Chips from the Hanging Spar – Melville’s Last Works

Melville would seem to have had a fairly miserable old age, ending with his death of cardiac failure at the age of 72.  No wonder his heart gave out.  After an initial success with books about sailing in the South Seas (Typee, Omoo, among others), Melville struck out with Moby-Dick (the greatest American novel that the NYTimes misspelled the title of in his obituary) and then again with Pierre (“Herman Melville Crazy” read a headline).  At the age of 38, he seemed to be washed up.  His last full novel, The Confidence-Man, didn’t help his reputation.  It is, however, a novel worth reading and a book of our time, of illusion and disillusion.  Not long ago, Philip Roth said that “the relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’ ”

The characters in Melville’s novel are either scammers or those who are just asking to be scammed.  It asks the brilliant question as to why we are so prone to believe what we want to believe and not to look for the truth.  One of the most interesting passages in this regard involves an old person and is worth quoting here.  A “confidence man” is talking to a man from Missouri (no one seems to have names) about the conning of an old man on the steamer they all are traveling on.  The Missourian has just finished telling the old sick man that he shouldn’t trust in the natural remedies sold to him by the doctor/con man and the con man argues that it would be “pitiless” to take away the old man’s hope:

“Yes, poor soul,” said the Missourian, gravely eyeing the old man – “yes, it is pitiless in one like me to speak too honestly to one like you [the old man].  You are a later sitter-up in this life; past man’s usual bed-time; and truth, though with some it makes a wholesome breakfast, proves to all a supper too hearty.  Hearty food, taken late, gives bad dreams.”

Truth is too hard to bear in old age – and so we turn to religion, medicine, what? One might think of Jung’s call for religion as a source of “psychic hygiene” for one approaching death.  But of more interest here is Melville’s disillusionment with life.  There is none of that in Moby-Dick.  While there is the evil of Ahab, Moby-Dick is a tale of the cooperative effort of a shipload of very different men who work together to a common end.  Something has changed for Melville with time and age.  The taste of life has gone sour. 

But this was not Melville’s final statement.  I prefer to think of Melville’s unfinished novella Billy Budd as his last judgment on life.  There is still disillusionment, but there is also handsome, honest, innocent Billy.  Billy Budd has been called “Melville’s Testament of Acceptance” of life as it is (Fogle).  It has also been called a work of tragic irony.  I prefer to think that, after being buffeted about for decades, Melville shows us he remembers innocence, he remembers Eden.  And he has accepted that it is inevitably lost.  One thinks of Beethoven’s inscription to the last movement of one of his last works (String Quartet Opus 135): “The Difficult Decision.”  Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?”  He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.”

In Melville’s story, Billy must be hung even though his action was provoked by a psychopath and the whole crew is on his side.  But in the British Navy one could not get away with flaunting the rules.  It would be bad for discipline.

Melville flaunted the rules and paid the price in many ways.  I have no idea whether he had regrets in his old age, but it seems he was not particularly content.  In 1850, he had written an enthusiastic piece about Hawthorne (whom he had yet to meet), and in it he talked about how great writers did not avoid difficult topics.  And he says that “he who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great.  Failure is the true test of greatness.”  Melville himself was about to be tested.

He wrote the piece about Hawthorne in 1850, while he was working on Moby-Dick.  That great novel was published in 1851 to mediocre (at best) reviews.  In 1852, he published Pierre, which induced reviewers to doubt his sanity.  The Confidence Man  – Melville’s last full novel – was published in 1857 when Melville was only 38.  Eventually unable to sustain himself as an author, he took a job as a customs inspector in 1866 and worked at the New York Customs House for 19 years.  And then he started Billy Budd, which was published many years after his death.

According to the biographers, Melville entered a long silence at the end of his life.  Some thought he was crazy; but he was writing Billy Budd and, perhaps, came to the conclusion that we are all crazy and had to be to live this absurd life.

Melville had early success, which dwindled into an undeserved neglect and failure in his old age.  It happens.  We all have things (or marriages or children) which did not turn out as we hoped.  The question is what we do with all of that in our old age.  I wish I could tell Melville how much I love Moby-Dick; how well he read human nature in The Confidence Man, and how Billy Budd is one of the grandest of tragedies.

 In Billy Budd, the spar that Billy is hung on turns into a holy relic of sorts, with sailors chipping off bits surreptitiously because they know that there died a noble soul.  I have no chips of the spar or the true cross, but I have Melville’s books.

 If you are interested in thinking about what to do with a sense of failure in old age, you might look at my stories “A Balm in Gilead” or “A Perfect Ending.”  Or you might look at an earlier post, A Dimished Thing?.

An Aging Hippie Considers the Chaos in Washington

 

I protested the War in Viet Nam.  I marched and watched young men burn their draft cards and participated in sit-ins.  Young men of my generation objected to being forced to carry guns, perhaps be killed, in a war that seemed senseless.  That turned out to be senseless.  The rioters in the Capitol on Wednesday were angry with the thought that someone might take their guns away and they did not seem to mind a little killing. 

I am old and those rioters were (mostly) young.  I would like someone to succinctly tell me what their grievance is  – other than the unproven belief that Trump had somehow won the election despite certifications, audits, and polls leading up to the election showing that Trump would probably lose.  When I protested in the sixties (and again when we entered Iraq), I did it grimly.  These young men clearly seemed to be having a good time.  What is going on here?

I live in the south.  My state voted for Trump.  In my neighborhood, mostly made up of retired folk, there were probably (judging from the lawn signs) an equal number of  Trump and Biden supporters – so Trumpism is surely not just for the young.  But with every generation, I think, it is the young who insert the energy into every new movement.  It was so with civil rights, women’s rights, voter rights. 

Are the current Trumpists the children or grandchildren of the people who doused the protesters of my era with water hoses or called us communists?  Their brand of patriotism was tough to take then, and it is killing this country now.  But here is a difference.  I don’t think we were disagreeing about the facts in those days.  The other side might have been saying that we should be out there battling the Reds in Viet Nam, but they weren’t saying that  George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy were running child pornography rings.  Something has changed.  Something is worse.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am old and old people tend to be conservative, to think things were better in the good old days.  We don’t like things to change a whole bunch.  But we have also learned some things along the way, including that the flag doesn’t legitimate all efforts made under its banner or that elected officials don’t always do the right thing.

This morning, I went to the local convenience store to get my Sunday New York Times.  The very nice young man who works the early shift there asked me if I had had a good week as I paid for my paper.  I pointed to the pictures of the ransacked Capitol Building on the front page and said, “Except for this.”  He quickly pointed out to me that there had been protests when Hillary lost.  He is right; I even attended one in Asheville.  “But we didn’t do this,” I said.  “We didn’t carry weapons.  We didn’t deny the results of legitimate elections. We didn’t destroy property or try to upset our democracy.”  The young man just smiled and went on to the next customer, not much interested in what an old lady had to say.

This has been a hard year for all of us.  The old have been particularly hard-hit by Covid, by infection and death and the isolation it has forced us into.  We watched a President disregard – and even belittle – the protocols like mask-wearing that could have kept us safer, while he got drugs when he got ill that we would probably never have access to.  When people I know got Covid, they were told to monitor their breathing and call 911 if their oxygen level got so low they couldn’t function.  That was all.  And now all of the rules of democracy and civilization that we have prided ourselves on are being disregarded.

In 1920, Robert Frost wrote the poem “Fire and Ice,” inspired, it is said, by a conversation he had with an astronomer at Harvard about how the world will end:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

We have the fire of passions and global warming; we have the ice of hate and destructive thinking.  Either would “suffice,” but we must somehow fight both at once.  And the old must do their part.

But please don’t think that I just blame the young.  Our generation must have done something wrong in order to produce such massive disregard for truth, science, moral balance.

I have been counting the days until January 20, but that will not be the end of it.  It will be the end of neither Trumpism nor Covid.  I wrote a piece a while back entitled, “What Are the Old to Do?” where I concluded  that we should remain civil, participate in lawful and peaceful protest, and continue insisting that facts be verified.  I am much afraid these things will not be enough, but other suggestions are welcome.

Next week I will get back to last novels.  Melville, I think.

 

Thoughts on the New Year and Turning 70

There is much hope in the land for the New Year; 2020 will not be fondly remembered by most people. I do not have to detail the collective tragedy of this lost year.  On the positive and personal side, we were blessed with two healthy new grandsons this year, but have only seen them once. And, just as the vaccine is in our sights, Covid has surged.  It has even entered my immediate neighborhood for the first time.

I have written in another year about the images of the “old” year (Father Time) and the “Baby” New Year.  This is a holiday which will not let us forget time is passing.  As I get older, New Year’s Eves come faster and faster, and I go to bed earlier and earlier.  No bells at midnight for me.  And I am cognizant today that 2021 is the year in which I will turn 70.  Seventy seems old to me.  I am sure I will get used to my new decade (although my husband who is two years ahead of me says he hasn’t).  But the numerical marker is a bellwether, a harbinger of things to come.

The Bible tells us that seventy years is all we can expect of life.  Psalm 90 is quite explicit on this point:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Or in a more modern translation:

Seventy years is all we have—eighty years, if we are strong; yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over, and we are gone.

One can argue that in Biblical times 70 was much older than it is now.  Maybe.  But I know there are many things about old age that have not changed, that cannot be easily “cured,”  including the simple truth of the wear and tear our bodies and minds have undergone for seven decades.

As anyone who has been reading these blogs will know, there has been much debate in recent years on what our attitude toward old age should be.  One of my favorite authors (both as the academic Carolyn Heilbrun and the mystery writer Amanda Cross) wrote The Last Gift of Time – Life Beyond 60It is a lovely book about getting older and delineates many of the joys of old age.  Yet, Dr. Heilbrun also vows in the book to commit suicide at age 70,  as “there is no joy in life past that point, only to experience the miserable endgame.”  She actually waited until she turned 77; I wish she had waited longer.

A few years back (2014), Ezekiel Emanuel (noted oncologist and bioethicist who was recently appointed to Biden’s Covid team and whose brothers are Rahm and Ari) wrote a much-discussed article in The Atlantic entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  The title is misleading; Emanuel does not necessarily hope to die in his mid-seventies.  But he has decided that by age 75 he will give up all measures to make him live into a very long but perhaps debilitated old age.  He is clearly against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but:

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.  Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.  This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I recommend the article – particularly those parts about where our health care dollars are going and how statistics show that longevity improvements often just “increase the years spent in disability.”  By the way, Dr. Emanuel says in this essay that he will no longer take flu vaccines after age 75; I wonder how he feels about this in the current situation.  I do not want to make his argument simplistic though; it is a powerful statement of reality in the face of the very unreal chase after immortality.  As I approach my eighth decade, all these things are on my mind.

This is my last post in a remarkable year.  It is also the time for printing up my journal for the month of December and completing the three-ring binder labeled 2020.   This is the 17th year I have undertaken this process of recording my life in an organized way; these piles of words remember more than I do.    Virginia Woolf said, once, that she wrote her diary for her 50-year-old self to read (she was in her thirties when she said this).  Why does a 70-year-old keep a diary? (I bet you know the answer to this – if not read my blog on the subject here.)   And when is it time to stop writing and just to review and reflect?

December 31st  is also time to put away my books of morning readings – this year it was readings from C.S. Lewis and the third volume of a set of daily poems that I cycle through on a triennial basis. It is a time to start clearing away Christmas decorations and throwing out old calendars. 

And, as we clear away the old, are we getting ready for that final clearing away?  Does the end of a year make us consider that – perhaps – the new year might be our last?  Out with the old, in with the new?  Old man time being replaced by baby new year?  The old year being shuffled into drawers, shut into binders,  or collected in folders for our tax returns?  I have made no resolutions for the New Year.  I am not as pessimistic as Carolyn Heilbrun or Ezekiel Emanuel, but I did watch my mother’s life disintegrate into a malicious form of dementia in the end.  There should be some middle ground to this business of fading out, of becoming someone we don’t recognize mentally or physically.  I have no answers, but am open to alternatives.  And, in truth, I look forward to this new year.  Especially, to this new year.

 

Huxley’s Last Utopia – Island

Sometimes, the books of an author’s old age comment on or continue the work of their younger years.   Almost everyone knows how Aldous Huxley thought the world might go wrong from his 1932 Brave New World; less often read is his description of a (doomed) utopian society in Island, published thirty years later and not long before he died.  Huxley describes for us a peaceable kingdom on the island of Pala, which is about to be upended by contact with and exploitation by the outside world.  Unlike Hesse, Huxley is not writing an individual’s life, but, rather, the life of a culture from its beginning to its apparent imminent demise.  And we get Huxley’s vision of how life might be lived in a society which was supportive rather than exploitive.

Huxley was heavily influenced by Buddhism, and his island culture spun out of Buddhist beginnings to a place where mynah birds are trained to call out “Attention” to get listeners to pay heed to the present moment.  Sex is open even to children; this makes for uncomfortable reading today as adults on Pala sometimes “teach” young people the finer points of physical love.  There is a large extended family structure, allowing children to move between households.  Huxley was obviously influenced by Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa on both these traitsBut the main emphasis in Pala is on cultivating mental health.  My favorite scenes involve teaching children the tricks of mind control.  They are, for instance, told to imagine different animals or people, to multiply them in their mind, and then wipe them away in an exercise to show the youngsters how they can control their own minds and not be victim to random and hurtful thoughts.  We could all use that lesson.

Drugs are presumably bad in Brave New World (soma makes you feel good, but it also controls you).  By the time we get to Island, drugs are put to better use, with all young people going to through a rite of passage that includes the use of a mescaline-type substance (called moksha) that makes them cognizant of their place in the universe.   Long passages relating drug experiences could and should have been edited out of this otherwise interesting book.  Other people’s drunken or drugged adventures are seldom interesting.

The thinking process that got Huxley to Island can be traced through his non-fiction.  Thirteen years after Brave New World, he wrote the brilliant Perennial Philosophy, where he tried to pull together the convergent ideas of many of the world’s religions (called the “ultimate anthology” by the New York Times).  It might have served as a Bible to the residents of Pala.  In 1954, he wrote the less brilliant Doors of Perception, which encouraged the use of mescaline for enlightenment.  Huxley himself asked his wife to inject him with LSD on his deathbed  in 1963.  (Sidenote: President Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died on the same day, meaning the latter two got very little press upon their demise.)  Huxley apparently never gave up the idea that chemical assistance was a part of the life well lived.

Huxley’s Pala is doomed, however.  There is oil on the island and the capitalists are at the door.  The people are peaceable and have no weapons, no standing army.  They are going to lose control.  So, while this is the picture of a utopia it clearly reminds us that the real world is anything but.

Here’s the thing though – the people know it is coming and they are rational enough to know they probably can’t stop it.  Their training, however, makes them sure that they will cope (“even in the worst society an individual retains a little freedom”), and, as the tanks roll in, the last thing we hear is a mynah bird telling us to pay attention.   At this point, the reader is at once deeply sad for the lost utopian vision, but heartened by the realization that, perhaps, all utopias are in the heart and the way in which we relate to the world. 

And Huxley gives us other words of truth here.  “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity.”  As I read this, I could not help but think that “planned obsolescence” applied not just to appliances and cars, but to the planet that nurtures us.

Novels of old age do not usually offer happy endings, nor do they conclude that the human race is perfectible – or even good (think of Melville’s The Confidence Man).  Old people know these things.  I would not trust an old person who hadn’t realized that the Eden of childhood was not recoverable.  The question is how to live within the world as we find it.  Not to say we shouldn’t try to improve it, but denial is the worst kind of soma.    

Last Novels – Hesse’s Glass Bead Game

I will go back to last poems at some point, but let’s talk about a few “last” novels over the next few weeks.  There is even a list out there of “best” last novels.  Many of the novels I will talk about here are on the list, but there are also some omissions (Mann’s Dr. Faustus for one).

First, let’s admit that a writer’s last work is not always their best.  One might think of Willa Cather’s Sapphira and the Slave Girl, which is surely not up to her standard.  But great authors who have lived to old age have had a long time to hone their craft and to think about what they want to say.  And that can make for very interesting reading.

I have been re-reading Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game,  and – as many times as I have read it – it always and inspires.  Glass Bead Game was Hesse’s last book and probably his best.  It earned him a Nobel Prize and the acclaim of his peers.   Last novels have various forms, but many are “lives” of fictional characters which allow the older writer to survey the whole of life.  Hesse follows the life of his main character, Joseph Knecht, through childhood to his ascendency to Master of the Glass Bead Game and on to the end of his life. 

Hesse was writing in Switzerland in the late thirties and early forties; he seems barely aware of radio and other media.  The novel takes place in the 23rd century, in a world that collapsed in the twenty-first century after an era of continuous warfare and cultural breakdown.  Even though Hesse did not envision anything like computers and the internet, he blames the collapse on a shallow culture of distraction and a culture of “untrammeled individualism.”  More freedom “than they could stand” led to the Age of Feuilleton – the latter word meaning the section of a European newspaper devoted to light entertainment – stories about celebrities, “a major source of mental pabulum for the reader.” Sound familiar?  The newspapers also provided games for distraction.  “These games sprang from their deep need to close their eyes and flee from unsolved problems….”   Freedom was the watchword, but loss of religion led to a   “passionate search for a means to confer legitimacy on this freedom.”   We want to do what we want, but we want to be sure we are doing the right and approved thing.  A paradox to be sure.  Civilization was saved by an elite group of scholars who formed a sort of monastic/academic order from which they rescued the educational system and reworked the culture to give it a sense of discipline and purpose.  Hesse’s main character rises in this fascinating structure, but, in the end, realizes its limitations.

One of the things that is intriguing about the education of the elite in Castalia, Hesse’s world of learned renunciates, is students and teachers are encouraged to write a certain kind of life review periodically – however, they are encouraged to set the review of their life in another historical period.  Hesse has appended three of these life reviews – purported to have been written by his protagonist – at the end of The Glass Bead Game,  and any or all of them are worth your time if you do not want to tackle the whole novel.  I haven’t exactly tried this kind of life review yet, but it would make for an interesting exercise for those of us who think things out through the written word.

And on the topic of writing, there is this description of the kind of writing that the older Joseph Knecht tells a younger character he is going to undertake once he escapes from Castalia and his duties as Master of the Glass Bead Game.  He describes such work as a “booklet, a little thing for friends and those who share my views”:

…the subject would not matter.  It would only be a pretext for me to seclude myself and enjoy the happiness of having a great deal of leisure.  The tone would be what mattered to me, a proper mean between the solemn and the intimate, earnestness and jest, a tone not of instruction, but of friendly communication and discourse on various things I think I have learned… I imagine, I might very well experience the joys of authorship, of the sort I foresee: an easygoing, but careful examination of things not just for my solitary pleasure, but always with a few good friends and readers in mind.  

This description from a fictional retiree (of sorts) aligns pretty well with the reasons I write this blog.  My blog is always offered as a kind of “friendly communication and discourse.”  And it is also a “pretext for seclusion” – not that we need any pretexts these days!

I will look at some other last novels over the next few weeks.  Please feel free to let me know what your favorites are.  If you are interested in Hermann Hesse (who had much to say about old age), you might refer to my earlier blog posts: Becoming and De-Becoming and Yes and Hesse and Old Age.

Last Poems

In my old age, I am interested in those who have entered this territory before me.  I want to know what they were thinking as they approached the end of their lives.  I have always taken a lively interest in looking up how old a poet or novelist was when they produced a work I am impressed with (thank you Wikipedia!).  But I am especially keen to scout out last poems – particularly when the poet lived long.  Or at least to my age.

We do, of course, have the last poems of shorter-lived people like John Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Rupert Brooke.   But I want to hear what poets have to say after a long life.  There are some collections to look at in this regard (like Harold Bloom’s Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, which is excellent), but the real joy is to ferret them out yourselves.  If you have a beloved poet or novelist, read what they wrote in their old age.  I will discuss last novels in another blog, but last poems are interesting enough to keep you going for a while.

In fact, more than a few novelists turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy gave up writing novels after the bad reception of Jude the Obscure –  George Eliot  did the same thing when her reading public spurned the remarkable (and recommended) Daniel Deronda.  And there are some poets that turned to religion in their old age – T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Siegfried Sassoon come to mind.

But in looking at poets who have meant much to me over the years, I am particularly taken by those last poems that seem to say that, old and wise as they may have become, the poet has never found the answers – but seems to have found the ability to hold the unknown with great equanimity.  Denise Levertov’s final book of poetry (published after she died at age 74) is entitled The Great Unknowing: Last Poems.   The great unknowing…   And in it we find “Ancient Stairway”:

Footsteps like water hollow

the broad curves of stone

ascending, descending

century by century.

Who can say if the last

to climb these stairs

will be journeying

downward or upward?

“Who can say”?  Clearly no answers, but some comfort in the hollowing of footsteps.  I once worked at a college which occupied the old Springfield Armory buildings – in the wood floors were foot-shaped depressions where operators had stood at wood and metal lathes making rifles for decade after decade.  I would stand in those footprints and take a strange comfort in wondering about the dimensions of a life that went before me and in whose vacancy I was now abiding.

Among Robert Frost’s last poems is “In a Glass of Cider”:

It seemed I was a mite of sediment

That waited for the bottom to ferment

So I could catch a bubble in ascent.

I rode up on one till the bubble burst,

And when that left me to sink back reversed

I was no worse off than I was at first.

I’d catch another bubble if I waited.

The thing was to get now and then elated.

Frost is not wondering about whether we are ascending or descending, he is sure we are doing both all of the time, and only hopes that we “get now and then elated.”  There are no answers for Frost either, as noted in a couplet he wrote in his old age entitled “An Answer”:

But Islands of the Blessèd, bless you, son,

I never came upon a blessèd one.

 

This, by the way, is not a new sentiment in old age for Frost – you will find it again and again in his early poetry (e.g. “Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length”).  In the very first poem in his very first volume (“Into My Own”), he warns us that if we tracked him down after many years:

                                    They would not find me changed from him they knew –

                                    Only more sure of all I thought was true.

And then we have Thomas Hardy, another poet who says, at the end, that his views of life have not changed much.  He gives us  a poem (“He Never Expected Much”) on the occasion of his eighty-sixth birthday.  (Hardy died at 87.)   Here it is:

Well, World, you have kept faith with me,

Kept faith with me;

Upon the whole you have proved to be

Much as you said you were.

Since as a child I used to lie

Upon the leaze and watch the sky,

Never, I own, expected I

That life would all be fair.

 

‘Twas then you said, and since have said,

Times since have said,

In that mysterious voice you shed

From clouds and hills around:

“Many have loved me desperately,

Many with smooth serenity,

While some have shown contempt of me

Till they dropped underground.

 

“I do not promise overmuch,

Child; overmuch;

Just neutral-tinted haps and such,”

You said to minds like mine.

Wise warning for your credit’s sake!

Which I for one failed not to take,

And hence could stem such strain and ache

As each year might assign.

But, please look up the last poems of your favorite poet. And if you are interested in reading more about the poetry of age, you can read this prior blog post and look at my ever-growing list of poems about old age. Meanwhile, here again is “Last Things,” a story I wrote a few years ago when I was pondering what to make of the end of things.

What is the Place of Longevity?

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place.”– from Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech

Lately, the place of longevity has been in politics.  Joseph Biden has just been elected to the presidency at age 77 (about which I am thrilled for reasons that have nothing to do with his age).  Up to this point, the oldest age at which any President had left office had been 77 (Ronald Reagan).  Over the years the median age of election to our highest office has been 55.

Joe is not the only one.  There will be a regular old folks home in the capitol.  Nancy Pelosi is 80 and Mitch McConnell is 78.  The three of them will probably hold power together over the next couple of years (barring an upset in the Georgia senate races).  What does it mean when old folks are in charge?  I am a great believer in the value of old age, but what exactly should be the place of longevity?

Most workers tend to retire in their 60’s if they can afford it.  The average age of retirement in the United States is 62, with 64% of the working population retiring between 55 and 64.  Retirement cannot be mandated (with some exceptions – the military for example). In 1978, mandatory retirement ages below 70 were made illegal; in 1986 Congress got rid of mandatory retirement ages altogether.

And I know what you’ll say: 70 is the new 60, 80 is the new 65.  Maybe.  We stay alive longer; medicine can fix our hearts, open our blood vessels, and replace our arthritic joints.  And in the old days (before the 19th century), it was deemed inappropriate to quit just because you got old.  In that era, age was not a legitimate excuse for retirement from the English House of Lords; men were not free from conscription until they were 61.  King Lear is a parable on the problems with retiring too early (or at all).  Dante condemned a Pope to Limbo because of what he called “The Great Refusal” – retiring from the papacy because of age.  Plato did not think anyone was even fit to rule until they were at least 50, and he gave no retirement age.

So, I’ve been thinking again about what it means to have the old folks in charge.  Over a decade ago, I was mulling this over as I wrote a novel (The Last Quartet) about a world where a flu (yes, indeed!) killed off everyone except the very old (who had gotten the first round of vaccinations) and the very young (babies who were born with some level of immunity).  I tried to imagine old folks raising children and building a new world from the ground up as the loss of almost all working people meant that technology and infrastructure fell apart.  (You can read a short story I wrote as an abstract for the book here.)  In my imagination, the old folks rose to the occasion; they had no choice.  And the young knew no other world, so they accepted the leadership of their extreme elders.  At least for a while.

But, back to Washington and the leadership there.   I do not have the energy that I used to have, and clearly our current leaders do not either.  More, they did not grow up in the same world as most of their constituents.  They may have wisdom (some of them surely do – others I’m not so sure), but wisdom is exercised through careful consideration and not the hectic pace of daily agendas and crises.  Aging gracefully is, in itself, a kind of wisdom.  I think of Jimmy Carter as a model of this. 

In Galenson’s wonderful book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, the author divides the more capable among us as either conceptual geniuses who do there innovative work early (think physicists) or experimentalists, whose work is the product of the slow accretion of learning, experience and reflection.  The latter group does their better work in later years.  Where does politics fit into this model?  Or, one might ask, who in politics has any time for reflection and the slow accretion of learning?

In any case, we are about to witness the oldest leadership this country has ever seen at the same time that we are living in an age when change has never been faster.  You know by now that I think the old have much to offer to those around us, that old age can be a wonderful time of life.  But there are limits.  In the daily reminders or reflections of Buddhism, there is this: It is the nature of the body to decay and grow old.   We can deny it; we can push ourselves.  We can do well within the constraints of our age.  But it is a constraint – both to ourselves and our ability to relate to those around us.  And then there is the question of why we are seeing such longevity in our leaders; it could be they feel they have much to offer, but it could also be that power is sticky and difficult to shake off.  Or to want to shake off.  But elderly they are, and we will see.  I wrote my novel as a thought experiment; we are witnessing a real experiment.

In The Last Quartet, I was also thinking about the ability of the old to pass on wisdom, rather than knowledge.  You can read the prelude to that book here, but you need to come to your own conclusions.

Air Travel During Covid and Mount Pisgah

We recently took our first flight since the pandemic started.  Not a good idea.  We are still sitting out a self-imposed quarantine period so we don’t inflict our recklessness upon the neighbors.  The trip left me with great compassion for the workers who have no choice – flight attendants, security workers, people who must travel for business.  Never a casual air passenger, this time I worried not at all about strange engine noises, but panicked as the man behind me kept clearing his throat.   I see no way they can make air travel safe.  We did what we could (practically pickling ourselves in hand sanitizer and hiding behind scarves and masks); it will be a few days before we know if it was enough.  The incubation period of Covid ends for us on Election Day.  An uneasy time in many ways.

It was not a completely abysmal experience, though.  We had not flown in a long time; I was newly awed by the view from on high.  From my window seat, I could see the contours of land brought into geometric definition by the hand of man.  I could see cars like rolling BBs and houses like sprinkled confetti among the autumn foliage.  I could see the top sides of the clouds and imagine the rain that was falling away from us rather than on us.  It gave me the long view; I thought about Moses.

We live on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, which contains Mount Pisgah.  The forest and the mountain were named for the mountain in the Bible from which Moses saw the promised land:

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.

Moses sees the promised land but will never get there.  But seeing it seems to be enough; knowing that his people will thrive in the land of milk and honey presumably gives him solace.

Martin Luther King referenced the same Bible story in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

These two speeches assume that while the speaker may not be around to see how things turn out, things will definitely be OK, that times on the other side of the mountain will surely be better.  We old folks are always trying to look over the top of the mountain to see what things will be like for our children and grandchildren.  For the times we will never live to see.  But what if what is on the other side of the mountain is not better; what if it is worse?  What if the view from the mountaintop fills us with fear rather than inspiration?  This is not just about politics (although that is heavy on my mind these days), but about climate change and environmental degradation, about the lack of economic opportunities for younger people, about the stranglehold of technology on the lives of us all.  I have high hopes for my grandchildren as individuals, but I tremble for the world they will live in.  Do I want to live to see that world?

One of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, died the day before the U.S. election in 2016.  Go back and listen to “Democracy.”  I remember thinking that I was glad he did not live to see America delivered to isolationism, fear, and studied ignorance of both the scientific and the moral.  I am eager to see what happens next in the world; to resume life after the enforced quiet of the pandemic.  But do I really want to see what is on the other side of the mountain?  Can I really believe the long view is better?  Much hinges on this election – including the view from the mountain.  Moses was reassured by God; Martin Luther King was inspired by the progress already made.  I want to be reassured and inspired.  I want the view to be comforting.  I want to end my life believing that things are getting better. 

My husband and I climbed Mount Pisgah a few times after we moved to North Carolina five years ago.  I must admit that the wooded slopes of the milder climate here do not give the panoramic views we used to get from the bald tops of New England favorites like Mount Monadnock.  And I am getting older.  The last time we reached the peak of Pisgah, I realized that although I can go long distances on gentler slopes, the scramble up is getting too much for me.  So I am probably never going to see that view again.

And I will probably not see the Promised Land.   When I was young, it looked like things were getting better.  Civil rights were being granted, women were welcome in more places and professions than ever before, the rivers were actually getting cleaner.  I came into this life on a hopeful note.  I pray that I can go out that way.

This week’s fiction, “Going Down is the Most Dangerous Part,” takes place on Mount Monadnock.  Enjoy.

Some (Unspoken) Thoughts About Old Folks and Reading Aloud

I recently read an article about the value of reading aloud for memory.  For both children and old folks, material listened to was retained better than text read silently; words we read aloud to ourselves were even more likely to be retained then words read to us.  Old people in particular benefit from this differential, retaining about 20% more when reading aloud.

In the beginning, almost everyone read out loud. (By the way, aloud is the formal and proper term; out loud, however, has come into common use and is apparently here to stay.)  “Listen to this tablet” said the writer of a message inscribed in clay.  The first real record we have about reading silently comes from Augustine, who described how singular it was that Saint Ambrose read without moving his lips.

When written literature was in short supply or only a minority of people were literate, much reading aloud imparted the content of books, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Many 18th century books were largely read aloud by family groups around the fire in the evening.  Now, of course, almost all adult reading is done silently.   We lost something.

Human culture started with an oral tradition, and old folks have been particularly affected over the ages by the shift from an oral tradition to widespread literacy. Before general literacy and availability of books, older people were more valued for their experience and history.  How to plant the crops or tend a baby was information that we got orally (and sometimes loudly) from people who had done it before.  I remember my own grandmother taking umbrage at my mother’s attachment to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care – which contained advice that did not always jive with earlier custom.  My mother stuck to Dr. Spock; I wonder if my grandmother felt less valued. 

Also, when literacy did start to take off in the eighteenth century, it was usually the young who learned their letters first.  This often meant that offspring of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher.  We could imagine that, instead of tales told around the hearth by the oldest member of the group (the member with the longest memory and the most to “tell”), the literate were now reading to the illiterate.   Imagine a grandmother having to rely on a grandchild to write her will or to read to her the latest popular broadsheet.  We might think of the relation between young and old these days in relation to technology.  Who hasn’t relied on a younger member of the family to set up their computer or teach them how to stream a movie?  But also, who of my generation does not remember the joys of being read to by Nana or Grandpa, in those days before competition from TV’s and iPads?

Reading aloud is akin to thinking aloud, and we all know the value of spoken thought in clarifying our minds.  Often, I can ponder a problem or decision mentally for weeks without coming to any conclusion.  What helps most at that point is a long talk with a trusted listener.  There is something about having to frame the issue in communicable terms and tones that illuminates the question in ways that unexpressed thought cannot.  Of course, writing about such things help too, but you lose the ability to use vocal inflections and to monitor the facial responses of the person listening.  You need a really good listener to do this well, and when that is not readily available, writing and then reading one’s words aloud to yourself (or your cat) is the next best thing.

 Confession, too, seems to work better when it is spoken.  There is something about putting the words out in the world that helps to dissipate them.  Churches now often have a scripted group confession prayer that is intoned in unison by the congregation.  While this is somewhat purgative, it does not force us to enumerate and enunciate our specific failings.  Perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten rid of those confessional stalls.

There are other benefits of reading aloud.  For one thing, it precludes skimming (my great vice).  And for a writer, the process of reading one’s own work out loud is invaluable – both to catch simple errors and to feel the tone of a piece.  I have been in writing groups that circulated pieces ahead of time and then had meetings where we only critiqued the writing; my current group reads the pieces out loud at the meeting and sends along the critiques later.  The reading aloud makes a tremendous difference.

Reading aloud is also a bonding activity.  As we peruse the Sunday NY Times at the breakfast table, my husband and I take turns reading interesting tidbits to each other.  He tires of this before I do, but newsprint is dull and rarely elicits the laughs, groans, or shrieks that oral delivery of the news can bring.  It allows us to express the emotions elicited but usually unexpressed as we ponder the events of the world, and to do it communally.

You might want to revisit my story “Playing by Ear,” and try reading it aloud.  Or read anything aloud today – to yourself, to the canary, to someone over the phone.  You will remember it better and appreciate it more.  You will exercise the speaking apparatus that is probably atrophying a little in these times of little social interaction. 

Vollendungsroman, the Apocalyptic, and “What Are You Going Through?”

I have written several times about a genre called the Vollendungsroman – novels about becoming old.  There is also a particular category of stories about people who are confronted by a terminal diagnosis, well aware that they are facing death and living through their “end times.” I don’t know whether there is a specific label for such writings.  (Readers, help me with this!)  Anyway, there are some very good examples out there, and I recently read a new one.  It was What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez.  Here is the thing that is different about this novel: it combines a story about age and the end of a life with the prospect of the universal end of life as we know it.  The microcosm and the macrocosm, both facing apocalypse.   Think about it.

The book opens with the narrator going to a lecture by a man who has written an important piece of work about the irredeemable damage humans have done to their planet.  It ends as the narrator stays with a  friend who is planning to end her own life before the final assault of the cancer that is killing her.  In between, there is clear contemplation of aging, death, and disaster.  The latter are on levels – from runaway global warming to a terminal cancer diagnosis to an overflowing bathtub.

One might question whether the prognosis for the earth is really as apocalyptic as is presented by the speaker in the first chapter, but no one can debate whether death is apocalyptic for the dying individual. (Even if one believes in an afterlife, death is still the end of this life, life as we know it.)  And it is not apocalyptic as in the warnings of Jeremiah or Jonah, where the purpose is repentance.  It is more like the irreversible prophecies of Cassandra, which no one believed but were nevertheless true. There is no real hope for the terminal patient.  The question is how is one – one person or one people –  to deal with the reality of the situation.

I have written elsewhere on the pre-Enlightenment view that the human body was a microcosm of the macrocosm, the world – both of which were decaying from their Edenic self.  The earth was growing old and decaying and so – once we had reached the peak of our life cycle at 33 – were we.  Not the view of infinite progress that the Enlightenment drew, but, rather, apocalypse all around.  Was it easier to die knowing that the world was dying too?

What Are You Going Through,  the title of Nunez’s novel, comes from an essay by Simone Weil.  She quotes it as the magic question in the search for the Grail and says that “the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

Henning Mankell asks and answers this question in a memoir he wrote just before he died.  The author of the terrific Wallander mysteries and also a theater producer and a crusader for the rights of the oppressed, Mankell was given an “incurable” diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and died in 2015.  His account is called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human BeingA human being, one particular human being.  Quicksand is a record of Mankell’s thoughts as he goes through chemotherapy and the realization of his mortality.  He chooses, however, to dwell on the positive, the gifts that life has bestowed on him.  Although he is only 65 upon his diagnosis , he realizes that he has escaped his end many times and has had a far longer life than many people on this planet can expect. While he admits that death is always an “uninvited guest,” he puts it in perspective:

…if, like me, you have lived for approaching seventy years, longer than most people in the world could ever dream of, it is easier to become reconciled to the fact that an incurable disease has taken over your body.

Maybe.  The Bible only offers us three score and ten, but we have come to expect more.

Once Mankell tells us how he has come to terms with what has happened to him, he does a kind of life review, dwelling mostly on high points of his life.  It is not the rituals of our culture, the technical progress, nor political movements that he dwells upon; it is the wonderful people he has met who rise up despite the obstacles that civilization erects in front of them.  It is the joys of creative interaction. The book ends when chemotherapy has given him a “breathing space” (which turned out to be brief).  He says this:

I am living today in that breathing space.  I occasionally think about my disease, about death, and about the fact that there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer.

But most of all I live in anticipation of new uplifting experiences.  Of times when nobody robs me of the pleasure of creating things myself, or enjoying what others have created.

Mankell’s is a kind of gratitude journal for his life.  I hope when my final diagnosis comes, I can be so positive.  And before then, I can more often ask myself and those around me, “What are you going through?”

I recommend both these books about dying – one fiction and one non-fiction.  Neither takes us to the utter brink; no one who hasn’t been there can know and those who go over aren’t around to write about it.

For a little comic relief about aging (and you might need it at this point), this week’s story is “Closing Time.” Its title is homage to the wonderful song about the end of the party by Leonard Cohen.  Enjoy.