Coming Up for Air
Mutability of the Human Condition
The critical necessity for mutability as part of the human condition, and the risks associated with lack of comprehension of it are exhibited and scrutinized closely in George Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air, his ante-penultimate novel, and Of Mutability, a series of poems by Jo Shapcott. Both Orwell and Shapcott explore the state of sustained transition in which human beings are eternally bound by discussing loss and mortality in numerous and varying approaches, and considering how people can frequently falter and sink into despair when they realize the inevitability of mutability.
In Shapcott’s titular poem Of Mutability, the writer describes how “Too many of the best cells in my body are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw”. In light of the cancer which the writer was struggling with at the time of writing, it seems that she has understood how easily and quickly things can change. One could argue that this shows how humans struggle to truly comprehend the vital nature of mutability without being faced with it directly. This is a point which is echoed in Orwell’s writing in Coming Up For Air where he describes how Bowling’s memories of his youth in Lower Binfield have become hazy and idealized, and when he returns to the village he realizes how drastically things have changed. Bowling describes how “You remember it in great detail, and you remember it all wrong”. From his former love Elsie’s appearance now being “a kind of soft lumpy cylinder” to the pool where he once dreamed of fishing for “enormous” carp which was now “half full of tin cans”. In this way, Orwell shows how even those who are able to understand that mutability is inevitable still often fail to comprehend it. Bowling, for example, is clearly distressed to see what has happened to his pool and the woods around it when he storms from the man who shows him around Upper Binfield – so much so that he says “doesn’t it make you puke sometimes to see what they’re doing to England”. This is in spite of the fact that he regularly notes the way in which things have changed for him in his own life. He quite matter-of-factly describes how his wife Hilda now looks “wizened”.
As well as this, Bowling works in the “insurance business”, a trade which relies almost solely on the prediction of change, and how best to cope with it, therefore it is surprising to see him react so strangely to mutability. Because of this it is surprising that someone who so obviously has experienced the changeability of life and can evidently cope with it at times can also react so angrily, and with such surprise at other times. For example, later in the novel he reacts hysterically upon realizing the loss of his childhood pond. In this way, Orwell shows that although we can predict mutability at times – “they may have drained it off”, it is still often very difficult to comprehend drastic change, and thus we may react peculiarly as we struggle to come to terms with mutability. In the long term, although Bowling has accepted mutability in the early novel– his teeth and body for example, he is not prepared for it in the later parts of the novel In both texts, the writers discuss how youth and health are easily taken for granted and not expected to be lost while we possess them, but they are also very easily taken from us.
In Of Mutability, Shapcott describes how her body is “itching, feeling jagged, turning raw”. In this way it seems that she never believed that her good health would be threatened, due to her use of the phrase “best cells”, which creates an image of parts of her being which are invincible and will be eternally youthful. Because of this, it is particularly surprising for the reader to take in the next line, which so strongly contrasts with this image of perfection with the harshness of words like “jagged” and “raw”. Thus in this way Shapcott shows how people can be blissfully ignorant of the fact that they will be affected by mutability, while also showing how rapidly things can go from being perfect to harsh and painful. These words of Shapcott have great relevance to the writer, who was struggling with breast cancer at the time of writing this collection of poetry. One could argue that in light of this, it is impossible to comprehend mutability unless you are facing it directly, as Shapcott did in this period of rapid change and terrifying uncertainty. This is similar to the experiences of death and the very depths of human depravity during the Spanish Civil war. These dark and agonizing ordeals seem to have had the effect on both of opening their eyes to the inevitability of mutability, which allows them to accept it and to help them to be able to open the eyes of their readers.
In Coming Up For Air, Orwell uses similar techniques in order to show how mutability in terms of aging and declining health creeps up on a person, leaving them apparently shocked and confused as to how such a thing could have happened to them. For example, in the first book of the novel, Orwell, through Bowling is able to describe how “When your last natural tooth goes, the time that you can kid yourself that you’re a Hollywood sheikh is definitely at an end”. In this way, Orwell shows that he believes that comprehending mutability is something that can only be achieved at the moment at which all seems to be lost and there is no going back. The idea that one truly believes that one has lost one’s youth and vigour only when one has lost one’s final tooth is almost laughable, yet it shows perfectly how humans so regularly blindly miss how central mutability is to their lives. Again, Orwell shows that although we may sometimes have an inkling of the way mutability is going to affect us, we never truly comprehend or believe it until we have no other choice than to accept the inevitability of mutability.
In addition to this, Orwell’s showing how Bowling is going to pick up his new false teeth shows that even once we are forced to concede that mutability has affected us, we still vainly attempt to cling vainly to some hint of the past, though perhaps one cannot be bemoaned for wanted teeth. This is arguably another manifestation of how we fail to comprehend mutability. Instead of merely giving up on appearing young and attractive, and admitting that his youth has escaped him, he uses false teeth in order to hide this, despite how he calls them “bloody false teeth”- clearly showing that he despises them. Indeed throughout the novel Bowling remarks on his appearance negatively, describing himself as “fat” with a “red face” and wearing “vulgar clothes”. All of these things show simultaneously that he knows that he has lost his youth because of mutability but yet also show how he cares about his appearance enough for it to clearly make him unhappy. In this way it appears that even when someone seems to concede to inevitable mutability, there is still part of them which believes that they haven’t lost all remnants of the past. Despite this, it must be accepted that Bowling reviews his appearance coolly and without much care for either the negative of his body or the positive of not having gone bald.
Throughout both works, the writers consistently use language and the connotations associated with the words chosen to highlight the nature of change. By doing this in such a subtle way, the writers effectively display on the way mutability is so frequently overlooked. In the poem La Serenissima, Shapcott uses the phrase “I was on land, but the land didn’t belong to the Earth anymore”. In these few words, Shapcott is able to produce images of a place in her memory which has been slowly taken away from her. By doing this, she shows the reader that it is impossible to return to the past, as the past does not exist anywhere except within one’s mind, and by extension she shows that change is irreversible and inevitable. In Coming Up For Air, Bowling sees a bomber fly overhead and he discusses how soon people will be having to make “a dive for the cellar” when they see such a bomber, as he predicts, quite correctly that war is on the way. By showing here that war is on the horizon, Orwell is able to force his readers to remember the First World War, after which a huge amount of change took place. In addition to this, throughout his trip to Lower Binfield, Bowling sites the war as the cause for the change which has occurred. Therefore in this way, Orwell is able to subtly hint to the reader that change is on its way and is inevitable. Because Orwell presents the change caused by the First World War as broadly negative, it could reasonably be argued that he is attempting to force his readers to think of mutability as something of major concern, otherwise they may not worry about it at all, and will fail to comprehend it. In both Coming Up For Air and La Serenissima, the authors attempt to show their audience that mutability is truly inevitable and there is no way of stopping it.
In La Serenissima, Shapcott uses a lot of imagery related to water, such as “rippled”, “liquid” and “fluid”. By making the reader picture water, Shapcott causes the reader to consider the evolving and constantly changing nature of liquid. In this way, they may consider that all things act in the same way as water, by changing unendingly, but in more subtle ways which are easier to miss, and difficult to comprehend. In addition to this, water has strong connections with life, as all life requires it to survive. Due to this link, it seems clear that Shapcott intended to make her readers consider that mutability is connected strongly with water, which is connected to human life. Thus she is highlighting how central mutability is to life. In Coming Up For Air, Orwell uses similar imagery, by depicting the pool which Bowling searches for as a fountain of youth, where he can reconnect with his past. However when he finds the pool, George Bowling realizes that it has been drained of water and made into a rubbish dump. The image of the water being removed from the pond is highly significant, as it represents how the past, which Bowling believed to be contained within the pool has been lost to him.
Interestingly, Coming Up For Air is not the only one of Orwell’s works which prominently includes the theme of mutability. In one essay, written in 1946 and titled ‘Some thoughts on the common toad’, He discusses how no matter the circumstances , one can always enjoy spring, the most promising time of the year. Orwell ends the essay with “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.” In this ending, Orwell again shows that he believes that whatever happens, spring will always come. In this way, he is showing that while time is ticking on towards spring, things are constantly changing. So overall, both authors are able to use their experiences of life in order to open the eyes of their audiences to inevitable mutability with great effect. In addition to this, they are able to show the audiences the risks associated with ignoring mutability, as it is inevitable and thus better to accept it and begin to deal with its consequences than to simply ignore it until it is too late, forcing people to have to try and cope with the effects when it is too late to do so effectively.