Thursday, July 07, 2016

`An Air of Baffled Absence'

While reading Tolstoy: A Biography (1988), I was surprised to see A.N. Wilson places a well-known but unexpected epigraph at the head of Chap. 13, “The Holy Man,” which recounts the years after Anna Karenina, published when the novelist was forty-nine:

“At death you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see.”

Yes, it’s that old motivational speaker Philip Larkin in “The Old Fools” (High Windows, 1974), a poem as grim and amusing as any he ever wrote. The opening stanzas will no doubt be dismissed as “micro aggressions”, a gleeful exercise in cruelty: “Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines.” I think that’s called “ageist shaming,” but Larkin never absolves himself of such judgments. He was born with a middle-aged soul, and a few years after “The Old Fools” he would describe himself as “an egg sculpted in lard, wearing goggles.” The poem’s central question, spoken from just this side of old age, comes at the end of the first stanza: “Why aren’t they screaming?” We spend our lives ignoring death, pretending it is no more than a theory, an abstraction we can wipe from the blackboard. But as Larkin says in “Aubade,” we keep death “just on the edge of vision, / A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill / That slows each impulse down to indecision.” Arrogantly, we deem ourselves immune. Larkin’s speaker looks at the old fools and wonder how they put up with decrepitude and the knowledge of imminent extinction. He speculates:
“Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting
People you know, yet can't quite name.”

In other words, to use an unforgiving word, delusion, telling oneself a comforting story. The tone of the poem has quietly shifted. The speaker is no longer mocking the old fools but trying to understand how they endure. Those interior rooms are memories, which are always laced with fiction. We tell stories to endure. For all his hatred of romanticized cant, Larkin sympathizes with the old fools and their strategies: “That is where they live: / Not here and now, but where all happened once. / This is why they give / An air of baffled absence, trying to be there / Yet being here.” Now it makes sense why Wilson used the Larkin passage at this point in Tolstoy’s life. He was middle-aged and blocked as a novelist, as Larkin was soon blocked from writing poetry, and was undergoing one of many religious crises (never an option for Larkin). As Wilson reports on the next page:

“His imagination was no longer fully engaged with the history of his own past or that of his country. Instead, it had become engaged with the eternally unanswerable questions which were aroused by his visit to the Optina Monastery.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I needed to read this today. Thank you.