‘Everything must have a beginning … and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.’
— Mary Shelley, introduction to Frankenstein, 1831
Recently a friend gave me a photograph of me in a group of cyclists on the day, in the summer of 2000, when I agreed to go on a sponsored bike ride in aid of the primary school my kids attended. We were a mixed bunch, experienced cyclists, a couple of Rabbis (seriously), and one or two of us who had not been on a bike since…..well a very long time. Dovid, one of my Rabbi’s sons, challenged me to go on the ride, found me a bike, and the rest is, well, history. So, that ride marks the beginning of my passion for cycling. The Afrikaans writer Andre Brink once wrote that he was born in on a park bench in Paris reading about the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960. In some sense something in me was born, too, the day I rode the 20 plus miles from Chichester to Hove with an unlikely assortment of people on a school fundraising event. Something emerged, the significance of which I could not know then, and which has undoubtedly kept me alive to this day.
Mary Shelley, who I quote from above, wrote a novel about the creation of a grotesque creature, variously referred to in the text as a monster, a fiend, and amazingly, by the monster himself as ‘the Adam of your labours’. The subtitle of the work is ‘The Modern Prometheus’, after the Geek god credited with creating Man out of clay and later stealing fire – a tool of progress and civilization. Prometheus creates Man and as punishment for the theft of fire suffers grotesque torture.
Less than a year after that first ride I was diagnosed with depression and so another beginning emerged. I see a strong connection between the start of my passion for cycling and when I first recognised that I had a mental health problem. I had discovered the key to my recovery before my health started to crumble; and although I would not recognise that for some time, I held Prometheus’ fire in my hands.
Titan! to whose immortal eyes
The sufferings of mortality,
Seen in their sad reality,
Were not as things that gods despise;
What was thy pity’s recompense?
A silent suffering, and intense;
The rock, the vulture, and the chain,
All that the proud can feel of pain,
The agony they do not show,
The suffocating sense of woe,
Which speaks but in its loneliness,
And then is jealous lest the sky
Should have a listener, nor will sigh
Until its voice is echoless.
Titan! to thee the strife was given
Between the suffering and the will,
Which torture where they cannot kill;
And the inexorable Heaven,
And the deaf tyranny of Fate,
The ruling principle of Hate,
Which for its pleasure doth create
The things it may annihilate,
Refus’d thee even the boon to die:
The wretched gift Eternity
Was thine—and thou hast borne it well.
All that the Thunderer wrung from thee
Was but the menace which flung back
On him the torments of thy rack;
The fate thou didst so well foresee,
But would not to appease him tell;
And in thy Silence was his Sentence,
And in his Soul a vain repentance,
And evil dread so ill dissembled,
That in his hand the lightnings trembled.
Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind;
But baffled as thou wert from high,
Still in thy patient energy,
In the endurance, and repulse
Of thine impenetrable Spirit,
Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,
A mighty lesson we inherit:
Thou art a symbol and a sign
To Mortals of their fate and force;
Like thee, Man is in part divine,
A troubled stream from a pure source;
And Man in portions can foresee
His own funereal destiny;
His wretchedness, and his resistance,
And his sad unallied existence:
To which his Spirit may oppose
Itself—and equal to all woes,
And a firm will, and a deep sense,
Which even in torture can descry
Its own concenter’d recompense,
Triumphant where it dares defy,
And making Death a Victory.
Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)