A reader tells me his brother has died and in the same email notes the death of Hargus “Pig” Robbins last January. The latter was a Nashville session pianist known to rock fans for accompanying Dylan on Blonde on Blonde, not to mention George Jones, Merle Haggard and Charlie Rich. My reader is a serious Dylan fan. His point in linking the deaths of Robbins and his brother was that we have reached the age at which we start accumulating deaths, celebrated and obscure, and it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore them. Both of us turn seventy in October.
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) died at the impossibly young age of forty-four, as did Spinoza, Chekhov, Thoreau, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Joseph Roth and F. Scott Fitzgerald. For years Stevenson had suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis or a related respiratory disease but managed to produce an enormous body of work, much of it excellent. In his essay “Aes Triplex,” Stevenson writes:
“[A]fter a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through. By the time a man gets well into the seventies, his continued existence is a mere miracle; and when he lays his old bones in bed for the night, there is an overwhelming probability that he will never see the day.”
For a nervous, non-sports-minded kid like me, walking across a frozen lake was probably as close as I came to an athletic event – half-walking, half-sliding so as not to fall; listening to the creak and crunch of brittle ice and gauging its solidity; waiting to drop into hypothermia and death.
[Stevenson published “Aes Triplex” in Cornhill Magazine in 1878 and collected it in Virginibus Puerisque in 1881. The title of the essay is a Horatian tag drawn from Ode 1.3, “aes triplex circa pectus,” meaning “breast enclosed by triple brass.”]