I have always enjoyed Dessaix’s skills as a writer and this book is no exception. He is capable of beautiful expression and structure with great clarity. This doesn’t stop him from employing wide ranging literary and other references which are relatively easy to negotiate though familiarity certainly helps. (In my case, as a fellow-traveller to pre-war Syria, I identified strongly with his responses to that country and its diverse antiquity). The poem by Philip Larkin which he uses as his reference point and book title generated the potentially quizzical statement ‘What Days are For’ and bedded in an intensive care situation, he commences his evaluative musings on his life and work.
There is no indication that he was capable of producing this text mentally at the time of his hospitalisation (St Vinnies in Sydney) but clearly the real experience and context in which he found himself would certainly inspire some of the exploratory trains of thought that his context, experience and visitors set in train for him. I was delighted by the way he counterpointed the day to day experience (sad, quizzical and humorous) of being hospitalised with his wide-ranging examinations of his memories. A further parallel train of thought is employed as he becomes increasingly aware of the premiere reading of his one and only play ‘A Mad Affair’ that will take place without him at NIDA and will later be translated into Russian. This is tied to his professional love affair with the Russian language and culture.
There are a number of strands that are considered including, inevitably, his birth status and his adoptive family life. However his well-known travels and musings on matters of literature, philosophy, religion and spirituality are canvassed (often intertwined as in the case of his love affair with India and the Silk Road). Concepts of love, infatuation, lust, the ineffable, death and ‘darshan’ (the electrifying sense of seeing at the moment of being seen) are all considered as well as his long-standing relationship with his partner, Peter Timms. It is possible to see this book as a kind of companion to his earlier ‘A Mother’s Disgrace’ while there is also a brief reference to Arabesques.
The psychology in my background causes me to think of the stages of moral development proposed by Erik Erikson and by Lawrence Kohlberg. Both indicate toward a late (final?) stage of living when an individual may be prone to reflection and self-evaluation. Erikson, in particular, specifies this stage.
Wisdom: ego integrity vs. despair (maturity, 65 – death)
Existential Question: Is it Okay to Have Been Me?
As we grow older and become senior citizens we tend to slow down our productivity and explore life as a retired person. It is during this time that we contemplate our accomplishments and are able to develop integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life. If we see our life as unproductive, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness.
The final developmental task is retrospection: people look back on their lives and accomplishments. They develop feelings of contentment and integrity if they believe that they have led a happy, productive life. They may instead develop a sense of despair if they look back on a life of disappointments and unachieved goals.
This stage can occur out of the sequence when an individual feels they are near the end of their life (such as when receiving a terminal disease diagnosis). (Wiki)
Like many gay men, Dessaix has lived with an HIV diagnosis and may therefore have had earlier reasons for contemplative thought and writing. However, his massive heart attack and subsequent incorrect treatment are entirely appropriate reasons for his thoughts and this writing. It is uplifting that he finds himself as fulfilled and happy as he expresses.