Life and Letters . . .
As we grow old, our sense of the valueof time becomes vivid. Nothing elseindeed, seems of any consequence. --William Hazlitt
The other night, while I was struggling to stay awake late in the second, longish act of a less than superior performance of Handel's Semele and my mind was floating off and wandering where it wished, two things occurred to me: first, I wasn't going to make it through the third act; and, second, evenings may not be the best time for concerts, at least not for those of us who arise early in the morning. What might be a good time for a concert? I asked myself. Ten in the morning, I decided. But then listening to serious music fairly late into the night is only one item that, in my view, is badly placed in time. Others occurred to me. Undergraduate education is probably best begun at the age of forty, when one is a bit wiser about the world and so can better test the wisdom of both books and teachers. Along with serious education, sexual vigor is probably wasted on the young. People would be better off coming into their greatest sexual strength in middle age, when they begin to know what they are doing. While I was at it, it also occurred to me that it might be useful to place death somewhere other than at the end of a person's life, so that he or she wouldn't have to spend so damn much time thinking about it.
To fill in the time between thoughts about death--the ``ugly Customer,'' Hazlitt called it--one can think about time itself. Some of us already do, and I, increasingly as I sense my own time running out, am among them. A vast amount, in both a philosophical and a poetical way, has been said on the subject, though not much that I have seen helps. Like everyone else, I know that time flies, often going about in a winged chariot; that it is probably a sound idea not to delay picking up any rosebuds that fall within reach before the curtain drops; that some among us leave footprints in its sands; that procrastination is its thief; that it is equivalent to money; that it is the great healer; that it is the avenger, the devourer of everything, the reaper, the refreshing river; you name it, friend, time is it. So what else, you might say, is new?
Can it be that to think about time is the greatest waste of time of all? If so, I have wasted more than my share in this way. I cannot remember when time wasn't on my mind. When I was very young, I thought longingly of how good life would be when, with the passage of time, I grew older, a condition I earnestly wished to see come about. I was something like Philip Larkin, who had his first doubts about heaven upon hearing that there one would become a child again, when what he, Larkin, longed for was the prospect of adult life and feared being deprived of its perks, among them ``money, keys, wallet, letters, books, long-playing records, drinks, the opposite sex, and other solaces of adulthood,'' and above all not having to deal any longer with children.
Time had a different feel when I was young. It felt, to begin with, much longer. Summers especially seemed lavish in their lengthiness. I can recall endless sunny summer days, when I was ten or eleven, playing a variant of baseball called line-ball on our gravelly school playground, with breaks for nickel-a-bottle grape soda drawn from an ice-laden metal case at Miller's School Store, days that seemed longer than entire fiscal quarters do now. Drives on vacations with my parents to 487 visit relatives in Canada stretched out longer than reaching Mecca must have seemed to Sir Richard Burton. Events one looked forward to--the end of school term not least among them--took what felt like millennia to arrive. Now the minutes and often the hours move quite as slowly as then. It is, alas, only the months, years, even decades that rush by.
Sorry to strike so downbeat a note so early, but the difference between time now and time when I was young is the prospect of death. Not that I was ever ignorant of death, but I was rather better at keeping thoughts of it at bay. I still don't have the attention span to brood about it for very long, but it does keep bobbing up in my stream of consciousness, like some rusty, jagged tin can that blights the otherwise fairly clear waters of my thought. By the time one reaches forty, unless one is a very great fool, one realizes that one is no longer playing with anything like a fully loaded shot-clock, to take a trope from the National Basketball Association. By fifty, despite all the cheerful talk about expanded life spans, it is better to assume that one is already playing in overtime.
I don't think myself a dark character, but I have always assumed that I could be taken out of the game at any time through death by heart attack, cancer, plane crash, car accident, falling object, choking on food, murder, or by any other more or less painful, ignominious, or tragicomic mode of departure. In whatever manner the ugly Customer arrives, I hope that, upon greeting him, I shall have the strength to be ticked off by his appearance--and ticked, as the kids say, to the max. But when he shows up I don't think I shall be surprised. I have been expecting him for years.
Much in the way I live is based on I won't say a bargain--he doesn't make deals--but an attempt to stall off the ugly Customer. I quit smoking when I did, some thirteen years ago, chiefly because I would have thought myself silly, really quite embarrassed, to have to leave life seven or eight years earlier than scheduled because of the small but real pleasures of the weed. I restrain the glutton in myself for much the same reason. I try to work efficiently so that I can get the most out of myself, in good part because I should feel an idiot on my deathbed knowing that, in this regard as doubtless in many another, I had blown it by wasting time.
T. S. Eliot, himself obsessed by time, famously noted:
Time present and time pastAre both perhaps present in time future,And time future contained in time past.If all time is eternally presentAll time is unredeemable.
I am betting otherwise. I am living as if I can redeem time; or, perhaps more precisely, redeem myself in the time left to me by pressing for more time and hoping to make the most of what portion of this abstract but clearly precious commodity remains to me.
Some people appear to live with very little consciousness of time, and a part of me admires them, as one tends to admire those who can do a great many of the things one cannot oneself do. They do not feel themselves chased, hounded, under a strong obligation to keep glancing up at the clock. Other people pretend to ignore time: dressing younger than their years, indulging (sorry for this language of moral disapproval, but I cannot control myself) in the fantasy that time hasn't really touched them, never permitting time to enter into their calculations or even into the assumptions behind their lives. Many of both sorts of people live by the principle of free fall, do not plan beyond next week, don't even wear a watch. They should only live and be well, as the Jews used to say of the tsar, but not too close to me.
I, very differently, factor time into everything I do. Any day that I sleep past 6:00 a.m. I consider very near a lost day. Want to set me on the road to flip city? Change my time zone, steal my watch, keep the exact hour from me? I should crack, crumble, tell you the combination of the safe containing the diamonds, reveal where the secret weapons are hidden, anything you want to know--if only you will let me know what time it is. I am one of those people who think digital clocks a swell invention, because I like to know to the minute what time it is when I awake at night. The well-lit digital clock--now here is real progress, at least for those among us who are sufficiently compulsive, and to be compulsive, I have generally found, is sufficient unto itself.
This sense of being haunted by time was not something I grew up with. I don't believe I owned my first wristwatch until I went off to college. Before then time was not something that seemed to press upon me; light and dark was all I needed to know. This first watch was a round-faced Bulova, which showed its innards through its crystal, and was given to me by my father. Watches have become a great status symbol in our day. Town & Country, Vanity Fair, Connoisseur, and other of the high-glitz magazines must be able to pay the rent and the printer with the advertisements they run for watches. Rolex watches are high on the list of stealables--if there can be ``collectables,'' why not stealables--being easily fenced. Truman Capote, I seem to recall, used to buy wafer-thin watches for his friends. He would doubtless have been appalled by the coarseness of my rectangular Seiko, but I can live with such criticism both here and from beyond the grave. I don't look to my wrist for my status, for one thing; and, for another, I am already on a tight enough schedule not to worry about owning a watch that loses a minute or so every few years, especially since I feel I myself lose hours, days, whole weeks in indolence, serious sloth, and diversions cunningly self-devised.
Just who set up this schedule for me is far from clear. But once I had determined, however roughly, what it was I wanted to do in life, the schedule went quietly, inexorably into effect. ``To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream,'' wrote Henry James, another man on a schedule, to his friend Grace Norton. My own dream, to be sure, was a good bit lower and narrower than Henry James's, but I did know that I wanted to get a good deal of writing done, and I didn't want to be one of those writers who are always complaining about how painful writing is in defense of their own small output. But before I could put my own schedule into effect I had first to learn how to write and then to discover what it was I wished to write. Perhaps it was because it took me so long to get these little prerequisites out of the way--I was nearly forty when they were--that the feeling of the clock always running, of time ticking away, of the gun about to go off continues to haunt me.
By a schedule I do not mean anything all that specific: 11:00-11:10 a.m., author free, that sort of thing. Instead I have in mind the sense that certain things ought to be done by certain ages, that if time is truly money, as the adage has it, then it ought not to be wasted, damn it. If you think of yourself as a writer, then by thirty you ought to have published a book, which, by the way, I hadn't. You have the summer off from teaching, you ought to have something to show for it by autumn: essays, stories, pages of a new book. Thinking or reading is not good enough. (Whenever I come across a politician or business executive who, when written up in the press, mentions that one of his hobbies is reading, I invariably mutter, so, too, is one of my hobbies reading--and another is breathing.) If you are on a schedule, it's not good enough, either, simply to enjoy yourself. Not that enjoyment is disallowed, or breaks, or even holidays precluded. But the schedule must be met. No pain, no gain; no work, you're a jerk.
I had a friend, an intelligent and very learned man, who gave no hint of having been in the least troubled by time. He was a university teacher, who taught well but scarcely bothered to publish. After his retirement from teaching, the one mild pressure in his life, meeting with his classes, was removed. He rose, read the daily press with a mordant eye, watched one of the morning television talk shows with his second cup of coffee, drew a bit, read some, taught himself (slowly) the rudiments of Chinese, wrote comic letters, looked up French words, considered etymologies of English ones, gave delight to his friends, took pleasure in his food and drink, and thus lived out his days until a benevolent (or so it seems in retrospect) heart attack took him out of what seemed a not very taxing game. It seems rather pointless to say of him, may he rest in peace, since, as near as I can determine, he pretty much lived in peace. I'm not sure he owned a watch. Not a man, clearly, on a schedule.
Did he, I have often wondered, have any doubts? Had he got the most out of himself? In suppressing ambition, did he not also kill a certain kind of joy--that very genuine joy connected with achievement? He left no children. His friends, those who have not already died, grow old. His memory will fairly soon be extinguished. He was too clever a man not to have thought about all this. He lived, if not all that intensely, still almost entirely in the now. He met all his obligations, not least among them giving pleasure to his friends, though apparently he never felt that he owed any obligations to the future. Was he more or less intelligent than I in eschewing the notion of a schedule?
I wish I had the answer to that question, but even if it were that my friend was right and I am wrong, it is too late for me to change. When it comes to time, I am in the condition of a miser whose money is in gold dust in a large sack that has a hole he cannot find. I do not mean to say that I am incapable of leisure--of enjoying the hills of Tuscany, the seacoast of Maine; of languishing, drink in hand, in lengthy whimsical talk with friends--for I am not, but I do view myself as entitled to such delights only if I produce in sufficient measure to have earned it. What after all is the point of being compulsive if you don't feel yourself compelled, and most of the time? In saying this I suppose I resemble the writer La Harpe, of whom Chamfort said that he ``hid his vices behind his faults.'' But the plain fact is that there isn't much I can do about my condition with respect to time. Do older, well-to-do Jewish women drive Japanese cars? Do surrealists use dental floss? Does the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton have an office pool for the Super Bowl? All of these things go against nature. Asking me to ease up would go against mine.
If anything, I feel time pressing down harder, more insistently than ever. Among the things I feel lost to me is what I believe is nowadays called turnaround time. The city magazine in my town--like so many magazines devoted to consumer interests that in-form readers of the ten best places to get creole gum balls, the eight best used phylactery shops in town, and the five most efficient hospitals to go to for a double lobotomy--recently ran a piece about people who made radical career changes when well into middle age. There was the scientist who became a sculptor, the secretary who became a journalist, the small businessman who became a chef, the lawyer who became a filmmaker, the nurse who became a lawyer, the chiropodist who became a commodities trader . . . you get the drift. True, the chef has a wife who is a professor at a prominent business school, but let us not get caught up in details. The piece is titled ``Awakenings,'' and its point is that life is infinitely expandable, filled with practically endless possibilities, and that there is time enough--for everything. Do you believe this? If you do, I know where there is some chiro practic equipment that I could arrange to get you cheap.
I don't believe it, not for a single valuable moment. The clock is running, Reuben, and if you don't believe it you are making a serious mistake. In the National Football League they sometimes speak of a man dropping a pass because ``he heard footsteps,'' by which they mean that he heard the heavy tread of a bruising defensive player about to crunch him once he caught the pass. I do not hear footsteps but the tickings, the endless tickings, of a clock in my head. I am running what, in the same league, they call a two-minute drill, playing against the clock. I have no urge to mount a motorcycle and head for the coast, to sail the Atlantic alone with the woman I love and a complete set of the Great Books in our cabin. I am too old to change careers--even if I wanted to, which I don't--too old to have a mid-life crisis, though I must confess that, even at mid-life, which must have passed some while back, I never felt the need for one. I am too old even to change my hairstyle--and consider myself fortunate to have enough hair left at my age to be able to reject the possibility.
Now in my middle fifties, I realize that I am not chronologically old; nor do I feel spiritually old. But the determining factor here is that I happen to view my life not as malleable material, to be shaped and reshaped as often as the mood or the time-spirit takes me, but as a work of art--possibly, I grant you, a botched one--that I have been putting together for more than half a century and am not about to abandon now. I have it in mind to end my days reading Tacitus and contemplating the astonishing vagaries of human nature, and not running in the old codgers' marathon and dancing the boogaloo that same evening at Gay Nineties Night at the home for the especially fit, even if slightly gaga, elderly.
I realize that I am unlikely to make anything like serious philosophical penetration into the mysteries of time, and it would be silly to waste much of my time (or yours) in attempting to do so. Not even Saint Augustine felt himself at ease in these turbulent intellectual waters. ``What is time?'' he famously asks in The Confessions. ``I know what it is if no one asks me what it is; but if I want to explain it to someone who has asked me, I find that I do not know.'' It was Saint Augustine who claimed that his soul was ``on fire to solve this very complicated enigma,'' and confessed that, on this subject, it was ``a bad state indeed to be in, not even to know what it is that I do not know!'' In Book XI of The Confessions, Saint Augustine makes many an elegant formulation and cuts many a fine distinction, yet finally concludes that the impressions that things leave in the mind form the measure of time--that time, essentially, is in one's mind. This does not seem very satisfactory, except for the inconvenient fact that it also seems true.
It seems true because it accounts for the duality of time--its strict measurability on the one hand, and on the other its highly variable measure in our minds, so that there are hours that feel like days and days that, in retrospect, feel like an hour. It is the intrinsic irrationality of time within the extrinsically most strict system of rationality that gives time its (almost) endless fascination. The invention that is needed to take account of this duality, obviously, is a clock that measures both real and psychological time. Details would need to be worked out, of course, but it seems to me that such a clock would measure how long certain dull lectures and dreary dinner parties really are.
The psychological measure of time would be extremely important if one knew precisely how much of it one had left. A common fantasy, surely, is that of being told that one has, say, six months to live. How, if one could get around and function normally, would one spend the time? The trick, I should think, would be to find ways of doing the things that one enjoys most, which almost always make time pass all too quickly, but under conditions in which time passes very slowly. I, for example, would eat chocolate-covered orange peels, which seems to take no time at all, but only at laundromats, where time hangs so heavily.
That is no example, you say, that is an absurdity. But then, I would rejoin, so, often, is time, with its mixture of the real and the unreal. Consider age. Someone once said that, early in life, a woman decides whether she will live as if she is either eighteen or eighty, and then, having decided, sticks with her decision throughout her life. Something to it. I lock in friends at certain ages, and then am astonished to learn that they have become--who'd have thunk it--senior bloody citizens. The lives of certain writers have been built upon the assumption that they will always be at ages they have long since passed. The novelist Norman Mailer's entire career, with its attraction to violence and let-'er-rip, leaping-off-the-high-dive sex, assumes a man in his late thirties, early forties, tops, not the white-haired, potbellied little zaydeh Mailer has become. John Updike has always seemed the too-sensitive sixteen-year-old, Philip Roth the unpleasant wise guy at nineteen, John Irving about fourteen. Best, probably, for a writer to allow a bit of slack in his style to accommodate the distinct possibility of arthritis and collecting Social Security.
Much of this aspect of time has to do with how one regards oneself. One of the hallmarks of our time is that people want to seem as youthful as possible for as long as possible. Some occupations encourage this, some discourage it. What man who as a boy was interested in sports is not taken aback when he first hears an athlete ten or so years younger than he described as ``a wily veteran'' or ``over the hill''? Careers in sports are much under the tyranny of time. Academic careers permit one to remain as young, even childish, as one wishes, almost up to the grave. Professors who went to graduate school in the 1960s or early 1970s, though now themselves in their forties or fifties, dress largely as their students do. They wear jeans, tote backpacks, don't think much about haircuts. Many of them, for all I know, may wish to be buried in denim, a Sony Walkman plugged into their ears (extremely long-playing batteries, I trust, included). ``There is,'' writes Milan Kundera in his novel Immortality, ``a certain part of all of us that lives outside time. Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.'' I suspect that this is probably true for most people, though I know it isn't true for me.
As for me, I have begun to conclude that I have the gift of perpetual middle age. I at any rate think it a gift. I hope it is as perpetual as such things are permitted to be, and I know that I am now middle-aged chronologically as well as spiritually. I rather like being middle-aged. I feel in this regard like Henry James, who wrote to a friend: ``I like growing old: fifty-six!--but I don't like growing older. I quite love my present age and the compensations, simplifications, freedom, independences, memories, advantages of it. But I don't keep it long enough--it passes too quickly.'' Just so. How to slow things down, that seems to me the question. Living all one's life in laundromats or listening to commencement addresses delivered by the prime minister of Sweden--a little time stopper I recently underwent--doesn't seem to me quite the solution.
One of the habits of the middle-aged (and above) that I have had for a number of years now is, when the newspaper arrives, going first to the obituaries. Ezra Pound said that literature is news that stays news; the same is true about death, which also stays news; and I have long found the obituaries the most interesting and important item in the papers. Each morning I turn to them looking for--what? In part for notification of the death of the famous, the death of enemies, the element of surprise that someone whom one thought long dead was until the day before still alive, the shock of youthful death through AIDS. All these items the obituary columns supply in part.
I also like to read the obituaries for a sense of averages and hence of probabilities. I prefer it when there are six or seven deaths of persons in their nineties: a lawyer who worked at NATO, an Italian archaeologist, a monsignor, an ex-judge, a woman who danced for Diaghilev. One hopes--against hope--that these are all people who were able to slip off the earth without first raising the yellow flag of senility. I cannot remember her last name, but a few years ago I was much touched by the brief obituary notice of a woman whose first name was Lily, a lepidopterist who had discovered and named a butterfly and who died--perhaps here the euphemisms ``passed away'' or ``expired'' for once apply--at one hundred years old. Lovely Lily, may you rest in a gentle place where perhaps a butterfly will sense your originality and rename you.
Quite as often the obituary pages contain news of men and women my age and younger who have been taken out of the game by cancer and heart attack. Then one's own heartbeat feels a bit irregular, one's respiration a touch jumpy, one begins to worry about that minuscule lump just below the wrist. ``Identification,'' the boys in the head trades call it, but the more precise phrase is ``fear of death.'' My late friend Erich Heller used to say that he was not afraid of death; it was only dying that had him worried. He died, in his sleep, mercifully, his heart having given out; it would be helpful if he could let me know that he was correct not to fear death. Hazlitt, who after a hard life filled with disappointment pegged out at fifty-two, thought that ``in reflecting on death generally, we mix up the idea of life with it, and thus make it the ghastly monster that it is.'' As always with Hazlitt, nicely said.
Hazlitt felt that the fear of death was tied to the loss of religious belief; he thought that a life of action and danger modified the fear of death; and he knew from personal experience that ``sedentary and studious men are the most apprehensive'' about death, and he cites Dr. Johnson here as a case in point. As for himself, Hazlitt said that he would rather hang around until he saw ``some prospect of good to mankind, such as my life began with'' (a reference to the French Revolution); left ``some sterling work behind me''; and ``have some friendly hand consign me to the grave.'' Well, before his life was over Hazlitt had achieved one out of three of his wishes. In baseball as in life, .333 ain't bad.
Hazlitt wrote ``On the Fear of Death,'' the essay in which these observations appear, in his early forties. As young as that, he began to feel the dreamy quality of life. This, too, may be owing to the sedentary and studious life, but for some while life for me as well has seemed shadowy, a dream, a luscious sleep from which I don't quite wish to be wakened but from which I await a terrifying alarm to signal that it is over and that the warm bed must be evacuated to make room for the next dreamer. The imprecision of memory has added greatly to this dreamy feeling. The older I become, the less strong my memory for time, except for the years of my boy- and young manhood, which become more and more vivid to me. But I now frequently find myself misplacing four-, five-, even six-year clumps of my life. ``Didn't we go to Greece seven or so years ago?'' I ask. It turns out to have been thirteen years ago. ``Weren't you a student in my class four years ago?'' It turns out to have been eight. Have I met that man before? Did I once give a lecture in Ohio? When was it that I owned an olive-drab-colored suit? Lost, all of it, in that wash of time which the poet all too rightly referred to as its ``dark backward and abysm.''
Two of the greatest problems time provides (neither of which I have a solution for) are how to slow it down and how to make it seem less the stuff of dreams. One of the reasons I keep a journal is to prevent, in howsoever small a way, life from seeming a dream; by recording what has happened to me, no matter how trivial, I feel that I have somehow made it real. Written out, it has been salvaged, plucked from the Heraclitean river, or so at least I have come to believe. This is a fine prescription for graphomania, I grant you, and of course writing in a journal takes time, which is another problem.
Eating and sleeping also take time--and how I admire those fortunate people who need only four or five hours of sleep each night!--and so does everything else, including getting one's watch fixed. The odd thing about my own life is that it would seem to be nicely set up to save time. I rise early--usually at 4:45 in the morning. I do not travel to work on buses or subways or fight freeway traffic in my car. I have taken a pledge never to jog. I do not golf, I read no detective fiction. From all appearances my life seems a lean, mean, time-saving machine.
Yet I notice that the least disruption often shoots my day. If, say, I have to go downtown for an appointment with a dentist or an accountant or to meet a friend for lunch, poof! wham! it's gone. Lunches with friends, which I much enjoy, are especially effective at killing afternoons. (Henry James called lunch, because it interrupted his work, that ``matuti nal monster,'' and whenever possible he did without it.) Yet other people seem to spend three hours getting to and from work, are able to shop around during the day, go to great numbers of meetings, have leisurely lunches, carry on love affairs, and still find time to do the New York Times crossword puzzle.
Or is it only that the clock always seems to be running slower in the other fellow's pocket? Are we not all under the tyranny of time? Aldous Huxley, in a newspaper column written in the 1930s, claimed that industrialization, with railroads, factories, and machines at its center, is what has placed us under this tyranny. ``For a modern American or Englishman,'' he wrote, ``waiting is a psychological torture.'' It was not always and everywhere thus, according to Huxley, and not to him alone. Even the concept of the week, a unit of seven days, with a Sabbath day at its end, is perhaps fewer than two thousand years old. The claim made by those who wish to return to simpler times--not to set back but to throw away the clock--is that in attending so fastidiously to seconds and minutes, while locked into these man-made, entirely artificial distinctions of time, we forgo the great sweeps, the grandeur of time presented by the course of the moon and stars, the changing of the seasons, the larger rhythms of life itself.
Not so long ago it used to be said that they ordered these things better in the Orient, where people were not so time-bound as we in the West. Ah, the mysterious East, where waiting is not a concept, but a way of life. Russians, too, are said to be famously untouched by time, or at any rate never feel their style crimped by the need for punctuality. Invite a Russian to lunch, he might show up for dessert and coffee at that evening's dinner. Blacks, among themselves, joke about CPT, or colored people's time. But for those white-eyes among us, as the Indians in old Western movies used to refer to cowboys, cavalry troops, and settlers, the clock keeps running, the sand continues to dribble down, the timekeeper's pistol is poised in the air. For us time has become an obstacle that we try to overcome by living at even greater speed--in the hope, I suppose, of lapping ourselves in the race of life. I do not mock this; I am in the race myself.
As one of the country's leading solipsists, I am pleased to learn that I am not alone in this feeling that time seems out of control, whirring by, regardless of all attempts to make the best of it. A psychologist named John P. Robinson, who directs something called the ``Americans' Use of Time Project'' at the University of Maryland, reports that Americans today generally feel more harried, even during a period when free time in American life has actually increased. Professor Robinson defines free time as time when people do not have to attend to work, family, errands and chores, or such personal needs as eating, sleeping, and grooming. Married women with children are said to feel this harried condition more acutely than other groups, but almost everyone feels rushed, frenzied, and finally defeated in his or her efforts to make the best use of time. ``We are at a point,'' Professor Robinson is quoted in the New York Times as saying, ``when the value of time to most Americans is reaching parity with the value of money.''
We speak of killing time, but in fact time is killing us. Even leisure has become time-haunted, tinged with anxiety, as people struggle to sneak in time for a run, sail, swim, walk, ski, workout, couple of sets of tennis, nine holes of golf. Don't forget all the paintings one hasn't seen, books one hasn't read, music one hasn't heard, not to mention those one wants to find time to see, read, and hear at least once again before the big sleep. Let us not speak of the countries one has not yet seen, mountains not climbed, rivers never crossed. Once more around the Louvre, this time perhaps not so lightly. ``Hurry up please it's time,'' announces the barman in ``The Waste Land.'' ``Hurry up please it's time.''
``Slow down,'' some anonymous genius once declared, ``you're in a hurry.'' What splendid advice! Of course, life has its own way of slowing us down. As Chamfort noted: ``The intensity of absolute pleasures, as meta physicists say, diminishes with time. Yet time apparently increases relative pleasures; and I suspect that this is the artifice by which nature has been able to bind men to life.'' Not for everyone, apparently. Yeats claimed that ``one never tires of life, and at the last must die of thirst with the cup at one's lips.'' But then Yeats must have known that a life beyond his own days, in posterity, was guaranteed him through his magnificent poetry. Great art, heroic or evil action on a large enough scale--these are among the things that will put one beyond time, that will make one immortal.
It would calm one down a good deal, I should think, to give up all dreams of immortality. Yet nearly everyone must believe that he has some claim on posterity and hence some long shot at immortality. ``Posterity will know as little of me as I shall know of posterity,'' said W. S. Gilbert (of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan), wrongly. Even Heraclitus, the philosopher of flux, who was known as the ``weeping philosopher,'' presumably because he felt that everything in the world changed, dissolved, or vanished, even he in the midst of the demon flux, belied his own theory, and his name has lived long enough for me to bandy it around today.
One lives out one's days, hoping and dreaming against the shockingly bad odds that something that one or one's children will do might cause one's name to live on, making one immortal: by committing an act of great kindness or courage, by being the recipient of immense good luck, by producing an imperishable book, painting, or musical composition. To be immortal, to live out of the touch of time--is that too much to ask? If only I could be assured of it, I could relax, knock off early, put my feet up on the desk, have a couple of chocolate-covered orange peels, look at my watch, and smile. No hurry at all. But until then there are deadlines, real and imagined, to meet; miles to go before I sleep; and the hope that the knock at the door isn't the ugly Customer but the guy from Federal Express.
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Source: American Scholar, Autumn91, Vol. 60 Issue 4, p487, 8p.
Item Number: 9110142472