PMGenesis: Chapter 1
Peter Milward's Autobiography: Genesis of an Octogenarian (2008)
Who is Peter Milward?
A Lifetime with Hopkins by Peter Milward
Arise My Love by William Johnston, S.J.
Mystical Journey, the autobiography of William Johnston, S.J., Peter's colleague and author of Mystical Theology and many works on mysticism
1. Attempt at an Autobiography
“Why not write an autobiography?” Such is the suggestion, or temptation, that has been put to me more than once. From my petty point of view the past eighty years of my life have indeed been full of fascination. To Sir Thomas Browne, writing in the seventeenth century while still a young man, his life seemed to be “a miracle of thirty years”, and to relate it, he adds, “would sound to common ears more like a fable”, a piece not of history but of poetry. I can say the same, or rather twice or three times the same, of my life in the twentieth century – from the time I was born, on October 12 1925, till the beginning of the third millennium. At least, that is how it seems to me. But the problem now facing me is, How can I make it seem so to others? Well, I can at least make the attempt. As we say, “Nothing venture, nothing have.” Or, “The most we can do is our little best.”
For this purpose I may take courage from the words not only of Sir Thomas Browne but also of his great admirer in the following century, Dr Samuel Johnson. “I have often thought,” says the latter, “that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.” All too often we think of the genres of biography and autobiography as the proper preserve of famous men, those whom we call “VIP” and whose potted lives we expect to find in the volumes of Who’s Who. But what about those other people whom we might call “VUP” (for “Very Unimportant People”), of whom we might possibly find a potted life in a different kind of volume entitled Who’s Not Who? Mightn’t, as Dr Johnson suggests, an interesting book be written about them? Or at least, if not about them, considering the probable paucity of documentary material, then by them? In other words, what about getting such VUPs to write down their own autobiographies, not as potted lives for a Who’s Not Who but as separate volumes standing each by itself in a series? This is where I may hope to come in, as I write not only about my little self but also about the times through which I have lived through a period of eighty years, if from my limited point of view.
In this connection, the words of yet a third author occur to my mind out of the rich treasury of English literature. Not only Sir Thomas Browne, nor only Dr Samuel Johnson, but even George Bernard Shaw I find coming to my rescue. Famous though he is for his drama, he prefers to regard himself as a journalist, like his friend GK Chesterton. “I deal with all periods,” he states concerning his drama, “but I never study any period but the present, which I have not yet mastered and never shall.” He goes on to say, quite outrageously, yet quite truly, “The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.” Splendid! Shaw has the courage to tell the truth about himself. He has the courage to admit that his Joan of Arc isn’t the historical Joan, that great figure of fifteenth-century France whom no historian and no biographer has succeeded in representing as she really was, but George Bernard Shaw masquerading under her name and putting his own thoughts into her mouth. Such is the way he brings her to life on the stage, as no other dramatist has done. Shakespeare, too, might have said the same of any of his living heroes. They live in so far as he lives and speaks in them, not only the heroes but even the villains, not only the heroines but even or especially the fools.
In all these cases, what, it may be asked, is the meaning of Shaw? And what is the meaning of Shakespeare? Aren’t the two dramatists precisely opposed to each other, apart from the obvious alliteration of their surnames? Isn’t Shakespeare the very advocate of variety, as it were losing himself in all his characters, till we wonder (with John Keats) if he has any character of his own? And isn’t Shaw the very advocate of unicity, as it were speaking for himself in all his heroes and heroines, till we can’t help thinking of them as mere mouthpieces of his narrow ideology? Shakespeare hardly seems to have an ideology of his own, whereas Shaw is nothing if not ideology. Yet I don’t see that we have to choose between them. It is good for Shakespeare to be Shakespeare, and for Shaw to be Shaw. They both look out of themselves to this living world of men, and in those men they find various reflections of themselves – even if the emphasis of Shakespeare is on “various” and that of Shaw on “himself”. Moreover, in these reflections they find a hidden fascination, which they proceed to communicate to their spectators, or readers, in their plays. What then, we may ask, is the secret source of this fascination? In a word, it is what Socrates – or rather, the Greek oracle at Delphi – called “self-knowledge”. It is what Alexander Pope similarly repeated in his Essay on Man, “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan. The proper study of mankind is man.” “Who am I?” That is the question we all ask ourselves sooner or later. But the answer to this question is to be found not in ourselves but in others, as we find in them – as both Shakespeare and Shaw variously found in them – reflections of ourselves. Then as we express our reflections in words about ourselves, we somehow enable our readers to find themselves in us, in what St Augustine calls “an admirable exchange”.
On the other hand, the world in which we live, move and have our being, isn’t an entirely human world. Too much emphasis on ourselves and others as human beings is in the long run stultifying. It makes us stupid, however much we may pride ourselves, as Pope prided himself, on being rational. “The proper study of mankind is man” – indeed? My response to Pope corresponds to what Alice might have said to the weird inhabitants of her wonderland, “Stuff and nonsense!” Are we, I ask, the only beings on this planet of ours? What about the animals, the insects, the birds and fishes, the trees and flowers on the earth around us? Then above us, what about the sun, the moon and the stars, the clouds and the rain, the sleet and the snow, that come from the clouds with occasional flashes of lightning? “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Hamlet wisely tells his too rationalistic friend Horatio, “than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” At least, we may know others by what we find in ourselves, as reflections of their thoughts and behaviour, but what do we know of all those other beings in whom we find nothing corresponding to our human consciousness? They all seem to be mere objects, not subjects, and yet there is something in them all that defies scientific analysis, something that somehow reflects our subconscious selves. There is something in them at which we have to gaze from afar, in the words of Coleridge, “now all aglow, with colours not their own”, as if inhabiting “splendid palaces of happiness and power”.
Such is the wonderful setting of human life, however insignificant this life may seem to be on closer acquaintance. “No man,” it is said, “is a hero to his valet.” No man is a hero when seen and studied close up. Thus it is that all too many modern biographies which present their great subjects, like Oliver Cromwell, “warts and all”, become little more than exercises in the art of debunking, the art of pulling statues down from their pedestals – if it can be called an art when its characteristic aim is (in Dryden’s words) “nothing to build, and all things to destroy”. Yet the very same man, whether VIP or VUP, when observed from a distance not just in himself but also in his setting, may well take on the charm of distance. After all, it is distance that, as Cowper says, “lends enchantment to the view.” It is when we see a man or a woman or a child in the setting of his or her natural surroundings, with dogs and cats on the ground and birds in the air, with grass and flowers and trees, that we see both them and ourselves to the best advantage. And then we may imagine all kinds of stories in which human beings may be the leading characters without being left to themselves in the unnatural loneliness of an ugly modern industrial city.
In this way, it is when we think of an autobiography, looking beyond the “auto” of the individual ego and beyond the “biography” of the writing about one man’s life, and when we see it as a means of looking out on the world of his “life and times”, yet the world as seen from his unique viewpoint, that it becomes really fascinating. As Dr Johnson again puts it, “There is such an uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill but is common to human kind.” Or as the French put it, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” – The more things or persons change from age to age or nation to nation, the more they remain the same. We merely have to look beneath what is, or what seems to be, merely adventitious to what is (in Shakespeare’s words) “all one, ever the same”, in order to find its hidden fascination. Not that the adventitious is of no value, in comparison to what is all one, but it is precious in serving to bring out what is most precious and more than merely commonplace in that “all one”.
But now I fear I am falling into the marsh or morass of mere Johnsonese, with all these quotations from Dr Johnson, who for all the universally acknowledged grandeur of his cogitations was all too susceptible to the danger of what is termed “blundering bathos”. There is danger in his emphasis on what is common to all mankind, a danger from which we are rescued in good time by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins with his opposite addiction to “all things counter, original, spare, strange”. It isn’t so much what is common to all men that we find fascinating in one another, as rather what is unique in each one, and what enables each one to stand out among many others. It is, for example, what Hopkins finds in kingfishers as they catch fire on diving into a pond for a fish, with a glint on their wings from the rays of the setting sun, and in dragonflies as they draw flame over the same pond in the same hour of sunset. It is something unique in each of these creatures, something in each one of its kind that makes it do “one thing and the same”, dealing out “that being indoors each one dwells”, something that ever “speaks and spells” myself, “crying What I do is me, for that I came.” Such is the ideal of autobiography, showing at once what is common to myself and everyone else, as we are all human beings, and what is unique to my individual self and different from everyone else. As Shakespeare also says of himself, “I am that I am.”
But now, I fear, this is all too general, too abstract, too vague. So I must now turn to the details of my earthly life, as I have lived it first in England and then in Japan, as well as almost everywhere else on the face of the earth, and so I may hope to make it all particular, concrete, clear. In this respect, I recall what Casca says in the moment of assassinating Julius Caesar, “Speak, hands, for me!” and what Macbeth says on his way to a similar assignment with death, “Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.” And that, as Peter Quince also says in his pointless prologue to the play of Pyramus and Thisbe, “is the true beginning of my end.”
(c) Peter Milward & the Society of Jesus, Japan, 2008. Non-commercial free distribution is permitted.
Photos: Peter Milward *** Weblisher: BriFrancis, Japan