Consolation, like enlightenment, is fickle or at least unreliable. To depend on its prompt arrival is childish, though even children know better than to believe the world will soothe the wounds it inflicts. To pass the time waiting for the ophthalmologist, one day after cataract surgery, I packed a library copy of Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of Zen Master Dōgen (North Point Press, 1985) – not my customary reading, but I was looking for something I remembered finding in it a long time ago. Instead, what I found was a folded sheet of ruled paper tucked into the glossary/index. On it, in a childish hand, were two words printed in pencil: “You’re stupid.” A note passed behind the rōshi’s back? A koan? Regardless, I closed the book and picked up the clinic’s copy of The New Yorker for June 3, 2013. There I found Clive James’ Leçons des ténèbres, which begins:
“But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I earn
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.”
The moral life has a certain symmetry, but only when perceived retrospectively. Too little, too late; youth wasted on the young – all that Shavian cleverness that never quite convinces. Some of us, even the brightest, never stop being stupid. James calls his recent poems “funeral songs.” For several years he has been sick with lymphocytic leukemia, but remains productive, a dedicated word man to the end, or almost the end. Leçons des ténèbres concludes:
“Not only to enumerate my wrongs
But to pay homage to the late sublime
That comes with seeing how the years have brought
A fitting end, if not the one I sought.”
The ophthalmologist tells me the vision in my right eye, without corrective lenses, is now 20/20.