Let me make another trawl in the deep sea of reading which lies all around us and see what bright catch comes up.
* There is a scene in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence when the lovers, Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, meet in the old Metropolitan Museum in New York in a deserted room containing antique fragments from vanished Ilium. Ellen wanders over to a case: “It seems cruel that after a while nothing matters… any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labelled “Use unknown.”
“Yes,” her lover replies, “but meanwhile.”
“Ah, meanwhile –”
* Why does one write, except for bread? I read William Faulkner’s answer: “Because it’s worth the trouble.” The force of that lapidary justification lies in its single minded focus on the internal processes of literary creation – what Flaubert called the writer’s “adventures” with words. It implicitly rejects the obvious incentives which impel anyone to do anything at all in life – such as the classic Freudian trio of money, fame and the lure of beautiful women.
* It is a rule of life that as one ages anxiety grows. In youth one feels safe and immortal. As the years lengthen that expectation fades to nothing. The dark angels of illness, accident, injury and death visit strangers, the friends of friends, friends, relatives, family, one’s most beloved and oneself – not necessarily in that order. Roger Fanning’s wonderful poem conveys the anxiety perfectly:
Boys Build Forts
Petrified teeth from some fierce – osaurus,
the rocks my friend Donny and I piled up
in the middle of a field to build a fort.
The wind through its chinks made a desolate sound
I loved. We could have been out on the tundra,
bone-tired from tracking musk oxen all day.
It thrilled me to crouch in a cow pasture
and dream I could live here. I pictured
a cook fire, a skillet, two fried eggs
agog at my good fortune… Years later,
during puberty, I saw Charles Atlas
ads in the back of my comic books
and thought those muscles would look fine
on me. It was the same idea of building
a fort, the same ideal of self-sufficiency….
Of course it’s a crock. My parents are gone.
They left me a furnished house, everything
I pictured for my fort, and more: mildew
that wears marching boots, a roof that leaks. I see
how things stand. I see how people get sick.
Every body that walks this earth
and all the ways we try to feel safe:
all are bound to fall apart. My sweet father
and mother, both dead. That cold creeps in
and I feel as though a bear has torn
my chest open, and ravaged the frail
honeycomb built there by my folks,
and left me in a field to fill with snow.
* Yes, it is true, at my age the deaths around me are too commonplace. A dear friend’s beloved daughter dies and I am heartbroken for him. A snatch of despair from an old Norse saga echoes in my mind from long ago:
It is bad with me
now, the Wolf, Death’s
on the headland,
but gladly, without
fear and steadfast, shall
I wait for Hel,
goddess of death
Yet I must remember, and in the end I hope he too will realize, the truth in Albert Camus’s phrase: “happiness, too, is inevitable.”
* Samuel Pepys is the best, and by far the most entertaining, diarist who ever lived. Browsing in his great diary I find an entry for March 10, 1666, which sums up what happens to nearly every ambitious or a successful man or woman: “Thence home and to the office, where late writing letters; and leaving a great deal to do on Monday – I home to supper and to bed. The truth is, I do indulge myself a little with pleasure, knowing that this is the proper age of my life to do it, and out of my observation that most men that do thrive in the world do forget to take pleasure during the time that they are getting their estate but reserve that till they have got one, and then it is too late for them to enjoy it with any pleasure.”
And this trawl ends with a look into Isaiah Berlin’s The Sense of Reality. He was the shrewdest of political thinkers and one of the most lucid and convincing writers who ever lived. He damns those who would dazzle and bemuse us with their simplifications. “To claim the possibility of some infallible scientific key when each unique entity demands a lifetime of minute, devoted observation, sympathy and insight is one of the most grotesque claims ever made by human beings.”