Wednesday, February 08, 2023

'People Thought You a Laconic Old Fool'

One of the better reasons we read is to understand what the future holds by consulting the past. The arrogance of presentism tells us we’re smarter and more enlightened than our predecessors, though to think we know more than Montaigne or Italo Svevo is to be sinfully stupid. Of late and for obvious reasons I’ve taken an interest in a subject that had never much concerned me – getting old, incipient decrepitude, the “golden years,” disease, deafness, dementia, more meds, cataracts, a pension, senility, unbridled nostalgia, crankiness, frayed memory, “ageism” and this damned cane. That sentence is an hommage to one of those eminent forebears, Robert Burton, who writes in The Anatomy of Melancholy: 

“How many decrepit, hoary, harsh, writhen, bursten-bellied, crooked, toothless, bald, blear-eyed, impotent, rotten, old men shall you see flickering still in every place? One gets him a young wife, another a courtesan, and when he can scarce lift his leg over a sill, and hath one foot already in Charon’s boat, when he hath the trembling in his joints, the gout in his feet, a perpetual rheum in his head, ‘a continuate cough,’ his sight fails him, thick of hearing, his breath stinks, all his moisture is dried up and gone, may not spit from him, a very child again, that cannot dress himself, or cut his own meat, yet he will be dreaming of, and honing after wenches, what can be more unseemly?”


Not much, I’d say. I’ve been collecting useful, well-written observations in poetry and prose about old age, avoiding some of the obvious sources like Yeats and Beckett. Jokes are good, so is science, though I’m staying away from anything that reeks of “gerontology” (no charts, no statistics, please). And no “inspiration,” damn it. Just this week I found a good thought by V.S. Pritchett on Max Beerbohm -- “The major pleasure of old age lies in the ruthless one of remembering” – which seems appropriate because Oscar Wilde famously said of Beerbohm: “The gods bestowed on Max the gift of perpetual old age.”


So, I’m keeping a notebook on the subject, no plan appended, knowing what I want to transcribe only when I see it. Humor is a plus. Typically for the late, admirably bookish D.J. Enright, he contributes a good quote within his good quote:


“There is so much explaining to do. For a forthcoming Oxford Book of Friendship I picked up a revealing and touching passage from Julian Barnes’s Staring at the Sun, where a character reflects that when they have lost their friends and contemporaries the very old need interpreters: ‘Everything you wanted to say required a context. If you gave the full context, people thought you a rambling old fool. If you didn’t give the context, people thought you a laconic old fool.’”


[Apropos of nothing, Robert Burton was born on this date, February 8, in 1577.]


Harmon said...

Malcolm Cowley - The View from Eighty.

John Dieffenbach said...

Man walks by a house and sees a worn, wrinkled, hunched-over man sitting on the porch.
"Hey!" he yells, "What do you credit for your longevity?"
The man on the porch yells back, "I eat what I want, drink what I want and smoke what I want."
"I love it," the first man yells. "How old are you?"
"I'm 35."

Thomas Parker said...

One of the best things I've ever read on old age is by Charles DeGaulle, and I'm discovering its truth the further I advance across the no-man's land of the succeeding decades: "Old age is a shipwreck."

Harmon said...

Doris Grumbach:

Coming into the End Zone.
Extra Innings.

Faze said...

"The Oxford Book of Ages" has nice quotes for every year of life.

That includes Christopher Isherwood's remark, in a letter, that if he'd known at age 20 how happy he was going to be at age 70, he would have been properly shocked. "They promised me wormwood, and the funeral crow," he wrote.

I for my part, turn 71 this weekend, and feel much as I did at age 20. And when I pass a mirror I think, "There's a fine looking old man."

Harmon said...

Because of your January 21 post, I wound up buying Ronald Blythe’s The View In Winter - Reflections on Old Age, which arrived today in the mail. This book does not appear to have been intended for older readers, since it’s set in what appears to be 8 point type…

Baceseras said...

J.V. Cunningham
"The Aged Lover Discourses in the Flat Style"

There are, perhaps, whom passion gives a grace,
Who fuse and part as dancers on the stage,
But that is not for me, not at my age,
Not with my bony shoulders and fat face.
Yet in my clumsiness I found a place
And use for passion: with it I ignore
My gaucheries and yours, and feel no more
The awkwardness of the absurd embrace.

Baceseras said...

Thornton Wilder
The Woman of Andros

"Viewed from a distance," Simo said to himself, "life is harmonious and beautiful. No doubt the years when my mother smiled to us from that bench were as full of crossed wills and exasperation as today, but how beautiful they seem in memory! The dead are wrapped in love, in illusion, perhaps. They go underground and slowly this tender light begins to fall upon them. But the present remains: this succession of small domestic vexations. I have lived such a life for sixty years and I am still upset by its ephemeral decisions. And I am still asking myself which is the real life: the present with its discontent, or the retrospect with its emotion?"

Baceseras said...

Cowper, in a letter, September 4, 1787

But years will have their course and their effect; they are happiest, so far as this life is concerned, who, like him, escape those effects the longest, and who do not grow old before their time. Trouble and anguish do that for some, which only longevity does for others. A few months since I was older than your father is now; and though I have lately recovered, as Falstaff says, some smatch of my youth, I have but little confidence, in truth none, in so flattering a change, but expect, when I least expect it, to wither again. The past is a pledge for the future.

Baceseras said...

He was old enough when I last spied him, in white hair and beard; he disappeared from my vicinity without mentioning whether he had died.

(David Warren, writing of John Richmond, on January 27, 2016.)

Baceseras said...

We … are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.
Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day … preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

(2 Cor. 3:18. 4:16-17)

Baceseras said...

There are days on which I want to live forever. There are days on which I’m glad I won’t. And then the weather changes and again I want it never to end. And it’s precisely then that I think, “It’s good it’s not in my hands.”

Hillel Halkin, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty