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Stress Births

The port would fain give succour; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through . . . her only friend her bitterest foe!

– Herman Melville(1)

It’s a metaphor for Bulkington, a mariner who never rested on shore but kept going on the tempestuous sea. These days he might be counselled to avoid stress. I grew up thinking that being quiet was the greatest good. I was wrong. Action is the greatest good.

The most ludicrous of all things, it seems to me, is to be busy in the world, to be a man who is brisk at his meals and brisk at his work.

– Søren Kierkegaard(2)

Well yes, and most poets would say that they absolutely require periods of idleness in order to produce. Briskness is the antithesis of creative work. On the other hand, painstaking is its blood, slow and sore.

What does one think about when one is alone.
What does one think about when one is alone and shovelling guano.

The clock we are bound to obey
And the miracle we must not despair of . . .

– W. H, Auden(3)

What would that miracle look like.
What would it feel like.
Would we know it for a miracle.

Does One want to relinquish this intensity? Yes, it’s pain to lie in bed twisted by shame at the harsh traits One has revealed, convinced that One is hated by workmates, terrified of the slightest creak in the dark. But each moment is full, the body reacts to every situation, the hairs on the arms are alert to each atmospheric shift. Reduce life to simple shared experience, or a joke, or manageable, and all sense of importance deflates.

– Máighréad Medbh(4)

The depressive depresses by nothing-weight.
The obsessive bores with raking of concerns.
The optimist irritates with her bag of shiny keys.
The pessimist pockets all keys.
Are we ever satisfied and do we want satisfaction.

listen, the creatures of the night
obsessive, casual, sure of foot,
go on grinding, while the sun’s
daily remorseful blackout dawns.

– Robert Lowell(5)

Don’t we love these contradictions. Do we love their consequences.
Isn’t love a whirlwind with an object.
As opposed to our neurological casual weather.
Us ships.

For constancy is made perfect amid the waves that buffet it, and perseverance is clearly seen in adversities.

– Andreas Capellanus(6)

The whole point of a story is that it excites.
Its dangers are its beauties.
Excitement attracts attention.
Attention sustained is action.

What is an experience? Something that breaks a polite routine and for a brief period allows us to witness things with the heightened sensitivity afforded to us by novelty, danger, or beauty.

– Alain de Botton(7)

In the absence of outer agitation do we cook ourselves some inner.

. . . none can feel the fierce heart of love in his breast unless he is afraid of being cuckolded.

– Jean de Meun (c.1225-1278)(8)

In La Roman de La Rose, the Old Woman advises that if a man says he has another sweetheart, a woman should say she wants another man—to keep him stretched. Jealousy stirs. But conflict makes me feel I should be elsewhere. Like a cat when things rearrange. I can’t rest in clashing winds. I misthink that calm is the goal. The goal is voyage. Stillness is death.
Who wants to go soft.
Then stiff.

Dylan Thomas’s wife, Caitlín, had to be active all the time. Doing cartwheels, drinking, arguing, fighting, stirring things up. She had wanted to be a dancer. Agitation compensated for choreography. Badly. The only product was more agitation.
Agitation choreographed is art.

The first half of Caitlin Thomas’s life was a wild non-career. The second half was bitterness. Shortly after Dylan died she wrote a memoir called Leftover Life to Kill(9) Brilliantly bitter.

A bite, if it is to be effective, must be well-aimed and self-spun.
Biting however directed may be what keeps you alive.
I wonder about that when I feel agitated for no apparent reason.
Is it my constituent method of keeping me stirred.
The sense that something always needs to be done.
Neil Gaiman wrote a book for children called Wolves in the Walls.

[The world] from the upsurge of my For-itself is revealed as the indication of acts to be performed . . . the perceived is revealed to me as co-presence, but also as absence as an infinity of instrumental complexes . . . The body is lived and not known.

– Jean-Paul Sartre(10)

Parts of the brain that are love-bitten include the one responsible for gut feelings, and the ones which generate the euphoria induced by drugs such as cocaine. So the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions, but instead like those of people snorting coke. Love, in other words, uses the neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction.

The Economist(11)

. .  Nature’s way of governing us, by inciting our hearts to pleasure.

– Jean de Meun(12)

Or pain. Medieval and contemporary commentaries agree that love involves pain, yearning and agitation. They also agree that leisure is the key to pleasure. The lover in La Roman de la Rose is admitted to Pleasure’s Garden by the allegorical Idleness. Kim Anami, online sex coach, recommends from four hours to a week for the pleasure process. Time is the fee. Agitation Abated.

A man in love can do nothing well, and pays no attention to worldly profit . . .

– Guillaume de Loris (Reason speaks.)(13)

An interesting conjugation of work and conjugation is found in ancient Irish legends. The would-be king overcomes his agitation to mate with the hag, Sovereignty, who then becomes a beautiful woman. He embraces his stress and transforms it into kingship. Cúchulainn mates with his warrior-teacher, Scáthach, as well as her daughter and the warrior Aife. This has been interpreted as an act of ritual affiliation to his life’s task.

. . . the union of CúChulainn with the female warriors, like Niall’s union with ‘Sovereignty,’ is a marriage between an apprentice and his vocation.

– Alwyn and Brinley Rees(14)

Women have been jealous of my guitar he said.
That caused me agitation.

. . . for smiles from Reason flow,
To brute deni'd, and are of Love the food,
Love not the lowest end of human life.
For not to irksom toile, but to delight
He made us, and delight to Reason joyn'd.

– John Milton (Adam speaks)(15)


(1) Moby Dick (1851), Ch. 23. Simon & Brown, 2011, 95.
(2) Either / Or in The Essential Kierkegaard. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 2000, 39.
(3) ‘The Age of Anxiety,’ Collected Poems. Faber & Faber 1994, 533.
(4) Savage Solitude. Dublin: Dedalus Press, 2013, 32.
(5) ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning.’ Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, London: Faber and Faber / New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003.
(6) The Art of Courtly Love. Translated by John Jay Parry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1960, 99.
(7) Essays in Love. London: Picador, 1994, 132.
(8) Guillaume De Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. Translated by Frances Horgan, Oxford University Press, 1999, 219.
(9) Leftover Life to Kill. Harborough: 1st Ace Books, 1959.
(10) Being and Nothingness (1943). Translated by Hazel E. Barnes, Introduction by Mary Warnock, London: Routledge, 1996, 322/3, 324.
(11) The Economist. Online article, 12.02.2004.
(12) The Romance of the Rose, Op. Cit. 218.
(13) Ibid. 47.
(14) Celtic Heritage. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994, 257.
(15) Paradise Lost. IX: 239-243. 

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