In Praise of Hyacinth Girls

White HyacinthsI clearly recall the day when I decided to become a writer. I don’t remember the exact date, however, I know it was a Saturday in November 2003. At the time, I was living and working in London: my employer was an online travel agency, and I was managing a team which developed their websites. I’d had some successes, in particular, I had assembled a group of people who worked well together and had bonded emotionally. However, I’d had failures too; I was unable to convince management of the need to change and adapt.

This part of the tale will sound like a cliche: I had met a woman. On the surface, she and I were an unusual pair, I was and am a rather bearish, bearded man and she was a very thin Goth with 4 earrings, bright red hair and a penchant for high heeled boots. However what united this young lady and I was a love of literature; our relationship began when she had made it clear that she was depressed beyond the bounds of traditional Gothic norms, and I purchased a copy of Jaroslav Hasek’s “Good Soldier Svejk” at a corner bookstore to cheer her up. From then on in, we met in the evenings, usually in the pub across the street, and talked for hours. Afterwards, we then would proceed to the train station, still talking, the warm bubbles of emotion floating up into the sheltering, dark London skies.

I had dabbled in writing since I was a boy; freshly inspired, I wrote a large number of poems for her: some moderate, some wretched, all sincere. She accepted them with grace, but perhaps not wholeheartedly: it may sound like a plot from a television drama, but she was married at the time, though she claimed that she was on the outs with her husband to the point that divorce was inevitable and indeed, in progress.

Still, it was a surprise that she phoned me on that rainy Saturday afternoon. It was usually much easier to meet when the working day was done; this led to loud office whisperings about the nature of our relationship, but neither of us seemed to care. When she called on the day in question, however, she sounded more agitated than usual, saying she wanted to meet. I suggested a Cuban restaurant on Upper Street, which was a few blocks away from my flat. She agreed.

There was nothing atypical about our meeting at the restaurant: I forget what we ate, I do remember that we drank margaritas, the alcohol having a lubricating effect on our tongues. Afterwards, we visited a nearby bookstore, and purchased a book of T. S. Eliot’s poetry: both she and I were fond of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. We also purchased a copy of the Cure’s “Disintegration”, one of those albums that I should have owned, but didn’t. Outside the bookstore was a stand selling flowers: it was a rather pathetic spectacle, given how intense and heavy the rain had become. The red and white striped canopy covering the plants was buckling under the torrent. She bought a stoneware pot which contained white hyacinths; it was a gift for me, she said, in remembrance of a verse from Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’

We then went back to my apartment, I put “Disintegration” on my stereo, and she lay on my sofa, eyes shut, with her feet across my lap. I read Prufrock to her; my voice stumbled when I reached these lines:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.

At that point, a single tear flowed down her cheek. I must confess that it was difficult not to be swept away by emotion, and after a second’s hesitation, I stopped trying to prevent it. It was at that moment that words truly began to flow freely through my consciousness, albeit ragged, undisciplined, untrained, but they have not ceased since.

It would be lovely to say that this tale has a happy ending. However, if my emotions were playing with all the grandeur of a symphony orchestra, it’s fair to say hers were performed on a dime-store kazoo. We were never “intimate”. The promised break up between her and her husband never happened; months later, she severed all connections to me. I eventually had to leave London in order to escape being haunted by memories. This turned out to be wise, as I discovered last autumn; there was a remote possibility that I would be working in a place that was near my former office. In spite of my better judgement, I passed by it before the interview and found that it was being extensively renovated. The pub where we had talked for hours had been turned into a “trendy” wine bar. Yet, I was focused on discerning the traces that remained.

As much as I would not wish what I felt on anyone else, I would not prevent it either; I have since gone on to do higher degrees in writing, and am on the verge of being both a Doctor in Philosophy and a published novelist. In many respects, the “hyacinth girl” helped me, without realising or intending it. Yet, we are living in age when strong emotions like the ones I experienced are positively discouraged, and this is perhaps a contributing factor to society’s present pathologies.

Being a “man of feeling” was encouraged in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic movement were focused on restoring the connection of man to nature, and emotion seemed a positively natural thing to have. In scientific terms, we would say that allowing emotion could be a key component of homeostasis, i.e., it maintains the balance in a system. Yet somewhere along the way, a judgement was made that we have to inocculate ourselves against feeling anything that might be remotely unpleasant or anti-social. However, the question remains, by killing emotion, are we, as a society, committing a form of suicide?

While there are extreme cases in which drugs are necessary to prevent self-harm or harm to others, they are undoubtedly the crutch of the modern age. One of my favourite comedians and streetwise philosophers, Chris Rock, summarised it well. He said pharmaceutical companies are pushing drugs to the extent it is conceivable that they will one day say in an advertisement, “Do you go to bed at night and get up in the morning?” in the hope that the average punter will say, “Hey, that’s me!” If a child is hyperactive, the first response in some quarters is to prescribe Ritalin. If one is depressed, Valium, Lithium and a whole bevy of other drugs are available to restore the chemical balance in the brain and take the edge off melancholy. Indeed the link between narcotics and quashing emotion is so pronounced that it leads to an inevitable question: how much of the problem of illegal drugs stems from a desire to “self-medicate” awkward feelings out of our lives?

Additional food for thought is provided by an analysis of the word “passionate”; if one looks at the connotations of this term in the past as compared to the present, there is an interesting disparity. Lord Byron was “passionate”, a “man of feeling” who produced great poetry; he was considered “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, but no one seriously considered locking him up. Yet, the word “passionate” today, when used in phrases like a “passionate advocate”, or “passionate performer” or indeed “passionate writer” hints at bohemianism, insanity or both. In short, it is an altogether disreputable quality.

Furthermore, our present cultural heroes also point towards our dislike of emotion: it is telling that the new Star Trek film chose Mr. Spock as the character to provide continuity between the new film series and the old. Spock is a character who has consistently fought any trace of emotion in his character, and largely won; this victory is mostly admired rather than considered sick. The continuance of the Terminator series is also indicative: the Terminator was a perfect role for Arnold Schwarzenegger because he never had to show any emotion whatsoever, a quality which well suited his acting range.

Yet, without emotion, there may be no art, no beauty, no grandeur, no character. Winston Churchill had his “black dog” moods, which he overcame in order to lead Britain successfully. John Quincy Adams’ letters indicate a man who suffered from depression as well, but who roused himself with the help of his loving wife. One of the end lines of Offenbach’s opera, “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” says:

One is great by love but greater by tears.

After which, Hoffmann picks up the quill and begins to write. But to be swept away by feeling in such a manner nowadays is an invitation to be embarassed and to be called a fool. We substitute and sublimate: substitution comes from “New Age”, self-help mantras which try to mask emotion with talk of auras and positive energy. Sublimation can be found in the casual way in which many modern relationships begin and end: we are no longer surprised that great romances flame up, fizzle, then burn out in a matter of months or sometimes, weeks. It’s no wonder that we need drugs to blot all this out.

In order to remedy this societal ill, perhaps we need to find the courage to risk appearing foolish, which often times deserts even individuals who are not afraid to die. We need to have our “hyacinth girls” and to allow ourselves to be affected by them. We need to be able to write bad verse and get tearful listening to sentimental tunes and poetry being read aloud. We need to be open to the possibilities that both positive and negative emotions accord. If we continue to emphasise severance, however, we may lose that which makes our existence distinctive from that of other animals, and that which may give our lives ultimate meaning in a universe that can seem devoid of it.

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