There is an entry in my father’s diary which moved me deeply when I read it after he died. The entry was made in his eighty-fourth year and on this day he recorded his sense of being two different selves. One he can easily define – it is his body grown old and now much broken down, limbs weak and steps hesitant, thinned hair and muffled hearing and dimming eyes, the pains of illness taking an increasing toll, night agues and fears more frequent now, all litheness gone and sleekness of the skin, the felt fragility of bones getting closer and closer to escaping the bonds of flesh, a general decrepitude which dishonours what the human body in its perfection can be.
The other self my father feels just as vividly and even more deeply but it is not so easy to describe. All he can say is that it is the same self he has always been. It is himself every moment he has ever been. It is himself when he was a little boy running in front of his mother on the grass to try and catch a bird that landed for a moment in front of them. It is himself as a young man with friends in a sailing dinghy in golden sun with the wind in his hair and all life good and stretching into the future forever. It is himself in the plenitude of career achievement and athletic vigour. It is himself breathless before the wonders of new worlds discovered. It is himself with his beloved every step of the way, now more than 60 years long, changeless in the grace of their love and the blessing of their children. That self has always been the same and now he can write in his diary and say it is still not intimidated by the other self which changes and grows old and decrepit and will soon die.
It is true what my father wrote. There is not one of us who does not feel the two selves that we are – the changing body, the unchanging core of self. As I begin my eighty-third year of whatever strange journey this is I feel the truth of the two selves strongly. The aging body, so much fuller now of frailty and deterioration, mocks the past resilience and spring that I knew. But whatever does not change is powerful in me and feels life as gleamingly beautiful and sweet to experience as it ever was.
Perhaps it is in sport that my sense of the two selves is strongest. With delight I see the current young champions in their agility and quicksilver flair and their strength and endurance and sometimes their astonishing, perfect beauty and there is part of me which remembers the life in sport I had and feels the excitement and the fire and the mastery as if they had not gone at all but happened only a moment past and the wearing-out, awkward-old body is then quite forgotten and the changeless self-performing wonders is all that really matters.
Aging and changeless selves, both, I have always loved poetry. I discovered the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz over thirty years ago when he won the Nobel Prize and ever since his writing has made a strong impression on me. He published his first book of poems in1933, the year I was born.
Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911 and lived through times of evil almost incommunicable to those who still keep faith in the basic goodness of man. He spent the years between 1939 and 1945 in Warsaw when, as he wrote, “Hell was spreading through the world like ink spilled on blotting paper.” How, he wondered, could one write poems among the ruins and stench of universal, inconceivable carnage. He found a way. It was at this time he wrote the extraordinary words: “Probably only those things are worth while which can preserve their validity in the eyes of a man threatened with instant death.”
Milosz at 90 years old still wrote poems of great power “as if a tiger had sprung out/and stood in the light, lashing his tail.” How did he go on wresting this poetry from his old age, from what endless source? There was something in him that did not fade towards nothingness. “In advanced age, my health worsening,” he begins a prose poem, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and experienced a feeling of happiness so intense and perfect that in all my life I had only felt its premonition.”
There is a poem by Milosz which reminds me of both my selves. It is a poem which he wrote when he was a lot older than I am now.
An Honest Description of Myself with a Glass Of Whiskey at an Airport, Let Us Say, in Minneapolis
My ears catch less and less of conversations, and my eyes have
weakened, though they are still insatiable.
I see their legs in miniskirts, slacks, wavy fabrics.
Peep at each one separately, at their buttocks and thighs, lulled by the
imaginings of porn.
Old lecher, it’s time for you to go in the grave, not to the games and
amusements of youth.
But I do what I have always done: compose scenes of this earth under
orders from the erotic imagination.
It’s not that I desire these creatures precisely; I desire everything, and they
are like a sign of ecstatic union.
It’s not my fault that we are made so, half from disinterested
contemplation, half from appetite.
If I should accede one day to Heaven, it must be there as it is here, except
that I will be rid of my dull senses and my heavy bones.
Changed into pure seeing, I will absorb, as before, the proportions of
human bodies, the colour of irises, a Paris street in June at dawn, all of it incomprehensible, incomprehensible the multitude of visible things.