Archive

Tag Archives: life

I got a call from Stuart last night. We don’t see each other in person as much as we used to, partly because of the virus, but mostly because we are old and long drives or flights are really hard on the knees. 

“I read your piece on threes,” he said (link here), “and I had a realization. In the past, you’ve written a lot about how we are all really two people — the public person, who is just one of seven billion others and of no real significance in the big scheme of things; and the interior person, who is the hero of our own story, and therefore central in existence.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And so, that is one more binary system, like hot and cold, or tall and short, or inside and outside. Our brains seem to like to divide things into pairs of opposites. Even though, as you say, hot and cold or tall and short  are really just the same thing, relative to each other.”

“Yes, that old, who is the shortest giant or the tallest dwarf. The sunspot is a cold spot on the sun, but it is still thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.”

“I think what you said was there’s the burning end of a cigar, and the cold end, but there’s really only one cigar.”

“Yes,” I acknowledged that I once said something of the sort — my gloss on the Tao. 

“But, I realized the experience of being alive can equally be seen as  made up of three parts,” Stuart said. “The experience, I say — the way we experience our lives.

“In the old days,” he continued, “we would call those three things ‘Man,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Soul,’ but those terms are freighted with religion and gender bias. I don’t like them. So, instead, I call them ‘humankind,’ ‘the universe,’ and  ‘the psyche.’ These three elements encompass our experience.”

“And ‘Nature’ conjures up too much flowers and trees and birds and bees,” I said. “It’s a term too cuddly for what you mean here, right?”

“Absolutely. I mean something closer to what Werner Herzog says about nature — the indifferent violence and coldness of the cosmos. 

“Let me take them one at a time,” Stuart said. “What I’m labeling as ‘Humankind’ is the societal and political mix, the way we fit into the ordering of the welter of human population. It includes such things as relationships — father and son, husband and wife, pastor and congregation, lord and serf, American and foreigner, really all of them you can name. It is what is between people. 

“This is essentially the same as your ‘just one of seven billion’ and is the public part of our existence. We are taxpayers, we are Catholics (or atheists), we are Tarheels or Mainers, we are children or senior citizens, Tory or Labor — “

“You’re getting kind of binary on me,” I said. 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. But these are all those interpersonal roles we have to play out daily and throughout our lives. 

“And none of any of this does the universe care a fig about. The universe is vast and operates on its own schedule and according to its own rules, none of which consider our human needs or desires. It is the universe that throws the dice as to whether we are born male or female; it is the universe that makes us work in the day and sleep at night; the universe that ends our life when it will. We think we have so much control, but in reality, we are able to nudge the universe only infinitesimally this way or that. In the last degree, the universe will do whatever it does. We don’t count.”

“It is the universe that took my Carole away from me five years ago. I had no choice.”

“Exactly,” Stuart said. “It’s something we just have to live with. The universe is an essential part of our experience of being alive and we accommodate to it. It makes no accommodation to us. 

“Then, there is the inner life we lead, as important as the other two, perhaps more important. It is not only the sense of ourselves as ourselves, but also, all the unconscious trash that we have to deal with that’s buried in the braincase, like superstition, hard-wired evolutionary neuronal structuring, the forgotten traumas of childhood that govern our choices in ways we’ll never know about, even that drive to see the world in patterns, patterns which may or may not actually be there.”

“Like constellations in the night sky,” I said. 

“Our brains force us to find patterns, it’s all part of the psyche.”

“But isn’t there some overlap in your system?” I asked. “You say, for instance, that family relationships are part of the ‘humankind’ portion of experience, but isn’t family also an archetype, a part of the built-in wiring of the psyche?” 

“In the terms I’m speaking of, I’m considering these as two separate things: the public understanding of family as a civic unit on one side; and the archetype of family as a mythic unit on the other. They may share a name, but they are very different things. There are quite a few examples of ideas that are seen differently through one of these three different lenses. There are even those who believe ‘family’ is a universal truth, although we know historically, families are constituted differently at different times in different cultures. 

“I expect you could look at most things through one of these different lenses and find quite different results. Even the ‘individual’ has a political significance that is different from its psychic significance. To say nothing of its insignificance in the wider universe.”

“But there is a significance to the universal individual,” I said. “It is the ancient problem of the one and the many. The universe may be infinite, but it is still made up of individual parts, be they people, planets, muons or quarks. Each may be observed separated from the matrix.” 

“I’m seeing it all through the psychic lens,” Stuart said. “And not through the objective lens of science. I’m talking about our experience of being alive. And looking up at the starry night sky can be understood through each of these lenses. As a societal matter, you are an astronomer in your social role, or you are a dreamer wasting time. Through the universal lens, you are an utterly insignificant speck of organic dust …”

“Or, you are the universe looking at itself.”

“Perhaps. But through the psychic lens, you are the center of the universe, and it all revolves around you, certainly out of your reach, but the psychic center of the universe is yourself — each of us his or her own center.”

“And you are knocked out of your ego-centered reverie, when you get a jury summons, throwing you back into the social web,” I said. “Or getting a traffic ticket, or punching in at work.”

“And getting knocked from that reverie when the universe sends you the message that arthritis is chaining up your knuckles, or that your once-new car is rusting out in its undercarriage.

“None of these three lenses is sufficient. We need them all out in our full selfhood, but they are each there, nonetheless, and can be teased out and thought about separately. I think a healthy personality keeps them all in balance. A juggling act.”

We talked about many other things, we usually do. It went on for about an hour. But this was the gist of the phone call, what I thought might be interesting to share. I miss Stuart and Genevieve in person. We had such good times. Isolation is not good. A curse on the universe for making us get old and for giving us viruses. 

I make no claim of wisdom. In fact, the older I get, the less wise I feel. But I can claim, at the age of 70, to have amassed a life of experience. I have been through a lot, from the turmoil of the 1960s, divorce, near homelessness, the death both of a brother and of my late espoused saint. I have been both unemployed and had a successful career and traveled three continents. Finally, I have grandchildren and see with trepidation into the 21st century, beyond my time here. 

And it is that last that gives me pause. If there is one regret that haunts my senescence, it is that all the experience I have lived through can never be transmitted to the twin granddaughters that I love. Sure, I can tell them things, and perhaps some of what I tell them helps. More is surely ignored — I know I ignored the importunings of my elders when I was their age. It cannot be otherwise. When I was young, I knew so much; now that I am old, I know so little. They certainly see that in me, now that they are 18, headed off to college and know so very much. 

But it isn’t advice I am talking about. I am talking about the impossibility of transferring experience. From my brain, from my heart, to theirs, of for that matter, to anyone. A whole life of accrued sensation and false step, of battering and acceptance, of the shiftings of love and the devastation of failure, the afflatus of joy and the satisfaction of doing good work, remains bottled up inside me — and inside everyone. 

I am reminded in this of the soldier back from the war, with the thousand-yard stare, who can say in words what he has been through, but can never actually share the reality of it. The horror, the horror. So many, like my own father, a veteran of World War II in Europe, never talked about it. When he was old, I tried to tease it out of him. I asked questions about his war experience, but he always deflected. I know at one point near the end of the war, that 11 German soldiers walked out of the woods to surrender to him. But as far as he was concerned, he had no part in that. It was just something that happened while he was there. He avoided ever talking about the war and when pressed, made light of it, in a way that made it clear there was little lightness about it at all. 

Things of the magnitude of war and destruction cannot be adequately talked about. You had to be there. And having been there, you never wanted to be there again, even in recollection. 

I had a similar experience when my wife died. There is no way to express the enormity of the loss, or the singularity of the experience. There were many who expressed sympathy, and I greatly appreciated those words intended to comfort. But they cannot know what it was like. Is like. In no way. The only people I could truly commune with were those who had also lost a mate. They had been through it, too. They understood. It is a kind of brotherhood. 

The actual complexity and depth, the horror and devastation of it cannot be conveyed in mere words. The experience of it is different from language. It is the biggest event in my life, and remains so a year and half later. 

In the same way, all the years that have been poured into and out of my body and my psyche can not be expressed in words that begin to touch the heart of it. Language is a parallel universe, a train out of whose windows you may watch the world pass without having the need to experience it. The real thing is bigger, inexplicable, devastating, body-filling, rich, dense, multifarious and always connected, piece to piece in a larger and larger construction, which is me. Or you. 

It is the final frustration of life that all that history buried in my mind is stuck there, doomed to die when I do. In a way, all that learning I have amassed is ultimately pointless; poof, gone. 

I am aware of the irony: I made my living as a writer, and words are my only useful tools. But no matter, I have always felt the inadequacy of those ink squiggles on the paper. 

I am reminded again of those lines in Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…” 

The idea being that inside us is a world actually bigger than the outer one. It takes it all in and creates even further, making connections not obvious, building from imagination “far other worlds and other seas.”

“Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

And it’s the “annihilating” part that digs at me. I have no fear of death — after all, I was not afraid before I was born; non-existence is a neutral state (of course, like Woody Allen, I don’t want to be there when it happens). Like Herman Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty well made up my mind to be annihilated.” But all that life, all that experience of which my cup overfloweth, will ultimately count for nil. That is the part that vexes me. 

I want to make the twins’ lives easier, happier, with less of the pain and frustration that comes to all of us. I want to impart to them the equanimity that age confers, but I cannot. No one can. All that experience is ultimately wasted in me, moiling about inside with no escape. No purpose, no benefit. It is life’s greatest frustration. And I feel it intensely.

Apollo

Apollo

The older I get, the less reading I do, and the more re-reading. It’s a common symptom of age. There are many things that change as you leave behind the enthusiasms of youth.

I remember the complaints about conductor Arturo Toscanini that his repertoire was small and repetitive: How many times can you play the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, and why don’t you play more contemporary music?

Toscanini 2First, you have to remember that when Toscanini was young, he gave world premiere performances of many new works, including Puccini’s La Boheme and Sam Barber’s Adagio for Strings. He gave world premieres of at least 25 operas. When he was young, the music of Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy were brand new, not the concert stalwarts they later became. He gave the American premiere of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. He programmed all of George Gershwin’s major pieces, even if his Italian soul never quite beat to the jazz rhythm. 

But it is true that after he came to the NBC Symphony, he concentrated on the war horses. His repertoire did narrow as he got old. The problem is that we know Toscanini mainly these days for his RCA Victor recordings, made near the end of his life, and so we have a skewed vision of his career.

That narrowing is not uncommon in artists, who generally — if they get to live long enough — develop a streamlined “late style,” which eschews much of the complexity they favored as young Turks, and gets straight to the point, as if the knew they didn’t have time for all the hoopla and somersaults. 

And so, as his hair whitened, Toscanini focused on those works he knew he could never exhaust: things like the Beethoven symphonies. They provide endless riches, endless possibilities, and endless satisfactions. 

I say I recognize this because as I’ve aged, I, too, have narrowed my focus. As a young art critic, I kept up with all the newest trends in contemporary art. I loved the buzz and fizz: Who’s up, who’s out. What’s the latest and greatest. I even went so far as to disparage much of what is found in our art museums as “relics” of the art process, and therefore not really art — real art is what is coming out of the studios today. Or even better, tomorrow.

And, as a music critic, I felt the same way. Give me something to shock my ears and lord keep me from having to hear another Beethoven’s Fifth! 

But there is a great change in one’s approach to art as one matures. Maturity isn’t just a slowing down and tightening up: It is the weight of experience. When we are young, we know so little, yet we think we know so much. We have the answers, and why don’t the fogeys understand that?

Life, however, burdens you with the accumulation of experience and what was clear as an adolescent is infinitely muddy as a grandfather. 

When we are striplings and in love with art, we tend to idolize it, and its makers. We test ourselves against our heroes, and against the art they made. Are we up to it? Can we maintain in ourselves the vibrancy and aliveness of the art we adore? Aren’t we “special,” too? Of course, we are! The world in art seems so much more brilliant and colorful, so much more emotionally intense. 

But, after a few marriages, a few divorces, a few illnesses, a few disappointments and the deaths of too many of those we loved, after seeing the politics of our time repeat themselves endlessly and stupidly, after seeing more genocides in the world, and hearing the idiocies of dogma and doctrine, the evils of ideologies and the fears of unknowing engender the hatreds of tribes and nations, after all that and the heavy weight of more, we — if we have been lucky — have earned a portion of wisdom. What we once valued from books, we know know more directly from life. And now, instead of measuring ourselves against the art we love to see if we measure up, instead we measure the art against our lives and experience to see whether the art measures up. And very often, it doesn’t. 

So, in our dotage, we fall back on a few trusted worthies, those poems, books, paintings, symphonies, choreographies that we have tested against our experience and which hold up and continue to give pleasure, consolation, understanding and — I hesitate to use the word — what we have come to regard as truth. 

It is what I find in those books and in that music that I re-read and re-listen to — that give me sustenance, that feeds my inner life and tells me that I am not alone but share something with those writers, those composers, those painters and sculptors who have gone through enough life to have developed enough emotional complexity to make art that says something real, and doesn’t just tickle my need for novelty, or — as in my youth — my self-announced grandiosity. glenn gould

So, I re-read The Iliad at least once a year, and re-read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Melville’s Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust. I just finished again Dante’s Commedia, and expect to take on Chaucer next. I listen to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, or to the Budapest Quartet and the late Beethovens. I weep every time I see Balanchine’s Apollo or his Prodigal Son. I cannot get all the way through Wordsworth’s Intimations Ode without sobbing quietly. 

And Toscanini doing Brahms’ Fourth. I don’t know how many times he conducted that piece, and I certainly cannot count how many times I’ve listened to that recording. I can hear it all the way through now purely in my mind; I don’t even need the score. 

These things — and many more — seem rock-solid and true. 

I expect you have or will have your own list of works that do it for you. They shouldn’t be the same ones; after all, you have lived your own life and collected your own list of wounds and sorenesses, giving you your own sense of what life must be, despite all our best efforts.