A beautiful passage about mercy and marital strife from the first chapter of Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic:
I remember a morning about 15 years ago. It was a particularly bad morning, after a particularly bad night. We had been caught in one of those cyclical rows that reignite every time you think they come to an exhausted close, because the thing that’s wrong won’t be left alone, won’t stay out of sight if you try to turn away from it. Over and over, between midnight and six, when we finally gave up and got up, we’d helplessly looped from tears, and the aftermath of tears, back into scratch-your-eyes-out scratch-each-other’s-skin-off quarreling, each time with the intensity undiminished, because the bitterness of that betrayal in question (mine) was not diminishing. Intimacy had turned toxic: we knew, as we went around and around and around, almost exactly what the other one was going to say, and even what they were going to think, and it only made things worse. It felt as if we were reduced – but truthfully reduced, reduced in accordance with the truth of the situation – to a pair of intermeshing routines, cogs with sharp teeth turning each other. When daylight came, the whole world seemed worn out. We got up and she went to work. I went to a café – writer, you see, skivers the lot of us – and nursed my misery along with a cappuccino. I could not see any way out of sorrow that did not involve some obvious self-deception, some wishful lie about where we’d got to. (Where I’d got us to.) she wasn’t opposite me anymore, but I was still grinding round our night-long circuit in my head. And then the person serving in the café put on a cassette: Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, the middle movement, the Adagio.
If you don’t know it, it is a very patient piece of music. It too goes round and round, in its way, essentially playing the same tune again and again, on the clarinet alone and then with the orchestra, clarinet and then orchestra, lifting up the same unhurried lilt of solitary sound, and then backing it with a kind of messageless tenderness in deep waves, when the strings join in. It is not strained in anyway. It does not sound as if Mozart is doing something he can only just manage, and it is not sound as if the music is struggling to lift a weight can only just manage. Yet at the same time, it is not music that denies anything. It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend that there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmarole is in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness. Shut up and listen, and let yourself count, just a little bit, on a calm that you do not have to be able to make for yourself, because here it is, freely offered. You are still deceiving yourself, said the music if you don’t allow for the possibility of this. There is more going on here than what you deserve, or don’t deserve. There is this, as well. And it played the tune again, with all the cares in the world.
The novelist Richard Powers has written that the Clarinet Concerto sounds the way mercy would sound, and that’s exactly how I experienced in 1997. ‘Mercy’, though, is one of those words but now requires definition. It does not only mean some tyrant’s capacity to suspend a punishment he has him self-inflicted. It can mean – and does mean in this case – getting something kind instead of the sensible consequences of an action, or as well as the sensible consequences of an action. Getting something kind where you thought there’d only be consequences. It isn’t a question of some beetle-browed judge deciding not to punish you. It’s just as much a question of something better than you could have expected being slipped, stealthily, into a process that was running away.