‘What does this mean? What are the layers of knowing and unknowing that I went through’ . Reflexes from Michael Rosen’s narrative of how a Covid pandemic has exposed the liminal nature of our experience of identity. Michael Rosen Many Different Kinds of Love: A Story of Life, Death and the NHS (Waterstone’s edition ISBN 9781529109450 including ‘exclusive’ essay by author pp. 273 – 276) London, Ebury Press. With visits by @MichaelRosenYes
Should @MichaelRosenYes see this please forgive inaccuracies or unintended offense. I don’t ‘do’ Twitter anymore but the good friends who put it on that platform for me are in way to blame for any daftness (or worse) in it. Steve. xxx.
Reading Michael Rosen’s new work involves people like myself who have followed him on Twitter into reflexive reflections on the passage of time (their personal recall of those times, as it were, as they passed). It is a great narrative, intentionally fractured in form, genre and the foci of its contents. My awareness of this as I read was based both on the words Rosen writes within it and on personal memories of things to which he refers.
Those memories’ aren’t really ‘personal’ in one sense because I can’t claim to ‘know’ Michael Rose. In any true sense of the word ‘know’ (when it deals with interpersonal matters at least) it would be impossible to sustain such a claim. It just is not the case. I do ‘know’ Michael Rosen however as an icon of lots of areas of thought, feelings and response to the engaged activity of him as a very public man and the exposure this gave to him in media images that were often highly different in character depending on both source and reception. As I followed him on Twitter I became motivated to write an earlier blog about his great work of biography on the period of Emile Zola’s political ‘exile’ (if that is the right word) in England. Seeing Rosen in the public role of the intellectuel engage, much as Zola himself fulfilled such a role, was part of the motivation to write about Rosen and his engagement in public debate through Twitter. It is then worth checking out how I saw him then if the personal element of the following reflections (they are all in the introductory material of the present blog) are of any interest. It can be found by following the link in this sentence.
During the period covered by the stories in Rosen’s present book, I continued to follow him on Twitter, taking part in the public demonstrations of concern at his illness and joy in his ‘recovery’. The fact that many people did so in recorded in the narrative itself, often in ways that make one wonder at the facile nature of some of the things I felt at that time, about his wonderful tweets concerning his return to mobility, for instance, with the aid of Sticky McStickstick:
It seems as if people are glad
that I’m not dead
and they are laughing about
I cringed as I read that. There is something appalling naïve and self-regarding after all about our readiness to express our happiness at the ‘recovery’ of others and to expect the thanks and attempts to cheer us up they elicit from the person experiencing cataclysmic change and the extreme ambivalences of emotion and thought they involve.
There were also references to specific exchanges on Twitter by Rosen with other unnamed correspondents. Indeed, I remembered each of these exchanges as I read about them, especially with one person (whose name or even ‘Twitter-handle’ is unrecorded my memory too) that took Rosen to task for being sufficiently caring about the education of children. How that must have hurt him. Even more telling were those countless tweets that called the Covid pandemic an exaggerated hoax to which Rosen’s own tweets were contributing, as they seemed to see it. He was he interprets, rightly I think, accused of being’ part of a plot or’ ‘plotted against’; the more to emphasise that:
It’s all a trick to take away our freedoms
and make money from masks
Nothing in this public state of moral panic can have surprised Michael Rosen, having, for instance, been accused of being even a traitor to the Jewish community by consolidated political interests on the right and a few other people who seemed otherwise ignorant of The Rosen family’s painful historic connections to the struggle against anti-Semitism. The Rosens experienced the worst consequences as a family of the Holocaust in Germany and contributed intellectually and in political engagement to the opposition to anti-Semitism in Britain. In that last way they were not unlike the less permanent émigré ‘family’ of Emile Zola much earlier in history.
These circumstances bound me in my own imagination to Michael Rosen through acts of legitimate empathy but sadly too in sympathy (hating myself for the presumption that involved at the same time by that often patronising emotional state) and less easily forgiven identification. The latter is ‘less easily forgiven’ because his struggles were so much more than I could have ever personally experienced myself. But these readerly acts of involvement in this narrative can be seen I think as central to what Rosen does in this current book. In my blog on Zola, I ended by citing a passage from the near the end of that book, published in 2017 and written well before and based on a lifetimes’ reflection by Michael Rosen himself. Here is that passage again. It refers to the prose of a letter written by Zola:
… in its time, this kind of language explores similar territory to Proust: in which past, present and future flow into each other, whilst he looks inside or out, one moment figurative, the next topographical, the next polemical. In the word of modern theory, it also expresses ‘liminality’: transition, the moment of being on the border, neither here nor there, but in-between, in the moment of change.
It is worth quoting because it names the ways in which we can say this great new work itself operates. It is ‘about’ and also enacts the actual experience of change and the ways in which the factors involved in change – biological or embodied, personal, interpersonal, social (in its economic and political aspects of course too) – configure themselves with a difference around us all. Tennyson’s In Memoriam does something similar I think and I consider that comparison telling of the quality and significance of this work, although it tends to take its models rather more, as is becoming a Professor of Children’s Literature from Lewis Carroll. The quotation from the Zola book and its ending speculation about the nature of the liminal identity helps too because one poem, in the narrative seems to start where that finishes off: providing a kind of meta-commentary on the method of the work as a whole.
I chew over the word ‘liminal’
and remember how in the class I teach
at university we talked about how portals
in fantasy stories are ‘liminal’,
a space or moment ‘in between worlds’
or on the edge of one world but not quite
where things are transient, temporary
think the Alice books,
Alice going down the rabbit hole,
This is clearly, like the ‘Alice books’, arranged around both a portal and an ‘in-between’ space – between life and death for instance and constantly teeters on the edges of experience it cannot otherwise focus upon , finding edges not only on the outer margins of a vaguely defined thing or experience but also around the holes, much like the ‘rabbit hole’ found by Alice (or the mirror she finds penetrable by her) inside the thing and experience. One such thing and experience – maybe he central one to it as it appears in fragments over time of loss and reparation – is the body and the bodily. Of holes, doorways and other ‘portals’ the body, the embodied mind-brain and the liminal identity these fragments might be summed upas a series of encounters with the making or beaking up into parts a body once considered whole. Identity too appears or disappears, when it does, through these holes:
Panicking that I will never work again
never be able to earn money
for the family,
That’s a hole I disappear into
and I notice that I’m twiddling my toes
over and over and over again.
Sometimes these holes are wounds that imply the vulnerability of the body but that are made in order, paradoxically, to save it. Such holes include the ‘hole in my neck’ that is a tracheostomy. Sometimes they are means of introjecting foodstuffs and fluids to the body, sometimes of draining it of fluids for the purpose of testing. But sometimes they are portals for fantasies of the vampiric feeding off life and / or paradoxically improving it:
Now here’s someone making a hole in me
and sucking out blood.
But will it stop?
Holes into the body so easily become a ‘hole in me’ – a kind of open fissure in identity itself, where it might appear but might as easily disappear. One such hole in the work is the whole section called ‘induced coma’. At least it would be a hole were it not filled by the many appearances of what Michael Rosen is or is not to family, and more amazingly NHS staff with their many versions of who Michael is to them and their children. That is why, I think, Michael has to have two versions of, or parts to, recovery in this book. One that literally mends parts of the body and mind, the other that examines and re-reads these parts, including Michael’s own reading of the coma diary, his readers read earlier in the process of the work’s sequential order.
Reading it, I get to realise
as I lay there unconscious
a nurse sat by my bed
night after night
talking to me,
telling me things,
And that I suppose is why the work of the novel is both co-operative between different writers and readers and at the (national health) service of the individual writer’s autonomy as a person at the same time. I will have more to say about the work as an act of ‘weaning’ later, but for now I want rather to reflect on what kind of writerly identity emerges from this fragmented and holy/holey (since being full of holes is the contemporary equivalent of the space vacated in the body by the spirit or soul of latter years) act of poesis or making.
I need to tread as carefully here as Rosen himself does because in so many ways Rosen cannot recover himself without realising there was something amiss with what he seeks to recover, so much so that recovery part two will be as much a dismantling and remaking in different configurations of that earlier self as a re-finding of the old original. And I urge caution because this whole issue is a matter of uncertainty for important reasons. And the main of these reasons is that the problem with the old Rosen, Michael sometimes appears to think, is that he was too ‘certain’, too sure of himself. Thus from forthright tweeting we move to more ambiguous statements that sometimes say little more than we all must know we age and accept it and die, and accept that too. But acceptance is not giving oneself up to the inevitable. It is the very opposite of that – embracing out vulnerability, partiality and uncertainty of purpose. I will try and unpack that from the text a little. A key poem is a personal favourite of mine – hinged on ambiguities in the meaning of the word ‘certain’ itself.
A certain person.
Someone who says things certainly.
It’s almost an illness:
being certain, even when I’m not.
Pathologically certain, perhaps.
This can only ever be read aloud or mentally voiced in simultaneously multiple ways as it rings the changes on how the word ‘certain’ can be utilised in speech with varying fullness of intent as well as meaning. To perform the role of ‘a certain person’ for instance will depend on inflection of tone, gesture and meaning. We are all individuated however unspecified but sometimes we all also pretend to, or feel compelled to, act as if we are more certain of the appropriateness what we are saying or doing than we are. Hence this apparently artless poem also projects into the purpose of the whole poem itself, if uncertainly. Try reading these lines slowly and several times again:
Now everything’s not certain.
I don’t know what will be.
I’ve got to make myself
not think that I have to be certain about that:
Is this not Hamlet’s ‘to be or not to be’ remade for the twenty-first century? And is not the injunction to ‘make myself’ in that line floating free of its run-on about what the poem and the whole work is about – making and remaking self so that it can survives states of unknowing and not thinking and uncertainty in every which realm. In that sense it embraces the fact that every door we enter or hole we fall into or crawl out of leads to something previously unknown and the better for that. Here then is what Rosen might mean by ‘layers of knowing or unknowing’ in the exclusive essay for the Waterstones edition in my title. 
To read this work with the intensity of which it is capable you may have to free yourself from a slavish attitude to the unitary meaning of words and the parts of a sentence, such that you realise the fact that the injunction is not only ‘make myself not think that..’ but also to ‘make myself as if the act of creative poesis was a new configuration of identity itself. And that configuration will have to take into account how ‘certain’ are the boundaries and the edges between people. Are we really only a ‘certain person’ or a person in the collective as each of the certain persons writing in Rosen’s coma diary become – a co-operative whole. And is to be a certain person to be sure that I will always and forever BE what I am now. Or will that what survives in terms of the human capacity for connectivity to others, as the philosopher Derek Parfit argues, matters more than personal identity, which anyway might be an ideological fiction. Hence the concern with liminal identity – which is, after all, identity in a state of uncertainty, indistinctness and un-specificity.
I think this is why the work embraces a poetry that aspires to the condition of fantasy like that in the best of children’s writing and dreams. many poems are dreams with uncertain meaning. But they tie the work to the genesis of this work’s title where a dream man, in some ways like Harold Rosen, Michaels’s father (although it could also, without arguing this is an intention, be Derek Parfit), preached how, ‘we have to find many different kinds of love / … love even for people / we don’t know’. In uncertainty we accept that we just don’t know what happens in our absence, in a coma or even in moment, or even the longue durée, after our personal death. It’s also about accepting that we never know whether I will get better or that what I do for others or myself will work for certain, because certainty is not for us or even for our children but only the need to work as if we lived in the better world we want to create, as in the beautiful poem to his children:
I’m doing my best,
like you do your best.
I don’t know how it will work out.
We never know for certain.
That’s the one thing we do know
that we never know for certain!
This is for me so profound an act of love because it renounces false optimism and insists instead, not unlike a medieval Neoplatonist mystic, on a ‘cloud of unknowing’. One effect of this is that the boundaries of personal identity get loosened and more porous. We don’t spend as long in mere defence of those walls, accept the experience where, ‘I am not sure I am me’, learn to know the fact that ‘I will fade’ is not the catastrophe we expect and accept, like Carroll’s Alice that our body is a thing that mutates and is made up of many contributions not our own, even a piece of metal or scab we ingest or digest (both happen in different poems in the series), not something that will ever stay always the same. Let’s take the body as it looks to us in illness, as it looked to Michael’s father, as a whole landscape of which me might become afraid because we, like Alice, have ‘shrank’ in stature to the size of our fear about ‘bits of our body’ rather than that of our potential to limitless love. Let’s think about Michael’s own self-examination of bits of body in hospital for instance, and, in particular that poem that starts: ‘My feet are a long way off’.
I suppose I am not alone in hearing echoes here to Chapter 2 of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandfrom the first line of the poem alone:
`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); `now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Good-bye, feet!’ (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed to be almost out of sight, they were getting so far off). `Oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I’m sure I shan’t be able! I shall be a great deal too far off to trouble myself about you: you must manage the best way you can; –but I must be kind to them,’ thought Alice, `or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go! Let me see: I’ll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas.’/…
These acts of fragmentation and self-estrangement are typical of the ways in which, in the book as a whole, the liminality of identity is put into operation. As the memories we have stored cognitively of ourselves fail to match the observed realities brought about by time and inevitable change, and ultimately the facts of mortality they are challenged and, if they will not change, must be displaced by something new. Sometimes the body parts important in our own life are not always, perhaps more rarely than we think, our own. Having considered that thought in abstract, all one needs then do is re-read the wondrous poem by Rosen on the 60th anniversary of the NHS from a decade ago, as Sophie Raworth reminded us, as she chose to read it on the Today programme whilst Michael was still in induced coma. Nurses recorded their own reactions to that event in the accounts in this work itself, whilst Michael was hanging between life and death. The poem is These Are the Hands. How vital a fact it is too that the hands referred to in this poem are NOT our own grasping mittens, nor that they are not shy of doing things, like ‘Wheel the Bin’, that is considered to be beneath the dignity of some specialised individualities. An example of the latter is the ‘small man … with his hands behind his back’: ‘“I don’t do that,” he says‘.
Thus if Michael Rosen accepts seeing ‘myself as I was then’ and yet realising that now, ‘I am not who I was’ he has revaluated time and self in the same way as he describes Zola doing in a personal letter in the quotation from his 2014 work I gave near the beginning of this blog. But he is also, like Zola (and let’s add Proust since Rosen himself does in that quotation) revaluating how we give an account of changes in our identity not just as a person but as a social identity. Hence he must include a vast retrospect to even his Jewish forebears and to Yiddish terms from that history used by his mother. An they must also include a prospect looking forward that implies an active political engagement and a warning that the NHS may not be safe in the hands of our current government, despite having proven its worth in simple accounting terms if not, more importantly, by being there as the caring hands of the nation.
And evaluation of self and nation (largely through a focus on the NHS) is also what this poem is about. It uses a fairly consistent reference, as it does for the words ‘certain’ and ‘sure’, to the surprisingly modern ways in which the word ‘account’ is used these days in various modes of discourse: from financial audit, research theory and finally in the simplest sens of rendering a story of how things came to be as they are. this allows for much critique for a view of the world too locked in a binary view of losses and gains, allowing us to see that the boundary between them can be as liminal as those between any other boundary like self and other, and home and hospital. There is still much to say, and account for in the work, but I intend to draw a line by using this theme of accounting last. In an account we realise the causes of almost any happening (like determining the effect of agencies in body and mind, biological or sociological systems or drug and self-motivation are multiple and complex. To show that here from the work itself would take far too long but we can fairly simply illustrate where accounts become important in this poem and the source code of the necessary complications needed in that deeper argument. The accounts of nurses in the coma diary, for instance, matter because they tell of the interaction between these things – like physical and material tubing inserted into the body – and emotion like hope and energy like that which supports eventual autonomy in the ‘weaned. adult.
Even at ‘four in the morning’ ‘obs’ (observations) are taken and recorded, where ‘she’ is ‘the nurse’ but it isn’t always ‘she’:
She writes down the figures.
There is now a ledger telling
the story of all my ups and downs.
I have become an account.
The tension here is between the tally of binary ups and downs in a ‘ledger’ ( a term fixed in accountancy) and the story everyone will help in tell as an account in this work. Even telling has this ambiguity in post capitalist language. Though we might in hospitals be turned into ‘numbers and beeps’ from fragments of our whole bodies, this state is in itself only part of a temporal account understood as a story, when understood in our movement on through the work out of the ‘nights’ which are ‘long and sad’. Even age and aging can be understood as a kind of accounting when we ‘do the maths’ that transform it from individuated story to generalised experience. Maybe we may need to treat our losses in terms of a ‘ledger’ as we ‘get better’, Michael finds, but isn’t it worth it to push further:
couldn’t I make an effort
to think I’m not a ledger?
I am what I’ve become?
And it never stops:
we are always becoming.
This concentration on ‘becoming’ (or as it is sometimes called ‘emergence’) is as one with the interest in transition and liminality where concern with the provisional nature of entities is central to our understandings of post-modernity. Identity is an emergent factor, we might say. But we need to make ‘an effort’, we need autonomous agency in such a world in order to co-operate with causing what we know of life to emerge in the way that is most healthful and helpful for our society. Given our present government, we clearly aren’t doing such a great job at the moment. But the old myth in which Ulysses in Homer and Aeneas in Vergil, and of course Dante in his own epic journey, return from the ‘Land of the Dead’ so can we and we don’t just need, as Ulysses does, to ‘wander about’. We can bring about ‘change’ or begin to do so, at the very least:
I’m in the midst of beginnings:
you love, are starting a big, new thing
 Rosen (2021: 212) ‘You should care about them too, / if you half the man you used to be’.
 ibid: 214
 Michael Rosen (2017:20) The Disappearance of Émile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case London, Faber & Faber.
 ibid: 76
 ibid: 96f. My italics
 ibid: 140
 ibid: 209
 Section iii ibid: 23-49
 section iv, 51-93; section vii, 159-265
 ibid: 181
 ibid: 174
 See for instance ibid: 75.
 ibid: 59
 ibid: 199
 ibid: 186
 ibid: 83
 Reproduced as section viii, 267-70. Read by nurses ibid: 11
 ibid: 14
 Those quotations from this work are ibid: 96 and ibid: 160, respectively.
 My favourite example with the Yiddish term for ‘shit’ (‘dreck’) used by his agnostic Jewish mother is ibid: 188f.
 If Boris Johnson could be acted upon morally, he would be, even if by the simple accounting of history in ibid: 168.
 For the weaning theme see ibid: 16, 88, 102, 124f. (Sticky McStickstick) and181f. for example.
 ibid: 74
 ibid: 118f.
 ibid: 258f.
 ibid: 135
 ibid: 264