Beautiful but Damned

I’ve had this emotional impression that has deep resonance for me since I was very young, but I’ve always had a great deal of trouble describing it. It’s an archetype of a situation that has appeared in lots of media, but it’s always had a powerful emotional resonance for me. Whenever I’ve seen a character in a film or TV series who does this I’m immediately in their headspace.

The scenario: I’m usually an Englishman in my prime, usually well-dressed, usually handsome and full of life. I’ve just been told that my days are numbered, either because of a fatal illness, or an imminent execution, or some other dreadful event that I have no way of stopping.

I don’t descend into panic. I become stoic and extremely sincere, with a “Well, I suppose that’s my lot” attitude. Inwardly, though, I feel something drop, almost like a gallows door opening under my heart.

And yet, revisiting that emotion was always such a bizarre guilty pleasure. It was a feeling that, while not pleasant, felt strangely right in a peculiar way. It was an indulgent, sentimental, bittersweet sort of place emotionally that seemed to come out of a very old-fashioned emotional landscape. In many ways, throughout my life I actually wanted to feel that way for real, to have that moment, to be among the beautiful and the damned so that I could have that sweet moment of poetic stoicism to show the world what I was made of, and be remembered as a portrait of pride with a silver lining long after I was gone.

In the last novel I published (good grief, it’s been over a year! I’m getting slack) I had a character who, faced with imminent annihilation, suddenly stops driving away from it, gets a pack of cigarettes out of his glove box, climbs into the back seat of his touring car, and lights the cigarette, stoically accepting his fate. Of course, it goes somewhere much more transcendent from there (it’s a moment of epiphany ultimately) but that’s the beauty of fiction.

I hadn’t really thought that re-enlisting in 1914 was the source of this, because I had always assumed that it had to have been something beyond my control, a destiny I was faced with.

Then I had a moment today. After speaking at length with my bishop about some angst over having not transcended the bounds of material existence in my last life and my general existential crisis after the death of one of our most beloved parishioners, I took his advice and got out a little (actually, I’ve had both a bishop and a nun tell me the same thing in the last 3 days so I figured it was sound advice).

After mass, I drove south on 99E until I came to the little village of Aurora, OR, which has an idyllic historic district filled with antique shops. I seem to find it easy to meditate on the past in places like those. I didn’t find anything that triggered a strong memory, but when I came across a Victorian or Edwardian portrait of a man in his late 30s or so, his posture impeccable, his chest out, his clothes immaculate, a look of stoic serenity on his features and a soft light on his skin that gave him a gentle glow, it came back to me.

I pictured myself before making the final decision, walking the scenic parts of Hereford, to parks where children played, down by the river where the college boys rowed in the pleasant late summer. But I remember thinking at the time that it was more like Gethsemane for me, because I didn’t have a sense that I really had a choice.

I believed, with all my heart, that going to war was my destiny and I was there, in that familiar emotional space, a man in his prime, beautiful but damned, taking in the thought of my own likely demise.  I was so steeped in the stoic masculinity of the Victorian era I’d been raised in, brought up on stories and rhymes of God and empire by the like of Kipling and Tennyson, that I couldn’t see how it wasn’t the destiny of an Englishman to throw himself into the line of fire for his king. I was sold hook, line, and sinker on what Wilfred Owen called “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori.”

In short, I made a tremendous error in understanding my own free will, and I did it because I wanted to believe I had no choice.  I was falling into an indulgent, self-serving motivation for self-sacrifice.  I was thinking, “Lord, not as I will, but as you will” but in truth, it was exactly as I willed. I had every opportunity to walk away and have a peaceful (if impoverished and boring) life as a retired soldier.  I had a choice.

And now that I know where that emotion comes from- now that I’ve remembered how I turned a stroll in the park into a prayer in Gethsemane 102 years ago almost to the date, I’m left with a strangely desolate feeling about the whole thing.

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