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August 21, 2007


celmins.jpg [image: Vija Celmins, Night Sky, #5, 1992, MoMA, NY] Never mind the landscape for a moment, the night sky is so beautiful out here. You can pick thousands, perhaps millions, more stars above you than you can through the gluey-haze of the nigh sky in the suburbs. The Milky Way, that vast visual cliché which hardly anyone who decries it has ever observed, is actually visible, and looks miraculous, from Truckee! The Donner Party, shivering in their lean-tos, must have stared up at it frequently.

It is early evening now in the Sierras. Everything terrestrial is very slowly, subtly darkening and losing its outline. A middle-aged white guy running to fat, as anyone can see, lies in the Best Western™ pool in Truckee. He is floating on his back at the shallow end. What looms for him in his "Western" body's future? Heart disease? Cancer? Alzheimer's? His head is resting on the hard, curved lip just above water-level at the pool's edge. The light is still good enough for one to observe that there is a dark, blurry halo on the concrete where his hair is. (So he has been swimming already, we know at least that.)

The little, bony bump at the base of the back of the human head, called the "inion", "the most prominent projection of the occipital bone at the lower rear part of the skull" (it is also commonly known as the "external occipital protuberance"), to which the ligamentum nuchae and the trapezius muscle attach, is gently pressed by the weight of his brain and cranium against the pool surround's damp concrete, thus anchoring, via the flexible mediation of the vertebrae, muscles, ligaments, arteries, skin and nerves in his neck, his whole suspended body in place on the surface of the rippling water. He is looking upwards fixedly into the sky.

This guy must be a conceited, self-absorbed bastard: his two children, wielding with purple, tubular "floaties" and day-glo green vests, are cavorting around in the pool near him, occasionally looking round anxiously and calling "Dad! Dad! Come and watch this!" He replies "Co-ming! Just a mo-ment" without moving his head. And of course he never comes. I wonder what he is thinking. Whatever it is, he needs to wake up.

As for myself, there's a whole dimension of the story of Frederick Holmes's murder of Florence Holmes and of three others before carrying out his own suicide which I have so far only hinted at. You could say, I suppose, if you wanted to be ironic or mocking, that I have kept silent about it.

Partly it has to do with an epistemological issue: how much can I really know about an event that happened 99 years ago and have read about only in the two rather full reports which the Times printed on the discovery of the crime and on the subsequent inquest? Thomas Nagel wrote an essay pondering whether it was possible to know what is what like to be a bat. How much can I know about what is like to be a deranged man, probably driven mad by a confluence of financial reversals, crushing social pressures, and (not to be underestimated) the impact on his mind of intense, chronic, bodily pain? Why did he do it? Did he realize what he was doing? What else remains unknown, and what unknowable, about the events that morning?

Then there is a cultural issue for me to reckon with. I first learned only on 9 August 2007 about an event which took place on 8 February 1908. That was before my grandmother (let alone my mother, let alone I...) was born. It was my mother — fresh to the knowledge herself — who told me less than two weeks ago the sketchy set of details about what had occurred so many decades earlier. She had heard the narrative a few months ago, not from her mother (Frederick and Florence Holmes's granddaughter), who is dead, but from a man whom I have never met, a man who is, in the jargon of genealogy, my first cousin once removed. This man, whom I will call "Jeremy", is (shall we say?) a recently retired Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy. He is the author of a number of books on "attachment theory", a psychoanalytic speciality which stems from the work of such seminal figures as Anna Freud and John Bowlby. Attachment theory focusses on the consummate importance of understanding the patient's earliest relationships as an infant with adults, especially with the mother. I am not sure how well my mother knows "Jeremy" but "Jeremy" had certainly met her before, just as he had also met both of her brothers. "Jeremy" has apparently known about the Holmes murders/suicide for several decades. But until now it he seems that he has chosen not to divulge the details to anyone outside his immediate family. Thus, as far as I, my siblings and my parents are concerned, a deep silence has completely covered this terrible episode in my family's history for nearly a century. It feels a little like discovering that for years you have been unwittingly living in a house which is built on a toxic swamp.

My grandmother appears never to have mentioned the tragedy to her three children. One of them, one of my two maternal uncles, who died before "Jeremy" broke cover, has thus gone to his grave without knowing something defining about his mother's life. Unless, that is, Alec knew and he never mentioned it....

Now "Jeremy", retired and now perhaps looking around for a sexy project, just as some retirees look for a new hobby, has seized on the idea of some kind of freelance "exorcism event" or "cleansing ceremony" intended to "mark... the 100 years since the Frederick Holmes debacle" (I quote here from his treacly blog). The exact form which this mooted "exorcism event" or "cleansing ceremony" would take has, it would seem, varied over in "Jeremy"'s mind over the last few months, sometimes being conceived by him as a quasi-religious ritual in an isolated Henley wood and sometimes merely as a pleasant family lunch in that unbearably smug town.

Based on the parts of "Jeremy"'s blog which I have waded through, I feel that his plan comes painfully close to becoming a narcissistic appropriation of someone else's tragedy. Whose "exorcism" is it exactly? To me, it looks like with the misguided use of ancient history to assuage the perfectly understandable feelings of guilt and regret which an aging person suddenly with much time on their hands, looking back on their life, is bound to grapple with. As such, I am angrily repulsed by the whole exercise; it seems a scheme at once repugnant, ineffectual and silly.

But beyond my irritation over the foibles of one probably harmless individual, something larger seems involved: a confrontation with the astoundingly powerful, and to me sinister, culture of silence and repression which still governs so much conduct and understanding in England. But then I would see it as "powerful" and "sinister", wouldn't I? Because I was born into it, because it is dyed into so much of my own behaviour. I wish that Socrates had not said, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance." (Or at least it seems that he said that because in The Lives of the Eminent Philosophers Diogenes Laertius claims Socrates said it.) I wish the old Greek philosopher had not rushed in to claim that idea because it would be a strikingly appropriate motto for inscription on the gate or portal of just about any house or blocks of flats in England.

Ultimately, the epistemological and the cultural issues blend into one another. I know so little about what happened in 1908 because patterns of "oral transmission" in England, even within families, are so patchy, so intricately circuitous, so fragile, so randomized, so marred by lacunae which were themselves long hidden.

There is one other, even murkier aspect of this knowledge which I have hardly even broached to myself yet. Where do I fit in? What does it matter to me? How much of that "silence", always hinting at whatever it was that it was that it occluded — in the way that a veil increases my fascination with the face behind it — am I carrying? Even the Bible is divided on this problem:

"the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, | Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation." Exodus, 34.6-7
"The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him." Ezekiel, 18.20

The passage from Ezekiel comes later in the Old Testament than the passage from Exodus, and perhaps therefore hints at being slightly closer to the still-not-revealed truth of the Christian dispensation. Perhaps...

"Dad, come on, Dad! It's getting really cold!" Suddenly, I hear shouts near me in the pool, and I feel an ache in the back of my head. Oh, where was I? I see the stars have started to come out.

"Dad, please!"

Posted by njenkins at August 21, 2007 05:58 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins