I arrived back in South Africa in October 2008. My mother died that year and a three-year relationship had just ended. While I was on holiday in South Africa in January I had walked into my mother’s bedroom to find her dead. We carried her out of the house. I did some form of CPR but it was hopeless. I went to see her body in the morgue. It was blue and exhausted. She had lived alone since my father’s death and it had taken its toll. I returned to my relationship in the UK shortly after that. But several months later I was asked to leave. I was no longer the person I once was.
I had received a small inheritance and was completely lost back in Cape Town. There were few friends left there. I had some money and a chronic case of depression. By November I had stopped eating. I had lost 12kg when I met with the academic and poet Stephen Watson at the Olympia Café. I pushed a linguine di mare around my plate for about half an hour but I couldn’t eat it. Stephen was shocked. He told me that I had to go to a doctor. ‘Anti-depressants,’ he said, ‘will put you into a sheltered harbour for a while. Until you can mentally sort out what has just happened to you. You’ve lost the woman you love, your mother and your father in such shockingly quick succession. You must just take a break from these emotions. Just for a while.’ It was strange to hear this. At the time, I felt I had no emotions. There was only an emptiness that kept me up at night and asleep during the day.
I was in my sister’s house in Harfield Village. It was late on a summer afternoon. In bed I was reading Albert Camus’s words: ‘deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.’ They made sense. What troubled my mind were memories that could not be verified, that had no attachment. What happened to me in hospital when I was six? How long was I there, a month, three months, four months? Were there discussions about amputating my leg? I remembered my mother told me that once. But was that false? I wanted to ask somebody. But there wasn’t anybody. My sister’s childhood memories were as shaky as my own.
And what was ahead? What reason was there to continue? The opening line of Camus’s book really did take hold for some days. The only person that could pull together my present with the past had moved on. ‘I’ve got a new boyfriend! Stop phoning me!’ I was caught, like Martin Decoud in Nostromo, ‘entertaining a doubt of [my] own individuality’. Like Decoud, I ‘lost all belief in the reality of [my] action past and to come.’ I had fallen into an ‘immense melancholy’.
I was resistant to anti-depressants. I felt it was a weakness. Like a distant relation had told me ‘you should just pull yourself together’. But pulling yourself together, when a voice in your head is talking of death, is difficult. Stephen phoned me up again a few days later. He persuaded me that I had to go to the doctor, there was no other way of getting through this. I knew that was true.
Stephen offered me his house in Kalk Bay in December while he was away. He felt that the sea and the mountains would offer me a sense of home, a place I knew. I took the pills and the house and they did work, eventually. But the voice intensified with the medication, to begin with. An old friend from school came to stay with me – to watch over me. It was humiliating. But without the pills, Jason, Stephen, David and the feeling that somehow I was part of a social and cultural landscape, no matter how tawdry and thin, I don’t think I would have lived. And for that I am grateful.
People have for me remained inscrutable for most of my life. I do not understand their motivations and what they lead to. My misjudgments of those that have been close to me have often been extreme. As a result, I have spent a large part of my life alone. But I have never rid myself of the feeling that one cannot imagine happiness without the presence of another. I was convinced of this attachment to others after my father died of liver cancer in 2004. Solitude, I realised, holds only a slow disintegration. I think there is something lacking in Camus’s formulation, in The Myth of Sisyphus, of the lonely man at his task: ‘the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’
To me, it is Odysseus and his nostos that stands out as a suitable myth for humanity. It is Odysseus, who rejects the nymph Calypso’s promises of immortality in order to return to his home and to Penelope, that makes sense. I can only imagine them happy. The task of living with a singular purpose is not enough. As Camus explained, at other times, with this purpose must come the comforts of a homeland, a sense of belonging. It is the other theme of Camus’s work, the return from exile, which is lacking in the character of Sisyphus, that motivates a life worth living. A return to the consolations of a recognisable land, a place of significant memories. But Camus still fails to make the leap quite yet. It would take him the disasters of World War Two before he would pronounce ‘I rebel – therefore we exist’. That is, it is the we, that combination of the I and the other that matter.
In The Plague, before the friends Rieux and Tarrou swim at night in the bay of Oran, Tarrou states: ‘it’s too damn silly living only in and for the plague. Of course, a man should fight for the victims, but if he ceases caring for anything outside that, what’s the use of his fighting?’ The task is empty without a sense that what matters is our attachments to those around us. David Hume, too, said something of the sort in his Treatise of Human Nature.
‘Let all the powers and elements of nature conspire to serve and obey one man; let the sun rise and set at his command; the sea and the rivers role as he pleases, and the earth still furnish spontaneously whatever may be useful or agreeable to him; he will still be miserable, till you give him one person at least with whom he may share his happiness, and whose esteem and friendship he may enjoy.’
Ian Watt quotes this passage in his discussion of Robinson Crusoe in The Rise of the Novel. And it is Crusoe who I would like to turn to in the next passages.