There's a moment in Woody Allen's film Hannah and Her Sisters when Allen's character, Mickey, feeling in need of spiritual nourishment, approaches a group of Hare Krishnas in Central Park. "I was born Jewish," he tells them, "but last winter I tried to become a Catholic and it didn't work for me."
I was reminded of this scene early in Michael Harding’s wonderful second memoir when the former priest talks to a psychotherapist about needing meaning in his life. “I’ve tried Christianity,” he tells her. “And I’ve tried Buddhism. Neither of them seems to work for me.” But the truth is, it’s not religion he craves; it’s companionship.
Two years ago, when Harding (whose column appears in The Irish Times each Tuesday) published Staring at Lakes, an account of his struggle with depression, it's unlikely he expected it to turn into an award-winning bestseller. Hanging With the Elephant is a worthy successor, a memoir set over a six-week period when Harding's wife, an artist in her own right, takes a trip to Poland. From the start he is faced with a conundrum: as much as he values the idea of extended solitude, he worries that, left alone, he might struggle to cope.
Anyone familiar with depression will recognise the mood swings and erratic behaviour that characterise the illness. Low moments are countered by interludes of ebullient happiness, and at all times one is conscious of the famous “black dog” – or, in Harding’s case, his Dracula – lurking at the gate, fangs exposed, waiting to pounce. He explains the condition in a powerful image: “It’s a merciless solitude, like a glass wall surrounding the victim, leaving them alone, even in a noisy street, drenched with their own delusions and tormented by their own personal demons.” So anxious is he about feeling isolated that, the moment “the beloved” has boarded her flight, he decides to enjoy the camaraderie of city life for a couple of days.
Finally leaving Dublin, he drops into the home of a poet for what seems to be an inconsequential scene but is actually filled with significance, for in that house also lives a heavily pregnant woman, and it is mothers that will come to dominate the book.
It has been two years since Harding’s mother died, and although his stories of her are filled with affection, he has an uneasy feeling that he has somehow let her down. Finding her diaries when he is clearing the house, her pithy daily entries – Lunch in hotel. No respect / Very upset about the water. He did nothing. No one to help me / Raining. Fed up. / Terrible Day / No one called – make for upsetting reading even though it’s clear that in his care and devotion he has nothing to reproach himself for. Is it because the author feels lonely and abandoned himself that he focuses so much on her feelings of neglect?
Harding has a great love for women. Outside of his wife and mother, both of whom are deeply cherished, he seems incapable of seeing a female alone without needing to talk to her. If the world is divided into those people who want to be left alone as much as possible and those with a constant need to engage, then Harding is in the second camp. There’s something endearingly peculiar about his behaviour that makes people respond to him, too, rather than go screaming down the street in search of a garda. Buying a full Irish breakfast at the crack of dawn for a teenage girl who has missed her bus before offering her a lift to the crossroads is risky behaviour. If I did it I’d be arrested. Even seeing a woman frustrated that the queue for Garth Brooks tickets goes on forever, he considers telling her to wait in a cafe and that he’ll join the queue in her place. (I wonder how that went anyway? It’s a shame the media didn’t devote more coverage to it.)
The book is filled with humour, much of it self-deprecating.We are frequently treated to a run-down of what he ate for breakfast or dinner – food seems to be an obsession – and the mood swings of the cat are just as capricious as his own. But, happily, the constant return to his empty Leitrim cottage leads Harding to moments of tranquillity rather than depression. “I found a kind of serenity in the wilderness of boggy mountain, lake and river. This is where I could brood in solitude and safety, lick my wounds and absorb the healing energy of the earth and sky.”
Time and again, though, he has the power to surprise us. A cultured man, he stays an extra night in Dublin to work off the effects of a hangover, but rather than lying on his hotel bed, stuffing himself with carbs as the rest of us might, he takes a trip to Project Arts Centre, albeit while dressed as an itinerant fisherman from Killybegs. Yet at the same time he spends an inordinate amount of time watching low-rent TV shows like Judge Judy and Girls.
Very rarely does he veer into more political territory, and when he does it’s mostly concerned with his clerical past. Speaking of the Catholic Church, he talks of the papacy of Karol Wojtyla as something that “always uneased me . . . The short spring of hope and Christian renewal which had begun during the Second Vatican Council was over as he and Joseph Ratzinger began grinding liberal theologians and philosophers into the ground, and creating a facade of sanctity behind which so many children suffered abuse, so much abuse was hidden and so many people were left bereft of any shelter in the confusion and storms of their ordinary lives.”
If the book occasionally veers towards sentimentality – “I know that there are no ghosts in the modern word . . . but maybe there are angels” – there are more than enough pages filled with wisdom to offset them in a memoir that is very much concerned with absence – in his wife’s case, temporary; in his mother’s, permanent – and his struggle to come to terms with both.
As he considers his life Harding talks about the desolation he has felt about “not being successful”, but, like many people who have achieved a great deal, he cannot recognise his triumphs. This book, like its predecessor, is one of them.