Monday, December 13, 2010
Dear Professor of Chemistry and Distinguished Physician,
Dear Claude and John, I feel I must babble some sort of response to your recent concern for me, your devoted old friend who poses as a critic of whatever crosses his mind. We must be off on a stroll, three old “doctors,” hand in hand, talking of many things. Which of you is the Walrus and which the Carpenter I must leave you to decide, but I am stuck in the formula as the simple old oyster: ready to comment on your shoes and ships and sealing wax… nothing on your cabbages and only a touch or two on a king.
Is it possible to write to you as in a letter like this and make it do double-duty as a column to blog on The Bouldercreek Angler? We shall see.
And if I do, which I shall, will anyone other than you distinguished friends find it interesting or even readable? In desperation, I reach out for authority to write in this random, take-it-as-it- comes way. I need someone to tell me to go ahead, get after it. And whom do I hear whispering in my ear but the great Montaigne himself, from across five centuries, urging me on. He messed around in the material of his life and invented the essay form out of the whole cloth of his most private experience. He made himself a model of freedom to say anything he damn well pleased. In Montaigne’s rhetorical way, turbidity became lucidity and with it revelation -- and forgiveness. Shakespeare’s 73rd Sonnet helps immensely also; so, here I go….
We three have of late been in conversation on this matter of old age, of getting old, coping with the accompanying aches and pains and visitations of various miseries-- and its dangers to our happiness.
I sense that both of you are concerned for me. You worry that I might be down in the dumps, thinking a good deal about death and last things.
You know, too, that I am visited by arbitrary attacks of debilitating fatigue that I believe to be alien in origin, not integral to my essentially good health. Something on the outside is trying to get me. (Funny that I have written just that about Hamlet.)
First then, this matter of death and my special concern for it: I assure you that my interest is professional and in no way merely morbid maundering. You see, anyone in the service of the drama, the theatre, or literature generally, has to realize that the basic material with which he works is death. Death, the most powerful, most mysterious, important and interesting thing facing the human animal. Our foreknowledge of it makes us unique. As a responsible critic, I believe I must try to understand and appreciate it. I have a professional investment in this study, just as did John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, when in 1631 he had a life-sized portrait, dead and in his coffin, painted upon a board and placed along side his sick-bed where he could better study himself in his approaching death.
I myself have over a life-time imitated death, acted it several times on stage, and instructed young actors in the art of dying. I lectured for over forty years on the great and not so great scenes of death and dying in drama and in literature. I tried to have something useful to say about it. I took it personally. I thought that given my experience with it, I should know something about it. After all, it was my” business”.
We three certainly have had immense stuff with which to make a career. You, Claude, the great Periodic Table and the secrets of the physical universe. And you, John, the Healing of our broken bodies. Just think!
And so I lay claim to the most fundamental event in life, the origin and stimulus of all art and philosophy: this Death that had to have been the signal that shocked our primordial ancestors, barely off their knuckles, into the terrors and raptures of human Consciousness. It is the meat, potatoes, and gravy about which I was educated and authorized to teach. The idea thrills me and fills me with a sense of gratitude and overflowing--if not overweening-- life.
And yet, when it comes right down to it, I know nothing about this end-of-life thing. Like the idea of multiple universes, Death overwhelms the mind. If it did not, I might understand King Lear.
I write to you in order to divert your worry about me when I say that I want to be an expert at being old. I am daily acquainted with youngish people. I somehow don’t gravitate to geezers. I suppose that is because for all my long life, my work has been to encourage and assist young people. The very presence of a young person, almost embarrassingly, makes me fly into action, like some giddy superannuated superman, as an encourager and protector of youth. The old school teacher is never quite quiet. Sometimes I feel quite foolish.
I tell anyone who will stand still long enough to hear that I am an expert at being old. I hasten to tell them that I am not altogether sure of what I mean by that. But, I know for sure that I cannot be “young” ever again, or even “middle aged”. Nor should I try. I am stuck with my “four score and upward” and must make the most and the best of it. And that best of it is,
‘“To love that well which thou must leave ere long”. (Sonnet 73)
I must try to be something of a model for the young people who, when they emerge from a work-out in their favorite gym-of-everlasting-life, they see me standing there, an old lover, ancient and glad no longer to be able to work-out-- or fish. They think, “Good God! There he is, so old that he leans on a stick! And I thought he was indestructible: now look at him! Is that what is to become of me? Is all this exercising finally to have been in vain?. Am I to lose everything-- and DIE-- just as I can see that good old Gordon must soon do?”
I must get them to have a second look, maybe even to read some of my stuff, which I hope is about life and death, love and hate, about sex and art, politics-- and fishing. When they look at me, I want them to be able to see something of themselves, something of a life-after-fishing, a full-throated life of noisy exuberance, and real concern for young people. I want them to see someone who speaks of old age and dying as a great idea --a life where ideas, like a heart beat, are an intimate sign of that life.
And this is essential: they must see style. I must try to stay stylish, if it is only my necktie. My necktie is my thumb in the eye of the decline that wants to drag me down to a cheap death.
I must stand up for the decencies of old age. I must try to stand up straight and not walk as do so many beaten-down old men in their feed-lot caps who drag along dumbly behind their sprightly wives, shelf to shelf, through the other-world of the super-market.
And so I have made a career of thinking about death. I think about those primordial ancestors-- and I see myself in them-- coming down from the trees, crossing the great savannahs, on their way. I know nothing about their dying. Or mine, for that matter. I’m helpless in the face of that immensity and can only do what little I can to memorialize their journey to humanity.
As, in my imagination, I walked with them for millennia north out of Africa, I was daily more puzzled about the dead we had to leave behind. I discovered grief. I found myself piling rocks over what was left of them or putting them in caves -- in sorrow. Leaving them behind, thinking of them, I suddenly saw what was to become of me. Sorrow, I knew, was to become my portion. It was making me almost altogether human.
I have to declare that musing on death and its sorrows , like the dean of the cathedral, John Donne, studying to prepare for his death, has become integral to my life and is in no way morbid. It’s like trying to fathom King Lear, It’s my especial task. For me it has a perfect beauty-- and joy. These great sorrows that have determined all that’s generous, loving, and expansive in our species. Grief is the engine of our journey.
And it is one of the profound errors of our time to assume that any failure to be cheerful, any sign of sorrow or regret, must be a sign of depression. Undoubtedly there is much clinical depression, but there is also that somber character of mind and heart that is an affirmation of the fullest and richest human experience. Ours is a time of particular sorrow. So, what to do?
As a pretender to the craft of criticism, I can only write-- or babble (or maybe teach school). I sit here writing and rewriting this letter to you. I revise it again and again. I shall never get it right, but the struggle makes me feel responsible. It gives me immense pleasure to work with these sentences. When I get one right, it lifts my heart, and makes me think of you.
I urge you to believe that I am as cheerful as any sane person dare be, and as happy as the law will allow. If only we three old doctors could sit down to lunch, maybe over oysters, in some fashionable beanery full of young folk before whom we could show off…. Until such time as this becomes possible, I thank you with a full heart for indulging me in this letter.
I am truly yours,
I believe we should try to keep our sorrows as particular and specific as possible. We must avoid getting swamped by “nameless woes” and sorrows that can plunge us into a sick depression.
And so, I go down the old saw-dust trail to confess that the dark cloud of sorrow hanging over me just now is that I had hoped that we as a people were entering on a new and finer way to be Americans. I thought we were about to refresh our human life with a new modesty, of living better with less, a genuine liberalism that seeks to ameliorate and inwardly enhance our private and public life. I thought I saw that coming, and it felt marvelous. Maybe, just maybe, to have the chance to do that thing, to pass out of life on a rising wave of recovery, compassion in all things, and with a renewed and high heart!
That’s what I thought. Now I fear that I was being foolishly optimistic-- a character flaw that my children often attribute to me. Our national blood has gone septic, and there is little hope of a quick cure. Surely this is a legitimate, authentic, allowable sorrow for our time. I recommend it to everyone.