The Observer 16th August 2015
The Black Mirror by Professor Raymond Tallis
A reviewer should always declare a bias and I admit that I have a prejudice in favour of Raymond Tallis, one of that increasingly rare breed, an expert who has moved beyond his own field, while in doing so importing an authority that is both original and enlightening. Tallis is a former professor of geriatric medicine, which qualifies him well to consider mortality. In The Black Mirror he contemplates his own mortality from the imagined vantage point of his extinction. A kind of existential memento mori with his own subjective being taking the place of the skull on the desk.
His premise is that “the thought of our nonexistence may save us from triviality, from entrapment in secondary things”. All praise to him for that. The steady march of capitalism, which gifted us the Pandora’s box of huge choice, inclines us to take too anxious an attitude to trivia. Most perniciously, material trivia. As Auden put it: “In headaches and in worry/ Vaguely life leaks away”, and Tallis’s project is to restore a sense of the miraculous in the everyday (by no means the same as the ordinary). “How can I be astonished at the miracle of a Wednesday afternoon?” he asks. It turns out quite easily, though this kind of ability goes with a certain quality of character, which, I suspect, is inborn rather than learned.
What makes the book unusual is that the death in question is not that of a fictional character, or a social phenomenon, but, most personally, his own. The “black mirror” of the title is the promise of Tallis’s own mortality, which acts as a means of reflecting on the incorrigible journey towards the death of the person he names RT. He launches his inquiry from that point; the point where the “I” becomes an “it”. “We die,” he suggests, with a characteristic bravura, “because we are improbable. Something as highly structured as our body is at odds with the overall tendency of the universe.” This gives a flavour of an element in the writing, which, though Tallis himself might not agree, strikes a quasi-religious note. His medical background, and a concomitant ease with an objective perspective, enables a presentation of what it is about being that renders it as remarkable as it is vulnerable. He is at some pains to remind us of the latter: “The simplicity of sudden death mocks the exquisite, painfully constructed complexity of the life that it ends.”
The book moves backwards, in a structure that reverses our lived chronology, from the portrait of his own demise to the multifarious aspects of being: being in a relationship with other beings, being in nature, being in space, in time, being amid insentient things. The last is a section he drily entitles “Having” and is often comic – “He had understood less and less of the equipment that surrounded him: the triple darkness of the three-pin plughole symbolised his limited understanding of domestic technology.” In a book that seeks to “revivify the life we have lost in living”, there is a wealth of such detail. “On the many occasions when he mislaid his car keys, he was haunted by the knowledge that the item in question was so small compared with the place in which he was searching for it… It seemed astonishing that the mislaid was ever found.
”He is wonderful on memory: “Whenever he tried to capture a very recent past… it was like trying to pick up a blob of mercury. The harder he pinched the faster it shot away.” And memory, or its corollary, forgetfulness and amnesia, weaves a spider’s web throughout the book. Recalling his childhood, he refashions what he doesn’t remember, such as his mother wrapping a towel round him when “he came shivering out of the sea”, as much as what he does: afternoons in the “shady vantage point of a huge talkative tree, somewhere between a galleon and a cloud”.
He rightly suggests that amnesia may be a necessity, just as it may be necessary to forgo the pleasures of the present (playing with one’s children) in order to do service to a future that remains unclear (writing an academic paper from which the future generations may or may not profit).
Given Tallis’s declared aim, it is unsurprising that toward the end of the book he dwells on what the deaths of others have meant to him. A five-year-old contemporary called Pauline Burns, about whom, forgetting that she has died, he innocently jokes: “Pauline Burns, burns”, thus shocking a teacher, lives on in his ensuing mortification; his parents, 92 and 94, to whom he cannot give “the comfort they had once given him, could not make them safe from what they feared most, as they had made him safe”. The deaths of his parents occasion one of the many wisdoms in which the book is rich. “The promise ‘I will make sure you are all right’ must always eventually be broken because the universe was, first and last, careless of its progeny and careless of all care.”
It is difficult to summarise what makes this book so appealing. It comes down, as I have come to think all the best writing does, to the sensibility of the author. Tallis’s is not only a wise and judicious sensibility but a funny, acute and modest one. His final section on the possibility of an afterlife illustrates this well. He is not a believer. But neither is he the sort to dismiss ideas that are not susceptible to evidence. “One of his [RT’s] most enduring preoccupations had been a mighty gap in our understanding: namely that we have no idea how consciousness, mind, self-consciousness, the sense of the past and of the future, could have arisen out of, fitted into, and acted upon the physical world to which his body had belonged.” But his book is a testament to just this.1