A Pipe Dream

An essay about feeling far away.

The other day I lost my sense of taste. It was a Friday afternoon. I had just made a delicious apple cake – an apple cake I had been dreaming of making for days. You chop up a whole kilo of apples, boil them with sugar and cinnamon and then put them to bed in a blanket of shortcrust pastry. Then I took it out of the oven, carried it onto the balcony, poured out prosecco and cut a slice – and I tasted nothing.

The crunch was there, the softness of the apple, but no taste. I cannot adequately describe to you the sense of utter surprise, of disbelief, that sets in when something like this overcomes you. I know that the loss of taste is a common symptom of a certain virus that has shocked the whole world into a state of surprise and disbelief. It could also be hay fever. The trees are in bloom. Nature is exploding with new life and pretty blossom and uncurling fresh green leaves and I feel so utterly far from it.

Whatever the cause, the loss of taste is a profoundly disorientating experience. It is not just the apple cake. It is also a pine nut, fallen from a pan in which someone was toasting it, picked up slyly and chewed – but nothing, no flavour at all. A piece of toast with blueberry jam – nothing. Even chickpea curry full of spices leaves no impression whatsoever with me. It is as if all the edible things have conspired to close their eyes and turn the other way. You can try as you like, you will not get anything from us. And it is strange, you might think it is just taste, just one of the senses after all, and smell if we pair them together, so two, but to me it felt as if the whole world took a step away from me.

When the most simple act of eating an apple no longer returns the expected consequence – the taste of an apple – it is not too far a jump for the brain to conclude that nothing can be trusted anymore. Of course I was trying to argue with it: something like this can happen. It’s simply a matter of indisposed airways. It is certainly temporary. But the feeling of alienation did not go away. It spread and shook up its feathers and put them all around me and made everything slightly numb and removed.

The Czech playwright and president Václav Havel (yes, an interesting combination of jobs that reminds one of the fancies of children – like astronaut and postman, a perfectly desirable combination when you are four) wrote about such a mood in one of his letters from prison to his wife Olga, on 21st March 1981. He was convicted to a sentence of four and a half years for oppositional activity and used the time for some thorough self-assessment. For example, he comes up with a schema of fifteen different moods that he experiences: eight bad moods, and seven good moods.

The one I was particularly interested in was his seventh bad mood. He introduces it by reminding us of the essential aspect of every good mood: a sense of identification with something outside oneself, a feeling of connection and impact which gives perceivable meaning to things and creates a kind of harmony with the world. In what Havel calls his seventh bad mood, this sense of identification is missing, and its absence has made space for feelings of alienation and absurdity.

“…the impression that I’m deeply alienated from what goes on around me, that I don’t understand its logic and meaning, the belief that it will remain, probably forever, distant, alien and incompatible with everything I think and feel – this is neither pleasant nor uplifting. On the contrary, it is chilling and sometimes even terrifying.”

He is right about that. And of course it comes as a great relief to read someone describe this mood so very accurately. There were other people who felt it, too, at other times, in other places. I have felt it before. And even though it is still utterly disorientating and strange when the world no longer behaves in the usual way, the experience becomes more manageable the moment you realize that as extraordinary as it feels, it can be fitted into a kind of pattern.

So Havel’s letter from a spring time 39 years ago gave me enough courage to go out on a long solitary walk to the bank of the Thames. It was early evening and the tide was out and for the first time I climbed down onto the beach and walked over the clinking crunching pebbles glistening in the slimy wetness left behind by the river. I couldn’t smell it, but I could see the river’s fingerprints and hear the muttering of the waves and the hooting of a ship carrying cargo and the high-pitched exclamations of the seagulls – and I could watch them sail in the wind, circling around and gliding towards the towers of the city in a pair, swoop down to touch the surface of the water, and rise again.

And as I looked down to my feet I found a strange little object: a kind of tube around four centimetres long, perhaps a centimetre wide, whitish with brownish freckles and with a thin hole pierced through the whole length of it. It lay lightly in my hand and looked man-made, but slightly to oddly shaped to be a modern industrial product. It was the stem of a clay pipe, dropped by a sailor some two hundred years ago. I lifted it to my eye and started to observe the world through it like through a telescope.

At first you have to slightly adjust your eyes but then you can pick out wonderful details with an increased degree of attention: the movement of the waves and something floating on them; the facades of the houses on the other side of the river; the leftover sunlight riding the waves in a little corner near the shore; the triangle shape of the Shard in the distance; the lightening flash of a seagull.

Through the black tunnel of my little clay pipe stem the objects I observed took on an interesting new aspect. They seemed further away, picked out of context from a distant world, strange in their abstract floating in this black hole, which had to be held steady so you could get a proper look. And at the same time this black aureola made them seem so small and singular that it inspired a vague feeling of affection in me. Affection and maybe something like a desire to take care of them, like when you see a kitten, or like the feeling that astronauts describe when they look down at the earth from space. They all speak of a sense of awe mixed with a sudden awareness of the intense fragility of this planet, our planet. They see this from a spaceship floating in empty space, and maybe you need that kind of black infinite amount of nothingness stretching out behind you to truly understand what it means, this tiny speck of unlikely life.

But looking through my pipe stem black hole I can imagine it. And I understand why Havel classifies his mood as the seventh, not the eighth, not the worst of his bad moods. The feeling of absurdity, of the absence of meaning, implies that the faith in meaning is not yet lost – otherwise it wouldn’t be experienced as painful. The state of apathy and indifference, which is truly the worst, has not been reached.

“In its tormenting absence,” he writes, “meaning may have a more urgent presence than when it is simply taken for granted, no questions asked – somewhat in the way one who is sick may better understand what it means to be well than one who is healthy.”

I am looking differently at food now – for example, at the colours of the roasted leaves of a cauliflower. The delicate branches of broccoli, the mother-of-pearl of buttered toast. And not just food – it seems to me like the sky is more blue and the birds sing louder than usual and all the time and music makes me shiver with happiness. It is spring, after all. As my taste is gradually coming back it is like becoming re-acquainted with the concepts of a forgotten language, waking from a winter’s sleep. Sweetness: chocolate, apple, honey. Sourness: yoghurt, lemon. Bitterness: black coffee in the morning.

In one of my favourite film scenes, a guardian angel turns into a mortal human being for the love of a circus acrobat. He sets foot into his new existence on a cold winter morning in a barren Berlin sometime in the 1980s. The first thing he does is to get himself a paper cup of black coffee from a grumpy street vendor. He smells the coffee, steaming in the cold air. Then he takes a sip. It is the first thing he tastes, ever, because as we know, angels do not taste or smell. They belong to a different order. And the film turns from black and white to colour.

There is another book I have been reading recently that also deals with the topic of absurdity. It is The Plague by Albert Camus. In it there is a discussion between two men on a balcony at night. The mysterious Tarrou has just confessed his life story, a life dedicated to fight the death penalty. It is the point in the book where the double meaning of the plague as a metaphor for what we might call fascism is spelled out most explicitly:

“…everyone has it inside himself, this plague, because no one in the world, no one, is immune. And I know that we must constantly keep watch on ourselves to avoid being distracted for a moment and find ourselves breathing in another person’s face and infecting him. What is natural is the microbe. The rest – health, integrity, purity, if you like – are effect of will and a will that must never relax. The decent man, the one who infects hardly anybody, is the one who has the least distractions possible.”

Health, or rather integrity, which is really the thing Camus is talking about here, is an effect of willpower and, I suppose this is what he is saying, must not be taken for granted. We are constantly ambushed by distractions. Tarrou’s solution is to divide the world into two basic categories – pestilence and victims. And he tries to put himself as much as possible on the side of the victims because he believes there is a road that can lead to peace, and this is sympathy. Really, he admits, he is interested in how one becomes a saint without believing in God.

There surely are people like Tarrou in the world and they are mysterious and admirable in their reckless ability to concentrate – or not to be distracted. But I am also glad that Camus gives us the doctor Rieux, the other man on that balcony, who doesn’t talk much but generally gets on with things and doesn’t have “a taste for heroism and sainthood”. “What interests me,” he tells Tarrou, “is to be a man.” “Yes, we are looking for the same thing,” Tarrou replies, “but I am less ambitious.” Then they go for a swim in the sea. Despite the lockdown, and for the sake of friendship.

Why does Tarrou say that being interested in being a man is more ambitious than being interested in becoming a saint? I’m not sure. But thinking of the guardian angels without taste, of the astronauts observing the earth from space, and Václav Havel in his prison cell, I have a feeling it is connected to that sense of distance. Being estranged from the world, or even just slightly removed from its everydayness, helps to concentrate. It clarifies the vision, it gets rid of distractions. It is even a kind of protection. But to dive back into the world, to taste black coffee and to fall in love, to land on earth, to fight a plague just because it is the decent thing to do, this all means a lot of distraction. And in this way, it is more ambitious, because it is more involved and more impossibly vulnerable.

Yesterday I made rhubarb crumble. Sour tangy freshness and crunchy buttery sweetness. Basic flavours. They are coming back. The world is slowly turning towards me again. The pipe dreams float through the black hole of my clay pipe stem and turn into seagulls, plunging down towards the water.

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