The times are turning bad again. I have been arrested for going to see a private art collection. Can you believe it? An old man of nearly eighty, a retired magistrate, is put in prison on suspicion. Instead of sitting on a dais giving judgment, here I am sitting on a stone floor waiting to be judged. Of course I’m only on remand. No one has tried or condemned me yet for the crime I am supposed to have committed, but still I’ve been here for weeks—long enough almost to have got used to the stench of the bucket in the corner. The jailer—a friendly man— says that the prisons are so full of people arrested on suspicion that it will take months, if not years, to sort out who is guilty and who is not.
Guilty of what? Conspiracy. Five years ago the Prime Minister was executed for conspiracy and anyone who ever had anything to do with him is still under suspicion. What did I have to do with such an important person? I went with some friends to look at his art collection. A rare privilege, as I thought, which turned out to be a curse.
I must not think of it as such. At my age one should be wiser and calmer. A man of my age has seen everything, done everything that he is ever likely to see or do. If he does not understand life as he nears the end of it, he never will. I have spent my life looking intensely at the socalled “ten thousand things” that make up the world—man among them. I have constantly drawn them, thought and talked about them, drunk or sober, and they are not, in principle, difficult to understand.
Life turns out to be much simpler than one imagines to start with, when one is young and everything is new and confusing. It is just a matter of following one’s nature, like a bird or a fish—in spite of such universal distractions as hunger, thirst, the urge to procreate, adversities and even disasters—always making, if one is a bird, for the thickest woods and if one is a fish for the deepest water.
Now suddenly, in my seventy-eighth year, chance, fate—whatever name one gives to something beyond one’s own control—has thrown me into prison for the first time. A fresh experience, yes, but does it invalidate all my previous experience, does it falsify my understanding of life? Why should it? I have seen plenty of people sent to prison, I have sent some of them there myself. It is one of the things that happen to people, that men do to one another, for good reasons or bad, and not essentially different from being ill or injured in an accident or losing everything one has. If it cannot be avoided, it must be accepted and one must try as always to follow one’s nature through it. This is the only wisdom I have acquired in a life lived through very troubled times and it would be folly, hysteria, and do no good at all to curse my luck. Better to bless my luck for bringing me to such an age without ever having been imprisoned before.
I can see the ironic side of it too: that I, for whom art has been my thickest woods and deepest water—the thing which sustained me through many difficulties, annoyances and sadnesses—should finally fall into a trap baited with art, like a fish or a bird caught by its own appetite.
Well, what can I do but continue to follow my nature and rely on art to lift me out of this hole? I shall revisit as much of my life as I can or care to remember, re-visualise it, re-imagine it. For although the principle of life is simple, its patterns of growth and survival and decay are complex. Every creature makes an individual pattern, human beings no less than fish or birds. But the clearest examples of this are plants, especially trees, whose patterns over time are, as it were, drawn on space. I shall try to see the pattern of my own life in the way I see a tree in a landscape and to look at myself as someone else. I shall be the scholar in the bottom corner of the painting who stands on a convenient crag and carries the viewer’s eye away from himself and into the landscape. But in this case I shall also be one of the landscape’s inhabitants. And so, as that person within the painting I shall experience time—life unfolding without knowledge of its future—but as this person on the crag, who has already passed through all that time, I shall experience it as a whole, as space, and perhaps perceive its pattern for the first time. Except, of course, for the relatively short time still to come when I shall have finished telling this story, viewing this landscape, when I shall turn away and go—where and how?
* * *
Rivers and mountains form the background to this story and from their perspective it is a straightforward one, except that in the eighty-fifth year of the Yuan Dynasty the Yellow River changed its course. This was a complication with important consequences for human beings, though perhaps it made no great difference to the Yellow River, which, seven years later, was re-channelled in its new course by an energetic Chancellor, a clever engineer, twenty thousand Mongol soldiers and a hundred and fifty thousand local peasants. That too had important consequences for the people of our Empire, but hardly for mountains, nor for the Yangzi River and the many smaller rivers to the south of it, where our story mostly happens, except that they had to carry away a lot of human blood and corpses. Rivers do that all the time during periods of bad government and make nothing of it.
–from The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling (Overlook, 2014)