As you get older, you notice that things that once were abundant in life are beginning to be taken away. What was once given you generously is now withheld. What was viewed as a surplus is now a scarcity. Your soul doesn’t age, but your body does. As your body withers, you suffer in truly incredibly ways and stages, ranging from unease and anxiety, to feebleness, and to periods of intense, seemingly endless, vivid pain. These sufferings can no longer be avoided. Praise, acceptance, friendship depend now on making constant efforts to acquire and maintain them. You have hardly any pride any more. The applause is dying out. The theatre is slowly emptying. The shadow that falls across all, is now falling on you. There is nothing you can do, no effort you can make, to become what you once were..
Your friends are suffering as well. They have the ailments that all older people have. They bear them with patience. But people don’t like to reveal their sufferings. They are proud by nature, and to admit suffer implies a sort of inferiority, and so they put on a brave face. But the truth is that what was once strong, daring, brave, and resolute, now exhibits a pitiable fragility. One has gained a new authority – the authority of suffering. You retain your youth in your soul, but your body is decaying. It labors to obtain the maximum, but ends with the minimum. Yet you soldier on, face forward, thinking that some fresh effort will enable you to experience another triumph before you die, some accomplishment that will soar and burst like a firework at this hour of your late age. But the truth dawns with great pain – you realize that you are no longer one of life’s contenders.
We don’t fear dying – what we fear is oblivion. All of us fear extinction. We do not want to have your name washed off some sidewalk by a garden nose. So doubts besiege us. What if our efforts really didn’t count? What if our bad decisions were the decisive ones? What if our dream of winning the respect of a group of the cultured and the perceptive people by creating something enduring and admirable -- what if that dream was unsound? Alas, those thoughts pierce the heart like sharp arrows. There is nothing more painful than the wounds they inflict. Yet the mind is full of them. We don’t fear dying; no, what we fear is that our efforts made no scratch on the face of the world’s anonymity.
So we work on, realizing that now the odds are against us. Yet we are not inert. We still believe that we can win out, turn the tide, and surprise the world. Can we produce something that would equal to something others did in their youth? It is possible. It has been done. There are exceptions. What is required? Defiance. Resolve. Bravery in defeat. The stamina of a George Washington. But maybe we are not yet defeated. Maybe we are going to blossom in our old age like Monteverdi or Verdi or Sophocles who did their best work in their 80s?
But the outlook for anyone with knowledge and taste is worrying.
It is very clear that the desire to be noticed at all costs, now rules the world. The multitude now has the decisive voice in culture. The question that drives the multitude is “What can I do to stand out?” There are ways, of course: film something and put it on YouTube, something funny like a cat trying to screw a dog. Or an eagle snatching up a baby in a park. That will bring you notice, if not fame. My wife, Carol, and I just watched the film “Birdman,” in which an aging actor stages a Broadway play that is designed to redeem him from his previous and very popular role as a cartoon franchise character, “Birdman.” The script is actually pretty droll. To redeem himself, Birdman is using a play based on a story by Raymond Carver, in which a man finds his wife in bed with her lover. An argument ensues, and a grief-stricken husband shoots himself in the head. The theater group practices this endlessly, with a fake gun. One actor, Mike, jeers at Birdman for using a fake gun. The actor says that he can see the red spot in the muzzle of the fake gun and tells him to get another. On opening night, Birdman, brandishes a real gun and manages to shoot off the end his nose. And what happens? Suddenly, he is a trending topic on Twitter, while a New York drama critic lauds the Birdman as having discovered, “super realism.’
But the script also has much to say about our culture. One of the characters in the play, Mike, condemns the “cultural genocide” of Hollywood.
But cultural genocide is in no way confined to Hollywood. Cultural genocide is widespread on TV and in popular literature. The world is working more and more to produce the mediocre and dubious. The production of the dubious takes no rest. It is tireless. And the dubious is not received with any reserve by the multitude; it is embraced as genius. It sells. It makes you rich. It puts yon television on talk shows where people have nothing notable to say. So what really rules the day? What are the Gods that the bulk of the people worship? Popularity, novelty, and SUCCESS. Wow! The popular must be superior or it wouldn’t be popular -- that is the extent of the multitude’s reasoning. Meanwhile, the multitude rolls its bulldozer over the bed of the emerging flowers of worth. Genuine accomplishment is nudged to the sidelines. The circle of people who are cultured enough to recognize excellence when they read it or hear it, is growing smaller day by day.
The astute, penetrating French writer La Bruyere, one of my favorite French authors, makes fun of the cheerless of trying to write excellent books. “'You write so well, Antisthenes, keep on writing, when are we going to see a folio volume of yours? deal with all the virtues and vices in a sustained, systematic work, which will have no end';
and they should add: 'and no popularity, either.”
Bruyere then adds, “I renounce all books, past, present and to come. Beryllus falls into a faint at the sight of a cat, and so do I at the sight of a book. Am I better and more warmly clad, is my room sheltered from the north wind, do I sleep on a feather bed, after being sold in the market place for full twenty years? I have won a great reputation, you tell me, and a great deal of glory: say rather that I've acquired a great deal of useless wind. Have I a single grain of that metal that procures everything? The meanest attorney puffs out his statement, and gets refunded for expenses he has not incurred; he marries his daughter to a count or a magistrate. A man in coloured livery becomes a clerk, and is soon richer than his master; he leaves him a plebeian, and buys himself a title. B— gets rich by showing puppets in a salon, BB— by selling river-water in bottles. Another charlatan arrives here from over the mountains with his pack; he has no sooner unloaded it than rewards pour down on him, and he's ready to go back to where he came from equipped with mules and vans.”
The tone reminds one of Lytton Strachey or Conrad.
Bruyere was writing at the time of Louis XIV. So the flaws of human nature, its merciless cupidity, and its tendency to applaud the fake at the expense of the solid and real, its endless search for distraction, ends up being a timeless dilemma. But I do wonder what he would say of such things now?
Today, a novel has to be blatantly commercial to sell. No, I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Gray. Or look at The Hunger Games. What is more grotesque and heartlessly brutal than the gladiatorial contests of the Romans? What could be more horrible than a portion of a people being so poor and oppressed that they kill another group of people every year to placate merciless, controlling gods? But that is what you get in “The Hunger Games.
Yet, there are still things of priceless worth that should be mastered before the final curtain falls. The great historian, Jacob Burckhardt, who is a teacher of mine, confessed for a friend that he had in his nature “a one sided bent for contemplation” that became more and more “directed more and more upon essentials.” He says in one of his letters, that “…you wouldn’t believe how, little by little, as a result of this one-sided effort, the facta of history, the works of art, the monuments of all ages gradually acquire significance as a witness of a past stage in the development of the spirit…I am moved by a shudder of profound respect.”
The thought is especially poignant. The excellence of the thought and the expression are simply superb, but a question remains, Does anyone think like that any more?
Alas, in America, a fantasy holds us in its sway: we think that as life goes on, we find it easy to conclude, that, thanks TV or the Web that we, as a people, have grown wiser over time. It is fashionable now to believe that knowledge is so widespread that somehow our exposure to it has made us smarter, and better analysts of the world’s operations. This is not so. “Folly in all its forms, from the frivolous and ridiculous was never so manifest throughout the world,” said a Dutch historian in 1935. The man was Jan Huizinga, who would be killed at Auschwitz. He had just written a masterpiece, “The Waning of the Middle Ages.”
His view was that as the world grows larger and larger, it learns less and less. People remember less and less. What we see today as we look out, is not wisdom at all. Instead what we see is the confused rivalry between distraction and knowledge. The love of power in ourselves and which we admire in others, is nothing but that corrupt, contaminated love of domination that has always ruled human experience. But its nefarious work goes on unnoticed and uncorrected because of the reign of Distraction.
Today, the multitude locates power in the workings of Politics and Entertainment. Clearly there are moments when the two fuse, but most of the time, the result is extremely coarse and tawdry. In both cases, we dodge the question of whether their concepts, imagination, of the multitude, its allegiance to the truth of the facts -- can make any claim to be true wisdom. Instead, we incessantly witness those two contests – the contests between greed, corrupt will, deceit, make- believe, false hood, and idiocy – as they rage on. Worse, these days, it is clear that even among educated people, there is increasing indifference, a mounting lack of critical capacity, when it comes to viewing history and its relation to politics.
I wrote this closing chapter as part of a novel: it is night. A reporter has been witness all day long to horrible violence, and he takes refuge in an empty baseball park. It is 4 o’clock in the morning. He falls asleep, then wakes up. Lying there, exhausted, he gazes in fascination at a single star, a, a sharp bright point of light, is shining down in the vast darkness of a summer night.
“As he began to gaze at the thinning darkness, he began thinking that all he really wanted out of life was to be numbered among the doers, not the connivers or the players or the shifty slicksters. He wanted to be like the wandering stone masons who had built those majestic cathedrals in the Europe in the Middle Ages. He knew that history hadn’t even recorded their names. Yet they were men of character because to create a work of enduring importance required a bit of the hermit in their make up. One had to be a hermit to create anything; because one has to resist the lure of popularity and distraction and push on in the face of general indifference; and the stone masons had pushed and fought on. All that remained was what they had accomplished. They had no idea of the imperishable glory they had created.
"He continued gazing up at the tiny, sharply bright star, a dot in the vast darkness of the night. Since a small boy, Peter loved creation in all of its forms, and with all the force of his heart. What were the works of Bach or Tolstoy or r Stendhal, but displays of tremendous will and concentrated focus. What else? He was trying to find the right words. They had also displayed patience, loyalty, loyalty, yes, and a passionate attachment to a goal. What else? The single-minded pursuit of something not yet made.
"Peter wanted to dedicate his efforts to make of his life something rare, special, and enduring. He wanted to learn to see, to discover something that had never been fully perceived and appreciated. He wanted to discover a new aspect of reality the way Alhazen had discovered perspective. What drove the best of human beings was not a desire for fame or riches or influence, but the desire to create something enduring, something excellent that would endure beyond the reach of Time.”
One wonders if he did.