In Sebastian Barry’s novel, A Temporary Gentleman, Jack McNulty, protagonist and narrator of the story, sits in a house in newly-independent Ghana and writes a memoir of his life. It is not a happy tale, there are more regrets than happinesses, there are chances lost forever, moments that will never be redeemed, hurts that cannot be healed, but McNulty never drifts for long from a mood of optimism. Strangely, it is the spirituality of McNulty, a man without a professed belief, that creates a mood whereby, no matter how bleak the outcome, there is an indestructible hope.
In the minute book that provides him with writing paper, McNulty writes:
Our greatest trouble and our saving grace is that we have a soul. Time may seem like a great flood dragging with it all the debris of the past and catching you at last running through your own fields. Where there was once a great fire may seem only an ember now in the palm of your hand. But the ember is the soul and nothing on earth can rescind it.
Our greatest trouble? That sense that life can never be entirely abandoned, that our failures and wrongdoings remain with us? Our saving grace? That opportunity remains for failures to be corrected, for wrongs to be righted?
For if Jack McNulty is wrong, if not even an ember remains after this life, then where are we left? It would reduce life to a soap opera, a series of episodes with no beginning and no end, and no meaning other than a passing impact on the characters involved, a storyline forgotten as soon as the next begins. Or worse than a soap opera, life would become a farce, a mad drama where some characters act as they please without impunity, while others are permanently victims in a plot they do not understand. If there is not even an ember, then even the writing of Franz Kafka at its darkest is filled with light and purpose when compared with the reality of human existence.
Of course, there are those who would argue that there is no need for a soul because there is no meaning in life, that everything is a matter of chance circumstance, that meaning is only something imagined by those who have not the emotional strength to cope with the idea that this is it, that the here and now is all there is.
But if there is no soul and no meaning, then who decides what is right and what is wrong? Who decides what is beautiful and what is ugly? Who decides what is true and what is false?
Without Jack McNulty’s ember, without a soul that cannot be rescinded we live lives of Hobbesian nasty, brutish shortness.