“We are suspended in language such that we don’t know which way is up and which is down.” Niels Bohr.*
I spent the weekend in Torbay Hospital. The catheter got blocked and then when it was freed by the district nurse she judged there was too much blood and that I should join the queue in A&E. The ambulance took three hours to arrive; more urgent cases took intervened. On arrival at A&E everything proceeded smoothly through the various assessments and it was probably about 1am that a young female medic changed the catheter, replacing it with a ‘three way’ which enabled the bladder to be irrigated. So by 3.30am I was up on a ward.
‘E Virgilio rispuose: ‘Voi credete
forse che siamo expertise d’esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come Voi siete.
(And Virgil answered: ‘You may think that we
possess experience of where we are.
But we, like you, are pilgrim foreigners.)**
Like pilgrims, ill or injured, we entered the hospital so that we might be healed sufficiently to get back on the road. We know that death awaits us, awaits us all, but we are not there yet, there remain some difficult and easy tracks to follow. Up or down. Dante’s purgatorio pictured as a mountain to climb, the inferno a pit to fall into from which there is no escape. Being a patient in bed or sitting in the chair next to the bed, suspended in a language that as usual is partial, changeable as it issues from different mouths, charged with various degrees of authority and value. How might we engage in the work of purgatorio or let ourselves fall into the other place.
We can only say what comes into our minds, only ask the questions that are in our minds. So that when we report back to relatives, partners, friends they confront us with what we didn’t say. But, of course, they are not in the complexity of the situation. Under the surface, there is a wilder reality, a complex reality that I have the task of negotiating and getting safely out once more. Institutionalisation is seductive. One has to listen very carefully to what each person says and fit it into something of a whole. I want to keep them on side, I have no wish to mauled by their claws and torn by their teeth. At the same time surprising and shocking events are taking place within this body that I am. What do these other people think, what is there take on it all? Can I make use of what is on offer? What sort of choices do I have? Will I get out alive?
*Quoted in F. David Peat Pathways of Chance
**Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy 2: Purgatorio Canto 2 translation by Robin Kirkpatrick (Penguin Books)