my almost-instinct almost true

today i got a tattoo. it’s been my practice the last few times i’ve gotten tattoos to write something explaining to my friends and, more importantly, to future iterations of myself why i’ve done so.

the tattoo is “what will survive of us is love,” the last line of “an arundel tomb,” the last poem in the whitsun weddings by philip larkin. here’s the poem:

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd—
The little dogs under their feet.


Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.


They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor’s sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.


They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read. Rigidly they


Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time. Snow fell, undated. Light
Each summer thronged the glass. A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground. And up the paths
The endless altered people came,


Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:


Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.


i got it for a lot of reasons, perhaps most proximate of which is that i want to remind myself, indelibly and irrefutably, to keep caring. i spend so much of my life careening back and forth from the tremulous terror of caring to the contrivance of forced indifference. (“i am always tying up/and deciding to depart.”) i prefer frenetic activity, even of the self-destructive variety, to the abject capitulation of waiting, hoping, hurting. loving well is like falling, like submitting to a force that will carry you away with it, like making a choice that negates itself by becoming an enslavement, inescapable. like turning oneself over to one’s captor. i know how it can be: how you can feel like your body is nothing but screaming. i remember reading an essay in an  english class about gawain and the green knight, about the eroticism of the scene in which gawain kneels, offers his neck up for decapitation, and waits. it’s simple, really, so simple it sounds stupid, but it’s scary to give people license to hurt you. (the green knight doesn’t end up beheading gawain, by the way. spoiler alert.) scariest of all is just to sit and wait and believe that the right people will return to you when so many of them have been mislaid, when so many have chosen to be lost in the chaos of a life. the best gift you can give someone is your unabashed fear. but of course it’s much easier to adopt defenses, which is what most of us do most of the time. that’s why i got the tattoo on the back of my neck: so that i have to trust in it and its permanence, even when i can’t see it. affection is always invisible, and for the terrified there is no sufficient proof. there is only faith.

so why this poem? first of all because i love the whitsun weddings: its show of toughness (get stewed! books are a load of crap!);  its dejected and quietly desperate hopelessness. but all of this is redeemed and vindicated by the tentative, tremulous sense of possibility encapsulated in the last line. (“sharp tender shock” indeed.) it reminds me of the zadie smith essay about joy, in which she quotes someone mourning: “it hurts as much as it is worth.” yes. we subject ourselves over and over again to the festival of anxiety  and pain that is interpersonal relations precisely because sometimes, inexplicably, there is an impossible convergence.

i like also that “an arundel tomb” resists the lure of certainty: it’s precisely because the anxiety is unrelenting, because it afflicts every attempt at love or trust or caring, because all of these things often appear to us as “almost” rather than absolute, that they’re so difficult to do. i’ve spent a lot of my time over the past few months reading and thinking about iris murdoch, who thinks that love is a kind of ‘unselfing,’ and this poem is about that too: about subordinating the egoism of a name or an explanation to the mystery of the mute stupid animal throb of loving. exchanging words, sometimes, for materials–bodies, stone. the solidity of bodies is a kind of partial certainty, if we let it be. (“our flesh surrounds us with its own decisions.”) loving well is work. accepting that someone needs something incomprehensible to you, that someone is indeed experiencing something you cannot fathom or penetrate–this is hard. trusting in bodies and sentiments you cannot see, cannot secure, is hard.

but maybe, at least almost, in this flash of transience, in the the blindingly momentary blaze that is human encounter and communion, there is the only kind of meaningful duration. why? because loving makes us infinite, because moments of pure ecstasy are outside of time? maybe. more likely because all our paltry products–the sculptures or poems or books that we gift “the endless altered people,” in part as a way of selfishly thwarting our own mortality–are relevant solely because we are bound to future human beings by love, by a phenomenon so quintessentially human that we can be sure they’ll understand it. that’s why it’s worth it to write at all. because you want to give people something. because you love them. and so this tattoo will outlive me for a while, anyway, as i hope some of my writing will, if any of it’s ever good enough. what will survive of me is love.


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