Wednesday, August 22, 2012

`But This Is Human Life'

On Monday I learned an old friend, someone I hadn’t seen in fourteen years, had died more than four years ago, on the Fourth of July in 2008 (the day, incidentally, Tom Disch took his life). At one time we were close; not romantically but as comfortable pals. She was someone I could take to a jazz club and not worry she’d be bored. Once we saw the Russian-born trumpeter Valery Ponomarev and afterwards went out for a late dinner. Ponomerov walked into the restaurant, joined us and was charmed by Cindy. Parting, he kissed her hand, Russian-style, and she was charmed.

The reasons our friendship ended are still baffling. Too many things, I fear, remained unsaid. Now she’s dead and those things will never be said, and another mystery will never be solved. All I can do is remember and share those memories. Richard Holmes, author of the great two-volume Coleridge biography, devotes much thought to memory and the artful reconstruction of lives. In Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985) he writes: 

“[Writing biography] taught me at least two things. First, that the past is not simply `out there,’ an objective history to be researched or forgotten, at will; but that it lives most vividly in all of us, deep inside, and needs constantly to be given expression and interpretation. And second, that the lives of great artists and poets and writers are not, after all, so extraordinary by comparison with everyone else. Once known in any detail and any scope, every life is something extraordinary, full of particular drama and tension and surprise, often containing unimagined degrees of suffering or heroism, and invariably touching extreme moments of  triumph and despair, though frequently unexpressed. The difference lies in the extent to which one is eventually recorded, and the other is eventually forgotten.” 

Odd to think I’m a caretaker of sorts, as all of us are. Cindy’s father died when she was young, and she never married or had children, and this may account for her powerful need for friends, and for her difficulty in holding on to them. The happiest I saw her was when she was thinking about returning to observant Judaism, and I arranged for us to attend a seder at a friend's house. She considered it a homecoming. I think of her when I read the seder scene in Isaac Rosenfeld's Passage from Home.

Most of us are forgotten, sooner or later, but I feel an obligation to remember friends, acquaintances and even strangers. The substance of their lives, as Holmes says, is otherwise “frequently unexpressed.” Holmes puts me in mind of Keats, a passage from Endymion (Book II, 153-159): 

“But this is human life: the war, the deeds,
The disappointment, the anxiety,
Imagination’s struggles, far and nigh,
All human; bearing in themselves this good,
That they are still the air, the subtle food,
To make us feel existence, and to shew
How quiet death is.”


Gary in Nairobi said...

Thanks for sharing this reminder of the essential worth of each person and of the role writing can play in helping us not forget.

Dave Lull said...

On September 2 Isaac Rosenberg will be remembered in his East End neighborhood:

Roger Boylan said...

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

I always found these words of Donne's, which your post brought to mind, very moving, over-quoted as they are. (Or were: general ignorance is such that once-tattered quotes are fresh again.)