and this is my robe, slightly singed

Narcissus, gazing at his image in the pool, wept.
A friend passing by saw him and asked, “Narcissus, why do you weep?”
“Because my face has changed”, Narcissus said.
“Do you cry because you grow older?”
“No. I see that I am no longer innocent. I have been gazing at myself long and long, and so doing have worn out my innocence”.

I don’t know where this passage is originally from. It was quoted in a novel I read in my twenties soon after graduating from NIMHANS as a psychiatrist.

Here, Narcissus mourns his loss of innocence from gazing too long at himself. I could relate to this feeling. As a post-graduate student of Psychiatry I often felt disconcerted by gazing too long into other people’s minds, then gazing into my own to fathom the meaning of what was going on in those other minds. Lectures, seminars and case conferences were also about much the same thing, as they had to be.

Studying the human psyche too closely can recalibrate the filters of one’s mind. I realised this when I stepped out of University into the regular world, because looking for layers of meaning had become second nature.

Like Narcissus, I keenly felt the loss of innocence.

*****

A couple of months ago I bought a book of poems by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska from a tiny bookstore in New York, the sort where poetry books sit cheek by jowl with books on philosophy, history, geology and other things, crammed together without strict categorisation, exactly the way I like bookstore shelves to be. It leaves room for serendipitous finds like this one! I had never heard of Szymborska but the first few pages got me hooked.

I am halfway through the book now, reading one every two-three days, savouring each poem slowly. This is one I read last week.

Soliloquy for Cassandra

Here I am, Cassandra.
And this is my city under ashes.
And these are my prophet’s staff and ribbons.
And this is my head full of doubts.

It’s true, I am triumphant.
My prophetic words burn like fire in the sky.
Only unacknowledged prophets
are privy to such prospects.
Only those who got off on the wrong foot,
whose predictions turned to fact so quickly—
it’s as if they’d never lived.

I remember it so clearly—
how people, seeing me, would break off in midword. Laughter died.
Lovers’ hands unclasped.
Children ran to their mothers.
I didn’t even know their short-lived names.
And that song about a little green leaf—
no one ever finished it near me.

I loved them.
But I loved them haughtily.
From heights beyond life.
From the future. Where it’s always empty
and nothing is easier than seeing death.
I’m sorry that my voice was hard.
Look down on yourselves from the stars, I cried,
look down on yourselves from the stars.
They heard me and lowered their eyes.

They lived within life.
Pierced by that great wind.
Condemned.
Trapped from birth in departing bodies.
But in them they bore a moist hope,
a flame fuelled by its own flickering.
They really knew what a moment means,
oh any moment, any one at all
before—

It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.
And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.
And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.

Having never formally studied poetry I don’t know how to critique a poem. If it speaks to me, that’s it, I read it over and over again and enjoy it for a long time.

One of the reasons I read poems is because the glimpses I catch from not being able to fully understand them make them tantalising, like an unsolved mystery, or an entrancing world spied through a lace curtain. I love the fuzziness of impressionist paintings for the same reason.

I hadn’t heard this story before, the story of Cassandra who was given the gift of prophecy but was fated to never be believed. Her triumph was only in knowing the future, because the predictions turned to fact so quickly. How frustrating that must’ve been!

Cassandra raving
Met Museum collection, impression from an 1852 reissue of the 1795 original

*****

It’s how I feel about mental illnesses like schizophrenia that can only be managed, not cured. So triumph is only in diagnosis, while the poor prognosis of the illness, sadly, turns to fact quickly. That goes for a host of physical diseases as well, not only psychoses.

Patients diagnosed schizophrenic often relapse because of missed doses despite the time and effort I put into explaining possible outcomes to the caregiver, with diagrams, with special emphasis on the need for regular meds. But there, that’s how it goes. I know how hard it is to care for someone 24/7, so I simply slip into damage-control mode, like the GPS in my car that merely suggests a different route when I miss a turn.

It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.

Yet –

They lived within life.
Pierced by that great wind.
Condemned.
Trapped from birth in departing bodies.
But in them they bore a moist hope,
a flame fuelled by its own flickering.
They really knew what a moment means,
oh any moment, any one at all
before—

They lived within life. I admire their moist hope (which I take to mean either ‘alive’ or ‘tear-soaked’) that tomorrow will be better, their son’s new medicine will work better, they will soon see him going out to work like other youngsters, getting married, being ordinary. A flame fuelled by its own flickering. This, to me, is hope, not denial.

When they smilingly report an incremental improvement it seems they really knew what a moment means, any one at all before . . . Maybe not. Maybe I read the hope in their eyes that way, or they reflect the hope I convey, because I never give up until there are no options left and the disease inexorably settles into chronicity.

After all, schizophrenia is caused by a gene connected with the immune system, one that was meant to control the handling of invading organisms and cell debris, but has unfortunately been repurposed – wrongly – for pruning synapses of brain cells. The logical treatment for schizophrenia is still in the future, reducing current treatment to controlling symptoms and normalising the patient’s life to the extent possible.

Individual lines in the poem leap out at me like coded messages, exhorting me to look back at the years I spent working with patients, to ask myself if my voice was hard, and my caring ever seemed haughty because I had to school my expression most of the time.

Did I inadvertently make patients lower their eyes, make them feel judged by the impatience that crept into my voice when they fiddled with their doses? When I urged them to see the big picture, to look down on yourselves from the stars, did it come across as patronising?

And this is my head full of doubts.

This poem gave words to some of the feelings that swirled within me for the longest time, especially helplessness in the face of illnesses that could only be managed and not cured.

That’s the thing about Art and Poetry; they gently tap and feel and nudge around what lies dormant in your heart and, in so doing, shake loose a repressed feeling that has been sitting there like a stone in a shoe. They make you feel lighter – at least for a few moments – that you are not alone in your turmoil, that somebody, somewhere on earth, possibly living in a different time, has felt what you feel.

And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.

My robe – my old lab coat – now lies folded in a corner of my wardrobe, unlikely to be used again since I stopped working some time ago. Books, notes, photocopies of journal articles, and more than twenty years worth of patients’ case files – my prophet’s junk – lie in a cupboard in my study, to be eventually shredded and sent for pulping.

The last two lines of this poem are harsh and bitter. I don’t know what to make of them. They bring up a completely different set of images in my mind.

And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.

Cassandra’s inability to use her gift was due to Apollo’s curse, and the backstory has parallels in today’s world – of broken promises, misunderstandings, anger and retaliation. A significant number of women – and a smaller number of men – in bad relationships consider their life a curse and seek help for depression, anxiety, anger, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, breakdowns and other mental health problems.

Could any of us have come up with a solution for Cassandra’s predicament? I don’t think so, just as we can’t for some illnesses that can’t be cured, no matter how much we know about them.

*****

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4 thoughts on “and this is my robe, slightly singed

  1. I did like it when you explained that it can be managed, brought in control, but can’t be rid off. Even Prof Nash, the most famous victim said that he still “saw images, heard low voices” but had learnt to strictly neglect it as it was “Ineffectual”. Thanks and regards.
    PS: perhaps it is so with many life’s personal, philosophical/political etc. problems or even hard core famous unsolved math conjectures like Riemann hypothesis…we human beings can only partially solve such problems…even hard core objective problems…not to speak of emotional problems 🙂 But, as Robert Frost said “I can sum up life in three words, “It goes on!”

    Like

  2. The article was riveting with its juxtapositions and musings. The beauty of it is that each of us can draw parallels from this powerful analogy of Casandra and our own life journeys. However it is your sensitivity that has steered us into that realm.

    Like

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