I am 84, I have lived through a couple of valleys of death. There are aches and fragilities and coughs and creaks and increasing physical ineptitude of all kinds. But in what always is important – love of what the brain can do and fascination with what it can never know, eagerness to learn, delight in new revelations of nature’s variety and man’s achievements, desire to be around forever to see what happens – I feel as I have always felt. It does not change.
Cicero in his great essay on old age tries to console us when he writes: “It cannot be supposed that nature, after having wisely distributed to all previous periods of life their peculiar and proper enjoyments, should have neglected the last act of the human drama and left it destitute of suitable advantages.” That “last act” business intrudes ominously on the otherwise pleasing truth of the observation.
Perhaps, in face of the inevitable, it would be best to try and achieve serenity. That may now be the most appropriate ambition: withdrawal from the hurly-burly, contemplation, teaching and advising – like the elders at the Scaean Gate making available to those who seek the wisdom and insights acquired in life’s rich experience. Lao Tse’s saying “Muddy waters left standing become clear” hints how this may be possible. In youth and middle age the stir and eternal bustle of life’s business leaves the waters of one’s inner life muddied. As age comes on we discover that the activity and strivings which have brought achievement in the external world are useless in dealing with the inner life to which nature now bids us turn. I suppose it may all come down in the end to the Psalmist’s “Be still then and know that I am God.”
But I do not seem to be quite ready for serenity. Life’s stir and eternal bustle still attract. There seems so much left to do, not to mention a veritable infinity of marvels in the world left to experience. I have heard it said, and I have seen it written, that as one ages life gradually loses its savour. Thus far I have not found it so. It is claimed that to live for more than eighty or ninety years would be a burden and a bore. I find that impossible to understand. Today still seems to me loaded with golden moments and what tomorrow will bring remains continually fascinating. So where is the burden and the boredom? I suppose a great deal depends on being in reasonably good health but given that fundamental blessing who would not choose to live forever, or near enough.
I tried to capture this feeling in a poem I wrote:
‘Now death could come,’ said one.
‘Life has nothing left;
the hours are filled with pain.
Let sweet death come.’
‘No’, said the other.
‘If every century past
a bird wing brushed a stone
big as Hog Island
and death would not come
until the wing wore out the stone,
still death would be too soon,
still death would come too soon.’
Dorothy Parker, the American writer, once bitterly remarked: “People ought to be one of two things, young or old. No, what’s the good of fooling? People ought to be one of two things, young or dead.” That is going too far – life is so full of beauty and delight that the oldest man in the world still craves half an hour more of his last sunset before the night comes down.
But one can see what Dorothy Parker meant. The spring and freshness and ambition of youth should be ours forever. Nothing can replace that – not experience, not wisdom, not even the maturity that comes with lost illusions. A long time ago some lines by the poet Robert Lowell stuck in my mind:
Being old in good times is worse
Than being young in the worst times.
There is some truth in that – nothing sweet or comforting in an old man’s world can make up for the inner fire that burns so passionately in youth. If only youth itself appreciated this richness that it possesses instead of taking it for granted. The cruel paradox is that youth’s sweetness is its own forbidden fruit. The feast is over before a man knows how good the menu was.
Well, it is all a dream and the dream’s span is sadly limited. In the art of writing and remembering, that might be the last act one desires. There is a beautiful book by Frederic Prokosch called Voices. It is his autobiography, completed at the age of 75. It ends with the following passage: “I live in a valley below Grasse in a cottage enclosed by cypresses. Behind me loom the hills where the walls are perched in the sunlight. Below me flows the cold green canal of the river Singue. Every morning I look at the dew which clings to the olive trees and I wonder what strange new excitement the day will hold for me … My voyage is at an end. I think how glorious to grow
But then I sit by the window and drink a cup of coffee and labour once again in my ceaseless struggle to produce a masterpiece. I am no longer afraid of loneliness or suffering or death. I see the wondrous faces of the past gathering around me and I hear once again the murmuring of voices in the night.”
Yes, that is a prospect which could enchant me. But not yet.