The fools of time.
William Butler Yeats
Max Eastman was in his eighties when I was in my twenties; we met on Martha's Vineyard and grew close. He welcomed me, whether in Gay Head, New York, or Barbados; he was tolerance incarnate, with an amused abiding sense of how youth preens. In addition to his work as activist and editor, he had published more than twenty books--volumes of poetry, biography, and political commentary, as well as a set of translations from the Russian; the second installment of his autobiography, Love and Revolution: My Journey through an Epoch, seemed a title entirely earned.
I postured. I was working on a novel (Grasse 3/23/66) that was recondite in the extreme. I'd labor in an ecstasy of self-congratulation, producing perhaps a hundred words a day, intoning the sibilant syllables until they appeared to make sense. One such passage, I remember, contained a quotation from Villon; a description of Hopi burial rites; an anagram of the name of my fifth-grade teacher; an irrefutable refutation of Kant; glancing reference to Paracelsus; a suggestive ditto to my agent's raven-haired assistant; a paraphrase of Cymbeline's dirge; and an analysis of the orthographic and conceptual distinction between Pope and Poe.
I took my time, I let it extend to ten lines. That night I brought my morning's triumph to Max and permitted him to read. He did so in silence. Then he tried it aloud; so did I. When he said it made no sense and I explained the sense it made, he looked at me with fond exasperation. "Sure" he said. "That's interesting. Why don't you write it down?"
I remember staying with him on Martha's Vineyard one October. His wife, Yvette, was off to New York for a shopping trip, and she asked me to sleep in their house--a favor to me, really, since my own hut was unheated. I was full of beans and bravado then, and would get to work by six--waking up and clacking at the keys in my upstairs bedroom. In the first pause, however, I could hear his steady hunt-and-peck in the study underneath; he'd been at work well before. So we'd share a cup of coffee and a comment on the news, then I'd fuss at my novel again. At nine o'clock I'd take a break--tear off my clothes and run down the hill to the pond. The morning would be glorious: that crystalline light, those sizeable skies, the pine trees somehow greener against the sere scrub oak. And always, out there in the still warm water, Max would lift his hand to me, his white mane on the wavelets like some snowy egret's, grinning.
Time passed. He died at eighty-six, in 1969. But it takes no effort to see this again: an old man waving from the water at a youth on the near shore. They are naked, both of them; the sun slants over Lobsterville. A few days sailors might be on the pond, or someone in a kayak, or musseling or digging clams. Gulls drift past, incurious; the beach smells of sea wrack and weed. There's a busy imitation of silence: the man in the water, bobbing, flutters heels and hands. The young one runs to meet him and it's all a perfect clarity until he does a surface dive and, splashing, shuts his eyes.
What do I see when I shut them; why is it simpler to focus with dosed eyes?
His was a vivid presence and mine is a good memory; did I get it right?
For time is the great editor; it makes us revise and revise.
"But it takes no effort to see this again: an old man waving from the water at a youth on the near shore ..."
I first composed this testimonial for a book of photographs in 1977, called On the Vineyard; I also used it in the Introduction to a text I edited, Speaking of Writing, in 1988. The former contained a set of essays by sometime residents of Martha's Vineyard, the latter a series of Hopwood Award Ceremony lectures--one of which was delivered by Max as long ago as 1932. I further adapted the five paragraphs with which this composition begins for an essay called "Letter to a Young Fiction Writer" that appeared in a collection of the same name in 1999.
I repeat myself now in part because the passage seems instructive and I like the lines. More importantly, I continue to honor my old mentor's memory and hope to keep his name current. Also germane to this fourth usage in this fourth decade is the fact of recurrence, the almost-obsessive variation on a verbal theme. There have been a few small revisions of what I wrote before, some cutting and trimming for context, but in essence it's the same five-hundred words.
What does such repetition suggest; why should the image recur?
And now that I am closer to Max Eastman's age than that of his companion, how might I (re)write the scene?
What of the smells, the sounds?
Was it fresh water or salt?
When Claude Monet painted his three-hundredth canvas of a water lily, was he merely repeating himself? When Shakespeare repeated the phrase, "time's fool," was he being formulaic? I do not of course compare my work to that of those great artists, but the problem is analogous; once you establish a mode of expression, what yield is there in change?
Max Eastman's body no longer exists; my own has trebled in age. In my mind's eye, however, he is alive and I'm young.
Brain and body have long been perceived as opposing entities, but also as closely allied. They are separate yet linked, paired parts of the one whole. Mens sana in corpore sano--the Roman ideal of "Sound mind in sound body"--is a slogan still widely endorsed. In different contexts, this duality has different names (spirit and substance, intelligence and instinct, sacred and profane, otherworldly and worldly, soul and flesh), but the dichotomy also persists. Often as not the conjunction employed is or not and--as in "intelligence or instinct," "sacred or profane" And much of our hunger for lastingness seems a search for reconciliation, a desire for the two to fuse. Is it "mind over matter" or vice-versa, or "mind and matter" conjoined?
This essay deals with western models of achievement, western artists in old age. It's my anecdotal sense, however, that other cultures deal with the disjunction more easily and with a good deal less fuss. The physical and spiritual impulses feel somehow attuned in a yoga adept or tribal chieftain or medicine man. When Prince Gautama renounces wealth or an Inuit elder walks out on the ice, there's a traditional-seeming willingness to say "Enough's enough." No doubt such a statement is romantic, uninformed--but the stages of enlightenment in Buddhist and Hindu civilizations are better calibrated to increasing age than our "retirement policies" in the capitalistic west. We're better at getting and spending, in short, than at renunciation, and little in our history urges the reverse.
Are we "hardwired" for this, somehow; what evidence accrues? What, if any, biological explanation is there for the loss of artistic achievement in increasing age? We understand that our generative fertility decreases--in both women and men--as we grow older; does this mean our creative fertility must also diminish? Is there a region of the brain for art (some sort of left-or-right lobe equivalent for the control of motor skills) and does it lose operational force? If so, is that loss foreordained or can it be forestalled? Weighing in at roughly two percent, the brain uses twenty percent of our body's energy; is this a constant ratio or could it be changed? Might we dissect the "gray matter" of Sibelius or Da Vinci and discover where genius comes from, and of what it consists?
Here it helps to have some understanding--however rudimentary--of the structure of the brain. The cerebellum, the brain stem, the frontal lobe, the parietal lobe, the temporal lobe, the occipital lobe, the primary motor cortex, the primary sensory cortex are its principal component parts; they have separate regulatory functions and "responsibilities." The parietal lobe, for example, is where letters form words, and words combine into thoughts; the temporal lobe regulates language and learning, the occipital lobe processes information related to vision. All these are necessary for the production of art; they are not sufficient.
Here, in layman's language, is a functional description of the full-grown (roughly three-pound) brain itself:
The brain receives information from our senses (eyes, ears, skin, balance organ, muscles and joints, nose, tongue), uses it to detect, represent as neurological activities, recognize, and record memories of the things of the world, and employs this information within and outside of the domain of immediate time, to develop and guide our mental and physical actions. Incoming information is pre-processed in the great sensory systems that feed the "forebrain" That "forebrain" fills nearly 90% of the volume of our skulls. No mammal has a larger one than we humans in proportion to our body size. The forebrain is comprised of a great assembly of special "sub-cortical" brain regions that feed and support the analysis and action functions of about a hundred distinctive functional zones in our highly folded "cerebral cortex" The cerebral cortex is a thin (about 1/8" thick), layered structure about two and a half square feet in area (imagine a circle a little less than 2 feet in diameter). Within this thin sheet, there are about the same number of neurons (nerve cells) as there are stars in the Milky Way--about 20 billion, of the brain's total of about 100 billion. (1)
What follows is a brief timeline of discoveries in Europe and Egypt relating to the mind:
In a skull dating from 5000 BC, there is evidence of trephination: a hole cut through the skull. This practice--persisting through the Middle Ages--is used to treat headaches or seizures. (2)
Ancient Egyptians discard the brain when mummifying corpses; the brain--or so they believe in 2500 BC--is unimportant by comparison with those organs preserved in their canopic jars.
Hippocrates (460-370 BC) describes epilepsy as a physical disorder, not something occasioned by the displeasure of the gods. He believes the brain to be the seat of emotion and intelligence.
Herophilus of Alexandria and Erasistratus, his student, are the first to rely on dissection, in 300 BC. They describe the nervous system.
The physician Galen dissects the brains of animals--sheep, monkeys, dogs, and pigs--and distinguishes, in 170 BC, between the cerebellum and cerebrum.
Thomas Willis, an Oxford professor, writes Cerebri Anatome in 1664, the most detailed description until that time of the nervous system. He believes separate parts of the brain are responsible for thought and movement.
Five years later, in 1649, Rene Descartes suggests the brain's pineal gland is the location of the soul.
In 1668, Johann Jakob Wepfer proposes that stroke may be caused by a broken blood vessel in the brain.
In 1791, an Italian physiologist studying frogs--Luigi Galvani--is the first to suggest that some form of "animal electricity" drives nerve activity. Hence our word "galvanic."
In 1808, a German anatomist, Franz Joseph Gall, creates the pseudoscience of phrenology--insisting that a person's personality can be revealed by the contours of the head.
In 1870, Camillo Golgi develops a staining method that reveals the detailed structure of sensory nerve cells in the brain.
Emil Kraepelin, in 1883, describes schizophrenia and manic depression.
William James publishes Principles of Psychology in 1890, and nine years later Sigmund Freud publishes--as part of his ongoing inquiry--The Interpretation of Dreams. Ivan Pavlov explores conditioned responses in 1903; B. F. Skinner in 1938 argues that animal behavior can be engineered.
1906, Alois Alzheimer details presenile degeneration--giving his name to the disease as of 1910.
From lithium to lobotomy there are treatments available today for bipolar disorder and psychosis. We have begun to track the neural pathways of the brain, as well as its plasticity and ability to regenerate. Prozac and other drugs have been approved as a treatment for depression; electroshock therapy and brain scanning and gene therapy have been introduced. Some twenty years ago, a scientist might well have been expected to know all the literature on the structure and operational functions of the cerebellum and cerebrum; now these articles multiply exponentially and no "unifying theory" has as yet emerged. Too, it seems fair to say that nobody has yet proposed an explanation for what we loosely call "inspiration" or--at its outer edge--"genius"; we cannot locate, in the brain, that place where creativity exists.
(This last statement is not strictly true; we do in fact know roughly where images--and, by extension, the imaginative faculties--reside. What we don't understand as of this present writing is why one individual can make of his or her imaginings an enduring work of art and another puts away her pencil or his brush. A separate study might be made of those whose parents and grandparents had been writers and painters and musicians; is there a genetic component at work, or is it an issue of environment and encouragement? When Lucas Cranach the Elder taught Lucas Cranach the Younger to draw, or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played the piano for his father, was this a function of nature or nurture, and in which proportion? The sons of football players and the daughters of ballerinas may have, as it were, a leg up on the competition, but this doesn't necessarily mean they will surpass their parents or colleagues in the same field. The determining word here is talent, and it can be identified and supervised but not engineered.)
These are some chapter-headings from a recent book, Learning and Memory in Normal Aging (ed. Donald H. Kausler) (3); I include them at near-random as an indication of what can be studied and graphed:
Adult Age Differences in Conditioning Adult Age Difference in Instrumental Learning Laboratory Studies: Controlled Motor-Learning Tasks Target Detection Pattern-Recognition Learning Expertise and Maintenance of a Perceptual Skill Research with Manipulable Independent Variables: Intentional versus Incidental Learning Mnemonics (Pegword Method, Method of Loci, Keyword Method, etc.) Adult Age Differences in Short-Term/Primary Memory Long-Term Episodic Memory: Effortful Phenomena (Multitrial Free Recall, Encoding Variability and the Lag Effect, Recognition Memory, etc.) Adult Age Differences in Organizational Processes (in Picture and Face Memory; in Retrieval; in Prospective Memory; in Sentence Memory; in Paragraph Memory; in Memory for Longer Discourses, etc.)
There are discussions of Temporal Memory, Spatial Memory, Source Memory, Memory for the Content of Activities and Actions, Reality Monitoring and Source Memory; Autobiographical Memory and Metamemory. There are units on Stimulus Degradation and Lexical Access, Verbal Fluency, Age Differences in Lexical Access for Categorical Information, Age Differences in Episodic Memory Monitoring Skills, and Age Differences in Self-Evaluation of Factual Memory Proficiency.
On an almost-daily basis, discovery proceeds.
What these lists have been intended to suggest is our incremental awareness of the function of the brain itself, as well as its relation to the body that encloses it. Our most important organ, it's the one we understand the least. An aging artist--male or female--must contend with failing physical resources, but the failure of human alertness is difficult to measure and very hard to chart. We're familiar with memory loss and the distinction between short-and long-term memory, those "senior moments" when we forget dates or names. Our ability to learn languages and calculus (not to mention downhill-skiing) diminishes with time. But what happens when our cognitive abilities themselves commence to fade; are they in some way replaced? And since the creative impulse is so readily accessible in the young, why has it been censored in the old?
Infants and children acquire skills rapidly; the brain's capacity quite literally enlarges--as do our hands and feet. Proportionally less expansive than other parts of the body, it nonetheless does grow. So at what point, as a general rule, does the counter-contraction begin? At forty, sixty, eighty; is there a general rule? There are those who argue that our life span can be indefinitely extended, and that entropy--the process of structural collapse--can be reversed. But we need not live forever to live longer, and there's no obvious reason that the "sunset years" must mean a reduction of light.
If our natural life span expands and life expectancy increases, might not consciousness do so as well? Can we replace discovery with knowledge, exploration with perspective? We have more information to absorb and process than did our ancestors; does that mean we are better equipped to manage the workaday world? Most contemporary citizens of the United States know how to operate a telephone and computer and drive an automobile; does that make us more intelligent than those who arrived on the Mayflower or braved the western plains? Or have we lost as much by way of programmed reflex (the ability to sail by dead reckoning, the ability to track wild animals, the aural retention of long sacred texts) as we appear to have gained?
Let me stress what should be clear; these questions are a good deal harder to answer than ask. It's possible that some years hence some genome project of the brain will decode its signals as successfully as has been done for our genetic markers and DNA. And no doubt then we'll know much more about the wellsprings of artistic growth, their source as well as stanching. But at this stage it would appear that knowledge of the brain does not advance an inquiry into "lastingness" as such. Neural transmitters and the release of chemicals such as dopamine and noradrenalin and acetylcholine are crucial to a study of brain-function but inadequate as explanation for why and how well we make art.
Rather, the creative process involves a separate and equally inexact attribute of behavior: "character." That configuration of response to stimuli we define as "character" or "personality" has more to do with artistic production than the cerebral cortex in its operational modes; the word retains its mystery and is hard to plumb. One of the phrases attaching to character, for example, is that it takes time "to build." So too does a career, and the vicissitudes of time and chance have much to do with both. Such terms as talent, personality, and character are non-scientific, and no analysis of brain waves or ocular perception has managed to explain the work of Dryden or Poussin ...
Another way of putting this is, in effect, anecdotal. The writer in his sixties says, "I could never have written this novel twenty years ago" the painter at seventy-five declares, "I wouldn't have produced this painting when I was in my thirties." The composer in her eighties hears a different tonal register than does the forty-year-old. It seems self-evident that life experience should be an important component of art; even in that most abstract mode of expression, music, we "read" romantic grief or revolutionary fervor or a birthday gift of melody to a beloved consort. And it's therefore natural that the work of older artists has a different feel and flavor than that of their earlier work. The "summing up" or "final achievement" of any creative intelligence is necessarily a function of increasing age, and only when a life is truncated does it apply to the young.
Is there a kind of poem, painting or sonata that typifies the youthful maker or signals, instead, middle age? Is there a form of expression that requires, as prerequisite, the long view of the elderly? Outsider art and folk art and the artistic expressions of the insane are more difficult to date than those of the formally trained and technically proficient women and men who produce signature work. Can we carbon-date the maker as well as the thing made?
James Hillman, in his book The Force of Character, has a fine way of discussing this:
In our competitive societies, "lasting" has come to mean outlasting. "I've outlived my father and both grandfathers!" "According to my doctor, I should have been dead three years ago." "My insurance company is losing money on me. I've beat my pension plan and cashed in on Social Security, far more than I ever put in." "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, because my life has outlasted the expectancy curve ..." Our experience of aging is so embedded in numbers of years left to live, as given by longevity tables, that we can hardly believe that for centuries late years were associated not with dying but with vitality and character. The old were not mainly thought of as limping toward death's door, but were regarded as stable depositories of customs and legends, guardians of local values, experts in skills and crafts, and valued voices in communal council. What mattered was force of character proven by length of years ... Cemeteries were dotted with the short graves of children. (4)
Old English manuscripts love eald (old), it is one of the fifty most frequently appearing words in the medieval corpus of legal, medical, religious, and literary texts and occasional scribbles. And it mainly carries a positive meaning. Of forty-nine compound words that incorporate eald, only eight are clearly negative, like "old-devil." To include eald in a compound generally beings benefits: trustworthiness, venerability, proverbiality, value. (5)
"The Force of Character" seems crucial here, and perseverance has much to do with it; one definition of character is "a printed or written letter, symbol, or distinctive mark." (6) That "distinctive mark"--the Greek root of the word karakter means inscribed sign--may prove very hard to erase. Marcel Duchamp, for example, chose to abandon his studio and turn his attention to chess; his character by all accounts stayed the same. The painterly labors were completed early on, but inventiveness continued--even flourished once he put away those "childish things," the canvas and the brush. Born in 1887, Duchamp died in 1968, and for the last fifty years of his life played chess with the focused attention he had earlier accorded Dadaism. Such pictorial innovations as Nude Descending a Staircase and The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even gave way to a study of gambits and traps, but the spirit of playful disruptive inventiveness stayed with him till the end.
This seems particularly the case for those whose art is self-reflexive and who make their own work consciously a topic. Thus when Rene Magritte inscribes "Ceci n'est pas un pipe" adjacent to the image of a pipe, he's eating his cake and having it too. "This is not a pipe," admittedly, but it does picture that object exactly; it's both denial and affirmation in the comic mode. Laurence Sterne's whimsical novel, Tristram Shandy, is composed in a similar vein; the portrait of the Widow Wadman (a blank sheet of paper, where the reader might imagine the lineaments of beauty) or of a character's depression (a black sheet), is an eighteenth-century display of narrative intrusiveness--the self-effacing storyteller who takes center stage.
There are many such examples. The music of Philip Glass offers an aural equivalent, yoking improvisation to measured repetition. The prose of Samuel Beckett (Endgame is a tip-of-the-cap to the board game that compelled Duchamp) insists on iteration, and often humorously. "But let us leave these morbid matters, and get on with that of my demise" as one of his characters says. The entire system of trompe l'oeil is organized around the notion that you see what you're not seeing, and this taking-back what's been taken away is a hallmark of the elegy--a way, in effect, to trick time.
Johannes Brahms was famous for his habit of revision--an almost-obsessional revisiting of previous compositions, a dissatisfaction with what was once performed. His use of transposition (from chamber ensemble to full-fledged orchestra, from violin to clarinet, etc.) argues a similar cast of mind, and his Variations on a Theme by Haydn makes something original of something borrowed and changed. Such self-referentiality seems habitual for both the young and aging creative intelligence, though it's not perhaps as common in the middle-aged. Many artists learn their trade by copying the work of predecessors they admire; Pablo Picasso referenced Velazquez often, as did Edouard Manet. This is less surprising in the apprentice than the master craftsman, but it holds true for both. At the end of his career, Picasso painted painters in abundance, and even this prodigiously inventive maker produced a set of variations on the artist and model in his studio, the priapic body thumbing its "nose" at convention.
A common denominator of the final years would seem to be just such a constancy of purpose, a temperamental (often ill-tempered) stick-to-itiveness that serves to gainsay time. The admiring phrase, "But he seems so young," or "She's so energetic," has at least an overtone of the condescending reverse: "Why don't they act their age?" There's a complicated back-and-forth of patience and impatience, the forward-facing and the conservative impulses; we both desire repetition and to start out anew. At a certain stage in Dante's progress, Virgil bade the voyager farewell, and part of the lore of "old masters" is that moment when the teacher tells his or her disciple to go on ahead alone.
And if that fails to happen--if the teacher stays in lockstep with his students, insisting on being a part of the party--things feel in some sense wrong. Had Virgil accompanied Dante all the way through Paradiso, his traveling companion might well have complained. The stereotypical image of the aging artist as monstre sacra, a satyr-like devourer of admiring youth and beauty, seems somehow apposite here. Drama and folktales abound in such figures-the old man and young girl or boy, old woman and lithe acolyte--who suck the lifeblood from their followers and are, Dracula-like, renewed.
Yet if "time is the great teacher" a senior artist ought to have some wisdom to impart. She or he may grow more venturesome, less trammeled by propriety-even literally incontinent--once there seems less to lose. It's not only the young artist who seems iconoclastic or speaks truth to power; those who approach the end of life often do the same. What Hillman praises in his book is the role of the elder in society, the contributions made by those who represent tradition and who pass it on. They should be highly valued, and he therefore considers the "retirement community"--where the aged and infirm meet only those of their own generation--to be a bad idea.
But artists rarely see themselves as representative types or consider their involvement with society as crucial. And often when they do so, it's a personal wrangle and private affair. When William Butler Yeats, in "Among School Children" calls himself "A sixty-year-old, smiling, public man" he does so with a sense of role-playing displacement that verges on despair. Art is a privacy made public, not the other way around. The old, much-honored poet surrounded by beautiful children can't bring himself to acknowledge how confounded by sexual yearning he feels--but then he writes a poem (in the justified hope that thousands will read it) confessing to just such desire.
This is a constant concern in Yeats, particularly as he ages; in the "Crazy Jane" series or such ballads as "The Wild Old Wicked Man" he rails against the "bodily decrepitude" he describes with such precision. "Sick with desire /And fastened to a dying animal" the poet ruminates upon the paradox of being "out of nature" yet making it his subject. Poem after poem aspires to the oxymoronic condition of being "cold and passionate as the dawn,' and Yeats's great achievement has to do with the sequential triad of "what's past, and passing, and to come." No writer of the twentieth century wrote more tellingly of transience or transformed it more persuasively into lines that last.
The final word, of course, belongs to William Shakespeare. Here's the declaration with which Sonnet 18 ends:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st, Nor shall Death brag thou wand'rest in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
There's a boastfulness in his future-facing certainty that his poem will live long as "eyes can see" a braggadocio that puts death in its place. The "eternal lines" are Shakespeare's own, and the object of his praise can claim "eternal summer" though the season itself--as in line four of the sonnet--"hath all too short a date." The poem begins, with the rhetorical question, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and the implicit answer is, "Why bother?" since love's delight persists ...
Here too there's a kind of defiance, a variation on the theme of "Death, where is thy sting?" What I've been trying to suggest is how these strategies wrest gain from loss, spin gold from straw, making something enduring of what feels fleet. And this is the reward accorded those who spend their life in art: for a brief period, and possibly far longer, they are not the fools of time.
The elderly, or so it seems, repeat themselves. Children and grandchildren say or think, exasperated, "Come on, I've heard that before" In the case of senile dementia, such repetition can become obsessive--a few catchphrases caught in the throat, a needle that slips in its groove. But almost everyone becomes to some degree formulaic--saying the same thing in separate ways and even, at times, word for word. Is this a necessary component of "lastingness"; does repetition inescapably attach to continuity--as with the work of Beckett or Mark Rothko or Philip Glass? When a painter paints the sunset or a soup can more than once, when a composer selects the same key, is that a failure of inventiveness or, more generously, a witted variation on a theme?
One of the advantages of a number of books on the shelf is that the writer comes to recognize a pattern in his or her writing; old themes do recur. Lately I've taken to slipping youthful passages verbatim--a sentence, often, a paragraph sometimes, at the outer limit a page--into an ongoing work. I own those previous books, after all, and (as with the memory of Max Eastman with which this piece starts) there's a kind of time-lapse photography involved. I won't sue myself for copyright infringement, and if we all repeat ourselves, not meaning to, why not do it consciously instead?
It's a private salute to the idea of continuity, a sense that repetitions unavoidable in any case so why not acknowledge it, and if you liked the phrasing once, use it again. It's a private salute to the idea of continuity, a sense that repetition's unavoidable in any case so why not acknowledge it, and if you liked the phrasing once, use it again. Or perhaps it's more accurately a sort of self-transfusion, a desire to be jolted by what felt electric once. In my recent work of fiction, Spring and Fall, I included a sequence from a novel of mine that came out in the early 1970s, and a line from a short story that appeared in the mid-eighties. They slipped, I think, seamlessly in; they snuggle between the covers where nobody else noticed they had lain before.
Now let me explicitly repeat the final lines of The Lost Suitcase, a novella I published in the year 2000. It's about an old, much-honored writer who loses sight of--falls afoul of--his muse. He's living in retirement in somewhere I imagine to be something like Key West. His name is Edward, his inspiration AnnaLise, and here's what I've been trying to describe:
And therefore bit by bit and almost imperceptibly over time our hero--once so severe, so constant of purpose and disciplined in habit--permits himself to take her not so much for granted as for something of less value than it was to start with: a currency debased. Soon what has begun as attitude becomes a routine condescension, a familiarity that serves him as first cousin to contempt. A diminution of his capacity for wonder, a sense there's nothing singular in being singled out like this and that she is but footnote to his text. Till one fine morning he wakes up and, as always, stretches and, as always, shifts the pillow and thrusts back the blanket and gets out of bed, gingerly testing his right leg, his hip, the stiffness in his joints, the muscles of his back, his throat engorged, his mouth still tasting like the bottom of a birdcage, and shuffles to the bathroom where he runs the tap and spits and rinses off his teeth, blinking, pissing, hawking phlegm, and turns on the overhead light and switches on his own electric kettle for the first cup of hot water with lemon, since he does not want to bother the night nurse or, more precisely, to be bothered by her, cannot bear to share the fuss and ruckus of conversation at this hour but instead surveys the landscape (sea grape, sea fog, the rising sun and fading moon and could that be the Southern Cross?) and throws back the green wooden shutter and latches it, as always, to the black hook in the stuccoed wall and sits to his work desk, as always, positioning the cane-backed chair, sharpening his pencils and smoothing out the foolscap and reading what he wrote before, the verbiage accumulated yesterday and also the day before that, sucking maybe on a gumball, staring at the palm tree and the cactus there beyond the pool, sitting poised as though expectant of, attendant on her visit, her seductive tactile presence on the naked yellow unlined sheet, for he has worked this way for months, for years, for decades, every morning in this fashion at this hour and no matter what has gone before, how hard the night or troubled the sleep, how many words he wasted on and with how many incidental players, undone, unstrung, half-comatose, so that it is merely accurate and neither boastful nor self-serving to report the yield was real, the harvest abundant, the language available to Edward--witness the books on the bureau, the placards and awards on walls, the shelves in the library bulging--and therefore it takes him longer than it should have, possibly, to sense how something else obtains this day, some alien vacancy enters the room, or how the light comes slanting in without illumination. The palm trees do not frame his view, and what he has for company is absence and not presence. Not AnnaLise. The habit broken, the pattern no longer ingrained. The song he taught himself to hear is silence now, not with him now, not this fine morning at his desk and, although he does not wish to admit or consciously consider this he knows it already, irrevocably, once gone it is gone and will not return to him ever, nor come to him again. As once in May. (7)
(1) From the outline for Brain Fitness (unpublished) by Michael M. Merzenich, Chapter 7.
(2) This information is culled from a "Mind and Body Special Issue" of Time magazine, January 29, 2007: The Brain, A User's Guide, 86-88.
(3) Donald H. Kausler, ed., Learning and Memory in Normal Aging (San Diego: Academic Press, Inc.), 1994.
(4) James Hillman, The Force of Character (New York: Random House, 1999), 3-4.
(5) Idem, p. 42.
(6) Illustrated Oxford Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
(7) Nicholas Delbanco, The Lost Suitcase (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 163-64.
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|Title Annotation:||discussion on western models of achievement and western artists in old age|
|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
|Previous Article:||Continents kept hidden: the music of Alban Berg.|
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