Tuesday, May 22, 2007

`Awesome Ambush'

Stanley Rosen has written 14 books and is professor of philosophy at Boston University, and I’ve been interested in his work for several years though much of it eludes me because I’m not well read in Greek philosophy. I like Rosen’s brashness, his nose-thumbing at postmodernism and the clarity of his prose (itself a form of nose-thumbing), so I picked up a festschrift published last year, Logos & Eros: Essays Honoring Stanley Rosen, and have particularly enjoyed “Four Brief Essays for Stanley Rosen,” by Herbert Mason, a professor of history and religious thought at BU. The pieces are titled “Discourse,” “Argument,” “Friendship,” and “Ageing.” All are compelling and well within my capacity, especially “Ageing,” one long paragraph, 30 lines of meditation, not formal philosophy. Here’s a selection:

“One can no longer do or be seen by others as capable of doing what one used to do. One’s being seems to be going through an involuntary and undesired transformation. A force is at work that seems to be coming neither from God nor from others, one that ambushed one wholly by surprise from within. Call it grandly fate or banally time. It has been part of humanity’s experience always, and it reminds one of the bond one has across time with ancient humankind, mediaeval humankind, and so forth. It is a unifying revelation; this awesome ambush, that comes with a violence destroying vanities and hopes for further undertakings and involvements, pleasures and diversions, buildings and imaginings. It lays waste and leaves more devastation than the greatest of hurricanes, floods, fires, and wars, and overlooks neither groups nor individuals.”

Mason’s “awesome ambush” ought to be the ultimate egalitarian force, the great incentive for humility and communion with our fellows. Instead, we do our best to deny aging and its inevitable resolution, and too often turn middle age and old age into vulgar spectacles. The only comparable experience accompanies adolescence, but then we don’t shun our fate but dote obsessively on evidence, real or imagined, of incipient maturity. For me, the two sorts of awareness arrived simultaneously. I remember sitting in study hall, age 12 or 13, when the conviction of mortality arrived. It didn’t scare me so much as impress me, especially because it seemed to come ex nihilo, without prompting from anything external, such as a death in the family. In some sense, all of my life has been a growing into age and death without fearful morbidity. The continuum fits me like a tailored set of clothes. I told a friend last week as we watched squirrels dancing around an oak tree that I expect to be an exemplary “old guy,” in part because I have a gift for enjoying my company.

On Monday, when I was already thinking about Rosen and Mason, Dave Lull sent me the latest Open University blog post from the novelist Richard Stern. Stern’s head, as always, is stuffed with learning and convergences. He’s 79 years old and starts his post like this:

“Much to do, little time. And desire is greater than strength, will power, patience.

“Much of what one wanted for years is way out of bounds: flying a plane; becoming a skier; running a state.”

So far, conventional regrets and the maturity to accept them. Stern digresses into a book proposal pitched by an editor, and offers a writer’s credo: “There's so much one sees, hears, reads, and imagines which suggests other things.” What’s heartening is Stern’s forward-looking and the glee he takes in making connections. He’s still weighing his options, in contrast to those already serving a death-in-life sentence. Here’s Stern again:

“I've thought much recently about ways of living as an old person. One of my contemporaries, a brilliant economist, keeps up amazingly with what goes on in his field and in fields -- distant from economics -- where he sees problems that can be described and handled with economic tools. I've noticed that for the past few years, much of what he's published is collaborative. I mean to ask him if collaboration is a way of handling whatever years have done to or with his still very keen but perhaps altered way of thinking. Blogging is something I began nine months ago right here. I've gotten used to doing the short pieces I turn out. I think of them as etudes. Some have been in the form of playlets, a couple are poems. Usually `studies’ are studies for something larger. Mine are -- how I wish -- Chopinesque etudes, that is, ends in themselves.”

In context, that final phrase is a pun to savor, and please reread and enjoy the first sentence, which takes for granted that we have a choice in how we age – kicking and screaming, or simply enjoying the ride and learning something along the way. In A Sistermony, Stern's memoir of his sister who died from cancer in 1991, Stern insists on the importance of the distinction between dying and death. He uses “dying” not in the general sense that all of us are dying from the moment of birth, but specifically in connection with people stricken with a fatal illness. He writes:

“Days before her death, that is, when I saw her last, Ruth still wanted to be. Perhaps another way of saying this is that she was still herself. Dying can be an intense, even beautiful form of life, though the dier (a useful neologism) is seldom beautiful. Imagery for the – rare? – beauty of dying is drawn from autumn or the flare of embers.”

Mason says this about aging in his brief essay:

“One turns in age thus to the struggle not merely to preserve thought but to seek its fruition on a further, yet to be experienced level: a level barely imaginable, ironically, but for the gift of age. Yet to reach this level of perception, contemplation and understanding one must transform one’s focus of thought to perceive more deeply and more clearly than previously experienced. One must aim literally at the spirit of others and things and oneself, and one must seek knowledge of the source of all, including, and especially, the source of spirit; and one must be prepared, like the most ancient warriors of history and legend, who fought the monsters of forest, sea and selves, to overcome time with the spiritual weaponry of thought, which is, at last, all one really has.”

Stern talks about autumn imagery, Mason mentions “fruition” and “the gift of age,” and both inevitably remind us of Keats’ “To Autumn,” with its “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.”

[As a bonus, the Rosen festschrift features “Discourse: For Stanley Rosen,” by Geoffrey Hill, a poem first published in The New Criterion, later included in Without Title, and available online here.]

1 comment:

shelli said...

Stern's thought "Much of what one wanted for years is way out of bounds..." puts me in mind of a line from McKuen's "The Coming of the Rain", (I know,not a fav here, but apropos nonetheless): "How can I have grown so old without once swinging on a vine."