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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, February 07, 2008
    Systematic Death
     
    Who says it's madness? A woman I see from time to time in a care home, in the advanced stages of dementia (so called), only ever has one word to say to me, or anyone else. She says it when being addressed, and I guess she'll say it when being dressed by the devoted staff. She says it when we shuffle her around from one chair to another, she says it when we unsettle her on deciding that it's time for her to go for lunch, or medication, or some form of leisure.

    The one word which remains in this woman's once well-formed vocabulary is "System". When you take her hand to greet her she stares you in the eyes and says, "System". When they take her arm to lift her she turns to tell them, "System". When you're reciting the words of a simple eucharist to her residential group, when you're dropping that holy wafer on her tongue, she's there filling in the liturgical gaps with her contribution: "System, system, system".

    I'm always left pondering what this woman is saying with "System". Having failed to learn her language I can only guess. Seems to me that this sole linguistic remnant of an expressive past probably connects to some of her deepest, most formative, perhaps most traumatic life experiences. "System" is there when all else has gone because "System" is at her core. Is she saying "System" because she feels secure in a structured existence - "System" expressing a sense of well-being? Or is she saying "System" in protest at the structure which constrains, restrains, her - "System" her final and most persistent comment on the chains which bind her... and by which, perhaps (like so many others) she's always felt bound.

    I'm inclined (and disturbed) to imagine that the latter is closest to what she's saying. What she says always rattles me, provokes me, and tonight it's dawned on me where I've heard this woman's words before. The other voice I've heard mouthing them is that of Eve Libertine:
    System, system, system.
    Deprived of any hope.
    System, system, system.
    Taught they couldn't cope.
    System, system, system.
    Slaves right from the start.
    System, system, system.
    Til death do them part.
    In the 70s/80s many dismissed the anarcho-punk outfit Crass as being deranged. More recently many have mocked US folkster Jeffrey Lewis for choosing to release a whole album of Crass covers including their savage critique of the capitalist nuclear family, Systematic Death.
    System, system, system.
    Death in life.
    If you call it death, "System", as Crass do, then you're resisting it and opening up the possibility of another sort of life. By staring it in the face and naming it, "System", as that woman does, then you're rattling the chains which bind. Some would call these ideas madness, of course. I'm not so sure. I sense instead that the so-called mad often make the profoundest protests.