Today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of John Wilson. Or to put it another way, it’s the 105th birthday of Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange and quite a few even better novels.
I was reminded of the opening lines of his two volumes of ‘Confessions’, his entertaining, erratic and often entirely fictional autobiography: “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there’s no excuse for being idle now.”
It’s a quote I often recall. In fact, over a decade ago, when I was embarking on doctoral research into Burgess, I was invited to write about the quotation which most inspired me. I chose this one, because it inspires and chills me in equal measure. That article can be read on this site, but I’m reappropriating it below, because you never know when the vicissitudes of the internet will darken a site forever. At least this one I can keep an eye on.
Happy birthday, old droogy. I raise a glass to you, and perhaps a cheeky smoke too. You’ve had your time, and you definitely earned your eternity.
On initial encounter, this quotation from the beginning of Anthony Burgess’s ‘Confessions’ appears to be the Protestant work ethic expressed by one of late modernism’s greatest lapsed Catholics. But it is so much more than it seems.
In that first word ‘wedged’, we have the entirety of the existentialist condition succinctly summarised, the Beckettian paradox of ‘I can’t go on; I’ll go on’. We are, says Burgess, trapped in this plane of existence. There is no point debating it or fighting it. A calm acceptance of our lot is the principium mobile towards any meaningful achievement.
The ‘eternities of idleness’ is problematic. It suggests that there is some form of existence beyond this one from which we emerge and to which we depart, static states in which nothing can be achieved. This posits, perhaps, an afterlife and behind it a God-figure. Equally, it may be read as agnostic. We cannot know anything beyond the parameters of our existence and anything that may occur in such realms, should they exist, cannot influence our here and now.
That ‘idleness’ is perhaps judgemental; it suggests languid rest amid the clouds with the angels, but primarily it sets up the denouement of the statement, in which there is ‘no excuse for being idle now’.
It is a call to arms, an order to act in the face of existential malaise. Privileged to exist, we pay for that privilege by being required to do something meaningful with it. Burgess does not seek to define what is meaningful in this sense and what is not. He leaves that to the individual reader to define. For him, obviously, it meant artistic creation, both in literary and musical forms. But he does not prescribe this path for anyone else.
Fundamentally, this quotation always struck me as a kindly and paternalistic guidance from Burgess. He does not wish to see anyone waste a single moment of their finite existence. He desires that we live in the now, smelling the coffee and flowers, rising above our solipsism to perform, to act, to make an optimistic and definitive step towards engagement with our surroundings and with each other. He asks us to reach out and form communicative connections with our surroundings.
Anytime I have found my mind wondering, my heart slackening, I take solace from this quotation which then drives me back into the chair to write, back to the task in hand, back towards interaction, towards engagement, towards the completion of meaningful activity.
It is a warning of mortality couched in stern but highly optimistic terms. It offers us purpose.