Calling on my mother, I found my sisters repainting the kitchen. Lockdown has not inhibited domestic improvement, the scaffolding from last week’s re-felting of the roof is still in place. My father’s death in March has prompted my mother to put the house in an order that she consider appropriate for her remaining years.
To plan household improvements to prepare for the remainder of one’s days seems the sort of activity demanding composure and an unflinching confrontation with reality.
Henry James in Colm Tóibín’s The Master finds a house in Rye in southern England in which to live, a house which feels as though it is the very place for which he has been searching, but also a house which has a profound impact upon his thinking. Tóibín writes,
“Strangely, in the months which followed, he felt mainly fear, as though he had embarked unprepared on some vast and risk-filled: financial speculation in which everything he owned could be lost. He had arrangements to make now, extra staff to engage, furniture and household goods to buy, an apartment in London to lease or keep. He also had to ensure his financial future now that he had made these steep commitments. But something other than mere arrangements filled him with a vague, unnameable foreboding. It took him weeks to understand what it was and then it came to him in a flash: when he walked into the upstairs rooms of Lamb House, and into the room where he himself would sleep, he believed that he had come into the room where he would die. As he studied the lease, he knew that its twenty-one years would take him to the tomb. The walls of the house had witnessed men and women come and go for almost three hundred years; now it had invited him to sample briefly its charm, it had enticed him there and offered him its unlasting hospitality. It would welcome him and then see him out, as it had seen others out. He would lie stricken in one of those rooms; he would lie cold in that house. The idea both froze his blood and comforted him at the same time. He had travelled without hesitation to meet his own place of death, to remove its mystery, one of its unknown dimensions. But he would also go there to live, to spend long days working and long evenings by the fire. He had found his home, he who had wandered so uneasily, and he longed for its engulfing presence, its familiarity, its containing beauty”. The Master, p.132
Existentialist thinkers would have clapped James for his realisation. The fear that inhibits our true freedom as human beings can be overcome only when death is confronted. The existentialist view of the anxiety experienced by James would be that it was a spur to authenticity. Only when we have confronted the prospect of our nothingness can we be free to live authentic lives.
Mum would seem to be an existentialist.