Can Europe Make It?

On not saying goodbye

The phantasmagoria continues, in pursuit of Duns Scotus

Iain Galbraith
9 May 2021, 9.56am
Duns Scotus's sarcophagous: "Scotland brought me forth. England sustained me. France taught me. Cologne holds me."
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Wikicommons/ www.franziskaner-minoriten.de. Some rights reserved.

Sometimes it seems not a week has passed since an old friend of mine sat at my kitchen table recounting the loss he had sustained. Before I tell the story let me dwell briefly on "sustain". Could it mean keeping your loss in mind? Or keeping hold of what we have lost? Usually it characterizes the sustainer as an endurer, one who grits his or her teeth in the face of affliction and keeps going, someone compelled to submit to distress, woe-begone.

The word itself, from Latin sub + tenere, suggests what happens when loss is sustained: we hold it down. This is an attitude of unbearably private, inconsolable grief. The loss has nowhere else to go. Time stands still. In the years of Covid and Grenfell how sick one gets of public statements of the "hopes and prayers" type, with public figures "reaching out" to "share" a grief that touches their hearts like water on wax! For all their professed empathy, in the very next sentence they are "rolling out" and "ramping up" as if there were no tomorrow. But perhaps I should not be so cynical. For some, there is really is no tomorrow.

The loss sustained by my friend has remained in my mind. It is unforgettable. While bereavements accumulate as one gets older and may elide, his remains clear-cut, apparently resistant to the subtle workings of oblivion. However, this may have less to do with the story itself than with how he got up from the table after telling it and left my flat without saying "goodbye". At the time I felt irritated, shocked even. And for years I felt unaccountably tied to him and to what he had told me. I had listened as a friend should. So why did I feel burdened? Later I asked myself: why do we mark the beginning of an absence so clearly by "taking leave"? Is it to give that absence a comprehensible shape? A contracted and controllable shape? To create a before and after, in other words a past, helping us to maintain a sustainable distance? By not saying goodbye, my friend had somehow turned his loss into my own. Perhaps his burden grew lighter.

For several decades, so he told me, Sheila (not her real name), an accountant in a tax-office, had walked past Duns Scotus's final resting place in Cologne twice a day – on her way to work and home in the afternoon. Her flat, built with paper-thin walls immediately after the war, had belonged to her mother, the only child of her grandmother (the men had died in the wars), and Sheila, another only child, had inherited it. Sheila had left Cologne only on three occasions. As a child during the war she had been evacuated to an isolated "home" in the Eiffel. On the other two occasions, in 1963 and 1976, she went on holiday abroad. Her first holiday took her to Duns, in the Scottish borders. She wanted to see where this famous medieval philosopher from Scotland, buried, some said alive, only a couple of hundred yards from her flat, had come from. Perhaps she would discover why he had come to Cologne.

In Duns nearly everything is the same as in Cologne, she said. The buildings point to the sky, pavements are raised above the road, there are shops, an ancient church, and people look no different from the folk in Cologne. There is no sign of the philosopher. (The cairn and statue were raised shortly after her visit.) I took a bus out of the village and found a pig-farm. I had never seen pigs before. Actually, I had never been in a village before. They are different from Cologne in having ends. You walk and it finishes. I like that.

Two years later she travels to a warmer place where the men stand smoking in groups and the women hurry by. Often they turn after passing each other and speak while walking backwards. It's a town by the sea. You can reach the end by walking for three-quarters of an hour. The road disappears at the horizon beyond the end. She returns to Cologne and buys a television.

In her flat the sitting-room is almost bare. There is a television and a small shelf on the wall above the table where we sit and drink tea. On the shelf is the tea cosy she bought in Duns, salt and pepper, a photograph of me, her son, a telephone and three books. One of the books is about Duns Scotus. She often took me to see his coffin when I was small. The others are a bible, and a telephone directory. She will die in 2005.

I have never visited her grave but I have, in the meantime, twice been to see Duns Scotus's sarcophagus in Cologne. His bones rest in peace in the Minoritenkirche, not far from the main train station, a few minutes from the Rhein. According to Duns Scotus "there is nothing of time but an instant". You walk and it finishes. All this is happening now.

This piece was originally published in the May edition of Splinters.

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