There’s this scene, in the American political-drama series House of Cards, that I found myself searching for today. [SPOILER ALERT, obviously.]
Tom Yates, an acclaimed novelist working as a writer and adviser for the President of the United States, is in bed with the President’s wife, Claire. It goes like this.
Tom: “I was in a really bad place. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t leave my apartment.”
Tom: “It’s mysterious, isn’t it, when these things happen? Or maybe it never happened to you. But I woke up one day, and it felt like, everything I contemplated doing, everything, from going to the coffee shop, to…reading a book, writing a chapter, it was just…laughable.”
Claire: “As in?”
Tom: “As in…pointless.”
House of Cards, Season 5, Episode 6: ‘Chapter 60’ (39:20-40:00).
The conversation goes on: Claire reveals a rare vulnerable side to her personality through an explicit awareness of her insecurity (despite the fact that the two of them are laid naked in a bed literally across the hall from Claire’s husband – who not only knows about the affair, but has given it his blessing); Tom declares his love for Claire; Claire says she might love Tom too; and so on.
House of Cards’ reputation has been marred, of course, by real-life accusations of sexual misconduct by the series’ lead actor, Kevin Spacey, who played the President – which is a real shame, because there are moments of brilliance in this programme – including this very scene here, played out between Robin Wright (Claire) and Paul Sparks (Tom) – that are somewhat overlooked in the wake of the Spacey scandal. Alas, I digress…
I remember. the first time I watched this scene play out, feeling this overwhelming resonance with Tom that almost had me in tears. It’s a feeling that has lingered with me ever since, and a fear I now realise I’ve unknowingly harboured for a number of years.
What if all that I’m doing – working on my PhD; trying to make my way professionally as a researcher; even writing this blog – what if it’s all pointless?
Even this blog itself, left stagnant for a number of months (until now), reflects the recurring fear that spending my time in this way, writing about myself, is an utterly worthless act. In the time that fills this gap between blog post #10 and #11, I have had plenty of things to say, but have not found the words in which to say them.
Without some perceivable sense of purpose, academic research is, in my humble view, “laughable”. It serves the world in no noticeable way. It may well prop up the social status of the individual, but it makes no significant contribution to the broader society in which we live.
Tom’s stream of consciousness foreshadows his character’s tragic exit from the show a few episodes later: he dies, rather dramatically, before ever being able to publish the biographical expose of the Presidency he had been working on. It begs the question: if I fell dead, right this very second, what would be left to show for the life I had lived?
I’m honestly not sure how to answer that question in the present moment. I would like to think that the work I have done, in the relatively short professional career I have had so far, might have left some sort of small imprint, if only visible to a select few. But I hardly believe that my achievements to date are enough to leave any kind of impression strong enough to stand the steady test of time. So still, I try.
Looking back, whilst stuck in this mood (I might call it ‘realistic’, you might call it ‘morose’), it’s hardly surprising that the first poet (and one of the only poets) who has ever ‘spoke’ to me in any real way was Philip Larkin: a guy who often wrote about, amongst many other things, death. (I’m really upbeat like that.)
Now, it’s not too often that I cite poetry when I write stuff like this blog. I feel like that kind of thing tends to subtly scream of an ulterior motive that can be summed up, in layman’s terms, as: Look at me: I read poetry; I understand life. Poetry carries that sort of impenetrability that puts a lot of people off before they ever read the first line. Even after four years of studying Literature at university (and writing a fair few poems myself), I still feel incompetent in the presence of ‘poets’ – and even more so, in the presence of poetry ‘critics’.
But this one line – in the context of hundreds of other lines of Larkin’s work that express nothing but the deepest of gloom – is that rare spark that sheds an irrevocable light through everything else. It is the same idea that keeps me grinding away, even on days where I feel that everything I do, every book I read, every chapter I try to write, is utterly, unavoidably pointless.
“What will survive of us is love.”
Philip Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’