and with few troubles. And Steven Pinker with his cheery American salesmanship chimes in with the facts and graphs that prove, even to me, that the Enlightenment is a land of triumph and achievement that has made our lives a temple of progress. Still, I think with Roger Scruton:

The Enlightenment has been with us for two to three centuries, but so too has been the resistance to it. There are poets who have responded to Enlightenment as a kind of light-pollution, from which pockets of darkness must be salvaged in order that we can see the stars. Arnold was one of them, T.S. Eliot another, Rilke a third. Such artists acknowledge loss, but refuse to mourn it, doing what they can to hold things in place while looking to the future.” From “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, but Admitting Loss” in How to be a conservative.

To dwell in culture and history, to walk these long corridors of the lost beloved meanings of the dead and the living, reminds me every moment of the sadness of our losses and the beauty of our striving to hold onto those things that we cherish. It is to be constantly under threat of being overwhelmed by the next wave of time and human creativity. But it is also to plunge bravely into the surge and power of the next wave. Loss and tears in alien corn, but not paralysis in mourning.

Image Source: UK National Portrait Gallery, Matthew Arnold, Photograph Alexander Bassano, 1883 Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “Reflections on 2018… ambiguous loss

Add yours

  1. Beautiful post! Really enjoyed going through it. I am the kind of person who simply shuts out my grief after a certain amount of time and it has clearly taken a toll on me, but if I continue to mourn, I continue for months on end, wasting away so much time and that has had its own set of problems that I now face.


    1. Thank you. I reread my post this morning thanks to you, and the last line – “Loss and tears in alien corn, but not paralysis in mourning” – seems so important in our time of pandemic and disorder. Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

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