This edition is an updated version of one I published in 2010
As the sun goes down this Wednesday evening the seven day Jewish festival of Succos will begin. Some of you may know this festival as The Feast of the Tabernacles. In any event, among Jews it is known as The Time of Our Happiness. A favourite time of year for Jewish manic depressives like me, clearly.
The whole happiness theme is liable to send me on a trip down the leafy undulations of memory lane. It brings to mind the era when I was a student of the Dark Arts of Philosophy, back in the halcyon days of the twentieth century, when the Soviet Union was going through General Secretaries of the Communist Party like there was no tomorrow. While I was hanging around in Covent Garden playing chess, busy being a Founder member of The Chelsea Poets and learning how to spell Wittgenstein, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko shuffled off their mortal coils, to be succeeded by every capitalist’s favourite Soviet leader, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Margaret (‘Stand Down , Margaret, Stand Down’) Thatcher was showing the National Union of Mineworkers a thing or two back then, as I recall.
But I digress, as Tony Blair says frequently in his most entertaining biographical tome ‘A Journey’.
The pursuit of happiness, ah yes. It brings to mind that famous Empiricist Philosopher of the late 17th century, John Locke. He wrote in his 1693 bodice – ripper An Essay Concerning Human Understanding that : “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.”
On Succos, Jews are commanded to be happy. The Talmud recounts scenes of raucous abandon in courtyards of The Second Temple as Jews tried to out do each other in the fulfilment of this religious obligation.
As the father of a son and a daughter I have been in a position over the years (although with sharply declining frequency, I must admit,) to command them to do things. ‘Apologise to you brother/sister!’ was a family favourite. Or, ‘Stack the dishwasher!’ On second thoughts that one never really caught on. In any event, my doctors have never tried the ‘Smile!’, or ‘Laugh when I tell you to!’ approach with me.
But Succos is not all belly-laughs and giggling in the temporary huts we build for ourselves and dwell in as commanded by The Almighty. On the Shabbos (Saturday in English), we read The Book of Ecclesiastes. This is a book that starts with the slogan of The Association for the Advancement of Depression: ‘Futility, futility, everything is futility!’ The Rabbis teach us that we are meant to read this text during the festival to temper our mood, an antidote to frivolity. Quite.
For those of you who are still reading, you must be wondering what this rambling stream of consciousness on the ironies of the festival of Succos has the title ‘The Elephant in the Room’. The Talmud discusses the laws regarding the construction of these temporary huts at great length. The question is asked: ‘Can an elephant form one of the walls of the Succah?’ (I kid you not). The answer is a resounding ‘Yes, We Can!’ with the one understandable proviso that the elephant must not move. So a dead elephant is fine.
Since my G.P. wrote me my first sick note for depression back in the spring of 2001, I have seen a change in how mental illness is viewed by The General Public. Although I have always been up-front about my diagnosis, I have seen and heard a wide range of reactions to my disclosure. People still ask me ‘How are you feeling?’ (Do you really want me to tell you? I’m thinking.) Sometimes, I actually tell them. Back in 2001, a friend asked me this while we were watching a football match on T.V. ‘Suicidal,’ I replied. The conversation abruptly turned towards a detailed analysis of the use of The Christmas Tree Formation by the teams running about in pursuit if a ball on the screen in front of us. He’s known for a long time now when to ask, and is ready to hear my reply.
Cycling is a great teacher. One of the things that it has taught me this summer, is that I can change my plans, and do things on the spur of the moment – and nothing bad will happen. In fact, last minute changes of plan and doing things on the spur of the moment, have led to some of my most satisfying experiences. For example, the recent cycling trip I went on with my son in Dorset.
As a rule, I’m not a fan of translations, translations of poems, in particular. However, this one makes me think it would be worth learning Japanese to read the original.
I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy,
And remember it fondly.
Fujiwara No Kiyosuke (1104 – 1177)