I am almost 87. So you may think you are not interested in my state of mind. If you are lucky, you will be, but most of you won’t get here. You will run out of steam, falter, perish in one ingenious way or another and never get to see the world as it really is, the fascinating view from here, out from under the spawning haze and the turmoil of silly means-ends games. In fact, most of my friends didn’t make it—are safely dead.
It is worse than that—some of their children are dead. This morning as I was getting ready to get up (I used to jump up, shower, shave, dress very quickly; now I have to get ready to get up) the bedside radio told me that MR, a prominent movie director, had died. I had met him only once, and he was blissful in his baby buggy. He was being pushed along a Berkeley street by a matched set of tall, lean people who had been, the year before, classmates of mine at the University of Wisconsin. So they had married, produced a son, and the father was, like me, a graduate student in philosophy at Berkeley. But, unlike me, he had strong doctrinal views. Strange, complex and, I thought, a bit crazy—a Chicago version of the then-popular semantic movement. He was always putting up a heated defence of some elaborate scheme, convincing no one but remaining unshaken. Until one day he announced that he was giving up “this philosophical nonsense” and moving over to experimental psychology. Which he did, working with a greatly respected professor. He got his PhD, behaved himself, and within the usual half dozen years got to be an associate professor. That meant that he had tenure, and he promptly told his department that he would never do another bit of “this meaningless research,” that he did not care to be put up for promotion but would, as a matter of duty, continue to teach his undergraduate courses.
I would bump into one or both of them from time to time. They were avid fans of the theatre (having some tenuous connection with Genesee Depot, the base of the great team of Lunt and Fontaine) and he—apart from his teaching chores—devoted his life to golf. The son grew up, became a Hollywood director, made some very good films, and his parents would mention him with pride. The last time I saw him he blurted out his golfing feat: “I shot my age!” He must have been about 80. Soon I read his obituary. His wife followed in very short order. And now his son. Apart from the fact that he despised philosophy, and probably psychology as well, I haven’t the faintest idea of what went on in his mind. He took no part in university politics. A tenured golfer. If there is a moral to that story, it escapes me…
I do scan the obit section, more idly than eagerly, and note the thinning of my cohort. I am sometimes surprised that the newly-dead had not died some time ago. This is even the case with some of my University colleagues. A faculty club lunch regular will drop down to coming in once or twice a week. Someone will call his home to see if he is sick. We will get some explanation and he will reappear, but less frequently. Then, we will notice, he hasn’t been around for some time. Another call home, another explanation, more absence and then, after several months, “Is he still alive?” I note that I, myself, have dropped down to only once or twice a week.
I am surprised to find myself writing about death. I had not intended to. It is not really a pre-occupation. Although a short time ago as I scanned the obit page I had a vivid, certain, but calm feeling that my name would be there within a few years. I was sure of it. I remember a line from Larkin’s great Aubade, “Most things may never happen, this one will”. Yes, it will. All men are mortal and all that, but I had never had such a clear present sense of it applying to me.
My mother lived to 92 and I did not enjoy, nor did she, the last two years. I keep trying to erase them from the memory of her dashing combative poetic life. Why should a whole life be marred by a feeble, forgetful, futile termination. Why remember that!
How to be remembered? An editor asked me for a picture of my mother to go with her last book. My mother had not been without vanity and had left a great many pictures of herself—from her blooming twenties to her nineties. What should I select? A question that lured me into waters deeper than I had expected. The Philosophy Department has the custom of hanging a picture of a member, donated upon retirement, in the philosophy library. I had assumed that meant a picture taken upon retirement. But one day, idly scanning the array, I was shocked to see the picture of a beautiful young woman, radiant and enchanting. Professor H, I realised, but not as the nerve-haunted, wrinkled, shrunken character I knew in her 60’s but as the heartbreaking beauty who had once flashed brilliantly across the western philosophic skies. “Unbelievable vanity,” was my first thought. How could she! And then I came to my senses. She was to present a picture of herself to the department, a picture that presented herself, her real self, her essential self, as she really was. Why pick a late distortion of that vision? Which picture? The Beauty or the Crone? Was she all her life a beauty disguised increasingly by wrinkles? Or always the Crone concealed for a time by the illusion of lovely flesh? Or did she, do we, “change”? As Kant said,” Only the permanent changes.” But is there one picture that captures the permanent, essential, deeper you? Or that at least comes closer than the others? Look at a bunch of pictures of yourself and I’m sure you will see what I mean. Some will seem to be more like you than others. Suppose a photographer follows you around for a day and presents you with fifty snapshots from which one is to be selected as your portrait. Would you or your lover or friend or enemy agree? You would have to fight to subdue vanity as others to deal with other biases, but the skill of the portrait artist lies just there—to find that one image that expresses the deep self or character of the person.
I considered sending the editor my mother’s favorite picture of herself—an early fortyish pensive profile resembling a Alla Nazimova, a striking actress my mother did not mind resembling. I did send it, but along with one even more youthful—unformed and assertive—and a late Sibylene pose. The editor cut the Gordian Knot by using all three.
As for myself, I resisted the temptation to present a picture of myself as a WWII army Major brooding over an intelligence report in China and presented something from a newspaper, aged by a struggle about educational reform in my mid-fifties. It resembles me even now.
But the problem still intrigues me. Consider a collection of photos not all taken in a single day, but fifty photos taken on fifty birthdays. Can you select or discern the one that best expresses your fundamental enduring self? I recognize myself whenever I see myself in our photo albums. Young, old, smiling, frowning I greet the same Me. I am the same me in all the moods and stages. An artist, a student of character, should be able to discern the appearance that comes closest to capturing the real self.
I am a bit surprised to find myself saying these things. Very unprofessional, very fuzzy. I usually believe in clarity, and I’ve lived through the tangled jungle of arguments. The ghost in the machine! The real behind the appearance! The enduring and the changing! I have no more patience for arguments. But still…picture, picture on the wall, which is the (truest? deepest?) of them all?
I seem to be aware of the Me behind my appearances. And so to Yeats’ great line: “Sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” I am haunted by that line. It is always popping into my mind. I know! I know! I should understand that I am that dying animal, not something else fastened to it. But the fact is I feel, with Yeats, fastened to it. My borrowed knees are crumbling, my borrowed arms ache. And why did Yeats not see that the desires that tormented him were only part of the animal to which he was fastened? Or did he think “I desire, therefore I am?” What is left when you shed the dying animal?
And I always drift from Yeats to Milton, to Belial’s great response to Moloch who thought that death was a reasonable alternative to living in Hell.
To be no more; sad cure; for who would lose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallow’d up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion…
I can unfasten myself from my crumbling knees; from “desire;” even (did Sophocles say it?) from a harsh and furious master; but not from “this intellectual being. “Cogito…” Or that too? I had never thought of it as “as long as I think, I am.” But, as a matter of fact, both are true: I think I am a dying animal, and I feel fastened to a dying animal.
Along with the concrete realization that I will die fairly soon (will I totter past 90? And do I really want to?) it dawns on me, startlingly, that I will not see how things come out. I follow politics avidly, but now I realize that I will not see what happens to Hillary or educational reform or Israel or the next Presidential race—certainly not the one after that—or the composition of the Supreme Court. I will never know how things come out! A strangely sharp, if belated, realization.
How will this affect me? I recently watched the running of the Kentucky Derby on television. The preparation, the speculation, the interviews, the slow movement of the horses to the starting post, and finally, the race itself. Suppose I knew that I would not be able to see or ever find out about the finish? Would I still have watched? I now feel that I am watching many “games” and will not know the final scores. This is sinking in rather slowly.
A wise Greek—was it Plato?—described the three types at the Olympic Games. First, the contestants; second, the partisan spectators, the fans; third, neither contestant nor fan, those who observed the whole spectacle, displaying, I suppose, Olympian detachment.
Now as a member of that third group, I notice that I skip more stories as I read the newspaper. There are fewer conflicts that I bother to follow; they will run their course without the aid of my attention. I still follow the Bush presidency and hope for the re-emergence of a vigorous Democratic party dedicated to the defence of public expenditure, rediscovering the virtues of “tax and spend.” I consider the fight over tax cuts versus public expenditure as the significant political struggle of the day, and I follow that more as a partisan than mere spectator. In foreign affairs I still follow the news of Israel and, for related reasons the Irish struggle. But on such things as the energy problem I don’t bother—I have my own energy problem.
“The human race is just rotten,” said a coffee house friend reacting to the menu of horrible news of murder and mayhem in the morning paper. The news was horrible, as it often is, but I do not let it really depress me or move me to condemn mankind as an ugly species. I fall back, for consolation, on a pair of my old aphorisms. “Always remember,” I tell myself, “that we have at least created the ideals we betray.” We have created the very idea of “justice,” the betrayal of which, by us, moves us to condemnation and despair. We have projected the idea of “brotherhood” beyond the small family to embrace all mankind—a daring move certain to yield tribute to urgencies of “friend” and “enemy,” “we” and “they”. Born and raised in the jungle we have dreamed of and tried to build, to create, the great City on the Hill.
We stand on tiptoe to reach the height we yearn for, and we learn, over and over, that we cannot really live on tiptoe for long or for too long or forever. We, our heels, always come back to earth.
The other aphorism, giving us a possibly passing grade: for angels, terrible! For animals, not bad!
Written in 2001 at the age of (almost) 87