Retirement as Henry James’ “Great Good Place”

In my later working years, most of the office coffee break conversations with people of my age involved speculation about when we would retire, where we would move when we could live anywhere, how many days, months or years before we could “escape.”   The talk was largely negative – more about what we were going to be glad to get rid of (regular hours, miserable bosses, long commutes) than what we would replace it with.  And soon, when we could, we retired.  But perhaps, before embarking on our escape, we should have thought more about “The Great Good Place” that Henry James describes for us in such loving detail.

The main character in James’ short story is Dane, a successful author (James himself?) who is constantly harassed for interviews, lectures, deadlines.  One bleak morning, overwhelmed by depression at the piles of tasks before him, Dane is reminded by his secretary that he has a meeting with a young stranger.  Immediately upon the arrival of his guest, Dane finds himself transported to “the scene of his new consciousness,” the calm and quiet of a “great good place.”  It is both a monastery and a spa, it is a “broad deep bath of stillness” which gives Dane time – it seems like months – to recuperate.

He arrived [the stranger in his office] to the minute on a day when more than ever in my life before I seemed, as it happened, in the endless press and stress, to have lost possession of my soul and to be surrounded only with the affairs of other people, smothered in mere irrelevant importunity.

Not so in the great good place. The value of the place seems to be in the material and mental renunciations:

This key, pure gold, was simply the cancelled list.  Slowly and blissfully he read into the general wealth of his comfort all the particular absences of which it was composed.  One by one he touched, as it were, all the things it was such rapture to be without.

The place is described as resembling a gracious monastery or a quiet grand hotel, but it is clearly the work of Dane’s imagination.  Auden loved this story and, in The Dyer’s Hand, called it a parable:

I believe, however, that, in his own discreet way, James is writing a religious parable, that is, he is not describing some social Utopia, but a spiritual state which is achievable by the individual now, that the club [the great good place] is a symbol of this state ….

In retrospect, I could have stayed in the workplace longer if I could have found refuge in such a parable, if I were capable of conjuring up a state of peaceful detachment from my work.  God knows I tried.  And often lately, when I have heard my children complain about the stress of their careers, I have repeated the advice I could never incorporate into my life – knowing that it is doubtful that they will either.  Both the Buddha’s words and the Gita tell us again and again that we must work but not be attached to the outcome of our work.  True, but easier said than done. 

But back to retirement.  I guess my retirement is closer to a monastery than a grand hotel.  We consciously live very quietly, trying to reduce the exterior and interior noise in our lives.  Sometimes, though, it cannot be avoided.  There are family crises.  There are house repairs and the illnesses old age. For the past couple of years there has been the constant threat of Covid. There is the agitation I feel over these things.  Some, perhaps, can be sidestepped.  I have already sworn that I will never own another house.  Yet one cannot sidestep loved ones or the demands of one’s own body.  One cannot, in good conscience, completely withdraw from the responsibilities of the world (although it is tempting). 

Limits might be drawn, but too often they are not.  Are we so inured to the sturm und drang of life that we take it into retirement with us, like a drug to which we are addicted?  It is almost as if we need some level of emotional turmoil and challenge to feel alive.

Outside demands on us have diminished, but we often replace our involuntary servitude with voluntary obligations, guilt, chores.  And if the obligations are not for our time, they are for our mental space.  Finally, we have a chance to take “possession of our soul,” but we are perhaps out of the habit. 

There is an interesting article on the mathematician Grothendieck in this week’s New Yorker.   You might remember Grothendieck from Labatut’s wonderful book When We Cease to Understand the World (see my recent post).  Grothendieck “disappeared” in his old age to live a completely different kind of life.  Some speculated that he was deranged (as geniuses often are), but others thought he was living just as he wanted.  He himself wrote: “The time of tasks is over for me.  If age has brought me something, it is lightness.”  I hope he found his great good place.

The main reason I spend time studying old age, is that I have always hoped to build my old age deliberately.  It is not easy but – as Thoreau tried to tell us – living deliberately is the only way to construct and live in our “great good place.”  What would your great good place look like?

One of the ways I play with ideas about how to live the latter parts of my life is through writing fiction.  You might look at “Again and Again and Again” or “Nothing New” as examples of such sketches.  Often, I explore ideas in order to ultimately reject them, but the writing often tutors me in different ways of being in these “golden” years.


Big Questions, Little Questions, Questions of Old Age

Recently, I came upon W.H. Auden’s proposal for the two questions “about which all men [and presumably women] … seek clarification.” They are:

  1. Who am I? What is the difference between man and all other creatures? What relations are possible between them? What is man’s status in the universe?  What are the conditions of his existence which he must accept as his fate which no wishing can alter?
  2. Whom ought I to become? What are the characteristics of the hero [heroine?], the authentic man whom everybody should admire and try to become?  Vice versa, what are the characteristics of the churl, the inauthentic man whom everybody should try to avoid becoming?  (from The Dyer’s Hand)

These questions reminded me of Gauguin’s inscription on the face of his great painting: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We?  Where Are We Going?”  Not so different – except Gauguin wants to know where we came from, and maybe Auden thinks that is implied in the first question.  In any case they are big questions, and they got me thinking about big questions and little questions and old age.

I have written about questions before (“Three Questions – Or More”), and so you know how important I think it is to ask the right question.  This is not easy – there is even a famous paradox from Plato called “Meno’s Paradox,” which basically asks how I can ask the right question if I do not know what the answer is.  “A man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.”  So says Socrates, but – being Socrates – this does not stop him from asking questions, and it should not stop us.  Formulating questions is a skill; equally important is knowing that there are some questions not worth asking.

The big questions seem to belong to youth, to long nights of smoking cigarettes (or something) on a warm beach with the future in front of us.  We still thought we had some control over the future – and maybe we did – but surely not to the extent that our facile minds were assuming.  And we surely had no control over the passage of time.

But the Buddha says that the “big” questions aren’t worth asking (or answering) – both because they are far too complicated to waste our time with and because the big questions do not affect our daily lives.  Questions like “What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?” (MN2) are just a matter of spinning our wheels, according to the Buddha, and do not eliminate suffering.

On the other hand, the Buddha does force us to question everything else about our lives, particularly our actions and assumptions:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Kalama Sutta)

In other words, observe and analyze and adjust your actions accordingly.  Try something and then interrogate yourself as to whether it worked.  Review your day to see if your actions relieved or created suffering – yours or someone else’s.  This would seem to be something we could and should do in old age, at all ages.

I spent a great deal of time in my youth asking the big questions, but to little avail.  Is old age perhaps the time for the little questions?  Side note:  I googled “Questions of old age” and got pages of suggested questions to ask old people – in case you don’t know how to hold a conversation with your grandmother, perhaps?  Google (and various experts) suggested questions like “How did you get to school when you were a kid?”  Whereas, if you google questions for young adults,  you get big philosophical questions that such people might be asking themselves.  Senior citizens apparently are not only hard to talk to, but have no inner life.  At least according to Google.

What do little questions look like?  Let’s start with a daily review of what worked (caused less suffering in the Buddha’s terms) and what did not work (caused more suffering).  Like Benjamin Franklin with his ivory tablet of desired character traits, we could daily interrogate how we are doing.  For example, did we feel better for having taken a walk in the afternoon?  Was it worthwhile making scones for our neighbor who is laid up after surgery?  Did I sleep better when I skipped my afternoon coffee break?  Who did I talk to today that made me feel… better?  Who made me feel worse? Did I really feel better after I bought that new jacket?  Drank that second cup of coffee?  Surfed the net for two hours?  Is that new medication really helping?  Do I feel better or worse after a nap?  Little questions, but isn’t that the stuff of real life?  Does it help me more to know where I stand in the cosmos or to review where I stand with my neighbors?  Or what gives me peace and what makes me worry all day?

Old people are famous for worrying over little things,  which is precisely why we should interrogate fiercely what we spend time worrying about. Did fretting over the lack of a phone call from a loved one ruin my day?  Did it make them call any faster?  These are the kinds of small questions we should be asking ourselves, and then we must be open to act on the answers.

I am not trying to discourage you from asking the big questions (and if you’ve found the answers, please share), but it is the daily events that form a life.  We elders know that by now.

If you are looking for a story, “A Spoonful of Sugar” is about a woman who confronts the big question of mortality, and answers it with her attention to… cookies.