If you are of a reasonably intellectual bent, you will devour every new Jonathan Franzen novel, check out the Whitney Biennial, seek out the next Philip Glass opera, sample the new molecular cuisine — perhaps drive a Tesla and test out the Google glasses.
You want to ride the crest of your times, and keep up with your scuttling generation.
I certainly did, when I was young. It was my avowed ambition to “know everything.” And I meant it. (Yes, I recognized the impossibility of taking my goal literally, but that doesn’t change the idealist zeal of it all).
In my day, it meant reading Saul Bellow, seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s “Inferno” at MoMA, grooving on Morton Subotnick’s “Silver Apples of the Moon,” eating tandoori chicken and driving a VW bus.
The world seemed particularly open then, although looking back, I know it was really me who was open. It all rushed in. I could not get enough. Even in high school, I read James Purdy, Thomas Pynchon, Norman Mailer, Hubert Selby Jr. — and all the Bellow I could get my hands on. What I could have made of these writers at the tender age of 16, I have no idea. But I knew I wanted what they had to offer.
By the time I got to college, I had all that under my belt, and I was ready to charge into Chaucer, Wordsworth, Blake, Homer, Sophocles, Melville, Milton, Joyce, Eliot — I was a starving man at the feast of Trimalchio. Handfuls stuffed into my cheeks. I couldn’t chew fast enough.
School certainly opens the world up for those eager for it, but that was hardly the end of it; it was barely the beginning. Since then I’ve run through whole forests of paper splattered with ink. In huge draughts: All of Henry Miller, most of D.H. Lawrence, the obscure parts of Melville, the verbal excesses of Lawrence Durrell — but you get the picture. And that’s just the reading.
I took on Beethoven quartets, not just in listening, but poring over the scores. Mahler symphonies; Mozart operas; Balanchine ballets. Bruckner came late, but I fell hard.
I don’t want to give the impression that it was all old masters, although I did incline that way. I also kept up with Glass, Reich, Adams, learned to love Osvaldo Golijov and kept track of the development of Jennifer Higdon.
The same pattern continued for the visual arts, for poetry, and for travel: I wanted to see everywhere, to learn everything. Linguistics, color theory, whatever part of particle physics that an English major could ingest without coughing up indigestible math.
But things have changed; I am getting old. And when you are old there comes a narrowing of interests.
You come to recognize there will not be time to know everything, to take up Russian and learn the history of Chinese opera, to finish all of Proust or finally visit Uzbekistan. The limits of learning, the limits of a life become tangible. You can see in calendar units the coming end of sentience, the final breath, when you can no longer breathe anything in.
This is not all merely maudlin and depressing. When you get old, the end seems less a tragedy and more a satisfying completion. Herr, lehre doch mich, das ein Ende mit mir haben muss, und mein Leben ein Ziel hat, und ich davon muss, und ich davon muss.
I still want to read new things, see new art, hear new music, but I attack these with less fervor; they are subsidiary to a growing desire to revisit those things I encountered earlier, but now need to consider once again. In part, this is to re-experience things that gave me great pleasure, and it’s pleasure all over again to dive in once more. But it is more that because I am old, I can squeeze more juice out of the old rinds. There is so much in Dante I could not have understood when I was an eager lad. So much in those late quartets that passed me by the first hundred times I listened.
And so, I find myself rereading things that meant a great deal to me rather than reading new things. Oh, I don’t want to exaggerate this; I still read new things, too. I still want to learn new things and I still tackle new subjects, but without the expectation that I can ever “learn it all.” And those things that have stuck with me — the Iliad, some Shakespeare, the Beethoven quartets, the woodcuts of Hokusai or the films of Renoir — are such a huge reservoir of experience that they can be dipped into over and over and always with new reward.
I remember the complaint that used to be lodged against the famous orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini. The older he got, the fewer works he programmed. Those who only came to know him from his late recordings could believe he only played the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies over and over and avoided new music. But when he was younger, he gave world premieres of dozens of operas and symphonic works — including Puccini’s “La Boheme” and “Turandot,” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” When he was young, he championed contemporary music. He was 70 when the NBC Symphony was created for him and close to 90 when he made most of the recordings he is known for — all that Beethoven and Brahms. That narrowing of repertoire should be taken less as a lack of interest in new music, and more as a deepening of his immersion in that music he loved most deeply.
This is a pattern I recognize and while I might have made apologies for it when I was younger, I have come to understand it as it has happened to me, also.
I remember when my friend Dimitri Drobatschewsky approached 90, he often talked about the coming end, and how much he had appreciated all the experience that he had managed to pack into his very full life, and how he relished rehearing the music that had meant so much to him when he was younger. He felt it was up to a fresh generation to come to love newer music, and that his Strauss and Mahler were enough to support him as his tide receded. There was no sense of resignation in his declaration, but clearly a recognition of limitation. We are all limited. It’s just that when we are younger, we don’t know it.
A smaller and smaller pool of art and literature becomes infinitely large and expansive, and instead of thinking there is too much to know in the world, you realize there is even too much to know just in Chaucer.
I am not arguing against Franzen, or against Idina Menzel or Ai Weiwei; I am just saying that I leave those treasures for younger minds, who, when they get older, will reread and rehear and resee in those works the complex meanings and awakenings that are undoubtedly buried there.
As for me, I’m rereading “Herzog” now to find out what I missed when I was a pimply-faced kid.