Michael Harding believes in solitude, not celibacy
I’m a great believer in solitude, living like a monk in quiet contemplation. I’m not so sure about celibacy, though – it sounds like hell on Earth
I FOUND NUTS in the shed, and I’m not sure where they came from. Some say they might be stones from the cherry trees, brought there and cracked open by birds. Others suggest a rogue squirrel, occupying the shed over two harsh winters. And the pine marten and the hawfinch have also been accused. There are even theories that the stones are from plums, not cherries at all. So it’s been a dizzy week of debate in the kitchen.
And I’m upset because I was hoping to dismantle the shed and put up a new building; a room with no windows on three sides, and just a big patio door facing the lake, a lean-to with skylights, its rear end to the world and its open face to the lake, where I can be alone and read Chinese poetry.
Because the Chinese are coming. Leitrim has always been open to strangers. Years ago it was invaded by Germans in dungarees after Clannad became fashionable in Bavaria, and since the Chinese intend colonising Athlone, it’s only a matter of time before they come up river to Drumshanbo. Which will be good for Irish music because the old 19th-century flute has had its day, and a new sound would be exciting. Chinese flutes would freshen things up, just like bouzoukis did when the Germans arrived in the pubs.
Although my day in the pub is over. I just want a room where I can be alone, and look at the lake. Where no other view is possible. While the lady wife is indoors with neighbours, drinking green tea and discussing the advantages of brewing orange marigolds, as they are wont to do, I can remain aloof in my solitary den and look at the water.
I’ve always been romantic about solitude. The sculptor shaving dust from stone with a chisel, or the monk delicately doodling on cowhide, are to me examples of how beauty grows in singular contemplation.
And although I value solitude very highly, I’m not at all convinced about celibacy. I tried it once. But it was too public for me; I felt I was a puppet in a bizarre choreography of the unconscious mind. I suspect the practice will eventually be abandoned, like castration was in opera circles. Not that celibacy is merely a psychic castration; there’s more to it than curtailing the libido.
Celibacy is a declaration that one will remain without a wife; ergo without a companion, ergo without children, ergo without all the consequent tenderness and intimacy that such family ties nurture in a human being. (You can see I was well schooled in Latin.) Like suicide bombers, celibates are a sign of paradise and the afterlife. They say no to the flesh in slow motion; bombers do it with a bang.
These acts of renunciation are made in the name of Heaven, signifying a defiant confidence in a future realm, in contrast to which all pleasures and comforts on Earth pale into insignificance. The black-robed, sterile male has carried this sign of contradiction in unconscious societies for centuries. And he will continue to do so until, eventually, society wakes up, becomes more conscious, and comes to terms with humanity’s brief existential moment on Earth.
We are beings for death. We carry our own death within us. We no longer need a costumed player to console us with the possibility of heaven or frighten us with the proximity of hell.
The male celibate has lighted fools the way to dusty death for centuries. But Shakespeare’s wisdom prevails: life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. And the question remains: what did Jesus signify, as he died on the cross in an existential moment of obliteration, after admonishing God for abandoning him? And how might the concept of a crucified God sustain us now in these times of anxiety? Those philosophical conundrums, like a lot of other things, were brushed under the carpet during the superstar papacy of John Paul II, when the intellectual elite of the church were ordered to be silent, or else leave the building.
I suppose I’m lucky I’m not still celibate. I have no fear that anyone will knock on my door and tell me to hold my tongue. I’m just alone. Depressed in a shed. Deeply in love with a solitude that may be broken only by a rogue squirrel or the voice of the beloved inviting me to come inside because supper is on the table.