Dr Cake and John Keats

Jane Campion’s new film, Bright Star, follows the last three years of John Keats’s life, from the time he fell in love with Fanny Brawne, to his death of tuberculoses in Rome in 1821. It is a love story, and by all accounts, a well told and moving one. Keats is one of the great romantic poets, but when he died at 25, poverty stricken and alone, his three books had sold a total of just 200 copies. He was so ravaged by the critics that he asked for his gravestone to bear, not his name, but the words: “Here lies one whose name is writ in water”. But what if Keats had not died coughing up his lungs in Italy, but had returned to England where he lived another 25 years – occasionally writing poems and practicing his original trade, that of a country doctor?

This possibility is not pursued by Campion, who sticks with the historical record. But Keats’s biographer, the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, who advised Campion on the film, explores such an eventuality. In a little book, The Invention of Dr Cake, Motion presents unearthed “correspondence” from a contemporary of Keats, Dr William Tabor, who recorded his meetings with a certain Dr John Cake 23 years after Keats died. Cake, a rural doctor, has a striking physical and emotional resemblance to the canonical poet. Born the same year and possessed of a similar temperament, he writes poetry, was in Rome at the same time as Keats and hints that he is Keats. There are a number of give-aways. His name, Cake, suggests the reference Keats makes to the proverb, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” in his 1819 poem, On Fame. And then, there is the intriguing remark Cake makes about a new life. “For my own part”, he tells Tabor, “I was relieved to find some means of cancelling my first try at life, and of beginning it again.” Tabor replies, “that’s not possible,” but the effect remains. Have not we all thought at one time or another of a fresh beginning?

The promise of change, of beginning again, is what our society runs on. It sells holidays, gym memberships, cars and all sorts of makeovers including therapy. From the claim: “This book/film will change your life” to the more subtle promotion of the most widespread talking cure, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, (CBT), transformation is the lure. As with that other great Australian obsession, real estate, success hinges on being “done”, or made, over. For houses this is a renovation that opens up the back and installs a water feature. For humans, it is an illusion of re-birth, a new you, and like houses, it only makes sense if it attracts a certain kind of attention. F. Scott Fitzgerald identified this when he described the way the protagonist of his novel The Great Gatsby, regarded his love interest. Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes, took in Daisy with a look that concentrated on her with an irresistible prejudice in her favor, that understood her just as far as she wanted to be understood, believed in her as she would like to believe in herself and assured her that it had precisely the impression of her that, at her best, she hoped to convey. This is the adoring gaze of the mother. It is not what the world reliably offers. Life for adults is pricklier than that, which is why the dream of sidestepping reality through a painless, purchased new life persists.

For human beings who – as Freud noted, only find happiness in the fulfilment of a childhood wish – it is an understandable, and much exploited, longing. The problem is that, if change is needed to satisfy this childhood longing, and it always is, it can’t be bought online or in a shop. It comes about through a different sort of thinking, one that is neither painless nor seamless, but rather, like the best books, certain to inflict wounds and leave scars. But how is this to be achieved? Neurologists would say by re-routing the brain, but that just begs the question. Their change agents, often drugs such as anti-depressants, disguise symptoms rather than eradicate or address them. Despite optimistic claims, there is no drug or gene for happiness or a new beginning. There is just the old life and how to live with it. This can yield change and with it the opportunity for a fresh start but not by trying to make history disappear. Ironically, the historical record, be it one’s own, or that of an era, is changed by becoming curious about it, not by striving to erase it. This has more to do with the past than the future, an encountering of your life in the way an historian encounters a ruin – lots of careful sifting and wondering, rendering what appears clear opaque – and ultimately, leading to the jolt of a new perspective. In this formulation, change means becoming an historian of your own life, that is, giving up the dream of intimacy with a past, which is, in fact, constructed, a fantasy, one that has been invented out of trauma, at its most basic, a trauma of time passing, which is experienced as loss. The urge to tidy up one’s past, to summarize and resolve its loose ends – to be “done” (or made) over, in the manner of renovation – is pervasive. But that only closes the psychic gap, which as Keats’s poetry reveals, is the aperture through which the light gets in.